Friday, January 23, 2009

Feature: Interview with Michael Lawson, the new chair of CEEC

From Religious Intelligence:

Friday, 23rd January 2009. 10:32am

By: Toby Cohen.

For Anglican Evangelicals, 2008 ended badly. After a divisive consultation in November, the Church of England’s Evangelical Council (CEEC) chairman, Dr Richard Turnbull, quit, and an appropriate successor seemed hard to find. Now, after a unanimous vote by the CEEC, a new leader has been appointed to begin 2009 on a more promising note.

Feature: Interview with Michael Lawson, the new chair of CEEC

The Venerable Michael Lawson is the Archdeacon of Hampstead. He is also a composer and former concert pianist, a celebrated filmmaker and author, and the founder of a charity helping India’s Untouchables. And a Jew- at least to begin with.

“I grew up an agnostic Jew. My family had come from Poland and my Father changed his name from Levi. But I felt drawn again to that part of my heritage when I start learning and playing music.”

Michael started playing the piano when he was 11. By the age of 12 he was grade 8, by 14 he played his first recital on the BBC. He went on to train as a composer and conductor, in London and in France . At university, aged 22, he met a group of Christians, and life changed.

“They were wonderful people. They had me for meals, they talked to me, I was very impressed. At the time I was reading Sartre’s, Being and Nothingness. He says ‘It was meaningless that I was born. Meaningless that I live; and it will be meaningless when I die.

“Music had already shown me meaning, that there’s a truth and purpose in things, but I couldn’t work out intellectually how this fitted with Sartre’s persuasive pessimism. So I asked God to help me.”

Michael then read CS Lewis’ essay, The Weight of Glory, and through that found what he was looking for: “I believe in Christianity as I believe in the sun that rises. Because not only do I see it, but by it I see everything else.” Such was the power of Michael’s conversion, that six months later his mother had converted. Six months after her, his father also announced he’d become Christian after Michael gave him Oliver Barclay’s Reason for Faith, and his sister too became a Methodist preacher.

The story of Michael’s own conversion well illustrates what he feels Christians should be doing today. He feels the counter-cultural messages being spread by Evangelicals, for instance on issues of sexuality, will be better appreciated once the Church has impressed the world with the quality of lives transformed by God.

“It’s about earning the right to speak to the wider world, by exposing it to the wonderful work God is doing in the lives of people in our churches.” Luke’s mission-shaped church is his inspiration, as found in Acts 2: “There we see people who are visible, people who are prayerful, people who are obedient, people who are expectant of what God will do in their lives.”

Obedience to scripture is a central concern for Michael. “When you look at the Bible do you find a commandment to be obeyed or a principle to be explored?” This methodological approach he feels is important in discussions of issues such as same-sex unions or the inclusion of practicing homosexuals to the clergy. Though he is firm in his position, he believes the discussion of sexuality shouldn’t just be about homosexuality.

“We need to think about what God has given us sexuality for, and how this fits with relational issues today.”

Issues of sexuality have divided the communion, as they demand judgements on Biblical authority. Michael was at GAFCON, which he says was a wonderful loving event, and applauds their production of the Jerusalem Declaration.

When the fifth National Evangelical Anglican Consultation met on November 15, they were asked by CEEC to vote on whether they supported the declaration. This approach was deeply unpopular with some attendees who felt they were being forced into a more conservative line, and they rebelled against the vote. Within a month, Dr Turnbull resigned as chairman, although not for reasons associated with NEAC 5.

Michael describes him as “a brilliant, able leader, and a good friend.” However, the new CEEC chairman must be very aware of the need to do things differently if he is to avoid the stumbling block that meant Dr Turnbull’s departure was overshadowed with such acrimony.

For now, four days into the job, Michael is not making any definite announcements on how he will return to the issue, emphasising that decisions will need to be made by the whole of CEEC. He talks of the need for ‘debate’ and makes no mention of returning to the vote NEAC 5 rejected.

He, together with the rest of CEEC, voted to show his support for the Jerusalem Declaration on December 4, while also recognising “that evangelical Anglicans will pursue a variety of strategies for dealing with the current crisis in the Communion, and we support those who are seeking to work through the existing Anglican Communion structures, those who are working within the framework set out in the GAFCON Statement, and those supporting both.”

However, the Fulcrum Forum has issued a response saying they question “the wisdom of affirming the entire Jerusalem Statement” and “the wisdom of calling on the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates to give ‘immediate and serious consideration’ to granting recognition to the new province in North America .” Michael says he does not feel any need to persuade ‘open’ Evangelicals such as the Fulcrum Forum, of the wisdom of CEEC’s statement. He believes there should be a meeting of minds. “It’s for them to persuade me of their objections,” he says, before adding “but what’s important is that we listen, instead of rushing off and blogging about things, which has been destructive.”

The differences within the community are sure to be a prominent challenge facing Michael, but he looks forward to it, and discourages talk of separate camps. He does, begrudgingly, admit that CEEC is not entirely representative of the body it leads, but sympathises with the executive officer of CEEC, Canon Michael Walters, who said: “We have been going through a period in the history of evangelicalism where it is people of more conservative viewpoints who have been keen to put themselves forward to get involved in the discussion and debates.”

On whether there needs to be restructuring, to ensure a more representative leadership, he also prefers not to give definite answers yet. He continues to support the DEF system, although he says “the fact is some are working, some are not.”

Michael describes himself as a “born juggler”, and while he will need to be a multi-tasker as he continues to author works on social issues, crusade for the rights of India’s ‘untouchables’, and conduct his ministry, he will also be faced with complicated political judgements beyond the internal struggles of Evangelicals.

His theology may put him at odds with the man he has huge admiration for. While celebrating the great qualities of Dr Rowan Williams has as a person, in the role of Archbishop of Canterbury, he also recognises some of his statements may have “created difficulties for people who are struggling with sexual temptations.”

“Rowan’s theological method is reflective and in a sense poetic. It’s a valuable contribution to the discussion. But there is a distinction to be drawn between even the best kind of speculative theology and the leadership required of an Archbishop.”

So Michael embarks on a position which will involve a rigorous challenge not just to society, but also to the Church. He is aware of the work this will require from him: “I need to pray more, read the Bible more, ask God to enlarge my sympathies and increase my understanding and compassion for others.”

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