Who is the trouble-maker?

Fri, 24/02/2017 - 13:26 -- James Oakley
Godfrey, the trouble-making parrot

The Gossipy Parrot by Shen Roddie, a story that our children used to love: Godfrey, the parrot loved to make trouble. He used to tell tales on the other animals - "Gorrila says that bee has stung his own bottom." "He does, does he?", says bee - and off he goes to get even. One day the lion decided to teach Godfrey a lesson. He fed him all kinds of juicy snippets: "The trouble maker says that crocodile has false teeth", which Godfrey would faithfully relay to crocodile. Eventually, the whole jungle was fed up with this trouble maker, so they all gather together to ask Godfrey the question that is on their minds: "Who is the trouble-maker?" Godfrey asks Lion, who gives him an answer he passes straight back: "He's a feathered fool, and he's right in front of you.

I have a queue of blog posts to write on heart-warming, gospel-focused topics. In the past, I've written many blog posts, such as a series on the tremendous end-times hope that Jesus Christ gives to all who trust him. I'd far rather make posts like that, but every time I get one ready, I end up compelled to write once again on the unfolding crisis within the Church of England on human sexuality. I feel a little like Jude must have felt when he wrote his letter:

"Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord." (Jude 3-4)

Some might say that blog posts like this stir up trouble. These topics are divisive. Why not stick to topics about which all professing Christians can agree?

That is precisely the point, and it's what I want to write about this morning.

The need to define "inclusion"

One week ago, I wrote about the letter that the two Church of England archbishops wrote to all members of General Synod. In it was a phrase that I suggested needed clarifying:

we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church

our proposals will ensure a wide ranging and fully inclusive approach

It seems that "inclusion" is the new buzzword. David Baker has joined me in a very winsomely and respectfully worded appeal to the archbishops to define what this means.

I've always thought the gospel was radically inclusive already. I've always believed that 'the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives' – as the famous hymn puts it. And when I look back on churches of which I have been a part, I recall them including paedophiles, an associate of the Kray twins, pornography addicts, adulterers – and others, including myself, whose middle class respectability masked sins which might have been less obvious but were equally heart-breaking to God. We, together, were vile offenders (in the eyes of God's law if not of the world) who chose to repent and believe. And gloriously, all of us were welcomed and included! When you add in the mind-blowing mix of age, ethnicity and background as well, that seems pretty inclusive already.


Trouble brewing

Sadly, no clarification has been forthcoming. Last week, I said that without clarification, "people will assume the best/worst (delete as appropriate) and divisions will become even more entrenched within just the next few days."

That is what has been happening, and among those have been a number of bishops treating "full inclusion" as giving them a mandate to press ahead with finding ways to welcome same-sex patnered people in ways that go far beyond the current official position of the church.

One is the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd David Walker. He wrote:

Times of change are by their nature times of paradox. To be purposefully paradoxical is to recognise that whilst consistency may be a feature of the endpoints of a journey it is rarely present all along the way.

Such an embracing of paradox with a purpose provides the context for an exploration of the Archbishop’s radical inclusion that is much, much more than the maximum freedom which one Synod member tellingly remarked may mean little beyond “the prisoner being allowed to walk around their entire cell”. It opens up the possibility of exploring our prayers, our discipline, our outreach, our ministry and our teaching, and doing so with the expectation that things are going to look significantly different afterwards.

In other words, we need to be inconsistent, maintaining a traditional view of marriage in the official position, whilst bringing about practices that undermine that. The end game is that things look very different, and are once again consistent - consistent in being uncritically welcome of same-sex marriage and practice.

Another is the Bishop of Bradwell in the Diocese of Chelmsford. He is under a lot of pressure on a lot of fronts, and we should pray for him as we pray for all our bishops. However, he's chosen to write to his clergy with the following statement:

"More time does need to be given to a well-founded theology of relationship, friendship and marriage which I hope will lead in time to a full acceptance of same-sex marriage in the Church of England. That will take time. However, that should not hold us back in the immediate from proper recognition through prayers, blessing celebration and affirmation of all that is good and wholesome in a wide variety of relationships including stable, faithful, committed and God given same sex relationships."

This is very similar. The official position will change in due course, but in the mean time we need "prayers, blessing celebration and affirmation", something which goes well beyond what is allowed under the current position.

Far from having clarity on what "radical inclusion" means, it's being interpreted in quite varied ways.

Things will get messy

If some of our bishops carry on down this road, changing practice on the ground as an underhand way eventually to change the official position, things will get messy. We can expect to see conservative evangelical churches withholding money from the diocesan budget. We can expect to see conservative evangelical churches seeking alternative episcopal oversight. We can expect to see … you know what, I don't know. That the point of "messy" - we cannot predict where this will end.

What is certain is this: If conservative evangelical churches start to react in these kinds of ways, the question will be asked: "Who is the trouble-maker here?" No doubt, the media, and many within the Church of England, will be keen to brand those evangelicals as the trouble-maker.

Elijah and Ahab

The other day, I quoted from 1 Kings 18:21:

"How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him."

That led to the famous contest at Mount Carmel, and the people of Israel unanimously decided that "The Lord, he is God". What I had forgotten until I re-read the chapter the other day was how that showdown actually began. Here's 1 Kings 18:16-18:

"Ahab went to meet Elijah. When he saw Elijah, he said to him, ‘Is that you, you troubler of Israel?’ ‘I have not made trouble for Israel,’ Elijah replied. ‘But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals."

That is very striking. King Ahab regards Elijah as the "troubler of Israel". When Elijah goes to confront him, he accuses him of being precisely that - he is the trouble maker. And here is Elijah's reply:

I have not made trouble for Israel, but you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals.

Elijah is absolutely clear. He is not the one to make trouble for Israel. Ahab and his family can take the credit for that. They are the ones who have led Israel to abandon God and his commands, and to follow the Baals (the Canaanite gods) as well. Indeed, by this point "as well" had turned into "follow the Baals instead". Without him leading the Israelites to worship a different god, Elijah would not have called for a drought, and there would be no Mount Carmel moment.

Who is the trouble-maker?

So, today, people will ask: "Who is the trouble-maker?"

Richard Hooker preached a sermon on Jude, in which he said these words:

"That which they call schism, we know to be our reasonable service unto God."

An extract from Hooker's sermon on Jude

As traditional, orthodox, mainstream believers stand up for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as revealed in Holy Scripture, they are accused of being schismatics, trouble-makers. It was so in Richard Hooker's day, it was so in Elijah's day, and it will be so in our own day.

Instead, we are simply offering our reasonable service unto God; the schism, and the trouble-making comes instead from those who would lead his church away from true worship and towards other gods, the gods of our own age.

I appeal to the bishops of the Church of England: There are lots of us who are looking to you to lead us in our reasonable service unto God. Please don't do things that will cause schism and division in the church. Please define "radical inclusion" before others hijack it and use it to do untold damage. Please clarify that you meant only the radical inclusion of the gospel, that means people like us can find God's undeserved grace. Please don't be trouble-makers.

At the end of The Gossipy Parrot, the lion sits down with a humble Godfrey, no longer a trouble-maker. "No more tittle-tattle, eh Godfrey?", says Lion. That would be good.

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