“The gospel Jesus preached was certainly ‘radically inclusive’ – but also deeply transformative,” David Baker reminds the archbishops.
Dear Archbishops Justin and John,
I hope you will forgive my boldness in writing to you like this.
You see, the thing is, I’ve always thought the gospel was radically inclusive already. I’ve always believed that ‘the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives’ – as the famous hymn puts it. And when I look back on churches of which I have been a part, I recall them including paedophiles, an associate of the Kray twins, pornography addicts, adulterers – and others, including myself, whose middle class respectability masked sins which might have been less obvious but were equally heart-breaking to God. We, together, were vile offenders (in the eyes of God’s law if not of the world) who chose to repent and believe. And gloriously, all of us were welcomed and included! When you add in the mind-blowing mix of age, ethnicity and background as well, that seems pretty inclusive already.
Of course, we’re talking in the context of human sexuality. But that still makes it all a bit puzzling. After all, speakers at the General Synod last week included quite a few who publicly identify themselves as gay or same-sex attracted, according to their preferred terminology. And quite a few are clergy. So that would seem fairly inclusive as well.
In the light of all this, the suspicion or hope (depending on one’s point of view) is that ‘a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church’ means saying ‘yes’ to some things to which most Christians have said ‘no’ for 2,000 years. But then again, according to the Bishop of Willesden on Radio 4 last Sunday, the doctrine of the Church of England on sex and marriage isn’t going to change, and any pastoral response will have to be consistent with that. And he should know, as he has worked closely with you on this issue. So you can understand why many people are feeling confused.
The problem now is that whatever you do in terms of ‘a radical new inclusion’ you face the near-certain inevitability of actually being radically exclusive. As a result of what you say, either the ‘traditional’ or ‘liberal’ wing of the Church is going to feel massively rejected and excluded – unless it is some kind of fudge, which will please no-one.
And these things impact people personally too. I have gay friends who have disappeared from church over this issue. My wife and I count among our friends a stable gay couple who have yet to find faith. And we know others, also same-sex attracted, who live celibate lives of self-denial, believing this is Christ’s call for all who find themselves, for whatever reason, outside heterosexual marriage. Whatever you do now, one set of people or another is bound to feel excluded.
But – and it is a big ‘but’ – when we stop and think about it, your number one priority is not in fact pleasing any particular group, is it? It is pleasing Christ – the head of the Church. Your focus is not therefore on appeasing all the shouty people on both sides – or indeed anyone else. It is finding out how to please Jesus as Lord in this context.
Your letter suggests that the way forward must be founded on Scripture, tradition and reason. I guess we all know that, as the saying goes, ‘for Jesus, what Scripture said – God said’. He was clear that God’s word trumped both human traditions and our cleverest reasoning, however good that might be. For Jesus, it was a case of ‘listen to the Word, not the world’.
When I read Scripture to discover what pleases Jesus, I am challenged. I sometimes wish that when Jesus was asked about relationship issues, for example, he had loosened things up a bit – rather than, as he did, make things tougher. No wonder his disciples reacted with horror, suggesting it would be better if no-one got married at all (Matthew 19:10)! No wonder, in view of his challenging teaching generally, that ‘many turned back and no longer went with him,’ (John 6:66). As a friend of mine said, reflecting on his journey of faith, ‘Jesus is not an easy travelling companion.’
The gospel Jesus preached was certainly ‘radically inclusive’ – but also deeply transformative. It was based on a call to radical repentance, reflecting Jesus’ understanding of the seriousness of sin, the holiness of God, and the brokenness of God’s image in humankind. And so Jesus was a radically different saviour from what had been expected, for instead of doing what everyone clamoured for, he would take up his cross and die, and then call his followers to die to self also.
And now, my lord Archbishops, you face your own cross. The path is lonely. You will lose friends if you ‘contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3). But Christ is there with you, and he has been there before you. So ‘be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong,’ (1 Corinthians 16:13).
I remain your obedient servant, In Christ, David Baker
David Baker is a former newspaper journalist working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Follow him on Twitter @Baker_David_A Reprinted with the author’s permission from Christian Today.