Responding well to opposition
In November 2013 a report from the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality was published; it was called “The Pilling Report” after the name of the chair of the group, Sir Joseph Pilling. The group consisted of three other bishops and others. I realised in the summer of 2013 that I couldn’t sign up to its recommendations, and said I would need to submit a dissenting opinion.
Let me say at once, that though there was disagreement in the group, there was no “opposition” to my dissent. The other members of the group could not have been more understanding, even though it was the outcome none of us had wanted.
There was opposition afterwards; I haven’t kept The Guardian comment on my statement, but it was not flattering! In fact, as Bishop Jill Duff has said in her dealing with reactions to The Beautiful Story film released last November by the Church of England Evangelical Council (see website), the vast majority of those who sent in emails were positive. My experience was that I wondered, after having received so many emails from Oak Hill Theological College students thanking me, whether the then Principal Mike Ovey had told them to write, and much later discovered that he had!
There were those who objected robustly, and I knew there were consequences in what future options for ministry might be possible for me. There were some considerable personal consequences. But the Lord sustained me, and I have never regretted submitting that statement, and believe the truth of it now as much as then.
But I was afraid. In fact, I’m not sure that I have ever been as afraid as I was in that summer before publication. It felt as if I was about to walk out over a precipice and there was no safety net. In the summer when I realised that I would have to do a statement I thought of Jesus going forward into His trial with Caiaphas. He knew pain and death were coming. He knew He would have to do this alone. He had asked His Father to spare Him if it were possible, and He knew the answer was “No”, and yet He still kept on going. I have never identified more with the Lord in His trial than at that point. How did you do it, I asked Him over and over?
So now, some 7 years later, as all of us go on facing being true to God’s word in a culture that has no interest in hearing it, and the Church of England is asked again about her teaching on marriage, sexuality and human identity in the Living in Faith and Love project, what can I say about “responding well to opposition”?
Well, two things: first and foremost we follow Jesus and ask to be like Him in responding to His opposition. Hebrews 12:3 asks us to “Consider Him who endured such hostility against Himself from sinners that you do not grow weary or lose heart”; the next verse v 4 says “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”. If the Lord had not responded to opposition with self-giving love to the shedding of His own blood, we would not be here; there would be no salvation by His cross, and no good news of the forgiveness of sins. Not being surprised or fazed by opposition is key, and being content to follow Jesus and be like Him is at the heart of this. When the moment of testing comes may we all be found in Him.
But there is one other thing to say for me, as I hope this brief description makes clear. The greatest “opposition” was from within, namely my fear. I discovered an advanced capacity to “catastrophise”, that is not only to imagine the worst, but to be paralysed by the thought that what you imagine to be the worst, actually will be the worst. In my case I did catastrophise; the reaction could have been far worse, but in actual fact was not. As opposition goes, I have been let off lightly, which speaks to my fear now. Of course, terrible things can be said and done, and in the realm of human sexuality, the public discourse is becoming much more challenging, not less. But if we will still follow Jesus Christ, if we will be content to bear His scars and identify with His wounds, He will sustain us.
I love the calm of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 3, who I think give a wonderful Old Testament prefiguring of the spirit of Jesus before Pilate, as they say to Nebuchadnezzar in response to the command to bow down before the idols of the day.
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present to you a defence in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand O King, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you O King, that we will not serve your gods, and we will not worship the golden statue you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18).
Amen, Lord. Let us not bow down and let us put our trust in you, whatever the consequences.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Summer 2021 edition of Ascend