Life and faithSexuality discussions

Evangelicals and the Surprise of God

Published in the Church of England Newspaper as part of a continuing discussion  between Evangelicals in the Church of England …

 

Not all Evangelicals think alike.

The year I began ordination training I attended the Evangelical Anglican Congress at Nottingham (1977). NEAC remains one of the most exciting conferences I have ever been to. There, under the theme Obeying Christ in a Changing World, evangelicals discovered something called ‘hermeneutics’. It was not completely new actually. But it felt like it. It was exciting and felt prophetic, revisiting the task of reading and interpreting the Word in contemporary contexts and new questions. It was also unsettling. A familiar concern surfaced strongly alongside it. What is an evangelical?

Its strong convictions and uncompromising allegiances are a byword, but the evangelical tradition can become anxious, defensive and prone to divide when unsettled. The two great patriarchs of modern evangelicalism, Jim Packer and John Stott returned to this phenomenon often. Packer spoke of ’The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem’. In Evangelical Truth: a Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness John Stott summarised the essentials of the faith, for holding in ‘generosity of mind and spirit’, and listed twelve categories he considered ‘adiaphora’ – issues over which Christians may legitimately differ. The list had clearly grown over the years, as new questions surfaced. They included the sacraments, charismatic gifts, the role of women, ecumenism and eschatology.

 With the launch of the Living in Love and Faith familiar evangelical anxieties around believing and belonging are surfacing again.

One centres on the growing number of evangelicals now holding affirming views on sexuality and relationships. Traditional approaches to the texts are being questioned. This is not done lightly. Divisions are painful. Friendships are being tested. But in all this they affirm two things. They have not abandoned evangelical faith. Scripture has become more important on this journey, not less.

I wrote about them in the Pilling Report – The House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality (Appendix 4. CHP. 2013). Some shared their stories in Living in Grace and Truth – revisiting scripture and sexuality (Via Media. 2016). I explore this further in Love means Love – same-sex relationships and the bible (SPCK 2020).    

But for some this issue cannot be adiaphora. Boundaries are being re-drawn. Fences strengthened.

In 2019 EGGS (Evangelical Group on General Synod) debated adding a line to their basis of faith – that marriage can only be ‘between a man and a woman’. A significant minority resisted this. Stephen Lynas warned that ‘EGGS was in danger of becoming a single-issue group and excluding people who could, with honesty, claim to be evangelicals while taking a different view to the classic one’. Nikki Groarke said she could not support a move ‘which defined evangelicals in terms of their views on sexuality’. Alison Coulter asked why marriage was being singled out in this way? ‘What about justice for the poor?’  The motion was passed. Those unable to subscribe to the revised membership basis now meet, along with others, as the ‘Evangelical Forum’. They include Malcolm Chamberlain who says, ‘I thank God for the faith, honesty and courage of our LGBTI+ sisters, brothers and friends who, I believe, the Holy Spirit is speaking to the Church through in this generation’. *

The Fulcrum website (strapline: ‘Renewing the Evangelical Centre’) recently published a 10 point summary of Living in Love and Faith. In point 8 it asked how evangelicals were to respond to it. As this appeared to address only those who, like the writer, held ‘Traditional’ views I observed that there were a range of views among evangelicals. I was told that supporting same-sex relationships did not reflect ‘evangelical method and theology’.

But there is no one evangelical method. As if to make the point the article is sitting alongside an eight-part series called “The Regions and Tribes of Evangelical Theology” by Joshua Penduck. He observes, ‘There has always been theological experimentation amongst Evangelicals’ but a tendency ‘to split over the extent to which theological experimentation was permissible’. As a result, ‘Evangelicals were not known for their theological creativity’. He describes Evangelicalism as ‘a country of competing tribes’. (Pt 6)

For evangelical method and theology I particularly value Prof. Oliver O’Donovan’s contributions. For me he models generosity of spirit, informed questioning, non-anxious identity, trusting engagement and forward-looking faith.

He was one of the authors of the St Andrew’s Day Statement commissioned by the CEEC** in 1995 ‘to find a starting-point of common faith [for] those who differ’ and ‘to provide some definition of the theological ground upon which the issue should be addressed and fruitful discussion between those who disagree may proceed.’ It remains on their website and there is nothing there that excludes evangelicals who support same-sex relationships (1).

In the Pilling Report O’Donovan observed, “The human race has often seen homosexual behaviour before … but has not seen anything like this construction of it, with these sensibilities and aspirations. As it is raising new and complex questions about the church’s understanding and response it will require a great deal of straightforward observation before we can begin to answer any of these questions with confidence.” (paras 270-1).

Contributing to essays on marriage and relationships with other evangelical theologians, O’Donovan explored how the doctrine of the church may develop in response to new understandings each age throws up. While acknowledging that “the idea of marriage between two people of the same sex is a major conceptual innovation,” he insisted the argument “does not rest on sheer consensus. It rests on the discovery of what allows humanity to flourish, individually and socially”. Finally, “we have to be alert to the possibility of doctrine being renewed out of scripture in a way that takes the church by surprise. ” (2)

 

On LLF he is appreciative and welcoming. ‘It deserves to succeed” (3).

 

Obedience to the Supreme Authority of Scripture is central to Evangelicals. But this does not prevent much diversity of belief about what ‘the Bible says’.  And there is a way of asserting authority that has the effect of suppressing the questions faithful interpretation requires. Down through history the Church, with Bibles open, has resisted, struggled with and then critically integrated the emerging insights of cosmology, evolution, biology, social sciences, medical research and much else. This has always required reconsideration of what kind of revelation the Bible actually is, the nature of its authority and how it speaks into the fresh challenges and experiences each generation encounters.

This is our context once again.

In ‘Beyond the Bible – moving from scripture to theology’, the evangelical theologian I Howard Marshall argued that obedient faith always requires the willingness to go beyond the Bible text. He admits there are risks involved. But he is clear which risk is the greater. It is that of being misled by only reading the Bible in a first century time warp (and earlier) and refusing to go beyond the letter of Scripture. ‘We must be aware of the danger of failing to understand what God is saying to his people today and muzzling his voice. Scripture itself constrains us to the task of on-going theological development’ (2004:78).

The church is (belatedly) recognising in its midst, a significant, increasingly visible community of people. They are disciples of Christ, living in obedience to word and spirit, faithful witnesses and gifts to those they live amongst. They seek only to live in committed sacrificial love to the one they believe to be God’s gift to them.Despite this they struggle to find their particular stories of pilgrimage, faith and love told anywhere in the Bible. They are told they are absent from the texts. They certainly don’t recognise themselves in the ways the church has long spoken of them. 

Let the ‘competing tribes’ become the family of traditions we actually are. Together, with the wider church, let us seek the biblical gospel hermeneutic that enables us to faithfully bridge the painful, misleading mismatch between received interpretations of certain bible texts and the contemporary testimony of faithful Christian believers who also find hope and promise under the LGBTQ+ rainbow. 

If we, in the evangelical tradition, are to embrace these challenges and receive the gifts and newness they bring, we must be willing to be taken by surprise.

  1. http://www.ceec.info/st-andrews-day-statement.html
  2. Marriage, Family and Relationships. Apollos 2017. pp 192&198.
  3. https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2020/11/10/mapping-the-terrain-for-engagement-on-human-sexuality/

 

* The Evangelical Forum is a recently formed General Synod Fringe Group, offering a new way of meeting together for evangelical members of Synod.  Our vision is to provide a hospitable, safe space for conversation, reflection and fellowship, where conscious of our oneness in Christ and his command to love each other, we undertake to listen in love, speak with kindness and understand with open hearts. We warmly recommend the publication of Living in Love and Faith and urge evangelical churches of all views to engage positively with this material.  

** Church of England Evangelical Council