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Why changing the church’s theology on sexuality won’t result in growth

As the Church of England's General Synod votes on a bishops' report which states marriage should be between a man and a woman only, Ian Paul explains why holding to this traditional view is good news for church growth

Two days ago, I had a curious discussion with someone about the current debates in the Church of England on sexuality and the question of mission.

"The Church’s teaching is hindering mission" was the claim.

I pointed out that the Church of England has a higher number of gay members than the population at large, that it has been estimated that 10% of its clergy are gay (compared with the population as a whole of 1-2%) and that it probably has a higher proportion of gay bishops as well. I asked "How is that failing in mission to this group?"

The response was "They don’t feel cared for!" The question of care and support is an important one - but by any common sense understanding, that is a separate question from the one of mission.

There is, of course, a wider issue: what impact does the Church’s current teaching have on its mission of reaching the population as a whole with the good news about Jesus? And how would we know? One way would be to look at contemporary media coverage and social media profile - but the echo chamber of social media, and the recognised antipathy of much media to Christian faith means this is likely to be misleading. 

A more reliable guide is to look at what has happened to churches in Western culture that have moved towards an ‘inclusive’ position, and where they are at in terms of mission.

Churches which endorse same-sex marriage are in decline 

The last Synod (national church meeting) of the Church in Wales was dominated by two themes: the vote that came close to approving the church celebrating same-sex marriages, something the bishops wanted agreeing; and lament about the continuing precipitous decline in church membership and attendance. All churches in the West are struggling with decline, but those that endorse same-sex marriage uniformly see decline accelerating. There is not one single example of an 'inclusive' church which has even seen the rate of decline slow down - let alone see the decline reversed. 

The church has grown most rapidly when it has been most distinctive from its surrounding culture

This makes perfectly good practical common sense. If church culture (on any issue) is very close to the values of the surrounding culture, then church attendance simply becomes less important and less distinctive. In an age of Christendom, where church attendance is not much more than a mark of respectability, then church attendance might be quite high. But where Christian faith is increasingly unpopular, then why would you pay the price of attendance and association if the culture of the Church doesn’t offer anything distinctive from wider society?

A fascinating insight is offered by the new 'resource church' plants being undertaken by the C of E. Early studies show that these new churches have quite a distinctive culture, drawing unchurched and dechurched people (those who have left the church or never been involved in church) and predominantly attracting people who are under 30. In contrast to many churches, there is a strong invitational sense - those who attend are consistently confident to invite friends, family and neighbours to come along, and as a result they are growing rapidly. And yet most of these church plants are at the conservative end of the theological spectrum. 

Traditional teaching is liberating 

A moment’s thought shows us why young people might be drawn to more conservative churches and their teaching on sexuality. In contrast to so many narratives in our society, traditional Christian teaching claims that sex is not everything, does not define our identity, and that you can live a fulfilled life without needing to express yourself sexually. Anyone reflecting on contemporary youth culture and its sexualisation will find this profoundly liberating - including those who experience same-sex attraction.

In fact, it was ever thus. Social historians regularly point out that the Church has grown most rapidly when it has been most distinctive from its surrounding culture. And in the early centuries of the Church, one of its clearest distinctives was its approach to sexual ethics, in which men were held to the same standard of sexual ethics as women, and children and child-rearing were valued as important parts of the fulfilled life. If churches in the West want to grow, then the secret is to continue in the apostolic teaching they have received - on sexuality as on every other issue.

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