Stephen Sizer is a former Anglican Vicar who only a few years back was a prominent figure within conservative evangelicalism. Sizer has a particular concern for Palestine and a while back wrote a book challenging the kind of end time fundamentalism, sometimes also referred to as “Christian Zionism” which puts a strong focus on the idea that Biblical prophesy requires a restoration of the physical nation of Israel to the land.
Over the years, Sizer became increasingly associated with some more lurid conspiracy theories about Israel and a number of people raised complaints about antisemitism from him. This week, a Church of England disciplinary tribunal (a CDM) ruled that Sizer had in fact engaged in antisemitism.
This prompted my friend Steve Kneale to post the following searching questions on Twitter.
I know that in one respect, the questions are ones that intentionally defy answer. The point Steve is making is that we got into a situation that was unjustifiable and inexcusable. It is to conservative evangelicalism’s shame that we failed to deal with the scourge of antisemitism. It is worth saying that this does not only apply to the Sizer case. At the same time, Adam Thomas and I also raised concerns of other examples including antisemitic tropes appearing in a highly lauded book. Our concerns were not treated at all seriously by the publisher and in fact, we were pretty much accused by them of just being left-wing grumblers. So, our immediate response as a constituency should be to pause and to repent.
However, I do wonder if making an attempt to answer Steve’s questions may help us to consider where there may be some systemic problems that need addressing for the future. So, here goes.
A failure to have proper church discipline
My first answer would be that there is a messy and confusing approach to church discipline among conservative evangelicals. Some have such a lax church polity and low view of church membership that church discipline is utterly impossible. Being disciplined along 1 Corinthians 5 lines would make no difference and in any case churches are reluctant to for fear of being seen to lack grace.
Evangelicals in denominations have relied upon the denomination’s processes. These are often slow and bureaucratic. They also enable individuals and churches to distance themselves from the matter and in mixed denominations they may be in the hands of people who don’t even know Jesus or have seriously questionable theological convictions.
Incidentally, the Church of England processes are so awful and have been used in a way that has targeted innocent victims that I would not be surprised if Sizer and his allies simply respond now by questioning the process.
Meanwhile, too often, I think the default response of independent evangelicals is that they have no control over what happens in other local churches. My response to this is that whilst discipline should happen in the local church, we have a duty to recognise and agree with that discipline. When a church fails to discipline sin and false teaching, then it should affect our fellowship with that church.
Secondly, I think within evangelicalism generally, we’ve seen a tendency towards misplaced loyalty. We want to be faithful to friends. This has often led to a sense of matiness continuing where deeply inappropriate and where friendship and loyalty was never reciprocated. How often did people in senior leadership keep referring to Steve Chalke as “my good friend” even as his move into false teaching was causing great harm to vulnerable sheep? Why is there a continuing failure to truly deal with the toxic poison of Douglas Wilson and Federal Visionism?
A reluctance to speak and a thinness in our public theology
Steve asks why there has been so much silence on Sizer, when it has been far easier to get evangelicals to speak up on other issues and other examples of racism. However, I am not sure that conservative evangelicals have readily spoken up on this or indeed on matters of serious abuse.
Now, perhaps some of us have been too quick to speak and not everything that pours out on blogs an twitter is helpful. However, I would want to gently suggest that some have gone to the other extreme and said far too little.
I think this reflects a thinness in our public theology. The argument for staying silent on this or that matter is that our focus is on preaching the Gospel. The Gospel should rightly be central but it does apply to all of life.
A scatter gun approach to challenging sin and wrong doing
I hope that those who have been involved in campaigning for justice here don’t mind but there is one area where those who have spoken up might need to be challenged as well. Over the years I’ve advised people who have had a just grievance on how to approach it. This has included people with employment issues, benefit claims and asylum cases. Often the mistake people make is a failure to remain sharply focused on the specific issue that is the problem and on which the case will be won or lost. There’s an assumption that decisions will be based on the length of the case/number of points raised. I explain that you need to very quickly get to the heart of the matter.
Looking at the Sizer case, I think I’ve spotted two examples of where this might have happened better. First, there is a lot of upset and grievance generally within the conservative evangelical constituency. The result is that at times it seemed that some prominent leaders could do no right. Lots of niggles and complaints and allegations were thrown around and amplified without any checks on their veracity. The result was, I believe, that things looked personal.
Secondly, have a look at this part of the ruling shared by James Mendelsohn.
People have focused on the specific areas where Sizer was found guilty. Yet, on a number of the charges, the Tribunal concluded that he had not acted in an antisemitic manner. Rather than adding weight to the main case, those charges in fact distracted from it. It was easier for Sizer to hide behind the cover that he was simply a critic of the current Israeli State who was being silenced.
It is shameful that antisemitism has been allowed to get embedded in so close to the mainstream of political and national life. It is more shameful that this evil went unanswered from within the church for too long. I hope that those who have been silent will now speak. I hope there will be proper recognition of failure.
It is also important that we recognise that there are changes we all need to make, to do things better if we are to avoid similar failings in the future.
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