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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

When Christians get in the way

We were delighted to hear that our teenage niece had started attending her local church in North Vancouver. As it happens we knew the church – a small, growing congregation led by an internet-savvy vicar who was blogging before the term had been invented. There was a palpable sense of progress when Jacqui and I turned up for their Sunday worship, way back in 2001.

Then everything changed as the church found itself in conflict with its diocese. An unsettling time by all accounts, and soon the gifted youth worker left. The congregation decided to quit the diocese and tried to hold onto its building. However, the courts determined that their building belonged to the diocese. So they had to move out as the diocese reclaimed their building to start a new congregation.

The breakup was caused by profound disagreements on gay relationships. The Diocese of New Westminster was one of the first to authorise gay marriage which led to a number of evangelical parishes seceding.

We went back a few years later. Now the congregation of St Simon’s were meeting in the local school. However, there was clearly a sense of determination to make this move work as part of a newly created Anglican grouping of evangelical parishes.

That was 20 years ago. I’m not sure what happened to the original congregation of St Simon’s and how the different churches in what is effectively a rival diocese are faring. However, I’ve just googled to find the “internet-savvy vicar” to discover that even though he retired - like me - in 2018, he is still blogging.

It’s possible – I hope so – that all churches are thriving, those who moved out and those who stayed, in what is the most secular city in North America. However, for us the important detail is that our niece stopped going to church as her youth leader left – and has had no contact with any church since. Secession comes at a cost.

I write all this at a time when the Church of England is in turmoil over gay marriage. The General Synod tries to square the circle between competing views on the nature of marriage. And like all compromises it risks the prospect of pleasing no-one.

And so this week we have had competing letters from bishops from either side of the divide – and if we are not careful, it will be a divide. Clearly there are parishes limbering up for an alternative diocesan structure. It has the potential of getting very messy.

The big question underlying all this is how Christians – and how parishes – handle profound disagreement. We live in a world of culture wars where the opposing parties show a complete lack of respect for those holding the opposite view. Politics now is fractured.

“The rising tide of nationalism and populism threatens to consume our politics” observes former party leader Jo Swinson. “Whether it is Trump or Putin abroad, or Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage at home, our political order is increasingly dominated by forces that seek to divide us.”

Here, as members of the CofE we owe it to our nation to show how we can live with profound disagreements and to overcome those forces that would divide us. This is the view of the former chief rabbi, the late Jonathan Sacks, as he addressed the Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops in 2008.

“I’m speaking from the heart. I’ve no right to say it. The hardest thing in the world is to hold the adherents of a faith together. Every faith faces schisms and cracks.

The Anglican Communion has held together quite different strands of Christian theology and practice more graciously and successfully than any other religion I know. The fact that you hold together in spite of difference is something, as an outsider, I view with wonder and admiration.

“And you must hold together for the future; for it’s your ability to hold together in a world driving apart that is your unique contribution to the world with a landscape of division. You are a wonderful Church.”

If we are going to be “a wonderful church” we need to demonstrate a sense of graciousness in this current furore. Clearly the place of gay relationships, and in particular gay marriage, arouses very strong emotions, much deeper that some of us realise.

The Vancouver experience has much to teach us on how Christians, as individuals and parishes, may handle profound disagreements. After all the harvest is plentiful and it doesn’t help if the labourers start fighting each other.

One important lesson is that it takes time – and patience is a virtue, a gift of the Holy Spirit. I remember thinking at the time that the Canadian diocese seemed to be in too much of a hurry to sort things out. Now I realise no one likes uncertainty and at times it seems discussion seems interminable, going round in circles. But ask any farmer, some things take time.

This is the viewpoint of Sean Doherty, principal of Trinity College Bristol: “Discernment and consensus take time and patience. Previously it has taken the Church literally centuries to settle doctrinal disputes. Why should we think current disagreements will be any easier?

He concludes: “We have to wait on the Holy Spirit for as long as it takes, and keep trying to work stuff out together in the meantime.”

I just think of our niece whose life could have been transformed by Christ but Christians got in the way. We owe it to her – and to millions like her – to do this properly and show to a cynical world how to handle profound disagreement. This is what walking in love means in practice, the agape love of Christ.

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