On not having closed our churches

Language matters. It matters more in how it is heard than in how it is meant. If we want to communicate certain things, then disciplined use of language can help us, because it will improve the chances of what we want to say being heard, rather than being misunderstood. There was a time when we British Baptists would not have thought of calling the building we met in for worship a ‘church’. We knew that the church was the congregation, gathered together by God, covenanted to each other before God. If the church habitually met in a particular building, we called that a ‘chapel’. ‘Church,’ we once understood, meant people, saved by grace, making expansive vows to each other because God has called us together. ‘Chapel,’ we used to know, meant a building, where the church can conveniently congregate. [This is for us Baptists—and of course for others, although I do not presume to identify those traditions that would be happy to be defined by this point—other faithful followers of our King Jesus will disagree, and so will define things differently.] This old, almost lost, tradition, seems important just now. Our chapels are closed, but our churches are alive and active, and doing wonderful Kingdom work, spreading the gospel and doing justice. Perhaps this present strange season will teach us that there was value in the old language: we should not identify ‘chapel’ and ‘church’ because the former is incidental to us, the latter the definitive core of who we are. Our chapels are closed—and, on Sundays in particular, that is a great sadness to us, because we long to gather together for worship. Our chapels are closed, but our churches are open and active. Announcing the gospel, however they can; serving the needy; comforting those who mourn; praying for the needs of the fellowship, the community, and the world; living out the call of the Kingdom. For us Baptists, our chapels are closed, but our churches are open and alive and active; the one is an inconvenience; the other a vital gospel...

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Can we celebrate an online Eucharist? A Baptist response 2: Some possible objections

I argued in the previous post that an online Eucharist could be a theological possibility for Baptist Christians. I here want to consider and forestall some potential criticisms: The need for ‘physical’ presence Do we need to be physically together to meet around the Lord’s Table? Yes, but let me interrogate what that means. Too much recent writing in this area has worked with a ‘physical’/’virtual’ dichotomy, which makes no sense. Signals in fibre optic cables and electromagnetic waves are physical realities; our shared presence together in an online—virtual—meeting is therefore a mediated physical presence. What it is not is a somatic presence; we are not together bodily. This distinction is important. There may be eucharistic practices that require somatic action; I don’t off-hand know of one, but an insistence that the celebrant must touch every eucharistic wafer for it to be properly consecrated is not very hard to imagine; a rubric that insists that every communicant must make bodily contact with every other communicant as the peace is shared is less plausible, but certainly not beyond conception. But these have not been our practices. We have been unreflectively comfortable with non-somatic physical presence, and so should be comfortable with virtual presence, because it is still physical. Mediation This granted, could we imagine a different distinction, between mediated presence and unmediated presence? Possibly, but: (a) it will not make much difference; (b) it is probably again nonsense; and (c) in any case would be a very odd thing indeed to imagine in the context of the Eucharist. On (a), we have again been demonstrably very relaxed about mediated presence—I do not recall the last time that I preached without a microphone, and for those relying on the induction loop and their hearing aid, any engagement with my sermon was necessarily mediated by technology. I have communicated at, and indeed celebrated, eucharists where some or many of those present could see the celebrant only because of projection onto a screen. Further, mediated relationships at a distance have been normal for the whole history of the church. Consider, for representative example, the medium of the letter. Mark Noll, amongst others, has argued that the Evangelical Revival was shaped, if not totally sustained, by the existence of good trade routes for sharing epistolary testimonies across the North Atlantic; in the fourteenth century, Catherine of Siena had a profound influence on the reform of the medieval church, and on Italian politics, through her letter-writing; and in the first century the letters of Paul, Peter, and John are generally judged to have successfully harnessed the medium for gospel purposes… Unmediated relationship has never been the only practice of the church, and so discussions about the adoption of new media must be comparative judgements—is this new medium better or worse than media we have previously adopted, and in what ways?—rather than complaints that mediated relationship is somehow antithetical to the gospel On (b) we need once again to think about physicality: when I recite the words of institution in a normal Eucharist I create sound waves which reach the ears of the congregation; physical mediation is a condition of all human interaction. If there is something inappropriate about mediation that involves wifi, we will need to give a theological explanation of why sound waves are an acceptable mediation when electromagnetic waves are not; I assert with some confidence that no such explanation is available. On (c): a sacrament is, following Augustine, ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’—sacraments are physical mediations of divine action. It is possible that, precisely at the point where God is mediating His own gifts through physical media, He bans us from using (certain sorts of) physical media, but it is hardly plausible, without a very compelling argument. The shared meal Some have argued that online communion is impossible because the basic reality of communion is a shared meal. There is an easy argument against this, turning on the very visible divergence of most eucharistic celebrations from anything resembling a meal, but I would rather go a different way. Many of us in the past few weeks have become used to taking social occasions into virtual space. I have encouraged my staff to continue their various coffee hours using video conferencing, and I know that other groups in my university have continued regular pub nights in a similar way. If we sit and chat together whilst each drinking a coffee, or indeed a pint, how is what is happening not a shared communal drink? (Consider that, for the pub night, everyone present could easily have ordered something poured out of a different bottle.)...

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Can we celebrate an online Eucharist? A Baptist response 1: A positive argument

For us Baptists, I think that there are two possible ways of asserting that an online/scattered Eucharist is possible: one is obvious but bad, and one less obvious but better; both are completely dependent on distinctives of Baptist ecclesiology.

The first is the suggestion that we can have many household communions at the same time; the second the idea that we might celebrate one communion, even if we are in separate homes as we do.

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A conservative case against ‘conversion therapy’

I was on holiday when the Church of England General Synod met, and so I followed events with even less interest than I, as a Scottish Baptist, usually do. On my occasional scans of my social media feeds, however, I saw a certain amount of interest in a motion proposing that the Synod condemn ‘conversion therapy’, the practice of seeking to change the orientation of lesbian or gay people to make them straight. I was far enough away to have nothing interesting to say about the motion or the debate, but noticing it made me think once again what a deeply strange practice ‘conversion therapy’ in fact is. For the sake of the following argument, let us agree—briefly—to assume the best possible conditions: that there is no doubt that a traditional Christian account of sexual ethics is right, and that there are modes of intervention that are effective in changing a person’s sexual orientation (in reality I believe about 0.75 of these two things to be true). Even given these ideal conditions, the practice of conversion therapy would be a very odd one to engage in. The argument is very simple: to be gay/lesbian is to experience erotic desire for various people of one sex only: one’s own sex. To be straight is to experience erotic desire for various people of one sex only: not one’s own sex. Mt. 5:28 suggests strongly that such an experience of being straight is just sinful. It happens that there is no parallel condemnation in the NT of gay or lesbian desire, but I suppose most serious ethicists would construct one. Fairly simply, in Christian sexual ethics, to lust after someone to whom you are not married is sinful, and that judgement either does not depend on the sex of the object of your lust—or, just possibly, is intensified if your lust is heterosexual. So, to engage in ‘conversion therapy’ is to seek to supplant one set of sinful sexual desires—for people of the same sex—with another set of sinful sexual desires—for people of the opposite sex. Why would anyone want to work to exchange one set of sinful lusts for another, possibly worse, set of sinful lusts? And why would any responsible Christian ministry propose or promote such work? As far as I can see, this is the only interesting question concerning ‘conversion therapy’—not, ‘does it work?’ (who cares?); not ‘is it a good idea?’ (from any meaningfully Christian perspective, obviously, no), but why did anyone ever dream it up?—and why did others in the church not merely laugh it off? I can see only one plausible answer, though I would be very open to hearing others. I have argued in a few pieces before now that a peculiar pathology of contemporary Western society is an assumption that sexual activity is necessary to attain adequate humanity—a ‘healthy’, ‘adult’ existence is not possible for the virgin. (The source of this assumption is worthy of exploration—Freud must be the deep origin, but more has to be said.) I have also argued before now that this pathological—idolatrous—assumption is deeply embedded within our churches, perhaps especially within the more conservative Evangelical traditions. Offered a single senior pastor, congregations demur, fearing that s/he is not adequately adult; faced with an adult celibate, we strain a young adults group to make space for them, and then give up, implying by our programme construction that there should be no celibate adults beyond the age of 30. (Forget Jesus. Forget Paul. Forget the gospel.) Surrendering completely to this contemporary idolatry, that proper adult humans must be sexually active, we discover lesbian and gay people, who are sexually attracted only to people of the same sex. We might attempt to deny the existence of such people, but reality intrudes, and, if we are convinced that marriage can only be between man and woman, we therefore propose that it must be possible to change sexual orientation, and so we invent conversion therapy, and invest deeply in its plausibility. On this telling, the practice of conversion therapy is a surrender to idolatry: to the idea that healthy and adult humanity demands sexual activity. In the face of this idolatry Christian ethics can say one word only, the first word of all real Christian ethics: ‘Jesus’. The moment we say ‘Jesus’ we admit that true, fulfilled, adult, humanity is possible without sexual activity, and so the moment we say ‘Jesus’ we deny the need for conversion therapy. More, the moment we say ‘Jesus’ we acknowledge that, in the Kingdom, celibacy is the normal and natural way of being human; the ethical question is whether sexual activity, marriage, is ever...

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True Christian Manliness: On the Acts of St Andrew

Here in St Andrews, oddly enough, we mark St Andrews Day in various ways—this year I shall be at a graduation ceremony and, in best Hobbit style, at two formal luncheons. To mark it on a blog, I turn the to apocryphal Acts of Andrew, or rather to what we have left of them. Attributed by Pope Innocent I to a pair of ‘philosophers’ named Xenocharides and Leonidas, and a century and some earlier by Pilaster of Brescia to ‘disciples who followed the apostle’, we have a set of fragments in various languages, together with an apparently-garbled Latin summary by Georgius Florentius Gregorius, which together were reconstructed in the 1980s into two slightly different versions of the text by Jean-Marc Prieur (whose edition is published in CCSA 5 & 6) and Dennis MacDonald (who published in the SBL Texts and Translations series, vol. 33). The lost original can be dated to around, perhaps before, AD200. There is little doubt that the authors intended to construct a Christian version of Homer’s Odyssey, a text which was being used by Greek writers in the early Christian centuries as an allegory of the soul’s journey. The connection with St Andrew, MacDonald hypothesises, is not in any way historical but because ‘Andrew’ represents masculinity, and the text is a Christian attempt to reconstruct visions of masculinity. MacDonald says ‘the AA replaces the ethically questionable traits of Homeric heroes with Christian virtues. Instead of Odysseus’s wealth, sex, and violence, the heroes here represent poverty, chastity, and military disobedience.’ (p. 55) In the miracles reported in the Acts, warriors are repeatedly disarmed. Sometimes (e.g. Gregory’s summary, 9) this is against their will; other times, Andrew prevails upon his followers not to fight, but often there is a conversion to pacifism. Examples of the last two occur in the story in Gregory 18, and the longer version of it in the fragment preserved in the Coptic ms Utrecht 1: Soldiers are sent after Andrew, and a crowd comes armed to protect him, but he dissuades them from fighting. Then it turns out one of the soldiers is demonised; when he is delivered he throws off his military uniform and declares that from now on he seeks to be clothed in the uniform of God. The fragment ends with his confession, ‘there is no sword in his [Andrew’s] hand, nor any instrument of war, but these great acts of power issue from his hand.’ Masculinity is re-ordered by this text away from violence and militarism, towards pacifism and intentional peace-making. Mercy is another striking feature of the text. Repeatedly Andrew is depicted as raising from the dead those who have been struck down by God in judgement against their evil deeds so that they might repent. This happens with Varianus’s son in Gregory 18, and with the Myrmidons in the Acts of Andrew and Matthias in the City of the Flesh Eaters (which MacDonald has as the first book of the Acts of Andrew, but Prieur has as a separate text). In Gregory 23 Callisto, a proconsul’s wife, is struck down dead for falsely accusing a convert, Trophime, of adultery (a crime she herself is guilty of); Andrew raises her from the dead, even after her husband suggests she deserved death and should be left, and then invites her to repent. In the Acts of Andrew, to be a proper man is to be merciful. The story of Trophime gets us to questions of sexual ethics. It seems that the original Acts saw even marriage as impure, and commended chastity instead (Gregory conceals this in his summary); one of the recurrent motifs of this, however, is the protection of women threatened with rape or sexual violence. Trophime is enslaved into prostitution as a result of Callisto’s accusation; she is miraculously protected from all who would abuse her, in one case by the appearance of an angel who strikes the man down dead (and she then raises him from the dead; mercy triumphs over judgement once more!). Andrew is martyred by Aegeates, the proconsul of Patras, because he encouraged the proconsul’s wife Maximilla to stand firm in her desire not to have sex with her husband. Aegeates presents his wife with an ultimatum: if she will be sexually active, Andrew will be freed; if not, he will be tortured and killed. Undoubtedly in the narrative her desire to be celibate stems from an unhealthy ethic; behind that, however, it is striking that Andrew is martyred defending a very modern, and feminist, concept: ‘no means no’ (even in marriage). We might finally note humility; the servant who denounces Andrew and those who have been...

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