Discernment and Discipleship -- A Response to the Bishop of Liverpool

 

Discernment and Discipleship -- A Response to the Bishop of Liverpool

Author: 

Gavin Ashenden

The Church of our day urgently needs to heed the message of this second letter of Paul to Timothy. For all around us we see Christians and churches relaxing their grasp of the gospel, fumbling it, in danger of letting it drop from their hands altogether. A new generation .. is needed, who will guard the sacred deposit of the gospel, who are determined to proclaim it and are prepared to suffer for it, and who will pass it on pure and uncorrupted to (this) generation.–John Stott, 1&2 Timothy.

One of the great gifts of the charismatic movement was to reintroduce to the church the need and the ability to ‘test the spirits’. Those who had been involved particularly in the ministry of deliverance in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church, had never lost the clarity that the human pilgrimage and the integrity of the church was primarily defined by a spiritual struggle.

This spiritual dynamic constitutes the underlying framework on the top of which was laid the intellectual debate. Where that perception is lost, the church ceases to be the Body of Christ and becomes a political institution. Perhaps it should be no great surprise that where the church has slipped into that mode, it is attracted by political language and concepts.

Another problem with confining ourselves to rationality is that everything flows from our initial suppositions, or on those occasions when we don’t examine them, pre-suppositions. So depending on what the initial values are (whether they are true or false, deceptive or clarifying) the rest of an argument can be built with ornate and convincing rhetorical flourishes; and lead entirely to the wrong conclusion.

But the gift of discernment is a charism that allows Christians to cut through deceptions, idolatries, seductive values and dead ends, before applying an analytical focus to competing narratives that attempt to describe and direct the human journey.

It is always a matter of deep sorrow when bishops in particular, who were ordained to be guardians of the biblical and apostolic faith, allow themselves to be directed and infused by spirits that set themselves against the Holy Spirit.

Much of the struggle of the Church in the 19th and 20th century can be understood as a struggle between the Holy Spirit and the spirit of rationalism.  When the Church is taken over by people who turn their back on the Holy Spirit with its ever mysterious power to break, turn and heal the human heart, it becomes a religion without power to transform and rescue people. Instead it smells only of the dank mould of decayed religion, locked in the airless confines of the intellectual attic.

In the 21st Century there is a new spirit (or a new variation on some old themes) seducing the Church where it allows itself to have boundaries that are over porous to the demands of the passing culture. Where the Church fails to test these competing spirits with Scripture, tradition (the experience of living Scripture) and the charisms of the Holy Spirit, it capitulates to the culture and the drivers of the culture.

So now we face something that is both an ideology, but also a spirit. Behind the ideology are the old and familiar spirits of lust, anger, incontinence and power, re-dressed in the clothing of what we might call ‘therapeutic Marxism’.

What are the assumptions of this new ideology that houses the old corruptions freshly dressed as idolatrous utopianism- the construction of heaven on earth?

Like all heresies they contain truth and untruth mixed deceptively.

Catharsis – letting it all out- has become a secular cultural norm.

But in Christian terms this is the spirit of incontinence smuggled into a half-truth contained in the practice of psychotherapy.

Over the last one hundred and fifty years psychotherapy developed the notion of catharsis of feeling; that a panacea for psychological pain was the opportunity to ‘let-out’ feelings. This has become a secular truism of ‘self-expression good/ repression bad’.

Both psychotherapy at its more professional level, and other critical disciplines, have pointed out that the complexities of human conscious and unconscious pain are more complex than that.

Some critics claim that the cathartic expression of so-called repressed feeling does nothing more than give temporary relief to the subject while simply displacing difficulties elsewhere.

Professional psychotherapists know only too well that catharsis needs to be carefully directed and its success depends in part on the issues the client faces as well as the skill of the therapist. But in popular terms, a kind of blind therapeutic fundamentalism has set in and this spirit of incontinence has become the universal  tool of ‘healing’.  ‘Let it out, and everything will just feel better.’

So in popular culture it has become a truism that if you have repressed feelings, irrespective of what they are, repression can only harm you, and cathartic expression can only help you.

It should be no surprise to us that things are more complex than that.

Lust and anger have always been seen as dangerous drivers in Christian revelation and experience. But in the hands of popularised therapy-speak they given carte blanche. In Austria this year, a refugee justified raping a 10 year old boy in a swimming pool with his defence team proposing that it constituted was a ‘medical emergency’, since he had been apart from his wife for the last four months.

The spirit of anger finds equal space in this cathartic cover. Rage and frustration get special treatment and special privilege in this new diagnosis. And they become particularly ungovernable and unaccountable when linked to calls for justice.

There is indeed a good deal of concern for justice in the Old and New Testaments, but it is expected mainly at the Parousia, the wrapping up of time and space when all that was wrong will be put right.  

But what if a social theory developed took the rich mixture of incontinence, anger, lust and justice and wrapped them up into a utopian panacea to be applied in the visionary now?

This is exactly what we have in the movement identified as Cultural Marxism; the unstoppable movement of the utopian Left which seeks to redistribute not the wealth of ‘Marxism 1.0’, but power under ‘Marxism 2.0’

This movement attacks whatever is associated with anything heteronormative, white, or masculine with the intention of ‘redistributing power’ and achieving a utopian justice. It is energised by anger, lust and power (often in the guise of gender, class or race revenge). It is one of the prevailing marks of our secular culture. Although it promises a form of utopian justice, all the evidence is that it delivers dystopian repression.

It is a tragedy beyond words when Christian bishops, who were consecrated to defend the faith as it was handed down to them in Scripture and tradition betray both and filter the Christian Gospel through the heavily refracted lens of therapeutic Marxism 2.0.

The most recent example of this was the blog by the Bishop of Liverpool, The Rt Rev’d. Paul Bayes, ironically charged with outreach and evangelism for the Church of England.

Instead of testing the spirits, he with many others colleagues in the house of bishops of the Church of England have conjured up the spirit of the age in defence of LGBT demands.

In a blog for Via Media (https://viamedia.news) “Calm down dear- Love and Anger in the Church”, Bishop Bayes encourages the LGBT community in his diocese to express their anger against the wider Church in order to achieve a change in the way that issues of gender, and sexual continence are understood and practised.

“I write this for a purpose – to combat poor practice in the Church. The poor practice is this; that people whose inner and outer lives are deeply impacted by an issue, and who become angry as a result, are discounted precisely because of their anger. This has been the age-old fate of women in the West, and the fate of any oppressed group, and it is the fate of many LGBT people in the Church today. The advice from the men at the top (and they usually are men, and they are always at the top) is the old, infuriating, demeaning advice: “Calm down, dear”.

This attack on men is one of the reflexes, itself technically a piece of sexism,  is of course wholly legitimate if you are a cultural Marxist.

Indeed, that’s how they are immediately identified. Sexism, ageism, racism, are all allowed if they are directed as an instrument of so-called ‘anti-oppression’ against straight, white men.

Bishop Bayes’ article is a mixture of Christian and secular aspiration, but it is fatally flawed by his preferencing the spirit of the age and its values over Scripture and spiritual discernment.

He begins his article by encouraging change and transformation, (St Paul would agree with that) but he is unwilling or unable to make any discrimination between wholesome, holy desires- desires of the Spirit as the New Testament teaches, and desires of the flesh – the lower nature. Not all change is good.

The New Testament understands the idea of the heart’s desire he advocates, but it locates it as a Christian in a longing for God and the Kingdom of Heaven. Bishop Bayes, ditching any recognition of being single and celibate, locates it in the desire for a romantic, erotic relationship; and in the face of the whole weight of Christian experience and biblical teaching, encourages the anger that is the fruit of the frustration of not getting what you want, to be directed against the Church.

This is taking up cudgels on behalf of the flesh, not the Spirit, as not only misses but perverts the point of the Kingdom of Heaven.

One of his half-truths is that there is indeed anger in the New Testament. But it is largely the anger of God against the waste and rebellion of creation, not the self-obsessed anger of frustrated utopians looking for a social or political fix to whatever personal satisfaction is missing in their lives.

Another half-truth is the quest for change. But he only has time for a movement that wants to change the doctrine of the church to accommodate LGBT aims, and none for the change that re-orientates and purifies desire.

One of the distressing shifts we see in the appointment of bishops who identify as gay and or identify as promoters of the LGBT cultural programme, is the change of focus from God the father to the idolatry of the self. The focus shifts from pleasing God with our attempts at obedience to pleasing the self where it experiences longings that are at odds with God’s intended patterns of creation and recreation.  This shift of focus I is accompanied by an invocation of populist therapeutic truisms to justify the anger born of frustration of not getting “one’s heart’s desire.”

Christian orthodoxy concerns itself with the anger of God in the face of our refusal to accommodate ourselves to His demands. Bishop Bayes concerns himself with the frustrated anger of people who want the comfort of Christ without the cost.

He ends with “And thank you for bearing with us still, and for enriching our half-awake lives, and for waking us up further. And thank you most of all for the passionate word of Christ that you have received and that you – and only you – can speak forward into our church’s symphony today, a word of the heart, the word of love and anger.”

What Bishop Bayes interprets as the word of Christ is not a word of Christ at all. It has no reference in Scripture. It is a promotion of the ‘longing of the human heart’ that won’t accept purification that the real word of Christ called for.  It is the replacing of Christ’s priorities with ours.

We might usefully understand this debate as a conflict between two positions. The one Bishop Bayes espouses is concerned to make justice the preeminent virtue; the one that represents Christian orthodoxy, identifies purity.

We can test the two positions by the reference to the New Testament.

Nowhere does Jesus treat any group, straight, gay or other, whose existential, romantic or sexual desires are unfulfilled, as an as an oppressed minority. 

When the gay campaigners complain that they can’t find any dominical words prohibiting gay sex, (which involves a disastrous ignorance of the whole thrust of the Old Testament purity and piety), and accuse traditionalists of arguing from silence, the same critique applies equally to them.

But the context of that dominical silence was the strictest of sexual ethics and heteronormative marriage.

Even if we cast the net wider and ask where the major concerns of Jesus for justice lay, we don’t find him telling people to bring their anger about the treatment of the marginalised poor to the gates of the Sanhedrin. We don’t find him telling people to bring their anger about the colonial brutality of the Romans and join the liberation movements fired by a quest for ‘Justice for the Jews’.

We find instead the Sermon on the Mount and his subsequent teaching proclaiming the need for righteousness and the purity of the human heart and its need for renewal, without which we are blind to who God is and what he wants from us.

We do indeed find anger in the mouth of Jesus. Anger with those who look at their social context and misread it disastrously.

“You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the face of the earth and the sky. How is it you do not know how to interpret these times?” (Lk 12:56)

These are ‘the times’ when the spirits that energise cultural Marxism are launching themselves against the teaching and traditions of the Church. They attempt to replace holiness with political correctness, - the Kingdom of Heaven with the redistribution of racial, sexual, and gender power.

Wherever this movement for Cultural Marxism gains social or legal power, it seeks to silence orthodox Christians and their faithfulness to Scripture. It sets itself against the paradigms of the categories of gender and a Christian anthropology, and uses the full weight of the law to silence them.

The outcome of this struggle between the spirits of the age and the Holy Spirit in the Church is one upon which the survival of the Church as the Body of Christ, rather than a religious institution which provides a patina of saccharine spirituality to a decadent secular culture, depends.

It is severely hindered when the bishops and archbishops who accepted a sacred charge to be faithful to Christ and the truth revealed in Scripture, even though motivated no doubt by and sincere but undiscerning compassion, change sides, and promote a different set of values.

However commendable it is to offer compassion, it is not sufficient by itself. The call of Christ, steeped as it is in compassion, called his followers to a life of self-denial, where  anger and incontinence are transformed to become praise and self-control. Where the longings of lower nature are purified to become the longings of the new creation.

This is not just a theological argument. This is the struggle between heaven and hell, salvation and being lost, light and darkness, this world and the next, that the whole of Christian revelation gives articulation to. It is too important and too radical to be accomplished by a secular and politicised policy of being well meaning.

© Gavin Ashenden.

The Feast of St Crispin 2016.

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