GAFCON & culture.

Well GAFCON have now responded to William Nye’s open letter of ‘rebuke,’ (Crossing the Rubicon http://www.gafcon.org).  Presumably they feel a tad sore for having been corrected so publicly?

Maybe GAFCON’s initial salvo, William Nye’s response, and GAFCON’s subsequent return set of shots do at least bring into light that which the Church of England has so for so long sought to manage through carefully controlled processes?

GAFCON have claimed that many members, ordained and lay, in the Church of England refuse to accept the theological legitimacy Lambeth 1.10. They are right.  A significant number of folk have contacted GAFCON U.K. asking to be included on their next wall of shame; me included.

Maybe the recent exchanges between GAFCON and Nye are analogous to the Advent theme of ‘darkness to light?’

The problem is that one sides darkness is the other sides light. And, yes many would align their own position as more akin to dawn, or dusk. Not everyone has fully made up their minds on the issue of same-sex relationships and, the church’s response. This is why the stakes are so incredibly high.

Many would also want to critique the insistence that the only rightful place for heterosexual sexual relationships is within a Christianly defined and celebrated marriage, allowing for the notion that virtues such as fidelity and monogamy frequently precede marriage. Marriage in some senses seals a pre-existing state. It is very rare in this day and age to marry folk who are not already co-habiting.

Lambeth 1.10 isn’t only concerned with homo and heterosexuality, it is concerned with the entirety of the Christian doctrine of marriage. GAFCON are right on this point! Where I think they are wrong is in their conclusions – but, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Nobody, GAFCON or Progressives alike can be 100% sure what kind of light those who ‘dwell in the shadow of darkness,’ will move towards. We can guess and theorize, but should perhaps take into account that in 2016 professional guessers (pollsters) have tended to get their predictions very badly wrong. The fact that no one knows which way those currently remaining quiet, in the shadowlands, will move is what makes the stakes so incredibly high.

What GAFCON and progressives alike know is this: that it is the movement of travel that will determine the path for either a restatement of, or movement away from, the historic position. (I prefer to use the word historic rather than traditional in the belief that tradition can be understood as the dynamic relationship between acceptance of that which has been handed down through history alongside a legitimate critique of that same history.)

GAFCON and progressives alike will continue to trade Scriptures, continue to appeal to tradition (defining tradition in their own terms – just as I have done), continue to debate what the science does or doesn’t say about issues of human sexuality and, continue to hold very different perceptions on issues such as love, justice, inclusivity and so on. For my part I find it really difficult to relate to, and experience, the kind of God the GAFCON folk seem to relate to. I simply don’t understand how they regard God as loving , just, impartial and, kind.

I can’t quite see how their notion of  God can be described in the language of virtue. And, it is perhaps worth remembering that Holy Scripture describes God in the language of virtue. Virtue is part of God’s self-disclosure. Scripture variously describes God as loving, just, impartial and, kind.

‘God is love,’ (1 John 4, 8)

‘God is just,’ (2 Thessalonians 1, 6)

‘God shows no partiality,’ (Romans 2, 11)

‘The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works,’ (Psalm 145, 17). Human beings are said to be the epitome of God’s work and, ergo, his kindness (Genesis 1, 26).

But maybe I am missing something? What I do know is that I will surely be accused of taking these verses out of context (their historical context that is). Fair cop, but there again I strongly believe that the Scripture has to be read in and for our context. I also strongly believe that those arguing for a continuation of the historic position have failed to do so at the level of virtue, or even the Doctrine of God.

Another GAFCON argument that I would want to hold under the light of critical scrutiny is that those arguing for a change in the church’s teaching and practice have simply capitulated to secular culture. Is GAFCON to be regarded as a beacon standing up to secular culture? I don’t think so.

In many GAFCON territories homosexual practice is illegal. So how is GAFCON counter cultural? If GAFCON U.K. wants to be seen as radically counter cultural (as if this is a universal virtue in itself; surely God is perfectly capable of working in and through culture and cultures) it should surely be devoting considerable energy to encouraging a whole raft of governments to radically change policy?

And, what of western governments and the rise of the populist right?

Surely GAFCON U.K. should be standing firmly alongside those determined to block any retrograde steps such governments may seek to bring to the statue book; that is if it wants to be considered to be truly counter-cultural?

The reality is that GAFCON isn’t counter cultural; not one bit. It should at least have the integrity to stop playing the capitulation to culture card.

Yes, progressive theologies may be informed by engaging with culture, but to argue that conservative theologies, such as the ones held by GAFCON, stand over and above cultural norms and trends simply isn’t true.

 

 

 

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An open letter to GAFCON: not good enough

Dear GAFCON,

I don’t know whether I am being a bit petty but I really am peeved to been left off the list of those writ large on your wall of name and shame. It is a good list, made up of some good people and, good friends. It really is good, as far as it goes. By the way I assume that you asked my friend’s permission to publicly name them; just out of human decency and, kindness. Did you?

On reflection maybe I am not quite good enough to be on your list. There are things I have done that some may feel upset God, even invoke His wrath and anger, but I don’t feel convicted of any supposed sin.

Surely I should, at least under your scheme? Maybe I am not praying hard enough; maybe I don’t really get the whole conviction, repentance, atonement, sanctification case as you present it? Strangely I do know, and feel, that I have come to Christ, that he is my Alpha and Omega, my beginning and my end.

Maybe my knowing and feeling are a lesser forms of knowing and feeling, than yours? I do know that I can deeply upset and grieve God, that I can trespass against both God and neighbour, that I can fail to follow the Golden Rule, or even keep the Ten Commandments. Please don’t for one minute think I don’t know what sin looks and feels like. I do.

But, I can’t feel sorry for sleeping with my spouse before my marriage. Maybe even occasionally doing something more than simply nodding off together. Anyway, that’s for me to know and you to guess. Having said, that I didn’t get baptised until after I was married. I always seem to get things ever so slightly the wrong way round. It was my wife who took me to church and introduced me to its sacraments; dear, dear, fallen woman.

Twenty two years after getting married – you know during that ceremony where we declared our love for each other, promised to remain faithful and monogamous, whatever joys and pains life threw at us and, invited God to be in the midst of our relationship – I was ordained. Now, I get to marry people! Or at least some people.

Do you know the really weird thing is that the vast majority of them ‘live in sin’ and, presumably feel no need to repent. It is so strange. Am I the only member of the clergy meeting and marrying such folk?  Our town is literally overflowing with fallen types. It makes you wonder why they want to get married at all, after all that they have done.  Maybe I should give them that Lambeth document to read, or at least refer them to your website? Oh, I don’t know. Would it really help? Would it effect my standing in the diocese. So many questions.

I have done other good stuff as well. I did participate with clergy, friends and, family at Brighton Pride. One of my nearest and dearest carried a really nice placard with ‘this is the gay that the Lord has made’ written on it. Did she get this so wrong? One of my children’s god fathers marched with us – he too carried the placard. He is a wonderful married man. He is married to another man. Gosh how they love each other. If only you could see the fruits of their union, you would be so impressed. The scheme one of them has set up to look after some of the poorest people in a GAFCON territory has been such a life-saver. The irony is that he has risked his well being, maybe even his life, in doing so. Still ‘greater love’ and all that.

I suppose this sort of thing may not count for much when all is said and, done. Doomed by their love; that’s what is supposed to happen isn’t it? Well, I hope not because I have so many good gay friends.

When my gay friends come and stay, or when we go and stay with them, we normally pootle off to bed at around 11 o’clock after a nice cup of tea. The first time they came to stay with us I don’t mind telling you how scared I was. I had read some material on-line which suggested that I should be on my guard, lest I was succored into some form of depraved orgy. Well blow me down, all I have heard from the room next door was snoring; loud snoring. You invite people into your house, you even give them clean linen to sleep in and, then they keep you awake, not with their antics but with their nostrils, how rude and vulgar is that? It really isn’t very C of E, we are the established church after all.

It seems that my gay friends are just as Darby and Joan as us heterosexual types. Amazing, who would have thought it? Who would have thought that friendship, companionship and someone’s hand to hold though the inevitable ups and downs of life was so important? It really is incredible. I thought these hopes and aspirations only applied to people like me. Silly old me. And, to think that intimacy and the sweetness and joy of true sexual union might be made available to all God’s people, well that is simply scandalous. Just imagine for a moment the sheer illogicality of God making all in his image and them sorting them into neat little piles and deciding who gets to access to what. Mind you God’s ways are not our ways; I know, I know. I really must stop thinking about issues like Divine Justice, Universal Love and so forth, they really do get in the way.

Yes, you are right, I mustn’t inflict my own human thoughts and projections on to God. Is that what I am doing? Does God want me to suspend all critical thought and feeling? Should I just put myself on the side of tradition and a conservative reading of the text and rest secure. Well maybe I would if real life would stop getting in the way, if there weren’t other texts to unsettle and disturb me etc, etc.

All of which brings me to the thorny issue of prayer and blessing. I don’t think I have broken any church rules and regulations. I haven’t conducted a marriage or a formal blessing. I have gay friends who have told me that they wouldn’t ask me to do so, as they don’t want to compromise me! How thoughtful my gay friends can be.

But, here is the nub: I do include my gay friends, single and partnered, in the Prayers of the Church. I do so on Sunday’s when I pray for all who are made to feel less than fully human on a variety of grounds, including sexuality and, when I sit down to pray the office (as I am canonically bound to do, by the way), I regularly ask God’s blessing on their union.

Alright, they are not there kneeling in front of me and, I am not conducting a service of dedication or even a marriage, but I am asking for their relationship to be blessed and I am doing so using the offices of the church or put another way the Prayers of the Church. Have I done wrong? I am getting too worried about technicalities and legalities. Oh well, I suppose that I can reassure myself with the thought that because my gay friends aren’t actually there any prayer of blessing I offer doesn’t really count! Thank goodness that there is a clear line of demarcation between private and corporate prayer!

Dear GAFCON friends please do be assured that I have decided that I will not break my canonical vows. I accept that I can only use forms of service authorized by the Church of England, so I won’t conduct a marriage or a marriage blessing but, I will keep praying and, praying for God’s blessing on same sex couples. You need not worry for presumably you reckon my prayers to be ineffective and just mere private prayers. The trouble is those who know I pray for them seem to believe that my prayers are valid and, that they make a difference. It is all so bizarrely confusing!

The real problem with the current situation, the status quo if you prefer, is that it simply isn’t good enough.

Yours sincerely

Rev’d Andrew Lightbown

 

R&R: it really is in the numbers!

In  conversations about Renewal and Reform (R&R), on-line and in the press, some argue that numbers don’t matter. It is an argument that I don’t fully get, or understand. Numbers must matter.

If numbers don’t matter then R&R’s stated purpose, re-evangelizing this land of 62 odd million folk, is vague, contentless and, maybe, ultimately meaningless. I don’t think that the Church of England should shy away from numbers. However, that doesn’t mean we should simply be a slave to the numbers and that success, or failure, should be a straightforward  matter of quantitative and statistical analysis.

So what numbers should the Church of England aspire to?

I would like to suggest that we need to start by radically increasing our ‘failure rate,’ and that, this may be a real challenge in a culture hooked on success, quality and decisive leadership; the shiny and, the new.But, go to the Foot of the Cross and what do we see? Rejection, except from a bedraggled and bemused few. Read the account of the ten lepers who Jesus healed and, what do we discover? That only one of the ten could be bothered to come back and say thank you, and he was a Samaritan at that. And, what about the banquet parables? Not many decent folk accepted Jesus’ invitation to ‘come dine with me.’ Evangelism, or re-evangelism, must mean bearing the quantitative and statistical cost of rejection and, failure.

The process of evangelism, or re-evangelism, also asks us, in the C of E, to do the dirty work of holiness, to get some muck under our finger nails as we search out the hedgerows, the back streets, market town squares and, the suburban bus shelters for people, as we deliver the invitation to come dine with Him. What the C of E badly needs, and needs to fund, is a whole army of active foragers; we mustn’t blow the whole budget on a few shiny super stars, for therein really does lie long-term failure.

Do we have the resilience and stamina to accept a 90% rejection rate? Should the C of E build in a 90% failure rate into its financial models? Are our efforts geared towards the dirty work of holiness? These are real questions and, ones that require spiritual answers.

Numbers matter in other ways too. I strongly believe that a ‘healthy church’ is one that simultaneously grows both its core and, its periphery. The rate of change can be slow and steady; it doesn’t need to be fast and furious. We can do it one lost sheep at a time, one leper healed at a time, one grieving widow at a time. Yes, big grand initiatives can be successful, but surely the Church of England mustn’t forget that we are in the business of changing lives one by one?

Through the Renewal and Reform process we have the very real opportunity to ask whether slow and measured year on year growth is ultimately better and, more sustainable growth. This is, again, a cultural question for it seems that rapid and shiny is more to be prized, in society at large, than slow and incremental. I hope those charged with making funding decisions have a strong mental picture of the sort of growth they think will have most long-term effect.

It is important that the core community grows . A visible and vibrant worshiping community is, of course, missional in its own right; we know this from the Acts of the Apostles. So bums on seats (or pews in my churches) is important. But, it is the vibrancy of the worship and quality of hospitality the reaps real missional dividends. And, it is important that a core community of prayer is maintained. All of the church’s initiatives should be rooted in, and routed from, prayer. Public prayer is also one of the ways that the Church of England expresses care and compassion and, I would want to suggest that whilst most folk (say 90%) won’t come back just because their grief or joy is held before God by the worshiping community, a small number (say 10%) might find themselves, initially, on the periphery of church life and, over time they too might become fully signed up members of the core community. We need to ask ourselves whether our churches are the sorts of places where people can both browse and, shop.

Finally, just a thought about new projects and, the establishment of a worshiping community:

I can understand the temptation to, and rationale for, funding projects which intend to establish a worshiping community at some future stage but, I wonder whether this is a bit misguided. My worries are three-fold; first, I do think, as already indicated, that all C of E initiatives should be rooted in and routed from prayer and, that this should include public and corporate prayer.

Secondly, I worry about something I term ‘not yet syndrome.’ Not yet syndrome tends to agree with the stated intention – the establishment of a worshiping community, for instance – whilst also finding reasons why the timing is not quite right. Of course the timing is never quite right!

Thirdly, is there a basic issue of integrity at play? Surely, it is better to up front about our faith rather than risk people thinking that an act of loving service was only provided in order to affect future conversations?

Is there perhaps a fear that if we start with a worshiping community not many will turn up? Don’t worry may be the best answer to this fear. Not many need turn up, after all where two or three are gathered – which brings me back to those all important numbers!