Another day and another church scandal relating to an evangelical leader drops into the mainstream news. As with the recent abuse scandals, the Stephen Sizer case has been rumbling away within conservative evangelical circles especially on social media and blogs. Like with the other cases, the frustration felt by those who have been campaigning to have something happen is that they feel like their pleas for justice have been met with a wall of disinterest by the church establishment.
The case concerns Stephen Sizer, formerly the vicar of Christchurch Virginia Water. Sizer has written significantly on Israel and the Middle East. He has been a strong critic of the Israeli State but also of Christians who have supported the state due to particular forms of Christian Zionism such as dispensationalist theology which sees the literal restoration of Israel and a crucial end times event.
Sizer has claimed that his position is against Israel not the Jewish people and that anti-Zionism should be distinguished from antisemitism. However, as we’ve seen with the controversies around Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party, it isn’t a simple case of separating the two apart. Furthermore, as the Telegraph article observes, Sizer has promoted conspiracy theories such as the one that Israel were behind the 9-11 attacks. He, has also shared platforms with holocaust deniers.
So, why has there been silence on the matter? I think there seem to be three issues at hand. The first I’ve commented on before but it boils down to this. We don’t really talk about antisemitism. As people like David Baddiel in his book “Jews don’t count” have observed, antisemitism is seen as a lesser form of racism than others, if it is racism at all. Indeed, I’ve even heard people suggesting that there may be some truth there, that there does seem to be a correlation between Jewishness, wealth and power. This is true in wider society and that thinking can creep into the church.
If we are ready to be painfully honest, we need to recognise that racism itself simply hasn’t been taken as seriously as it should be. When I and others challenged a specific example of antisemitism a couple of years back we were written off as “woke lefties.” The liberal use of “woke” as a pejorative, the assumption that anyone concerned about racism and discrimination is a liberal leftiy (both politically and theologically) is concerning.
Part of this I believe is that people see the matter as too complex to untangle. Someone accused of antisemitism can claim to be simply making a political point against the state of Israel. It’s not racist against English people to criticise Boris Johnson and the Tories, so why can’t I denounce the Israeli state and people like Benjamin Netenyahu? So, once that claim is made, people back off.
Yet, just because someone mounts a defence does not mean that the defence is true. Our correct response to the defence should be to carefully check out the person’s claims. Nor should we treat antisemitism as less serious. Antisemitism is serious sin, it encourages people to believe lies through conspiracy theories. It encourages suspicion, self-pride and hatred. Its consequences are to create fear amongst Jewish people and throughout history has so often led to physical persecution and murder. The Holocaust is just one example of the horrors that antisemitism has brought.
The second issue is that I think our way of thinking and working as evangelicals has not been helpful, just as with other examples. What do I mean by this? Well my own background has been within the independent side of evangelicalism. There are lots of good things to say about independency, primarily that I believe it encourages a right focus on the local church as the place where the Gospel is preached, people are discipled and decisions are made. However, there can be risks with this. Independency should not, but can, lead to a kind of “you in your small corner and I in mine” mentality. I believe that there should also be a sense of interdependency.
What I think we’ve seen over the past 30 years through Gospel partnership as well as through the deterioration of traditional denominational structures is that evangelical Anglicans have taken on some, though not all aspects of independent church thinking and culture. I’m not sure that they’ve always taken the best bits. Instead, one of the worst aspects has crept in. There seems to be a “not my problem” attitude which makes it hard for those campaigning for justice and for victims to get the attention of those who have prominence.
This seems to extend to the point that even if a problem person has participated in, spoken at, written for events, been linked with organisations that we are linked with, we still distance ourselves from it. If sanction and/or discipline is necessary then it is for someone else to do. It’s helpful therefore to think carefully about how local church discipline works. Whilst yes, that local church is responsible for discipline within the church family, it is important that other churches recognise and act in line with that discipline.
Thirdly, I think we have a deficient theology of sin. Again, this isn’t a new observation on this blog. We tend to think purely in terms of sin where someone is themselves intentionally and maliciously seeking harm. So, if the person is able to claim that their intentions were good and that they did not knowingly, deliberately, maliciously seek harm then we let the matter drop. Yet, the Bible is clear that sin includes both high-handed/deliberate sin and sins of wandering (negligent, unintentional). What this means is that we cannot use the excuse “I did not mean to…” We have to take full responsibility for our thoughts, decisions and actions. So, what we see with Dr Sizer is that evangelical leaders such as Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford, concluded that his motives were not antisemitic but that through “poor judgement” he had allowed himself to be linked with and to promote such ideas.
We should not think of “poor-judgement” as an excuse that lets someone off the hook. Believers are responsible for their judgement, their discernment, especially when they have leadership responsibilities and public platforms. Just as reckless behaviour can be a criminal offense, so reckless decisions, words and actions that cause harm should be considered sinful too.
As the Telegraph reports, there are currently disciplinary proceedings underway against Dr Sizer, but he has already been sanctioned previously within the church of England. It is important that evangelical leaders are clear in naming antisemitism as sin in their response and that they don’t stay silent.