Reflections as the Lights Go Out
"O God, the nations have come into Your inheritance; they have defiled Your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the bodies of Your servants to the birds of the heavens for food, the flesh of Your faithful to the beasts of the earth. They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem and there was no one to bury them. We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those around us. How long, O Lord? Will You be angry with us forever?"
Asaph's agonising cry in Psalm 79 certainly puts whatever challenges the godly feel in 2013 into some kind of perspective! Yet we can feel that disaster in the Old Testament was part of a different dispensation to ours. We are children of the New Covenant with the authority of the victorious Lord Christ, to proclaim the Good News, and apply its transforming power to actual living. Why then, after centuries of Christian witness, is our current situation so depressing? It is as if the lights are going out.
I write as someone approaching the end of his life, having had almost fifty years in ordained ministry. It's natural for me to look back and reflect, realising that those, bearing the active burden for today's ministry, will be wanting to look forward with hope. My desire is to try and give encouragement, and some perspective, to those who feel something of Asaph's distress.
To say that our current situation in Britain is serious needs no explanation. We have seen the complete reversal of the traditional understanding of marriage in the passing of the Same-Sex Marriage legislation. No doubt we have all shared with Christian organisations who have opposed this change, only to see that petitions, representations, and speeches in both Houses of Parliament, have had no effect. As Archbishop Justin has said, it was painful to experience the sheer overwhelming force against the biblical and Christian position.
We are all adjusting to Justin Welby's leadership within Anglicanism with, I am sure, a genuine goodwill towards him, that he will have the nerve to stand for what is true whilst seeking gracefully to address all in our society and in the Anglican Communion. His is not an easy task and he needs our sympathetic prayers. His recent speech in Mexico was designed to reach all whose spiritual heritage is Anglicanism. He may have chosen that venue, at least partly, because he was away from the British press. The picture, of being on a mountain ridge with precipices on both sides, was dramatic. Actually, thinking about it, he was only re-stating Jesus' words about the narrow way. We have to acknowledge that the descent to heresy is not the only threat to the Christian Church. The descent into factionalism and defensive fatalism is an equal threat, and we do need to learn the lessons from past failures in Church History. More of this later.
One of my earliest memories is of being on New Brighton beach around 1943. I would have been barely four and was being led by my older sister. We were playing the age-old game of building a castle and defences against the incoming tide. We were the only ones on the beach but people were watching from the promenade. Of course our efforts were entirely useless. Not only did the oncoming waves invade our fortress, the water was actually coming beneath the surface to undermine it.
I think of this as I reflect on actions I have taken over the years for perceived godly strongholds. In the mid 1970s I was invited to join the Lord's Day Observance Society Council. Its General Secretary was the indomitable Harold Legerton, and its offices were on Fleet Street, directly opposite the Daily Express building. The focal point of LDOS activity was to resist political pressure for the repeal of legislation on Sunday trading and sporting activity. I can clearly remember thinking that, worthy as this was, the tide was against it. Today that light is almost well and truly out. But my thoughts ran something like this. We are defending a Christian Sabbath in national life because, at a particular time in our history, the strength of Christian life was such that that principle was acceptable. But Christians have not always lived in such favourable times. They didn't in the New Testament, and they certainly don't in cultures today where the Christian faith is in a minority. So, even in 1975, I was thinking that we needed to prepare for being in an unsympathetic society.
I was also drawn to the newly formed Festival Of Light led by people like Eddie Stride, Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge, and even Cliff Richard. Raymond Johnston became the Director of the organisation that followed from it, and I had the privilege of his friendship. The presenting issue at the time was the growing depiction of sexual images and themes, in films and on television. The BBC was subject to particular criticism, being the national public broadcasting organisation, and responsible for pushing the boundaries of taste.
Raymond was an academic, formerly lecturing in the education department at Newcastle University. He was also devoted to Reformed theology of the sixteenth century, especially as reflected in the Prayer Book and 39 Articles. He therefore had a keen mind in assessing the changes taking place in British society with a concern for what they would do to young children. He spoke about what he called 'cues', meaning the implicit values that children pick up from society around them. He could see the eroding of biblical value systems and what that would result in. He published a booklet as Director of C.A.R.E. entitled 'Christianity In A Collapsing Culture'. It was not widely understood or accepted at the time but how prophetic it has proved to be! We certainly know now what little effect the Festival Of Light had on the standards of our public life. The culture that Raymond valued, as our historic inheritance, was certainly approaching collapse. Christian parents today know only too well the difficulties of helping their teenage children to thrive within our youth culture. Truly some major lights have been put out!
I believe we have all been influenced by the way life has been sexualised over the last hundred years. My devout grandparents had nine children, and they were typical late Victorians. None of us would contemplate such a family today. Contraception has transformed life, both within and without, the family. When Freud began counselling disturbed people, leading to the creation of psychoanalysis, his conclusion was that sexual frustration was a fundamental cause of mental problems. Put these two factors together and we can see just what the twentieth century produced. First, the view that romance, expressed in sexual pleasure, is at the heart of fulfilment and satisfaction. Second, that the conception of children can safely be avoided.
As Christians we would want to put this revolution within a traditional context. We may not want to express the gift of marriage as negatively as the original Prayer Book, but we would certainly want to say that it is given in order that the natural instincts and affections implanted by God should be hallowed and directed aright. In other words, sex should not be perceived negatively and with shame, but received joyfully within the total spectrum of the gift of marriage. But we have to confess that the holding of this positivity in a proper balance does not come easily. With the use of contraception the seeking for intimacy and ecstasy can far outweigh any other consideration, and we need to recognise the need for a true balance.
But this apart, the fact is that our culture now sees sexual activity as a necessary part of life for all people, in all situations, and that it is primarily a gift for pleasure. This came home to me some years ago when the Medical Officer for Health in North Cumbria promoted a booklet, produced by college students, that set out a variety of ways that young people could experience sexual pleasure without engaging in sexual intercourse. The booklet was sponsored by Durex and had a condom inside the front cover. When I queried with my deanery colleagues as to whether we could support such a document the MOH reported me to the Diocesan Bishop, defending his reasoning. We have to be realistic and recognise that these values lie behind the LBGC movement, and ultimately behind what same-sex married love is all about. As Christians, we have completely lost our toe-hold in our culture. The majority just do not want to hear what we say. A light has truly gone out.
This is serious enough, but it is not at the root of our national troubles. It is but a symptom. As a student in 1960 I was aware of two presenting issues. The first was as to how the Bible should be received. Textual criticism was all the rage with what has been called 'the scissors and paste approach', along with German liberalism that sought to find the heart of Christianity beyond the text. All this led to many losing confidence in the text of scripture, even having no supernatural Gospel at all. It came to a head with the 'God Is Dead' school and the denying of the resurrection as essential to Christian faith. Today we are all children of this scepticism and many are children of Post-Modernism, with all that that has brought. Britain today does not readily believe in divine revelation, from God, through Christ, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures! Nor does it want to.
The second presenting issue came from the secular world. We know the twentieth century saw a growing acceptance of a philosophy based on human enlightenment with a rejection of a world-view where the divine Creator is sovereign. It raised the question as to why Christians should determine the standards for society. It posed the view that people could be equally good without a Christian education, and indeed that human nature was inherently good and not corrupted. All kinds of utopian views followed, very often contradicted by the actual life stories of those who put them forward. Christians today need to know that non-believers don't want to be told what is right, and where their lives are wrong. We live in a culture of practical atheists. Is it any wonder the lights have gone out?
If you are with me so far are you beginning to feel at one with Asaph? If God is God, and if He is covenanted to His saved people on earth, why has He allowed such a massive cultural rejection of His truth? How are we meant to understand our times and live with confident grace towards our western society? Let's begin by recognising that we are not the first generation of the godly to face such a situation. In Isaiah 46 the prophet contrasts the idols of Babylon with the Lord, and addresses the broken exiles. Read verses 8-12 and see, not only God's affirmation of His glory, but also His rebuke to His dispirited people. The only answer is God. We have the record of all He has done from Creation. We have the history of the Christian Church, both in prosperity and in acute suffering. Will the idols of our day, be they human freedom from God or sexual licence, stand? Of course they won't. As the hymn rightly says:-
Days of darkness still come o'er me, sorrows path I often tread:
but the Saviour still is with me, by His hand I'm safely led.
So the major challenge is to unchanging faith in the unchangeable God. For every look around at life, we should look up even more to the Lord of glory. But then we need to look at ourselves. Archbishop Justin makes much of what he has learned from the example of Benedict. Recently my wife and I read more of Cuthbert and the Celtic movement in Northumbria as the Vikings forced them to leave their base in Lindisfarne. Although the details of these early Christian leaders are so different from our own, what stands out is their self-discipline in prayer and study, and in the godliness of their lives.
It seems to me that in times of paganism believers have got to ensure that they are enriched, with all that the Lord has given to them, and then to live out before the watching world a quality of life that it can only envy. This quality of life is to be seen in the kindness and unselfishness that paganism can never experience. And, as this devotion to discipleship is expressed, then we must take whatever opportunities needy unbelievers give to us. What our society proclaims today will never meet the needs of the human spirit. We need to be active and alive for such a time as a dark world cries out for true light.
I close by raising with you an area of Christian life that has caused me a lot of confusion and concern throughout my years of ministry. It is the whole area of Christian unity, and the understanding of denominations, and indeed, of the visible church. We know that all believers are 'all one in Christ Jesus' to quote Paul and the Keswick Convention! We know that there will be only one Bride of Christ when the gospel work is complete on earth. But how should the Christian church be seen on earth, especially when it's living amidst great antagonism? I confess I have reviewed my early attitudes when I thought that separation from mainline denominations was the only way forward. How do I view my membership of the Anglican Church, especially in its current diversity?
The starting point has to be with the prayer of Jesus in John 17. It is a prayer, for all who believe throughout the Gospel age, that they may be one, 'as we are one'. This unity is seen before the watching unbelieving world with practical consequences. 'That the world may believe that You have sent me', and 'May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You have sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me'. How do we understand this unity? Well clearly it is a product of having a vital union with Jesus through saving faith. Nothing less than a Spirit indwelt experience can give it to us. Yet it is clearly meant to be a unity that is seen in the world and which speaks to the world. For this to be so believers need a framework, whereby they can love and work together, demonstrating the transforming power of the Gospel within them. In Acts it led to the Council of Jerusalem where the thorny divisive issue of circumcision was solved. The Gentile churches expressed their unity with the Jerusalem church by giving of their money to support the famine affected believers. It would seem the Apostles, and the first Christians like James, the Lord's brother, were the glue that held the infant church together. We must surely believe that they were answers to Jesus' High Priestly prayer: that they were all one, despite being scattered churches throughout the empire.
The post-apostolic church had to further develop this theme of seen unity, and it was severely tested when deviants appeared. Through the great Councils of the Early Church the boundaries of Christian truth were defined, allowing churches to go on and practise their faith accordingly. Unity was not created by particular orders of ministry, but by truth. As a result believers, in a variety of cultures, developed according to where they were. It was the same faith but expressed within their culture. So Catholicity is not uniformity to some set way of doing things, but is an embracing of 'the faith once delivered to all the saints', as Jude put it, expressed through the Creeds and Councils of the first centuries. It is also the dividing line between those who are the church, and those who are excluded.
How did this principle operate in the sixteenth century? Clearly the first Reformers had no heart to separate from the then visible church under the Bishop of Rome. In their re-discovery of the Gospel truth their first desire was to bring reform and renewal to what claimed to be the church. The creation of Reformed churches in Germany, Switzerland, Britain and Scotland came out of Rome's determination to deny and crush this true revival of God's truth. And in those early days there were warm bonds of fellowship between the different Reformed churches, whether Lutheran, Zwinglian, Presbyterian or Anglican. The design of the Church of England was clearly done within the cultural and political realities of the day. Calvin knew and respected Cranmer, and encouraged the form that reformation took in our country. It was catholicity, rightly understood, that bound the churches together.
Sadly the story of the succeeding generations is one of Protestant divisions. I don't need to go into details. We all know how different movements sought to fashion themselves as 'the perfect church' over against other churches. One of the saddest consequences of this is how the great missionary movement of the 18th and 19th centuries exported to countries, where no Christianity existed, the various versions of catholicity which each denomination believed to be the right one. The vision of one visible expression of Christianity, making its witness before a needy and lost world, was disfigured by denominational conflict and triumphalism.
I have given a lot of thought in recent years as to reasons why the Reformation has led to this legacy. There is a common desire for a perfect church. But such an entity has never existed from the very beginning. In every generation the visible church needs to be reformed and renewed, and its appointed teachers have the duty to faithfully preach and expound, by the Spirit, so that the membership is fed and made effective.
There is also the constant danger of majoring on one area of Christian truth to the exclusion of others, thus making division on this basis. The partings over Infant Baptism or spiritual gifts are a sad distortion of what the church is meant to be. We can all think of Evangelical bodies whose raison d'etre is that they believe they have got the whole truth over everyone else.
Christian exclusiveness can have many causes. It can be defensive, feeling that belonging to an intimate authoritarian group can give security. It can be a fruit of individualism, wanting a church that suits me, rather one that challenges my comfort zones. Or it can be a power thing. When we have significance, belonging to a closely defined smaller movement, it can give a sense of freedom and influence. Belonging to a national church can have the opposite effect!
I want to say, “A plague on all those attitudes that lead to separation from those who hold to the boundaries of Christian truth, as established in the first centuries,” for they cannot but disfigure the witness to the very Lord they serve. I can now answer the question I posed at the start of this discussion: how do I view my membership of the Anglican Church? I see the Church of England as an expression of Christianity for the whole nation, based on the universal truths defined by the Early Church.
This doesn't mean that I think it is perfect! It never has been and I would agree with those who say that it was expected that further reform would follow after the Elizabethan Settlement. In fact the reverse happened. Nor does it mean that I am complacent about the issues under debate today. I agree with the assessment of the Gafcon partners concerning the stance taken by the American Episcopal Church. It would be a serious crisis for me if the forthcoming Pilling Report recommended that homosexual partnerships were natural and God-given, and that it subsequently became Church of England policy. I do have the fear that a time might come when a new alignment of the biblically orthodox, over against a church that has deviated from revealed truth, is needed. My hope and prayer is that it will never come to this but the danger exists.
As an aside, what is behind the current willingness of church leaders to take egalitarian views on the sexes and positive views on the LBGT agenda? Leaving aside the thought that it is just weakness in the face of powerful cultural pressures, there is a clear intellectual argument. It runs like this. The Old Testament reflects the primitive attitudes of its time and was replaced by the coming of Jesus. But Jesus Himself was subject to the values of His day and didn't know all the truth. So, we today, are in a new period of revelation. It hasn't come through a powerful Christian witness, but through human research and enlightenment. So all we have received, through Christ and the Apostles, has to be interpreted by what we now know to be true. It is as if God has revealed a further covenant, through such luminaries as Voltaire, Darwin, the Huxley brothers, and all who have followed in their train.
There isn't space to answer this argument fully. I'm not arguing for obscurantism. There has to be assessment of our interpretation of Scripture as new human discoveries are made. But all truth is God's truth, and everything has to be brought to His feet. In the area of sexuality God has spoken, showing His plan for creation. To deny what He has said, on the authority of human wisdom, is a serious matter. A church, seeking to be faithful to its Lord, has to be willing to face unpopularity and even persecution. It's not a martyr complex but a simple refusal not to obey man but to obey God.
As I said at the outset, all this has been written knowing, that my opportunities for Christian leadership, are all but at an end. By the grace of God I have been able to be a church leader and a preacher for almost 50 years. I've shared some reflections as the Church of England that I love faces the most serious challenges of my life-time. As one brought up to rejoice in the Gospel faith, as revealed in the Bible, I sense the feeling of weakness and pain that these challenges bring.
I close with a picture again from my childhood. My father loved to take us out on to the desolate moorlands between Oldham and the West Riding. We would go in our old Morris 10 to a spot high in the hills, overlooking deep valleys and reservoirs. He had made a family kite with appropriate sticks making the frame, wrapped in strong brown parcel paper, and with a tail weighed down with strips of rag. The kite was attached to some strong cord, which in turn was wound on a bobbin from one of the local spinning mills. Quite how long the cord was I can't say, but when the kite was launched it was flown for what seemed like miles across the wild terrain. There was a great sense of power when he allowed me to hold the bobbin. It was exciting to move the kite from side to side, and even to pull it against the wind to lift it higher in the sky. In those days of post-war austerity this simple pleasure meant so much.
But the feeling of power in flying the kite was in fact an illusion. The power didn't belong to us but to the wind! Without the wind we could do nothing. So it is for the followers of Jesus in the world today. It is natural for His followers to feel weak. Paul, describing his own experience, said 'Who is weak, and I am not weak?' (2 Corinthians 11:29). We all long to be in a position of power to bring about the triumph of our Christian faith over against its gainsayers. We need to be wary of the hunger for power. The word to Zechariah, at another period when the godly felt themselves to be in a weak position, is apposite for us. 'Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.' (Zechariah 4:6)
As we grieve to see the lights of past Christian witness being put out, and feel the pain of our own weakness and seeming helplessness in the face of such a tide of secularism, we need to be assured the Lord has not left us. His Spirit is with us. We need to renounce worldly ways of confronting what we see to be wrong, whether by politicking or by retreating into sectarian huddles. Let us take God at His word, be disciplined in walking with Him, and believe His Spirit will yet work through the faithfulness of His people, in their worship, their graciousness of living, and in all the opportunities He gives to us to bear our testimony.