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Going pagan

Religion | ‘Church Army’ shows signs of theological compromise in the Church of England

Issue: "Effective compassion," July 27, 2013

Evidence continues to mount that Christianity in Britain—and even belief in God’s existence—is on its way toward minority status. In a recent YouGov poll of British young adults, only 25 percent unequivocally affirmed a belief in God, and 38 percent said they did not believe in God or any “greater spiritual power.” Meanwhile, one of the Church of England’s recent proposals for attracting the young and unchurched is creating a “pagan church” with Christian content.

Recent census data revealed that “pagans” were the seventh-largest religious group in the United Kingdom, and that the number of pagans doubled between 2001 and 2011. (Atheists have worked to get Britons to stop identifying as Christians on the census, and even larger numbers label themselves “Jedi Knights” than pagans.) A summer solstice gathering at Stonehenge, where more than 20,000 assembled this June, highlights the British pagan spiritual calendar. Naturally, pagans are among the groups that churches might want to evangelize, and Anglicans have hosted Christian information booths at pagan events. But the proposal for a pagan church has raised questions about theological compromise.

Steve Hollinghurst, a researcher with the Church Army (an Anglican agency headed by former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu), recently told the BBC that he envisioned creating “a pagan church where Christianity was very much in the centre.” The Church Army website describes Hollinghurst as researcher on “themes of contemporary spirituality, the new age movement and mind, body, spirit fairs.”

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After British newspapers reported his comments, Hollinghurst posted on his personal blog that there is no actual plan to start a pagan church, even though he thinks that Christians can learn a lot from pagans. He affirmed pagans’ frequent criticism of the Christian God as exclusively male, saying that “we as Christians need to acknowledge that and recover our own tradition of the divine feminine.” Pagans have also “put Christians to shame when it comes to the environment,” Hollinghurst argued. He dismissed the idea, however, that he was looking to get pagans to “join the [Anglican] church.”

‘Worst’ synod

The Reformed Church in America (RCA) held its annual General Synod in June and officially deleted much-debated “conscience clauses” that had allowed conservative clergy to recuse themselves from the ordination of women. The RCA began ordaining women in 1979 but had stipulated that male pastors would not have to “participate in decisions or actions contrary to their consciences” on the matter.

The synod struggled, however, to determine what to do about churches and pastors who dissent from the RCA’s stance on homosexuality. In 2012 the synod reaffirmed its “official position that homosexual behavior is a sin according to the Holy Scriptures.” The synod further warned that “any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense.”

This year’s meeting denied several petitions to rescind that statement, although delegates did agree to a proviso that the 2012 synod had exceeded its “constitutional authority” in describing homosexual advocacy as a “disciplinable offense.”

A “Way Forward” committee appointed to address the issue also recommended that the RCA consider “fundamental polity changes” that could force dissidents to comply with synod policy on homosexuality. The General Synod voted down that recommendation.

Evangelicals within the RCA, such as East Lansing, Mich., pastor Kevin DeYoung, have noted that certain RCA classes (regional governing bodies) openly affirm homosexual relationships and clergy, and that the New Brunswick (N.J.) classis recently ordained a practicing lesbian. DeYoung told me that this year’s meeting was “the worst synod I can recall for conservatives.” —T.K.

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.


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