Protestant sectarianism and emerging church…

The history of Protestantism is littered with division and conflict.

Reformation of what has already been reformed.

Schisms of schisms.

Battles over whose truth is truer and whose understanding of scripture is most enlightened.

The legacy of these truth wars can be seen in the countless Protestant descriptive labels/denominations. Here are but a few as they occur to me;

Lutherans, Wesleyans, Reformed Weslyans, Methodists, Free Methodists, Primative Methodists, Baptists, Southern Baptists, Reformed, United Reformed, Assemblies of God, Anglican, Church of Scotland, Episcopal, Quaker, Shaker, Amish, Menonite, etc etc.

This list is in part a noble one. We have learned much from the men and women of God who have celebrated faith within these organisations. Such variety speaks of the freedom that people felt to follow after God in the way they understood him, away from the central powerful control of older forms of religion. It also is a story of fervency, of revival, of movements of the Spirit across whole communities, of great leaders who were bold and true.

But there is a dark side, measured by truth promoted over love and grace, and in a serial fracturing of the unity of the Spirit. Such division can be seismic in terms of the violence done to community in the name of Jesus.

I wonder if this kind of spiritual development can become addictive and even infectious. Almost as if all new Protestant church movements carry a destructive gene within their DNA…

Scotland has had more than a fair share of this splintering and fragmenting. Take the recent very public difficulties seen in the Free Church of Scotland, which splintered as recently as 2000.

I have used this picture before- taken in a small West of Scotland town about 7-8 years ago. Two churches so close that they are almost touching- but separated by a chasm of doctrine. I should add the proviso that I do not know either of these churches, and the image may miscommunicate entirely. But I think it makes a valid point about a certain characteristic of Protestantism…


How did we come to this, we followers of Jesus?

How did Agents of the Kingdom of God, sent out into a broken world to form revolutionary cells characterised by love, somehow sign up instead to be driven towards such segregated exclusivity?

Is this more about psychology than it is about theology? Our tendency to seek a point of expansion and accomplishment, and to measure it against others around us- elevating ourselves by finding others wanting.

I wrote this poem in an attempt to understand these things in myself-


We meet and move about one another
Probing, exploring borders
Presenting our petition
And revealing this badge of office-
Sewn on sleeves whilst our hearts stay hidden
Revealing carefully edited glimpses
Of whom we want to be
But are not yet.

Then begins the measuring
Of the size of armies
The bore of canon
And the reach of your rockets
As we carefully deploy our camouflaged troops
To occupy the high ground
To hide uncertainty behind
A cloak of accomplishment
And capability.

Sometimes it seems that who I am is only revealed
In understanding what you are not
In seeing you
And finding you wanting
In mapping out your strongholds
And avoiding them
And raising up my tattered flag
Above this uncomfortable alliance.

Why is this important now?

Because I think that this is a real challenge to those of us who are part of the ’emerging church’ discussion, particularly here in Scotland. Some questions-

Is ’emerging church’ just another Protestant reformation- another fractious denomination in the storming and the forming- throwing stones at those whose truth is not our truth, looking around and finding others wanting.

Or are we a break from modernist Protestantism- a more generous, open, embracing movement that seeks unity, not uniformity and is willing to learn humility and to value the other.

Are we Protestant at all? Where are the emerging Catholics?

If something new and hopeful continues to emerge, in all its flawed beauty- how do we(or even SHOULD we) nurture and sustain whatever we become without following a familiar pattern of splinter and schism?

From my point of view, the story is mixed.

Emerging church has no form and no structure- at least in Scotland. It is not a descriptive definition of any way of doing church- rather it is a loose affiliation of malcontents and hopefuls, defining themselves rather by the fact that they are prepared to question and seek.

And because we are human, friction is inevitable. People compete for prominence, and justify themselves by the rightness of their cause, or the small success of their activity.

But brothers and sisters- I find myself longing for something else. Something a little more of the Kingdom, and a lot less of the Empire.

Something characterised by tolerance and love. (Even as I am intolerant and unloving.)

On forgiveness rather than defensiveness. (Even as I defend and find it hard to forgive.)

Of a willingness to enjoy one another without the need to compete. (Even as my own insecurity drives me to do the opposite.)

And a determination to see community as the origin and the means for all things- with one another and with Jesus. And that the quality of these interactions should become the measure of our success. (Even with my own history of broken community, and the wounds I carry because of this.)

This is the church I long to see emerging.

I have not desire to be part of another schism.

Nicolosi and the ‘cure’ for gay people…


There was an interview/discussion on the radio 4 Today Programme this morning featuring the controversial American psychologist Joseph Nicolosi. You can listen again here.

This man appears to have a lot of exposure in the US- and I started a bit of internet searching to see what I could find out about him. Here is a bit of a trawl through some of the main organisations and players in this issue;

He is one of the brains behind NARTH- the National Association for research and therapy of  homosexuality. Check out the many stories on the site by people who appear to have been ‘cured’ of their sexuality.

Conservative religious groups like focus on the family have embraced this viewpoint wholeheartedly. Check out their ‘Love won out’ conference.

The American Psychological Association condemned the findings, and released this primer entitled ‘Just the facts’.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists are quoted as saying this by the BBC here.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) said there was no evidence that the treatment worked, and that it was likely to cause considerable distress.

An RCP spokesman said: “There is no sound scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.

“Furthermore, so-called treatments of homosexuality create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.”

The Royal College said the American Psychiatric Association had concluded there was no scientific evidence that homosexuality was a disorder and removed it from its diagnostic glossary of mental disorders in 1973.

The World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases followed suit in 1992.

So what is Nicolosi actually saying?

As far as I can see, his theory is based on a rather unsophisticated simplistic view of the acquisition of gender, shaped through parenting style and in particular, interaction with male authority figures. Then there is a lot of quasi-scientific language used to wrap it all up in. Here are some quotes (from here);

  • There is no such thing as a homosexual. … That’s the first thing we teach our clients when they come in. You’re not a homosexual. You’re a heterosexual with a homosexual problem. And your homosexual problem has to do with early things… things that happened to you in your childhood. Emotional traumas, hurts, childhood wounds that have set you up for homosexual activity.
  • In the relationship between the mother and the son, over-emotionally involved, strong personality, dominant personality. The father is quiet, withdrawn, non-verbal, non-expressive, and/or hostile. The son is temperamentally sensitive, shy, introverted, artistic, imaginative. … That child with that temperament in a particular family dynamic will set him up gender deficit, and that gender deficit becomes compensated through homosexual activity.
  • We advise fathers, if you don’t hug your sons, some other man will.
  • If he reaches out to the father who is not interested, he will experience what we call a narcissistic hurt. … And so he surrenders his masculine strivings. He says basically to his father, “If you’re not interested in me, I’m not interested in you.” … And that narcissistic injury produces an adult, a homosexually-oriented adult, who is cautious, fearful, easily hurt, easily slighted, easily offended, self-protective – that is what we call the shame posture. If men get to see me they’re not going to like me. There’s something inferior about me.
  • Homosexuality is not about sex, it’s about your sense of self. If you change your sense of self, your homosexuality will become a non-issue. Homosexuality is a masculine inferiority. It’s a striving to connect.
  • So the faith is a very important dimension to bring in because it gives not only direction, but because it gives the interior resources. It gives that inner power to pursue the direction. So our Christianity isn’t just telling us what to do, but it’s giving us the power to do it. And I have found that whatever the person’s religious convictions are at the beginning of therapy, it usually deepens naturally in the course of therapy.

By way of contrast- I came across this series of clips from a Gay activist who had been invited to attend the ‘Love won out’ conference. They seemed to be very graceful…

There is no surprise that Nicolosi’s message has been greeted with such enthusiasm by Conservative Christians. It ticks all the right boxes. In fact, it seems to fit rather too well, and we have to ask which came first-the ‘science’ or the ideology?

So, what do I think? I am going to make some general statements, then tell a story.

If Nicolosi is right, then homosexuality is indeed a result of dysfunctional experiences in early life. I am afraid this is rather too simplistic for me. Why do people who have the same experience in childhood (Positive or negative) develop such different sexuality? Most human characteristics develop through the interaction between both nurture AND nature. This means that causality is almost always impossible to be categorical about, even where dysfunction (which is often a social value judgment) is agreed upon- for example where people are mentally ill.

Science that begins with a narrow ideological/theological perspective is likely to be extremely problematic. Morality is not usually very scientific. But then science is never value free either- there are always interests that will introduce bias. I think we have a duty to be as honest as we can be about these however.

It is clear that there are many stories of people who claim to have been ‘cured’ by therapy of their homosexuality. I have no doubt this is true for some- as the variety of human experience is wide and wonderful. I would expect some to people to remain straight (a small group though) most to revert, and many to be damaged and disillusioned.

Gay=dysfunction? This is almost certain to perpetuate prejudice against one group of people. Perhaps this is acceptable, if your reading of the Bible allows you to draw hard lines on this issue. I think we are called to love first however- and to stand with the oppressed, not to pile stones as projectiles.

Statements that equate homosexuality with sexual molestation in childhood are simply not supported by evidence.

Blaming parents? An easy hit. Psycho-dynamic therapists have done similar things for lots of issues. There was this dreadful phrase ‘schizophrenogenic mothers’ who were supposedly the cause of schizophrenia…

Now- the story.

I used to work in a northern English town as a mental health therapist running clinics in GP surgeries. GP’s would refer people to me for assessment after which we might agree a referral elsewhere, or a short run of therapy from myself.

In this context I met lots of wonderful people- most carrying wounds. Some had had very difficult and abusive backgrounds. Many had experienced depression and anxiety. Others were living with grief. Others had secrets that were eating away at them.

I met one man whose story stayed with me. He lived with his wife of 45 years. They had three children, all long grown up and gone. He was desperately unhappy.

Soon after marriage his secret was out. He had been having homosexual affairs.

With all his might he wished that these overwhelming sexual urges that he had experienced as long as he could remember would just go away. And it being the 1960’s, and homosexuality was still illegal, and classified as a mental illness, he sought treatment.

A hospital in Manchester offered behavioural modification through the application of aversion therapy. This involved being exposed to erotic images and at the first signs of sexual arousal, he was subjected to electric shocks.

Over a considerable period of time he yo-yo’ed through life, in out of his family, gay then straight, a member of his society, then a pariah.

Now here he was. Estranged from his children, still caught up with the same confusion and pain. His wife an alcoholic. Life almost over.

Wanting and waiting to die.

Whatever your theory of sexuality- whatever moral stance you adopt- this man life has been blighted by societies response to his sexuality.

So Lord help us. Let us learn the position of love. And have no agendas that we subject others to.

And for my money- Nicolosi, go home.

Is it possible that we overemphasised the Bible?


Emphasis is all.

I had a conversation tonight with my friend Nick. We were talking about some planning he was getting into for a programme of Bible study for young people. He was talking about the need to get into the basics of Christianity, and how many of the young people (and some of the older ones) had very little basic knowledge of the tenets of our faith.

I thought about this for a while, and genuinely wondered about what these tenets were- and what I would teach young people if I was in Nicks shoes.

The ’emerging’ conversation has shaken loose a lot of fixed positions for me. It has helped me see that a lot of the things I held to be basic building blocks for faith were perhaps not always so solid- but rather required robust examination. It made me wonder again about an approach to faith that started with one small group of people telling another larger one what it needed to know- facts and figures of faith that they needed to internalise in order to be a proper Christian.

In my discussion with Nick, I found myself making the following statement-

“I think we modern Christians made two particular mistakes in our attempts to engage with God.

  1. We overvalued the Bible- wanting it to provide for us a textbook that creates a Christian, in the same way that a blueprint could make a balsa wood model plane.
  2. We overvalued the need to get our doctrine sorted- the finding and adopting of correct positions in relation to all aspects of faith.

That is not to say that these things are not both wonderful and important- but simply that we over-emphasised them- making them perhaps the only way that Christians could discover God. In order to make this stick, we had to pretend that there was only one way to read and understand the words, and to suppress all less tangible and less ‘objective’ spirituality- rendering it untrustworthy and dangerous.

Sure, the Charismatic movement came along and added a whole new experiential encounter with the power and wonder of God, but ultimately, I would argue that the modern Protestant faith was grounded on the two points above.”

This statement is shot through with faultlines, but I think, on the whole, I stand by what I said.


If I am right (and many would strongly disagree!) does it matter?

Does it matter as we seek to engage with young people? Do they not just need to be given some basic truth before we get all post modern and mystical? Perhaps they do. Perhaps the trampoline bouncing that Rob Bell talks about as an image of theology can only really begin once we have set up the trampoline.

But alongside the importance of the written words of the Bible, and the need to establish doctrinal beginnings- I think I would gently suggest that the emergent conversation might challenge us to add in other emphases too. Because people of faith have always encountered God through many other means.

So I am convinced that rightness of doctrine is not the precursor to being acceptable to God. It may be a consequence of this, but as far as I can see, God seems to tolerate a fairly wide spectrum.

And the Bible is wonderful- but many have lived lives in the name of Christ but have never seen one- either because they could not read, or because the canon of scripture as we know it today simply did not exist, or because the Bible was not available to them.

So what other ways to encounter God should be emphasised?

Perhaps we can only start by looking back to the spirituality of pre-moderns, and use this as a set of goggles to consider our own culture. There is much there that we would reject, and count our blessings that we are this side of the reformation- but still…

We see people seeking to engage with God through living encounters– through hardship, pilgrimage and through community. We see lives of service and humility. We see the importance of shared ritual and engagement with God in the passing of seasons and in connection to every day experience.

So might we learn from this as we seek to encounter God in our new changing context? Might we learn again the vitality and meaningfulness of the mundane, and the wonder of small adventures in which the wind of the Spirit blows us into the path of all sorts of opportunities to be shaped and changed?

The Bible will continue to be a gift to our new generations. There will be others too.

Listing- book project…

I have finally finished my collection of poetry and prose which forms a new book called ‘Listing’. I have very much enjoyed the creation of this thing, but there is so much other stuff I need to be getting on with, so it is great to have it completed.

Next- the wilderness book with Nick, and this novel that may yet find some kind of shape.

This (might) be the cover photo, taken in Benmore Gardens by yours truly-


This book, which will be published through Proost and will hopefully be available in June/July. It is a collection of words-poems prose and meditation- based on some Biblical lists-

Ecclesiastes 3

Galatians 5

Matthew 5

1 Corinthians 13

Some of the poetry I have tried out first on this blog. Here is one more- if you like it, then please get hold of the book!

Now is the time to keep

There is a time for all things under heaven…

This Kingdom is always here
Always now
Held here in the hands of we
His failing followers

Standing on the shoulders
Of countless men and women of faith

Diggers of catacombs
Carvers of secret Kingdom symbols
Men making missionary journeys in hide skinned boats
And setting up carved crosses
Monks and nuns holding the world in prayer
Parchment gilders
Cathedral builders

So I take from you my fathers of faith
Grateful for the gifts you gave to me

For the canon of Scripture gathered and held precious
For those adventuring out with good news
For purifying zeal
For generous, graceful orthodoxy
For those planting a cross in the gutter
And those who consort with kings
For Bible teachers and interpreters
For a hundred synods
And a thousand million books
For people lit up in the fire of the Spirit
And others who seek the Lord in silence.

For Methodists and Catholics
Wesleyans and Quakers
House and Mega churchers
Baptists and Greek Orthodox
Each facet of a this precious thing
Called Church

And perhaps most of all
I stand in the sheltering shadow
Of people who stood between me
And a harsh prevailing wind
Who saw through the mess of me
Or chose to ignore it for a while
And shared with me the love that draws us
And meant it

All of these treasures
Handed down
To keep