It’s been one of those days

FNT compassionIt was one of those days when I all I could find to take down details of a voice mail message was a paper plate.

I suppose today started at 10.30 last night. I got an email. The Times had the story: Steve Chalke supported active monogamous gay relationships, you can read all about it in Christianity Magazine. I knew a day destined to be busy because of the European Court of Human Rights judgement on four religious freedom cases was about to get a whole lot more hectic.

And through the day one thing turned over and over in my head. If we’re to call for civility in society and civility in dealing with situations where Christian beliefs rub up against differing prevailing views in society, then we need to model civility

Civility doesn’t ignore difference, but it seeks a way for us to live together despite our differences.

I work for the Evangelical Alliance (I might as well be honest about my affiliation) and that put us at the centre of today’s storms. When the role of faith in public life is under question, and potential legal coercion, it is a subject of interest – we want to articulate in a calm and reasonable manner what the upshot of these cases is, and also what it might not be. And when a figure with huge profile in the evangelical world makes statements such as Steve Chalke’s today, then it is something requiring a response.

But how to respond? How to speak honestly and thoughtfully on an issue such as homosexuality which carries with it such depth of personal experience and highly charged emotions. This answer is patently not to ignore it and hope it will go away. The answer is to search once again for that balance that lies at the heart of the Christian life: truth and grace.

It sounds trite, it sounds simple, it also sounds like a way to take a swipe at someone while parading Christian credentials. But I cannot think of two things that are needed more, in either of these discussions. But it is still how we should try and respond. In neither case would everyone be pleased, in neither case would everyone think the content or the tone was correct.

Disagreement might not always be nice. And in fact it rarely is. But conflict is also part of life and we cannot ignore it. I’m not going to set out the theological issues in play here, because I am both ill equipped and I think Steve Holmes has provided a strong but careful critique of Steve Chalke’s position. What I am going to float is that having a view about what is or is not the best way for a Christian to live does not stop Christianity, or any particular church from being inclusive.

Because if you take the opposite argument to a logical conclusion it makes it hard if not impossible to promote any values within the life of the church. This is not what Steve Chalke was saying, but the critique of the church for holding a certain view of homosexuality does not hold water if to change it is solely in pursuit of inclusion. The church believes in discipleship towards the likeness of Christ, and that means there are things we should do and others we should not. And it promotes a way of life in accordance to those goals. What this is definitively not is a threshold of moral achievement that allows us to call ourselves Christian or a ticket into heaven.

Instead it is building a community where we live in full acknowledgement of our frequent ability to get things wrong, but also set our sights on something else.

How the church can be more welcoming, more inclusive, is a challenge that cannot be ignored, and it is vital if we are ever going to get close to civility. But it cannot mean that the church just changes its teaching so not to risk alienating those who disagree. It is also where the difficult task of speaking truthfully comes in, being prepared to speak when we disagree, and most of all not forsaking our relationships with one another for the sake of being right.

That’s a tough gig. But it’s one the church has to rise to.

Why I didn’t blog this morning

I was fuming. I read the words and they just got worse. My temper rose and my brain started to whir.

I was plotting what I would write, the words that would critique the post that had got me riled. I was imagining my acerbic wit weaving its way across the page. How I would make my point in such destructively understated prose. I plotted the layers I would sequence to use words to make one point directly and another more subtly in line with others across the arc of my writing.

I was angry. Someone had said something I didn’t feel should be left unquestioned. But my motives were less pure. My mental scheming stopped dead with a tweet that pulled me from my fanciful flight of blogging heroism.

I was not being civil. I was ready for war. Funny things these internal squabbles, inside the body of Christ when we tear each other limb from limb to make our point. Civil wars are anything but civil. I’ve done it before and it left me cold. My stats may have gone through the roof for a day or so. I may have won plaudits for the way in which I took down someone who said something I disagreed with, and moreover slighted many others not including myself.

I was right. I was sure I was right then, and I was sure I was last night. When Mark Driscoll made comments about British preachers I thought I would come to their defence. And last night I thought I’d come to the defence of another maligned group damned with the faintest of praise from one of my more conservative brethren. I tweeted my horror, just moments before Preston Yancey tweeted his call for civility. It could have been straight to me. I do not know whether it was about the same fracas but the words struck home.

Being right wasn’t what mattered.

I paused. I reflected on the days that followed my post about Mark Driscoll. I thought about the debates that ensued in the comments, on facebook and twitter. I remember hovering several times over the delete button in the back end of the blog. For all that I liked what I had written I did not like the way it was being received or how it reflected on me. I was ready for the whole piece to be consigned to the dustbin of internecine blogging. And I reflected again on the amount of search referrals I’ve had this week after blogging about Vaughan Roberts and his interview about same sex attraction.

I am not responsible for what people search to find what I write, but I am responsible for what they find and read. For quite a while my response to Mark Driscoll was my most read post (now superseded by Jennie Pollock’s guest post). If I had written in anger this morning, if I had offered a redoubtable defence of my case, I may have received acclamations for bravely saying something others were thinking. I may have got a boost to my statistics after a quiet summer. But I would be offering a tone of debate and discussion I could not defend.

I would be writing for the attention it would receive. I would not be building bridges or helping unite a frequently factious church. What I would write would be for my benefit and not anyone else’s.

People who know me will know what I would have said. And those who don’t but read these words, well I’m afraid I’m leaving it there. I’m determined not to become a landing page for those looking to pick fights between sections of the church. I’m not going to slag off this individual, and I shall do my best not do so to any other. I’ll engage in debate and discussion, I’ll write about what I agree with and disagree with. I think difference is healthy and the church should foster a culture where we can speak of our difference in a civil manner and not hurl threats of excommunication if you don’t tow the party line.

But body blows are too far. Personal attacks are not needed. I want people to read what I write, but not at the expense of pulling someone else down. Scoring cheap points is a pastime I can live without. I guess this is a mantra. Or a positive revolution as suggested elsewhere. Let’s be civil. Let’s make civility fashionable.

And let’s make each other pie as frequently as possible.

Carey, culture wars and the quest for civility

Christians are vilified in the UK, they are subject to hounding and persecution. They are targeted by aggressive campaigners. At least this is how former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey sees things.

There’s just a small problem with this, in fact, three. Firstly it’s simply not true, Christians in the UK are not persecuted. They do not risk their lives to worship, they are not imprisoned for converting and they are not banning from preaching. And to suggest as much leads to the second problem: it minimises and trivialises the very real suffering that Christians in places such as Iran, Nigeria and North Korea experience.

Those two should be reason enough to ward Christians off from using such intemperate language. But there is a bigger and harder to define problem, talking and writing in this way ostracises Christians from the world around them. It erects barriers and it defines the relationship between church and society as one based on conflict rather than reconciliation. It fosters an ‘us versus them’ mentality, rather than attempting to build one more akin to the ‘I-thou’ spoke of by Martin Buber.

It is planting the seeds and nurturing the saplings of a culture war. And it’s not like we don’t know where this leads. It leads to law suits and protests, and ad campaigns and vitriolic journalistic exposes. Maybe we’re a lot closer to this than we thought.

The adverts planned and then banned from Christian organisations mimicking and opposing those plastered on buses across London by gay rights group Stonewall are the latest volley in this escalating environment. I doubt it was planned this way, but if they expected them to be vetoed then the whole thing is straight out of the culture war play book: do something, it gets banned, then sue for the right to do it.

I think the actions of some Christians do the credibility of Christian public witness a great deal of harm. Sometimes the retort is that Christians should be expected to be ridiculed and marginalised, and that we are called to not be ashamed of the gospel. And we will and we are. I’m just not sure that it’s always the gospel that is being paraded so publicly and unashamedly, and for which we are being ridiculed.

There will always be an element of friction between the Church and its surrounding culture. I believe that there are aspects of the world around us about which Church is to have a role in standing for truth and righteousness: a signal to how things should be and how they one day will be. And sometimes this means that the church will have controversial things to say. Sometimes these things will be completely contrary to the dominant view in society.

I don’t think it’s easy to speculate as to what Jesus might have plastered on the side of a fishing boat as it crossed the Sea of Galilee. I don’t think he’d have ran the ads proposed this week, but nor do I think he’d have run ads calling on people to feed the hungry. The thing about Jesus was that he was a man of action, he fed the hungry, he healed the sick; people followed him because his words and actions came together. He engaged them in conversation and eschewed megaphone politics.

There are two outcomes to the bus ad farce, for many people it has perpetuated the idea that Christians don’t like gay people (which should not be true). And for some Christians it has reinforced their notion that they are being discriminated against (which in the UK is rarely true). Stuff like this just doesn’t work, it exacerbates the problem.

The words and actions of Christians complaining of persecution are not representative of the church in the UK, but they are powerful. They feed into a mindset that recognises martyrdom as an affirmation of authentic belief, so when Christians are being oppressed it is a sign that we are doing something right. This means that for those purporting to stand up for Christians there is a groove already set of what this looks like in practise. And unfortunately dog whistle campaigning works.

Because while I feel better placed to critique the actions of Christians they are far from the only ones culpable of inculcating this culture war. For Christians who hold to a orthodox Christian understanding of sexuality, where sexual relationships should only take place within the context of marriage between a man and a woman, it is easy to view much of the world around them as hostile to their beliefs. While I do not consider such sexual ethics as central to the gospel, it is a part of my belief system. And I chose to live, or at least I try to live, in a way that honours God and this means that I and other Christians act in a way that is sometimes at odds with the world around them. It is becoming increasingly difficult to publicly defend and promote such views without being branded as intolerant and homophobic. So while Christians are not persecuted, there is a pressure placed on them to conform to views other than those rooted in their faith.

I do not seek to, in many cases I cannot, justify the way in which Christians have sometimes promoted and defended their views on sexuality. But I think it is vital in order to develop a society that is civil and tolerant of difference that Christians are able to say things that are unpopular.

Now whether they should do so, and certainly how they do so, is a different matter, I don’t think the kingdom of god is advanced by the proposed bus adverts. I think God sent his son to earth to bring reconciliation, the crowds wanted him at the head of a revolution, but he let himself be taken and killed for the rebellion of the rest of us. He died so the curtain could be torn, we shouldn’t be trying to brick up the hole sheered by his death.

The church needs to lead the way in finding a better way to cope with our differences. I believe there is a way and I believe in Jesus we have both the way to reconciliation and the model for that reconciliation.