The importance of maintaining engagement and fellowship with Christians of differing views
Fulcrum Newsletter October 2012
Damned by Association? Or the Lack of it?
By Stephen Kuhrt
Co-published with the Church of England Newspaper 28th October 2012 by permission
One of the interesting aspects of being part of Fulcrum is how often it is misunderstood by both conservatives and liberals. Frequently attacked by both wings of the church (and often, to be fair, in response to a strong critique of their positions) these attacks upon Fulcrum are very often based upon the premise that if ‘x’ is the case then ‘y’ and ‘z’ must be as well.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in regard to the hugely contentious issue of homosexuality. Since its founding in 2003, Fulcrum has consistently maintained its support of the church’s traditional teaching that the proper context for sexual expression is the union of a man and a woman in marriage. This stance hasn’t changed and isn’t about to.
However alongside this, Fulcrum has also always been committed to genuine dialogue and interaction with those who disagree with this position. This has shown itself in the Goddard to Goddard conversations on homosexuality that we published a few years ago between Andrew Goddard of Fulcrum and Giles Goddard of Inclusive Church. Recently we also published two articles on our website questioning traditional perspectives upon homosexuality with one of them then receiving an article in response. Whilst Leadership Team members agree to uphold Fulcrum’s position, parish level pastoral responses vary. It is acknowledged that some on the Leadership Team have searching questions about the Fulcrum position and its application. More provocatively, I recently gave an interview to The Guardian where I said that the next Archbishop of Canterbury needs to be someone who will be able to stare down the ‘loony left’ and the ‘loony right’ so that the church can reach ‘a working compromise’ on the issue of homosexuality.
Most of these factors have been misunderstood at various points, by both conservatives and liberals, to signify that Fulcrum is sliding towards a revisionist position on homosexuality. Liberals have sensed that Fulcrum is ‘coming around to their view’ and conservatives have sensed (and in some cases strongly declared) that we are either ‘going native’ or showing what our ‘true colours’ have been all along.
Neither is the case. Fulcrum has simply been maintaining our position that a firm opinion can be combined with the ecclesiological conviction that fellow Christians always possess something that we need to learn from. Which is why dialogue is so crucial. Whilst our overall position may remain broadly the same, genuine dialogue between Christians will always leave both sides not only changed but in a major and significant way.
Rather than representing a wishy-washy post-modernism, this position is based upon firm theological conviction. One of the great insights of the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ over the last decade or so has been the progress made in reaching a much clearer understanding of ‘Justification by Faith’. At the centre of this doctrine, most clearly displayed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, is the conviction that once someone declares their faith in Jesus as Lord, we are obliged to regard them as a fellow brother or sister. No matter what else we might disagree upon. This doesn’t exclude the possibility of discipline particularly when actions taken by a member or section of the church fly in the face of what it believes, under God, to be the right course. This, incidentally, is why ‘The Covenant’ or some equivalent is still very much needed for the Anglican Communion. But what it does mean is that such discipline will be recognised as being exercised upon fellow brothers and sisters in Christ rather than badly disguised pagans. It doesn’t exclude either, the possibility of a really robust response to what we regard as false teaching. But this must be done with awareness that much of the false teaching condemned in the New Testament is actually that of those insisting that markers additional to baptism and faith in Jesus are required for others to be accepted as Christians. This, after all, is the teaching that Paul anathematises in Galatians 1.8-9 and the reason that he rebukes Peter in Galatians 2.11-14 – a damning because of lack of association!
Recent responses against this viewpoint have helped to clarify some of the major differences between conservative evangelicals and those of a more ‘fulcrumesque’ persuasion. Key to Fulcrum’s ethos is the biblical and ecclesiological commitment to staying together with Christians with whom we often profoundly disagree. First because of the point already made that if someone confesses that Jesus is Lord, we are theologically compelled to regard them as fellow members of the body of Christ. Second and because of this, we believe that, whatever our differences, we need one another because ‘us’ as much as ‘them’ will be wrong on some aspects of Christian belief and practice therefore in need of our brothers’ and sisters’ correction. Third, because staying together is the only way of enabling the relationship to be established that will make such dialogue productive or even possible.
One of the major problems with the Anglican Communion at the moment is the existence of two vociferous extremes paradoxically united in their opposition to these principles. Both are so entrenched in their positions on homosexuality that they basically regard anyone who disagrees with them as evil. From this position there can be no dialogue but only schism and separation, which is why some on both extremes want this to occur as soon as possible. These are the ‘loony right’ and the ‘loony left’ and a major challenge for the next Archbishop, and those within other leadership positions in the Communion, will be not allowing these extremes to deflect the church from our calling to stay together in the faith that God can bring about the miracle of reconciliation on this issue. The reason I have used the expression ‘working compromise’ is because I am increasingly convinced that the centre right and centre left on homosexuality may well, in reality, be approaching this issue with rather different questions and concerns which increased dialogue will help to clarify. If, as I suspect, the major issue for moderate conservatives is what we are to preserve as the basic norms for society and for moderate liberals it is how we are to relate with genuine love towards those who are gay then a working compromise, whilst not easy, is possible. If I am on to anything here, then staying together is crucial, partly for its own sake and partly because the prize of resolution on this issue, is simply enormous. It will require a miracle but that is the business of the God we worship! Fear of being damned by association is very real. But perhaps it is the precise opposite of this that we should possess the greatest fear.
Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden and Chair of Fulcrum
Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden.