I take no side in the current CofE debate over whether or not they should have women bishops. My concern is with the poverty of theological argument in the debate. In the CofE’s General Synod there was a disturbing acceptance that the church, any church, should have at its heart a desire to be relevant in a peculiar fashion. Such proponents of relevancy within the church actually do not want the church to be relevant, they want the church to be acceptable.
They forget that the cultural task of the church is not to copy the culture but to challenge and change the culture. It is only when we tackle the prevailing culture head on that we have any genuine relevance. There is nothing more sadly irrelevant than a church which tries to ape the culture, just think of all the trendy vicars you have known.
Copying the prevailing culture is easy, changing it is much harder. True cultural relevance is found, not in conformity, but in provocatively creative engagement and confrontation with the prevailing culture. We are meant to be provocative. Grains of sand irritate, that is how they produce pearls. Without that irritating grain of sand the quiescent mollusc produces nothing more valuable than yet another quiescent mollusc.
Our calling is to be different and unbelievers will inevitably find that difference provoking. Provocation is a deeply biblical task Matt 5:13-16, I Pet 2:12. Copying the ways of the world is never seen as the biblical priority Rom 12:2, I Jn 2:15-17. Supposed relevance through mere conformity is simply not given a big write up in Scripture.
The entirety of I Peter is about living as people totally out of step with a culture which does not know God. Like the first recipients of Peter’s letter we are resident aliens and the big question is not: How can the church adapt to the surrounding culture? Rather it is: How can the church stay faithful to a biblical worldview in a culture which is constantly changing.
Despite accusations that it has become a Lib Dem/Green Party stronghold the old saw that the CofE is the Tory party at prayer is truer than usually thought, both are willing to abandon ideology in favour of popular trends. The Tory party is a values free zone, the only thing they wish to conserve is the status quo. This means that they are usually a couple of decades behind the prevailing progressive Establishment culture. As we can see from positions such as his ‘passion’ for homosexual marriage David Cameron is determined to catch up with the progressives.
Cameron is a “strong supporter of women bishops,” and thinks that this would be a way for the CofE to “get in touch with society today and that this [female bishops] was a key step they needed to take.” That a vote hungry politician should take this position is unexceptional, that it should also be the prevailing stance of a majority in the church is deeply worrying.
The best way to engage a culture is through thought out and innovative challenge. The great prophets in Scripture refused to accept the status quo, they challenged it. Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, they all refused to go along with the way of the world, they questioned, challenged and provoked. As for the creative challenges of Ezekiel some of the things he got up to would not be acceptable in the Tory Party, not to mention most denominations. They were,however, effective because culturally relevant.
John the Baptist, Paul, Peter and of course Jesus Himself did not gain the culture’s attention because they were the same as everyone else. They did not accept that “You’ve got to go along to get along.” They were different, thank God. They paid a price for that difference, that refusal to conform, as do those who emulate them. As Luther said, “If Jesus wore a crown of thorns why should we expect a crown of roses.”
The great prophets in the two millennia since the resurrection have refused to conform to the way of the world in a search for supposed relevance. They gained the attention of the world because they did things differently, they marched to the sound of a different drummer.
Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jnr, Shaftesbury, Howard, Basil the Great, jump from century to century and you find that it is when Christians have refused to conform that they have been most relevant to the surrounding culture. It is when we have been biblically innovative and not culturally conventional that we have been most relevant.
Today we live in a post-Christian culture which would have us believe that the only way to bear witness to Christ effectively is to “contextualise” in a manner that essentially rejects the core teaching of Scripture. There is an influential stream of thought within all denominations which says that we must walk like, talk like, dress like, live like, and love like the world in order to win the world. The opposite is actually true. When we are indistinguishable from the world we have lost all relevance.