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Thinking about “Thinking about conservative Christianity and divisions”

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

I came across this article by the retired CofE priest Stephen Parsons whom I have mentioned before here. Mr Parsons has been a voice for those who have suffered much abuse at the hands of disgraced ministers such as John Smythe and Peter Ball from the Evangelical and Catholic wings of the CofE respectively, and the institutional covers-up that these two abusers have relied upon to continue their work. I am conscious that when he writes, he does so with much compassion for those who have suffered much. In this piece, however, he does display a deeply unfortunate passion for the Liberal Agenda and thus, in my mind at least, undermines his compassion for those who are abused.

I have said very clearly that I believe that the Liberal Agenda is not properly Christian and I have given my reasons. This is something that I have to argue with my friends and family. I do think that the more I see of the Liberal Agenda eating its way through the Established Church and consuming good ministers and worshippers, the more I am convinced that this is a pernicious evil perpetrated to tear people from the loving arms of their Creator. I may be wrong, I must accept that, but this conviction has been growing faster and faster the more I see posts such as Mr Parsons’.

Mr Parsons’ main focus in this article is against conservative Christians, and it seems that, by this, he is concentrating on the conservative Evangelicals. The trouble is that there are conservative Catholics too and it is speaking against us that his arguments do unravel.

We do share many points of agreement. It is true to say that some conservative Christians reject “many of the achievements of two hundred years of scientific research.” There are many who, like the Westborough Baptist Church, scream out their hatred of homosexuals and proclaim God’s approval of their hatred despite this being so very much against the commandments of God. 
As a conservative Anglican Catholic, I accept very many of the findings of Science but I put them in their proper place as discoveries about Creation in itself. Yet, I do not believe that Science is a source of theological authority. Human beings may indeed be compared with the beasts that perish and that is how Science treats us. Scientific studies of the brain produce insights into the biological mechanism that is our body and gives ways of treating disorders, but it still misses out on the existence of the mind, of subjective consciousness and even something as simple as conservation of existence, i.e. why we should continue to be at any given moment. In that Science can be done by the complete rejection of God, we must question its role as being able to contribute anything theologically meaningful. We need God’s self-revelation in order to do anything theological. This means, if we want to believe in God, we have to have something definitive that tells us Who He Is.

And we have just that. Aside from the philosophical “proofs” of the Existence of God, we have the existence of Jesus Christ as a Historical Fact. We have the writings of the Evangelists in which modern scholarship is in agreement with the scholarship of the past that these Gospels are eye-witness testimony to the Life, Death, Resurrection and Teaching of Our Lord which have been passed down through the centuries in a myriad manuscripts copied faithfully from the First Century. That only tiny, non-doctrinal differences occur in these many, many manuscripts shows not only their reliability but, also, the importance that each scribe placed upon these words in order to get them right. So we have the Gospels. And we have the writings that came out of these from St Paul, St John, St Peter, St James and St Jude. We have Jesus, the good Jew, quoting the Hebrew Canon thus giving Christian weight to the Hebrew Scriptures. We have that writings of those who knew Jesus, who knew the apostles and those who read them and listened and wrote about them. We have those great arguments, the Councils in which those arguments were framed and settled. And we have the first millennium in which the Church, though always teetering on the edge of schism was largely in agreement about the Doctrine of Christ that it received.

In short, Conservative Christianity has already thought about, mulled over, and reached clear decisions about things and any of us can read these deliberations to this day. We simply do not need to re-invent the wheel. It is also why Conservative Catholics are in closer agreement to each other than many Evangelicals who do indeed seem to want to re-invent the wheel every time they split.

Thus, Mr Parsons is deeply wrong when he says, “The idea that even the words of Scripture do not give us certainties is very threatening to many conservative Christians.” The idea does not threaten us: it does not make sense to us. I really do not think Mr Parsons has actually thought about Conservative Christians at all. Perhaps he cannot: perhaps he and I have no real language in common with which to come to any theological agreement.

My real issue with Mr Parsons is his lack of Faith and how he is willing to put forward a fear-mongering of his own through a tyranny of whim and emotion whilst trying to undermine the very thing by which Christians know they are saved. Faith is about cultivating something as a certainty even in the face of doubt. We conservatives believe that God exists and cling to that based on the evidence that we have which must be the theological evidence that we have received. For conservative Anglican Catholics, this evidence is Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition, Holy Reason, each being the foundation of the next. This is faith, and it is faith in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks and, clearly threatening to the liberals.
Yes. Salvation is indeed a work in progress, but the immutability of Christian Doctrine provides the rod by which my progress in holiness can be measured. We are not “once-saved, always saved,” there is no single moment of conversion. But while we rehearse our formulae, we move along the groove in a record towards the centre that is Christ, not around and around in circles as perhaps Mr Parsons thinks we live.

The truths of Science are horizontal and limited to the 11 dimensions (or whatever it is now) of physical reality and they do not touch upon the real issues of life and death. Science does not give us our morality: it tells us how different patterns of behaviour work through various Game Theoretic methods. Where then does Mr Parsons get the belief that the Church should be “liberal, inclusive and open to the findings of scientific research” especially when “liberal” seems to mean “willing to reject what God commands”, “inclusive” seems to mean “rejecting the notion of sin”, and “open to the findings of scientific research” seems to mean “accepting an authority which cannot make any theological or moral statement”? If the liberal believes that the Bible is not authoritative then why bother with the commandment to love one’s neighbour? Or why not reinterpret “love” to mean whatever you want. Actually, that is indeed what seems to be happening given ECUSA Bishop Michael Curry’s equivocating sermon at the recent Royal Wedding.

In praising the integrity of human nature to be spiritual and creative, Mr Parsons seems not to see that there is this business of sin infecting human nature and both common sense and basic psychology are just as infected aspects of our humanity as anything else. Of all people, he should know how sin destroys lives as he bears witness to it often enough. The reason that Smythe and Ball are exposed is because there is a firm, immutable standard against which they fall short and are seen to fall short. The same is true for the Westborough Baptist Church: they are seen to promote evil because they disobey one of the Lord’s Commandments very obviously. The fact of the matter is that human beings have fallen; they sin; they are sinned against; they sin because they are sinned against and they are sinned against because they sin. If there is no fixed moral compass then sin goes away and all this suffering is irrelevant.

If we try to save ourselves then we fall into the Pelagianism that was condemned by the Early Church. For Mr Parsons, that Pelagianism is expressed when he says, “Does what you believe enrich your life, enable you to flourish as a human being and bring you into touch with a God who gives you hope, love and joy?” whereby we become responsible in telling God how we want to flourish. I see little flourishing of the children slaughtered by Herod. I see little flourishing of St Paul languishing in prison. I see little flourishing of people dying in dark prisons for their faith, for the very certainty, the very conviction of the Faith that Mr Parsons believes “allows absolutely no scope for disagreement or doubt”. In fact, I see in what Mr Parsons says nothing that values the witness of the countless millions who have suffered for the Faith that the Liberal Agenda wants us to hold back on the grounds that we have more to learn about God from sources that are fundamentally opposed to God, such as Scientific Materialism, Freudian Psychology and Cultural Marxism. The Liberal Agenda robs the martyrs of their dignity and robs us of the possibility of being martyrs in our own way.

I am sure that Mr Parsons would agree that the one common theme that characterises the human condition is struggle. We have to struggle with God in order to realise that we should not want to be the people that we want to be, but rather the person that God wants us to be. That means a denial of worldly thinking. It means a denial of the social expectations of political correctness, of the language of entitlement and diversity, of sexual freedom. Sex may be a gift from God but it is not a right, nor is it always a gift that can be exercised. Our Lord suffers because we have to suffer. He did not have to suffer given His omnipotence, but He clearly feels that it is necessary to suffer because of the reality of our own pains. We have to do things God’s way and this means our life becomes that of service to the Gospel in order to proclaim the freedom that is coming in the morning. For the conservative Christian, nothing is more apparent than the fact that we are passing through this life. Mr Parsons would want us to settle down and be comfortable in this life on the grounds that it is psychologically better for us.

If conservative Christianity presents a “take it or leave it” approach to doctrine then this is because we believe firmly in in One God to which the three Creeds bear witness. Yes, God has made us free to choose whatever we want to believe. This doesn’t change the fact that there is One Church, One Faith, One Lord, et c. It means that one’s personal experience cannot be as authoritative as Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Experience is a means of hypothesis to test against the revealed truth. It is valuable but not one single experience is automatically authoritative. It means that we do wander in doubt and difficulty and that we can only ever build on what is already there. If God says that Fornication is a sin, then it is a sin no matter how liberating it feels. If only a heterosexual couple can marry in the eyes of God, then it cannot be changed no matter how badly we feel. If Society expects us to sin, then it is Society that will be judged harshly when God comes again in glory.

Where I am in agreement with Mr Parsons is that the legalism of certain expressions of conservative Christianity needs to stop. The monk obeys the Benedictine Rule because he knows it will keep his community together as they follow the Catholic Faith to God. He submits himself to its discipline, even to its sanctions and stripes, because he knows that his earthly body must be kept in submission to his spirit. Both body and spirit are God's, but both need to be brought into line for the good of the self and of the community in a more perfect love for God. It isn't a question of whether He loves me: I exist therefore I am loved. It's whether I love Him that matters more, and this involves a denial of myself and a conformity to Him. The self that I deny is the one defined by myself, by my experiences and by my society. I am of God's creation, corrupted by the sin of my species, and saved from the Hell of living in these sins by my Creator. If I follow Mr Parsons' programme of progress, I shall find myself drowning in the saccharin senses of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction at actuating my own identity in the very Hell that I long to leave. 

Give me my cross now so that I might stand a chance of resurrection in Christ when the time comes.

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