Presidential Address to Synod 2016
A STIRRING QUOTATION
I begin with a quote that I hope will give us individually reason to pause and reflect on the nature of our personal walk with Christ, our parish ministries, how much we might have imbibed the age and how desperate we remain for the things of God. The quote comes from John Piper, “This_ _world_ _is_ _far_ _too_ _dense_ _with_ _man_ _and_ _distant_ _from_ _the_ _sweet_ _sovereignty_ _of_ _God._” _1
1 Piper, John The Pleasures of God p.14
2 Piper, John The Pleasures of God p.14
This, I hope, will be a reminder for us as Christ’s church, a word that brings a helpful moment of critique in our every moment of life. I hope it will be a word to challenge our cherished idolatries and replace them with convictions like those of the 15th century Scottish theologian, minister and author Henry Scougal, who was remembered as one ‘whose whole soul seemed swallowed up in the contemplation of Jesus Christ’.2
Sitting on your beach chair in Sydney or in North Queensland sounds like a great lifestyle but the posture in those two places is very different, due to tidal changes. In Sydney, you can sit on a beach and be unaffected by the almost imperceptible movements of the tide. You can’t do that in North Queensland. The tidal movements are so significant that if you snooze, you lose – either by drowning or as a menu item on the croc cocktail list.
Sitting in the pews anywhere in Christendom across Australia has the genuine Christian confronted by tidal changes. For a long time the Church has sat on the beach soaking up the sun, enjoying the material provisions of God, imbibing the age, unaware of the tidal movements around us. We have lived as though tidal movements are imperceptible. In an era when Christianity was more acceptable this may have been convenient, but never right. In an age that has lived and spent its Christian capital to a point where it is now unappreciated, the tidal change is much more significant and an asleep, vacillating and disobedient Church will be washed away.
In such a climate, it is concerning to see within our churches symptoms of cultural Christianity, not Biblical Christianity. Disturbingly, those vested in cultural Christianity drift with the tide of public opinion and dangerously encourage the Church to do the same. This is not limited to the man or woman in the pew. Cultural Christianity, or worse, the perversions of its truth, have found their way into pulpits across our nation where gospels of permission are offered in conflict with the Gospel of repentance and faith. Indeed, this conflict may well become evident within our own denomination at its 2017 General Synod.
The issues are many, with the tide moving quickly on matters of life and death, refugees and asylum seekers, human sexuality, economics and freedom of speech. While this address is unable adequately to present the fullness of debate, I wish to address all issues in brief.
SANCTITY OF LIFE
Firstly, to matters of life and death.
The Bible makes clear that life begins at conception where God knitted us together in our mothers’ wombs, being beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of God. It is this Christian world view that gives rise to our understanding of the sanctity of life. The Bible also speaks of death as the dreadful outcome of sin. It reminds us that God is sovereign over all life and death and that He enjoins us to trust in Christ who raises the dead. The Bible cherishes life from conception and offers hope to life through the valley of the shadow of death into all eternity. God desires that we live to be a blessing to one another whether in health or sickness, to take the opportunities afforded us in suffering to serve each other. The Christian world view understands life from an eternal perspective and teaches that God desires not the death of a sinner, but that all might come to repentance and live. It is this Christian world view that offers an alternative view to abortion and euthanasia.
Hearing this, you will not be surprised at my shock when driving through Queensland in August and seeing the billboard near Gympie, with these words regarding the year 2015, ‘58 adoptions, 14,000 abortions’. That is one adoption for every 241 abortions in Queensland in 2015. Nationwide, it is estimated that there are 80,000 abortions annually.
As disturbing as these figures appear, more disturbing are the figures released by Queensland’s Health Minister, Cameron Dick, revealing that 27 babies survived late-term abortions in Queensland hospitals last year but were not rendered care and were just allowed to die. Mr Dick also provided the number of ‘live birth’ abortions in Queensland for the last 10 years, which show a steady increase of those who survive, totaling in all 204 terminations with live birth outcomes. The babies were of five months gestation or more. Queensland Health confirmed that in such cases, care is not rendered to the baby after a decision to terminate is made and he or she is left to perish in the clinic.
While New South Wales is quite different from other states, the ACT, Victoria and Tasmania have all decriminalized abortion, making it legal up to nine months gestation. However, late-term abortions in Tasmania, defined as past four months, and in Victoria, where late-term is classed beyond six months, do require approval from two medical practitioners.
Abortion is not unique to any generation, but the evidence would suggest we are on a slippery slope into darker times.
In relation to the problem, Queensland’s Deputy Premier and Labor MP Jackie Trad was quoted as saying, “I am unashamedly pro-choice… What a woman decides to do with her body, in consultation with her doctor, does not belong in the criminal code.”
Now I don’t presume to speak for women in what they do with their bodies, but God does and unbelief in God is wishful thinking that does not alter one’s ultimate accountability before Him. A woman’s welfare, like the welfare of the unborn, is of paramount concern to God. From every decision that diminishes the value of life, God has acted in Jesus Christ to rescue us.
The language of ‘a woman’s right to choose’ is, in itself, symptomatic of an age where the atmosphere is too dense with man and too distant from the sweet sovereignty of God. Alternatively, the language of God speaks to the welfare of every person and the defence of the vulnerable.
I am unable to support the abortion of children, but dealing with live birth outcomes where the living child is left to perish in the clinic has little to do with what a woman does with her body and everything to do with the value we place on life.
It is a sad truth that the majority of women and girls who have abortions do so because of a lack of support from partners, parents and friends. 70 per cent of women say they felt they had no alternative to abortion.3 That response may well be to the Church’s shame. The defence ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is no defence, for the issue is not out of sight and our churches should be safe places for the troubled to come and find love and support.
There are, of course, alternatives to abortion. There are people crying out to adopt, and organizations have been set up to assist women in need. One such organization is our own Anglicare’s ‘Hope for Life’, a specialized service established in Moree by Mrs Claire Dunlop as an advocate for the welfare of unborn children and their teenage parents. I would ask you to pray for Claire and this ministry and be personally inspired by what can be done with a Christ-honouring vision to help others.
From this confused human view of life with regard to abortion, we must also enter into the debate on euthanasia, with its emphasis on the autonomy of the individual to choose. Again in an age too dense with man and too distant from the sweet sovereignty of God, people promote unnatural deaths/assisted suicides that are wrong for the individual and for our society.
This compromises the Hippocratic Oath made by doctors to protect life and it consigns doctors to moral dilemmas no person should have to endure.
While those who advocate euthanasia don’t deny palliative care, an acceptance of euthanasia would certainly have the power to endanger it.
Professor Theo Boer, a Dutch academic in the field of ethics, argued seven years ago that ‘a good euthanasia law’ would produce relatively low numbers of deaths. He now believes that the very existence of a euthanasia law turns assisted suicide from a last resort into a normal procedure.
Those arguing the ‘slippery slope’ in Britain say that euthanasia would follow the same path as abortion, which was legalised in 1967. “There are now nearly 200,000 terminations a year. Anti-euthanasia campaigners and disability activists called on politicians to listen to the professor’s warning.”4
http://www.christian.org.uk/news/euthanasia-dont-make-our-mistake-says-dutch-academic/Catholic doctor, Zbigniew Zylicz, founder of one of the first palliative care hospices in the Netherlands, says that doctors in the Netherlands perform euthanasia so regularly they have little knowledge of how to care for a terminally ill patient who seeks alternatives to assisted suicide. Dr Zylicz reflects on the loss of creative and experienced ways of pain management, lamenting that “They are losing the art of medicine – the basis of our profession.” He warns that what becomes allowable inevitably becomes expected: “The law (allowing assisted suicide) makes a difference because it is immediately experienced as a right. That’s a big difference… There is a pressure on doctors to do euthanasia, even if they don’t want to.”5
In discussion with Dr Megan Best, I learned that a significant number of doctors are now objecting to euthanasia. While this is a good sign, the outcome has seen the introduction of mobile assisted suicide units.
While it is true that some supporters of euthanasia are well-intentioned and compassionate people, issues of motivation, utility, expediency and human evil raise serious questions. Advocates suggest a confidence in legislation to resolve people’s concerns but history, as Dr Zylicz suggests, does not provide such confidence, suggesting instead that there are no effective laws sufficient to protect against the slippery slope attached to such issues as euthanasia. Whether we agree or not with laws that govern us, they inevitably educate people. People begin to accept, because of the law, that the position enshrined within the law must in fact be right. Once a society accepts the issue as right, it implies obligation and inevitably, as in the case of euthanasia, can and has led to coercion.
Leaving aside issues of the sanctity of life and the incredible value attached to those made in the image of God, advocates for euthanasia seem to enjoy a high view of man that fails to recognize the problem of sin.
As I write, I expect that some will react violently to what I am saying, while others will be angry that I have not been much harsher. Personally, I feel no sense of harshness toward those who see abortion or euthanasia as their only option. Nor do I want to crush those who have made a choice to terminate or have been involved with decisions on assisted deaths. To be honest, I just feel a profound sense of grief and an urgency to introduce people to Jesus and help them home to Heaven.
It is within this context that I begin to wonder if the abortion of the vulnerable and the euthanizing of the sick are symptoms of our general loss of humanity which gives rise to less than generous responses to all vulnerable people, such as refugees and asylum seekers.
SANCTUARY FOR LIFE
I don’t rush naturally to the media for exposure, but at times the media seeks the opinion of a Bishop. The difficulty in such moments is in knowing enough to be able to offer an answer that adds value. However, ethics are rarely simple. What we do know is that our ethics must reflect the mind of God in the Scripture, expressing themselves in love. But even this finds complexity.
In one breath, the Bible exhorts God’s people to care for the alien/foreigner in the land and to do so generously. In the next breath, it needs to be said, the Bible found space to speak of border protection. How does one balance the two?
I am thankful that both sides of Parliament are wrestling with this issue and I am praying for a coming together of minds and a solution that is compassionate, discerning and successful. Indeed, our own Synod has in the past offered Government our mind and offered our service.
The complexity of the ethical issues is enormous but as with those matters already addressed, the value and sanctity of life afforded people made in the image of God must never be ignored. Children being removed from parents in detention is not the answer. Holding people in detention for long processing periods is unacceptable. Dehumanising conditions can never be tolerated and detention centres must reflect a generosity of heart that offers the very best, and safest, accommodation for all. While I understand the term ‘detention’,
personally I would prefer us to provide places of ‘sanctuary’, correctly understood as ‘safe places’ or ‘places of safety’. Such a change in language would speak of our concern for another’s welfare before our own and would offer hope to the vulnerable.
Sometimes, a simple change of language can correct a national mindset and direct the heart and actions of a people in significantly better directions. While perhaps unintentional, the term ‘detention’ has demonised the vulnerable and speaks of a nation too dense with self.
The other side of this vexing issue recognises that only the foolish person leaves their doors open to those who might abuse the open door, or have sinister intentions for those whose door it is. The consequence of such foolishness has been evident across the world. As ISIS may be losing its war in the Middle East the consequence is a more dangerous world, as radicalised Muslims return to countries of origin with different disruptive strategies.
The evil of this menace is the distrust and division it brings among people who might otherwise learn to live together and love one another.
Refugees and asylum seekers may be used by the fear mongers to create prejudices, or politicised to make great headlines. Radicalised Islam may hide itself among the vulnerable to bring its terrors, and the insecurities of a world too dense with self may find hatred a better option than love.
This Bishop may not have all the answers, but alongside faithful brothers and sisters he prayerfully seeks a church where its soul is swallowed up in its contemplations of Jesus Christ, where the love of Christ so dispels the fear of man that we would all give ourselves to love the alien in our land, such that they never be alien to God. Oh that our churches would capture the headlines with stories of people who sacrificially open our own homes to asylum seekers and refugees, generously providing hospitality for those needier than ourselves! My Christian world view constantly reminds me of what Jesus Christ did on a Cross to offer the hospitality of Heaven to a world full of needy and undeserving asylum seekers like you and me. My Christian world view demands that all my considerations of this issue be governed not by my fears, but by love that answers another’s tears. We will stand condemned by God, should we protect our comfort and over-privilege while neglecting another human’s needs.
An age too dense with man and distant from the sweet sovereignty of God unsurprisingly finds itself invested in greed, ignoring the tide of things to come.
SELFISHNESS OF LIFE
World economies like Greece reflect such a history and now live with the consequences of intergenerational theft. It has been said that in the last 10 years there has been a move in our country from politicians appealing to the aspirational voter to now pandering to people’s sense of entitlement. In this, both politician and people present an age far too dense with man and distant from the sweet sovereignty of God. Godless aspirations and demanded entitlements make nine budget deficits, with three more projected, hardly surprising. The Inter-generational Report, prepared every five years by the Commonwealth Treasury, tell us we face a serious and growing budget challenge as a nation that leaves us exposed to significant risk if we don’t address this challenge. Of concern is the suggestion that without substantial changes in policy, net debt is projected to rise to well over 50 per cent of GDP in the next 40 years, making our children’s future not dissimilar to that of the children of Greece.
Those more informed than I on these issues suggest the challenge can be averted, if we act together. That is good news. But in an age too dense with man, you would be more a realist than a pessimist if still concerned. Prayerfully, we must ask God to raise up leaders for whom the lust of power is surrendered to the humility of service and for a people who rest content to receive what we need, not sacrificing others to our greed.
Jesus asked, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” He knew that true joy was not found in the abundance of our possessions but in a relationship with the Giver of every good gift. To live without God is to not appreciate the Giver, to not wonder at His gifts nor find thankfulness and meaning in His good intentions for us. The shallow observer of life, too dense with self and distant from the sweet sovereignty of God, inevitably becomes dissatisfied with material pleasures, even bored with life, exploring options never intended by God. One such area of exploration has been in the sexual arena.
The Bible is very clear that God intended sex for pleasure and procreation, to be enjoyed only between a man and woman, created physically compatible and to be entered into only within the bond of marriage. The Bible offers no alternative. God calls those who enter sexual relationships outside the bond of holy matrimony to repentance. And to the glory of God when a person is truly repentant, God embraces such a person with His infinite love and forgiveness and enables holy transformation.
In an age too dense with man, an age that finds within it a capacity to kill the unborn, euthanise its sick, neglect the vulnerable and feel aspirationally entitled, it is not surprising that people will lustfully objectify others for their own sexual gratification.
To this end, I wish to say a word to our church about pornography, as this scourge takes victims within our churches. Pornography requires no love and in fact quenches it. Pornography does not satisfy, but addicts to frustration and tempts beyond God’s good sexual purposes for us. Pornography appears private but it is public in its voyeurism. Marketeers know its power and can publicly abuse us with it. People profit from it while vulnerable people are imprisoned by it. Tragically, families, friends, integrity of character and more are destroyed by it. Pornography is an insidious lie that offers something it can’t deliver by way of sexual pleasure and meaningfulness. As with all lies, you will lose if you indulge.
It is a sign of human confusion that we are unable to, or will not, make a connection between pornography and the many sexual sins of our culture. When police collect computers loaded with child pornography, why are we slow to make connections to abuse? When we combine sex and violence in films and computer games, why are we surprised by violent sexual crime? When it comes to institutional abuse, one wonders if the Royal Commission will take on the pornography industry and those institutions that over-sexualise children in their marketing and whether the same governments who ordered the Royal Commission will do all in their power to block cyber and paper pornography to protect the vulnerable, which in some measure includes all of us.
All the clergy of our Diocese are encouraged to be accountable in this area and most including myself do this via ‘Covenant Eyes’. I want to encourage the men and women of our Diocese to enter into such accountability and if you find yourself struggling in this area, please seek help quickly before it spawns other sins that will ruin you and bring sorrow to those around you.
In an age too dense with man and distant from the sweet sovereignty of God it is, in some measure, unsurprising to be confronted by all manner of sexual opinion. Surprising is the speed of the tide of a new sexual revolution which has hit our shores.
As a church were we not watching? Were we asleep as the tide rushed in? Had we offered a more righteous example and more intentionally evangelised our age, might we have prevented this challenge? Are we in some sense accountable and do we need to consider our repentance?
Homosexuality is not new to us, and respect of all people, irrespective of sexual orientation, is a given, and protection in the law for homosexual couples is appropriate. But now to fill in forms which: provide space for male, female and undetermined; to speak of gender fluidity; to see the breadth of human sexuality in the letters LGBTI and to note that no place is given to ‘V’ for virgin or ‘H’ for heterosexual; and to be confronted by the issue of same-sex marriage are all evidence that the tide has swept in at speed.
Throughout this year and now seemingly into 2017, the same-sex marriage debate has propelled the church to action.
This particular issue has revealed the soft and shallow belly of a vulnerable Christianity that is too dense with man and too empty of the sweet sovereignty of God. Mindful of after-church conversations, it is observable that some Christians are determining their responses to same-sex issues not by their proximity to God, but by their proximity to loved ones who have chosen alternatives to God’s best intentions for them. This appears loving, but is an idolatry that elevates people’s desires over the expressed will of the God who created us, and it endangers a loved one’s eternal future. Giving permission under the guise of love to anything God is disapproving of, rather than offering prayers and calling for repentance, is not love at all.
I am thankful that as a Synod, we will have before us a motion on Same-sex Marriage and its intention is to educate us further and inspire us to honour God, irrespective of the cost. This issue will not go away and to that end, we as a church must continue to consider how we will respond.
I want to register a concern for those who feel they are on the side of the righteous in this matter in calling for special prayer meetings to see the same-sex marriage issue defeated. There is nothing wrong with such prayers, but is it possible that a similar idolatry, of children and grandchildren, exists among those concerned more for their children’s future than the glory of God? Our prayerful concerns must prioritise the glory of God, in which is the only safety for all of life. The energy and commitment to pray about this particular issue brings into focus a church that can mobilise itself to address a single immediate issue, but struggles to mobilise itself regularly to pray for the evangelisation of the vast number of lost souls across our nation and then act in accordance with such prayers. On a scale of importance, surely the insult of human unbelief to God’s glory and the prospect of hell should motivate us to pray with the same loving fervour that took Jesus to the Cross. While at the risk of being misunderstood, could I suggest for those who have ears to hear that the prevention of same-sex marriage is not as much needed as a repentant church that prays for revival and applies itself to introducing people to Jesus?
Recognising my prayerlessness on all these matters, I find myself praying that I will repent of my sin and that I will not find excuses or permissions for my prayerlessness.
SPEECH FOR LIFE
Issues surrounding human sexuality have also sharpened the debate on freedom of speech. The days may well be coming and are perhaps already here when a Presidential Address at Synod or a sermon from a pulpit will need legal counsel before delivery.
I spent the weekend before this year’s Federal Election with my children, who spent some time asking me questions about the election. They are intelligent young adults: one running a business, others exercising their trades, and another working in marketing. One’s musical, most are surfers, all attend church and desire to be contributors to the greater good. What surprised me was their lack of awareness of the issues that confront us as a nation and they informed me that this was typical of people in their age category – too busy with life to find time to get across the issues. What concerned me, in this age of so many competing voices, was how uninformed young voters can be.
With this in mind, I rejoice in the work of our Youth Encourager, the ministry of Youth Muster, Youth Surge and Fuel, our School chaplains, SRE teachers and all children and youth ministries across the Diocese. These ministries may not directly touch on all issues but they do train young people into how to think God’s thoughts after Him and to apply them to the issues of the day.
I at no time told my children how to vote, but the conversation was certainly a time of rigorous debate where politics and religion were concerned and we all left the table better informed. I would encourage the return of politics, religion and sex to discussions around the dinner table. Conversations about sex probably need no encouragement but the other two do. We ought not ditch the important for something more superficial.
I expressed my concerns over the use of anti-discrimination laws to silence the Christian voice on issues related to human sexuality, as presented by Labor and Greens leaders before the election – the very same people who would introduce the dishonest Safe Schools Program to indoctrinate our children.
I explained the privileges given us through a Christian heritage that honoured freedom of speech on such issues. We spoke of past atrocities that followed the Marxist, Stalinist, Third Reich and IS regimes which took the privilege of freedom of speech away from people. And at our family table, freedom of speech was obvious but respectful.
History played an important part in our conversation as we shared lessons from the past. In this regard I was recently challenged by the Christian theologian and scholar, Dr Don Carson, who used an expression I had not heard before: ‘outsourced memory’. He spoke of the place of the internet and Google world, where the remembering of things appears unnecessary. When you need the information, just Google it. While information access may be helpful, a loss of memory is dangerous. The problem of internet dependence and convenience is that you no longer apply yourself to remembering Bible verses, your cultural and Australian history and so much more. The problem with this is the removal of fences put in place on the mind by our Bible memory and by lessons from the past. In Psalm 19 we are told the statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. I was once told that the simple person in Hebrew culture was described as having no door on the mind. As we know, doors help us to discriminate as to what we let in and what we keep out. In Psalm 19, God’s Word puts a door on the mind and makes us wise.
Knowing information is one thing, but assessing information is something we are called to do all the time. An unguarded conscience that forgets the lessons of the past and does not enjoy instant access to wisdom will make instant responses to issues that flounder to find intelligent foundations. Of course, to a world too dense with man and distant from the sweet sovereignty of God, the wisdom of God’s Word is not more desirable than gold. While there is warning in His truths and great reward in keeping them, a mind with no door on it will suffer without them.
SUSTAINING CHURCH LIFE
Well, these are Big World issues; what about small town concerns? I want to suggest that they are no different. We live in communities far too dense with man and distant from the sweet sovereignty of God. Sanctity of life, sanctuary for the living, entitlement, sexual confusion and brokenness, the uninformed and so many other issues exist in towns where people are facing a Christless eternity.
So what about small towns? – we have to introduce their people to Jesus and help them home to Heaven. It is a matter of priority that we must first apply ourselves to this mission and, with the generous gifts of our God through His people, seek to provide ministers and ministries wherever we can.
So what about small churches? – one thing is certain: the church’s purpose never changes – introduce people to Jesus and help them home to Heaven. Central administration is not the answer to ongoing viability; prayerful Gospel proclamation is. We must not allow compromise of God’s absolutes with other earthly loyalties. Don’t lose heart, for the heart of your faith is God who can offer salvation to our world through the death of His Son.
So what about small Christians? – there is no such thing, just Christians with a great God: our Father in Heaven, Jesus Christ our Redeemer and the Holy Spirit, who is daily transforming us into the image of Christ and bringing new birth to those dead in their sins.
It is easy to feel fragile in the age we live in, but faith reminds us that we are eternal, with a heavenly citizenship. It is easy to be afraid in this age, but faith reminds us that God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble. It is easy to feel intimidated by this age, but eternity is ours. With God as our refuge and strength, and with Jesus Christ as our Lord, it is time for us to intimidate the world with the Gospel – to warn people of the judgement to come and to tell of the One rich in mercy, abounding in love, by whose grace those once dead in their sins have been made alive.6
I remind you of the age of the first disciples of Christ, in Acts 4. The Sanhedrin met, saying “‘…so this does not spread any further among the people, let’s threaten them against speaking to anyone in the name of Jesus again.’ So they called for them and ordered them not to preach or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.’”7
Our age is no different from any other moment in history where people have sought to silence the message of Christ. Like the apostles, Peter and John,
6 Ephesians 2:1-10
7 Acts 4:17-20
we need to stand before the swift and threatening tides of this age, unable to stop speaking of all we have seen and heard and received in Jesus Christ.
If we do not stand firm in our faith, be assured of the truth of the Scriptures… we will not stand at all. 8
Armidale Anglican Diocese
8 Isaiah 7:9