Critiquing the critique of a critique: a reply to Glen Scrivener

Yesterday, I posted my thoughts on the Royal Wedding address given by Michael Curry. You can read that post here. Suffice to say, I didn’t think much of it.

Here is Glen Scrivener offering his thoughts on that same sermon, particularly critiquing some of the critiques:

Glen argued that much of the reaction ‘followed what people already thought of the Episcopal Church, of which Michael Curry is the Presiding Bishop’. Glen went on to talk about how the Episcopal Church were suing orthodox American parishes who split from their organisation. He also pointed out that the Episcopal Church had been sanctioned over the issue of marriage. He then concluded that many watching these things were simply allowing their view of that church to influence their understanding of Bishop Michael’s sermon.

Now, I really like Glen and he has done, and continues to do, great work. His writing and online videos are a real gift to the church. But there are several issues here.

For one, many people criticising the sermon – at least within my sphere of influence – knew nothing of Michael Curry’s Episcopalian background and nor did they have any prior knowledge of what the Episcopalian Church in America has done. My wife, for example – not exactly an unintelligent, uninformed, ecclesiastically ignorant woman – had never heard of Michael Curry. Truth be told, neither had I until I heard his sermon. I knew a little about the Episcopalian Church in America. I knew, for example, that they had been sanctioned over marriage. I didn’t know Michael Curry was their Presiding Bishop until after the event.

One of my issues with Glen’s piece is it assumes everybody is approaching the sermon from the standpoint of a Conservative Anglican. As if all nonconformists keep abreast of the inner machinations of the worldwide Anglican Communion! We struggle to keep up with your infernal intramural British spats, why on earth would we trouble ourselves with your worldwide ecclesiastical travails? I hate to break it to you but *shock horror* most of us nonconformists neither spend much time worrying about your internal fisticuffs nor, for that matter, do we wish to.

That may be all well and good, but it is infuriating to hear Glen telling us that we’ve arrived at a conclusion on that sermon based solely on a (largely non-existent) view of the American Episcopalians. It’s almost as though our specific arguments and concerns have gone entirely unheeded. Apparently, it’s fine not to engage with our actual view of the sermon because it’s much easier to consider us biased, that way you don’t have to. That may not have been the intention, but it is certainly how it came across. It feels a tad dismissive to say the least.

And though Glen wants to suggest that the sermon was fundamentally about God as the source of love, which is the power in which we are to live, there is no doubt that Michael Curry was here using words to mean something entirely different to Glen’s positive spin on it. For example, Curry happily referenced a medieval poem, ‘where true love is found, God himself is there’. What does he mean by that? If one didn’t know any better, it sounds troublingly close to the heterodox maxim, ‘love is god’. That is certainly how many of my more liberal-minded friends took it, who incidentally loved the sermon in its fullness.

Nor did Curry ‘use up all his time on the nature of God’ as Glen suggests. He mentioned God as the source of love, and of our lives, once. He then proceeded to preach the bulk of his sermon on the need to appropriate God’s love so that we can change the world. In fact, Curry did the very thing on which Glen grounds his defence. He didn’t use up all his time on the nature of God but, instead, used most of his time to talk about the steps that we take to express God’s love in the world. God’s love – and incidentally the only mention of the cross – were simply set up as exemplars for us to follow and, as we appropriate their same loving attitude, we can change the world through the power of our love. Not only is that not the gospel, it is fundamentally man-centric, works-based, standard liberal fare.

Glen’s critique of the critiques was problematic. In his first, whilst Glen is right that there is no straight line from popularity (or lack thereof) to faithfulness or unfaithfulness, that was not the argument anybody was making. The point being made was that the message was popular because it divested itself of the gospel and said nothing that could possibly offend anybody. The popularity wasn’t the reason anybody thought it was lacking, the popularity was a symptom of the message itself. The argument was not that the sermon was popular so must have been unfaithful; it was that the message was banal and meaningless, yet delivered with zip and fervour, that it was unsurprising that it was popular. There was no gospel in it to offend anybody, so of course everybody liked it! As David Robertson pointed out, though popularity is not of itself a sign of unfaithfulness, ‘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)’.

Second, Glen argues that this should not be called ‘Christianity-lite’. But his argument here rests on, so far as I can see, a redefinition of the terminology. It descended into little more than an argument over semantics. Glen effectively says, ‘this isn’t Christianity-lite, Secular Humanism is really Christianity-lite’. Well, OK. Maybe. But that doesn’t really deal with the substance of the criticism here. I struggle to see how the Niebuhr quote isn’t bang on the money with this sermon. Here it is again:

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.

Glen acknowledges that the sermon lacked any mention of God’s wrath and no discussion of sin. By extension, there was no judgement. The only mention of Christ was the quote of the old spiritual which mentions, Jesus ‘died to save us all’. From what, for what purpose and how we appropriate that salvation were all conspicuously absent. The emphasis, as mentioned before, then fell on our redemptive love. Christ died, it seems, for little more than a nice loving example to the rest of us. Glen simply side-steps this in favour of a semantic discussion regarding the correct application of ‘Christianity-lite’.

Glen’s final critique is by far the most legitimate. Is it fair to tar every Christian who liked the sermon with the same brush? Perhaps not. But it does bear asking, if they have discerned the errors, is it not wise to perhaps draw people’s attention to them rather than simply endorsing the message wholeheartedly without critique? If the sermon did contain errors (and it did) or was lacking (and it was), why would we point people uncritically to that? Of course, I’d not expect an undiscerning or deceived person to do that. Why would they? They thought it was great! But the clear-sighted, error-discerning individual is surely doing a great disservice to people by uncritically pointing them to something that they are affirming as good in the full knowledge it is, at best, sub-optimal and contains serious error. That doesn’t seem all that wise or, incidentally, loving.

Glen’s final comments, the last 30 seconds, is entirely legitimate. It is a point I made in my original comment here. But one of the points I made was that the passion and fervour of Bishop Curry’s address was entirely in keeping with the style of sermon any seasoned nonconformist would be used to. It was so jarring in the context because it was an Evangelical nonconformist style delivered to those used to staid, British, high-church Anglican form and bone-dry homilies. Dare I suggest, I am not surprised to hear that criticism from a Conservative Evangelical Anglican because those circles owe much of their preaching style to John Stott. It doesn’t hold in the same way for Conservative noncomformists who tend to owe their style much more to Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Where this final critique fell down was in the inference that because people responded well to Bishop Curry’s sermon they are, in fact, hungry for preaching that we simply aren’t giving them. But this simply assumes that the sermon was a gospel sermon. If people are hungry for what was delivered, but what was delivered didn’t give them the gospel, they are not hungry for biblical preaching! I think Gavin Ashenden was right, having noted that Ed Milliband could only muster that Bishop Curry’s sermon almost made him want to believe, this is a reflection of the ineffectiveness of the sermon. So hungry was Ed Milliband that he still doesn’t want to believe in the fluff with which he was presented. That, to my mind, is not a good basis on which to serve up that sermon as a rebuke to orthodox churches.

Could we, and should we, preach with more passion? For sure. I have no doubt that if we preached like we really meant what we were saying, it would have a greater impact. Whilst I don’t deny that a lack of passion exists in plenty of nonconformist churches, it must be said that is a much more Anglican and, dare I say, middle-class tendency (those two things not exactly having no link between them). I think we can surely learn how to communicate better from Bishop Curry. But, if I may say so, that is where the lesson should endeth. The sermon did not tell me that people were hungry for gospel preaching, just fluff and tickled ears delivered with a bit of passion. And I’m pretty sure the Bible has something to say about not emulating that.

Now, of course, the Lord can use that sermon. He can use anything at all, no matter how heinous. Of course, given that it’s happened, we should now move to make the most of whatever opportunity it has created. Let’s use it as a talking point for sharing the actual gospel such as it grants us the ability to do that. But let’s stop praising it and affirming it. We need to point people to Christ and his gospel, this sermon does not directly do that for us.