Forget About Sex For A Bit…
Amid the Church’s apparent obsession with homosexuality, Arthur French prioritises the issues of Christian attitudes to money and community.
Archbishop Rowan Williams said that ‘“Matters of sexuality should not have the priority or centrality” that his critics have given them’. Indeed, I believe that the obsession with homosexuality has made it more difficult to raise other issues. I want to make a case for thinking more seriously about a distinctive Christian lifestyle, and particularly about attitudes to money and to community.
What difference does it make, being a Christian? Nearly 50 years ago, seeing a distinctive Christian attitude in others enabled me to become an active Christian after about 13 years in the wilderness. I had a confused Christian upbringing, with a Baptist father, a school which was a Methodist foundation, and a Christian Scientist stepmother. After leaving College (where I married in Chapel) in 1942, I stopped going to church. In 1955, I went to work in Uganda.
It soon became clear that my colleagues in the university college there fell into two groups. Some of them actually said: “We will teach conscientiously, but what the students do out of lecture hours is of no concern to us.” In their own time off, they held sundowners for other expatriate colleagues, and in the vacations they went ‘on safari’, or to the Kenya coastal resorts. The other group seemed to be aware of cultural differences, and wanted to communicate with their students as people, to understand the culture from which they came, and indeed to relate to the African and Asian communities which surrounded the college. There were some ‘humanists’ in this group, but it seemed that all the active Christians belonged to it! Why was I on the same side as the Christians? Within a year, I joined them, and asked for more instruction in the faith.
Are Christians distinctive here, now? If I try to put myself in the place of a well-intentioned non-Christian, looking at Christians here, what is the difference? Canon Ison says: “Our western culture is obsessed with itself ……. and the Church belongs to its context.”
I would like a debate about money. I find quite a lot of support in Scripture for the idea that it’s OK to have enough. I should work, if I can, to get enough food, clothes, and a roof over my head. If I have more than enough, I should help to finance the needs of those less fortunate. (This might include the homeless in Torbay, as well as “the rest of the world …. dying for want of food, compassion and justice”. Indeed, I want charity to involve more personal contact and less junk mail!) Yet all the pressures are for self-indulgence. A bank which prides itself on an ‘ethical policy’ sends me junk mail, urging me to borrow money, and, by getting into debt, to buy a new car, add a conservatory to my house, re-equip my kitchen, go on a cruise, etc., etc. TV runs programmes nearly every day about ‘makeovers’ of houses, or moving to Spain. What about that tenth Commandment which says: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s 4x4, or his time-share, or any thing that is his”?
The economists don’t help. Being a shopaholic increases the Gross National Product, and they want the GNP to increase by 2% to 3% a year. They don’t mention that, if we keep up this increase for a century, we would be producing between 9 and 17 times the amount of goods and services that we are now, which is absurd (unless we give it away to the poorer countries?), and would probably use up all kinds of unrenewable raw materials. The probability of economic chaos introduces an ‘eschatological’ element! The ‘Day of the Lord’ will be terrible as well as potentially glorious. Our faith is that God can make good out of evil. (My Jehovah’s Witness friends look forward to the glory, but don’t seem ready for the terror!)
I find it very difficult to raise the money question. I think it’s because ‘the Church belongs too much to its context’. In the (quite recent) past, some Anglican clergy have been particularly reluctant to draw boundaries between the Church and the context. There is this myth that everyone is ‘C of E’ unless otherwise stated. You don’t have to draw the boundary in the same place for all purposes. There’s the body of the baptised; there’s the electoral roll; there’s the Sunday morning church (or even two: 8 a.m. and later); there’s the people who contribute work to the Church between Sundays. There are prayer groups and house groups attached to the church ……… How do we build up a Church community which takes a Christian lifestyle seriously? If we were more distinctive, we might attract more fringers and outsiders into an active membership. (Why is it easier for a chaplain to build a distinctive group in a college or even a prison, than for a priest in a parish?)
This question, about finding a distinctive Christian community, has been complicated in recent years by a weakening of the idea of community in our wider Western culture. There’s so much to say about this that it may need to be analysed separately. There’s the smaller size of families; the mobility of people; and the breakdown of influence of one generation on the next – possibly (or probably, I think) aggravated by changes in education. When things go wrong, “THEY should do something about it”: we pass the responsibility to our rulers. Yet centralisation, doing things on a large scale, by top-down control, with legislation and statistical analysis, isn’t working very well. Those of us who live in Devon villages, where some sense of community remains, need to realise how much worse things are in towns, and to seek ways of fostering community in the village and in Church.
Let’s try and get people thinking and talking and doing something about lifestyle and community-building. Any constructive suggestions?
Arthur French is a layman who worked in teacher education. He was on the General Synod Board of Education Theological Education Sub-Committee 1970-75, and active in the South-East Churches’ Training Group 1975-1989.