I’ve been looking at some more of the reflections posted by those who’ve already taken part in other dioceses’ Shared Conversations. The website of Evangelical Group of the General Synod (EGGS) has several of these, of which one is anonymous but by someone ‘aged under 35’. S/he describes her/himself as ‘an orthodox Reformed Evangelical Christian’. S/he ‘had been dreading’ the SC weekend and turned up ‘with a heavy heart’ (raising the question, so if it was so upsetting, why did you agree to go?). S/he was disturbed by being in a minority among a largely ‘liberal’ gathering: ‘the orthodox evangelical side was outnumbered four to one’. Indeed, as a result of all this non-orthodox presence, s/he comments ‘I have never heard so much brazen and dangerous heresy in one place’.
I’m sure a lot of people would empathise with that feeling of being in a minority (although I think I’ve been in more slender minorities than this) but … side?? Heresy? If I’m understanding just one thing about the SCs, it’s that in the atmosphere of being listened to that they aim to create, there aren’t any sides. And the H-word is one I’d be very cautious about aiming at those with whose views I disagree. Having said that, one of the few times I’ve used it was when listening to the penultimate General Synod debate (November 2012) on women bishops, when a speaker talked about how in the Trinity the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father – now that one I do think counts as heresy. If I’ve got my church history right, the Arian heresy – the first church controversy to be decided by an ecumenical council – is the one that denied the equality of Father and Son.
EGGS’s anonymous blogger, I suspect using the age label rather than any other possible tag (race? gender? occupation? From a couple of comments made, the writer seems to be ordained) in order to show that it’s not just older people who hold these views, clearly had a bad experience, not least when the other two people in the triplet to which s/he was assigned tried to argue her/him round to their views. That sounds horrendous, and it’s clearly not the sort of listening the SCs are intended to model. However, as s/he writes earlier about ‘my citing passages such as …’, the impression given is of someone turning up with a set of Bible verses used as what are often called ‘clobber texts‘ – it doesn’t look like it was only the the liberals who were out to argue rather than to listen with respect.
One question this raises for me is that of the label ‘an orthodox Reformed Evangelical Christian’. What does this mean? Why the capitalisation? Is there such a thing as a non-orthodox R.E.C.? How would l label myself? What would an un-Reformed Evangelical Christian believe?
I think the only time I’ve used any faith label seriously was in my early twenties, when I belonged to the Church Union [note to non-Christians: this wasn’t and isn’t a union in the ‘trades union’ sense!] and would have described myself as Anglo-Catholic. I was keen to see the Church of England as the Catholic Church of this land, with the bonus of having been through the Reformation too. After I had my Road to Damascus moment of switching from being entirely opposed to the idea of women priests – because I believed that priests needed to be men in order to stand for Jesus at the altar – I stopped using that label. The moment came in a Deanery Synod meeting when the wonderful theologian Mary Tanner was going through and respectfully demolishing the various objections to women as priests, from all directions. She pointed out that priests didn’t have to be Jewish, or the same age as Jesus when he died, so why did they have to be of the male sex? What they were ‘representing’ at the altar was humanity, Jesus as God-With-Us, not one aspect of the particularity of his humanity. Oops, I thought. She’s right. So I went home and filled in my membership form for the Movement for the Ordination of Women, sent it off the next morning, and never looked back.
Would I label myself now? Probably not beyond ‘Church of England’. If pushed, ‘liberal’, although I don’t like it because I’m probably more liberal on some issues than on others.
The label ‘orthodox Reformed Evangelical Christian’ also reminds me of a joke I’ve used when leading Emmaus groups; it won the category ‘funniest religious joke‘ on the Ship of Fools website in 2005. It’s about a man who is trying to talk a potential suicide out of jumping off a bridge, and is getting on well at persuading him there’s so much to live for, and finding that not only are they both Christians, but they are both Baptists, until it all goes wrong:
“Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”
He said: “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.”
I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off.
I appreciate why we claim labels. We want to make sure people know where we’re coming from. We want to make connections with like-minded people. But we are often far more complicated than any label can capture. And – dare I say it? – our views may change. Labels fail to do justice to our complexity, and they stop us seeing each other as people.