Uniting a broad Church

Next year 2017, is the 500th year anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church. Historically this signified the start of the Protestant Reformation. His teaching was about salvation by faith, not works and looking to scripture rather than church authority and tradition. There was a great thirst for his teachings, just as there was for John Hus’s 100 years earlier in Prague. The people of northern Germany and Holland were empowered to make their own decisions. There was a Glorious Anarchy as many different strands of belief were born. Many soon died, especially under the inevitable persecution from Rome in the need to install some order.

But moderate Lutheranism remained, as did a hard-line version of Calvin’s teaching. Soon war after war ravaged much of Northern Europe. Politics intertwined with Religion and caused some horrible atrocities. The Thirty years war was possibly the worst. The war of three kingdoms in the British Isles (known as the English Civil War) was almost as divisive. Here the war was between the monarchy and many different Protestant groups, principally the Puritans. These wars divided people everywhere and led to the devastation of entire regions as war was brought to the people, rather than being confined to the battlefield. Also it led to a desolation of the soul as faith imploded. Religion preaching love, joy and peace, was then killing in the name of truth and the protection of their own belief structure. Those that fought the war had given up on those principles.

By 1715, Europe had found peace and concentrated on making money and empire building. The Enlightenment was the new philosophy putting science and reason at its core. In England in the mid-18th Century, priests like George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley started to preach about a personal faith which echoed Luther. It was called Evangelicalism. William Wilberforce was a convert and as a leading politician, he devoted his life to ridding Britain and her colonies of the vile slave trade and slavery itself. It took 49 years of determination, oratorical skill, ceaseless campaigning and political manoeuvring to bring slavery to an end in the British Empire. By the time he finished, and he died shortly after the bill to end slavery was passed, the moral compass had changed in Britain. Evangelical reformers started to be concerned with workers, those who grafted for the wealth of the nation. Various different reforms were enacted that put the worker in more favourable, wealthier and safer place.

The doctrine of the evangelical church has not changed in 300 years and nor has the ethics. Evangelicalism is bonded to the patriarchal society, as is much in society these days. In fact there is no part of history where there was no patriarchal society. It was formed, as was the family, when people started farming instead of hunter-gathering and has remained the same ever since. In the Bible Paul’s letters codify Jesus redemptive work and try and explain the mysterious and unknowable work of the Holy Spirit. There are ethical statements also, and Evangelicals include these as absolute as well. But is it right to accept that Paul’s teaching’s, to his small missionary churches, planted in the Greco-Roman world 2000 years ago, are for all cultures for all time?

In the last 50 years in the UK things have changed. Women have been all but emancipated, certainly in the eyes of the law. Now they may have assumed control over family affairs. In the patriarchal society, the vast majority of people had the same lifestyles in regard to the country they came from. Now there are as many different lifestyles as there people in the UK. The Bible refers to marriage, but 2000 years ago in Palestine, people had arranged marriages to their first cousin or someone else from the village at eighteen years old. There was no singleness, there was no courtship, there was no power struggles, there was no splitting up, there was no divorce generally, there were no state benefits, there was no images on global media, there no was mixing of men and women in society, there was no gay partnerships or contraception and people lived, on average, to 35 years old.

Although, for those that have witnessed it, the Church can be effective spiritually, I believe there is a chasm between it and society in England. The openness of the charismatic church allows it to be effective in the spiritual realm. I hope it continues but they can be manipulated. It seems there are many who have become marginalised from the church due to their lifestyle or personality. Which is often not their fault. Even to be genuinely accepted in the church maybe too costly for some. There are those who have the ability to live as pure and holy. But many others would look for genuine acceptance rather than being judged by their peers.

Relationships of all types are contracts, either stated or unstated. Christian ethics cannot be wedded to one form of contract in a complex world, especially when the circumstances of marriage have changed beyond recognition. More and more demands and unrealistic expectations are placed on the institution. Ultimately people or couples should make their own decisions. For me looking at the Bible, the principles of balance, agape and truth are a golden chain when attempting to make a successful relationship.

Unfortunately for the Evangelical Church, no sex before heterosexual marriage is a pillar of their ethics and what happens if you remove the pillar? For a regular churchgoer it makes sense to stick with the traditional line in showing commitment to their church’s doctrine. If people truly want to seek, then the Evangelical Church is more than capable of continuing to teach basic Christianity and explain the Bible. At the same time, the Church should respect the individual’s choices, then the edifice might not come tumbling down. Also, the Liberal Church could help those schooled in basic Christianity, to think for themselves, explore other philosophies and apply what they discover in their own lives.

In this way, Liberal and Evangelical could help the people of the UK. To do this there would need to be a more flexible and understanding corporate approach to both doctrine and ethics. Surely for a broad church to exist, not only survive, there must be various defined doctrine and ethics. Then you can find unity. But don’t listen to me, listen to God. It’s his Church and he will do precisely what he wants to do with it.

To those that pray. Get on your knees!

Conway-Laird (2016)


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