Sunday, October 29, 2017

At the Expense of Evangelism: A response to the Archbishop’s defence of the Million Dollar Donation to the ‘vote no’ ad campaign.

I recently spoke on a panel event advertised as ‘Evangelicals Supporting Marriage Equality’. In the weeks preceding the event, I had coffee with an Anglican minister to discuss my involvement as a panellist, the use of the word Evangelical, and whether I apply it to myself.

In this piece, I respond to the letter written by the Sydney Anglican Archbishop, in which he defends the million dollar donation made by the Sydney Anglican Diocese to the Coalition for Marriage, urging Australians to ‘vote no’ in the postal survey on same-sex marriage. But my response to that letter is connected to the fact that I do, in certain key ways consider myself an Evangelical, so I will begin with a consideration of that term. Then, in responding to the letter, I suggest that as Evangelical Christians, we should consider how the million-dollar donation, and the defence of this action by the Archbishop, may actively work to detract from the evangelistic work of sharing the gospel.

Labels and Tags: Evangelical

I'm not particularly fond of labels and tags, but, as someone who spends a lot of time in feminist and queer theory, I understand there is value in declaring one’s subject position. Let me do this without the standard tags: I’ve dated a couple of men and – to borrow from Katy Perry -  I’ve kissed a girl, and I liked it. I’m unmarried and childfree. I read feminist theory. I critique cultural marriage narratives. I’m for feminist, transformative politics and subversive story telling[i].  Two of my grandparents were German-speaking Jews who came to Australia by boat, but I’m an inner-city white girl who grew up in the Anglican church.

I will take the label ‘Evangelical’. I do so because as a Christian there are certain key beliefs and values I align with that fall under the 'Evangelical' tag. The great source of knowledge that is Wikipedia defines Protestant Evangelicalism as a Christian movement which:

maintains the belief that the essence of the gospel consists of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ's atonement. Evangelicals believe in the centrality of the conversion or the "born again" experience in receiving salvation, in the authority of the Bible as God's revelation to humanity, and in spreading the Christian message.[ii]

Amy DeRogatis, writing in Church History, uses ‘Protestant Evangelical’ as an “umbrella term”, for Protestant Christians who “who affirm the necessity of a spiritual rebirth” and are “grouped together by their literal reading of the Bible, their emphasis on inerrancy, the imminent return of Christ, mission-mindedness, and in many cases—though certainly not all—their suspicion of "worldliness" and the perils of secular culture”[iii].  While I do not insist on reading the bible through a literal framework, I do believe in the authority of scripture (and I seek to do justice both to the text and to the lived experience of people around me. I figure this is my duty if I'm to adequately pastorally care for my friends and family). I believe in salvation by grace. I do believe the gospel is good news, and I think most people I know would know that I'm always ready and willing to talk of my own faith, and of religion (and sex and politics).

Spending and Defending One Million Dollars

So here I am, a feminist who is critical of marriage narratives, but has voted yes, and a Sydney Anglican and Evangelical, who is deeply concerned by the words that the (my) Archbishop has used in his defence of the million-dollar donation made by the diocese. I find his defence problematic for several reasons, but I want to focus on a particular paragraph which stands in tension with the core Evangelical goal of evangelism. Let’s look at the words of the archbishop, sent in a letter to churches, read at synod and available on the Sydney Anglicans website:

This is not a debate of our choosing. I am sure that we would prefer to spend our energies telling people about God’s loving message of salvation through Jesus Christ, but in God’s providence, this is the point of engagement with our culture at this time.[iv] 

This statement is a striking admission. Firstly, it privileges donating to an ad campaign over and above the evangelical work of sharing the gospel, that is, the good news of salvation by grace and making disciples of every nation (Matthew 28:19-20). It removes our agency and responsibility (We didn’t choose to debate same-sex marriage, it was thrown at us, and though we would ‘prefer’ to do something else we are, apparently, powerless to do so). An organisation that can find a spare one million dollars to give to an ad campaign cannot, with integrity, claim to be without voice or agency. But perhaps, most significantly, these words and the donation, actively detract from evangelistic or missional work and activities that Christians are currently engaged in as it deters people from seeing the beauty of the gospel.

A story of Evangelism

            Let me tell you a story of friendship, which is, in it’s a way, a story of evangelism. I first invited Lisa[v] to church over five years ago. She was not my “project”, she is my friend, but I confess that behind my first asking her there was a fair slice of evangelistic guilt; I was aware that I was not doing my bit as an evangelical. I was not inviting people to church. So, I asked Lisa.

She came with me to my local inner-west Anglican church a couple of times. Later when we were both living in London, she would occasionally join me at a small West London church where we attended a traditional prayer book service. Lisa recently told me it was in London that she “fell in love” with “the church service”. Then, when we were both back living in Sydney, and I had found a new church, I again asked her to come with me. We dropped into the afternoon contemporary service, and after a few weeks settled at the early morning, Book of Common Prayer service. For a few years, Lisa came to church steadily and, for a while, went to small group run by a mutual friend. Moved by an announcement in which our minister told the congregation we were at risk of not making our budget, she began to financially give to the church, because she was beginning to consider our church to be her community. During this time, Lisa also came out. 

            Lisa continued coming to church with me. She didn’t, as far as I know, become a Christian. She dates women. She still loves the Book of Common Prayer. She still thinks about Christianity. However, heartbreakingly, as a result of the Anglican Church’s donation to the Coalition for Marriage she has no intention of ever coming back to church. There is no conversion story. No Evangelistic ‘happy ending’ (there’s a phrase I never thought I would write). Some people might think I failed to pray hard enough for Lisa’s conversion. But where I sit, I see many years of investment in a person, in a relationship. I see over five years of actively inviting someone into my spiritual life, by inviting them to church and always being willing to talk about questions of faith and of sexuality. And I also see that in the days following the announcement of the donation, that any sense Lisa had of belonging at church had been eroded. She said to me, “I know it’s not personal, but it feels that way”.

One Story. One Person

            So what. One story. One person. That’s not evidence you say. Sure. It might not be conclusive. But it happened, and it is the truth of our experience. In this week, all I have had time for is to gather personal stories. Anecdotes. I had coffee with a friend on Wednesday. She and her husband are appalled at the million-dollar donation. She sent me a message on facebook a few days later  to say they had spoken with their church leadership and have left their Anglican church. I spoke with a colleague yesterday. A gay man in his fifties, raised in the Catholic church. He’s fully aware of the actions of the Anglican church, and that it is a church I belong to. When people like him look to the church, what do they see? Via messenger, he wrote to me:

it does surprise me that there is enough money to put into some things, yet not enough for others of more importance. I was quite shocked at how much they'd allocated to domestic violence in comparison. I would have thought it was a more urgent and important matter.

Indeed. I’ve seen some clergy try to defend this. They say DFV is getting ongoing funding (which it may well be, and I’m very glad that it is). I’ve seen them suggest that the postal survey is a “once in a lifetime” event, requiring a sudden injection of funds, to stop society irrevocably walking down a path to destruction. The Archbishop’s letter, admittedly puts it more mildly, saying we “should stand firmly for God’s good plan for marriage in a world that has increasingly abandoned that plan.”

            Can we pause and reflect on that for a minute. Even if we work within the framework that views homosexual acts as sinful[vi], what we see in the rhetoric of church leaders, when they describe this money, this campaign to vote no as necessary to stop society abandoning God’s good plan for marriage and walking headfirst into supposed moral decay, is that the prospect of a gay or lesbian couple being married is considered more destructive than domestic and family violence. That is not only deeply insulting to gay and lesbian people, it glosses over the very real danger to those in unsafe relationships.  You might feel like these are very different issues, but at their core, both DFV and same-sex relationships ask us to think about marriage, sexuality and what it means to be ethically responsible. Given that Christians, have traditionally opposed same-sex relationships on the understanding they are immoral, there is also an important question here about what constitutes immorality. Rather than uncritically equate homosexuality with immorality (thereby making a ‘no’ vote seem easy and obvious), it may be more ethically responsible of us to think hard about what immorality is. Because there are many ‘immoral’ or unethical sex acts, and if domestic violence and sexual assault does not evoke at least the same amount of moral outrage and financial intervention as the thought of a committed, monogamous, state sanctioned non-hetero marriage, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions, and perhaps reflect on the bible verse about specks and planks of wood[vii].

Again, I know, the interaction with my colleague is ‘just’ an anecdote. I sometimes wonder when the Archbishop  last had to discuss his actions with a gay colleague or a queer best friend. But even if I am the only person in the diocese with such stories, I believe that even one such story matters. I believe that one person who is no longer coming to church matters. I believe that one family leaving their church matters. I believe that one gay man, looking on at the church while still remembering the hurt of being bullied in school as a 12 year old matters.

We believe in a God who would leave the ninety-nine to go searching for the one. And it just might be that the one, like my friend Lisa, is a lesbian. This week, when Lisa looked at the actions of the church, she learned that, perhaps, in the eyes of the church, she did not matter.

            How I long to tell her she is wrong.

But that doesn't feel genuine. Yes, she matters to me. And I believe she matters to my creator God. But, I cannot, with any sense of honesty tell her she matters to my church. As she walks away from my Anglican church, I want my Archbishop, and my diocese, to know that I didn’t just wish I could have spent my energy telling her about God’s loving message of salvation through Jesus Christ, I did do that. And I want the Archbishop to know that letting an ad campaign take precedence over evangelistic work signals a major shift in Evangelical church priorities.  While I try to find a way to tell myself it was well-intentioned, I cannot help but think that collectively, the Anglican church risks failing to go looking for the one, choosing instead to feed and protect the ninety-nine.




[i] For ideas on subversive story-telling, see Jack Zipes, (2016),  ‘Once  upon  a  time:  Changing  the  World  through  Storytelling’, in Common Knowledge,  22 (2), 227-283. doi: 10.1215/0961754X-3464961.
[iii] DeRogatis, A. (2005). What would Jesus do? Sexuality and salvation in Protestant Evangelical sex manuals, 1950s to the present. Church History, 74 (1),97-137. doi: 0.1017/S0009640700109679.
[v] Name changed
[vi] For a comprehensive discussion on different approaches to understanding what the bible teaches about homosexuality, I thoroughly recommend, ‘Two views on homosexuality, the Bible and the Church’, edited by  P Sprinkle, published by  Zondervan.
[vii] Matthew 7:1-5

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