Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

The call for a woke sexual ethic isn’t being answered

The Religion Media Centre, whose advisory board includes the Rev George Pitcher, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s one-time public affairs secretary, describes itself as ‘an independent, impartial body helping journalists and other media professionals cover world religions and beliefs’. But it has just broadcast a blatant piece of revisionist propaganda that calls for a reasoned response.

‘The hypocrisy of purity culture enables sexual abuse in churches’ is the rather less than impartial title of the online briefing now available for viewing via the RMC’s website.

The broadcast, hosted by the religion journalist and former BBC producer, Rosie Dawson, features Emily Joy Allison, a performance poet and theology graduate from Nashville, Tennessee. She defines evangelical purity culture as the teaching that ‘it’s mandatory to have complete and total sexual abstinence until legal, monogamous marriage between a cisgender heterosexual man and a cisgender, heterosexual woman. Or else’.

But why should the traditional Christian sexual ethic have to take the blame for creepy church abusers and their cronies who cover up for them?  

Take for example the Rev Jonathan Fletcher, a retired Church of England minister who wielded huge influence over UK conservative evangelicals across five decades. He is currently under investigation by the Metropolitan Police over allegations of serial psychological, physical and sexual abuses. 

Fletcher taught the traditional Christian sexual ethic but by engaging in, amongst other things, naked massages with younger men who looked up to him as their spiritual mentor, he did not practise what he preached. So surely Fletcher, rather than the ethic, was the hypocrite here?

A report into Fletcher’s conduct by the safeguarding charity, Thirtyone:eight, is due to be published this month. This lessons learned review has been commissioned by Emmanuel Wimbledon, the CofE church in south-west London where he was vicar from 1982 to 2012. If this probe presents evidence that he had conservative evangelical associates who enabled his abuses by refusing to listen to his victims and even bullying them into silence, then they too were hypocrites. 

However toxic a church culture may become, does not this principle stand to reason? – Just as the Christian sexual ethic is not to blame for a church leader’s abusive conduct, so the biblical ‘law of love’ that his proteges violate by enabling his abuses is not to blame for their hypocritical cronyism.

The other main speakers on the RMC broadcast were critics of church cultures that hold to the traditional sexual ethic. These included three British commentators; Hannah Baylor, CofE ordinand and finalist in the first Church Times/SCM Press ‘Theology Slam’ where she spoke on churches and the #MeToo movement; Andrew Graystone, theologian and advocate for sexual abuse victims; and Kate Mount, artistic director and actress whose play, Just Don’t Do It, examines the teachings about sex in evangelical circles and is based on her own experience. 

Ms Baylor acknowledged that it was just about possible for a church culture to hold ‘the conservative view’ without becoming toxic. But the amount of work that had to go into avoiding the pitfalls of teaching the traditional ethic was, she said, ‘immense’. The RMC failed to invite even one advocate prepared positively to argue the benefits of that ethic.

The other serious deficiency in the RMC’s broadcast was its failure to present a coherent sexual ethic to replace the traditional one. What rules of sexual conduct should apply in local churches and their youth groups if sex outside of heterosexual marriage is taught to be acceptable for Christians?  And what would be the agreed spiritual authority underpinning such rules? The say-so of ‘The Leaders’?

That then raises the question: which is safer for the Christian disciple – to live under the authority of the Bible and seek by God’s grace to practise self-control or to fall under the sway of a politburo of woke activists in charge of a church?

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