Following Saturday’s Royal Wedding, the internet was awash with reaction to the sermon preached by Michael Curry. This is how Justin Welby and Michael Curry felt about it.
“It just blew the place open!” – Passionate preacher Bishop Michael Curry and Archbishop Justin Welby talk about THAT sermon, and about speaking to the newly weds after the #RoyalWedding pic.twitter.com/ieZtiwoCsJ
— Sky News (@SkyNews) May 19, 2018
Ed Milliband stated, ‘Rev Michael Curry could almost make me a believer’ while Piers Morgan said, ‘Wow. Still reeling from Rev Curry. What a moment. What a guy!’
This, frankly, shouldn’t be all that surprising. Whilst I am not of the view that every sermon needs to offer a full explanation of penal substitutionary atonement, the sermon stopped well short of that. All the sermon did was speak about love, at a wedding no less! There was no real definition of love anywhere and the message was essentially that if everybody just loved each other more the world would be a better place. That might well be true in essence but it is not the gospel. It owes more to John Lennon than anything we read in the Bible. Given that, it was no surprise that lots of people enjoyed it – there was nothing in it that anybody could possibly find objectionable. Let’s all love each other more is hardly earth-shattering stuff is it?
What was more concerning was the sheer number of Conservatives, particularly Evangelicals, raving about how wonderful the sermon was. David Robertson notes:
The conservative blogger Cranmer tweeted: “When the Church is liberated from staid sermons and formulaic motions to spontaneous expressions of joy and heart-bursting love, the world sits up and listens. God bless you, @BishopCurry, for proclaiming the love of Christ so passionately to two billion people.” Many other conservative evangelicals from Krish Kandiah to Amy Orr-Ewing, from Scottish Free Church Presbyterians to Sydney Anglicans were equally commendatory.
My own Twitter timeline was awash with Evangelical people talking about how wonderful it was that ‘a preacher turned up’ and that ‘the gospel was clearly proclaimed’. It was those sorts of comments and the quarters from which they emanated that really troubled me.
Unless we were listening to two separate sermons – like the homiletic version of the Yanny or Laurel thing – I don’t get it. The gospel was not clearly preached. A message was delivered with fervour and passion, in a style that every nonconformist is used to hearing, that was devoid of the gospel. Just because somebody uses a few of the right words, going as far as to say ‘gospel’, does not mean the gospel has been preached. Quoting a few scriptures does not make a sermon scriptural and mentioning the name of Jesus does not make a sermon Christ-centred. There was simply nothing in the sermon that explained the problem of sin, the solution in Christ, the means of salvation nor anything like it. We were called to ‘harness the power of love’ and other such sentiments that allow the hearer to read into them whatever meaning they wish.
Such preaching is typical liberal fare. It says just enough to sound broadly Christian, almost scriptural, but remains vague enough to allow the wiggle-room they require for their Bible-abusing theology. Stephen Watkinson rightly points out:
Although Michael Curry may appear somewhat evangelical in style, he is actually theologically extremely liberal, you listen quite carefully to what he actually says. For what it’s worth, Anglicans in particular are used to this. Our “leaders” have for some time been masters of saying things that will please all stripes of those within the church. You can almost play spot the theology Bingo!
Second, when the presiding bishop of a church speaks passionately about the need for love to change the world, and you feel you have experienced (or at least observed) the full force of that church against biblically orthodox faith, well let’s say it’s not a surprise to have seen the word “hypocrite” floating around on social media.
These sentiments are followed by David Robertson, who states:
Everyone loved it – from the atheist Ed Miliband, to the LGBT activist Vicky Beeching. Liberal and Evangelical alike sang its praises. It was such a post-modern meaningless sermon that anyone could take any meaning they liked. Listen to what Jesus says: “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)…
…It was hypocritical. Bishop Curry was at a wedding that upheld the traditional Cranmer prayer book (and biblical) view of marriage as being between a man and a woman – and which expressly said so. Yet he does not believe that – and has been active in getting the reference to procreation and to man and woman removed from the prayer book in his church. Incidentally his province is meant to be under the discipline of the whole Anglican Church, yet the Archbishop of Canterbury not only invited him but also enthusiastically endorsed him. Biblical Evangelicals within the Church of England have been well and truly shafted! It is important to grasp that Liberals like Curry use words in different ways – we need to ask what does he mean by Jesus, love and the cross. We may be hearing one thing when he is saying another.
Even Gavin Ashenden, not exactly renowned as a leading Evangelical, said:
Misleading the people in God’s name is not the calling of a Christian bishop, even if as Ed Milliband tweeted, “this bishop almost makes me believe in God.’ Yes, almost. But he didn’t make Milliband believe in God. And if had, it would not anyway have been the Holy God of Israel and the prophets and of His Son Jesus Christ. It would have been the god the romanticised and eroticised self; a lesser god. A counterfeit god.
And even so, if the Christianity-lite message only reaches only the Milliband ‘almost’, it is not an encouraging validation , it is a judgement on its ineffectiveness, despite having been emptied of the heart of its original content.
Given the Evangelical voices tweeting and blogging their affirmation, what should we make of this? I suspect it tells us one or more of the following.
Evangelicals can’t discern biblical preaching from style and fervour. Let’s be honest, our own churches testify to this. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people in good, confessional Evangelical churches laud an ‘excellent word’ or ‘brilliant sermon’ for no other reason than it is delivered in a particular style. That many thought Bishop Michael’s sermon was anything more than a set of meaningless platitudes about love delivered with fervour is simply an extension of what we often see within our own churches.
Many Evangelicals don’t understand the gospel. The fact that Michael Curry’s sermon contained precisely none of the gospel, it was entirely unclear to me how anybody who understands the gospel could celebrate it as a ‘clear proclamation of the gospel’. And yet, many Evangelicals I know called it exactly that. The mind boggles. I can only conclude that such people don’t understand what the gospel actually is.
The world has infiltrated Evangelicalism more than we care to admit. The fact that many Evangelicals could listen to that sermon and commend it along with the world suggests that we have come to accept the world’s premises in the church. Francis Schaeffer famously said, ‘Tell me what the world is saying today, and I’ll tell you what the church will be saying in seven years’. It seems now the world can say things and the church will blithely accept them in real time.
I said on Twitter shortly afterward the following:
I didn’t watch much but had a bit on while eating lunch. Irrespective of what was said (or what was meant), I enjoyed the sheer unease of establishment as a man paid no heed to CofE protocol, nor upper-class sensibilities, which they clearly found highly uncomfortable https://t.co/GQO7Tb8yGJ
— Stephen Kneale (@steve_kneale) May 19, 2018
This is a mirror to many middle-class, white, Evangelical churches. The discomfort writ large on the faces of those used to pedestrian homilies by out of touch white dudes is us. We don’t do well when people step outside the bounds of what we’ve deemed culturally appropriate. https://t.co/8YOxjfXeXx
— Stephen Kneale (@steve_kneale) May 19, 2018
These are the only positives I can take from that sermon. Nothing to do with the sermon itself and everything to do with the mirror the whole thing held up to Evangelicalism.
The discomfort of the upper-classes as somebody failed to maintain the high-church protocol and eschewed the accepted way of doing things was palpable. It made me think of how many minorities make us feel as they enter our middle-class white churches. If they do ever get the chance to be upfront, they are treated like some sort of circus act who is just doing it all wrong and making us cringe. That was certainly how the royals appeared to treat the whole thing, the mask of upper-class manners slipping as they openly snickered, caught each others’ eyes and gave contemptuous looks to one another. I took great delight in their discomfort but I took no pleasure in the gospel-less sermon, and was left hugely discouraged as Evangelical after Conservative Evangelical came out and affirmed liberal drivel as a wonderful proclamation of the gospel.
If this achieves anything at all, let it be a wake-up call to those of us buoyant about the current state of British Evangelicalism. Many of our people are not as discerning, knowledgeable or understanding of what the gospel actually is than we often give them credit for. It means we should assume nothing in our own preaching. Worse, it seems, many of our leaders seem to be largely the same. As David Robertson aply put it:
I don’t believe that 2 billion people heard the Gospel in this sermon. The only people who heard the Gospel in it were Christians who already know Gospel. Instead of rejoicing in the crumbs we get from heretics, we should be seeking to learn more of Christ ourselves and get out there and tell the world about the real Jesus – one person at a time!