Tuesday, May 29, 2007

For goodness sake stop it

It's probably a Jewish joke, but here's the vicars version:

an Anglican is stranded on a desert island, and after 5 years he's discovered and rescued. To their surprise, the rescuers find that he's built 2 churches on the island. When they ask why, the man replies "That's the one I go to every Sunday, and that's the one you wouldn't see me dead in."

I'm reminded of that by a number of spats going on in the evangelical world at the moment. They have 2 implications for mission: one is that people see Christians fighting each other, which, unless you're an aspiring member of Fight Club, isn't really that attractive. The other is that the nature of the fights relates directly to the nature of the church's mission.

Round 1: a month or so ago, Spring Harvest (we like it, our kids like it) split from 'Word Alive'. Word Alive was a joint initiative between Spring Harvest and the more theologically conservative UCCF and Keswick Convention organisations. A dispute over the teaching of one speaker, and whether he should be allowed to teach from the main platform, led to Word Alive setting up on its own for next year. In a bid to out-Spring Harvest Spring Harvest, it's gone for an even more remote location than Skegness or Minehead, and will be held in Wales. There was some debate via blogs and websites over how the split had happened, and whose fault it was.

Round 2: Wycliffe Hall theological college has been in the news following an anonymous document circulating a couple of weeks ago. The dispute is, again, put down to a division between those who want to be more theologically conservative, and those who have a broader conception of Christian doctrine, and how we go about the process of thinking about God and His world.

These debates are echoed in the wider Anglican communion - an international dispute over what the Anglican church believes about sexuality, which itself is indicative of how the Bible and Christian tradition are viewed - and within the Church of England.

Temperamentally, I don't like conflict. Upsetting people and being the cause of disagreement or upset is one of my internal no-go areas, though I still manage it quite regularly (!). Maybe that's why all this stuff makes me feel uncomfortable. In a few weeks time church leaders from 5 denominations and various Christian traditions are getting together here in Yeovil to pray and agree together on how we go about Christian mission to a number of new housing estates planned in the town. We will have to agree on what we think mission is, and we may start getting into some of the areas in the disputes above. So you can't avoid debates about truth, about what we believe, about how we handle the Bible and what the church is all about. But somehow the desire for common mission seems to be more important than ticking every doctrinal box.

At the same time, we do need to know what the doctrinal boxes are. It's clear that the first couple of generations of Christians were in constant danger of trading in their faith for a plausible sounding pack of lies, peddled by convincing charlatans. Without keeping one eye on truth, we can lose track of who God is, who we are, and how we should live, because plausible lies will always seem more comfortable to live with than the challenge of the gospel. Anyone who is entirely comfortable with their Christian faith clearly doesn't understand Christian faith. It stretches us; it challenges sin, ignorance, selfishness, pride, laziness, fear, injustice, indiscipline, and everything else that is wrong with us or with the world. Taken seriously, following Jesus is more demanding than training to win gold in an Olympic Decathlon. It requires the mastery (or at least the best attempts at mastery) of a variety of disciplines, and the bending of every desire and appetite and habit to a single goal, that of pleasing Jesus. So Christian faith is never comfortable, and it needs the sharpness of truth as opposed to falsehood to keep prodding us with this fact.

However, truth is not everything. This picture of the Christian life is as much about living right, as it is about believing right. I'm preparing a sermon for Sunday and am already niggled by the thought that our usual 'declaration of faith' won't be an adequate response to the message of the scriptures about healing and the Kingdom of God. Ticking the doctrinal boxes won't be enough.

It's very easy, in the hothouse that is a theological college, or the cliques and in-crowds which (sadly) mark out the different theological groupings in the church, to lose perspective. It's easy to lose perspective in local church life too - when you see things from the same viewpoint for long enough, it's easy to forget that there are other places to stand and look. Where does Jesus stand? What does Jesus see? What is he looking for from his people, and is he smiling right now or beating on the golden pavements of paradise in frustration?

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