The following article was originally published on Anglican Mainstream, written by Andrew Symes, on January 2, 2018.
Just before Christmas, on the shortest day of the year, a senior and well respected clergyman, vicar of a central London church, gave a powerful ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4. So many elements of the Christmas story, he told us, are about poverty and exclusion. No welcome, no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph – who then became refugees. The shepherds were those on minimum wage, perhaps the first century equivalent of zero hours contracts; the Magi from the East may have experienced racism and suspicion as they travelled in Judaea. Reflecting on the Christmas story should make us more compassionate towards the ‘other’ and work for a more just society; we should not sanitise the nativity, for example by focusing on scenes which “idolise the nuclear family”.
Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, in a talk to supporters of Christian Concern which became an article published in Church of England Newspaper on the same day, 21st December, came to a very different conclusion. The traditional family pattern has not been unfairly promoted at the expense of other domestic arrangements. Rather, “The family has been under sustained attack in this country for the last 50 years. The family is the basis of a stable society”, said the Bishop, going on to highlight the dangers to children of changes in marriage and divorce laws, and in the promotion of radical gender ideology in schools.
Is the London clergyman, Sam Wells, simply giving one aspect of the Christian message, and the former Bishop of Rochester another? Certainly, Christians should constantly be open to challenge from God’s word about how we are caring for the poor and outcast personally and as churches. We should be concerned about the desperate, urgent and tragic plight of refugees, asking whether the government is being held to account on its policies, and acting in generosity. While not exactly original, it’s good that this is related to the Christmas story in the public area. But why did Revd Dr Wells think it necessary to have a dig at those who think the nuclear family is important?
Bishop Michael goes on to talk about other important issues of concern, such as abortion and the sanctity of life, and calls on Christians to assert their right to continue to express their beliefs publicly on these and other issues. This might be seen as a ‘conservative’ position, much as Wells’ is ‘progressive’. But unlike Wells, who saw an opportunity to attack conservatives, Bishop Michael did not attack those who are concerned about homelessness and refugees, because for him, care for the poor and care for the family are both important aspects of Christian teaching.
However, one is currently more fashionable than the other. Talking publicly about social justice will win applause (and rightly so), but sharing ‘traditional’ views on marriage, family and sexuality, even privately on social media, can be unpopular and even cause people to lose their jobs.
Wells’s sideswipe at Christians concerned about the rapid changes to family life was unfair and completely unnecessary. Perhaps he felt that he could ingratiate himself with a section of the metropolitan elite, both inside and outside the church? In doing so he, and those in the church leadership who say similar things, will only continue to alienate many ordinary people, who want the church to be Christian and to speak up for marriage and family, even if they are struggling in that area, and they don’t attend church themselves.
It needs to be pointed out, of course, that Wells, as a senior clergyman destined for higher office within the Church, is not alone in his views. In November the C of E leadership enthusiastically endorsed ‘Valuing All God’s Children’, a guidance document for Church of England schools, which appears to suggest that anything other than the full acceptance and promotion of LGBT and particularly transgender ideology can amount to ‘transphobic bullying’. In the same month the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a speech in Moscow that instead of promoting a biblical vision of marriage and family, the church should simply accept the reality that there are different views and different types of relationships. One commentator calls the ABC’s views “deeply concerning”.
How should biblically orthodox Anglicans respond to the secularisation of society and, increasingly, its influence on the Church institutions? In his article in CEN, Bishop Michael goes on to suggest: “We should strengthen our churches and enable believers to be faithful. But the Bible also calls us to witness for the good of society. We cannot abandon this call and withdraw into a holy huddle.”
The holy huddle is not necessarily just the church which worships behind closed doors and makes no impact in the community. It may be looking to project a friendly face to society but keeps its doctrinal and ethical views and practices to itself, afraid to witness to the lordship of Christ outside the church, believing that the lives and behaviour of those outside are none of its business.
As we face the New Year, we need to develop plans for how we can move forward in publicly and counter-culturally witnessing to Christ, with the aim of producing not just church growth, but transformation in society. Here are some suggestions on how we can encourage each other to be more faithful and outward looking:
- develop Spirit-empowered disciples with a Word-based worldview through preaching and teaching, so we can assess issues and act biblically, rather than tribally (ie basing our opinions on political or church group affiliation)
- pray more comprehensively and with more insight; to pray about individuals and issues; to identify the spiritual powers and false philosophies behind the problems we are asking God to solve
- help Christians already involved in the community through family life, work or volunteering (most of us) how to reflect biblically and theologically on what we’re doing, to consciously bring Christ into our speech and actions
- celebrate and support the courage and good efforts of others in their work and witness, especially those who stand against the flow of secular culture in Christ’s name.