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Topical Tuesday: Radical Christian Inclusion…?

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Posted by Rob Munro, 11 Jul 2017

Rob Munro reflects on the debates and decisions of General Synod, and calls us to pray for another Reformation.

General Synod felt like it reached the watershed this last long weekend.

Superficially we did the usual things: passing obscure legal provisions - for example, giving official permission not to have to wear robes at main services (which I realise you all have done faithfully up until now); the valiant effort to put something to do with mission on the agenda - this time with workshops on various National Church Initiatives like Thy Kingdom Come and the soon-to-be-revamped National Website. We even had the obligatory “current affairs” motion, this time from the Archbishops following the surprises at the General Election, generally calling for more prayer and appropriate lobbying - although the Archbishop of York tried to bring a last minute radical suggestion that Christians voluntarily paid more tax to the government to fund health and education, which flew for as long as most lead balloons. There were signs that something was amiss early on, when rather non-controversial amendments to the Archbishops’ proposal, which aimed to strengthen statements with regard to biblical and gospel priorities, were lost - but unless the Archbishop had backed them, which he didn’t for reasons of ‘simplicity’, it is hard to get them passed.

However, the watershed came apparent from the other seemingly obligatory controversial agenda items. This time, on conversion therapy and transsexual liturgy. The motions themselves were both subtle - we are all against abusive therapies, and we are all for welcoming all people including transsexuals; but the innocuous additions to the proposals were clearly designed to do more. The subtlety is that “conversion therapy” is an ill-defined term - it can mean just specific professional counselling therapies, and it is legitimately debateable how effective they are in actually changing a person’s sexual orientation, but it could include merely praying with someone at their request to diminish an unwanted same-sex attraction. There was an excellent amendment put in by Sean Doherty of Living Out that achieved what the original motion seemed to ask for, but it was lost – the radical held sway over the Christian. Similarly in the debate about welcoming transsexuals in church, the Trojan horse there was in a request for liturgy to mark a person’s transition, because, as was said repeatedly framing the debate, “The Church does the work of God through liturgy!” Again, a reasonable amendment, giving clarity to the nuances, was rejected; and although the final motion only actually asks the House of Bishops to consider a new liturgy, and the Archbishop of York implied they probably wouldn’t do it, he ended the debate asking for a strong support for the motion, which they received - including the significant milestone of a more than 2/3 majority in each house, which is the bar that has to be met to change doctrine in future.

So why a watershed?

1. Broken EGGS. In each of the controversial debates the Evangelical Group on General Synod (EGGS) gave a clear and strong support for the main amendments to each motion, and each clearly lost. The illusion of a gradual evangelical ascendency in synod was shown to be far weaker than people realised. In part that was because key strong public figures, who are members of EGGS (you can be in if you pay your subs!), such as Jayne Ozanne and Simon Butler, were promoting the more radical motions and resisting the EGGS recommended amendments. However the fuller picture is that it shows the evangelical concerns about biblicial sexuality are no longer held by the “middle ground” of synod any more. The leadership of EGGS has been working hard to keep evangelical unity, but there are not quite enough of us in the synod to sway the others, it appears.

2. Story Theology. The new norm for synodical debate on controversial matters has become the telling of stories - especially the personal and painful ones. Who would not be moved when told in the transgender debate, “Synod please vote for this now, don’t delay it, or my friend may not be around for when you finally do it”. There was little or no theological reflection on the issues. There was very little contribution from the bishops either, and on both occasions the Archbishop of York took the last word to push the original motions through, which is a powerful influence on the “non-aligned middle”. References to the Bible, or even to non-politically correct research, were received awkwardly and mocked on the Twittersphere. The story we are telling now in synod is “Inclusion”, everyone is welcome! And despite the Archbishop of Canterbury trying to make the point at the beginning of the session that the Archbishops had called for it to be a “radical CHRISTIAN inclusion”, any distinction he thereby intended was not discernible in any contribution to the debates.

3. Shifted Middle. In previous synods, the non-aligned middle, the roughly 1/3 of synod who don’t self-identify as either conservative or radical, could usually be relied on to be social conservative, to be slow to bow to the pressures that political correctness has always brought. No longer! It was clear that an unqualified inclusion agenda is now seen as the mainstream. Ten years ago, the LGBTI lobbyists were clearly only a vocal minority; today, if you speak out for the previously received biblical understandings you are made to feel like the minority. The radicals have the confidence that their stories now resonate with more people; conservatives speak with the fear we will be misheard or misunderstood – that disagreement on the sexuality issues for theological reasons will be heard as whichever phobia it can be labelled as.

4. Episcopal paralysis. After the clergy refused to take note of the bishop’s report last February, this session left the bishops staying really quiet, with the exception of the more vocal liberal bishops, and the interventions of the Archbishop of York. On key theological issues they listened and didn’t lead. Whether they will take a lead in their teaching document to be finished in 2020 remains to be seen. The timing of that document to appear just after this session of general synod is finished is of course a coincidence. (!)

So what are we to make of it all?

1. Hear the wake-up call. The gradual ascendency of our culture’s values in the church is not a surprise, it has been long expected. But the wake-up call is not for us to teach biblical truth and ethics to our evangelical churches, in theory we have been doing that. The wake-up call is that those basic biblical truths desperately need to be taught to the vast number of Christians who are largely in middle of the road parishes and who are now more swayed by culture than their Christian traditions. It is a call to seek a new reformation. When Protestant truth took root against prevailing Catholicism it took much sacrifice, wisdom and grace. It took people to work in the structures to infect the denomination with truth – something that the program of renewal and reform could give a platform to, if we engage more actively in it. It took a ministry ready to serve the flock of Christ outside of their comfort zone, pioneering truth in communities that had for too long lost the gospel – which is the norm now in the Church of England. It took leaders ready to suffer for truth so that the gospel could be heard across the nation and not just in the churches that already accepted it.

2. Help the faithful. Now, more than ever, we need to learn to support one another in gospel work in the Church of England. That means more than sharing in conferences, it will have to mean sharing our lives, praying personally and accountably together, standing with each other under the personal pressure that will only increase. I find the gruelling experience of general synod is only survivable when you have people around you, praying with and for you, sharing the recovery time together. Those sorts of relationships are even more necessary in the more isolated experience of parochial ministry. We need to help each other so that together we can bring our influence to bear through the structures. Not that the salvation of the church is in a structural solution, or even worse, trying to invent some sort of parallel structural approach, but there is no precedent I am aware of for revival to come without a passionate commitment of a core of people praying and working for it. As in the day of Judges, only when the pain of oppression was felt deeply enough to drive people to their knees, did God meet them with his salvation.

3. Hope in the Lord. It is my final reflection of being at synod, that the Lord has confronted us with the obvious truth that politics and strategy will not change the Church of England. That isn’t a call to get out of the Church of England and leave the flock to the wolves – that is not good shepherding; rather the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, which is the calling of his under-shepherds too. The battles of synod are not all lost, they must still be fought by the faithful however painful and draining it will be. But the battle for our future is already won, because the Lord will judge his people and one day purge us from every rebellion, sin and unbelief and make us wholly holy to Him.

So it may be we are at a watershed; but the thing about watersheds – it could go either way! And in the spiritual battle ahead, what are we called to do in all the spiritual armour of God? Not to win battles, they are won already, but we are just to stand!. That was the mark of the Reformation 500 years ago, in the words of Martin Luther: “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.” And when God’s faithful people are willing to stand together on the Word of God alone, seeking the grace of God alone to save through faith alone, in Christ alone, the tide can be turned, not by us but by him. “Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you will be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand!” Ephesians 3:13.

Revd Dr Rob Munro is Rector of St Mary's Cheadle and a member of General Synod.

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