April 2020 | Vaughan Roberts
Vaughan nails his colours to the mast...
Shouty and aggressive? Single issue? Too sensitive for male pastors? Deflecting from the gospel?
(Conference 2020: Is abortion a gospel issue?)
Transcript | Is abortion a gospel issue?
Interview by Glen Scrivener with Vaughan Roberts
Glen | Could you introduce yourself and say a few words about the book you’ve just written?
Vaughan | Hi. I’m the rector of St Ebbes Church, an Anglican church in Oxford. I’ve been here for a number of years, and I'm a preacher teacher, and church minister. I've written a number of books. This is a book, mainly written by my colleague, Lizzie Ling, and I'm the co-author. I've done a number of books engaging with various topical issues and I said right from the beginning of the series, “We need a book on abortion.” I felt strongly that it needed to be a woman that wrote in, and I've ended up co-authoring. Lizzy who's on my staff, a colleague of mine, she was a GP for a number of years, so she has had a lot of experience, pastorally, medically, and she speaks theologically as well.
Glen | So you just said, “We need a book on abortion”, and I guess that is because in the UK there just isn't really a book devoted to the topic of abortion written from a Christian point of view. Is that right? I can think of many from the US, but it seems like hen's teeth for a UK Christian to be addressing this issue. Am I getting the sense of that right?
Vaughan | I think there are some things out there, but they're largely hidden and I can't think of very much at all. For me I first started engaging with the issue from John Stott’s ‘Issues Facing Christians Today’ which came out when I was a very young Christian, and that impacted me very deeply. Since then, there's not been a lot from the British. In many ways the Catholics put us to shame, but I can't think of much of a British evangelical position that's engaged with it.
Glen | Why do you think that is the case? Why is it? Because I think generally there's a tacit pro-life position that UK evangelicals take, but in terms of being vocal about it, the silence is deafening, wouldn’t you say?
Vaughan | I would. There are some magnificent exceptions, and I honour the work that some have been doing, but I think they would be in a very big minority, and there's not much. I think the voice of British evangelicals hasn't been strong. Why? One can only speculate. I think maybe sometimes people look across the Atlantic and think, “Oh some of the engagement from American evangelicals has been at least portrayed here as sometimes a bit single-issue, sometimes excessively shouty and aggressive. I think we only hear of course, one aspect of that engagement. So people think, “We don't want to do that.” I think there is the element that some people thinking, “Well, yes, this is an important issue, but it's so sensitive, and male pastors in particular are very nervous of just going there, because they feel they’re not quite qualified, it's going to come across all wrong. There’s the concern from some, “We don't want to be deflected from the gospel” and we hope someone will engage with it, but not me. So I think a whole variety of different reasons, but undoubtedly we haven't spoken about it as much as we should, as clearly as we should, and I really hope that will change.
Glen | Let me talk to you about two contexts that you are in at the moment. One context is: there you are in Oxford, ministering among students, and Oxford students can be incredibly left leaning. Even holding a debate on the topic of abortion can feel almost impossible, and there have been instances of things being shouted down and shut down and people being cancelled, and no-platformed and that sort of thing. So, is there some part of your evangelistic heart that feels, “I don't want to nail my colours to the mast, because it must be a difficult issue within Oxford to raise missionally. How do you feel now, nailing your colours to this mast and saying you're against abortion?
Vaughan | You’re certainly right about the context. In just the last few weeks Oxford's been declared to be the most woke city in the UK. So, to take our view on abortion is just not an acceptable position, and although the world assumes there are those who take it, you're not allowed to state it, and certainly as a male you’re not allowed to state it. But is that something that’s held me back? To be honest, no. We don't want to be just talking about this, but I do believe these life issues are front-foot evangelistic issues. They get to the heart of the big issue, which is, “What is a human being?” And I think we need to be going there, evangelistically. Now, how we do it, of course, is very, very difficult, and we will be presented as saying things that are misogynistic, uncaring and so on. So we certainly have to think carefully about how do we do it. But I don't think this goes away from evangelism. I’m very strongly convinced that this, done in the right kind of way, is an important part of our evangelism.
Glen | How so? I'd love to hear more on that. You’ve used a cricketing analogy already, so for Dean and others from overseas, getting on the front foot means to play a more attacking shot. We'll draw some more analogies now. Getting on the front foot means being more positive, being more active, being not aggressive, but positive in your engagement. Surely when the issue of abortion comes up we are cast as these pariahs who are benighted and neanderthal in our views. How could it be a positive to raise the pro-life issue in an evangelistic setting?
Vaughan | I think our culture is conscious actually of being on shaky ground when it comes to anthropology and who we are as human beings. And that explains I think some of the passion with which views are - well I was going to say defended – well I don’t think they’re defending; you're just not allowed to even raise an alternative. I think that betrays a lack of confidence, and I long for Christians to be able to graciously, at least raise questions in people's minds. And interestingly, even here in Oxford it's a pretty small number that are shouting very loudly what we’re all meant to think. And then an awful lot of people in the middle, who may instinctively think, “Well, that might be right,” but may well have questions, and I want Christians to at least raise those questions in people's minds to say, “There’s another point of view.” So we don't want to respond in the same way as the world speaks, which is shouty and not allowing another point of view, but somehow to get into the discussion, and winsomely and graciously - and I recognise it's a real challenge when people don't allow that of you - to at least raise the question. Because I think a lot of people are asking those questions even if they don't think they're allowed to express them, and even admit them to themselves, but they are asking them. And I think that's bound to happen more and more, because the world's anthropology has no foundation. There is an assumption that human beings are special, but it has no foundation. So, this is one of the many areas where I think we just need to equip people, encourage people to go there with conviction and with some compassion.
Glen | That's fascinating. You talk about the shoutiness, and you could you could kind of draw a caricature of a pro-life, kind-of red state American who always vote a certain way, and you could characterise such a person as shouty, but as you've said, those who shout their own woke credentials could also be caricatured in that kind of way. So what hope is there for reasoned debate do you think?
Vaughan | It's very hard, but I think it happens relationally. And I'm hoping and assuming that Christians are engaging with non-Christian friends, family members, colleagues, and very often in that context it is much more possible to have a reasoned conversation. And we need to make sure we listen to other points of view, and hopefully people who know us will know that we're not just unthinkingly and unfeelingly spouting a harsh message. So we need to show that we get the complexity, we get the pain, and that there are real people engaged with this. And if we are genuine warm, human beings who show all that, then hopefully we can at least present another point of view. So, how we engage publicly, that's different. I think we need to do it, but most of these discussions are not on the big public fora, but are in private conversations, and I want to equip and encourage Christians to go there in that context, and is much less likely to be shouty when there's conversation with people we really know.
Glen | Right, and in those contexts you can raise those anthropology points that you're making about the uniqueness of humanity and these humanitarian points in really surprising ways. Certainly I find in my evangelism, that speaking about human rights for instance, gets you a very long way in terms of conversations, because it seems almost magical, this belief in the special status of mankind. And once you walk away from Jesus Christ, you have ever less reason to hold on to the special dignity of man and that sort of thing. And so how do we draw those two things together? How do we make the issue of abortion into a human rights issue or a humanitarian issue?
Vaughan | Well it all flows back to: what is the status of the baby in the womb? And essentially a Christian view is that that is a human being, it’s a human life with dignity and value. The world's view, if you're going to support abortion, you've got to say that either this is not a human person, or a human person doesn't have the right to life and to protection. And if you're going to say that that is conditional on reaching a certain stage of pregnancy, then you are saying human personality is conditional. It's conditional on reaching certain capacities. And if that goes before birth, surely it applies after birth. So does that mean that we can lose humanity and lose personality if we lose capacity? And that is a very, very shaky ground. So if you're going to say, actually, we want to protect human life outside the womb regardless of capacity, then that pushes back into the womb as well.
Glen | So in these personal conversations that we're having, we can say to you, “Why are you pro-life? Why would you possibly want to control women's bodies?” or whatever it is that's thrown at us. At that point we can say, “Because I believe what Dr. Seuss said: a person is a person no matter how small, and I want to stand up for the little guy, because my God became the little guy.”
Vaughan | Yeah, and then it becomes the justice issue. And certainly at Oxford, and I think generally across the younger generation there's an increasing concern for justice, and that's something I value greatly in the younger generation. And actually, we're not about some kind of impersonal, nasty bit of an old-fashioned dogma. We're about justice. We’re concerned for individual value, every single individual. So I think we need to somehow frame it in those terms.
Glen | So, we’re speaking about your context. One of one of the contexts, Vaughan Roberts, is the UK’s wokest city, Oxford. Another context for you, Vaughan Roberts is conservative evangelicalism. You're a minister with a high profile within certain circles of conservative reformed evangelical Christians in this country. We haven't done a stellar job though have we? We look back to John Stott, we look at ‘Issues Facing Christians Today’. But we haven't done a stellar job of standing up for the unborn from pulpits, and in terms of church leadership. Why do you think that is?
Vaughan | It's very hard to do. I think many commit to expository preaching, and as you go through the Bible there's no chapter that says, “This is just about abortion.” And there are a number of times when it could be one application, but it's very hard to give three sentences on it, that's very hard to do, because you want to speak with conviction, with clarity and compassion - you can't do that. So it doesn't naturally come up, or when it does, we think we’re going to do it so badly. So you have to think, “How can I do this?” That may well be something I've done occasionally, which would be a topical series, and have a sermon simply on it, or to be thinking, “Okay, let's do seminars and other contexts.” But because it's hard to do, it doesn't get done unless you really are convinced this has to happen. And I suppose at the end of the day, too many of us have felt, “I'm not sure it really has got to happen, or if it does, I just don't feel up to doing it.” So we need to help one another, steal each other in our conviction. We must go there. And we must help each other. And let's help each other to think, “How do we do this better?”
Glen | So make a case for it. Let's assume that there are many church leaders listening into this right now, and they are on the fence because they're thinking, “I don’t want to become the single issue person, I don't want to distract from the gospel, I don't want to speak insensitively as a man in this congregation, I don't want to upset people who might have had abortions in the past.” There are any number of reasons why we might not want to go there. Why is it worth it?
Vaughan | There are so many different answers to that question. But let’s just begin with talking to pastors, and straightaway we’re thinking about those in front of us, most of the Christian - well, straightaway there's a reason to go there, because if it's true that a very large proportion, tragically, of women in the UK, have had abortions, that isn't just true of those outside churches. There will be lots of people in our churches that had abortions, and in many cases this is something they very rarely feel able to talk about, and we need to pastor to them. And if we never go there, we're not pastoring to them. And when I, with great fear and trembling, first addressed this topic in a whole sermon, I was worried, because I knew that there would be some who would have had abortions. And made it clear, “Look, I'm going to touch on raw nerves.” so I was very worried about that. You know, I think every time I've done it, I’ve had feedback from someone who's had an abortion, directly or indirectly, and they are so grateful that I've gone there. By speaking about it hopefully with conviction, but also with gospel compassion, that is one way that the Holy Spirit uses the gospel to come into their lives and touch that part of them that - they don't want to go there, but the guilt is still there, the emotions are still there. So just pastorally we’ve got to go there. Now I'm not saying we're the only people who should do it. We need to equip women to speak to women on this subject, and speak to our churches, seminars and so on. But if the pastor never goes there, the impression can be given: “This is something I don't care about, and I don't see why you need to care about it.” Silence is not silent. It speaks volumes. I have begun to engage with the evangelistic thing, and the justice issue, but there’s much more that could be said.
Glen | It was striking when John Wyatt spoke at the very first Brephos conference, which was two conferences ago. And he said, there at All Souls, Langham Place, where he'd been been for many decades, he said he couldn't think of a child being born out of wedlock to the 20s and 30s group. There’s a very large 20s and 30s group there in central London, and he's not so naive as to think that children might not be conceived, even among ‘good Christians.’ What is the conclusion he drew from that? Because the subjects are not raised often enough people would rather clean up their problem by going to the clinic, rather than raise a child out of wedlock and admit their mistake, that actually their shame at single parenthood somehow trumped this issue of abortion. And what did John Wyatt conclude on that? Well, we’re just not teaching on this issue. We’re not raising it up among our own people, and the consequences of that could be dire. Vaughan, we need to draw stumps on this, but let me just ask you one question. The book Abortion that's coming out with the Good Book Company, what is your hope for this book and what is your hope for the kind of evangelicalism here in the UK as it starts to grapple with this issue?
Vaughan | Well, I'll answer the second question first. I just long that this becomes a subject that we equip one another to engage with, with conviction and compassion for the sake of our own folk partially, because of pain they are bearing, guilt they are bearing, to protect them in the future so if difficult circumstances come they know that this is a context in which “I can talk about these things, rather than feel I've got to engage in shame and silence.” And also I want people to be equipped to be engaging in our society, because this is the great shame and Christians need to be out there, engaging in our society. We're not going to do that unless we have that conviction which is flowing from a compassion gospel, passion, and I hope this book will play a part in that. There's an awful lot that needs to be done.