Francis Gardom explains why he is calling for a day of prayer and fasting on November 16
Let us imagine that it is the year 2017.
I am a crusty octogenarian in a wheelchair. I am still, hopefully, a thorn in the side of the Established Church. However, my progressive deafness has made me increasingly selective about what I hear.
Being told “Look, here’s something that is really new” my reply is the same one Pharaoh made to his daughter when she brought him the infant Moses: to her telling how she “found him in the bulrushes” Pharaoh answered “My dear, I’ve heard that one before!”
Suppose, then, that it is brought to my attention that the Cathedral of some nearby diocese has agreed to hold a Service of Thanksgiving for the 50th Anniversary of the Termination of Pregnancy Act (1967)”.
No doubt there will be, and perhaps there even exists today, an organisation with some title such as Planned Parenthood for Christ who would like to “celebrate” the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act (as it is usually called).
Such a body would claim that it wished to celebrate the great freedom which the act gave to women, the fact that every child should be a wanted child, and that anyone opposed to such a basic right as that of a woman to choose whether she shall have a child or not must necessarily by a misogynist, and probably much worse if the truth were to be told.
What would I do?
Well, I hope that the answer is the same one which I have given to the Service of Thanksgiving for the 25th Anniversary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement which is to be held in Southwark Cathedral on Saturday 16th November this year.
Besides adding my name to those who have written to the Provost, Chapter and Preacher urging them not to proceed with or take part in such an event, my answer would be to call for A National Day of Prayer and Fasting.
The Three Notable Duties
Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving have traditionally been called the Three Notable Duties of Christians.
Like many other Christian disciplines they have been accepted, used, then over-used, come into disrepute and as a result fallen into disuse.
Then the time has come when it has pleased the Holy Spirit to remind the Church of their existence and they become, once again, a normal part of the Christian spiritual life.
Scripture mentions particularly the use of prayer and fasting at times of perplexity and the need for decision making. Let me give you two examples.
For many years the Jews in exile in Babylon had known that the City of Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord were lying in ruins. Whilst the Chaldean Empire was in charge there wasn’t very much anyone could do about it except hope and trust in God’s promises that the Exile would come to an end one day.
Then came a change. The Persians defeated the Chaldeans, and Cyrus, their young king was much more favourably disposed towards his Jewish subjects.
Nehemiah, the king’s cupbearer had just been told by those who had been visiting Jerusalem what a total mess the whole place was. Here are his words
“On hearing this [about the destruction of Jerusalem] I sank down and wept; for several days I mourned, fasting and praying before the God of Heaven.”
God’s answer was not slow in coming. He inspired Nehemiah to ask the King for leave to go to Jerusalem. His request was granted, and the slow work of rebuilding could begin.
The Commissioning of Paul and Barnabas
When it had been decided at the Council of Jerusalem that in God’s plan the Gentiles were to be fellow-heirs with the Jews of the promises of Christ, there seems to have been a genuine uncertainty as to how they should put this into practice.
However, St Luke tells us the following:
“Now in the church at Antioch… while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them”. Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off”.
Prayer and fasting inspired the Church to commission Paul and Barnabas to set out on their First Missionary Journey.
We have the evidence that prayer and fasting (accompanied necessarily by almsgiving since of course the money saved by fasting should not simply be at the disposal of the people who are fasting) are the means par excellence of clarifying the Christian mind as to how it should respond to the particular challenge with which it is faced.
The Challenge of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and the Cathedral Service
The past 30 years have seen a bewildering number of changes, not least in the attitude of churchpeople in positions of authority towards matters of doctrine and morals.
We have been constantly invited during this time to consider whether the truth of what the Universal Church has believed and taught, almost without exception since the very earliest times, has now somehow become a matter of uncertainty or doubt.
The propaganda which has been brought to bear on this situation to demonstrate that a change of moral attitude or belief is called for has a number of suspiciously recurrent themes. Three in particular come to mind:
1) “Many people/most people/all reasonable people nowadays think the way we do.”
2) “Many people/most people/all people believe/doubt it in some form or another so what’s the point in trying to stop them?”
3) Society is divided enough as it is without encouraging people to make moral distinctions about other people’s lifestyles. Anyway it’s perfectly legal nowadays”
All three of these propositions are, to the ears of many of us, deeply suspect.
Whenever was “what the world thinks” a reliable guide to the mind of God?; repentance (turning from his evil ways) has invariably been the hallmark of the genuineness of someone’s conversion; if the scriptural distinction between virtue and vice, sin and righteousness, no longer applies then why bother to strive for perfection as Jesus commanded us?
The truth of the matter is that those Christians who indulge in sexual genital acts outside Christian marriage (and it is notoriously about the freedom or otherwise to indulge in such things that the Thanksgiving Service on the one hand, and the Day of Prayer and Fasting on the other, are concerned) cannot by any stretch of their imagination reconcile their behaviour with the traditional teaching of the Christian faith. Either such teaching is wrong (in which case such people are free to do as they please) or it is right in which case they are not.
What they are asking, begging, pleading for is that their behaviour should somehow become “acceptable” – in other words that we and their other fellow-Christians should turn a blind eye to it.
That is precisely what those of us who have been entrusted with the “faith once delivered to the saints” as a depositum cannot and will never do.
The problem facing those of us who are opposed to the event in the Cathedral is the following:
Given that our beliefs are irreconcilable with those we are opposing, by what means should we seek to bring home to those who are in error the light of God’s truth?
The general answer is clear enough – by using every possible means at our disposal – but the particular answer in the case of the service on November 16th was not so obvious.
Some of us have had experience of the disruptions sometimes engaged in by those who disagree with us (and I am thinking of one such disgraceful happening last year at Westminster Chapel masterminded by a particular pressure group which involved shouting, blowing whistles and breaking down the door). We believe that such behaviour is totally un-Christlike and counter-productive in persuading people to change their minds.
Equally the organisation of counter-demonstrations and protest meetings is likely to attract only a small if enthusiastic lobby of opponents. However decently and well managed such protests are, their outcome is often disappointing.
However, a Day of Prayer and Fasting such as I suggested to Southwark Reform is evidently a much more acceptable, not to say scriptural, means of making our voice heard.
Our purpose is not to protest. It is not to pass judgement in matters where there is genuine scope for doubt and debate.
We have three purposes in mind:
Firstly to dissociate ourselves totally from what is being arranged in the Cathedral. We are making a gesture which says, unmistakably, that to hold such a service in view of the many people who regard such things as offensive is an act of gross misjudgement.
Secondly we are laying the matter open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We are genuinely uncertain as to how we should resist what we believe to be the corruption of the faith with which we have been entrusted. We believe that in his own good time and way God will show us how we should proceed.
Finally we are making a gesture of repentance and faith. Repentance for the fact that we have evidently failed to lay before people clearly and effectually the teaching of scripture upon these matters. Faith that God will, in due course, grant repentance to those who have “erred and strayed from his ways” and cause us and them to be reconciled with him through the salvation offered to all men in Jesus Christ – and in him alone.
Francis Gardom is Assistant Curate at St Stephen’s, Lewisham