A big call to make

It isn’t common in New Zealand today –  contrast the situation with that described in this week’s Listener, describing Billy Graham’s 1959 visit – but the editorial in today’s Dominion-Post newspaper is devoted to the deliberations of the Anglican church in New Zealand.

For years, the local Anglicans have been edging closer to a more formal recognition of same-sex relationships, perhaps even ones that some might describe (weirdly) as “in the nature of marriage”.  That seemingly inevitable drift is a big part of why I’m no longer an Anglican.

And at the regional synod in Christchurch the other day there was a non-binding advisory vote (for the information of the diocesan representatives who will be part of the General Synod decision in May) on the latest proposal.  Under that scheme, as I understand it, with the approval of the local bishop individual clergy will be free to offer proper services of blessing for same-sex relationships, including those that now bear the state-gifted label of “marriage”.  No clergy will, apparently, be forced to offer such blessings, or (presumably) subject to any indirect coercion on the matter.

It is a scheme that won’t go far enough for some.  There are plenty who would have the church move fully into line with the state, changing its doctrine of marriage –  as between one man and one woman –  and offering “weddings” for such couples.  And, at the other end of the spectrum who see such blessings as making the church complicit in sin –  no more acceptable, say, than offering blessings for the actions and choices of slanderers, thieves, adulterers. It is to sanction sin, when the whole point of the gospel is about the confronting the harsh reality of sin, the need of us all for God’s grace, and for the hard –  Spirit-assisted – long journey of growing little by little in holiness.

But the latest scheme isn’t really concerned with either of those ends of the spectrum.  It seems that everyone knows there is no consensus on these matters among New Zealand Anglicans (nor indeed among Anglicans in other Anglo countries); the scheme is more about holding the local Anglican church together than it is about truth.  It is a point that seems to have escaped the editorialist.

The local bishop declared herself surprised by the outcome: a 60/40 vote in favour of the liberalising proposal.  Another participant –  see link above –  seems less surprised, noting similar margins in a vote on a related issue some years ago.

This morning’s editorial declares that “this is about relevance”.  That had the feel of the rather desperate call of the liberal that the church must adapt to be just like society, or else no one will care (as distinct from a counter-cultural that offers something radically different  –  God’s call, God’s offer –  to the sin-raddled society around it).   But, a little surprisingly, the editorial is more balanced than that.  It notes the risk that by failing to adapt the Anglicans might lose even more parishoners –  as if the adaptation of the last few decades seems to have done anything to staunch the bleeding.  But it also notes that

“if they do change, does that also undermine the church’s relevance –  what else might change in the name of expediency?”

Indeed.  What, for example, was lost of the integrity of the church’s witness to truth –  to the unchanging God –  when many northern European Protestants bought into eugenic thinking only a few decades ago.

Having said that, it isn’t clear that the editorial writer has any real sense of just how central sex, sexual relations, and the boundaries around them, actually are to human societies and civilisations.   It is almost put in the “just another recreational activity” category –  the same “anything goes, so long as its consensual” mindset that suffuses so much of our society today.  That wasn’t how robust civilisations were built and sustained.  It was never the teaching of the Christian church.

Strangely, the editorial writer is also under the impression that “traditional churches face increasing competition from more modern counterparts, some of whom embrace more liberal views, some of whom are even more fundamental and resistant to compromise”.  It is certainly true that there are more and more denominations and independent church groups.  But you wouldn’t know from reading that quote that the more liberal churches –  the “mainline” ones, in a US context –  are in much steeper decline that those which have held a bit more firmly to traditional teaching on marriage, sex, and homosexuality.  Chesterton’s line that someone who marries the spirit of the age will soon find themselves a widow is as true as ever today.

I don’t envy the Anglicans the decisionmaking path they are on.  My sympathies are, of course, with those who would hold to the teaching: marriage is about one man and one woman, together for life, and sex outside marriage (heterosexual or otherwise) is wrong.  But if they lose –  and if things go as they have been that seems sure –  what do they do?   Do they stay yoked to the new rules –  perhaps secure in their own parishes, if those are of an evangelical disposition – or do they risk walking away?  To stay is to buy into the post-modern proposition that quite conflicting versions of truth can be sustained in a single body.    But perhaps it is a chance that, over decades, work, prayer and evangelism might win back the denomination.  To walk – even as a parish –  is hard, a rupturing of relationships and ties going back generations and so on.   And yet isn’t the path of discipleship the one in which the call comes to take up our crosses and to come follow Jesus.

Perhaps as big an issue as still before us.  How will the state come to treat those Christian churches (and actually groups of other faiths) who won’t bend the knee and subscribe to the prevalent orthodoxy around sex, homosexuality and so on.   Will congregations or denominations remain faithful, or twist and squirm and draft cleverly, when the call comes that tax-deductibility should no longer be availabe for those congregations who faithfully teach marriage as something for one man and one woman, for life?  Or when local rates exemptions are threatened.  Or when the clear proclamation of the teaching of Scripture is challenged as “hate speech” and preachers are threatened with fines or imprisonment.  We aren’t there in New Zealand yet –  rather closer, it appears, in the UK.  But resistance is perhaps harder when the threats accumulate little by little –  as with resistance in, say, Nazi Germany.  Clergy and bishops need to be preparing the ground, helping each other, and congregations prepare to pay the price of discipleship, in whatever future institutional form the church takes.

 

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