A Tight Balancing Act
There’s a very interesting dialogue (I use the term “dialogue” in its loosest form) going on at the moment between Fulcrum and Stand Firm on the subject of the Evangelical Church’s expression of its doctrine of marriage in the wider society. In particular, Matt K at Stand Firm took exception to a portion of a talk given by Stephen Kuhrt at the recent CEEC meeting. Matt described the third main section of Kuhrt’s thesis as:
Weak, passionless, powerless, passive, compromising, institutionalist, impotent…if his underlying reasoning is widely accepted, [it] is a death knell for evangelicalism.
Ouch. Kennedy’s complaint is with these two paragraphs in Stephen Kuhrt’s talk (emphasis added):
Now I want to be clearly understood here. I take a conservative or orthodox stance on practicing homosexuality â€“ a compassionate and pastoral one, I hope, but nonetheless a conservative stance. But the truth that we also need to recognise that many Christians, including many evangelicals, are increasingly perplexed about this stance and wonâ€™t be persuaded by anything other than a careful, nuanced and loving engagement with the issue, its complexities and the human beings that it involves. This, I believe, is one of the clearest things that Greenbelt indicates. The Rev George Day, whom some of you may remember speaking from the floor at NEAC 2008, is another example of an evangelical thoughtfully and prayerfully questioning that traditional stance and we simply must listen to these voices. And by establishing opposition to homosexuality (despite its strange alliance with Forward in Faith) as the defining issue of orthodoxy, FCA is provoking a polarisation that is in danger of doing more to strengthen the revisionist view within the Church of England. As a result of the formation of FCA, groupings on the liberal side of this debate that previously held more varied views from one another are now moving to greater coalition and that careful and nuanced dialogue and engagement that is so crucial to this issue ever being resolved is in danger of disappearing altogether.
Now that perspective that Iâ€™ve just given could be seen as too focused upon the Church of England. Some would argue that we owe it our brothers and sisters in Africa and those being persecuted in America and Canada to show that we stand with them in their stance on homosexual relationships. But, as many suggested at NEAC 2008, that can still be done by bodies like the CEEC expressing our firm support for them. Forming FCAUK is of course another way of expressing that support. But in terms of this country, I donâ€™t believe that the formation of this coalition will do anything other than work to make those who are unsure about the traditional stance on homosexuality less likely to engage with it.
Jon Kuhrt has leapt to Stephen’s defence on the Fulcrum website, but if I’m brutally honest I don’t think he has addressed the real issues behind the reaction of Matt K and others to Stephen’s original talk. If I may, I want to take the key sentences from that CEEC address and see where the issue might be (or indeed, really is). There are two points of this section that I am in disagreement with and one with which I am in profound agreement. As I respond I also want to say that I know Stephen, that I trained with him at Wycliffe and have great respect for him, his ministry and his position in this regard.
1. Loving Engagament
But the truth that we also need to recognise that many Christians, including many evangelicals, are increasingly perplexed about this stance and wonâ€™t be persuaded by anything other than a careful, nuanced and loving engagement with the issue, its complexities and the human beings that it involves.
OK, now I know where Stephen is coming from on this. Quite rightly he says that many people observing and engaged in this debate want it to be a debate that goes beyond “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” superficialities. At the same time however I think we want to deal seriously with the idea of theological authority that is implicit in the presentation of the complexities that Kuhrt presents. This I think is where Kennedy has a good complaint, because the way that Kuhrt can be interpreted as coming across is arguing for a very high value to be put upon human experience in the discernment process over homosexuality. An approach that does this and relegates Scriptural authority to second place can be seen in a letter to the Church Times this weekend on the issue of Women Bishops:
Very few people were converted to the cause of women’s ordination by theological debate, but many have become supporters after experience of women priests.
I think Kennedy is genuinely (and rightly) worried that if we take the approach Kuhrt wants us to, we might end up in the same situation where by avoiding “a theological debate” we inadvertently give the authority to those who methods of determining theological truth are not grounded in the revealed Word of God but rather in human reckoning around their experiences. If we are discerning the issue with fellow Evangelicals (and that was the context of Kuhrt’s talk), then very clearly we need to make Scripture the centre of that exercise of discovering God’s will in this matter.
I guess the question that Kennedy wants to ask Kuhrt is this – At what point do we stop the loving engagement when those we are engaging with reject the plain words of Scripture? And yes, we can have a discussion about what the plain words of Scripture actually are (and I’ve been doing that recently on this blog), but if we’re honest sometimes those who we want to have a loving engagement with on this issue and who claim to be under the authority of Scripture, in practice won’t have that theological debate because they just don’t like what the outcome of that debate is.
And what do you do at that point? Is there any point in “loving engagement” when the words of Scripture are thrown out? I think that is Kennedy’s point.
And by establishing opposition to homosexuality (despite its strange alliance with Forward in Faith) as the defining issue of orthodoxy, FCA is provoking a polarisation that is in danger of doing more to strengthen the revisionist view within the Church of England.
The point here I think is that Kuhrt is worried that if Evangelicals are seen to be obsessed with homosexuality and if they won’t engage in a “loving engagement” then in their ostracisation from the prevailing social orthodoxy in the west in favour of homosexual activity, we will lose any goodwill that we had and hand it to the revisionists, and in doing so we will strengthen their hand.
I find this a strange argument because it lies not in the power of Scripture to determine theological truth but rather a fear of what the heathen world might think of us for standing up for righteousness. Given that Kuhrt agrees with me that Christians should not engage in homosexual practice, I wonder what reason he might have for not wanting to affirm such a stance when questioned. I’m not saying that we need to constantly shout our Biblical sexuality morality from the rooftops (which is the impression, falsely I might add, that is given of those who support FCAUK) but rather we should recognise that the polarisation is already in place. It was in place the moment revisionists stood up and declared that the Biblical teaching was incorrect and that they planned to ignore it. Calling standing vehemently by the Biblical position as “polarisation” is like saying that a police car that chases and pulls over a speeding motorist is equally engaging in “polarisation”! It is not polarisation to respond firmly to a rejection of the Biblical teaching – what is polarising is the rejecting of that teaching in the first instance. Who is really the troubler of Israel?
Let us not forget two things here – firstly, Matt Kennedy is speaking from an environment in the USA where evangelicals and anglo-catholics have attempted already over 20 years to participate in “loving engagement”. That participation has resulted in orthodox believers being literally thrown out of their churches and rectories. Secondly, the revisionists in England (and the wider British Isles) are now planning to blatantly take on the order of the Church by visibly declaring their participation in sexual relationships outside of marriage and daring the establishment to do something about it, exactly what the revisionists did in the USA over the past 30 years with such success. Who really are the ones engaged in “polarisation” here?
I donâ€™t believe that the formation of this coalition will do anything other than work to make those who are unsure about the traditional stance on homosexuality less likely to engage with it.
Let me come out of the closet and tell you a secret. OK, it’s actually not a great secret at all. I’m not really a fan of FCA-UK. There, I said it. The reason is very simple. I think FCA is brilliant for helping the orthodox in the USA and Canada know that they are not alone. Brilliant. Given that very many of the Bishops in TEC have committed apostasy, I’m all for border crossing.
Problem is, here in the Church of England things are different. There are still very many orthodox Bishops in the House, and all my little birds tell me that they are prepared to put up a fight when push comes to shove. If they weren’t then they wouldn’t have forced Rowan’s hand over the consecration of Jeffrey John. They know a battle is coming and they are, I hope, preparing for it.
FCA-UK on the other hands strikes me as an attempt to impose an American solution on an English problem. I understand where many of its supporters are coming from, I just don’t think they quite understand the reality on the ground. This reality is different to the situation in the USA where faithful, canonically obedient clergy are still being cast aside on the basis of their orthodox theology. Here in England I don’t know a single case of a clergyman who has done all that the Canons have asked of him and has despite this been deposed. There is as yet no need for boundary crossing in England because as yet the Bishops have not abused their roles as Fathers in God, even when they have had heterodox views on human sexuality. I don’t doubt that that day may yet come, but it is not here yet.
FCA-UK for me is not the solution. The solution in the Church of England (as I have written before) is an interior solution. That interior solution requires orthodox Bishops to be strong and courageous, but I believe that they have learnt the lessons of non-engagement with challenges to Episcopal and Apostolic authority in TEC and they are ready to act. FCA-UK however would undermine such a response because it would weaken the institutional response to the challenges to orthopraxis which are very soon to be unleashed upon us. Every evangelical clergy person and lay person (and Bishop) who walks away from the institution at this point weakens the position of those of us who are left to fight. To join FCA-UK is to suggest that the battle is already over within the Church of England. I want to suggest that the battle hasn’t really yet begun, and that when the opening rounds are fired we need to be in the best position possible.
In summary, I think that Kuhrt is wrong on his analysis of what a “loving engagement” will achieve within the church, but absolutely right upon the mechanism to solve the current issues we have. For most people in the Church their minds have already been made up, and if they are not open to the clear Scriptural argument in favour of sex as a gift from God within, and only within, the marriage of a man and a woman then nothing short of a revelation will change that now, and definitely not “loving engagement”. That said, Kuhrt is absolutely right to critique the idea of FCA-UK as a solution to the fight that is about to overwhelm us in the church, but I fear he may be a bit naive in wishing that such a struggle were not to come our way.