Monday 16 September 2013

Misreading the map...

Published in the Church of England Newspaper - 13 September 2013

I love walking in the Yorkshire Dales.

During my last visit there, I decided to walk up Great Whernside, a big bald moor rising above Wharfedale.  I set off with my map, bag and compass, quickly reaching the moor wall, beyond which there are few obvious features to help in finding the path.  As I checked my map, I saw a dotted line reaching up towards the summit so I set off, following it with the help of my compass.  I could see no visible path on the ground, but that was not unusual, and I pressed on across the moor.

Before long, I got into difficulties.  The ground became increasingly boggy, until I reached a point where I had to jump between tufts of marsh grass and dark sodden areas of peat bog.  I remember missing one tuft of grass and ending up thigh deep in thick peaty water scrambling to get out.  I checked the map again.  I was still on the dotted line but I realised that continuing on this route was both impossible and dangerous.
So reluctantly and carefully, I turned back and retraced my steps out of the bog and back to firm ground.

In the pub that night, I recounted my failed attempt to a local who looked surprised, and then roared with laughter when I showed him the dotted line I had tried to follow.
“That’s not a path” he said when he had stopped laughing. “That’s a parish boundary!”

Reflecting on this later, I saw the absurdity of what I had done.  I had diligently sought to follow the map.  I had followed this dotted line carefully and accurately.  But because I had misread the map my progress had ground to a sticky and dangerous halt in a miserable bog high up in the Dales.   The map wasn’t the problem – it was my interpretation of the map which was at fault.
I can’t help but think that we have made the same mistake in our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Bible and homosexuality.  As the church, we have joined together a faint dotted line of scattered verses and have thought we understood the map of the scriptures.  We have tried to follow the path faithfully, only to find ourselves getting stuck in an ever more treacherous bog.

And now we have ground to an uncertain halt.
As the Archbishop of Canterbury noted in his address to General Synod, the world has moved on, and the church’s stance on sexuality, same-sex partnerships, and now marriage is putting us at odds with society at large.  At the recent opening of the new headquarters of Evangelical Alliance he spoke about the way in which the church’s position on sexuality is alienating younger people.  We have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 think not only that what we are saying is incomprehensible, but also think that we are plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism.

In Australia, research by the evangelical group Olive Tree Media showed that 69% of non-Christians surveyed said that church doctrine on homosexuality is a ‘belief-blocker’ – only exceeded by child abuse in churches.
As Evangelicals, we are passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that opens hearts to a personal relationship with Him.  Yet our interpretation of Scriptures has led us into a dangerous dead-end where we are alienating the very people we want to reach.  We have sought to follow the Scriptures – our map – but perhaps we have misread them just like I misread that dotted line, and have found ourselves alone in the wilderness as a result.

On the moor, there was only one option for me – turn back and look again.  Perhaps we need to do the same.
Rev Benny Hazlehurst
Accepting Evangelicals

1 comment:

  1. But is it really – the Church’s stance on homosexuality a ‘belief blocker’? Or is it merely a metaphor for a much deeper division between the ideas, beliefs and culture of an essentially post-modern society, built on rationalism and positivism and something as irrational, subjective and culturally divisive as congregational religion built on what many see as the fairy stories of the Bible? As one half of a same-sex couple I have no problem whatsoever with a conservative understanding of Scripture when it comes to sexuality and marriage. If that is what people believe, good luck to them. If that belief acts as a bar to people becoming Christians, then it is a pretty odd bar when you think about it.

    If someone is going to accept that a man who lived 2000 years ago was the God incarnate and that he died, rose from the dead and that everything he said and did in the Bible is true. And that being a believer means a certain mode of behaviour, it doesn’t seem a great stretch of the imagination to say that this proscriptive creed shouldn’t lay down some rules about what people do with their sex lives.

    I will repeat, I have no problem with this – if I were to join All Souls, Langham Place or the like, then I would expect to have some ‘rules’ for how I lead my life. After all, if I became a Jew I would expect to become a Roundhead (snip, snip, snip) instead of a Caviller; or if I became a Hindu, I know steak and chips would be off the menu.

    Why should the Church have to change its attitudes just to fit in with how young people think? Oddly enough you find many of those who join new religious movements (Salafistic Islam is good example) are young people who want a proscriptive creed – they desire a belief system that is ‘world rejecting’. 2000 years ago, Roman society was permissive – the ideas of the fledgling Christian Church would have seemed nonsense to many, yet it grew.

    I think you are flogging a dead-horse to say the Church should be inclusive. It is to presume Christianity is an ecclesiastical version of the Equal Opportunities’ Commission. Religion by its very nature is discriminating: save, unsaved, clean, unclean, jahiliyya, Tawhid etc. Indeed it can be argued that much of religion’s success is that it is able to be an ideological banner which proclaims difference from the status quo.

    So what if the Evangelical Alliance, or GAFCON or whatever other vehicle of reactionary conservatism are riding rough-shod over Western secular liberal values. This is not my concern. I don’t get hot under the collar that men and women can’t sit together in a mosque or synagogue. We live in a society where it is possible for believers of whatever creed who don’t happen to like this or that ‘rule’ or tradition of their belief system can happily set up an alternative. Indeed for much of human history religious congregations have been dividing because they think theirs is the right way and their neighbours’ is wrong. Such is the nature of religion and it will always be thus so.

    Therefore, let the Anglican communion fracture – let there be schism. There always will be schisms. The only annoyance I feel about EA’s or GAFCON’s current obsession with all things pink is the hypocrisy of their stance. If you are going to be ‘conservative’ in your reading of scripture, there are far more costly verses our friends could concern themselves with. The fact they concentrate on ‘cheap’ righteousness (that which isn’t personally costly to themselves) is their chief error and that is my own reproach against them. More foot washing, turning the other cheek and a desire to be society’s servant instead of an obvious ambition to be its master is what is needed.

    Whatever, churches have never been inclusive and I can’t any reason why they should start being so now.