A Question of Christian Identity?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News

Jayne Ozanne (3)

Later this week, the University of Chester will host a one-day conference on “Sexuality and Anglican Identities”.  It promises to be an interesting day with speakers offering a wide range of perspectives – from Dr Susannah Cornwall (Exeter University to Dr David Hilborn (St John’s School of Mission in Nottingham).

In promoting the event the project organisers, Dr Paul Middleton and Dr Jessica Keady, note:

G“Sexuality is a divisive issue in the Church today.  For many of those who hold different positions on the presenting issues, Christian identity is at stake.  …While what has been called the Church of England’s via media has been able to accommodate theological and ethical breadth within a broad understanding of Anglican identity (eg The Pilling Report, 2013), in the current environment, various Anglican groups (such as Changing Attitude, GAFCON, Reform etc) call for a more decisive decision to either include or exclude people in same sex relationships.  These groups, for whom sexuality (or more particularly, homosexuality) has become the measure of Anglican faithfulness, create different ways of constructing and understanding Anglican identity.”

Personally, I would argue that this issue actually has very little to do with Anglican identity and everything to do with certain tribes’ definition and understanding of Christian identity.  I make this important distinction as there are many tribes (such as New Wine, the Evangelical Alliance, Spring Harvest) whose first allegiance it seems is not to their denomination but to their tribe.  This is particularly true within the evangelical tradition.  If you doubt this, just look at how many relate to authority – where the recognised tribal leaders hold more influence than the official appointed traditional leader, such as the local bishop.

For many, their sense of identity is and has always been in their allegiance to their Christian brothers and sisters who exhibit certain key traits or have experienced certain spiritual manifestations.  These can be summed up in key catch phrases such as “bible-believing Christians” or “spirit-filled Christians” who have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”.  As such, these descriptors are used to segregate “real Cristians” from those who “just think they are Christians”.  Of course, they would argue this practice is highly biblical as Jesus talks about separating “the sheep from the goats” and “wheat from tares” (although they tend to forget that it is Jesus himself who does this – and not until the final judgement).

A good example of this was when Rowan Williams was announced as the new Archbishop of Canterbury.  I remember clearly that the one single question that most of the Lambeth Partners (a group formed to provide practical support (ie money) for the archbishop) wanted to know was “Is he spirit-filled, Jayne?”  Most had joined the Partnership to support Archbishop George Carey, and as such were senior evangelicals from across the country.  Many were very sceptical at ++Rowan’s appointment, and wanted reassuring.  I remember being deeply angered by these questions and would always respond “Of course he’s spirit-filled!!  Have you read any of his books or heard him preach?!  Can’t you see the gift of wisdom that God has given him?”  But what they wanted to hear from me was that there was tangible proof that he spoke in tongues or exhibited other signs of the Holy Spirit as set out in 1 Corinthians 14.  For without this proof they could not be certain that he was on the right side of the great divide.  As such many left the Partnership.

And therein lies the crux of our problem as a “Church”.  We have a deep fault line that we hardly ever acknowledge or talk about.  One (large) evangelical group passes judgement on another (large but more dispersed) liberal/Anglo-Catholic group.  They assume that because they don’t have a similar experience of God – or at least they don’t believe that they have – they should be “written off” as charlatans and pretenders.  They perceive them as people just in love with tradition and ritual, who don’t have a “personal relationship with Christ” and hence “are in love with religion rather than with the living Lord Jesus”.

The problem doesn’t stop there.  Many within the liberal/anglo-catholic group tend themselves to write off those from the evangelical group for being “narrow minded bigots, who leave their brains at the door”.

Oh, see how we love each other!

Whatever happened to “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others you will be judged”?  Yes, I know this verse is frequently quoted by tribal leaders who say they don’t want to judge individuals – at least it’s regularly quoted to me when I ask whether they think I am going to hell as per Romans 1 for being openly gay.  But, of course they do judge!  They refuse to recognise people like me as being part of their tribe – or indeed any evangelical who “has gone soft” on homosexuality.  Instead many of us are asked to stand down from positions of lay leadership because of the views that we hold.

Be under no doubt, your tribal identity is key.  In fact, it is more than that, it is critical – as you may find yourself on the wrong side of the pearly gates if you get it wrong!  Of course, you’ll also find yourself out in the cold – away from the fellowship of your friends – if you show any form of disagreement.  That form of ostracism is far more difficult and painful to deal with.  You may also not get that promotion you hoped for.

As many know to their cost, it is extremely difficult to stand against your leaders’ teachings if you don’t agree with them – best to keep quiet and keep your thoughts to yourself.  Remember, your leaders must know best because “they are the really spirit-filled ones”.  They know, because they have the Spirit of Discernment, and the Spirit of Wisdom and the Spirit of Counsel.  Of course, “pretend Christians” can’t have the same level of biblical understanding because they aren’t spirit filled – even if they are a bishop!

So, to recap, there are many who believe that to be a “real Christian” (and recognised by your church leaders and friends as a “real Christian”) you must belong to the “right group”.  This means you MUST publicly show that you are prepared to play by your club’s rules – and more importantly, that you are prepared to publicly state that you believe the “right things”.  Hence being asked to sign a Statement of Faith, which increasingly has clauses about beliefs regarding sexuality and same sex relationships in it.

Indeed, your stance on sexuality is key – it is now the defining factor that shows whether you have “conformed to this world” and given in to “liberal pressure”, or whether you’re prepared to “stand firm against the devil” even if this makes you unpopular.  Showing any form of weakness in this area is very dangerous – you cannot afford to be swayed by emotional blackmail of the painful stories of what happens to LGBTI Christians who suffer under their church’s teaching.  Heaven forbid that your heart aches to show compassion and kindness, or that you see the wonderful fruit flowing from a same sex couple in love.

After all, you’re told, didn’t Christ warn this would happen “in the end times”? That people would be ensnared by “false teaching” and would “love the world”?  Ironically, it’s all done “for the sake of the Gospel” – even if that core Gospel message is being horrendously undermined, people excluded from God’s love and a Church labelled homophobic by an incredulous nation who look on in anger and bewilderment.

Oh what a web we weave!

But because we’re Anglicans (and British) we all smile sweetly at each other, and we pretend we get on.  Behind the smiles is that thought that “one day, God will show them we’re right and then they’ll repent..”

And that thought exists on both sides!

I am of the firm belief that this judgemental spirit is one of the greatest dangers to the Christian gospel today.  It turns the Word of God into a lie.  It is a form of spiritual abuse and blindness that cannot be reasoned with or challenged.  It is a fundamentalist belief that “I am right because I am spirit-filled and I KNOW.”  It is harsh, unloving, uncaring and ungodly.  It is even more dangerous because it is preached in the name of love by leaders who are themselves good men and women, but who refuse to recognise that they exhibit a homophobic spirit.  More importantly it refuses to answer the call of the Holy Spirit to show kindness and compassion, and fails to recognise that where there is love there is God.

Only Jesus can touch hardened hearts to the enormity of his love – and for that we need a miracle, and for that we need to pray!

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19 Responses to A Question of Christian Identity?

  1. Erika Baker says:

    To me it always seems like a lack of confidence in God. We can only be sure of his love if we have the right faith, but that automatically means the the ‘others’ have to have the wrong faith.

    The challenge is to focus on God alone and not to get our validation from other people.

  2. Margaret Evans says:

    Good argument Jayne.

  3. Well said; and, too true: those of us at our end (and I am certainly on the progressive side of the arc) have our own bigots that we need to acknowledge and challenge. Doesn’t change where I find myself on the arc, but it does bring me back to some humility.

  4. ckatsarelis says:

    Very true. Of course, the difficult part is the power issues. Because if everyone could simply believe as they wish, but take a laissez-faire/tolerant approach to folks who differ, things could be OK. People can stick with their tribe. The problem comes when one side insists on using power to exclude others.

    I agree that the conservative side lack’s faith in God’s ability to sort things out, and so some folks set themselves up as gatekeepers for God. Jesus never asked for that.

  5. greenleafjenn says:

    I literally presented on this very same issue, drawing the same conclusions, just three days ago!!! Were you looking at my paper from across the pond, Ms. Jane Ozanne? (LOL) No, probably not. Your article is much more eloquently written and expressed. Thanks for sharing it!!!!!!

  6. Edward Prebble says:

    Thank you Jayne
    When I was studying Romans at University of Nottingham in 1982, Dr, later Professor, James D G Dunn had an interesting take on Chapter 14, where he saw a Paul presenting a paradigm that can apply in many situations, including debates about (homo)sexuality. Paul describes two groups of people, whom he describes as “strong” and “weak”, thus displaying his own feelings. Dunn suggested that “conservative” or “Traditional, and “liberal” or “progressive” can be substituted.
    On any issue, be it the eating of meat sacrificed at pagan altars, or the ordination of women, or equal marriage, there is a natural tendency for conservative people to judge those who are pressing for change, and for liberal people to despise those who argue for maintaining old patterns. Verse 3 says that meat-eaters must not despise the scrupulous, and the scrupulous must not condemn those who eat the meat. And v10 says that we should never pass judgement on a sister or brother, nor treat them with contempt.
    Jayne, you are absolutely correct that associating ourselves with various “tribes” increases these tendencies. It is as we learn to think from outside of the tribe that we as Christians can find the way forward.


  7. Richard Landon says:

    I hope you won’t mind a somewhat dissenting comment. This piece seems to me to present something verging on a caricature of the evangelical position. Their concern is not so much about someone’s position on whether homosexual activity, (not homosexual orientation as such), is sinful, though that is important, and on whether thinking it isn’t casts doubts on the genuineness of someone’s Christian profession; but on the more fundamental matter of their understanding of the Gospel and of their view of the authority of Scripture.

    At the same time, many evangelicals would assert that Scripture does teach that sexual activity between people of the same gender is sinful, and would be concerned if that teaching, as they understand it, is denied. As is argued in the piece, it will be for Jesus to sort out the sheep and the goats. But we do have a responsibility to refute what we take to be false teaching, just as the piece seeks to do (see Titus 1:9 for example.

  8. RevDave says:

    Yes, it’s a little unfair to characterise people as judgemental when: they are not rejecting gay people; or saying that loving people of the same sex is wrong; or saying that they are better than gay people; And they even admit that they themselves have sinned sexually!

    Isn’t this article is reading too much into their belief that, when Jesus said that sexual fornications are sins, that included same-sex sex?

    After all, that is not an unreasonable understanding of what Jesus had in mind: that was the understanding of the Old Testament writers before Him; AND that was the understanding of the New Testament writers who came after Him (several of who knew Him and His teachings).

    • ckatsarelis says:

      “Isn’t this article is reading too much into their belief that, when Jesus said that sexual fornications are sins, that included same-sex sex? ”

      As Rod has explained on TA, Jesus never addressed gay people at all. So no, we can’t possible know that He was including loving, faithful, same sex couples. When Paul addresses sexual sin later on, he uses words in a context that suggest temple prostitution (part of the fertility rites at pagan temples), and words rarely used, but scholars don’t settle on the belief that it refers to faithful same-sex couples. One might be a slur about effeminate men, but even that isn’t automatically clear. Even the OT can be unpacked.

      To use the Bible to exclude, humiliate, and bash gay people is not justified. People can believe what they want, but the evidence is not clear (while divorce is much clearer) enough to sanction a whole group of people who are also Children of God, created in God’s Image. God can work this out and doesn’t need gatekeepers to do it for Him/Her.

  9. Richard Landon says:

    Thanks to RevDave and ckatsarelis for responding to my comment.

    As ckatserelis says, it is true (as far as we know) that Jesus did not say address gay people. What he did do was to endorse male – female marriage in Matthew 19:4-6, quoting Genesis 1;27 & 2;4. An argument from silence is not usually very satisfactory. Some would draw the conclusion that Jesus was teaching that God’s intention was simply for male – female marriage and sexual relationships. Others would draw the opposite conclusion.

    Similarly, some would cite Paul in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 as teaching that same-sex relationships are sinful, whereas others would say he is referring to practices that are not relevant today. Or some would set Paul against Jesus, whereas others would regard him as commissioned and enabled to teach God’s truth, and bear in mind that he wrote before the Gospels were published.

    Christians should not be judgmental, though they may, and sometimes must, disagree. Neither should they “use the Bible to exclude, humiliate and bash” one another, though sadly some do. Ironically, those who belief same sex activity is not in accordance with God’s will are also sometimes subjected to such treatment!

    “Tribalism” (Jayne’s word), where we simply follow the line of the group we identify with, perhaps out of fear of what they might think if we step out of line, and cast doubts on the spiritual status of those with whom we disagree, is not a proper basis to conduct fruitful dialogue on these matters. I hope the conference in Chester will have been fruitful – perhaps someone will tell us on this website? (By the way, I’m not an Anglican, just a concerned spectator.) Let’s listen to one another graciously!

    • ckatsarelis says:

      Thank you, Richard. In Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus was addressing divorce in an age where women were chattel and divorced women were highly vulnerable to poverty and abuse. For almost two thousand years, no one saw it as pertaining to gays or our marriages.

      As for the Pauline “references,” many scholars don’t believe they deal with gayness at all. Bad translations have done a lot of harm.

      I agree very much with what Jayne says about tribalism. I have to note that for those of us who are LGBTQI, it isn’t about “agreement” and “disagreement,” it is about our lives, our being, and in this context, our inclusion in the Body of Christ in the Anglican incarnation of it. So “disagreement” is a personal attack on my person and my marriage. The rhetoric of exclusion is depressing. It goes against our own experience of Jesus and the cognitive dissonance is sometimes deafening.

      • RevDave says:

        Richard, the main problem with the argument that Jesus never addressed gay people is that it is anachronistic. In the OT and NT people are thought of as Biological creatures rather than just psychological beings.

        So OT and NT writers will, inevitably, talk in terms of same-sex sex, rather than being gay (though, actually, Paul in Romans 1 does refer to the *mutual* sexual desire felt by two women or men, so he is aware that there are people who are homosexually attracted, not just abusing slaves or using prostitutes).

        That’s why I think we can’t avoid the conclusion that when Jesus said that sexual fornications are sins (Mark 7:20-22), that included same-sex sex.

        This was the understanding of the Old Testament writers before Him; AND it was the understanding of the New Testament writers who came after Him…. who interpreted His teachings into other cultures where same-sex sexual relationships were not necessarily seen as fornication (such as existed in Rome cf Romans 1).

        With ckatsarelis, I do understand all too well how it feels to be told that your love is against Gods Will. How can love be wrong? Well a quick look through the NT soon shows that NT love is not primarily about sex, or a spouse – it’s all about giving, caring and relating well to everyone. And we all agree that we should reject acting on some sexual attractions (eg to other people’s spouses and, according to Jesus, to anyone we aren’t married to.. Matt 5:28-29)

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  11. Richard Landon says:

    Again, thank you ckatsarelis and RevDave for your responses.

    I’m sorry that ckatsarelis perceives disagreement as a personal attack on their person and marriage. Peter says, in a different context, that we should answer people “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Nevertheless, it will sometimes be the case that someone comes to the conclusion that someone else is seriously mistaken, and that isn’t at all easy to say or to accept. The whole discussion of sexuality is fraught with such consequences.

    And I don’t think, sadly, that we are ever going to agree what the bible’s teaching about sexual relationships means. Maybe eventual separation is inevitable. Nevertheless, as earlier Dissenters have said, we should all consider it possible that we may be mistaken, and be confident that the Lord has more light and truth yet to break forth out of his holy word.

    • ckatsarelis says:

      Richard, to me, the anti-gay talk is no different from racism. How would this look if this was addressed to an interracial couple? Or to people of color? That is exactly how I experience it. In fact, statistics like gay teen suicide suggest that I’m not alone in how I experience this rhetoric.

      As for the Scriptural readings on Biblical teaching… I am now a spouse at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey – the Valhalla of scholarship (has some Oxbridge folks). Here, there are scholars who read Greek, Syriac, Hebrew, in addition to Latin, and study the writings and culture of the times. No one thinks it reads in the way RevDave and other conservatives want it to read. The linguistic and cultural evidence for the anti-LGBTQI reading is flimsy, at best.

      Across the golf course from me is Princeton University, where Elaine Pagels and Cornell West are on faculty. I don’t know them personally, but their writings shed much light on both the early church and what what it really means to address moral issues of our time.

      The anti-gay position doesn’t stand up to scrutiny with the churches teachings on divorce, which is addressed more clearly in Scripture. The hypocrisy cries out. And in addition to the extreme proof texting, poor translations, and wild assumptions (such as those expressed by RevDave) of the NT “interpretations”, there’s no getting around the fact that using the OT requires significant cherry picking.

      Without all of the heady scholarship (even the finest in the world), it is impossible to see how the anti-gay position is in compliance with the clearest commandment of all, to love one’s neighbor. It is not love when being judged. And to believe that a loving same sex couple, married and fully included in the church, creates some cosmic catastrophe or interferes in God’s Grace and Salvation, reduces faith to mere superstition.

    • RevDave says:

      Richard, yes I think we can see this discussion is going in circles – which seem to be rather centrifugal.
      I do think that the underlying issue is where authority lies. If you read Scripture for the authors’ meaning, and understand it primarily as a canonical whole that speaks with inspired authority on matters of faith and morals, you come to one set of conclusions. And if you read Scripture through the lens of 21st century thinking and understand it primarily as a collection of diverse heavily-redacted documents that reveals something about the groups that controlled its development, with some progressive thinking –
      though even in the Gospels still mixed with superstitions and prejudice – you come to another set of conclusions.
      For what it’s worth I think this latter approach is just simple eisegesis and necessarily just brings the liberal scholar full circle to his/her own assumptions.

      BTW I don’t think that Jesus was anti-heterosexual despite most of his moral condemnations of sexual immoralities (and divorce & remarriage) being aimed squarely at various heterosexual sexual behaviours! … Also, I am fairly well qualified in Theology (and didn’t know IAS faculty included bible scholars?) If you have the time, further reading on a canonical reading of Scripture: Brevard Childs’ opus: “Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments” (Child’s was just a Professor of Divinity at Yale University).

  12. Richard Landon says:

    Thanks, RevDave. I agree entirely with your conclusions! Like you, I am fairly well qualified (theology degree and 40+ years reading, though I haven’t got Brevard Childs’ book).

    This is probably a good place to stop. I still live in hope that the Lord will eventually rescue us all from going round in circles.

  13. ckatsarelis says:

    I hope that God will soften our hearts so that we stop believing that we are empowered to use power over others for the sake of our prejudices (LGBT, women, race, whatever) and economic convenience (First World consumption at the expense of the poor around the world).

Any thoughts?