NOW that the first three years of the third millennium have slipped by, what are your hopes for 2004? Are they to do with your family, your job, your holiday, your home, your car, your football team, England’s new-found rugby prowess, or are they something to do with God’s kingdom and his glory?
Are you concerned about Aunt Matilda’s backache and worsening arthritis? Will you feel compelled to spend time in prayer for her healing? Will you feel compelled to spend time in prayer for her salvation? What proportion of your concern will you allocate to her physical healing and what proportion to her eternal destiny?
Will you pray for the spiritual welfare of your godchildren, or will you be more exercised about whether they will gain admission to the school of their parents’ choice?
Are you concerned to challenge the unwholesome influence of unhelpful voices within the Church? Are you praying that the Holy Spirit will stiffen your resolve and change their minds? Are you prepared to be part of the means by which blind eyes are opened, deaf ears are made to hear, closed minds are exposed to truth, hard hearts are softened and stubborn wills brought into submission to our Lord and Saviour? On the other hand, are you yearning to withdraw into the ghetto of the faithful and enjoy a quiet life, privately lamenting the state of the world, the Church and everything else?
When I first read the Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, I found that on one level it was a good entertaining read, albeit a bit dated with its reference to ‘contemporary’ events which were, in my mind at least, ancient history. However, the theme of a senior devil tutoring a junior devil had more than an air of plausibility about it. As I reflected on the scenarios that Lewis contrived, I began to ask myself how I would go about the business of disrupting and spoiling God’s world if I were Satan. The more I thought about it, the more I began to think that Lewis was very near the mark.
Who is better placed to be a source of discouragement than a trusted friend? For instance, if a humanist tells you that you can’t take the bible seriously, of course you would politely disagree. But if it is an Anglican bishop who is telling you the same thing, then we are far more likely to give such a notion the time of day.
An intriguing package dropped through my letter box in December along with the Christmas cards. There was a letter from Affirming Catholicism (president: The Bishop of Salisbury), noting that ‘a debate concerning human sexuality is expected to take place during the February 2004 session of General Synod.’ It continued, ‘we are sending a copy of Canon John’s booklet to all members of the General Synod as a contribution to the current debate, in the prayerful hope that it will assist you in your deliberations.’
With such honeyed words in the commendation, what are we to make of Jeffrey John’s sixty-page booklet ‘Permanent, Faithful, Stable’?
In his introduction, Jeffrey John states quite openly, ‘This booklet has a straightforward aim. It argues that homosexual relationships should be accepted and blessed by the Church, provided that the quality and commitment of the relationship are the same as those expected of a Christian marriage.’
Now, as far as I am aware, there is no yardstick by which the quality and commitment of a relationship between two married people can be measured in an objective way – other than by looking at the divorce statistics at some point in the future, so is Jeffrey John trying to sell us his siren proposition with a comfortable and soothing reassurance which is wholly spurious?
Jeffrey John also takes issue with the view of ‘some gay people’ that a monogomous model of relationship is inappropriate for homosexuals. He then affirms the benefits of permanent, faithful and stable relationships and goes on to lay claim to the high ground of orthodoxy for his own views (which he concedes are not shared by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches and most of the Protestant Churches).
He is disarmingly frank when he writes, ‘I want to help convince the mainstream Church that a faithful homosexual relationship is not “incompatible with Scripture” (certainly no more so than the remarriage of the divorced, or the leadership of women, which are far more incompatible with the Bible’s plainest meaning).’ He explains that accepting homosexual relationships ‘does not mean jettisoning the traditional biblical theology of sex and marriage, but rather extending it to include gay people.’
‘Is it scriptural, moral and achievable?’ asks Jeffrey John, and in the course of fifty pages he answers all three questions in the affirmative.
Then we come to five pages of questions. Some of them seem to be designed quite blatantly to coerce the reader into believing that they agree with the author – and presumably all his other propositions as well. Consider for instance:
Q. Do you agree with the author’s claim that it is unfair to take the Bible literally on the subject of homosexuality, but not on the subject of remarried divorcees or the subordination of women?
Q. The author is very positive and traditional in his attitude to marriage. Is he right? Or do you side with Elizabeth Stuart, believing marriage is based on slavery, and that gay people would be better off with freer forms of relationship?
Q. Do you agree that promiscuous sexual activity ‘leads ultimately to futility, desecration and the disintegration of the person’?
You may have got three out of three on those questions, but beware, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will agree with the author’s other propositions.
So, back to our hopes for 2004. Do we genuinely want God’s Church to become more like the church he wants us to be, or deep down are we determined to tell him what sort of church he ought to have?
Are we willing to be like Jeffrey John in his frankness about his objectives, yet unwilling to emulate his devious logic to seduce others into supporting propositions which are not what they may seem to be?
Old Synod hands have seen it all before. Sadly though, the sand in the Church of England’s hourglass is trickling away. People are, I believe, looking for spiritual reality. If that is what they find in churches across our land, they will be drawn to the truth. If, on the other hand, the authentic word of God is not being purveyed in our pulpits, then our congregations will continue to drift away. Would there not be joy in heaven if 2004 were to be a year when many heard and responded to the call, first heard from the lips of John the Baptist two thousand years ago, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.’
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.