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A Church for Ireland?

When the foundations are being destroyed
Reading: Psalm 11
What were these foundations? Scholars can only guess but the benefit for us is the psalm can be helpful to those who are experiencing the destruction of what has been foundational in their situation whether personal or in the wider world. Let's survey, then, our foundations from a Reform Ireland perspective.

The Church of Ireland, along with a growing number of mainline denominations in the Western world, is drifting into a religious pluralism which openly denies historic Christian belief as well as biblical values. Our Church is also embracing secular moral standards as the culture in Europe and the West drifts to a place where there are no absolute or universal truths, therefore nothing is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. Relativism reigns. This drift started innocuously in academia first but ideas have wings so when an Oxford professor of English wrote in the mid-80s these words he had only a small elite audience: "We are in the process of awakening from the nightmare of modernity, with its manipulative reason and fetish of the totality, into the laid-back pluralism of the post-modern, that heterogeneous range of lifestyles and language games which has renounced the nostalgic urge to totalise and legimate itself."

In that gobbledegook is the loss of a world view such as the Bible gives. What is operative now is "a range of lifestyles" that do not need to be legitimised because the individual is free to do as he or she prefers. The modernism which came in with the Enlightenment of the 18th century - when, true, there was a general rejection of the God of the Bible and the elevation of human reason - has now been discarded as a failure at the end of the 20th century. Along with God, reason has also been rejected.

The outcome? First, a new level of irrationality. The will and emotions now take precedence over the mind. With no absolute principles, what you are left with in life are preferences or things you simply like. This has broken cover most notoriously in the form of previously unthinkable levels of sexual and marital immorality. If the preference or will is to sleep around, commit adultery, break-up marriage, engage in homosexual activity, perhaps soon even in pederasty and bestiality, so be it.

Secondly, there is an aggressive anti-humanism abroad. Modernism was humanistic. Postmodernism is not. Denying the biblical truth that humans are made in the image of God, postmoderns are probing the philosophical frontiers at the moment saying why treat humans different than animals? Should one have, in their terms, any more sympathy for children dying of AIDS in Africa or Asia than one would for an endangered insect or animal species?

Thirdly, there is loss of freedom and as it is eroded Christians will be squeezed, tolerance will go out of the window, there will not be protection for those who do not believe everything is relative. If the Religious Hatred Bill eventually goes through Parliament then watch out, we will lose freedom. Are you prepared to go to court charged under this Act for being reported at your workplace, or your golf or tennis club as saying humbly that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life and Muhammad is in error?

It's virtually come to that in Australia. So we keep on praying for the defeat of the Bill, and do write to your MP about it and encourage him or her not to back it.

So there is this real sense that the foundations are being seriously disturbed. This tectonic shift impacts on the Church of Ireland, obviously. There is a drift into religious pluralism, denying foundational Christian beliefs as well as biblical values and it inevitably seeps down to congregational level.

Tom Sine in his book Mustard Seed verses McWorld goes as far as claiming that secular values have replaced gospel values in the lives of Christians and they dominate church life. He's talking about a dualism that enables us to give mental assent to biblical values but perversely we live by secular values.

"Essentially, most Christians (and churches) unquestioningly allow modern culture to arrange the furniture of their lives. In spite of all the talk about the Lordship of Jesus Christ, everyone knows that the expectations of modern culture come first. Getting ahead in the suburbs is first; getting the children off to their activities comes first, and we tend to make decisions in these areas like everyone else does, based on our income, our professions and our social status" p.211

That may be a US-focused observation, but I, and I'm sure some of you, have spent hours arguing for biblical truth and promises with 20-30-40s professionals who undoubtedly belong to Christ who simply cannot grasp that the ladder may not lead them always onwards and upwards in their career . Loyalty to Christ, perhaps in terms of safeguarding their marriage and their availability for Christian service in their church, may cause them to get stuck on the ladder of having to get off it. Some, wonderfully, have taken the Lord at his word; some have suffered loss while others have seen a way of escape open before them.

Others have simply been unable to accept the 22-carat promises of a sovereign God (as in Matthew 6) in their situations and they no longer plough in the furrow. They've gone on in their careers but spiritually they have gone into the wilderness taking their wives and children with them.

When the foundations are being destroyed, God's people come under pressure. In our Church, our leaders are under these pressures as the foundation plates of the faith are caving in.

My title poses the question of whether the Church of Ireland can be a Church for Ireland this new century.

Against the background I've sketched, it seems to me that much of our church has simply no awareness of the cultural and spiritual war now going on.

Safety seems to lie in preservation and the buzz word is "ethos"; in this chaotic time, if we cling to our ethos, we will escape as the foundations are being destroyed. Of course, my experience has been entirely in the Republic where we lived through years of revolution at every level and again and again the Church of Ireland leadership seemed to be clinging to ethos as its lifebelt.

Archbishop Empey told me on several occasions that Crinken did not represent the ethos of the Church because of its commitment to evangelism of all and sundry, including RC's.

Repeatedly, I was told by bishops and clergy my column in the Irish Times was anti the ethos of the Church of Ireland. A rector in West Cork wrote accusing me of peddling sensationalism when I wrote of going on holiday to a church in Connemara where Yvonne and I went in and out without anyone saying a word to us. I didn't understand the ethos of the Church out west, he said, angrily. That can't be the ethos of the non-welcome and the cold shoulder, can it?

I saw how ethos worked at the other end of the pyramid. A man appointed as dean of a diocesan cathedral came from a parish where there was no one under 55 in church on a Sunday. The new archdeacon in a diocese was rector of a church with a congregation of 20+ . They were safe men, pecking order men, ready for the next rung up the ladder. Had they planted churches, grown churches, initiated youth ministry, evangelistic outreach to the vast business community in the city, had they stemmed the tide of decline in the Church of Ireland in that diocese? No! But they wouldn't go against the ethos of cosy liberal Catholicism, they would keep the head down and toe the increasingly prelatical line within that diocese.

But will ethos work long term? Will pulling the covers over the court keep the hurricane out? Alas, it won't. A year or so ago, the Bishop of Cork and the Archbishop of Armagh both warned their diocesan synods things could not go on as they were. They both looked into the black hole of declining congregations, shrinking geographical engagement with the mobile population, withering financial resources, and they pressed the alarm button.

Of course, in financial terms, the Church is sitting on huge reserves which can be used to shore-up the decline for a few decades and that enables a certain smugness and sense of security to prevail when the Church gathers in General Synod.

The carefully-preserved public façade is of a Church that doesn't do things the way the others do, that sticks with its ethos, is still believable, but the black hole is still there as well.

Ethos contains an unstated emotional attachment - and this may be more especially true in the North - to an anglophile and sentimental 19th century model of the village church, diocese and cathedral. The whole Vicar of Dibley syndrome has held that model up to ridicule and the viewing world says "how eccentric, how harmless, how amusing" and the Gospel is trivialised, marginalised and dismissed.

Yet when I asked the previous Archbishop of Dublin whether it would be helpful to have an annual interview and audit of how clergy and parishes were progressing in terms of achieving goals, as we'd had for years in the Diocese of Southwark, he said, "It wouldn't work, the clergy wouldn't tolerate it." This, then, is all an effect over time of the foundations being gradually eroded, at heart a loss of confidence in the Gospel and therefore a reluctance to preach it with boldness and so at length an inability to react with decisiveness in rapidly-changing situations. It is the triumph of ethos over convictions.

What can the righteous do?
The passage seems to suggest three answers to that question and they have a contemporary fit so far as the situation in Ireland is concerned.

First, there is the option of fleeing v.1b - when the foundations are being destroyed, simply run away and don't face up to what is going on. We've touched on that and it is always a strong temptation for us. We're evangelicals but we would be foolish to think we're Teflon-coated when it comes to the inclination to smuggle our own souls to heaven, to remain in our ghettos and let the turmoil swirl by on the outside.

Whoever, in all conscience, would have chosen the issue of homosexuality on which to take a stand for biblical truth? It is horrendous that we have to and I hate it, hate it, and long to flee from it, but that is where the battle lines are drawn. It has strengthened me to recall that Luther, Melancthon, Bucer, Cranmer et al. would never in their right minds have chosen to let the Reformation break out over the issue of indulgences. A soft-centred issue of compassion and pastoral concern like that? After all, you simply wanted to save your granny from an extra 300 years in purgatory, who could argue with that? Yet that was their presenting issue, and they faced it, and so must we face ours.

The other temptation, I guess, is to retreat into hard-nosed fundamentalism, but that is not the only alternative to theological liberalism. Reform hasn't followed that course, rather we take the third way of intelligent orthodoxy. When liberalism in our Church is seeking to reduce and revise the Gospel to fit what the surrounding culture finds plausible, we must relentlessly critique it and not flee to shibboleths of fundamentalism. Think of the huge range of doctrines of classical biblical faith that the liberal-reductionists both in, and still coming out of, our theological college over recent years are most uncomfortable with and are targets for their relentless revisionism:

  • the Virgin birth and the incarnation
  • the divinity of Christ and his Lordship over all because Jesus is indeed Jehovah the Lord God
  • salvation through Christ alone by faith alone
  • the atonement and Christ's substitutionary sacrifice for sin
  • the bodily resurrection and transformation of Jesus
  • the return of Christ to judge the world and consummate the Kingdom of God
  • the fallen nature of humankind
  • the supreme authority of Scripture as God's living and sufficient word to us
  • the unity of the Old & New Testaments and the centrality of Christ to understanding each of them
  • the gospels are focused primarily on Jesus rather than the recent idea that they tell us a lot about their writers and the community of faith in which they emerged, in the end telling us very little about Jesus
  • the biblical norms and boundaries for sexual ethics, both hetero- and homosexual

Here is a huge canvas for the teaching and preaching of biblical orthodoxy to which we must set ourselves in our parishes, dioceses, synods, in the public media and especially on websites.

Ultimately, it will be well-taught and conviction-driven evangelical laity who will make a difference, I believe. We must get all our people, and essentially wardens and PCCs, plugged-into the best websites such as Irish Angle; Virtue Online and Anglican Mainstream.

This will take a prolonged exercise in commendation of these sites both from the front of church and via all other available forms of publicity. We cannot flee, we cannot abrogate leadership at this time when the foundations are being destroyed.

Secondly, we can compromise, drift and go with the flow, or be seduced. Again, that is an age-old temptation. It was in Old and New Testament times and it is today.

In the fiercest days of the conflict in Southwark Diocese over the notorious LGCM 20th anniversary celebration of homosexuality in the cathedral, a vicar of one of the largest net contributing parishes suddenly withdrew from the growing consensus in Reform Southwark that only financial action against the diocese would convince Bishop Roy Williamson that evangelicals were prepared to put their money where their mouth was.

In the next diocesan newsletter it was announced he had been made a canon. It is fair to say his influence since has been minimal and his congregation has dwindled. He compromised, he was seduced using one of the oldest tricks in the book; he knew it and those of who were there knew it instantly.

The hierarchy know well the temptation of preference and status for all clergy. Get to middle life and you begin to wonder what you've achieved and what there is to show for it. How soothing during those years to be offered a canonry, a deanery or an archdeaconry, something tangible to stand alongside a directorship or partnership in business and commerce.

That is not to say all canons, deans and archdeacons have succumbed but it is to put up a warning flag that these preferments sometimes come with viruses attached.

The third option, the only genuine biblical one, the Reform option, is for evangelicals to be people of reason, not deifying reason as the modernists did, nor rejecting it as the post-moderns are doing, but having a biblical attitude to reason. We are to resist being conformed to the prevailing culture by the antidote of a renewed mind. We start by humbling admitting we need the teaching of the prophets and the apostles of the Lord Jesus and therefore the Bible is the touchstone for us. It is there we discover the big picture, not about everything in every detail, but sufficient for our needs and the needs of the Church in our day. It is a worldview that is essential to understand time and eternity; it is a worldview summarised in the great formative creeds and confessions of the Church universal. It hinges on four cosmic events: the Creation at the beginning, the Fall, Redemption by Christ and the consummation of history when He returns.

This is our framework, this is the truth we are to take into the public arena and not be ashamed of it. Therefore, we shall say courteously but definitely that not all belief systems are the same and no one can simply make up their own values. We shall hold that every man and woman on earth is special and significant in the eyes of God and we shall love them, each one, with a love like Christ's. And we shall not flinch from asserting that Jesus Christ is God's only way to eternal life.

What did David do?
The first thing he did was to put God first, v.1

Secondly, he had this sense of perspective as he exercised his godly mind. Despite the foundations crumbling, he knew that God is still sovereign over all and is still exercising his rule: "the Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne"

Thirdly, he remembers the reality of judgment. That judgment is active now in history, v.4b The reference here is perhaps to the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Ungodly behaviour gets judged in the present as well as at the end.

For example I read a recent Irish Independent feature piece on child abuse. In the piece the Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, is reviled and vilified in gutter language which a decade ago would have been unthinkable on the editorial page of any Irish newspaper. Astonishing!

In the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of infallibility led inevitably to the perception of invincibility on the part of its leadership. Is the liberal catholic consensus that dominates the C. of I. at this moment going to lead anywhere else? How can the invincibility of the House of Bishops concerning theological education at Church of Ireland Theological College (CITC) lead anywhere other than judgment? I predict that in a decade the CITC as it is today will have been swept away. It cannot produce the leadership the new Ireland needs where "church" is now a dubious activity, where what is developing is a more open, transparent, local, non-canon law dominated form of Christianity.

Moreover, how can judgment be avoided if our Church's knee-jerk response at this time of crisis in religion is the age-old one of putting its head below the parapet and waiting for the storm to blow over? The Church of Ireland must learn urgently that biblical mission is more important than denominational culture and to carry forward that mission in the whole of Ireland we must recruit people on the basis of demonstrated giftedness and leadership capacity with notions of "ethos" way at the bottom of the list.

Such people are going to come from the existing healthy, growing and creative churches in Ireland for they can take with them into training two things that theological colleges cannot train in: an excellent model of ministry in which they have been nurtured and grown, and a belief that the local church can grow and make an impact in its community.

Evangelicals in the C. of I. must continue to sound the Macedonian call to other evangelicals in the Anglican Communion, especially in Australia and South Africa. The licensing of a curate from the Church of England in South Africa in Down and Dromore is a landmark initiative and the bishop of the diocese needs our positive support and encouragement both by phone call, e-mail and letter. Likewise, we must not be half-hearted in encouraging any bishop who shows by his actions that he is intent on moving his diocese from maintenance to mission, thus shifting from ethos-orientation to biblical convictions concerning Gospel imperatives.

The Church of Ireland - A Church for Ireland in this century? Yes, if the Church can rise to the challenge implicit in that statement and empower biblical leadership based on the recruiting and training of gift-orientated ministry; if we opt for simplified, locally-based functional structures which are not mortgaged off to maintain central diocesan positions, projects and programmes; if gatherings of local churches can be inspirational and inspiring, teaching biblical truth to live by the rest of the week; if we're focused in each parish on person-centred evangelism reaching out to everyone in the island, and all we do is clothed in loving relationships.

The Church of Ireland is suffering from what has been called The Hollywood Movie Set Syndrome. On a film set, the houses and buildings appear real but a look round the back reveals there is nothing there. Our denomination gives the appearance of being a grand and successful institution with its cathedrals, church buildings, large public services and synods. However, the real situation is that the local church infrastructure is falling apart with declining attendance, falling income and an aging membership. In many places, especially in the Republic, there is little or nothing there.

I've sketched a way forward involving a move from absorption with ethos to motivation by conviction in order to attract the new generations of Irish-born adults, young people and children, along with the ever-increasing numbers of migrants to this island.

Every aspect of our Church's life must be open to change except the unchanging Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is Reform's ongoing business to clarify and publish that agenda, and my prayer is you will know increasing encouragement and success as you go about that.

Gordon Fyles is enjoying retirement after ordained ministry in local churches in the Diocese of Southwark, and more recently as Vicar of Crinken Church, Dublin. This address was delivered at the 2005 Reform Ireland Conference at the start of November.

20th Dec 2005

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