Thursday, 4 August 2011

Luggage and Labels

I have told this story before. But perhaps I may be allowed to tell it again via this blog. I suppose it must matter to me.

It was 2001 and I was undertaking Study Leave and was spending my 8 weeks investigating the Alternative Worship movement in the UK and writing up my findings.

I travelled to several cities throughout the UK to visit alt.worship communities and to converse with a number of those involved.

One afternoon in York, having just come off a train from London, I repaired to a quiet pub for a pint, to read a bit and write up some of my reflections. A man approached me, “Excuse me, but do you know that someone has stuck a label on your back?” he asked. I had not realised that someone had attached a label to me, and was grateful that the man had pointed it out. I asked him to remove it. He did so, and handed it to me, and it transpired that it was a luggage label that adhered to my back from the baggage I had been lugging around.

I sat down, grateful to have been saved the embarrassment of walking around York with a label on my back, took a sip of my pint and then smiled. For much of my ministry - indeed for much of my Christian life – I had been struggling with ‘labels’ and with the baggage that seemed to come with them. I had been lugging this baggage around with me. Was it now time to ditch it?

Of course, the particular label that I had owned (at least to some extent) was ‘evangelical’. Until the last few years I have self-identified as an evangelical.


In part because I came to faith in that context, and – for me – trusting in Jesus was a very real conversion experience. Prior to that I had been heading on a trajectory (if I may use that word!) which was taking me down increasingly destructive roads (and having met a couple of those who were also on that trajectory in the intervening years, I am all too aware of where I may have been headed!).

The faith I found within the context of evangelicalism was liberating and radical. I felt that I had been ‘born again’. You don’t get much more evangelical than that! I was set on an entirely different (and life-giving) trajectory. How can I do any other than be grateful for the evangelicals who helped me find such a redeeming faith!

But it was more than simply personal experience: it was genuine conviction too. I believed (and I still do) in the Bible as the ‘supreme rule of faith and life’, in Jesus Christ as God the Son in and through whom God’s love is revealed and especially in the Cross, in the orthodox Christian faith as passed down through the centuries and especially as embodied in the Creeds; that this faith involves a personal response to the love of God in Christ and that such faith is transformative, and that we are called to proclaim the good news of God’s love in Christ.

And yet… and yet… even from my early days of faith I could never completely and wholeheartedly sign up. By the time it got to the late 1990’s I had found what I then thought was a neat way of dealing with it. When people asked if I was an evangelical, I would ask back ‘Is Tony Blair a Socialist’ (this was before we knew the answer was “No”!). My point of course was this, define what you mean by ‘evangelical’ (‘socialist’) and I will tell you. Like ‘socialist’, the word ‘evangelical’ can mean different things and covers a wide spectrum. I knew this to be true, but found that not all that many evangelicals in Scotland seemed to believe it! There was (is) a fairly narrow definition of ‘evangelicalism’ in our nation.

From very early on I had disagreements with other evangelicals. For a start I was attracted to the early charismatic movement which – let it be said – was very different in the early 1970’s from what it became. In these days (difficult as it will be for those who do not recall these times to believe!) charismatics and evangelicals were often in opposing camps. But then the charismatic movement of these days included many Roman Catholics, High Anglicans, ‘social gospellers’, contemplatives etc and was endorsed by the likes of Lord George McLeod who spoke at some of the early gatherings. In the light of all that, no wonder some of my evangelical friends felt ill at ease!

Then there was my love of liturgy and high church ritual. This made several of my evangelical friends decidedly squeamish! And I think they were puzzled that I did not join the Christian Union or the Theological Student’s Fellowship, but instead hung around the Anglican Chaplaincy (with its high church rituals and liberal theology!). But – truth be told – that nurtured my faith more than any of the meetings of the CU or TSF that I attended. But, more, I could never have joined the CU or TSF as I could not honestly sign up to the Basis of Faith. I may acknowledge the importance and significance of the death of Jesus on the Cross (and I do) but why do I need to sign up to ‘the substitutionary sacrifice of the incarnate Son of God as the sole all-sufficient ground of redemption from the guilt and power of sin, and from its eternal consequences’. I did not and do not believe that this one ‘theory’ of the atonement should or does define the nature of what God has done for us in Jesus.

(Oh, and perhaps it is worth noting that on those occasions when I did attend a CU meeting, none of these nice evangelical Christians ever spoke to me!)

Of course, when in ministry and I began to follow the Christian Year, suggested that care for and action on behalf of the poor and marginalised was an essential part of Christian mission, spoke about ‘peace and justice and the integrity of creation’, and affirmed the role of women in ministry (remember this was the 1980’s!) many of my evangelical friends were alarmed. My two contributions at the first General Assembly I attended as a commissioner were in favour of the abolition of nuclear weapons and the equalisation of ministers’ stipends – neither of these were great ‘evangelical’ causes (and yet I believed and believe that they are Gospel causes!). I was not toeing the party line.

What is worse, I was making new ‘friends’. When I commented to one of my new friends that I was amazed at how well we got on given that he was a ‘liberal’ and I was an ‘evangelical’ he was puzzled and said ‘But you are not an evangelical, David. You preach a gospel of love, not of guilt’. He was not joking… and it made me think.

But still I clung to the label. Partly because I could not (and can not) swallow all of the ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ positions either. I have always said how alone I feel in the church, and I still do. One joke that has run in our household for decades now is that we better not have a party to which we invite all our friends, for they would be shocked to discover who we associate with!

And partly because I still owe a debt to my evangelical friends of almost 40 years ago through whom I discovered a transforming faith in Jesus. And also because I still am a credally orthodox Christian who affirms that the Bible is the supreme rule of faith and life, who longs (and works) to see others discover a transformative faith in Jesus, who believes that proclaiming this faith is a central part of our mission. It also must be said that I remain very unconvinced by the ‘progressive’/’liberal’ stream of Christianity which seems to me to be so woolly and sterile and unlikely to have any impact in contemporary society.

So where do I stand?

I don’t know… and I despair.

However, the present controversies in the Kirk are pushing me towards a decision. Some (not all) of what I have heard from the ‘traditionalist’ camp in the current debate on ‘same-sex relationships and the ministry’ has deeply alarmed me. If I were to continue to self-describe as an ‘evangelical’ I might be associated with that kind of attitude.

What kind of attitude do I mean? Well, the constant use of the phrase ‘Scripture plainly teaches’ would be one example. How can a handful of biblical verses only three of which are in the New Testament, two of which are notoriously obscure in the original Greek be taken as ‘the clear teaching of Scripture’?

What is the ‘plain teaching of Scripture’ on women speaking in church (1 Corinthians 14: 34-35) or having authority over men (1 Timothy 2: 11-12), or on divorce (Mark 10: 11-12) , or on birth control (Genesis 1: 28 & Genesis 38: 8-10)… and on this last point, if anyone can find me any Scriptural warrant for birth control, I would be interested to hear what it is!

What is ‘plain’ about homosexual behaviour that is not ‘plain’ about these other issues?

Why is it that we can accommodate various views on these issues but not on the homosexual issue? My questions are not simply polemic; I really would like to hear the rationale.

I have read widely and fully on the present issues and – while I am not yet finally settled on my view, I have still have not come across any argument that convinces me that somehow homosexual practice is in a wee category of its own away from these other issues. And that makes me wonder if there is another subconscious agenda operating here…

And so my problem remains. If I continue to self-identify as an evangelical am I associated with those who are unshakeably sure that faithful homosexual relations are sinful (notwithstanding their accommodation of some of these other issues)?

That I do not feel comfortable with…

… but if I cease to identify myself as an evangelical it does feel like I am somehow being excluded against my will….