To echo leading atheist Sam Harris: God is not a moderate

Minister for All Saints', Belfast, Trevor Johnston
Minister for All Saints', Belfast, Trevor Johnston

At a friend’s installation in a Presbyterian chapel, the words “not to refuse light from any quarter” jolted me like a crack of thunder from that drowsiness which descends during long liturgical formalities.

As a Church of Ireland clergyman – often chided by my Presbyterian friends for being ‘on the dark side’, as they refer to my Anglicanism – these words piqued my curiosity.

What do they mean? When were they written? Why does such a thing, at such a point, in such a ceremony seem so odd?

Widely reported, there is a call for a church-wide discussion on same-sex relationships within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI).

During the week a group called the Creative Conversations Group published a letter, signed by over 600 people, calling for discussions on same-sex marriage.

Perhaps, it is suggested, they are seeking unexplored light from uncharted quarters.

Centuries ago these words functioned as a rallying cry to the ‘dissenter’.

The debates then were about bishops, monarchs and the autonomy of the Church – where no man’s conscience should be bound by another’s.

Today, the issues are of a different kind. Instead, they’re about authority and whether the Bible actively rules the church. Back then, they related to temporal concerns which do not impact the soul, just the conscience.

Much is made of the language of tolerance and inclusion around differing interpretations of the Bible.

The charge from the Creative Conversations Group is that PCI “seems to be showing an increased judgmentalism, a lack of grace, and a loss of our inclusivity”.

Such language is all too familiar to this Anglican.

Its origins, however, owe more to civil rights and cultural Marxism than the Bible or historic Christian teaching. The church in the US and Canada first innovated on this.

All kinds of things became up for grabs – even who Christ is and what he did for humanity – each in the name of diversity.

Perhaps, some light can come from my particular quarter.

The necessary emergence of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference) – the global fellowship of confessing Anglicans – over a decade ago is evidence of where these kinds of discussion can lead.

It is a world-wide fellowship of support and mutual encouragement towards mission and faithfulness. Faithful Anglicans across the world now know that they’re not alone.

The language of tolerance around diverse and mutually exclusive interpretations of the Bible was used as a ruse to suggest that the church’s historic teaching was wrong, limited, and primitive, even. Those who held to it were described as narrow, excluding and intolerant – painted as the opposite of those who embrace inclusivity.

Another unlikely enlightening quarter is the new atheist and author, Sam Harris.

To those who seek a tolerance of divergent opinion under the same denominational roof, he (though an atheist) understands that this is an impossibility: “Religious moderation is theologically bankrupt.

“It is not like if we just read the books more closely we would discover all these reasons to [become] moderates.

“I’ve got news for you, I’ve read the books: God is not a moderate.”

• Rev Trevor Johnston is Minister of All Saints’ in south Belfast and a member of the council of GAFCON, which describes itself as “a global family of authentic Anglicans standing together to retain and restore the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion”