"No" voters ask "where to next?"
After the postal survey churches have a lot of work to do
It is easy to predict what this year’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras will be like: big, bold and with more than a dash of celebration – with a postal survey victory to savour, after 40 years of the street parade.
But what do things look like for the Christians who voted “no” in the postal survey? A special conference to explore the future was held just before the Mardi Gras (decidedly coincidentally) featuring key speakers Rosaria Butterfield (a US-based former lesbian, now pastor’s wife), Dan Strange (head of Oak Hill College, an Anglican Bible college in London) and Peter Jensen, now the general secretary of the GAFCON movement that links conservative Anglicans around the world.
“We are a pantomime villain on some of these issues.” – Dan Strange
The “Navigate” Conference was sponsored by the NSW Presbyterian Church Gospel, Society and Culture committee and The Gospel Coalition Australia, who represent a broad band of conservative evangelicals.
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“We face a changed landscape in a post-Christian Australia,” David Burke, NSW Moderator (leader) of the Presbyterians said in opening the conference. “The campaign over the postal survey revealed significant fractures in how Christians responded. Christians campaigned on both sides. But some evangelicals were quiet and said ‘this is not a gospel issue’.”
Don’t follow the example of Demas was the message from Peter Jensen, formerly the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney. Demas is mentioned by Paul in his letters to the Colossians and to Philemon as a “fellow worker”. But, sadly, Paul records in 2 Timothy that “Demas, because he loved this world, he has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.”
Jensen reminded the “Navigate” meeting of the negative treatment the New Testament gives to the concept of “world”. It is the cares of the world that choked the seeds in Jesus’ parable of the sower. “Worldliness: this is a category we could do more thinking and teaching about in our churches,” said Jensen.
“We are a pantomime villain on some of these issues,” Oak Hill’s Dan Strange told the meeting, pointing to the need for a new generation of Christians “to do hard theological and theological social sciences work”.
“At the moment, in the UK evangelical scene, there is a lot of introspection and a certain amount of self-flagellation,” Strange said. “Where is our strategy as conservative evangelicals?’ I don’t think we are very good at strategy and tactics.
“We need to be able to say why God’s blueprint is good, and expose the bankruptcy of the sexual revolution.”
Talking about the UK, he asked “where are the Bible-believing intellectuals who can have a public voice? How can we encourage a generation of Christian writers and filmmakers? We need to take a long-term view.”
“Many opinion shapers are not consciously rejecting Christianity – they know little about it.” – John McClean
The 2017 postal survey was “a signal of wider cultural changes,” agreed John McClean, Vice Principal of Christ College in Sydney’s Burwood, which hosted the event.
Two key features were revealed by the campaign. First, “the development of a hard secularism. It’s now common to hear people say religion has no place in public life. Most Australians who voted last year saw no reason to take religious reasons for concern into account.”
A second social change highlighted by the postal vote was “the rise of a post-post-Christian paganism. ‘Post-post’ because many opinion shapers are not consciously rejecting Christianity – they know little about it.”
Rosaria Butterfield, former lesbian activist turned pastor’s wife, injected a warm but struggle- laden note into the conference. She began by describing the vibrancy of the gay community she was part of, banding together in the face of the AIDS crisis, and much given to hospitality.
“I lived as a lesbian and a feminist activist … I believed in the modernist version of humanity. My life was happy. I could not work out why you people would not leave consenting adults alone.”
So the religious right became her research project. After writing a New York Times op-ed titled “Promise keepers message a threat to democracy,” she received a letter that began a relationship that changed her life.
She says of the small “Reformed Presbyterian” church that welcomed her, “ I knew they loved me in spite of me being their enemy. They cared enough to draw me in. I started to attend church and meet other Christians. They talked about the Bible as though they lived inside it. It was fascinating, threatening and compelling at the same time.”
Hospitality had been key to her life in the gay community – with people converting their houses to hospices. Somehow the church “drew me in; they became a family.”
As Butterfield spoke, it was clear there had been a struggle. “To be converted, I had to betray the people I loved most in the world. Where the Bible says it is about dying – I knew all about that.
“I was scheduled that year to give a convocation lecture [at her university]. I was going to give a talk on queer theory, as a lesbian activist. But by the time I gave it, I was a new Christian.”
Hospitality is now key to her life as a Presbyterian pastor’s wife. “We have people in our house seven nights a week.”
She pleads: “If only Christians can come together with the same sense of urgency that the gay community responded to the AIDS Crisis.”