Monthly Archives: August 2015

Giving the church a bad name

Church bad nameWords have a habit of subtly changing their meaning over relatively short periods of time. This may come about as fashions change, or an attitude in society moves in a particular direction. One of the words that has changed its meaning, causing sadness for many of us, is the word ‘Christian’. A few years ago the word meant a decent honest reliable person, someone anybody could do business with. Today the word, sadly, has become associated for many with a set of right wing attitudes, authoritarianism, homophobia and smug superiority. Worse, the word has, in some cases, come to be associated in some people’s minds with acts of betrayal towards others, like paedophilia and discrimination against women. For the time being, at any rate, the Church of England and other mainstream church communities still retains some of the good-will that it has built up over the centuries in society. It remains to be seen if this broadly benevolent attitude towards the C of E is continued as the parish system increasingly lurches towards being, not an institution serving the whole community, but a sect-like gathering for the religiously like-minded. Will the word ‘church’ come eventually to acquire negative connotations as seems to have happened to the word Christian?

I may have told the story about a pious family in my parish whose small son died as a baby. They were not members of my congregation but I still knew them quite well as members of the community. The mother took over the organising the funeral for the child but the whole process was delayed while she made frantic phone-calls to discover who was a ‘Christian’ undertaker. None of our local undertakers was considered Christian according to her sectarian definition, so eventually the ceremony was organised by a firm some fifty miles away. I was certainly unable to offer suggestions in this search. This idea that only some businesses are wholesome because they have people who are, not only members of churches, but also the right kind of churches, is quite widespread among some congregations. I have, from time to time, been told that I am not a proper Christian because a) I read the Bible in a different way from ‘true’ Christians and b) I do not ‘preach the gospel’ (not every sermon calls for repentance). This accusation has left me puzzled. Should I be upset that my beliefs and Christian priorities are considered beyond the pale, or should I be relieved that I am not expected to fit into the straight-jacket of increasingly sectarian expressions of the Christian faith? I cannot, in fact, be the only clergyman whose words and writings are scrutinised to see whether they conform to one or other of the Protestant articulations of the Christian faith. To say that this kind of scrutiny is not an irritant and indeed an undermining of morale, would be to downplay the situation. From the perspective of retirement I can see fairly clearly what was going on. I was observing a trend among individuals and congregations to understand the Christian faith in an increasingly polarised way. This is all part of the binary thinking we have discussed before. You are either in the fold or outside it. There is only black or white with no possibility of grey.

The more that ‘binary’ Christians see themselves as apart and distinct from others, whether Christian or not, the more that the bulk of society will become estranged from the word ‘Christian’ and move towards finding the word offensive. The good-will I spoke of above, which has been built up over centuries of hard-working service towards the poor and the sick, could be dissipated in a couple of generations. The ordinary member of the public when encountering the word ‘Christian’ will think not of selfless service of others but of bigotry and exclusion. Certain words from the Bible appear to support the desire of sectarian Christians to alienate and antagonise others, particularly the passage at the end of the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account’. For some Christian groups, this appears to give them permission to irritate, upset and generally fall out with others outside their group whether Christian or secular. It is a mark of honour among many cultic groups to receive the disapproval of others. There is the psychological fact that groups under attack will draw closer together, but also the group convinces itself that truth and goodness will always be under threat of attack because that was the calling of Jesus.

The words in Matthew immediately after the quote made from chapter 5 give a somewhat different perspective on the Christian relationship to the world. Jesus tells his disciples that they are to be salt and light ‘of the world’. I draw attention to the preposition ‘of’, because it is significant that Jesus does not talk about the light and the salt being somehow separate and being introduced to it. Salt and light are already part of what the world consists of. Christians are to be those who reveal what is already there but may have been buried or hidden. I find the idea that Christians are helping to uncover what is already there in the world a far better description of mission, than the idea that the world is totally corrupt and ignorant. Our Christian ancestors in Britain have been working away at bringing light and understanding to many areas of society – hospitals, schools, care of the disabled, the poor and even into politics. I still find it a matter of comment that it is politicians that have seen the justice and rightness of extending marriage to the gay population in the teeth of opposition from many Christians. We are not far off from sending a clear message to society that a Christian is defined by his or her attitude to gay sex. So often we have heard earnest Christians in legal cases saying that their ‘faith’ forbids them acting generously towards a gay couple. How long will it be before this kind of attitude becomes fixed in people’s minds? Are we really to live in a world where the word ‘Christian’ means an intolerant bigot? Can the rest of us, who care for the values of tolerance and generosity to those who are minorities in thought or action, reclaim the word Christian? It will take a lot of work and effort for Christians once again to imply that we are followers of Jesus in his attitude to the poor, the weak, the oppressed and minorities. This blog is one small effort in holding up a flag to reclaim for the Christian faith the values of generosity and acceptance of others even when they are not like us.

Conservatives and liberals

Liberal or conservative, opposite signs. Two blank opposite signs against blue sky background.
Chris has been asking me for a number of weeks to set out what I think about the differences between conservatives and liberals within the church. Behind his request I sense that he believes, as do many other people, that I see them like two political parties that are in constant conflict or opposition. The one party is right wing, wanting to preserve the status quo, while the other, the liberal wing of the church, is a group that is more forward looking. The conservatives will hold on to old traditional beliefs while the liberal wing will entertain new ideas which make the traditionalists quite uncomfortable at times.

I want to suggest first of all that the political analogy to describe these two wings of the church does not really work. The so-called liberal wing of the church does not parade a set of beliefs and statements and then invite people to choose between it and the typical conservative set of statements. Typically conservative evangelical statements would include something about the sovereignty of God, the necessity of salvation through the atoning death of Christ, the trustworthiness of the bible as contained in the original manuscripts and something about the work of the Holy Spirit. Conservative congregations will be invited to subscribe to a version of these beliefs, even they will differ slightly from church to church. It will, in fact, be possible to find quite deep divisions within the Protestant family of churches on, for example, the details as how we are saved. This will happen even though these churches are all reading the same set of scriptures. As a non-conservative, I do not want to labour this point at present, except to note it in passing.

If the liberal position were to be like a political party, we would expect it to set out another set of principles and statements of belief to compare with the conservative creeds. My understanding of the liberal position is that it operates in a quite different way so that we cannot easily set it side by side with the conservative statements and do a ‘compare and contrast’. The liberal insight into the Christian faith will, like the conservatives, start from the existence of Scripture. But its use of Scripture will be quite different. The so-called liberals will often, and this is infuriating to those who dislike their approach, refuse to commit themselves to a single interpretation of a particular passage. They will also not want to disregard a conservative interpretation unless it can be seen to lead to harm for those who think in this particular way. The words of Scripture will be taken, not to prove a point of doctrine, but as a witness to a transforming event which took place in response to an encounter with the man Jesus. The same encounter and the same possibility of transformation can be sought today. The formal creeds will be taken seriously as a statement of the impact of that man Jesus on individuals and a whole society. The follower today is invited, not to declare an intellectual assent to statements about what is ‘true’, but to become part of a movement towards a reality we call God, as glimpsed and made real by Jesus. That journey has less to do with intellectual assent than with becoming part of an adventure of discovery as we grow towards God in the activities we call prayer, worship and the demands of love.

It would be true to say that liberal Christians are extremely vulnerable to the taunts of other Christians who, for their own purposes, have defined the Christian faith in propositional terms, i.e. as a series of statements about reality and truth. When Jesus spoke about the Spirit leading a follower into ‘all truth’, the liberal-leaning Christian will see this as a call to a never-ending adventure of experience of learning and praying, both on their own and also with others. The conservative will hear the word ‘truth’ as being the correct answers to questions of ultimate significance. The idea that there is an individual, personal even, element to the discovery of what truth might be, is alarming and even heretical to their way of thinking.

In trying to represent two sides of a divide within the Christian tradition, I have to repeat the point that we are not comparing opposing positions about truth. What we are comparing are two distinct ways of discovering truth. One is saying that truth is to be found by following certain paths which have been well trodden by others so that nothing new needs to be entertained or discovered. The liberal path is saying that the Christian path is an invitation to newness and discovery. There are maps available but each person who receives a map of Christian way is invited to fill in many of the details of the map for themselves. There will be many obstacles along the path to be faced. Sometimes the way will seemingly be blocked by tragedy, questions or plain uncertainty. The person travelling along these ‘liberal’ tracks may seem lost, vulnerable and may suffer pain. He may even suffer the pangs of doubt. Although he may hear the call of his conservative brother to come back to a place of certainty and safety, he will resist that call because he has glimpsed a vision that the path to God will never be easy and his vocation is to pursue truth and righteousness along a particular route which belongs in some sense to him alone. Jesus has spoken to him in the words ‘Behold I make all things new’. He has interpreted these words to mean that he has to pursue a path that is being walked for the very first time. It is fresh because he has never been along it before and he senses that God’s personal vocation to him to be a Christian is indeed a ‘new thing’. He also hears the word of Psalm 23 that there is one who walks beside him. ‘He leads me beside still waters…’

A few weeks ago I reflected on the Christian journey being like a pilgrimage and in many ways this reflection is a continuation of that theme. The important idea here and in that other reflection is the idea of constant movement and change. I would like to suggest that movement and change are an essential element in what it means to be a Christian. The words that cluster around ‘salvation’, safety and being saved, suggest arriving at a place so that there is no need to go any further. The idea that we can ever ‘arrive’ in any sense on this side of the grave is, for me, something deeply troubling. If anyone ever told me that I had ‘arrived’ spiritually and I need go no further because my salvation was assured, I would immediately feel trapped like a butterfly in a dark hall. No, for me the liberal is a Christian who, while he does not have all the answers, goes on moving, goes on travelling until his last breath. Maybe the life beyond death also requires us to journey and to travel so that we can adjust to the new realities that are there, the ’things that pass our understanding.’