The Idolatry of Being “Sound”

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury and Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea

A friend of mine who is now a bishop once said to me that being a parish priest is, in part, all about managing other people’s idolatries. It was a provocative comment which has buried in it a deep truth. Most of us know that an idol can be more than a physical object worshipped by people. It can be a career, a sense of status, or an adherence to a certain way of doing things. When the ‘thing’ becomes the end in itself, the journey towards idolatry is very much underway. Identifying the idolatry is one thing, however; setting aside the idol in favour of true worship is always the challenge.

I am regularly reminded of this comment in my ministry because it helps me to bear with others and to recognise the danger in myself. We might even ponder whether the most worrying division in the Church of England is between those who know themselves and those who don’t!

It came to mind this week when I read of an entirely unedifying episode of competitive homophobia between factions of the separatist Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) and the Anglican Church of Nigeria. Put very simply, the bishops of ACNA issued a statement on same-sex relationships which denied the possibility of someone among their members calling themselves a ‘gay Christian’ (please don’t laugh, they are deadly serious); this was followed by a group of ACNA lay and clergy people issuing a letter implicitly criticising the ACNA bishops’ statement (from a ‘gay Christian’ perspective), defending their right to use the language which the ACNA bishops wanted to outlaw; finally, appalled by the first statement and even more so by the second, the Church of Nigeria then issued an outraged letter signed by its Primate, virulently homophobic in tone, condemning everyone else in this echo chamber, taking ANCA to task for even raising the matter.

I hope readers might forgive me a passing moment of schadenfreude[1] in all of this. Self-righteousness does need to be mocked. Even Jesus had these moments. But once that feeling had passed, I was reminded of the vulnerability of LGBTI+ Anglicans in Nigeria and ACNA who have to live in such a poisonous and unhealthy environment. For all its faults and mis-steps along the way, at least the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project begins with an honest acknowledgment of all the voices at the table. There are clearly those in and ACNA and the Church of Nigeria who identify as gay or, along with a modest number of conservative Anglicans in England “same sex attracted”. Among them there is an honesty that sexual temptation and lapses from the celibate lifestyle are a reality of living in fallen world. One hates to imagine the consequent pastoral burden that LGBTI+ people have to bear with only denial and condemnation in the air.

But the wider question of idolatry is the one that bugs me. If you define the membership of a sect such as ACNA, or even as a Church like Nigeria, in clear opposition to a particular ethical action by drawing a line in the sand (as they have done on homosexuality), then the risk is always that you focus on the definition as the mark of membership. The line becomes the measure of your welcome, the article of faith which sets you apart from ‘the rest’. You then have to define ‘the rest’ in some way as ‘other’. So we end up with the ACNA/Nigeria language of heresy and false teaching, the persistent claims that to hold a view such as mine (i.e. on the wrong side of their line) is to be outside of grace, and thus you redefine the gospel in much narrower terms. This is a subtle form of idolatry, however much you dress it up in the language of conscience (a word that has been the cause of much Protestant sin). It is, dare I say it and to borrow a phrase beloved of some conservatives, a form of false gospel, a limitation, even denial of the scope of the grace and love of God.

I’m pondering this question in Lent, with the words of Jesus about “dying to self” in my ears. Do I, do we risk, in our focus on doctrinal soundness and personal conscience, putting ourselves and our views in the place where Christ’s superabundant love should only have pride of place? Might we need to die to the idolatries that we love to create in the Church, which make us feel better about who we are and that for which we stand, always at the expense of ‘the rest’?

Is this how we end up excluding others from that which God only includes us in?


[1] Translated: the pleasure you take in the misfortune of another.

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3 Responses to The Idolatry of Being “Sound”

  1. I’m reminded of the character in one of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge novels who says that one of the most important phrases to remember in the spiritual life is “I can be wrong.”

  2. Petro Hryziuk says:

    excellent thoughtful article. Thank you SImon

  3. Michah says:

    When ever you “draw a line in the sand” and define a person or group to be outsiders and cut off from God by so doing, you will find that Jesus Christ is also on the “outside” of that human created boundary.

    He was crucified outside the city gate. When he rose from the dead, he still bore the marks that defined him as “outsider”.

    To follow the crucified-and-risen Christ means to stop casting pople out of the city gate.

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