Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Christmas God

The Nativity offers us a unique snapshot of God's character
Last Sunday evening I attended a candlelit carol service at a central London church, something which turned out to be a fantastic ninety minutes of beautiful choral music, stirring readings and some of my favourite Christmas hymns. However, the highlight of the service was not any of these, nor was it the experience of sitting alongside four-hundred other people in a cavernous church illuminated only by the flickering of our own individual candles. The moment that will stand out in my memory was the short but effective sermon, a humorous address which exposed what the real meaning of Christmas really is.

'He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake.' These are, of course, lyrics from a popular (secular) Christmas song, referring not to God or to Jesus but instead to the character of Santa Claus, warning children that their Christmas wishes will only come true if they are well-behaved and saintly throughout the year. These words formed the backbone of Sunday night's sermon, and despite the obvious humour and lightheartedness it was clear what point the preacher was trying to make.

Christians are very good at cutting through the secular iconography and pointing out that Christmas is, in fact, all about the birth of Christ, but do they still continue to hold onto a 'Santa Claus model' of God where we are instructed to shut up and behave, or else? Does our modern view of the Gospel bear more than a passing resemblance to the words of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, with the only difference being the punishment for disobedience? After all, Santa may have an infinite supply of lumps of coal to fill the stockings of unruly children, but God has access to a pit of fire and a state of eternal conscious torment. 'You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why...' 

The point of Sunday's sermon was that this popular characterisation of God is inaccurate and does not describe the deity who broke into this world through the birth of Jesus Christ. For many Christians, God is someone or something to be feared; in the words of the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, fundamentalists tend to view God as a 'punishing, capricious, angry bastard with a killer surveillance system.' This is certainly the 'Santa Claus model' of God that we urgently need to reject, a somewhat totalitarian figure who weighs up our actions or our adherence to certain doctrinal positions before deciding whether or not to share his Kingdom with us or throw us into his never-ending torture machine.

The problem is, this raging deity is very different from the God described in Psalm 145; here we are told that God is 'gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.' He is not a violent and controlling being who is ready to dole out disproportionate punishment on a majority of humanity, but instead he is 'good to all' and 'has compassion on all he has made.' Nowhere is this more apparent than in the life of Jesus, where God's infinite and deep love for the world takes human form, and in the Christmas story we are presented with the real face of God; not a powerful warrior, a terrifying tyrant or a heartless monster, but an innocent and vulnerable infant born into poverty in a part of the world scarred by political turmoil and upheaval.

There are some real questions about the birth narratives of Jesus that liberal Christian scholars have rightfully asked. After all, the four gospels contradict each other in their telling of the Nativity story, whilst some of the details that we take for granted today are clearly nothing more than elaborate myth put in place by the writers to emphasise the significance of Jesus. As John Shelby Spong points out, Christians in the 21st Century should not be expected to suspend their intellectual credibility in order to profess belief in a star which guided Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus like a cosmic GPS system (and that actually led them to Herod's palace anyway). Our scientific knowledge of stars renders this story impossible, whilst one must also question why so-called 'Wise Men' would decide to follow a star for miles in the first place.

However, the facts surrounding these biblical stories are less relevant than the deeper meaning that they seek to point out. In his most recent book, Brian McLaren calls on Christians to adopt a more Jewish method of reading the Scriptures, abandoning crude literalism in order to explore the 'bottomless wells of meaning' that are contained within our faith stories. By applying this approach to the readings we hear in church this Christmas, maybe we can discover (or rediscover) something of the true nature of God, the divine characteristics which are revealed in the Gospels through Christ's birth, life and death. In doing so we can take a vital step away from our traditional concepts of God, and embrace the reality of a deity who steps into a tumultuous world in order to redeem a broken humanity.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Why I was wrong on same-sex marriage

The introduction of same-sex marriage has been a huge leap forward for Britain and the United States
Just hours before same-sex marriage was legalised in Britain, I wrote an article in which I outlined my own personal opposition to this move. It was March 2014, and at the same time that numerous couples were preparing to celebrate their nuptials I was railing against this historic decision by David Cameron's government, perhaps the most significant civil rights policy in this country since homosexuality was legalised in 1967. I carefully and deliberately grounded my argument in legal and political language rather than my own personal religious convictions, but the truth of the matter was somewhat different. At the time I was an active member of a conservative evangelical church, and it was the teaching of that congregation that helped to inform and reinforce my own prejudices.

In the nearly three years since I wrote that article, I have left that church and rejected the evangelical theology that was preached from its pulpit. That isn't to say that I have turned my back on Christianity; indeed, my own religious life feels far more healthy and dynamic now than it ever did within the confines of an unquestioning and dogmatic orthodoxy. However, I can no longer call myself an evangelical, and as part of that journey away from the tradition that brought me to faith I have also rejected the institutionalised homophobia that reigns supreme in the conservative Church and that infected my own spiritual life for far too long.

In laying out my opposition to same-sex marriage back in March 2014, I explained that I 'do not hate the LGBT community' despite believing that they should not enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. The honest truth, however, is that whilst I have never hated any group of people I did believe that homosexuality was a sin. Of course I did - the Bible tells us so, or at least that's what I had been led to believe by evangelical clergy at my Christian school and several churches where I worshiped. During my time at university I joined an evangelical Anglican church where the vicar would frequently preach about the evils of same-sex relationships, and in a private conversation he even told me that if a same-sex couple were to attend his church he would refuse them Holy Communion.

It was conversations such as these which made me question the central tenets of the evangelical faith that my church espoused, and eventually I came to realise just how toxic and intolerant this brand of Christianity really is. Sadly, this homophobia is all too prevalent in the Christian Church and was certainly not confined to my own congregation; indeed, earlier this year the announcement that the Bishop of Grantham, Nicholas Chamberlain, is gay sparked a venemous backlash from the conservative Anglican group GAFCON, who described Chamberlain's appointment as a 'major error' that represented a 'serious cause for concern for biblically orthodox Anglicans around the world.'

The real cause for concern in the Anglican Church is not an unquestioning acceptance of socially liberal norms, but rather a lack of radicalism which allows conservative groups such as GAFCON to be the homophobic tail that wags the Anglican dog. This trend has been apparent for years, as conservative evangelicals have been allowed to exercise undue influence over the wider Church. In 2003, Rev Jeffrey John was forced to stand down after being nominated as the new Bishop of Reading following a vicious backlash from conservatives who believed that Dr John's sexuality was a disqualifying factor that could split the worldwide Anglican Church, and although the US Episcopal Church showed admirable bravery in appointing the openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire the following year, Bishop Robinson was singled out for vilification throughout his nine years in this post, even being excluded from the 2008 Lambeth Conference, a decennial meeting of the world's Anglican bishops.

Institutional homophobia is not limited to the Anglican Church, and in many evangelical denominations the situation is far worse. Whereas mainline Protestants have tended to engage in a spineless fudge in order to placate their more conservative members, evangelicals and Roman Catholics have tended to practice overt hostility towards the LGBT community. In the same way that the Christian Church gave its endorsement to the persecution of Muslims, scientists and African Americans in previous centuries, its widespread homophobia is its biggest source of shame today, something which urgently requires repentance on the part of Church leaders. Until that happens, more and more LGBT Christians will be hurt and damaged as they feel the rejection of their friends, clergy and congregations.

For my own part, I wholeheartedly repent of the views that I put forward on the eve of the legalisation of same-sex marriage. I know that they were never the product of hate or malice, but rather a young and impressionable mind that had been manipulated by several years of teaching from evangelical clergy with a strange obsession with homosexuality. Nevertheless, I also know that I was not the only person whose views were shaped by those words that were spoken from the pulpit every Sunday morning, and I also know the great damage that they did to others who sat quietly in the pews feeling like they did not belong in that congregation. Evangelical clergy may think they are flexing their spiritual muscles by stating their wholehearted opposition to same-sex relationships, but these attitudes are not some form of Christian machismo grounded in a sound reading of the Scriptures. Instead they simply point towards the small-mindedness of fundamentalism, a creed which is more comfortable picking on the LGBT community rather than sharing and practising the universal love of Christ.