A View From The Edge 1: Persecution or Prosperity?
Alongside the series of blogs aimed at equipping laity we have been encouraged to offer a series of blogs exploring what it feels like for clergy to consider leaving the Canterbury-aligned structures. Some will be written by individual clergy - others are based on the experiences they have shared. This is the first.
"Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3.12), but it doesn’t follow that every trial we face is persecution. Some trials, like sickness, natural disaster, or burnout, don’t necessarily fit into that category. So how should we think about the trials that are facing orthodox ministers and congregations in the C of E at the moment?
The Trial of Persecution?
In Revelation 13, there is a beast who rises from the sea with the power and throne and great authority of the dragon and "he was given power to make war against the saints and conquer them." Those who have an ear to hear are told "If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints." (v10).
I can’t imagine what it would be like to live through suffering like that, but if a believer is facing persecution, then the call of the New Testament is to stand fast, and hold onto Christ regardless of the cost. If evangelicals in the C of E are being persecuted for their views on same sex marriage, then we’re called to endure the hostility and battle on in our positions.
However, saying that the orthodox are facing persecution in the C of E sounds to me like an insult to the persecuted church around the world. To be part of the persecuted church is to risk having your house burnt down; your pastor abducted and murdered; your children kidnapped; your wife raped; your body tortured – and to have the authorities say it’s your own fault. There may be a handful of pastors in the UK who are experiencing something a little bit like that, but for most of us, it would be grossly offensive to compare ourselves to our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering intense persecution.
But if most of us are not being persecuted, what is going on?
The Trial of Prosperity?
There is another monstrous character in the book of Revelation. In chapter 17 we meet ‘the great prostitute’, "dressed in purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls." "The Kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries." (18v3). She doesn’t crush her victims with torture – she seduces them with comfort and luxury.
I know this isn’t true for everyone, but personally, as a C of E incumbent who is ‘On the Edge’, I don’t face very much suffering for holding orthodox views. The bishops have said so many times that they want to ‘walk with’ me that I think they must mean it. As things stand, I can teach orthodox doctrine and ethics, and continue to live in a nice vicarage (that fits our children in comfortably); with a lovely garden; a good pension scheme; a position of some status in the community; and a secure building where our church family can meet. If I don’t rock the boat too much, I could even become an area dean; an archdeacon; or one of those orthodox bishops. No one is forcing me to give that up. Doesn’t ‘persecution’ feel like the wrong category to make sense of this?
Does it matter?
In the face of the current apostasy over blessing same sex relationships, I’ve felt there’s a need for clarity in my heart on whether I'm facing the test of persecution (do I love my life more than Christ?) or the test of prosperity (do I love the comfort and privileges of my position more than Christ?).
This isn’t just a bit of nit-picking over linguistics – it explains some really deep-seated disagreements over our different responses to the Bishops’ proposals. I’ve heard a number of people suggest that any talk of leaving the C of E and encouraging our congregations to do the same is to act like Peter, or a hired hand. I respect the determination those committed to staying are showing, and they’re clearly right if we’re running from persecution. However, I wonder if the other way to view the situation is to say that running away from the C of E and encouraging our congregations to do the same would be faithfulness if, following Joseph, we were running from temptation? Staying where you are isn’t always a mark of faithfulness (just ask Lot’s wife).
And just to underscore again why this matters so much, I remember a British pastor who had spent a lot of time in Central Asia saying he estimated that 90% of professing Christians pass the test of persecution. He also estimated that 90% of professing Christians fail the test of prosperity.
May the Lord have mercy…