So as of yesterday, the Evangelical Alliance (EA) have decided to part company with Steve Chalke’s Oasis Trust over gay relationships. Once again we see that evangelicals can cope with quite a few doctrinal disagreements, but when it comes to homosexuality, more often than not, lines end up being drawn that cause more division than gracious resolution. And speaking as an evangelical, it hurts.
This might be one of those stories that bypasses the national media and remains an internal dispute that will keep Christians debating for the weeks to come, or it may end up with causing the evangelical wing of the Church in this country a big headache, if a mainstream media story is spun that evangelical Christians are homophobic and ostracise anyone who strays from the one man, one woman, no sex outside of heterosexual marriage line. Despite David Cameron’s recent encouragement to Christians to be more ‘evangelical’ about their faith, the word struggles to sell itself. You can’t expect to win many friends outside of the church (and even within some parts) if you announce that you are an evangelical Christian. This is mostly the fault of bull-headed American evangelicalism which is so closely tied to Republican right-wing politics, but recently as Christians have wrestled with the gay-marriage legislation as it passed through parliament, it has been the evangelical arm of the Church that has often been seen fighting hardest against it.
Yet when you consider the essence of what it means to be evangelical, it is and should be a beautiful thing. It is a deep and heartfelt commitment to the joy of the Gospel of Jesus, to unending grace, to salvation by faith and not by works and a love and devotion to God’s word through the Bible. The Evangelical Alliance who have come to serve as a focal point for those who share these values over more than 160 years now draw together 79 denominations, 3,500 churches, 750 organisations and thousands of individual members. That represents a significant percentage of the church attending population in this country.
As with Anglicanism, to be evangelical is not narrow and fixed beyond certain core beliefs and principles. Evangelicals will disagree on a range of issues of secondary importance. The EA’s Evangelical Relationships Commitment states:
‘We respect the diversity of culture, experience and doctrinal understanding that God grants to His people, and acknowledge that some differences over issues not essential to salvation may well remain until the end of time.
‘We call on each other, when speaking or writing of those issues of faith or practice that divide us, to acknowledge our own failings and the possibility that we ourselves may be mistaken, avoiding personal hostility and abuse, and speaking the truth in love and gentleness.’
Especially given that the EA’s strapline is ‘Better Together’, kicking an organisation out of the Alliance should therefore hopefully be a rare event, that only comes when a breakdown of relationship and serious disagreement occurs. According to their press release, the EA have not rushed into this decision to remove Oasis lightly and have worked with them for some time to resolve their differences. However from an observer’s perspective, it has been heading towards this conclusion for some time.
Steve Chalke was once the poster boy of the evangelical movement; a heroic figure held in high esteem. He was and is a gifted communicator, with a passion for justice and social activism serving the poor and vulnerable. He has a rare ability to make things happen and on a large scale. His Christmas Cracker radio stations at the end of the 80s raised more than £4 million for some of the world’s poorest communities. Through his Oasis Trust, he has set up hostels for the homeless, Stop the Traffik – now a major coalition of over 200 charities dedicated to ending human trafficking – and runs a chain of school academies. No one should belittle these huge achievements and the EA has been keen to acknowledge their deep respect for the work and achievements of the Oasis Trust.
It is regrettable that this work motivated by faith has not been enough to keep Oasis within the EA fold, but the much of the problem is that Oasis is intrinsically linked to Steve Chalke. By choosing to publish some of his theological articles on their website rather than on a personal one under Chalke’s name, the controversies that he has generated over the last year through his interpretation of the Bible in particular has fallen into the organisation’s lap. Although the Oasis board have said that they have no corporate view on Chalke’s pro-gay relationship stance, they have published a range of resources affirming this position including provocatively an Order of Service for a Commitment and Blessing Service following a Civil Partnership.
Steve Chalke is still a heavyweight in Christian circles and despite his controversial book The Lost Message of Jesus, which rejected the theology of penal substitution as “a form of cosmic child abuse” annoying many readers and leading to Word Alive’s split from Spring Harvest in 2007, the EA were able to work through the tensions and avoid a fallout with Chalke. This time though views on sexuality have pushed the relationship over the edge in spite of the fact that a growing minority of evangelicals are coming out in favour of monogamous gay relationships and that sexuality is not specifically mentioned in the EA Basis of Faith.
The EA does have form in this area though. In 2002 the organisation Courage was forced to leave the EA. Its work involved supporting gay and lesbian Christians and affirmed monogamous single-sex relationships along the lines of Oasis’ current position. It very much looks as though any public warmth towards single-sex relationships is off the cards for EA members if they wish to keep their membership. As fellow blogger, Peter kirk put it yesterday:
‘In its action today the Evangelical Alliance seems to have turned its back on Clive Calver’s (former general secretary of the EA) vision of evangelical Christians putting aside differences over secondary matters to work together. Instead it has elevated one particular secondary matter to be a touchstone of evangelicalism. And it has done so in a way which plays into the hands of the popular press, with its anti-Christian agenda of portraying the church as obsessed with sexuality and intolerably homophobic. This is most unfortunate.’
It is indeed most unfortunate that two great organisations who do so much good and have much in common have been unable to resolve their differences. It is more than unfortunate that at a time of increased sensitivities towards gay relationships this will do nothing to improve the image of evangelical Christians. The decision is not homophobic in itself, but the perceptions of the media may not be so considerate and forgiving. For many Christians who are trying hard to break down barriers and welcome gay people into the Church, this will not help at all.
Even though Steve Chalke’s views will not be shared by many Christians, evangelical or otherwise, is this division that will cause many to feel they have to take sides, not having considered it necessary previously, worth the cost? Are Steve Chalke and Oasis such a big a threat to the standing and structures of the EA that they must be expelled in this way? Just how dogmatic do the EA intend to be in defending a party line of their own creation?
At least both sides in their statements have expressed a strong desire to avoid any unseemly dispute and to speak well of each other. There will be much to work through and angry voices to calm following this announcement. The EA Basis of Faith also says that we have a Christian duty of trust and mutual encouragement to all who serve Christ as Lord. This has not been the EA or Oasis’ finest hour, but it now provides the opportunity for a good deal of Christian love, grace and reconciliation to be demonstrated by all who are affected. Lets not make a deeply undesirable situation a whole lot worse.