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Inclusive Church? Apologies to David Ison.

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Posted by Nick Gowers, 23 Jan 2018

Nick Gowers considers David Ison's inaugural Inclusive Church Lecture and finds that inclusive church is living on borrowed capital it can't support.

David Ison in his lecture “Including the Exclusive: How liberal can you be?” finishes the seventh of his concluding theses with this statement:

“That’s how God works with us. It’s being loved that roots us enough to be challenged. And that challenge works for all: as conservatives will argue, the spirit of the age does indeed need challenging; and so does the Victorian culture of a bygone age that conservative churchmen mistake for the true church, and the patriarchal culture of the early church and its scriptures that blunted the radical and burning love of Jesus.”

Being loved does indeed root us enough to be challenged. But challenged in what way?

That final phrase is revealing. Mr Ison tells us the early church and its scriptures blunted the radical and burning love of Jesus.

Here’s his problem. The only way we know of “that radical and burning love of Jesus” is through those scriptures. Those same scriptures were, of course, written by that “blunted” early church.

This is the classic liberal dilemma. How do we decide which is the real Jesus and what is coloured by the “cultural spectacles” of the early church, especially as the four gospels were written later than many of the epistles? Indeed, in David’s statement we could replace “patriarchal” with whichever hot-potato or bee-in-the-bonnet adjective we would like: e.g. “the binary-gender/exclusivist/holiness culture of the early church and its scriptures … blunted the radical and burning love of Jesus.”  Of course, none of us wants to be accused of blunting the radical and burning love of Jesus.

Thankfully, it seems we have Mr Ison and Inclusive Church, who offer us the real from the blunted. 

But contrast this with how 1 John introduces his letter as he responds to those who offer a different Jesus. The writer doesn’t summarise Jesus’ message as “God is love and welcomes all” but in first-hand summary states Jesus’ message as “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”

From this basic message come three fundamental tests to reassure Christians that they are genuine – the doctrinal (believing the truth about Jesus as fully God and fully human); the ethical (living as Jesus lived); and the social (loving Jesus’ people).

In stark contrast to David Ison, in 1 John there is a propositional test and an ethical test as well as a social test.  The danger of David Ison’s lecture is that it prioritises the social above, or even to the neglect of, the calls to believe truth and to change our behaviour.

Inclusive church is living on borrowed capital. It can only exist on the foundation of the boundaries that have previously been argued about and that David Ison treats so dangerously lightly. It is the classic rebellious child. It rails against the boundaries and pushes against them little knowing that without them there is nothing.

The church owes much to those who forged the historic creeds and the statements of the reformation. These were not just abstract truths but the defining of a relationship. Indeed, God’s relationships with the world through Scripture are always covenantal. In a covenant the parties need to be identified in order for the relationship to be defined, known and enjoyed. Once those boundaries are assumed or minimised, as David Ison’s articles does, the relationship will soon be lost. 

David talks much about the “radical and burning love of Jesus.” But if the full humanity and full deity of Jesus and what that looks like in practice are assumed and not proclaimed, then we are soon left with an unknown. Loving and being loved is about knowing and being known.  The irony is that in a culture in which we are encouraged to self-identify, and the media is taken to task when they misrepresent someone, the one person not allowed to self-identify is Jesus, and his early followers are accused of misrepresenting him.

So, my question is what does David Ison know that the writer of 1 John didn’t know? Given that the writer of 1 John claims to have known the radical and burning love of Jesus in the flesh, I am rather minded to go with him rather than David. Sorry, David.

Nick Gowers is the vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Old Hill, a Church Society parish.

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