Why is the Archbishop of Canterbury challenging the church to conform to society?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was in Moscow this past week delivering a lecture on the subject of ‘theology, anthropology and Christian hope’. This wouldn’t normally be an occasion for comment, of course, save that in this lecture the Primate of All England and leader of the global Anglican Communion broached the flashpoint issue of family and marriage. His purpose in doing so, however, was not to present a challenge to Western society for its ever greater deviation from biblical standards and norms, but to challenge Christians and the churches to be more accepting of the ‘reality’ of modern families. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

The place where most people forge their first relationships is within the family. It is easy, however, to define what makes up the family very narrowly. … The reality is that family life is and always has been complex. In the United Kingdom in the last forty years there has been a great shift in the understanding and the reality of family life. … In recent years in a number of nations, including the United Kingdom, same-sex, or as it is called in law, Equal marriage is now understood to be normal, acceptable and unchallengeable in many countries … The speed of change has led many constituencies such as churches and other faith groups to find themselves living in a culture that they have not even begun to come to terms with. … The family, however it is experienced, is the place where we can be at our strongest and most secure. … It is a gift of God in any society, bearing burdens, supporting the vulnerable and stabilising both those who believe themselves autonomous and those who feel themselves to be failures.

Now, there are obviously a number of serious problems with this (including the factual error that same-sex marriage is ‘legally’ equal marriage). But almost all of them stem from one fact: that it is far too deeply earthed in the ‘complex’ reality of modern family life, and far too weakly related to biblical norms of marriage and family. The basic message here, also evident in the Church of England’s recent highly controversial guidance on homophobic and transphobic bullying, is that modern forms of family and identity are simply realities which the church needs to come to terms with and accept. The absence in both cases of any theological, biblical or ethical evaluation of these realities is very striking, and deeply concerning.

This omission is particularly disappointing coming here as it does in a lecture on theology and anthropology, where despite multiple mentions of fact that humankind is created in the image of God, not once do we find a reassuring reference to the creation of human beings as male and female. That’s a pretty pertinent piece of theological anthropology to pass over right now.

It does appear, then, that the Archbishop is indeed meaning to suggest that the orthodox biblical doctrine of marriage leads churches into unduly ‘narrow’ definitions of family, and that churches need to expand their definitions to enable them to come to terms with the complex realities of modern life.

If this is in fact the case, then from a traditional Christian point of view it is baffling, not to mention seriously endangering of Christian moral living and integrity of witness to the revelation of God in Christ. For in what other area of life, other than this one of sex, gender and family, would it be thought appropriate to encourage the church merely to come to terms with contemporary realities, and not to evaluate them, challenge them, and point to a better way in closer conformity with the Creator’s designs? There are many complex realities, alongside broken families and wounded childhoods, with which modern people live – drug addiction, alcohol abuse, the sexualisation of children, corruption, destitution, slavery – yet for how many of them would the church counsel, or even appear to counsel, Christians merely to accept them and come to terms with them with no further comment or analysis? The apparent surrender of the church to the world’s ideas in this particular area of sex, marriage and family is deeply disturbing to observe – not unlike watching a car crash in slow motion.

It has often been said that he who marries the spirit of the age will be a widower in the next. I fear for the Church of England that under its current leadership it is sliding ever deeper into this marriage of convenience – not changing its doctrine (yet), but doing everything but, accommodating, affirming, apologising, challenging the church rather than society on its attitudes and approaches. You don’t need a special gift of divine insight to see where this is headed. And, despite what many seem to think, it isn’t into growth – no denomination has yet to reverse its fortunes by adopting the revisionist agenda. With these dynamics at work in the Church’s national leadership, it is little wonder that prominent evangelical member of the Archbishops’ Council Lorna Ashworth resigned this month in protest and despair of her involvement being a worthwhile use of her time.

Will the archbishops and bishops charged with the care of God’s church recognise any of this before it’s too late? I’d like to hope so, but I wouldn’t count on it.

(Image source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Wikimedia Commons)

One thought on “Why is the Archbishop of Canterbury challenging the church to conform to society?

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  1. At last somebody is asking the question. Great. Well done Bishop. I thought Christians were supposed to be the leaven in society, not the followers. When is the Church going to get back in the public square and challenge.

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