Scottish Episcopal Church Approves Equal Marriage

Luke Dowding – 12th June 2017

Great joy mixed with great sorrow; that is how I feel about the recent decision made by the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church earlier this week (June 2017).

Firstly, great joy for those represented in our family in Christ in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Great joy that it was with overwhelming majority of both Bishops and laity, and a comfortable majority from clergy, that the vote to allow same-sex marriages in the Episcopal Church of Scotland was passed. This vote will ensure that a fundamental change in canon law will occur, in which it will no longer say marriage is a lifelong union between man and woman. It will also make provision for those in employed and volunteer positons to decline involvement in same-sex weddings based on decisions of conscience and different theological interpretation. This brings Scottish Episcopal churches to the same position that Baptist churches within the Baptist Union of Great Britain are in (because of our different Ecclesiology and recent decisions of the BU Council).

Secondly, deep sadness for the strife and bitterness caused by the continued dialogue of opposing sides regarding human sexuality. This is not limited to the Anglican Communion but it is deeply entrenched within our Baptist family as well. While Bishops within the Church of England cut ties with their counterparts in Scotland, and “missionaries” are being sent to reconvert those they consider “lost”, so behind so-called “mutual respect” there are those within the Baptist Union who continue to close doors, frustrate productive engagement and undermine those who have an inclusive vision of Kingdom building.

The news from Scotland is one to thank God for, but it also serves as a frank reminder of all that we have still yet to achieve.

Luke Dowding is Co-Director of Affirm

Book Review – ‘119’ by Jaime Sommers

Book Review

119: My Life As A Bisexual Christian

Jaime Sommers

Darton Longman Todd

In 1991 The Church Of England published ‘Issues In Human Sexuality’. It’s true to say that much Christian thinking has come a long way in the years since that document was published, but the title of this book refers to clause 5.8 of that document and the 119 words that were devoted to the subject of bisexuality.

In Christian life today, more so in progressive Christian life, many of us have come to understand that a person’s sexuality is a part of their identity to be celebrated rather than condemned, although this remains a hot topic in evangelical circles.

However bisexuality often seems to be the silent partner in the LGBT+ arena, possibly less well understood than ‘L’, ‘G’ or even ‘T’. So Jaime’s book is a welcome and compelling read.

This book is a beautiful, inspiring and at the same time disturbing autobiographical portrait from a wife and mother of twenty plus years with a happy family life whose bisexuality resulted in her being bullied and abused by the very organisation that should have been there to offer support.

I won’t spoil the story for you as it’s well worth a read, but Jaime’s journey through college and the charismatic Christian groups of the early ‘90’s through to training as a reader in the Anglican church reveals someone whose Christian faith was integral to her life and it becomes a tragic tale as we read of how the church responded to her sexuality with a disciplinary regime that brought her to a place of judgement and isolation. As someone who works as an advocate for the LGBT+ community within the Baptist church I found ‘119’ an informative and enlightening resource

Andy Long

This review originally appeared in ‘Progressive Voices’, the magazine of PCN Britain and is reproduced here by kind permission.


Don’t tell me to choose between being religious and being gay, I can’t


Please take the time to read this blog post by our good friend Joey Knock

You can read the post in full over on Joey’s site

In this post Joey responds beautifully and eloquently to a piece published on the Gay Times website which was titled ‘if you’re gay and religious don’t you think you ought to consider giving one up?’.

Joey takes time to talk about how he considered both those choices n the past and why he is unable to give up either. He also talks extensively about churches around the country that are becoming increasingly affirming in their stance and mentions the Soho Gathering as an example. He raises the point that religion is not going away anytime soon and concludes that he is proud to be both gay and religious.

Joey closes the post in this way

“We need to keep hearing and keep telling stories. I’m a white male Anglican. Coming out as gay in the national church was easier than most people’s faith-based experiences. BBC Three’s new online series Queer Britain started last weekend by asking ‘Does God Hate Queers?’. Unlike Andy’s* ‘hot-take’, it went beyond the clickbait title and was a sensitive, snappy insight into faith in the lives of young queer Brits.

Andy, please listen to all our stories. Watch Queer Britain. Join us for a chat at Stonewall, or Christian Aid, or Soho Gathering. We’ll listen and question each other. I’ll probably be challenged to be even more gay and even more religious.”

*refers to the author of the original article

A report from Baptist Assembly 2017

Baptist Assembly 2017

Affirm members were well represented at this year’s Baptist Assembly held in May in Harrogate.  This is the Annual Meeting of the Baptist family in the UK and includes the AGMs of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and BMS World Mission.

Under the title Beacons of Hope, encouraging stories were shared of successful and challenging initiatives, both in this country and in other parts of the world.  Times of worship with singing led by an excellent multicultural music group complimented an eclectic choice of Workshops considered topics from “Mission in a secular world” to “Lessons from Asia” to “How to apply our Christian principles as we vote in the General Election” to “How to be a Baptist evangelical and be true to our history and principles.”

Ministers and missionaries who had died in the last year were remembered and a long list of newly accredited ministers, including our own Dawn Cole-Savidge, and mission personnel were recognised with a handshake from the President, Dianne Tidball and the two General Secretaries, Lynn Green and David Kerrigan.

We were able to update many friends with details of our new website and other developments in the network and hold a good number of one to one conversations spreading knowledge of the work of Affirm.  A few more people wore the “elephant in the church” badges.  We do however lament the fact that the Assembly is now only one day, so there is much less time to mingle with new people and that there is no exhibition where we might again apply for a stall.

Martin, Luke, Dawn, Ruth and Ian

Luke’s Story – our latest video (and other videos)

Over on the videos page we are building a collection of people’s stories, short videos that you cold use in a house group or study setting.

The most recent film is ‘Luke’s Story’. Luke Dowding is one of the directors here at Affirm and in his story he tells us of his life at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, his wedding to his partner Steven and his desire to become an ordained Baptist Minister.

Also on the videos page you can find an interview with Ian and Martin Stears-Handscomb and a film of the sermon from Luke and Steven’s wedding.

These are great little films and we hope that you get a lot from them, more are coming soon.

A Safe Space – LGBT+ gathering in Bristol

Elaine Sommers, a good friend of the team at Affirm, has organised an event in North Bristol called ‘A Safe Space’.

Elaine describes this event as being for Christian LGBTI+ people, their partners and friends to explore faith, life and church.

Elaine is a transgender Christian from the Bristol area and a champion for the trans and LGBT community.

Elaine tells us that this first event will about finding out what people would want from such a group, it will be a time of fellowship rather than strategy, all are welcome.

The event is on Saturday 3rd June from 10:30 until 1:00.  For further details about this event please contact Elaine.

Bible Study 2: Being A Christ-Like Church

Bible study for a church that wants to take the Gospel to lgbt people

Study 2: Being a Christ-like Church

Author: Martin Stears-Handscomb

In the first blog in this series I argued that Jesus accepted and affirmed people as they are and showed compassion to those who were excluded from the “straight” norm, including those “born that way” (i.e. gay people). He also avoided criticising a centurion who may well have had a gay relationship with his servant – agreeing to heal the servant because of the man’s love for him. And drawing on St Paul’s affirmation that in Christ’s church there can be no barriers, we can say in Christ there is neither lgbt nor straight – we are all one in Christ Jesus. So lgbt people are welcome in Christ’s church.

Why then are there so many churches that do not welcome lgbt people?

One problem is that – as I said in the first blog, quoting Paul “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”(Romans 3 v 23) or to put it another way, all of us fail to live up to what Jesus wants us to be. So churches are full of sinners! Fortunately, Jesus was known as a “friend of sinners” (Luke 7 v 34) and those who repent of their sins can be used in the service of His kingdom, the challenge each church has to address.

The good news is that there are a growing number of churches that do genuinely welcome lgbt people and recognise and use their talents and what they can offer as full and equal members of God’s kingdom. However that is far from always the case.

In that familiar passage in John’s Gospel “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3 v 16 & 17).

So why do some of His followers and many churches so often condemn instead of welcoming? In Matthew 7 v 21 right at the end of what is called the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Earlier in chapter 7 at verse 1 he has said “Judge not that you be not judged” and he continues with the lovely exaggerated illustration of someone trying to take a speck of dust out of a friend’s eye when they have a huge log in their own.

There is the temptation of those who feel they understand God’s will to become arrogant. Luke records the parable that Jesus taught – of the religious leader who thanked God that he wasn’t like the “sinners” of his time and the repentant man who showed humility and knew where he had messed up. Jesus praised the repentant man as the one who was at peace with God. (Luke 18 vv9-14) Often you will hear people say “hate the sin; love the sinner”. American Baptist preacher Tony Campolo has the more Christian quote “love the sinner, hate your own sin”.

As a gay man, but a Christian first of all, I am conscious of my sins and seek to examine myself regularly and repent and seek to do better, in particular as a part of the service I attend each Sunday (as I am sure each Christian does in their own way). A prayer I value is the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

There are those who believe that we can change our sexuality. Even some who say that just by being gay or trans we are “sinful”. It reminds me of the people who came to Jesus wanting to know why a disabled man was disabled. “Was it his sin or the sin of his parents?” Jesus was quite clear it was neither (John 9vv1-34). We know that, although it can be to some extent suppressed, sexuality does not change. It would be wonderful if it did as no-one chooses to be LGBT. But people will take time to learn that. Each of us has a different story to tell and makes different decisions about how we deal with our sexuality or gender identity. That is why some of us must patiently and honestly share our stories with our Christian brothers and sisters to enable them to move forward on the journey of understanding.

That is not to say that all those Christians who struggle to accept gay people are hypocritical or un-Christian. There is a great deal of misinformation about what it means to be gay or transgender. Often people will believe the stereotypes of LGBT people that are out there. Many of us have had to deal with out own homophobia to accept ourselves as we are and others have to travel that journey too.

Of course as LGBT people we, like everyone else, get things wrong. We make bad decisions, let those we love down, say hurtful or malicious things and we know it and in our better times we regret it. But the good news is that in Christ’s real church we are welcome, we are affirmed. In our relationship with Christ, if we acknowledge when we get things wrong then we can be forgiven in just the same way as any other Christian. Jesus has promised his followers the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. As we seek the truth and share with other Christians we and they will see our faults and want to deal with them. That is where we meet God and are assured of His forgiveness as we seek to turn our lives around (which is what repentance means).

Jesus was despised by the religious leaders of his time. He was often misunderstood. He made what the world would see as a mistake in standing up for the vulnerable, challenging injustice, healing the sick in mind and body, breaking some of the Old Testament rules on the way. That led to a cruel death on the cross. That was not the end though. God did not leave him there but raised him from the dead. Perfect love does not die but is vindicated on that Easter Day.

Going back to Matthew 7 v 21, can we sum up what Jesus says is the Father’s will? Yes we can!! When asked what is the greatest commandment Jesus doesn’t just answer with one but gives two and moreover says they sum up all the law of Moses and the prophets’ teachings – namely “Love God, with all your heart, soul and mind” and then “love your neighbour as you love yourself” Matt 22 v 36 – 40.

Paul again in his letters emphasises the importance of self-giving love among Christians, most famously in 1 Corinthians 13, which he starts by saying “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” In other words I can be a wonderful preacher and show myself full of the Holy Spirit, but if I don’t show a loving welcome and concern for others my words will be useless.

And we can look to Jesus’ words, this time in Matthew 25, when he makes it clear that those who will “inherit the Kingdom” are those who welcome the stranger and care for the vulnerable – in the passage known as the parable of the sheep and the goats.

The New Testament is full of exhortations for followers of Jesus to show love. For example, in John 15 verse 12, Jesus says “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

So we should be able to be recognised as Christians by our loving welcome of all, particularly those different from ourselves. It would be so easy if we could just go into any church and always find people who do God’s will and show a loving welcome to all. It was said of the early Christians by the writers of the time “See how they love one another” (Attributed to Tertullian).

Now we cannot say that there is a particular denomination that is the most Christ-like, or (much as we would like to think sometimes) that high church or low church, evangelical, liberal, charismatic or any other label marks out the best of us. Those who would seek Jesus in our churches have to “taste and see” for it is “by their fruits” that you can tell (Matthew 7 v 16). We must pray that we pass the test!

Martin Stears-Handscomb

Bible Study 1: You Are Welcome And Affirmed

Bible study for a church that wants to take the Gospel to LGBT people

Study 1: You are welcome and affirmed

Author: Martin Stears-Handscomb

What would Bible study be like if the church wanted to preach the Gospel to LGBT people?
Would we/they be invited to join the battle, by focussing on 6 or so verses taken out of context? I don’t think so! There is a place for responding to the agenda set by those who want to justify the homophobic attitude the church has often taken, but that isn’t all there is!

Surely we should be introducing people to Jesus – the person that helps make sense of it all

In a world whose gods – money, sex, possessions – do not satisfy, Jesus’ teaching, as we find it in the gospels offers us a way of living that turns that upside down, that puts self-giving love at the centre. And Paul explains how, although we all get it wrong and keep getting it wrong, Jesus, by his sacrificial love on the cross has put us right with God.

In Romans 3 v 23, Paul writes “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. But he doesn’t stop there, he goes on in the next verse to say we are “justified freely by God’s grace through Jesus”. This wonderful explanation by Paul in chapters 1 – 5 is summed up in chapter 5 verse 8 in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

But is this open to LGBT people? Is just being gay sinful? What was Jesus’ attitude?

In Jesus’ day as in all ages there were LGBT people. But they would be likely to be oppressed, repressed, in the closet, at least in Jewish society. For gay men at the extreme of the spectrum there would be the issue of being inadequate in marriage and potentially ostracised. In his teaching on divorce, Jesus speaks of people who were “born that way” (Good News Bible) or “born eunuchs” as well as those “men made that way”. Gay men would be seen as emotional eunuchs. Jesus’ concern was that they should not be forced into heterosexual marriage.

In Matthew 19 vv 11 – 12 “Jesus answered “This teaching (the teaching on marriage and divorce) does not apply to everyone, but only to those to whom God has given it. For there are different reasons why men cannot marry: some because they were born that way; others because men made them that way …” Jesus was certainly not saying that everyone ought to be able to have a straight marriage if they prayed hard enough. His concern was with people as they are. And although there is no similar comment about women, Jesus’ concern for women to be treated fairly and sensitively by men, perhaps gives us a flavour of how he would have treated the lesbian women of his day.

There was however, homosexual practise in surrounding societies, looked down on by those in self-righteous Jewish religious groups such as the Pharisees. For example, Roman army leaders, unable to take a wife with them on their campaigns would often choose an attractive young male servant to satisfy their sexual desires. These young men or boys were known as catamites. Jesus would have known this when he met a centurion who asked him to save the servant who he loves. The centurion has left his “very dear” servant at home in bed. Jesus doesn’t ask if he is the centurion’s catamite, which might be expected – but what matters to Jesus is his love for him and so he heals him. What Jesus is concerned with is self-giving love. You can find the story in Luke chapter 7 or Matthew chapter 8 vv 5 and following.

What about Paul?

Christians argue about what Paul means when he criticises the abuse of sexuality. This is really the subject of another study but a number of brief interesting things can be said here. Because of his initial belief that the second coming was imminent, in his early writings, Paul actually advocated refraining from sexual activity for all Christians, whatever their sexuality but with the concession of seeking a loving partnership (i.e. marriage) rather than “burning with passion”.

In 1 Corinthians 7 vv 8-9 he writes “Now to the unmarried, and to the widows I say that it would be better for you to continue to live alone as I do. But if you cannot restrain your desires go ahead and marry – it is better to marry than to burn with passion” Verse 25 makes clear he is giving opinion, not commands from the Lord.

But more important, Paul makes clear that no one is excluded for who they are.   Turning to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he reminds them in that wonderful verse at the beginning of chapter 3 “You foolish Galatians, who has put a spell on you?   What is this spell? It is the idea that putting up barriers can restrict the gospel to those who fit, in their case those (men of course) who had been circumcised. No says Paul! Faith in Christ has made us all equal. He concludes with that fabulous and shocking verse to the people of the time, verse 28. He gives three examples, “there is neither Jew not Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but he doesn’t stop there. He goes one “you are all one in Christ Jesus”, so that to the end of eternity when the church tries to set up barriers we can go on adding categories – so there is indeed neither gay nor straight is God’s kingdom!

So you are Welcome, but are you “Affirmed?”

Over the last few years many of those in churches such as ours have drawn the distinction between churches who welcome and affirm lgbt people – which is code for saying you are welcome and it’s okay to have gay sex – and churches who welcome and do not affirm – which is code for saying that you are “welcome” but are expected not to have sex and in varying degrees expected to “repent”, be “celibate”, try to be heterosexual, etc. Someone has described this as “Exercises in Missing the Point”. Once we establish that there are LGBT people, that we are here, churches must stop indulging in the sort of prurience that would be utterly unacceptable if the subjects were married straight people. Let us redefine Affirming as accepting people as they are – as Jesus affirms people – invites us to come as we are. We believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so let us leave lgbt people to search the scriptures themselves. Some will conclude that certain ways of expressing their love are inappropriate and refrain from them. Others will not. But that is between us and God.

So the answer is yes – gay man, lesbian woman, transgendered person, bisexual person, intersex person, whoever you are. In Christ’s church you are welcome, you are affirmed, you are a child of God valued by him for who you are. And whatever you have done – and we all screw up – we are made right with God, because Jesus who never got it wrong at all, made us right with God through accepting the worst that people could throw at him for our sakes – Yes! being judicially murdered, despised, misunderstood, taunted, torn from those he loved to die the most wretched death, but yes vindicated by God – for us!!!!! That is the Gospel we want to share with you. And may God bless you and make His face to shine upon you because there is a place for you in His church!

Martin Stears-Handscomb

Roy Clements on Why I am still an evangelical Christian (Part 2)

My first talk was essentially a testimony. It was about how I became a Christian and how nothing has happened in the last fifty years to make me change my mind. In this second talk, however, I want to qualify the word Christian in an important way. I want to talk about why I am still an evangelical Christian.

“Evangelical”? some may ask—why insert that adjective?  Isn’t it enough to say you are a Christian?

Well, yes, in many contexts it would be enough. I’m reminded of the story of the man who goes to heaven and finds by his feet a trapdoor in the clouds. He asks his angelic guide: “What’s down there?” and is told, in a hushed whisper “Shh, that’s the evangelicals—they think they’ve got all heaven to themselves!”

Well, I certainly don’t expect that there will really be any party-labels of that sort in the world to come.

Nevertheless, I have to say that, within a couple of years of my initial surrender to Christ as a student, I discovered that I often needed to insert the word “evangelical” into my description of my new Christian identity—and fifty years on, I still do.

Since I am addressing a company of Christians who also call themselves “evangelical”, I guess I am not alone in that, though I expect in recent years your loyalty to the word may have been sorely tested. Mine certainly has! As I said in my introduction to my first talk, this has not been because my theological position has changed in any major way, but rather because one particular ethical debate has been raised to the level of a defining issue by many evangelical leaders, institutions and churches. The goalposts have been moved in a way that has caused great embarrassment to me and I know to many of you too.

The new defining issue I am referring to of course is homosexuality. Some of us, who have always regarded ourselves most emphatically as “evangelicals”, have been disowned and disfranchised because we do not accept the purported “evangelical view” on the gay issue. There has been a determined attempt, at least by some within the evangelical camp, so to embed a particular view of homosexuality within the evangelical identity that there is no room left for dissenters. Indeed, the very possibility of being a “gay evangelical” has been conspicuously ignored or denied.

In this second talk, therefore, I want to identify what I believe are the true defining characteristics of an evangelical Christian and why I believe the attempt to make a particular line on homosexuality a defining issue is thoroughly misguided.

Here are three evangelical distinctives that I believe are of vital relevance:

  • Evangelicals have a high view of the authority of the Bible
  • Evangelicals seek to interpret the Bible in a responsible and scholarly fashion
  • Evangelicals respect personal conscience in regard to controversial issues

Evangelicals have a high view of the authority of the Bible

The evangelical theologian, Jim Packer, asserts in his best-selling book that Christianity is about “Knowing God”. Christians can be brave in trouble because of what they know of God’s sovereign providence. They pray for forgiveness because of what they know of God’s love and mercy. They try to be a better people because of what they know of God’s moral holiness. They are moved to worship because of what they know of God’s sovereign majesty. They evangelise because of what they know of God’s salvation for the world. All Christian belief, practice and experience is rooted in the possibility of knowing God.

“God” is not just an emotive buzz word for a Christian, a meaningless mantra we mindlessly recite in order to attain some spiritual high—it is a word rich in cognitive content. We are able to describe the God in whom we believe. Like Jeremiah, it’s our boast that we understand and know the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth (Jer. 9:24). So the primary question for any thinking Christian must be where do we get this treasured knowledge of God from?

There are two basic approaches; we can call them man-centred and God-centred.

By “man-centred” I mean the view that human beings discover the knowledge of God through philosophical reflection or mystical intuition. In other words, we humans find God for ourselves. I came to conclusion very early that evangelical Christians were right when they insisted that this method did not work, and could not work. As the apostle Paul puts it in his first Corinthian letter: “The world by its wisdom has not known God” (1 Corinthians 1:21). If God is anything at all like the omnipotent person Christianity claims, he can never be turned into a passive object of human investigation. He is the “I am”—the eternal subject—he can never be reduced to an “it”.

Fortunately there is an alternative: the God-centred approach.

Here the initiative lies not in our human search for God, but in God’s voluntary self-disclosure to us. And this is why the Bible is so important to those of us who call ourselves evangelicals—because the Bible is the primary source of that crucial divine revelation from which we gain our precious knowledge of God.

In the Bible, God has taken a personal initiative to reveal himself. In the shorthand we conventionally use—in our view, the Bible is “the Word of God”.

It is important that there are no misunderstandings at this point, so let me immediately make three clarifications.

First, when evangelicals say the Bible is the Word of God, they do not imply that the human race has no access to the knowledge of God outside the Bible. Against the extreme position adopted by some theologians in the Barthian school, evangelicals accept the existence of what theologians call “general revelation”. The eternal power and deity of God are perceptible in the created universe, says Paul in Romans 1—we do indeed have intuitive knowledge of God mediated through creation. The created world bears, as it were, the signature of the cosmic artist who designed it.

But there are two problems with this general revelation. First, we humans habitually turn a blind eye to it or distort the truth to which it witnesses because we are sinners, in rebellion against the God of whom it speaks; and second, while this intuitive awareness of God is enough to render us (as Paul puts it) “without excuse”, it is not enough to save us.

Second, when evangelicals say the Bible is the Word of God, they do not imply that God’s self-revelation is limited to the inspired words the Bible contains. In recent years, a number of theologians have emphasised the importance of redemptive events as the locus of divine revelation. A book by G. E. Wright, written back in the 1950s, The God who Acts, was a seminal exposé of this view, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is a most important perspective. Unlike the Muslims and the Mormons, we don’t just have a verbally inspired text that floated down from heaven in some mysterious way. Biblical revelation is anchored around supernatural divine interventions in history, and this historical context gives it objectivity and credibility which sets it apart from all the other religions which claim to be based on an inspired text.

However, revelatory events need to be interpreted, and it is precisely the function of the inspired word to give us that interpretation; biblical prophets and apostles not only to tell us what God has done in history, but what he means by it or achieved through it.

There is a fine example of this in 1 Corinthians 15, which many theologians believe is a very primitive Christian creed:

‘Christ died’ event
‘…for our sins…’ interpretation of event
‘…according to the Scriptures.’ source of the interpretation

Events only become revelatory acts as God himself explains them to us. And this is the chief function of the Bible; without it we’re reduced to being spectators trying to make sense of a subtle TV drama where the sound volume has been turned down to zero. We are not at liberty to interpret Christ’s death on the cross in any way we please—God has provided us with his own authoritative commentary on that pivotal event—in the Scriptures.

Thirdly, when evangelicals say that the Bible is the Word of God, they are in no way contradicting the perfection of Christ as the full and final revelation of God’s person to us. It would be equally true, and for many people far more appealing, if we said that our knowledge of God is primarily and supremely mediated through Christ. But fine and valid though such a statement would be, it would be unhelpful because it would not indicate what channel of access we who live in 2014 have to this Christ. There are today countless bogus Christs being offered to the world. There’s Christ the Hollywood superstar, Christ the anti-colonial freedom fighter, Christ the Eastern guru, Christ the humanitarian moralist. Everybody wants Jesus to hold their banner, to represent their enthusiasm. One is tempted to say, as in that old television quiz programme, ‘Will the real Jesus Christ please stand up?’

Where are we to find him?

There is only one answer, and that is in the God-authorised documents that speak of him. In this regard we must give credit to the New Delhi World Council of Churches conference in 1961 which revised the confessional basis of the World Council to read ‘A fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures’. Of course it must be ‘according to the Scriptures’, because there is no other Jesus to confess. Any other Jesus is an impostor. Christ coming as the Word made flesh did not supersede the need for the Bible. It made that need all the more obvious. Dare I put it this way—without wishing to seem impious—it would have been utterly pointless if God had sent Christ into the world without also accompanying his coming by an authoritative inspired interpretive word so that we could rightly understand who he was and what he had come to do.

Someone may protest that the whole idea of a divinely inspired text is too crazy to be believed, so perhaps a comparison may help at this point:

What happened to Mary that day in Nazareth? Christians believe that a fallible, sinful, human woman was so acted upon by the Holy Spirit that the child conceived in her womb was 100% human and 100% divine. He was her son and he was God’s Son. He was, as John so provocatively describes him, the “Word made flesh”.

And what happened in the cases of the prophets and the apostles? Evangelical Christians believe that in a similarly supernatural way, the Spirit of God so acted upon them, fallible, sinful and human though they were, that the words they wrote were 100% human and 100% divine—human words and God’s Word. The Word made scripture.

Of course it is miraculous. In one case it’s the miracle of the incarnation and in the other it’s the miracle of inspiration. But for those who believe the former there should be no intrinsic difficulty in believing the latter. Humanness and divinity are united in the Word made legible in a manner not unlike the way they united in the Word made flesh.

If we are asked for evidence of such a miraculous doctrine then we have three arguments to cite:

The Bible’s self-testimony

‘All scripture is inspired by God’ (2 Tim. 3:16, RSV), the Greek word means ‘exhaled by the breath of God’. If someone complains that to defend the inspiration of the Bible by quoting the Bible is a circular argument, then we reply that the validity of an absolute authority can only be established by argument that is in some sense circular. In the nature of the case, there is no authority higher than that of the Word of God to which appeal might be made for ‘proof’ of the Bible’s divine origin.

The testimony of Christ

Even if we only accept that the Gospels provide us with a trustworthy account of Jesus’ teaching and reserve judgment on the question of their divine inspiration, we are compelled to conclude either that the doctrine of inspiration is true or that Christ was mistaken, for it is quite clear that he accepted fully the Old Testament’s divine authority. Scripture for him could not, as he put it, “be broken”. When faced with demonic temptation, the phrase “It is written …” carried all the authority necessary to silence inner doubt.

Well does John Bright comment in his book The Authority of the Old Testament, “I find it interesting and not a little odd that although the Old Testament on occasion offends our Christian feelings, it did not apparently offend Christ’s ‘Christian’ feeling. Could it really be that we are ethically and religiously more sensitive than he? Or is it perhaps that we do not view the Old Testament as he did?”

It is utterly inconsistent to couple a high view of Christ’s perfection with a low view of the Bible’s authority.

The testimony of the Holy Spirit

There is a lovely story of how Spurgeon used to gather crowds for open-air sermons. He would have a hat and put it down on the ground as if there were a little animal underneath it. He would point a quivering finger at it and say, “It’s alive, it’s alive!” Of course a crowd would gather, waiting to see what kind of animal he had got hidden under there. Then he would pick up the hat and underneath there would be a Bible, which he would then wave in the air announcing: “It’s alive!”, he would repeat and start to preach.

I don’t know whether such a tactic would work today. But what Spurgeon claimed, of course, was absolutely right. When we listen to or read from the Bible, we are placing ourselves in a most precarious place, because it is alive.
This final argument for the uniqueness of the Bible resonated powerfully with me as a young believer, of course, because that is exactly how I was converted. I was reading the Bible to prove the Christians wrong, when suddenly the tables were turned and the Word leapt up and grabbed me by the throat. The authority of the Bible always lies ultimately in its self-authenticating power. The Spirit of God acts through the Word to establish its authority in people’s hearts. And for that reason, of course, Scripture doesn’t really need to be defended by long-winded and dusty academic arguments about inspiration. The best way to defend it is to preach it. That was certainly my experience as a pastor to Cambridge university students. As Spurgeon said on another occasion: “You don’t need to defend a lion—you just let it out of the cage.”

As I say, I needed no convincing of this as a young Christian. Jesus had told me in the Gospel of John to “continue in his word” if I wanted to be a genuine disciple of his and know the liberating truth he had come to bring.

What did that mean in practice? Jesus had never written a book, so where was I to find “his word” so I could continue in it? The answer was self-evident—had he not been speaking to me all along?—through John’s Gospel. The vehicle of Jesus’ word was the Bible. For me this was not initially a theological proposition, it was an indispensable part of my testimony. It was a spiritual experience.

I soon discovered quite a large company of students in my university who shared this experience. They worshipped in a wide range of different churches; some went to Anglican churches and some to non-conformist chapels; a sizeable number went to an obscure group I had never heard of before called “the Plymouth Brethren”; some held their hands in the air and spoke in tongues and others thought that kind of charismatic stuff was rather childish. But these differences of church affiliation and worship style didn’t seem to bother them too much, because they all had one thing in common—a high regard for the Bible and a desire to study it. The word they used to distinguish themselves in this respect was “evangelical”. Without any hesitation, I joined their number and began to call myself an evangelical Christian too.

And fifty years on, I still do.

This high view of Scripture, I suggest, is what primarily defines an evangelical. Not the Graham Kendrick worship songs and Charles Wesley hymns we sing, not the magazines we read, not the congregations we attend, not even organizations like the Evangelical Alliance that we belong to—whether you and I are right to call ourselves evangelicals hinges on the authority we ascribe to the Bible.

In giving such a high role to the Bible, evangelicals of course stand squarely in the tradition of reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin and their later disciples in English-speaking world, who are often called the puritans. In the 16th and 17th centuries these protestant believers challenged the spiritual decadence of the medieval church by a direct appeal to the authority of Bible over heads of popes, kings and councils. Evangelicals see themselves as the spiritual heirs of these great reforming pioneers. And I too am proud to identify with that rich heritage.

But it must also be said that a high view of Scripture on its own is not enough.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have a high view of scripture too, don’t they? So do any number of other bizarre sects. Are they to be called “evangelicals” then? Certainly not! It is pointless to say you believe the Bible is the Word of God unless you go on to explain the principles that control your interpretation of the Bible.

Evangelicals seek to interpret the Bible in a responsible and scholarly manner

Nothing undermines the authority of the Bible more than the abuse of the text to support fanatical or crazy ideas. We can see today how allegiance to a crude, irrational interpretation of the Koran is bringing Islam into global contempt among civilised peoples. Well, the Bible can be abused like that too, and often has been. As Shakespeare wisely observes: “The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”

However, once we raise the issue of biblical interpretation (or “hermeneutics” as it is technically called), we inevitably encounter a thorny theological debate about the tension between human reason and the Bible.

Should I base my opinions solely on Scripture or should I also give weight to the rational conclusions of human logic and modern science? Evangelicals distinguish themselves from liberal Christians on the one hand and fundamentalist Christians on the other by their response to this longstanding controversy.

Evangelicals are, as we have already said, first and foremost “Bible people”—they confess the Bible to be the inspired Word of God—and, if it is to be consistent, such a confession must invest the Bible’s teaching with supreme authority. You can hardly accuse God of lying—if the Bible is the Word of God, it must be trustworthy, or the claim is vacuous.

However, it is nonsense to suggest that evangelicals take their stand on the authority of the Bible in defiance of human reason. This has never been their position. True evangelicals have always sought to demonstrate that reason and the Bible are in harmony. When conflicts have arisen along this axis, evangelicals have always sought to hold on to both, even if this involves accepting a high degree of intellectual angst or uncertainty.

A classic example of this, of course, has been the debate about creation and evolution. Thinking evangelicals have never yielded to the blinkered dogma which insists the world must have been made in seven days because Genesis says so. It is no part of Christian discipleship to turn a blind eye to discoveries of science which indicate the earth is millions of years old. In fact, a surprising number of our most able scientists are evangelical Christians, including biologists who are thoroughly persuaded of the general accuracy of evolutionary theory.

There are, of course, some Christians who do reject the findings of modern science; but such obscurantism is not representative of true evangelicalism. Although the term is not ideal, I shall call such anti-intellectuals the “fundamentalists”. While it would not be fair to place all young-earth creationists in that pejorative category, the majority of them undoubtedly do adopt a blinkered literalism toward the Bible which science is not permitted to challenge.

At the other extreme, of course, there are some Christians who experience no difficulty at all in embracing modern science because they see the Bible as simply a fallible witness to the human experience of God. If Moses or Paul or any of the other biblical authors say something which they find incompatible with modern thought, their solution is simple—the prophets were children of their time, so they got things wrong. The label is not ideal, but I shall call this the point of view espoused by “liberals”. The characteristic of liberal Christians is that they are not prepared to submit their minds to the authority of Scripture when it says things they find unacceptable. Instead, they arrogate to themselves the right to pick and choose the bits of the Bible they are prepared to agree with, effectively identifying what God says with their own opinions. In my view, this makes nonsense of the whole idea of God-centred revelation. It is precisely the kind of theological speculation that is forbidden in the second commandment. A “graven image” is the idol you get when you let your own imagination shape your idea of God.

Evangelicals, I say, occupy the middle ground between these fundamentalist and liberal extremes. They do not occupy it, let me hasten to add, by seeking some insipid compromise between reason and the Bible. On the contrary, they wrestle with the intellectual issues involved, sometimes over many decades, until a satisfying resolution of the tension between reason and the Bible is forthcoming. Almost invariably, such a resolution is associated with an advance in biblical interpretation. As a result, the biblical hermeneutics practiced by evangelicals is immensely sophisticated. They have always resisted the crude literalistic approach espoused by the fundamentalists, just as they have also refused to accept the liberals’ dismissal of parts of the Bible as “human error”. They have insisted that the truth is not to be found by letting go of either reason or Scripture, but only by holding on to both.

A willingness to listen to the voice of reason as we interpret the Bible is, of course, particularly important when pastoral issues are at stake. Modern science has thrown new light on the “nature” of many aspects of human behavior and psychology which were not properly understood in ancient times. The biblical interpretation of evangelicals takes into account the fact that divine inspiration accommodated itself to the pre-modern world-view of its original authors, even when their culture was ignorant or misinformed.

Demon possession is perhaps a good example of this. Ancient culture clearly had the wrong idea about mental illness, yet the Bible does not attempt to correct it. Whilst not arrogantly dismissing what the Bible says about this subject, therefore, evangelicals do not assume, as some fundamentalists do, that demon possession provides us with a complete and accurate explanation of the phenomenon of mental disorder.

In a not dissimilar way, we also now understand the phenomenon of homosexuality much better than we used to do. Its origin has not yet been discovered, but numerous possibilities have been discussed: a genetic predisposition; an abnormal hormone flux in the womb; remote or excessively intense relationships with one or both parents. The jury is still out on this debate, but the psychological evidence unambiguously indicates that sexual orientation is fixed at a very early age and is immutable. The most that the so-called ex-gay movement has ever been able to demonstrate is temporary modification of behaviour in a handful of cases, sustained by substantial social rewards. They have produced no evidence that anyone’s underlying orientation can be permanently changed, and there are plenty of gay Christians around who can testify to the damage which the futile quest for “healing” through such groups has caused them.

This new psychological knowledge about homosexuality must inform our interpretation and application of the biblical text. To refuse to allow such a revision would be fundamentalist obscurantism of a particularly dangerous kind because, like the issue of mental illness, it has such serious pastoral implications.

Only a fundamentalist would argue that, since the Bible talks about demon-possession, modern psychological ideas about mental illness are all wrong and schizophrenics should therefore throw away their medication and seek exorcism instead. Similarly, only a fundamentalist would suggest that, because the Bible has no idea of homosexual orientation, this modern psychological understanding of what it means to be “gay” has to be rejected. Evangelicals occupy the middle ground when reason and Scripture seem to collide, and seek an interpretation that does justice to both.

In my judgment, the refusal to take sides in that theological tug-of-war has been amply vindicated. As a result of it, an Eeangelical’s confidence in the authority of Scripture never leads to a mindless recital of fundamentalist proof-texts. They seek rather a carefully nuanced and academically informed exposition of the Bible that does full justice to its historical and cultural background, its literary genre and to the uncertainties that still surround the original meaning of some parts its text. As a result, evangelical scholarship has won considerable respect in the academic world. Evangelicals have served as professors in the theology departments of secular universities and continue to do so.

They are distinguished by what I would describe as a responsible and scholarly approach to all questions of biblical interpretation. I certainly would not wish to be known as an evangelical if that was not true.

But that kind of intellectual integrity brings with it an inescapable corollary:

Evangelicals respect personal conscience in regard to controversial issues

Once we acknowledge that biblical interpretation can sometimes be a tricky subject, we have to acknowledge that different people may well interpret the Bible in different ways. So the question arises, how do we seek to handle such potential for disunity?

One very early response to the emergence of theological disagreement was to invoke the authority of the institutional church. Thus, when faced with a doctrinal conflict, the individual believer was instructed to surrender their conscience to the dictates of church tradition.

For the sake of giving it a label, I want to call this the conservative catholic solution—though I hasten to say that I am using the word “catholic” here with a small “c”, because, as I will stress a little later, although the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope remains the most extreme formulation of this attempt by the church to impose conformity on all Christians, such ecclesiastical authoritarianism has by no means been limited to the Vatican. There have been plenty of protestant bishops and ministers willing to claim infallibility for their particular interpretation of the biblical text and willing to persecute or excommunicate any who deny it.

In contrast to the conservative catholic view, on the other hand, there have always been brave Christians throughout church history who have insisted on their individual right to follow their own private understanding of the Holy Spirit’s leading on issues. I will call this the radical protestant view. Groups like the Anabaptists, the early Congregationalists and the Quakers faced appalling persecution in Europe during the 17th century because they dared to challenge the dictates of ecclesiastical authorities, and there is a clear historical link between those brave dissenters and modern evangelicals.

Of course, I am not suggesting that all evangelicals are non-conformists! Many remained loyal to the royalist establishment during Cromwell’s revolution, and in later centuries a strong evangelical party developed within the Church of England. If we are honest, we have to admit that relations between evangelical Anglicans and evangelical non-conformists have occasionally been tense. Nevertheless, my point is this: non-conformity has always been a recognized and respected element within Evangelicalism. Evangelicals have always respected personal conscience.

Let me immediately make plain that this does not mean that Evangelicalism is just a form of sanctified individualism. Certainly not! Evangelical Christians have always placed a great deal of theological emphasis on what Bible says about the church as the “the body of Christ” and the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit”. If non-conformity within their ranks has sometimes led to schism, this has always been characterised by great reluctance and regret. The non-conformist chapels that we see in every town and city are evidence of the persecuting intolerance of ecclesiastical authoritarians rather than of the bolshie revolutionary sedition of their founding dissenters.

Nevertheless, it remains a fundamental tenet of evangelical understanding that the grace of God is mediated to the Christian through a personal 1:1 faith relationship with Christ: not through the priest, not through the sacraments of the church, not through the Christian family even. Evangelicals believe that every human individual is accountable directly to God and must be free to believe and practise their faith according to their own conscience. For history clearly proves that church tradition is unreliable guide to a right understanding of the Bible.

Jesus himself warned about precisely this when he said to the Jewish leaders of his day: “You have made the Word of God void by your traditions” (Mark 7:13).

The trouble with tradition is that it obstructs change and sometimes change is necessary. Jesus himself brought change—and resistance to that change was one of the reasons he was crucified.

On many occasions, the church too has resisted change. Who can possibly deny that the church has made many grievous mistakes in its long history? It has used texts from the Bible to endorse serious theological error, to justify crazy military crusades and to retain unjust cultural prejudices against the Jews, against Muslims, against negroes, against women, and against gays.

Evangelicals believe the only way to correct those mistakes is by patiently attending to the Word of God as it comes to us, not through the distorting lens of church tradition, but afresh through contemporary Bible study. That I believe is why Jesus told new believers to “continue in his word”—for discipleship is a continuing process; when it comes to understanding the truth as it is in Jesus, we have never “arrived”. Our understanding of the Bible advances by an iterative procedure of constantly improving approximations to the truth. We understand the Bible better today than we did 500 years ago because this is how the Holy Spirit chooses to work. As the apostle Paul admitted, at any particular moment in church history, “we understand in part”, and will continue to do so until the final day arrives—only then will we know God as fully as he knows us (I Corinthians 13:8-12).

Such humility in regard to our current theological understanding must inevitably generate respect for other people’s opinions. In that respect the influence of the radical protestants in the English-speaking world has been enormously important. It was the need to accommodate the consciences of non-conformist Christians that taught the Western world the meaning of the word “toleration”. I might add that it is the absence of a similar accommodation to dissent that is causing such barbarous intolerance in the Middle East at the moment.

As I stressed earlier, it is a mistake to think that the enemies of the radical protestant in this respect were always based in Rome. Take the Pilgrim Fathers for example—they fled across the Atlantic primarily not from persecution by Catholics but by Lutherans and by Calvinists and, in this country by Anglican bishops. When they were about to set sail for America, their pastor John Robinson preached a sermon in which he bewailed the way that the reformed churches, just like Catholicism, had become stuck in the mire of tradition. To be a Christian is always to be constantly open to further light upon the truth as it is in Jesus, insisted Robinson. The church must never rest on the laurels of its earlier history, but always be open, not to new truth, but to a better understanding the truth that has been once and for all been given to us in the Bible.

Here is the key part of Robinson’s famous farewell speech:

I charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.

The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they (Lutherans) will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented. For though they were precious shining lights in their time, yet God has not revealed his whole will to them. And were they now living, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as they had received.

His words later became the inspiration for a great non-conformist hymn.

We limit not the truth of God
To our poor reach of mind,
By notions of our day and sect,
Crude, partial, and confined.

No, let a new and better hope
Within our hearts be stirred:
The Lord hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from His Word.

Sadly, I fear the words of that hymn would stick in the throats of many so-called evangelicals today, for they are stuck in their traditions every bit as much as were the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, the Catholics in Luther’s day, and the reformed churches in the days of John Robinson. As a result, like the Pilgrim Fathers, some who formerly called themselves “evangelicals” have felt compelled to “jump ship” and board the Mayflower, putting distance between themselves and the stick-in-the-mud version of Christian spirituality in which they were nurtured. It is sad—and in my view misjudged.

Because true evangelicals have always affirmed a radical non-conformist openness to new light from the Word, and for that reason they have always tolerated diversity on a wide range of issues which they accept should be regarded as matters of private opinion.

Baptism is a good example of this spirit of tolerance. The conservative catholic might well see such a sacrament as a necessary and even a “saving” rite on the grounds that this is what church tradition teaches. Evangelicals, on the other hand, while recognising the importance of baptism as a mark of church membership, are generally happy to leave the quantity of water involved and the maturity required of the candidate as matters of opinion. Thus paedobaptists and adult baptists, sprinklers and immersers, all happily coexist within the circle of evangelical fellowship. Your view of baptism is a matter of individual conscience—not an evangelical essential.

Because of this intrinsic spirit of tolerance, in spite of all the early rhetoric of the ecumenical movement, in fact Evangelicalism bridges the gaps between Christian denominations at the grassroots level far more successfully than the World Council of Churches has ever done.

One revealing indicator of the reluctance of evangelicals to impose an unnecessary degree of conformity on their brothers and sisters is the observation that evangelical statements of faith have always been limited in scope. Like the classic creeds of the early centuries, and the confessions of the reformed churches, evangelical statements of faith have always affirmed the great central doctrines of the Christian faith regarding the person and work of Christ, but have deliberately omitted controversial areas out of respect for liberty of conscience.

One particularly significant area of opinion which has been conspicuously sidestepped in this way is that of ethics.

This is all the more remarkable given that, at several times in history, evangelicals have exercised a powerful moral influence on society. One thinks of William Wilberforce’s classic campaign to abolish slavery, for instance. In the later Victorian era, evangelicals were enormously active in improving the welfare of children and women. Many Methodists and Welsh Baptists were early socialists. In the twentieth century, some evangelicals campaigned strongly against alcohol and smoking.

In short, moral concern has been a feature of evangelical life for hundreds of years.

But, significantly, these concerns have never been enshrined in evangelical statements of faith. Ethics has always been treated as an area where personal conscience must be respected. Some evangelicals opposed slavery, but others did not; some campaigned for social justice with the Liberals and Labour, but others remained steadfastly Tory; some supported prohibition, but others denounced it. Such controversies aroused strong feelings within the evangelical camp but it never destroyed its essential spiritual fellowship.

Keeping ethics out of statements of faith in this way was not a mere concession to pragmatism—there are at least two good theological reasons for it.

First, although the Bible sometimes addresses ethical issues, its overall intention is not moralistic. Unlike the Koran, the Bible is primarily a book of faith not a book of law. The opposite of a saint is not a sinner but an unbeliever. The Bible’s purpose is to give us a faith perspective on life in the broad sweep of its revelatory story; the concrete particulars of the morality it presents in its narration of this revelatory adventure cannot be ours without being passed through a hermeneutic filter involving an understanding of the difference of historical and cultural horizons.

In this respect it is arguable that many Christians make moral misjudgements because they use the Bible like Pharisees, wishing to define righteousness by a list of right and wrong acts (i.e. law), when Jesus actually rejected that kind of casuistry, urging his followers instead to work out how to act in any situation by applying his two golden rules: love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself.

Second, in situations of ethical uncertainty, evangelicals have always recognised that sometimes it is necessary to make judgements based on the optimisation of consequences rather than simplistic ideas of right and wrong. This is what we often call “the lesser of two evils” principle. Jesus himself seems to have endorsed it as an ethical approach in his comment on divorce. Divorce isn’t God’s ideal he said, but Moses allowed it because of “the hardness of men’s hearts”. In other words, divorce is never “good”, but sometimes in a fallen world there is no good choice available, only a choice between different degrees of bad—the lesser evil.

When you put these two considerations together, it is easy to see why wise evangelical theologians have decided to keep ethics out of their statements of faith—a moral verdict on an issue is not a timeless truth in the same way that the doctrine of the Trinity is. There has to be room for consciences to differ as novel situations arise and new light on the biblical text is given.

Paul seems to me to be endorsing this morally flexible point of view very explicitly when he deals with the vexed question of eating meat that has been offered to idols. He insists that each believer should obey their own conscience on the matter and that the Christian community should not try to make a blanket rule to which everyone must conform.

A pertinent contemporary example might be the debate about abortion. There are quite a number of evangelical gynaecologists and obstetricians who believe it is sometimes morally right, or at least the lesser of two evils, to terminate a pregnancy. On the other hand, there is also a very powerful Christian lobby that holds that abortion under any circumstances is a form of murder. The argument over this modern moral issue has at times been extremely heated, but as far as I’m aware, it has been contained within the circle of evangelical fellowship. Even over such an emotive issue as the sanctity of unborn life, the private conscience of mothers and doctors has been respected. Abortion is an immensely complex ethical issue—made even more complicated by modern medical advances in embryology. Our creeds and statements of faith, therefore, wisely do not try to adjudicate upon it. The same could be said for any number of other modern ethical debates—the role of women, nuclear weapons, capital punishment—ethical debates of this kind have never been made a defining issue for evangelicals, nor should they.

We are united by our high view of scripture and our commitment to interpret the Bible in a scholarly and responsible fashion. But we do not always agree with one another; on theological issues like baptism, on pastoral issues like demon possession, on ethical issues like divorce and abortion, we respect liberty of conscience. Toleration is a fundamental lesson that we have learned during our long and sometimes turbulent history.

Why then—Why then, in the name of God—is the debate about homosexuality being turned into an evangelical shibboleth?—a defining issue about which dissent is not allowed? Such intolerance is utterly out of line with our evangelical heritage of tolerance toward conscientious dissent on controversial issues.

There is in fact a painful irony in the way much of the press coverage of the gay debate has portrayed conservative Christians as blinkered and intolerant extremists. Given the moralising pontifications of some self-appointed evangelical spokespersons, such a negative image is hardly surprising. But it is completely unfair. For when they are true to their tradition, evangelicals are not extremists of that kind at all. On the contrary, a sweet and charitable reasonableness has always in the past characterized their internal disagreements.

I am reminded of the famous lines attributed to the puritan Richard Baxter and often quoted by John Stott:

On things that are essential—unity
On things that are not essential—liberty
In all things—charity.

It is only those who are currently trying to hijack the evangelical wing of the church and turn it into an anti-gay bandwagon who are extremists. A determined attempt is being made to relocate evangelicalism closer to the fundamentalist and conservative catholic extremes on the issue of homosexuality. Any kind of open-mindedness on this controversial issue is being portrayed as a compromising betrayal of biblical truth. The fact is, however, it is nothing of the kind. Tolerance of diversity of opinion is precisely where evangelicals should stand on this matter. For they know that the unity of the church must always be maintained without doing violence to the private consciences of individual believers. They know it is always better to tolerate a degree of diversity in faith and practice than to reintroduce the politics of the inquisition. By allowing themselves to be railroaded on this issue, evangelicals are ruining their hard-won reputation for intellectual rigour and social relevance. All the progress that they have made in establishing the credibility of the Christian gospel within modern western culture is being threatened by a group of loony militants who loudly insist that what a person thinks about gays is a crucial mark of orthodoxy.

I have news for them—it isn’t. It is a side issue.

At least, it is for everyone except the gay community who are directly affected by it. For homosexual Christians, however, this uncharacteristic intolerance on the part of our evangelical brothers and sisters is highly problematic. It generates a profound contradiction between faith and experience. On the one hand, we are believers who have known the power of the Word and the Spirit of God in our lives. On the other hand, we long for fulfilment of our God-given potential for sexual intimacy. As in the case of heterosexuals, few of us are gifted with celibacy. So, as I said right at the start, sadly, for many the only way to resolve the cognitive dissonance to which Evangelicalism has subjected them has been to move theologically in the direction of liberal churches. Worse still, some gay evangelicals feel so spiritually abandoned, they have given up their faith altogether. I have a personal suspicion that some evangelical leaders have used the gay issue to play ecclesiastical power games. No doubt they consider the loss of a few adherents is a small price to pay for the political leverage they have achieved by raising the stakes on the gay issue so high. But there is a worrying absence of the Spirit of Jesus in their contemptuous disregard for the welfare of brothers and sisters whose only crime is to love someone of the same sex.

I say again, there is no disastrous compromise in adopting a tolerant respect for different views on this matter of homosexuality. Evangelicals know from experience that, when reason seems to collide with Scripture, or the church’s tradition with the individual’s conscience, toleration not persecution is the godly response. The intellectual flexibility and political manoeuvrability that comes from such a stance of principled sufferance has, on many other issues, enabled evangelicals to find a position of positive biblical balance, over against the contentious extremism of fundamentalist literalism, liberal scepticism, and ecclesiastical authoritarianism.

Yet, for some unaccountable reason, evangelicals are not willing to keep either their minds or their options open over the question of homosexuality.

That intolerance is not only damaging the church internally. The credibility of the church’s mission to the world is being undermined too. Please allow me to say a few words about this in closing, for it is the consequence of the current situation that grieves me more than any other.

Although Evangelicalism can trace its roots back to the reformers, the puritans and the non-conformists, the word “evangelical” is supremely associated with the great 18th century revivals. Preachers like Wesley and Whitfield in Britain and the great Jonathan Edwards in New England, preached the simple biblical message of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. It was that “gospel preaching” that first gave rise to the term “evangelical”. They told men and woman who were Christian in name but not in experience “you must be born again”—and, as a result, empty churches were filled and multitudes of new churches and chapels built. The Holy Spirit breathed new life into the Christian community, and the whole of society felt the impact of the spiritual renewal. Preachers like Moody in the 19th century and Billy Graham in the 20th stand in that same tradition of “evangelical revival”. Indeed, the entire modern missionary movement has grown out of the zeal for evangelisation that it engendered.

The greatest priority of any evangelical worthy of the name must surely be to share the Christian message with others in obedience to Christ’s final missionary mandate: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel.” What is the use of an evangelical who cannot evangelise?

But today, hostility towards homophile relationships within the institutional church has, in my view, not only made the evangelisation of the gay community impossible, but has also grossly undermined the credibility of the Christian message for all people who live in the West under the age of 40.

This abdication of our missionary mandate for the sake of a moral crusade against homosexuality is all the more disastrous when it is viewed in a global context. We live in days when it is no longer communism that threatens the future of the church but a militant and barbaric form of Islam. There is plenty of evidence that the secular world is drawing the conclusion that any religion that claims to be based on a divinely inspired text is dangerous and fanatical. Evangelicals are being tarred with the same brush as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the warriors of the so-called Islamic State.

What are the evangelicals doing in these critical days, when militarised Islam once again threatens Christendom? They are fighting internally about whether a gay man or woman can be a priest or not!

I am reminded of famous story about the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century. That city had since the time of the Roman empire been the capital of the Byzantine Church, but in the year 1484 it was besieged by the forces of the Muslim Ottomans. It was a crucial moment in the history of the world, not so far removed from the confrontation that is taking place once again right now in Turkey. Do you know what the Christian monks in Constantinople are reputed to have been doing during that siege in 1484? They were debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin!

A similar kind of suicidal blinkered mental block seems to be stultifying evangelicals today. I cannot express how much it grieves me—if Jesus wept over Jerusalem, how must he be weeping over the parlous state of the church today.

It is time to sum up:

Evangelicals disagree about many things—they always have—they disagree about war, abortion, divorce, the role of women, charismatic gifts, the second coming of Christ, and a hundred other issues. We work toward the resolution of those disagreements by studying the Bible together. This is what it means for us to “continue in Christ’s word”. Our experience is that, as we study the Bible together, according to his promise, the truth becomes clearer and previous mistakes are overcome—the Lord always has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word.

There are absolutely no grounds for treating the controversy about homosexuality in a different way. On the contrary, excluding gay Christians risks incurring a frighteningly serious rebuke from the Master. It would be better, Jesus said, to be drowned in the depths of the sea than to be a stumbling-block to one who believes in him; and a stumbling-block is precisely what many so-called evangelicals have become to those in the gay community that Christ wishes to call to faith in himself.

Personally, I refuse to dignify those who have become so spiritually effete with the honoured title of “Evangelical”. In my view, it is they who have forfeited the right to that name, not me.

I may be a gay man, but I am also still a Christian and an evangelical Christian at that.