Robbie Low makes an emotional journey
Twice a year, for nearly 30 years, I have driven to a little village in the heart of England for a day off. It affords a leisurely pace, beautiful countryside, delightful and easy walks and a cosy village pub at which you can get an excellent simple lunch. The additional joy is the beautifully kept open church where an hour’s prayer passes all too quickly and could not seem less like a busman’s holiday. The church, I should explain, is not in the Catholic tradition. It is, and more so recently, charismatic evangelical. Chairs long ago replaced the ancient pews and the ‘Table’, when it is used, is a real north-ender. The point is it is prayed in and the fashions of any particular generation do not diminish that reality.
For the first two-thirds of my visits there the vicar was obviously a very considerable leader. I never met him but the whole structure of the life of the church was much more conservative evangelical and they enjoyed considerable growth on the back of biblical preaching and New Testament principles. I read his sermons and magazine contributions and would have been pleased to be the author of many of them.
In latter years, his successor has maintained the structures but become more charismatic. It is not hard to tell. We never get his sermon print-outs and his magazine contributions contain little evidence of any doctrinal engagement. He obviously wanted his people to vote Conservative at the last election and, I have to say, that was his most passionate pastoral letter by miles. His advice, not explicit of course, was on ‘sound biblical principles’.
On my most recent visit I was intrigued to discover that he was leaving. The pastoral letter was, as usual, a doctrine-free zone and merely invited us to farewell drinks on the lawn. He had done ten years, the church was still well attended and solvent. It was time to move on.
The surprise came when I discovered the parish’s job description for his successor. The person appointed would be convinced of the absolute authority of the Word of God and live their lives and teach according to biblical principles. That, one would imagine, may restrict the field somewhat. But read on. First of all, we learn that ‘the gender of the new incumbent is not important’. Presumably, it is to the incumbent to be, but we know what the parish means. We are only one line in and the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of the incarnation, the determinative example of the Word of God incarnate and the teaching of St Paul clearly don’t impinge upon these ‘biblical principles’. An honest disagreement over second order issues that we, in the Church of England, hold in creative tension, I hear you say.
But there is more…
‘We are looking for a family person.’ This is a biblical principle? We all come from some sort of family so is this just vacuous inclusivity? Apparently not. It is good old-fashioned prejudice against single people. No godly celibates need apply.
But there is no discrimination on what sort of family situation. ‘The post is open to divorcees and single-parents so long as parental duties are not to the detriment of the parish.’ This must be a bit of the Bible that has constantly passed me by. Chapter and verse would be welcome. Comment is superfluous. Those of us who were shouted down for arguing that motherhood and priesthood were both practically and theologically incompatible can only wonder at the breathtaking sexism and strange juxtaposition of priorities of our sometime accusers. I am not, as you know, a suspicious person but I couldn’t help wondering if this ‘biblical’ parish had some help in drafting this job description. Almost as if someone was prophetically anticipating a certain kind of candidate the bishop was having trouble placing.
In the final line – detached from the touchy feely rest of it, we, at last, returned to familiar ground – ‘No practising homosexual need apply.’
Whew! Thank goodness for that. Though I can’t help feeling that they had missed a trick here. The largely teetotal vicar and parish council may not have noticed that the old village pub has but recently been transformed into an upmarket, out-of-town cuisine minceur eaterie and bar. Locals no longer drink there and the all-male clientele, on my visit, would have set off a blind man’s radar. The possibilities of outreach, for the right candidate, I felt, were considerable.
In being open to a thoroughly modern diversity of family unit the parish was, of course, just catching up with the rest of the Church of England. Two of my more traditional clergy friends have been in touch with me recently with similar complaints. In one the curate in the neighbouring parish is openly shacked up with her bank clerk male lover (without benefit of Registrar). This is, to say the least, deleterious to marriage discipline in the deanery. The other has discovered a male curate neighbour running a ménage à trois with his boyfriend and a female divorcee in a house in his parish. Neither bishop wishes to act ‘because of the problems of employment law’. So there we are. My little away-day country parish has a long road of exciting possibilities to travel yet.
But the question is, how has a ‘biblical’ parish come to this point of departure?
Conservative evangelical friends would argue – and they have been consistent in this – that the dangers of the emotionalism of the charismatic movement would inevitably lead to the subtle mutation of the Word of God to suit their circumstances and cultural needs. The parish incumbent profile is a fair summary, not of the life of the Church, but of the well-to-do, middle class, politically correct milieu of the non-attending parishioners 30 years on. It is a moot point whether people are drawn to a Church that belatedly apes their manners. The territory is familiar to liberals but it is not inconceivable that well-meaning evangelicals could, all unaware, stray down that road. After all, it is not an exclusively liberal temptation not to want to be thought of as odd or different. We all like to be thought of as reasonable, kind, sensitive sorts who don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. (Oh! all right! Almost all of us.) It’s a fine line between speaking God’s Word so that it enables our sinfulness to confront his righteousness and seek mercy and proclaiming his Word as indistinguishable from our own self – righteousness and making the judgment ours. The difficulty with solemn intellectualism is that it can tend to the latter. The problem with emotionalism is that it can utterly slip the moorings and mistake this for a movement of the Holy Spirit.
The Real Thing
By an extraordinary coincidence the following week I fell into conversation with a Roman Catholic charismatic woman. Nice person and very friendly, faithful member of her Church, etc, etc. Halfway through the conversation she launched, unbeknown to herself, into some utter doctrinal baloney and made the mistake of finishing, several minutes later, ‘Don’t you agree?’ At her request (honestly) I went through the biblical evidence and Catholic teaching that contradicted her. I could tell she was unconvinced but was no longer surprised to hear why.
‘No’, she said, ‘I can’t agree with all those facts. You see I deal in emotional facts. I’m spiritually intuitive. I just know I’m right.’
This was quite extraordinary because, as I explained to her with as straight a face as possible, I too was spiritually intuitive and very emotional and I knew she was wrong. It did no good. It was Mrs O’ Flaherty 1; God, the Bible, Jesus, the Pope and the Vicar, 0.
We are dealing here with self-authenticating authority and not just with Mrs O’ F. I’ve met her parish priest and he’s not the kind of man to face down Mrs O’F. and her sisters on the parish ‘Peace and Justice’ Committee or stand in the riptide of their emotional certainties.
It reminded me all too clearly of 1992 when the proponents of the feminist schism spent months whipping up just such a tide across the parishes of the land. Emotional blackmail was dressed up as natural justice. People faithful to the Word of God were railroaded into feeling mean-spirited, negative, misogynistic and generally ungodly. Homes of Synod waverers were visited by the people whose vocation they were trying to deny! Bishops were wheeled out to lie about the traditional teaching of the Church, threaten resignation, misrepresent the views of the great communions, rant about justice and, whenever possible, avoid direct encounter with the Word of God. Galatians 3.28 was abused in a way that would have shamed an O-level fundamentalist and George Carey treated us to a near farcical misunderstanding of the Council of Jerusalem. In the charged atmosphere of that day those men could not have gone home and faced their wives if they had not behaved thus. Worse than that they could not bear to face the women who just ‘knew’ they were right. Anyone looking down at that little semi-circle of grey men, most lacking in authenticity and conviction, and the powerful determined women surrounding them would have been in little doubt as to the outcome of that particular battle.
All of this is part of the history and tragedy of the modern Church of England. We are about to enter round two shortly – women bishops. And here the ‘emotional facts’ are obvious. There are women bishops in the Anglican Communion, there are women priests here. The original legislation was deliberately dishonest and theologically flawed. Women bishops are an emotional fact. Scriptural Christians may object but they can do little to stop it. The law courts even refused to hear the constitutional case.
The entertainment will be the gymnastics of the bishops. Some are enthusiastic, others half-hearted. Some know they’ve made a mistake, many are terrified of having girls, determined and organized girls at that, in their shambolic but comfortable club. Their fears are wholly justified. Life will not be the same again!
Theologically (the Nazir Ali brief), there is not a leg to stand on for the bishops. If they want to say ‘no’ to women bishops they must adopt the very arguments we put forward and they rejected. Accepting those arguments would mean no women priests. They can argue that women bishops would deepen the schism and they would be right. But it is a schism of their own making. They have consciously broken our own communion and set back the cause of Christian unity by a hundred years. They already meet with women bishops at Lambeth so any excuses would be regarded, rightly, by proponents of the novelty as derisory and cowardly. The emotional facts are in. Traditionalists feelings are, of course, just another word for prejudice.
But that is not and cannot be the end of emotional fact and spiritual intuition in the life of the Church. We observed the Bishop of Bristol ignoring scripture, the teachings of the Church and the canons of Nicaea in his dealings with the transsexual clergyman. Barry Bristol was dealing in ‘emotional facts’.
I accept the concept of emotional facts. Coca Cola is an emotional fact. A brown sticky carbonated water assures me instant sex appeal, social relevance, advanced sporting ability and a deeper bonding with my children. I may occasionally drink the stuff but I don’t have to believe the sales pitch. But it has not become the natural order of a generation on the strength of my agnosticism.
We are currently witnessing the teaching of the Church on marriage mutating under the pressure of a disobedient society. Christian parents, clerical parents, Episcopal parents are not immune from the divorce culture that has played havoc with their children. Their lifestyles, often even church-going young people, are at odds with the gospel. As loving parents we want the best for them, we want them to have another chance. Those are both realities and emotional facts. But woe betide us if we say, in the end, ‘We cannot keep the laws of God. They are unreasonable. They must change.’
Repentance and grace are the way back for us and our children not the assertion of emotional fact above God’s Word.
Nor can it stop there if there are to be so many concessions to ‘emotional fact’. The little country parish must eventually remove its veto on practising homosexuals. This, by now, must be clear to the Archbishop of Canterbury. His experience at Lambeth 98 was shattering. Having led a victorious and overwhelming majority to victory in the homosexuality debate, he was taken aside by a goodly number of outraged English bishops and, to the sound effects of a major queenie fit from predictable chaplains, metaphorically shafted. Churchill, in the1945 election, could have received no greater reverse. George’s sotto voce dialogue and private meetings since show that he has no wish to encounter such ‘emotional fact’ head on again in a hurry. He will be able to save face and retire but his successor will not be so lucky.
As my wife works for television and I work for the Church our house will probably has above average contact and friendship with homosexuals (practising and celibate). Our Christian beliefs have never diminished our friendship or restricted our conversations. We have avoided a patronizing toleration and comfortable pretence. The differences are open and not reconcilable outside the mercy of God. That will not change, and our friends respect that. But those who try to live the Christian life in the midst of their particular temptation see how easily the Church has been shifted by other people’s emotional needs and lobbying. If ‘emotional facts’ can modify the Word of God for other people, ‘Why not me?’ they will reasonably ask.
They will have observed the trend towards ‘doctrinal democracy’ – or to put it more bluntly, if enough people do it, the Church can’t preach against it.
Much more serious is the churches shameful silence on the fate of the unborn child. When was the last time you heard or read an Anglican bishop or priest attacking this country’s wicked laws? The reason is simple. Six million abortions in 33 years means an awful lot of women in the pews have gone through it. The emotional reasoning is therefore that we dare not mention it. By our silence we prevent the next generation from hearing the Word of God and refuse to offer our womenfolk (almost as much victims of the abortion industry as their lost children) the release of penitence and the reconciliation of the requiem. Those who have had the courage to go through that barrier know the incredible liberties on offer and the joy of God’s forgiveness. Who will love God most? ‘The one to whom most is forgiven’ is not the answer to a scriptural riddle but a living reality in the lives of these women.
In all these instances the ‘emotional facts’ are plain contrary to the Word of God and, as such, any spiritual intuition that flows therefrom we can know, with certainty, is not of the Holy Spirit. To invest our fragile and fluctuating human feelings with greater authority than the revealed Word of God is to imbibe a toxic cocktail of pride and idolatry. In an individual it is the path to breakdown. In a Church it is the fast-track to disorder, decline and judgment. It may not be comfortable to stand where scriptural Christians stand, but if we are serious about salvation we can do no other.