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Why this blog?

Thank you for visiting this site.

Most of my blogging takes place on the website of our local church: https://stbarnacles3.wordpress.com/

The purpose of this blog is to make connections between the local and the wider church, and to reflect occasionally on wider social issues.

Your comments are welcome!

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Good news to the poor

Bishop Philip North’s address to New Wine and his passionate advocacy for ministry among the poor has attracted a lot of discussion. Many responses have been written, and like many prophetic words, Bishop Philip’s arguments can be challenged at various points. But certainly what he wrote resonated with me in many ways.

Admittedly I am not a vicar on a Northern housing estate. But I have been an inner-city vicar in Plymouth for nearly 15 years, and, as the Church Urban Fund pointed out several years ago, in every part of the country there are significant pockets of deprivation only a few miles from the most affluent areas. The issues surrounding estate or inner-city ministry are too important to be reduced to a simple north/south argument, and really are relevant everywhere.

Let me identify a few of them:

Leadership training.  I think it is very easy to criticise theological training as failing to equip ordinands for future ministry. But I think the arguments are more complex than that. I trained full time at a theological college in Oxford, in a very nice part of the city, and I received an excellent academic education. And over the years I have become more and more grateful for the foundations that were laid. I am a firm believer in the principle that to present something simply you have to know it deeply, and we must never make the mistake of reducing the content of training in order to focus more on the context.

But having said all that, it has been a hard struggle learning how to apply my theological education to my current ministry. I believe white middle-class graduates such as myself can minister effectively in these situations, but it took me years to realise I was as much involved in the process of Bible translation as a missionary on a foreign field. So I had to look hard at the way I communicated. Having an Oxbridge education meant I tended to focus on abstract concepts and presume a level of academic education among my hearers. I had to learn to inhabit the world of those I was serving, and to be willing to really listen and learn from their experiences. I also had to look afresh at Scripture and relate the good news of Jesus in new ways to the culture around me. All this has been a long, hard process where I am sure I made many mistakes along the way, and I am still learning. But just as when a Bible translation is finally complete, there does come a time when you realise that through you people are by God’s grace hearing and responding to the good news, and when that happens, it is real affirmation of your calling.

Buildings. Bishop Philip is surely right to draw attention to the state of many churches in less affluent areas. Nothing drains a church more than an unusable building. When I arrived, the heating and electricity at St Michael’s had been condemned and there was mould growing over all the wars. The original church had been destroyed like so much in Devonport in the raids of 1941 and it had been hastily rebuilt after the war with little concern for quality.

Fortunately Exeter diocese approached the whole question of buildings in an imaginative way, by partnering with a local housing association who would lease the whole site, redevelop it for social housing and provide a new place of worship as part of the deal. All this was done on a cost neutral basis for the church concerned, and although the process of redevelopment could be long and arduous, the results have been of immense benefits to the churches in question.

Clearly here there is a model other dioceses could follow, although I realise that the economic situation is now very different from when the process in Exeter diocese started in 2002, with the other church in my parish, St Barnabas. The one issue in Plymouth, however, arose from the fact every parish received a new building, whether there was a viable congregation or not, regardless of the size of the parish. So there are a number of tiny congregations worshipping in new buildings in small parishes, and from my own experience the size of these buildings do not allow for substantial growth. We are still in the process of deciding whether it is possible or realistic to extend St Michael’s.

Diocesan expectations. It is always dangerous to talk about numbers but very roughly the size of our congregation here is about the same as it was 15 years ago. However about three quarters of the original congregation have moved on or passed away, so even though numerically there may seem to be little growth, plenty of folk have come to faith. Ministry in the inner-city or outer estate often feels very unstable and there is a constant turnover of people.

Here in the diocese of Exeter there is an expectation that all churches have to be part of a mission community of a certain size and income. Even with new people continuing to come to faith, we are not likely to reach that size and income. So over the past 15 years I have faced the constant prospect of pastoral reorganisation. The benefice was suspended from 2000 to 2015, and there is still no clear way ahead. The favoured solution is to merge with a neighbouring benefice, even smaller than ourselves, with a very different understanding of theology and mission. I struggle to see however how such pastoral reorganisations can advance the gospel, and concerned that a scheme like this will only lead to further decline.

Church culture.  I already touched on this when talking about leadership training, but I am talking here about an even more pervasive issue. If the church ever connected with folk in the inner-city, it was several generations ago. It is generally seen as a middle-class institution speaking a foreign language, expecting those who attend to have a certain level of literacy and to know how to participate in its ceremonies. There is an automatic cultural barrier which prevents folk from connecting with the church, and indeed several times I have spoken to people on the streets who have been surprised they are allowed to go to church.

Ours is a liturgical church with Biblical preaching, and I am keen to affirm a distinctive Anglican identity. However it has also been necessary to remove so many of the barriers that cause the culture of the church to become more an obstacle than an aid to a personal relationship with Jesus. So on a Sunday morning, I make it clear that if you can’t read, that’s fine. If you have mental health problems or learning difficulties, you are still loved and accepted as a member of Christ’s body. Indeed, I believe that the primary way the church will reconnect in the sort of area I serve is simply by being a community that reflects the love of Christ. That does not mean, however, we simply affirm without providing challenge. Our aim to say to whoever comes in through our doors, “Neither do I condemn you.. Go now and leave your life of sin” and to pray that we might show to each individual both the appropriate level of acceptance and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

However, despite all this, I still find at St Michael’s the perception of the church in general or the “diocese” very negative. This is hardly something to wonder at, because so often the issues that preoccupy the national church have very little relevance to life on the street, and the discussion are couched in language and procedures that are only accessible to a few. Even the eighty page minutes of a diocesan synod are hardly something anyone round here is likely to read, mark and inwardly digest, and discussion of a carbon Eco-fast for Lent, for example, doesn’t really mean that much when folk are struggling to pay their electricity bill all year round.

Leadership. What keeps the church going in tough areas are a number of willing volunteers who give so sacrificially in so many ways of their time, their money and their energy. I am so grateful to all those at St Michael’s and St Barnabas who have served in so many ways and I hope they know how thankful I am to them. But despite all their hard work, what inner-city estates often lack are those with gifts of leadership. I have often heard calls for mission communities to raise up lay leadership, and discover vocations in the congregation. The blunt reality is, that there aren’t that many with such gifts around. Ours is not an area where folk will come forward for ordination or reader training, nor are there going to be many retired or self-supporting ministers able to help out. So while I long for more labourers in the harvest field, so often I find myself working with limited resources. This inevitably affects how much work the church can do in the local area.

Focus of ministry. When I arrived at St Michael’s there was the remnant of a social project in the one useable area of the church. It had been set up a few years earlier when funding for a community development worker had been forthcoming. But the funding had dried up and it was being run by some very dedicated volunteers who were doing what they could to keep it going. In addition, it had been set up with the model that the project was a gift to the local community and it was inappropriate for me to come in and share my faith there.

There can be a huge expectation that an inner-city minister will devote his or her time to social projects. But my experience reveals two flaws with this expectation. First of all, it is possible to spend all your life chasing funding which may only last for a few years, and then run out. Secondly, there can often be an unhelpful and artificial divide between social action and proclamation of the gospel so that one takes place to the detriment to the others.

Unless the church remembers its primary calling, there is a danger it becomes just another voluntary organisation seeking to do good, but without the resources or expertise of other organisations. So from day one the focus on my ministry has been on preaching the word of God, recognising that the ultimate need for each person in the parish is for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean that I have ignored the very practical needs of those to whom I minister. I have become very involved in ministry amongst adults with learning difficulties and in seeking to address issues of mental health, for example. But the preaching and teaching of the Word has to be the primary focus, with the expectation that when it goes forth, it does not return empty. Of course, in such an unchurched area, this rarely means there is an immediate or visible response. You need a strong belief in the grace of God to keep persevering at times, yet gradually you do start to see God’s word beginning to take root and real transformation to take place.

Clearly there are no simple or easy solutions to any of these issues. If there is any kind of answer, it must be that there is greater communication and openness between churches in more affluent areas and those in less affluent areas. I can well identify with Bishop Philip North’s story about the poor being subsidised by the wealthier areas. It would be a start, at least, if real, effective links could be developed so that those who give the most understand where their money is going, and develop a heart for urban mission. It would also help if parishes in poorer areas better explained the work they were doing and why it was so important. To this end I hope that Bishop Philip’s words are not seen as isolated prophetic word but the start of a conversation that ultimately will benefit and strengthen the life of the whole Anglican church in this nation, and good news is preached to the poor.

Here I stand

I have always loved the Anglican church. I love the confessional basis of the denomination, the Biblical foundations to so much of its liturgy, and above all the fact it is meant to there for every person in the country, no matter where they live.

I first sensed a call to Anglican ministry nearly thirty years ago, and have been ordained for eighteen years. For the past fifteen years I have buried myself in the inner-city, working in one of the most deprived areas in the country. I have by God’s grace endeavoured to preach the Bible faithfully as the word of God, to care for and build up the church as a living, growing community of God’s people, and to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in every possible way.

The church I serve has not grown significantly in terms of numbers, because there is such a high turnover in the local area. But I have seen people from all ages and backgrounds come to faith. The message that Jesus died in their place for their sins is not a difficult and abstract doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement – it is life-changing good news. The fact God speaks to us through His inspired word has brought consolation and challenge to many, and few, if any, have doubted the authority of Scripture to speak to their own particular circumstances. Even in spite of my many failings, I have seen how the gospel really is good news to the poor and I have always seen my responsibility as pastor and teacher of the flock to hand on the faith entrusted once for all to the saints.

But now I find that the denomination I love and serve is leaving me. It is not simply that it is changing its core doctrines. It is that it is doing so without serious theological reflection or any sense of humility before a holy God. I am by background a linguist. I know the importance of studying the origin, use and application of words within their contexts, and my ministry is so enriched through the study of Biblical languages. But all this seems to count for very little in the discussions at General Synod. Instead key words are used in a way that anyone who has studied postmodernism will tell you represents a bid for power, with those who resist those words demonised and categorised as “-phobic.”

The church I serve has a remarkably high proportion of people with mental health problems, learning difficulties and a whole variety of other issues. We incorporate such a range of backgrounds and ages, and it is thrilling to see how people often written off by society find a home here. Yet by the wisdom of this age apparently ours is not an inclusive church. I am not an accepting evangelical. That I find peculiarly offensive. But then again, I look at the agenda and concerns of General Synod and wonder how much of the discussion of any relevance at all to the streets of Devonport or whether their discussions are in a language that is accessible to the very special folk who live in these parts.

In many ways, what happens at General Synod really has very little to do with ministry at the coalface, except that it is the principal instrument of government for the Anglican church. And here’s the rub. What gets decided far away in London or York will one way or another impact on all those who are seeking to faithfully and lovingly pass on the good news of Jesus Christ.

Of course I believe in a God who can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. In every age God has preserved a faithful remnant, and it may yet be that the Church of England will once again come in repentance before the cross of Christ. So I support those who are determined to remain and are still working so hard to preserve the gospel witness by whatever means, because there is, I believe, still hope. But we must not allow ourselves to end up in a situation where orthodoxy becomes an eccentric alternative to mainstream heterodoxy, and what is good is spoken of as something evil.

In the meanwhile all I can do is remain faithful to my original calling, and keep on preaching and teaching the good news of the kingdom. Who knows? Perhaps it is as the good news changes the hearts and minds of those who hear, the Lord might yet revive and restore His church – whether or not General Synod approves.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

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Many years ago yours truly did a piece of part-time research into the original Hebrew text of Zephaniah. My thesis was based on the premise that the canonical form of the book represents the original words of the prophet at the end of the seventh century BC. This might not sound original, but the prevailing assumption of most scholarship based on historical and form criticism is that the text represents a composite of different material compiled over a number of centuries. My very amateur research aimed to provide the evidence that such assumptions could and should be robustly challenged.

By contrast, this book is a masterly piece of scholarly research by Richard Bauckham which overturns many of the assumptions behind most critical approaches to the gospels and is worth reading thoroughly and slowly. I note that by now there is a second edition which is even longer and seeks to answer some of the challenges made to Bauckham’s groundbreaking study.

In essence it is often assumed that the gospels were written by a process of oral transmission and that the content of each gospel was determined by the needs of the particular church community to which it was written. Scholarship has therefore focused on three things: first, to detect the differing layers of tradition and so try and work out which parts of the gospel represent the oldest and most authentic sayings of Jesus; secondly, to recreate the church community to which gospel was written, and thirdly, to search for the historical Jesus behind the text.

If Richard Bauckham’s analysis is correct – and he makes for a very persuasive case – then so much of this scholarship is rendered null and void. He points out that in the ancient world the most reliable source of history was considered to be eyewitness testimony written down within living memory and that this eyewitness testimony was carefully preserved and passed on. He backs up his contention with the writings of the earliest church fathers who recognised the gospels precisely as this kind of testimony.

Bauckham supports his testimony by looking carefully at the structure of each gospel. He argues that Mark’s gospel is an inclusio of Petrine testimony and John’s gospel is an inclusio of an otherwise unknown disciple called John the Elder. He highlights the importance of the Twelve as the guarantors of the story that is being told, and also makes the telling suggestion that the personal names of the characters in the gospels represent the names of believers who also authenticated the narratives being recorded. These narratives were then passed on within local Christian communities by recognised teachers who had received their traditions either directly or through a handful of authorised intermediaries.

To those who claim the gospels represent a later development of original traditions, Richard Bauckham makes other significant observations. He demonstrates the gospel writers were able to distinguish the past of Jesus from their own time, so, for example, there is a consistency in the titles applied to Jesus before the crucifixion which are different from those applied after his resurrection and ascension. He uses the distribution of names in the gospels to show they reflect an authentic spread of Jewish Palestinian names in Jesus’ era and so do not reflect later invention. He shows that so much scholarship relies on anachronistic models of oral transmission from other cultures which bears little relation to the way the gospels were recorded.

All in all, this work is an important contribution in helping to appreciate the gospels for what they are. In the final sentence of his work (at least the first edition!) Richard Bauckham writes:

It is in the Jesus of testimony that history and theology meet.

In other words, whenever we read or hear the gospels, we can say with confidence, “This is the word of the Lord”, preserved and written down as the disclosure of God to us. To have that confidence, it seems to me, is of vital importance as we ourselves witness to the world around us, and that is why this work, I believe, is quite so valuable.

For further reviews of the work, check out the following links:

http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/reviews/jesus-and-the-eyewitnesses/

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/09/book-review-richard-bauckham-jesus-and-the-eyewitnesses/

 

Five days on

So it’s five days since the Election and the blogosphere is already full of analysis as to what happened in the General Election. I am not a political pundit, and I don’t publicise my political views, but here are my thoughts on what happened last Thursday:

In the UK people don’t like campaigns based around personalities. Early on in the campaign I received an election leaflet from the Conservative Party. Actually, I couldn’t find the name of the party. It was all about Teresa May. I also noticed that in the countryside many signs for the constituency MPs also had underneath the slogan “supporting Teresa May”. However we live in a parliamentary democracy where parties matter. If you want a personality based election, move to the United States.

People need to have a coherent narrative they can relate to. A few isolated policy announcements that don’t seem to address the big picture won’t wash. Whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn, he at least offered a vision that seemed to hang together. Of course I recognise that it is much easier to offer the big picture when you are in opposition. Enacting your vision when you are in government is a considerably more difficult business,as perhaps one day he will find out.

People are generally suspicious of landslides. During the Thatcher and the Blair years many people felt disenfranchised, as if their views didn’t really count or their votes matter. The first past the post system delivered stable government that was in reality only elected by an overall minority of people eligible to vote. At least a hung parliament or a government with a small majority leads to a greater willingness to engage with the views of others.

Which leads me to consider the future. To some, a hung parliament is a sign of political instability. To me, it seems that every MP has a great responsibility in the months (or, very optimistically, years) ahead, to use their vote wisely.  We will no longer be governing by party lines and established blocs, but by individuals who have an opportunity to get their voice, and hopefully the voice of their constituents heard. This really is democracy is the truest sense of the word.

Therefore as a Christian I will be praying for individual MPs that they will use their votes wisely. I will be praying that as they vote they really will be considering the needs of all. I will also be praying for those MPs who are willing to be counted as believers. As has become clear over the past few days it will be increasingly difficult for MPs who hold on to traditional beliefs to gain the respect of others. So I will be praying particularly for them, but also for all those in authority, that we might live quiet and peaceful lives in all godliness and holiness (1 Tim 2:2). May the Lord direct and guide them in the turbulent times that lie ahead.

 

 

Words, words, words…

I have always had interest in languages, and four factors have particularly deepened my interest in the whole subject of communication.

First of all, as an undergraduate I majored on the study of historical linguistics, looking at the evolution of the Germanic and the Slavonic languages from their Indo-European roots.  This gave me the ability to understand the basic mechanics of language, and an insight into the circumstances which cause a particular language to change.

Secondly, on a personal level, I have developed a particular interest in autism, and the issues of communication that confronts someone who is autistic in a neurotypical world. My experience has led me to appreciate the non-verbal aspects of communication, and recognise the way language only expresses a certain percentage of what is being communicated.

Thirdly, for the past fifteen years, I have been ministering in an environment which is very different from my own natural background – not so much culturally, as in the fact I have a very high level of classical education which has shaped and moulded the way I express myself. This has not always been an advantage!

Fourthly, and most importantly, God has called me into a relationship with Himself through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ, who is Himself called the Word of God. My life’s work therefore is to understand that relationship and to respond to God’s call upon my life. This means above all else that I need to learn how God communicates with me, and how I might by His grace and mercy communicate with Him.

So the issue of communication is at the heart of my academic interests, my personal life, my ministry and my faith.

What, then, is communication?

That’s a question which has occupied philosophers for millennia. My rough working definition is that it is about someone expressing something of meaning in such a way that another person is able to understand and respond to that expression. I am sure there are better definitions!

First of all, we need to tackle the question of meaning. It has become fashionable during the course of the last century to even deny the very idea of an objective meaning. Culturally the works of people like Jackson Pollock and John Cage call into the question there is any meaning to works of art, at least meaning that is accessible to anyone other the creator of these works (Francis Schaeffer’s work is very helpful at this point). Philosophically post-modernism has rejected the idea of an authorial meaning. Meaning is whatever the person receiving the communication wants it to be. There is no one standard of truth, which of course raises all kinds of questions about societal norms, shared ethics, education etc. etc.

On a popular level the question of meaning has also been raised by the rise of what has been called the post-truth society. Increasingly truth is no longer seen as something agreed or negotiated, but as a matter of personal experience or what works for me. We can see this, for example, in the current debates within the church about human sexuality where for many people the starting point for any discussion is their own experience. The problem is, as the church is discovering, it is hard to build a general consensus which enables the whole to function well together, when the foundations are subjective and individualistic.

Secondly, and more helpfully, post-modernism does remind us that so often communication is used as a tool of power and potentially of abuse. Those with power are often the ones who communicate and they expect those without power to receive their communications passively or unquestioningly.  As a church we need to be reminded how words have all too often been agents of oppression, and the legacy of abuse the church still bears to its shame is one that we need to own and to confront.

That’s why a genuine Christian faith has to start with the Word of God who uses His power not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). The way He demonstrates His use of power is to bend down and wash His disciples’ feet (John 13:3-4), pointing forward, of course, to the cross where, as the apostle Paul reminds us, made himself nothing, taking the very form of the servant.

But there is the still very real question of whether the original meaning behind a communication can be recovered. This is particularly true of an ancient group of texts such as the Bible, written anything between 2000 and 3000 years ago (roughly). However what marks out the Bible, as opposed to many other religious texts, is that it is open to critical analysis:

  • There are an ever increasingly volume of ancient manuscripts, unparalleled by any other writing of that era, and taken in conjunction with growing understanding of other texts of the time we are able to interpret the linguistic data in most cases with a fairly high degree of confidence.
  • Archaeological discoveries are increasingly corroborating the historical data of the Bible, for example the first inscription referring to Pontius Pilate discovered at Caesarea Maritime in 1961 or the first extra-Biblical reference to the house of David found at Tel Dan in 1994.
  • The interpretative history of the church which although problematic in some areas has helped to draw out key doctrines from the Bible such as the nature of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.

Of course in a post-truth society the labours of such critical analysis are not seen as carrying much weight, no matter how impressive the evidence. So the search for meaning needs to go deeper, and this is where we need to bring in a factor which secular philosophy by definition tends to reject – the person and nature of God.

The message of the Bible is that we have a God who speaks. The first recorded speech-act took place when God said, “Let there be light” and there was light (Gen 1:3). The whole story of the Bible affirms that God speaks through creation (e.g. Psalm 19:1), through the history of His people, and supremely through His Son Jesus Christ. To quote the opening words of Hebrews: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”

Of course we have to then ask ourselves how we hear Jesus speak to us today. This is where we have to bring in the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Central to the Christian faith is the claim that God the Father and God the Son comes to live in the hearts of those who believe (John 14:23) and that the role of the Holy Spirit is to guide such believers into all truth (John 16:13).

Communication theory has taught us that if we are understand clearly what someone is saying, it is important not to understand the words but also know the identity of the speaker. Knowledge of the speaker’s identity helps us to ascertain the truthfulness of the words we are hearing and the intent behind those words. It is this personal knowledge which the Holy Spirit imparts about Jesus the Word of God and enables us – amazingly enough – to understand the good, pleasing and perfect will of God Himself (Rom 12:1-2)

Or to put it another way, effective communication is a product of relationship. The fact we have just mentioned God Father, Son and Holy Spirit points to the reality that however we understand the Trinity, there is an unbroken and eternal relationship at the heart of God, with perfect and loving communication between its three members.

Having a Trinitarian understanding of God also helps us to appreciate more deeply what it means for us humans to be made in the image of God. We communicate because we reflect the very nature of a God who communicates. Our relationships have meaning because they are ultimately created by a God who is relationship and who seeks a relationship with us. It means that there is a way out of the existential maze where everything is relative and truth is only personal and subjective.

To quote Francis Schaeffer: The validity and meaning of love rest upon the reality that love exists between the Father and Son in the Trinity. When I say I love, instead of this being a nonsense word, it has meaning. It is rooted in what has always been in the personal relationship in the Trinity before the universe was created…Love is a thing not only of meaning, but of beauty and wonder to be nourished in joy (F.Schaeffer, the God who is there, p.106 in Francis Schaeffer trilogy, Crossway Books 1990 (reprinted))

Therefore the question of communication is not only a philosophical or linguistic issue, but also a deeply theological one. To quote from the Puritan writer, Richard Baxter:

Nothing can be rightly known, if God be not known; nor is any study well managed, nor to any great purpose, if God is not studied. (R.Baxter, the Reformed Pastor, p.56, The Banner of Truth 1983 (reprinted))

That is why any theory of communication needs to take seriously the reality of revelation, and the uncomfortable truth that we have a God who speaks. Equally, however, if the church is to address what is for many people a difficult question of truth and meaning it needs to show that the Biblical metanarrative is credible, is real and relevant. That is the challenge we need to address, and with some urgency, if our voice is to be heard in any way at all.

In the aftermath…

I have just returned from an extended and much needed break in Australia. But even over on that side of the world the events at General Synod were closely watched and monitored, and being there made me realise that the decisions the Church of England does or does not make have ramifications beyond this shore.

There have been any number of posts by people closer to the action on the Synod vote. The only observation I would like to add is that no matter how much the Church of England may be committed to an agenda of reform and renewal, our mission is going to be compromised and rendered ineffective by the reality of our division. As Jesus Himself said, every city or household divided against itself will not stand (Matt 12:25).

Our mission will be weakened when it comes to engaging with secular authorities and political parties. If there is no one common voice of the Anglican church, then we cannot complain if we are increasingly marginalised and ignored. We may be politely included as the established church but our lack of clarity will be mean few will pay attention to what we are saying.

Our mission will be weakened when it comes to presenting the claims of Jesus Christ to a world that is perishing without a Saviour. Jesus prayed for the unity of the church as a witness to the world, and without a unity grounded in a common faith those who are still looking on will see the gap between what we claim to believe and how we live under the Lordship of Christ.

Our mission will be weakened when it comes to sharing the gospel to those of other faiths. They need to see the difference that faith in Jesus Christ makes, and be challenged by our radical obedience to Him. A gospel that makes no demand for repentance, and which appears to conform to the ways of the world is hardly going to persuade others of the truth of our message.

Ultimately the question we are facing is not that of sexuality, or even of the authority of Scripture. It is one of revelation. Do we believe that God has given us a deposit of faith to be faithfully guarded even while proclaimed afresh in each generation? Or do we believe that our faith evolves as the Holy Spirit reveals new insights about God which may or may not agree with what has gone before? And no amount of “radical inclusion” is going to get away from this key issue.

Meanwhile as we try to square the circle, our mission to be the Church of England will continue to fail to bear the fruit we all long to see. That, I fear, will be the ultimate legacy of the vote in Synod – although I retain my faith in the God who can and does do immeasurably more than can ever ask or imagine.

The Word that reads us

Much writing has taken place in the blogosphere about the statement by the House of Bishops on human sexuality (full text here). My purpose here is not to add any further reflection on the presenting issue, although I warmly welcome the reassertion of the traditional view of marriage. Rather as I have read on the report, I have been struck how this particular issue has highlighted three issues with which we all have to wrestle when it comes to living by the Word of God.

First of all, the Word of God exposes the shortcomings and sinfulness in us. It is with good reason that the writer to the Hebrews likens it to a sword penetrating to joints and marrow, or the prophet Jeremiah to a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces ( Heb 4:12, Jer 23:29). We are presented with truths about God and His demands on our lives we would prefer not to deal with. It is not surprising that we spend so much time and effort trying to justify our attempts not to live in accordance with that Word. We want permission wherever possible to avoid the inconvenient truth that we are sinners who fall short of the glory to God.

Secondly, however, if we are serious about mission and outreach, we will encounter people who do not know the Word of God and who do not live in accordance with it. So we have to work out what is the most effective strategy of reaching out, yet neither condemning nor condoning. This is very much a live issue for me, working in a context where the institution of marriage has all but collapsed, and there are few role models of stable, committed and godly relationships. I cannot claim to have anything like the answer, but my constant prayer is that I might somehow be like Jesus who told the woman caught in adultery Neither do I condemn you…go now and leave your life of sin. (John 8:11).

For this reason I believe that helping people to discover the love of Jesus and find acceptance in Him is at the heart of the good news. But so also is helping people to discover the power of Jesus and find in Him the ability to change. That is where as a church we need to continually work out the balance between effective pastoral care and proclamation, and in my experience the two needs to go side by side if we are to take seriously Jesus’ commission to make disciples.

But thirdly, since we are a church of the imperfect and disobedient we will encounter fellow believers who will not live by the Word of God and see no need for change or repentance. This is especially difficult in an age where discipline is particularly hard to enforce, and any interpretation is seen as having validity. Speaking personally, this is where I find Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 so important. Jesus does not tell us never to make judgements, despite how verse 1 is so often translated. He is speaking against a harsh, condemnatory attitude where we are blind to our own faults. But He does tells us, that when we have removed the plank from our eye, we are to attend to the faults of our brothers, and we need to have the discernment to avoid throwing pearls to pigs (Matthew 7:5-6).

Because actually simply allowing another brother or sister in Christ to live as they see fit is not in essence love. In humility, and in recognition of your own faults and failings, there are occasions when we have to tell someone they are plain wrong. This is one reason why on a national level the methodology of shared conversations seems to me so problematic. To constantly attempt a Hegelian synthesis of opposing viewpoints seems to me to undermine the truth of the Word as revealed to us. There are first order issues which are not open to negotiation, and while we debate whether we should live by them we are undermining the wider witness of the church.

For my part, I keep going back to the startling words of Paul in Romans 6:17 where he talks about the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. My vision of the church is one which stands under the word of God and prayerfully, humbly allows it to read us. Because ultimately it is in this process of standing under that we understand. And this is why, returning briefly to the bishop’s report, I am cautiously hopeful for the future of the church I serve. Because whatever path to reform and renewal we might adopt, growth starts with hearing and obeying the word of God, no matter what the world might think. And this report to me seems to an important step in this direction.