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Last Updated: Friday, 8 August, 2003, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Evangelical regret at gay bishop decision

By Ben Davies
BBC News Online

Standing up for a traditional Christian view of sexual morality nowadays requires someone who is not afraid to stick his head above the parapet.

But then if you grew up in a working class north London community in the 1960s and you were one of only a couple of black pupils during your entire time at school, you have to have a certain strength of character.

Add to that the fact that Joel Edwards - now the general director of the Evangelical Alliance - was openly religious, and you either have to start questioning the man's sanity or admire his courage.

The day we met, it had just emerged that US Episcopalians - the Anglican church in America - had appointed a practising homosexual, Reverend Gene Robinson, as bishop.

Joel Edwards
Edwards: Firm stance on morality
Shortly afterwards the Archbishop of Canterbury announced he was to hold a summit of all Anglican primates amid fears of a split in the church over gay ordination.

For his part Edwards says the row is far from welcome and he complains of the church's liberal-wing making an "incessant" push on the issue.

Edwards says the Bible is explicit on the issue of banning homosexual activity and that, really, is that.

But he insists just because his organisation takes that view does not mean they fit a right-wing reactionary stereotype.

Just because society has moved there is pressure for the church to catch-up with society
Joel Edwards
The Evangelical Alliance represents 3,000 local churches, many of them non-conformist and, Edwards argues, they reflect the politics of secular Britain but with a strong "traditionalist" Christian message.

However, he said: "I'm very saddened by a liberal push [over ordination of homosexuals] which has been fairly incessant for a long time.

"I don't think it's sinister, it comes out of conviction from that wing of the church.

"I'm very sad that it's led to this particular point. I'm very saddened that evangelicalism has been portrayed as a fundamentalist, reactionary body because it is teaching an historic, traditional Christian faith as we understand it."

Asked whether it is fair to condemn a large number of people to a solitary, sexless life, he contrasts the difficulties of being a Christian of homosexual orientation with abstaining from sex outside marriage.

Moral guidelines

Ultimately you abide by the rules or your faith is undermined, Edwards argues.

"Just because society has moved there is pressure for the church to catch-up with society.

"A crucial part of the Christian church ... is not to follow after the way the majority focus-group culture is going, but is to try to discern what has God said in this document [the Bible] that we believe is a revelation of the designer's wishes.

My recollection of my mother growing up in those years was of someone who had three jobs
Joel Edwards
"I sometimes wonder too - and there is no empirical evidence for this - if the increasing dislocation of what we sometimes call 'traditional values' has anything to do with increasing disfunctioning in our communities in terms of family break-up, in terms of the number of counts of sexually transmitted diseases, in terms of single parenting, in terms of the knock on effect on housing, the knock on effect of unemployment, the knock-on effect of overcrowding in our prisons?

"Is there a corollary I wonder between the dislocation from these traditional values, and the culture swinging along?"

Ironically, perhaps, Edwards himself was raised by a single mother - his father stayed in Jamaica when they moved to the UK in the 1960s.

It was her religious "faith and commitment" that seems to have been one of his great influences.

Three jobs

At age 92 - and "still going strong" - she sounds an incredible woman.

"I didn't fully appreciate until much later how those first Commonwealth immigrants fulfilled all the criteria of pioneers, and my recollection of my mother growing up in those years was of someone who had three jobs just to keep the family together - there were seven of us as children."

The Evangelical Alliance is engaged in a huge range of activities from promoting their viewpoint at government level to getting involved in their local communities at the grassroots.

Edwards is on a government steering group that aims to boost recognition of faith groups in policy development.

The Alliance has also recently published a document, called Hope for London, which details some of its projects aimed at tackling social needs and crime levels in local communities.

George W Bush
'The evangelical left is obscured by the right-wing', says Edwards
Look at their website and it is clear not only that the Alliance provides a voice for a vast range of different denominations but that it seems to be an extremely slick lobbying machine.

Edwards is wary of the word "lobby" in this kind of context because he fears people will read it and think of the political muscle of the religious right in the US.

He suggests that the voting patterns of his organisation probably reflect those of the wider British community.

In the US, he suggests, evangelicalism is "split down the political faultline" - there is also an evangelical left in America, he points out.

Religious left

"It doesn't help us when we have to convince people that evangelicalism is far more than a right-wing Republicanism, when you have a very strident president whose political actions and world view is so right-wing that it fails to take into account the political views of the evangelical left."

On the other hand, he says he is pleased that President George W Bush is open about his religion.

Speaking as a Christian leader anything the Hutton report can do to recover trust will be welcome
Joel Edwards
That brings to the mind the famous moment when BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman asked Tony Blair whether he and the US president prayed together.

The prime minister seemed not a little irritated by the question - despite the fact he is too a practising Christian.

"I think that Tony Blair was caught between the devil and deep blue sea and what you heard in that response - and I'm trying to interpret the man's behaviour - is a recognition that anyway he played it he was going to lose," said Edwards.

"Let's say he said 'absolutely not' he would have been pilloried and if he'd said 'absolutely, yes' he'd have still been pilloried."

Blair's 'conviction'

Edwards once preached to a congregation that included the prime minister, who he said "looked like a man of deep and meaningful convictions" as far as his faith was concerned.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair heard Edwards preach
"But if you look at his voting habits on certain of the moral issues that doesn't particularly reflect a strong Christian viewpoint."

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Edwards is worried by the way politics operates. He thinks that a politician should be able to say sorry if they make a mistake without everyone screaming that they are weak.

He also says that the apparent suicide of government weapons expert Dr David Kelly was a "low point" of public life.

"It's a salutary lesson over the need to recover trust in politics," he said.

"The whole debate, the whole damage to trust goes to show there are some missing values in society to recover.

"Speaking as a Christian leader, anything the Hutton report can do to recover trust will be welcome."

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