Are penguins who engage in homosexual acts sinning?
Why can’t brothers and sisters sleep together?
Why did God create evil?
What about the dinosaurs?
These were just some of the questions posed last night at our ‘Question Time’. Some of them, we were expecting. The gay penguins took us by surprise! (We may not have answered that to the questioner’s satisfaction. But could you?!)
For one night only, we took over the ballroom at the Bedford replete with stage lighting and a disco ball. Those expecting Argentinian Tango were disappointed. But we had quite a crowd, which was heartening. There were probably fewer numbers in total than we were hoping for, which was mildly disappointing. But there were more guests than we got last year, which was terrific.
I hosted the evening with my usual mixture of self-deprecating whimsy, gentle mockery and completely inappropriate interjections. The panellists were Andrew Nicholls, Leonie Mason and Nick Tucker (the last of whom took great delight at my personal discomfort at a badly chosen gag and the subsequent tumbleweed moment).
Andrew read medicine at the University of Cambridge and trained as a Doctor at St Bart’s. He then worked for UCCF, an organisation supporting and training Christian students in London. He started working for a church 15 years ago before training in theology and becoming a church minister in Kingston. We had him dealing with the ethics and science questions.
Leonie was quite simply the cleverest student when we studied together at theological college, which surprised us all given her background in selling handbags! (She had other jobs but they don’t help the gag) Those of us most threatened by her fearsome intellect spent our three years trying to copy her essays. For the past 10 years she’s been working on the St Helen’s Church staff team in the City of London. She helps train future church ministers and has responsibility for taking care of the women of that congregation. We got Leonie to deal with the lifestyle related questions and apologetic objections.
Nick is a University Lecturer, teaching in church history and doctrine at Oak Hill Theological College in north London. He trained as a Church Minister, completed his training on the Wirrall, in Lancashire and is now back south completing his PhD. He also worked for UCCF before becoming an Anglican Ordinand. Nick dealt with the more doctrinal and philosophical issues that arose.
We got them to tweet their essential summary of the good news of Christianity and then talk us through it. They each responded to a question pertinent to their area of experience and expertise as outlined above. And whilst the questions were being collected and collated we got them to give us their testimony of how they became a follower of Jesus Christ. And then we spent an hour ploughing our way through a wide variety of questions. We had some great questions on suffering, other religions, church involvement in politics and economics, historical and archaeological reliability and Jesus’ identity. Inevitably there were questions about science and evolution and their compatibility. And there were a few questions out of left field. We got through all but four. But we promised to finish at 9.3opm and so I was determined to honour that.
One great question was ‘what would qualify as a disproof for God?’ And I pressed the panellists to say what, if anything, would cause them to stop being a Christian. Andrew’s answer ‘Jesus’ body’ led to a useful discussion. We opened it up to the floor on one or two occasions but most people seemed happy to let their questions do the talking.
Andrew, Nick and Leonie did a great job. They were knowledgeable, thoughtful and careful. They worked well as a team; supplementing each other’s answers when appropriate. A couple of people said that it was a shame that they didn’t disagree more. But from the questions that they were asked and given their common conviction about biblical authority it was difficult to see where they would disagree. I guess some of the questions about politics and economics gave room for more manoeuvre than say the identity of Jesus, the existence of hell and the reliability of the resurrection. I’m not sure how I would have handled it if there had been disagreement. But I trusted them enough to respect each other’s position and allow for a difference of opinion where the Bible permits that.
But I was especially thrilled that each of them modelled the way to handle people’s questions. They remembered that dictum that we’re not simply trying to win the argument, we’re trying to win a person. What’s meant by that is that in our interactions with others we’re not simply trying to defeat the other person’s argument, we’re trying to win a hearing and through the persuasive presentation of our case we’re trying to win the person to our point of view. It’s not deceptive or underhand. It’s just recognising the human relational component in the way we respond to those with whom we disagree. To help people engage it helps to take them and their issues seriously and to treat them with respect. They did that.
Last night was a good night for the gospel. We’ll definitely do it again at some stage. It’s great way to allow people to ask questions and hear intelligent biblically based answers from those who have the requisite nous to respond in a way that’s clear and helpful. The mission week is in full swing!