I Blame Jefferson

I Blame Jefferson

A Dissenting Voice on Lausanne III

Thomas Jefferson was no orthodox Christian but I have a deep suspicion that he should take significant responsibility for one of the greatest myths that currently dogs the church in the modern world.   In drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he helped to create the impression that declarations and petitions can actually achieve something.  Certainly, he was proved right in the eighteenth century; but that was not because the Declaration in itself was singularly potent; rather, it was part of a complex of factors which precipitated the American Revolution and thus saved the British from the tedium of baseball, American football (use of feet optional), and sausages which are apparently made out of the material used on the back of carpet tiles.

Seriously, the Declaration is perhaps the greatest example of both the power of petitions and the pungency of political prose in the history of the world.  The problem is that it has left a residual belief in the wider world that petitions can actually achieve something.

This belief seems to exert a peculiar hold over the minds of many Christians, despite, I should add, all of the evidence to the contrary.  Indeed, the last few years have seen a number of petitions and declarations which have all, by and large, achieved nothing.  One example was the online petition organized to oppose the transfer of an openly gay, ordained Church of Scotland minister from one presbytery to another.  The petition garnered a large number of signatures but failed to stop, or even to delay, the move.  The reason was obvious from the start: churches, particularly Presbyterian churches, operate according to strict rules of procedure; a petition has no procedural standing in the courts of the church; and therefore it is essentially irrelevant.  Anyone who has any experience of church courts will know that procedure trumps mere conviction and sheer volume every time.

The Manhattan Declaration is another example.  While the Church of Scotland petition was designed to achieve a certain specific immediate end, the purpose of the Manhattan Declaration was both broader in scope (as it addressed more wide ranging cultural issues) and more nebulous in terms of its immediate ambition (as it was not aimed at a particular piece of legislative action). For all of the excitement surrounding its launch, however, and the high hopes that it would have some kind of significant impact, it seems to have achieved almost nothing in the time since it was published and, perhaps most ironically, served in certain evangelical quarters as a source only of discord.  Evangelicals typically make the fatal mistake of assuming that the wider world actually cares about what they think. It does not: it increasingly regards us as fringe lunatics, rather as it did in the first century.

With this in mind, I look with some skepticism at the outcomes of the latest Lausanne gathering in Cape Town. Of course, in so doing, I am aware that I immediately open myself to accusations of being a killjoy, a nay-sayer, a Reformed Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister who was known simply as `Mr Nyet' at the United Nations. Given that this gathering has already produced the first part of a document that advocates things as unexceptional as loving God and neighbour, and wanting to see more evangelism, it is hard to criticize without appearing mean-spirited.  So let me say at the outset, I am very much in favour of loving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and consider evangelism to be a very good idea. It is not these things that concern me.

What puzzles me is the idiom by which these things are expressed. Do we really need a `declaration' on these things, and what good is this actually going to do?  First, I might remark that, frankly, such sentiments as `We love God' and `Jesus is unique' are in a similar league of obviousness to the phrases `We oppose wife beating,' `We consider clean water to be a good thing,' and even `Disco music was a very bad idea (not to mention the white suits and chest wigs).'  To read some of the blogs and reports on the conference, you would think that something new and radical was being proposed.  Nothing I have seen could not have been found better expressed elsewhere by somebody else at some point in the past.

The question then becomes: did we need a gathering of thousands of church leaders (though no leader from my own church, local or otherwise, seems to have been present), at huge expense, to tell us these things?  Do most of us not belong to churches where such things have been part of the very reason for our existence from the very start? The conference presumably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to organize (if not more), before one even includes the hours spent by said church leaders away from the local postings to which they have been called. Is this a legitimate use of money at a point in time when many churches and Christian organizations are struggling to make their budgets?  This is not to make a naïve argument that the money should simply have been doled out across the world (we would all have got sixpence, I would guess); but it is to argue that, if the investment is so great, we should expect a decent return; yet statements of the obviousness of a typical pikestaff, albeit couched in dramatic prose, scarcely qualify.  

Second, I wonder what ongoing status the new documents will have. To be brutal, a church document only has significance if there are penalties appended to it in the event of a breach.  Thus, if I were to deny the Virgin Birth, I would be tried and prosecuted on the grounds that I was breaking my ordination vows which bind me to maintaining the system of doctrine of the Bible as expressed in the Westminster Standards. Lausanne covenants have no such canons attached to them. So what does it mean for an individual believer or church to affirm such a covenant?  It is surely at best the expression of aspirations, of gospel ambitions; beyond that it has no significance. Now, the expression of such aspirations is in no way a bad thing; but we do need to remember that the expression of a set of aspirations is very different to commitment to a church creed or confession which defines a congregation or a denomination because it has judicial standing, and thus has a much more fundamental significance.

Third, I wonder about the way in which the gathering was constructed. Clearly, the Lausanne movement it is not a church but rather an eclectic collection of leaders from various different churches.  It transcends individual denominations, but does so in a way that is simply not very ecclesiastical.  Now, I know that we want to find ways and means of expressing our unity in Christ; but to do this via a non-ecclesiastical root is not consonant with scripture and also leaves the gathering vulnerable to the accusation that it is self-appointed and unrepresentative. This latter criticism is particularly ironic, given the laudable desire of the organizers to be inclusive and, to quote the webpage, to be  `perhaps the widest and most diverse gathering of Christians ever held in the history of the Church.' To play the postmodern card: one wonders who decided which people were `representative' and thus received an invitation, and which were not and were left by the wayside..

Maybe Lausanne III will be significant. I wish I could believe that. More likely, I suspect, it will go the way of Lausanne I and II: it will produce some inspiring documents, an interesting book or two, and perhaps give those fortunate enough to have been present a vision of the kingdom which may last for a few months or maybe a year. It certainly will not have any impact at local level: it does not have the mechanisms attached to it to do so.  Thus, for most of us, life will go on as normal, in all of its boring, mundane routine: we will ensure that the gospel is faithfully preached week by week from our pulpits, we will attempt to apply God's word to the routine pastoral problems of our congregations, we will seek to reach out to the community where God has placed us, and we will, in these straitened times, strive to meet our modest budgets. In this context, a context very familiar to most Christians, some of us will wonder if the money and time spent in Cape Town might not have given a better return if invested elsewhere.