Monday 28 May 2012

Beyond Sneering

We need words to communicate, but we also use them to consolidate the tribe. On the Day of Pentecost God used words to include everyone as they are in the tribe. It was the end of tribalism.

Back in the eighties the great ra-ra sneer was “Fundamentalism.” All it meant was “something unpleasantly Conservative better rubbished than understood.” The more Conservative noughties brought a new ra-ra term — “Revisionist.”
The give away is always that the person being described thus wouldn't use it of themselves. It may one day become a badge of honour, like “Methodist”, but until it does, whenever you see it used you know all that is going on is mindless sneering.

Then there’s the L-word. At a meeting in 2004 about the Windsor Report, our Diocesan Registrar told us of a young man he saw in Sierra Leone when he was a missionary there in the seventies, necklaced for being gay. He supposed “most of us here were more Liberal than that.” A hand shot up — “Why are you accusing me of being Liberal?”

Since the 1830’s “Liberal” has been the Napoleon of ra-ra words.

Served up in a tasty ad hominem all it means is “if you’re one of those people who believes in say, not hanging people, voting, ending Apartheid, rehabilitating criminals — well then... splutter... you’re just one of those people who believes in...” Preached to the choir, the name-calling combats tribal insecurity, oft reinforced as howler monkeys do, by bouts of furious mutual masturbation that, unlike the simian version, is mercifully mainly verbal.

But what lies beyond? Why, for example, do I believe passionately that women and gay people are equal apart from a mere irrational attachment to a social agenda and a drably conventional theology of Creation that says “whatever God has made is good?”

It struck me yesterday how the cacophony of language on the day of Pentecost says difference is good and unity is emergent. God respected the people’s varied cultural idioms, but the ensuing chaos told the mighty acts of God. To receive the word people didn’t need to divest themselves of their cultural particularity, as would have been necessary if God were a merely tribal deity or mascot. One mark of toxic Pharisaism is scouring land and sea to make people like yourself.

The mightiest act of God is his commandment to love him as we love our crooked neighbour with all our crooked heart. It’s shockingly unconditional. Someone wrote to me last month to say it beggared his belief that a bishop should think that “Love thy neighbour as thyself” applied to homosexuals. It beggars this bishop’s belief that anyone should think that it doesn’t.

“Yes,” I hear some say. “We love people, of course. We welcome all. But that doesn’t mean endorsing what they do.” On one level this is obviously true. Best of luck to you, say I. But make sure you really are welcoming people, not just laying a grinning veneer over a subtext of disapproval. It doesn’t work because, I find, people who have experienced oppression have an almost psychic radar about that kind of hypocrisy. And please remember two other primary truths of the Gospel —
  1. I am in no position, as one sinner, to endorse or not endorse what another sinner does. The Lord does that bit. In God we trust. All others pay cash. I therefore have to be very careful and critical of my own perception. Only when I have removed the plank from my own eye can I help my neighbour see more clearly. It is comical if I, as a Pharisee prone to anger, contentions, party spirit and self-righteousness, all things Jesus taught are evil, rise up and denounce anybody for things Jesus said absolutely nothing about.

  2. We need to assess, ruthlessly, our impact and its fruit as well as our intentions. The good Samaritan teaches us that our actual performance with real people matters more than our good intentions. This is the hardest discipline of all, perhaps. A second sign of toxic Pharisaism is laying burdens on others’ backs too heavy for them to bear. If our welcoming strategy is experienced as oppression it doesn’t work and we need to repent of our hypocrisy ten times more than the object of our welcome needs to divest themselves, even if they could, of whatever it was about them that disgusted us in the first place. By their fruits ye know them. Any policy of the Church that produces scarred, broken self-loathing or even the anger of feeling oppressed in the people it is designed to help needs to change. because either God has given up on all that “Love thy neighbour as thyself / do unto others...” stuff, which is unlikely, or it’s a pretty useless policy.
This, not some notional tendency called Liberalism is the root of the matter. Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it. That’s all.


Erika Baker said...

Thank you for this!

This may sound silly, but I'd almost advocate leaving God out of it completely.
Because people on all sides in these disputes genuinely believe that they are hearing the word of God and that they are doing his will.
And that belief can be so firm that it closes people's hearts and minds to the reality of the others and that it shuts out all compassion.
"Even if I wanted to, I could not say any different because it's God's will that counts not ours" is one the most toxic arguments there is because you can hide virtually every view behind it and make it unassailable.

No, I think we need to look at all our contentious issues from the point of justice and compassion, in the knowledge that the God we believe does not support injustice, whatever clever theologies we might be able to spin around it.

A bit more awareness of what we so easily dismiss as "secular" values and a little bit less certainty that we have a direct hotline to God would do us all no harm.

And I'm not saying this just with regard to women priest and gay people but also with regard to environmental issues, Occupy, human rights, immigration... everything, really, where the traditional order and new awareness collide.

Anonymous said...

When I assess the impact of my actions I tend to get stuck in a tree of if-then possibilities. There are many variables, and the interactions between me and 7 billion other people (not to mention animals, plants etc) are infinitely complex. So I can understand very well the desire to follow strict rules, to practice life-by-numbers where you colour in the blobs according to the instructions without worrying about what this does to the big picture.

But that complexity (some might liken it to ineffability) does not let me off the hook of trying to discern what is right. I do make use of rules, or even a sort of Rule, in all this, but it is reviewed.

I don't think those who sneer at me for being liberal are shying away from that discernment, but I think they are using different tools, and perhaps have a rather different emphasis when struggling with the ineffability problem. My emphasis (like yours, I suspect) is firmly in the "we don't always know the Big Plan but if all people are beloved children of God then hurting them is worse than changing some rules which were probably developed by humans for another context anyway" camp. I don't want to misrepresent anyone but I might venture that some people see the rules (about gender or sexual morality or what to wear when serving) as sufficiently of God as to be inviolable unless someone is actually going to die; if people don't like how God's rules make them feel that's really their problem. Perhaps this could be summed up as "We don't always know the Big Plan, but it might be that what to wear when serving is Really Really Important for reasons we can't begin to understand, so we'd better not change it."

I have no problem with that approach. I do have a problem with being told that if I follow my (liberal) conscience I am preventing others from following theirs, so that suddenly the people who wield power are the "victims" of oppression by having to share with those they had previously chosen to overlook. I don't doubt that the change of context is difficult, and I respect that people will struggle with it. I don't know how I would respond if I felt that one part of the church had got things so wrong that I could not in good conscience receive communion with them. But I hope I would either a) lump it or b) eat elsewhere and cease identifying myself as a member of that denomination, painful though this might be. Trying to control the practice of others so that I could continue ignoring their version of reality would be pretty futile.

Steve Hayes said...

I largely agree with what you say, but then I'm a pinko liberal adn proud of it.

But I think there are two sides to the story.

About 20 years ago a young man cam to our church. He was a penniless immigrant from Bulgaria. We welcomed him, someone in the church helped him to get a job, and then one Sunday, when he was established and earning money, when we were having tea after the service, he started proudly showing people his membership card of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), a far-right racist organisation. Several people said that that organisation was not very Christian, and he started talking about "kaffirs". The priest told him not to use that word in the church, and wrote to the bishop to ask what he should do, and the bishop said, in effect, tell him to repent, and if he doesn't, excommunicate him.

But you seem to imply that acceptance and loving someone is not true acceptance unless we accept all their views, their values and their lifestyle.

And I also recall how gay activists in the UK persecuted the former Anglican bishop of Johannesburg (details here: Notes from underground: Are you homophobic?).

Phil Wood said...

Alan, I suspect this won't be your most popular post, but I do think it's crucially important. There are very few arguments that are more important than the way in which those arguments are conducted. That's another way of saying that it's a short step from disagreement to adversarial gridlock.

Labels are curious things. I'm not fond of them: Mostly they seem to be used a way of damning an opponent without the tiresome business of actually having a conversation with them. It's very hard sometimes, to cope with negative labelling. I'm an 'Anabaptist', fully aware that the label started as a term of abuse.

Alan, thanks. A great subject!

Justin Brett said...

Cogent and thought-provoking as ever. Thank you! Mind you, I'm proud to describe myself as a Liberal - I find it a convenient shorthand for "I have arrived at view x because I've thought about it and it seems to me to make the most sense. However, if you disagree I would very much like to know what you think about x, because I understand that other points of view may be just as valid, and it could be that I've got it wrong".

Anonymous said...

It is a brave heart or a fool who hears the word of God and obediently gets on and does what is asked. You have to bear many unpleasant attitudes and accusations but the consolations are sublime, very little understood by the worldly, and lead to the Cross one way or another. If everyone could truly see what was at the end of it the road to heaven would be crowded indeed.
What stops Christian people from progressing is worldly attachment to things, status and the significant other. Constantina

Ann Memmott said...

Steve, I'm not sure. I think it is perfectly possible to take a stand against any organisation/its members where they use hate, violence and contempt against others. That's true no matter what the circumstance. But I do not feel it is right for some in our churches to be persecuting people who are in faithful, consensual gentle loving relationships, and doing absolutely no harm to anyone or anything in the process. I'm on the receiving end of church attitudes to lesbians - several instances in the last couple of weeks. And so ingrained are these attitudes that people will even target me despite me having made the decision to have a faithful relationship with a lovely man. I might as well not have bothered and followed the way I was born.

It's done the opposite of what is often alleged - the "oh we just want you to behave as if you're heterosexual and have a marriage to a man and then God will love you - and you will be welcomed everywhere". Like heck we are. It exposes the prejudice for what it is.

Until one has experienced prejudice and ostracism first-hand over a period of time, I think it's difficult to know what it feels like.

But I tell you this - it is as far from the loving care of Jesus as it's possible to get.

SaintSimon said...

Alan thank you for this post. Spot on.

We do need to make space for 'conservatives' (if we must use labels) who genuinely believe this is what scripture says and want to live by it. I sympathise with them becasue I was one once. And it is also important to have a sound theological scriptural understanding of why they are wrong. For me the label 'Liberal' means 'One who disregards scripture for social convenience', and I am definitely not one of those. But I am liberal for conservative reasons. I've approached Leviticus and Corinthians with conservative exegetical tools and come to different conculsions to what my Plymouth Brethren missionary father tought me.

I agree very strongly with your post.

And Ann Memmott - you are spot on, too!

Ray Barnes said...

"Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it" Absolutely!
The problem lies with how the individual interprets the word of God.
As is evident from the foregoing comments, there are infinite variations upon people's perceptions of what is acceptable to God.
That being so, I'm of the same school as Mr Brett above.
As ever, thought provoking, even if posing more questions than providing answers.

June Butler said...

Thanks, Alan. I like to keep things simple: Love God and love my neighbor and do as I would be done to. And I so agree that what we do is so much more important than our intentions.

Ann, I hear you. You did everything "right", and still you experience prejudice because of who you are. God will love you if... God loves us as we are, without conditions.

Anonymous said...

It seems you want to have you cake an eat it. You wish to follow your conscious to the point that you will pour scorn on someone seeking to bring someone out of the fire.

Anonymous said...

I am no theologian, but I do sincerely believe that the scriptures are inspired -as they themselves proclaim, and the bible sends us back to scripture to discern whether a Spirit is actually from God. The Scriptures recognize that there are deceiving Spirits. Of course Jesus does ask us all to abide in His love. Even the people Jesus says He will turn away because they never knew him, because they never followed His father's commands - are people that Jesus loved - and that is a great tragedy - so close yet so far from God. That may include people who hated their fellow Christians - whether that is someone who is gay or indeed someone trying to get a person out of the fire to love and live for God.

Anonymous said...


As a Christian you are called to follow God's ways. It is indeed ironic that you therefore want to leave Him out of it, since it is His ways we are called to follow as Christians - striving to enter through the narrow gate, battling against the flesh and following the Spirit. Ironic indeed. We are called to live for Him - He died that we might live - yet you want to leave Him and presumably the love for Him out of it.

Erika Baker said...

Thank you for an example of precisely the kind of sneering I find so toxic about Christianity.
Did you read what I wrote? Really read it? Or did you just see the first line and started to compose your reply as you were skimming through the rest?

Let me copy excerpts of it again:
“Because people on all sides in these disputes genuinely believe that they are hearing the word of God and that they are doing his will.
And that belief can be so firm that it closes people's hearts and minds to the reality of the others and that it shuts out all compassion.”

That is not leaving God out of it but recognising that it is very hard to accept that those who disagree with us also believe they are following God. Your response to me is evidence of that.

If you say “God clearly says abc” and I should back “Oh no, he clearly says xyx” – then what do we do? Is your reading of Scripture God inspired or is mine? How do we come to an appreciation of what might be required of us?

And my answer to that is that:
“No, I think we need to look at all our contentious issues from the point of justice and compassion, in the knowledge that the God we believe in does not support injustice…”

If you disagree with this, I’d rather you engaged with the argument I made and explained why you might not think that God would be supporting justice and why you think that adding justice and compassion into our conversation is a Godless mistake. Because your reply has given the impression that this is what you believe.

But I may be wrong, of course.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Anonymous, dear bloke, may I appeal to your better nature? I find conversations with people who don't give their names very difficult. I know there are sometimes technical reasons it can't be left, in which case people often sign their contributions. Forgive me, the effect feels rather like trying to have a conversation with someone who insists on wearing one of those tall pointy Spanish Ku Klux hats with little round eyeholes in the front — not easy. When person in Ku Klux hat also claims almost psychic knowledge of what's going on in anyone else and their motives whilst refusing to give so much as their name, I have to question what's really going on. As to the Christian content of your post, please consider the possibility that the Sermon on the Mount might actually be true, and the resurrection might actually be true, and those you struggle to understand may actually be every bit as much children of God as you, and as valuable to him on God's terms not yours. That will make immensely more sense of life, and give you a faith that sounds like good news, not a sour moralistic rant.

Anonymous said...

Bishop Alan

I do know He lives. I know He loves Erika and you. I am certain that he will weigh up all our words and actions. But you certainly hung me - I am likened to the Klu Klux clan because I have a different opinion. It is not as if I have not actually lived out what I am suggesting. You seem to suggest that I have actually "tyred" someone because I have been lead in a different way and have a different opinion. My actions could not be further from the truth than that. The gay activist community does not like dissent - that is why they mock ex-gay. The question of course does not simply relate to Erika, and therefore is not personal to her. However she has decided that she is a light. There is a wider question of justice of young people encouraged in this, without any discernment because people like Erika decided that they obtain justice for their own ways - rather than really establishing what are God's ways.

Jesus said to all his desciples should pick up you cross and lose your life, not live your best life your way. I am involved in praying for Iranian Christains. I think of the suffering they endure for Jesus, so being a "eunuch" is hardly worth mentioning - but why would Jesus not expect me also to pick up my cross?

Gay activists are often not Christian and therefore not bound by Jesus commands to love your neighbours as yourself or indeed love their enemy - so I prefer to remain anonomous in case they tyre me.

June Butler said...

Anonymous, you could make up a name, so we would know if you're the same Anonymous or another. I use a pseudonym online, but my name, June Butler, is no secret.

Erika Baker said...

It does happen that people have good reason for not giving their name, and you do seem to have a very good reason.
In that case, many invent a name they use on blogs, so that it is still possible to know them whenever they post.

I am a bit troubled by you saying that "There is a wider question of justice of young people encouraged in this, without any discernment because people like Erika decided that they obtain justice for their own ways - rather than really establishing what are God's ways."

Because - how do you know that there is no discernment? You don't know me. You don't know the other people you are dismissing. You and I have never had a conversation.
And yet - you claim that you understand what I believe and why I believe it.

And you state that you are right without having engaged with a single one of my arguments.
In fact, you still have not read a single one of my arguments. Because if you had, you would notice that I did not talk about anything gay at all. I talked about how we can work out together what God wants from us.

That is called avoiding a conversation. It is lazy. And it does not mean you’re right, it only means that you are unwilling to talk to people who don’t agree with you.

Anonymous said...


I have often read your posts on thinking anglican - indeed I read it daily and have prayed for many on the website - including you - for 5 years; and I leave that in the Lord's hands. So you are mistaken.

You all like to protray those who have been lead in a different view as homophobes - neathandral - of if they have desires self-haters, or if they say they have changed, as liars - even out to deceive. It is interesting reading all the comments on that web-site.

Erika Baker said...

I wish you had been able to read with an open mind and an open heart. And I wish you had had the courage to join in with the conversation.

At least you're leaving it in the Lord's hand, that is to your great credit. Most who think like you also claim the right to judge and to make decisions about my life.

I still wish you could acknowledge that it is possible to have different views on a variety of topics and that it is wrong to claim one view as Christian truth and the other as selfish and unChristian.

If we could get that far, we might eventually be in a better position to discover where God leads us together.

We really do need to have genuine respect for each other. That is what loving means. Otherwise, it's just meaningless words.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Dear Anonymous, I don't think anyone called you a Neanderthal or a homophobe. Please don't take up names and stick them on yourself and then accuse other people of having disrespected you. To pick one example I didn't accuse you of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I said that trying to maintain a conversation with someone without a name was like talking to someone in a hooded mask of the sort worn by the KKK. Because it is. I wouldn't have a very long phone conversation with anyone who didn't give their name. Among other things it helps to know how many of you there may be using the "Anonymous" tag. But I'm sure you have your reasons. It would have been helpful if you had felt able to engage with the conversation. Let's leave it in the Lord's hands and pass on.

Anonymous said...

Bishop Alan

Why did you use such a phrase as the Klu Kluxx clan - I cant imagine you would use the phrase on Erika if she had chosen to be anonomous. It does seem to me that you accuse as being homophobes those who do not agree with your position - and they need to get over themselves. The Klu Kluxx clan of course are also bigoted red-necks.

I remember hearing of how celibate homosexuals in TFT wept when Courage UK announced some years back that they had "got over themselves" and would no longer be an organisation committed to "praying away the gay" but rather would be a "gay affirming ministry". You may well say - wonderful.

I suggest you read the Gay gospels by Keith Sharpe, chairman of the gay christian ministry "Changing Attitudes" published last year. It describes itself as"good news for lesbian, gay and bisexual and transgender people". What interested me was the endorsement by Jeremy Marks, founder of Courage - as a declared evangelical he obviously values his bible, and one imagines he would be very aware of the best theology. Funnily enough your favorite "sermon on the mount passage" was not included. This is what Jeremy Marks said, in the inside cover " As a director of an evangelical outreach ministry to lesbian and gay people, I am constantly reminded of the way that the church teachings on homosexuality have caused immense dmanage to human lives and relationships. With superb clarity of style and presentation, Dr sharpe demonstrates in the gay gospels The Gay gospels that these harsh teachings have no basis either in the bible or in the mission of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The book will be of enormous value to all involved in the debate over homosexuality and Christianity currently raging in the church and wider society". The book seeks to deal with the homophobic and erotophobic church by re-interepreting the bible. (they like to suggest Jesus was a carnal gay man).

What is interesting is the book like to suggest that Jesus is a super-intelligent gay man - and a carnal one at that, but what is particularly shocking is the suggestion that the father is guilty of the homosexual rape of Jacob. This is what the book suggests. This is apparently arrived at by a theologian, rather than a very poor attempt at post-modern irony.

All I can say is how blind Jeremy Marks has become if he thinks this is the gospel - he is more interested in promoting gay politics than the love of God. The book contained heresy upon heresy and yet he - and many others involved in gay christian ministry - endorsed it. It has somewhat coloured my view of the love of God that they have, rather than being concerned with political activism - my take on it is that Jesus is no-longer Holy - not the Son of God and the Father is dead. As Christians we are beng reconciled to the father by Jesus Christ - Yet there no love for the father in this. They seem to forget that He is actually living and Jesus also loves Him and lives for His glory. I am not surprised Jeremy Marks outfit were unsuccessful in "praying a way the gay" - look where his walk took him - this is his outreach to the gay community - who the Lord Jesus is seeking.

I suggest you read the book Bishop. I doubt you will recognize the gospel you preach in it. This book is their valauble love for GOd.If you know those involved in the book, you might like to preach the gospel to them. Why do these guys actually live and how do they encourage their christian brother to live.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Dear Anonymous, the simple fact is that the best known outfit that wear anonymising pointed hats with eyeholes in the front are the KKK, though what I actually referred to, if you read what I said, was the sort that are worn in Spanish religious processions that have nothing to do with the KKK. I emphatically did not suggest any link between you and the KKK. I did say that talking to people who refuse to give a name is like talking with someone wearing such a hat. It is. I suggest you take GM's advice and use some name that makes it possible for people, at the very least to know that they are talking to the same person. It seems strange when we are called to be a city set on a hill, with openness as a gospel value, to need anonymity, but you are the best judge of that in your own circumstances. Why the fear about this? I think it would be healthy for your own integrity, frankly, to acknowledge that nobody here ever called you a homophobe. That is also is a simple fact.

I don't know the book you suggest, and from what you say I think it is coming from a very different place from me.

I do think Jeremy Marks' story is significant. I am acutely aware of the especially awkward position, amongst others' hard positions, of gay Evangelicals who want to find a way of living faithfully as disciples. Conspiracies of silence, hypocrisy and the disapplication of the golden rule and the Lord's summary of the Law do nothing for them. These principles are not favourite passages but keystone teaching of Jesus that neither of us are free, as his disciples, to disregard or trivialise by subsuming them into some culture wars agenda. As to the Biblical witness of which you speak a very small number of texts in the Bible (6 out of approx 32,000) could possibly have some reference to what we call Male homosexuality, and no text at all to female homosexuality. The first mention of the word "homosexual" in an English translation was in 1946. We need to get real about what is actually in the Bible, not read into it then out of it our own moral intuitions. If you had been willing to engage with the points Erika had actually made, that would have led to a different kind of conversation. Finally, I think the way we are made sexually is extremely complex; some (for example Peter Ould) are seriously questioning whether a simply binary "gay or straight" model is actually realistic or helpful, and I think that is very important to explore. In the meantime we do know the core teachings of Jesus, and it's vitally important to live them, not set them on one side whilst falling into exactly the kind of moralistically based world view against which Jesus preached forcefully, and Paul in Galatians. We know those to be wrong, and whilst the rights and wrongs of what we call homosexuality are complex, the moral status of bearing false witness is perfectly clear.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Just a note to acknowledge "Anonymous'" comment which you marked as "not for publication,' which I will, of course, honour. I understand how sensitised you feel about everything to do with this, but for the record nobody here accused you of any of the things you feel they did. I hope your faith grows in a direction that yields joy and peace, rather than anxiety and fearfulness.

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