The Evangelical Alliance rejects Oasis, and me?

I was sad to read this today:

the Evangelical Alliance have discontinued the membership of Oasis Trust.

The stated reason for this refers to “what has been perceived by some as a campaign to change the Church’s historic view on human sexuality”. Oasis UK, which was founded by Steve Chalke, has responded to this; see also Adrian Warnock’s blog post.

This parting of ways brings back memories for me from many years ago. In 1986 I attended the Spring Harvest Christian conference for the first time, at Prestatyn in North Wales. Graham Kendrick led the worship, highlighting his “Make Way” Carnival of Praise (“Shine, Jesus, Shine!” was the theme song the next year). Among the Christian leaders prominent at the event were Clive Calver, then General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance, and a young Baptist pastor Steve Chalke.

Clive Calver enthused the crowds that week with his vision for evangelical Christians putting aside differences over secondary matters to work together for the Gospel. He approached me personally, while I was browsing the book sale area, and signed me up as a personal member of the Alliance. I was happy to accept its vision, and its Basis of Faith. After 28 years, I am still a member and still happy to accept the (slightly revised) Basis of Faith. I note some things which are omitted from this document: any statement that the Bible is inerrant, and any mention of sexuality or sexual ethics.

Steve ChalkeOver the next few years Steve Chalke became a prominent figure in the British church, as he built up his now global Oasis network of community based projects. Among other projects, Oasis UK runs a number of Oasis Academies, Christian primary and secondary schools working within the state education system.

Meanwhile Chalke has become a controversial figure among evangelicals. As I reported here in 2007, his infamous words about “cosmic child abuse”, taken out of context by his critics, led to a split in the Spring Harvest movement. In the last few months he has caused renewed controversy with an article Restoring Confidence in the Bible, in which he questions, but does not reject, the historical accuracy of parts of the Old Testament, for example writing concerning Numbers 15:32-36:

Did God order this death or did Moses mishear him?

The Evangelical Alliance raised concerns about the “cosmic child abuse” controversy, but allowed Chalke and Oasis to remain Alliance members. However, they seem to have taken more serious issue with his 2013 paper A MATTER OF INTEGRITY: The Church, sexuality, inclusion and an open conversation, in which he takes on the thorny issue of the church accepting people in homosexual relationships. He writes:

Too often, those who seek to enter an exclusive, same-sex relationship have found themselves stigmatised and excluded by the Church. I have come to believe this is an injustice and out of step with God’s character as seen through Christ.

He seeks to justify his position with a detailed study of the relevant Bible passages – not by rejecting them as no longer applicable, as a non-evangelical would. His exegesis is of course controversial and not convincing to all. Nevertheless, the article is an attempt from within the evangelical tradition to apply biblical principles to a pressing pastoral issue.

As reported by Oasis, this article led to

an on-going conversation with the Evangelical Alliance.  At their request, we have made several changes to our online content and believed that we had reached a point where both parties could be satisfied that our relationship would continue.  We are, therefore, disappointed  by their announcement…

However, it seems that the Evangelical Alliance Council has chosen this issue, and not the one of biblical authority or of the Atonement, as the grounds for declaring Oasis UK to be outside the evangelical family. It is extremely disappointing that this matter of sexual ethics has again been seen as more significant than central matters of the Christian faith.

The Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith says nothing about human sexuality, but it does include this, paragraph 4:

WE BELIEVE IN… The dignity of all people, made male and female in God’s image to love, be holy and care for creation, yet corrupted by sin, which incurs divine wrath and judgement.

Now I am sure that the drafters of this paragraph, with its very odd grammar, did not intend “to love”, with no explicit object, to include same sex relationships. But by expelling Oasis and rejecting Chalke’s call for “an open and generous acceptance of people with sexualities other than heterosexual”, the Alliance seems to be aligning itself with those in the church who stigmatise and exclude these people. Yet they too are among the “all people” whose dignity the Alliance professes to believe in - and all of us, not just them, are “yet corrupted by sin”.

In writing this, I don’t want to reject those who sincerely interpret Scripture as prohibiting same sex relationships, as long as they avoid judgmental or hate-filled expressions of those beliefs. But I do not consider it appropriate for the Evangelical Alliance, as an umbrella body, to take a definite position on this matter.

The Alliance also seems to be extending its belief in

The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct

to require its members to uphold a specific interpretation of those Scriptures, beyond what is specified elsewhere in the Basis of Faith.

In its action today the Evangelical Alliance seems to have turned its back on Clive Calver’s vision of evangelical Christians putting aside differences over secondary matters to work together. Instead it has elevated one particular secondary matter to be a touchstone of evangelicalism. And it has done so in a way which plays into the hands of the popular press, with its anti-Christian agenda of portraying the church as obsessed with sexuality and intolerably homophobic. This is most unfortunate.

Personally, I would not want to accept all of the positions that Steve Chalke has taken. But I would affirm his pastoral care for gay and lesbian people and his rejection of how the church has often stigmatised and excluded them. I would also affirm his right to explore, within the evangelical tradition, ways in which their full inclusion can be found compatible with biblical teaching. I would call on the Evangelical Alliance to reverse its decision and declare that acceptance of same sex relationships can be compatible with evangelicalism.

Since moving to the USA nearly two years ago, I have become more and more uneasy with the label “evangelical”. In North America this has become too much identified with positions on biblical inerrancy which I have never accepted, as well as with certain intolerant positions on “culture wars”, among which strong opposition to same sex marriage is currently prominent. I thought I was happy being an evangelical as defined in the UK, by the Evangelical Alliance among others. But if that definition is now shifting towards the American one, if specific positions on moral issues are becoming a touchstone, if “evangelical” is coming to mean much the same as “fundamentalist”, then is there any room left for people like me within the evangelical fold?

So, has the time come for me to join Oasis in parting company with the Evangelical Alliance? I hope not, but if things continue in the current direction this may be coming soon.

The Evangelical Alliance concludes its statement as follows:

The Evangelical Alliance council remain deeply respectful of the work and achievements of the Oasis Trust and have a strong desire to avoid any unseemly dispute and to speak well of each other.

This at least is good. Let us indeed agree “to avoid any unseemly dispute and to speak well of each other”.

RIP John Richardson, The Ugley Vicar

I am sorry to see that it is nearly a year since I last posted here. I never intended to stop blogging, and I might yet start again regularly. Meanwhile Gentle Wisdom is still getting over 100 visits most days. The issue is that life has been busy for me here in Virginia, as the manager of a growing business and an active member of a lively church. At least by posting occasionally I can reassure anyone still following this blog that I am alive and well.

John RichardsonSadly I cannot say the same about my fellow blogger John Richardson, who blogged as The Ugley Vicar and elsewhere. This morning I heard the sad news that, after a short illness, he has passed away and gone to be with his Lord.

John was in fact the only other regular blogger who I also met, more than rather briefly, during the time we were blogging. For a time we both served on the committee of the Chelmsford Diocesan Evangelical Association. We had several other things in common: not only were we members of the Church of England in the same diocese, but we also started blogging as single men in our 50s, and we both got married for the first time as bloggers (but not to bloggers!) and continued to blog as married men.

There were of course many issues which we disagreed on, and enjoyed sparring about. He would probably remember me best as the person who repeatedly advised him to leave the Church of England – in each case because he would not accept a decision of the church leadership. Ironically, he remained within that church while I left it. But then for him the Church of England was a body he was ordained into and deeply committed to, even when he disagreed with its leadership, whereas for me it was little more than the denomination I happened to be in at the time.

Nevertheless on what mattered John and I were united: on the heart of the gospel, and on the pressing need to see that message presented clearly to the people of England and of the whole world. He will be sadly missed.

How Jesus Destroyed the Devil’s Work

Jesus defeating the devilFrom Destroy the Devil’s Work, a post by Jeremy Myers:

Jesus certainly did come to destroy the devil’s work, but His route for doing so was not conventional. Or at least, it was not the way any human would seek to do it. He did not rain down fire and death from the skies. He did not raise up an army and march off to war. He did not call on political leaders and those with money, power, and prominence to exert their influence and bring about change.

No, Jesus destroyed the devil’s works by doing the exact opposite things of the devil. He loved the unlovable. He forgave the worst of sinners. He healed the chronically sick. He fed the hungry. He empowered the weak. He extended grace to those who showed none. He was patient with repeat offenders. He did not seek to control. He never sought to enslave. He always refused to punish or condemn.

Amen!

Book: The Biblical Revelation of the Cross

Several years ago, at a time when there was a lot of discussion, on this blog and elsewhere, of different views of the atonement, Norman McIlwain kindly sent me a free copy of his book The Biblical Revelation of the Cross. Norman, like me, was critical of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, and was looking at other ways of understanding the biblical material about the death of Jesus. I intended to read the book and review it here, but to my regret I never did so.

The Biblical Revelation of the CrossNorman has now revised and expanded his book and published it again, but for now only online, and free of charge. The extra material is about the early church’s teaching on the atonement. This is not formatted as an e-book but as one long HTML page, here: The Biblical Revelation of the Cross. See also Norman’s main Bible study website.

I have not read most of this material and so cannot review or endorse it. I can say from what I have read that it seems well argued. His conclusions seem to me on a skim reading a little too close to saying that Jesus’ death was only as a moral example. But I appreciate the way in which he links our salvation in with the Resurrection and the ongoing Christian life:

Our atonement, therefore, is achieved for us through our being raised up in Christ, who gave Himself for us that we might know God through Him and the power of the resurrection.

This is surely a book worth looking at for anyone interested in the atonement.

Marriage and Divorce Equality

It is no surprise that while the US Supreme Court is debating same sex marriage my post Hypocrisy and Gay Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, from nearly a year ago, has been attracting readers. Kurt Willems has also pointed readers to an old post of his making a similar point in an even more attention-grabbing way: Sign My Petition for a Constitutional Amendment to Ban Divorce!

Same Sex DivorceI’m not sure what to add now, except that I agree with Joel Watts that

individual morality is not an issue the State should decide… If two consenting adults wish to engage in a commitment to one another … then so be it.

Meanwhile a friend of mine who was in a same sex marriage is hurting because she and her wife have ended their relationship. I hope she can find divorce equality if she needs it.

Celibacy In A Sex-Obsessed World 1: A Gay Cardinal?

A very different post from my last one, but again about a Cardinal. This is intended to be the first of a series, which I may be able to continue tomorrow if we have the forecast snow but don’t lose power.

The Departure of a Cardinal

Cardinal Keith O'Brien

In response to the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the BBC asks, Is it even possible to live a celibate life? On 22nd February Cardinal O’Brien raised this question, in the context of the celibacy required of Roman Catholic priests, in a BBC interview:

I realise that many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own.

It was the very next day, 23rd February, that accusations of “inappropriate acts” by O’Brien, with three priests and a former priest, were made public and reported in The Observer. Two days later O’Brien was forced to resign. He later admitted that

there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.

Now this raises questions of what dirty tricks might have been behind the timing of these allegations, forcing O’Brien out days before he was due to vote in the election for a new Pope, and so soon after he had hinted at what kind of candidate he might prefer. But my point here is not to discuss that, but to consider what the story might have to teach us about a Christian attitude towards sex and sexual orientation.

Is Keith O’Brien Gay?

A more significant question raised by these events concerns Cardinal O’Brien’s sexual orientation, if that is a meaningful concept. Is he in fact sexually attracted to primarily to men? To put it bluntly, is he gay? Has he tried to suppress this, but without complete success? Does he think it would have been easier to suppress this sexual preference if he had been married?

According to Wikipedia, O’Brien was at one time “regarded as “liberal” on the issue of homosexuality”. But by 2012 he was in the public eye as an outspoken opponent of same sex marriage, and the gay rights group Stonewall gave him their “Bigot of the Year” award. If the Cardinal is in fact gay, then I am sure such groups would also consider him for a hypocrite of the year award. But it would need a careful look at what he actually said before deciding if such an award would be fair.

Alternatively, the Cardinal may not actually be gay at all. Maybe he is attracted primarily to women, and could have been genuinely happy as a husband and father. But as a young man confined in an all male seminary and forbidden even to masturbate, he might have been driven by testosterone to inappropriate acts towards the only people who were available, his male students. If so, it would seem that enforced celibacy led him into what his church considers a greater sin than marriage, or masturbation: homosexual activity.

Whatever his natural sexual inclinations, surely the young priest quickly regretted those inappropriate acts. Very likely he came to hate them, and fear them being revealed, and that might well have fuelled a more general negative attitude towards same sex attraction and marriage.

Anyway, unless O’Brien chooses to reveal more himself, it is unlikely that we will ever know his true sexual preferences. And that is probably for the best. I would just say that it is sad that his distinguished career ended in this way, and wish him a long and happy retirement from public life.

Celibacy and Gay Bishops

While the Roman Catholic Church requires celibacy of its priests, with a very few exceptions, the Church of England can be said to require celibacy only of those who are homosexual. …

To be continued.

Female Cardinals Not Flying To Rome

James McGrath posted a picture of a Hopeful Cardinal thinking “One day I’ll be Pope!”

The cardinal in his picture, clothed in bright red, is a male. But here in North America there are also female cardinals, although they don’t wear bright red. I haven’t seen any males recently, so perhaps they have all flown to Rome for the conclave. But the females seem to have stayed at home. After all, sadly no female can even dream of becoming Pope. So I saw a female just like this in our back yard:

Northern Cardinal Female

Yes, I’m talking about the state bird of Virginia. You weren’t thinking anything else, were you?

The Ancient Conspiracy of Sexism

Here is part of what I wrote in response to a Facebook friend, a pastor, who was promoting blatant sexism – in this context concerning women serving as combat troops, but he has similar views about women in church leadership:

it is all part of  it is all part of an ancient conspiracy, arguably going all the way back to Eden, to deny to half the human race their status as equally made in the image of God.

Over the top? Maybe. Discuss!

Rowan, Baron Williams of Oystermouth

From the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official website:

Peerage for the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury

Wednesday 26th December 2012

The Queen has been pleased to confer a Peerage of the United Kingdom for Life on the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Dr Rowan Williams Lord Archbishop of Canterbury upon his retirement from the See of Canterbury.

Rowan Williams will be created a Baron for Life by the style and title of Baron Williams of Oystermouth in the City and County of Swansea.

Rowan WilliamsDr Williams does not actually retire until 31st December, but most likely his Christmas sermon yesterday was his last official duty. So today was an appropriate day to announce this honour for him, a customary one for retiring Archbishops of Canterbury.

Paul Trathen, on Twitter, commented:

Oystermouth?! Eh?!? St John Chrysostom gets to be ‘golden-tongue’ and +Rowan gets to be ‘Oystermouth’?!? ;-)

Oystermouth CastleWell, the name “Oystermouth” comes from the ruined mediaeval castle which overlooks Swansea Bay, and which was no doubt very familiar to Rowan as he grew up and went to school in the Welsh city of Swansea. In fact the name has nothing to do with the shellfish for which the bay is well known, but is a corruption of a Welsh word. But Rowan’s new title was asking for comments like Paul’s.

I replied to Paul suggesting that Rowan’s title might mean that he has

A mouth hard to open but when it does you find pearls of wisdom?

In response to this, Paul wrote:

As you are not much of a fan, I thought you might suggest indigestible, an acquired taste, or slightly fishy!?! ;-)

Well, I could have put it like that! It is undeniable (not least because it is well recorded on this blog) that I have had my differences with the retiring Archbishop. There was a time when, it seemed, whenever he opened his mouth it was to put his foot in it, rather than to bring forth pearls of wisdom. The Sharia law controversy was a particularly memorable example of that. He also admitted that he didn’t like the “political bits” of his role, leading me to suggest that he left it for an appointment where these “political bits” are not central. But I have to accept that he was landed with almost impossible tasks such as preserving unity through the 2008 Lambeth Conference and in the Church of England debate on women bishops. Could anyone else have done better with these tasks? Probably not.

Anyway, although Rowan is not dead, it seems to me bad form to speak ill of the newly ennobled. So I will repeat the substance of my tweet. As he transitions into his new appointment as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, I expect the new Lord Williams to live up to his “Oystermouth” title by opening his mouth in public only rarely, and only when he has genuine pearls of wisdom to offer to the church or to the world.

I wish Rowan and his wife Jane all the best as they return to the city and university where I knew Jane, and where she later met her husband.

I also wish all the best to Rowan’s successor, Justin Welby, now Bishop of Durham, as he prepares to move in the spring to Canterbury Cathedral and Lambeth Palace.

The True TARDIS in Narnia and Bethlehem

I am not a great fan of Doctor Who, although I do remember watching the first ever episode. But many of my readers are fans. So this post is my Christmas gift especially to them, and to Whovians worldwide.

The TARDIS, the Doctor’s time machine which on the outside looks like a British police telephone box, is famous for being bigger on the inside than on the outside. As reported by the BBC, an American Doctor Who fan has created a model TARDIS which, he claims, is “Bigger On The Inside. No, Really.” Apparently it’s all a matter of some software trickery called “augmented reality”.

I must say I’m not very impressed. My church in England manages to look bigger on the inside than on the outside. That’s not because of clever technology, but because its entrance is a small storefront and the sanctuary (at least that’s what they would call it here in America) is hidden behind the other shops. So it is easy to create this illusion, but not so easy for it to become a reality.

But it’s an interesting idea, a structure being bigger on the inside than on the outside. Where did it come from? The Doctor Who writers didn’t take it from my church, which was built in 1971. But could they have taken it from C.S. Lewis? In his festive post Christmas in Narnia Tim Chesterton, himself a Doctor Who fan, writes:

In the last ‘Narnia’ story,The Last Battle, we see the end of the world of Narnia. At one point in the story the children find themselves in a stable. Seen from the outside it looked small and dingy, but when they go through the door they find themselves in a beautiful country that seems to stretch on forever. Someone comments that the stable is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

The Last Battle: the stable door from the insideIndeed. The precise words of C.S. Lewis, in the mouth of the Lord Digory (p.128 of my Puffin edition), are

Its inside is bigger than its outside.

So, is this where the Doctor Who writers got their idea for the TARDIS? Quite possibly. Lewis’ stable is also connected with a kind of time travel, as it brought characters from the Narnia’s ancient past (indeed Digory watched its first dawn) into its last days. And The Last Battle (1956) was a recent book when the TARDIS was first shown in 1963. It is perhaps a good thing that Lewis never got to watch Doctor Who and see how his idea had been abused, as he died the day before the first episode was shown.

But where did C.S. Lewis get this idea from? Many of his science fiction motifs are derived from others, such as the spacecraft in Out Of The Silent Planet which is closely modelled on the one in The First Men In The Moon by H.G. Wells. In the case of the TARDIS-like stable, Lewis gives us a strong hint about his source in his next words in the story, also quoted by Tim Chesterton:

“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”

As Tim explains, the whole Narnia series is filled with implicit Christian teaching. But these words of Lucy are probably the only explicit mention of anything Christian in any of the books.

A German nativity scene (click for attribution and license)So, it seems, the original TARDIS was the stable in Bethlehem – or whatever the building was where Mary laid her child in a manger. This stable couldn’t fly; in the legend of the Holy House of Loreto it was Mary’s family home which flew to Italy, carried by angels. But the stable was the birthplace of the only true Time Lord. Jesus was bigger than the whole world, and he still is as he reigns in heaven. But he allowed himself to become human, and even for a time to be limited by the body of a tiny baby.

Why did he do this? He did it so that we, his human brothers and sisters, could share with him what God intended for humanity, to rule over his creation (Genesis 1:26) and to be seated with Christ in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6).

That birth in Bethlehem was only the beginning of the story. This Christmas, don’t stop at the end of Chapter One, but read on to the end, and find how you too can follow Jesus and play an important part in God’s reality show in this world, which is far more exciting than Doctor Who!