THE BISHOP of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, has described a statement put out on Monday by the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) as either “misunderstanding (wilful or otherwise) or total fabrication”. The statement addresses the separation of the Word Alive conference from Spring Harvest, which UCCF attributes to differing views on the atonement.
The disagreement revives the controversy over a book by the Revd Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister, entitled The Lost Message of Jesus, (Zondervan, 2003) (News, 15 October 2004), and the fierce debate over the understanding of the atonement that ensued from a talk by the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, which was broadcast in Holy Week on BBC Radio 4 (News, Letters, 13 April; Letters, 20 April).
The statement came as a response to the announcement of the separation of Spring Harvest, the UK’s biggest annual Evangelical conference, from its conservatively theological partner, Word Alive. This was presented at the Easter conference by Bishop Broadbent and the Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Revd Wallace Benn, as an amicable parting of the ways.
At the heart of the controversy over Mr Chalke’s views was his rejection of one understanding of penal substitutionary atonement as “a vengeful father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed”. He wrote: “The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith.”
His book was denounced by the principal-elect of Oak Hill College, the Revd Mike Ovey, and two of his students, Steve Jeffery and Andrew Sach, in a response, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution (IVP, 2007).
The debate on the atonement has also led to a response from the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, which has been published in full on the website of Fulcrum, the central Evangelical network. Dr Wright, who is critical of both Dr John and Mr Ovey, has also written in the Church Times this week.
Dr Wright says: “What has happened since the initial flurry of the debate about The Lost Message of Jesus has looked, frankly, like a witch-hunt, with people playing the guilt-by-association game: hands up anyone who likes Steve Chalke; right, now we know who the bad guys are.”
The Bishop finds the Oak Hill book “deeply, profoundly and disturbingly unbiblical”. He condemns it as “systematically misleading” in its “outright refusal to have anything seriously to do with the Gospels”.
In its statement about the split between Spring Harvest and Word Alive, UCCF says: “The Word Alive Committee, of which UCCF is a part, believed such views [on the atonement held by Mr Chalke] to be contrary to orthodox Bible teaching and as such, decided that the Revd Steve Chalke could not teach from a Word Alive platform.” It goes on to say that, in September 2006, Spring Harvest told the Word Alive committee that “as they would not include Steve Chalke, the 14-year old partnership was at an end”.
UCCF says: “Spring Harvest said they regretted they were putting a personality ahead of partnership. . . Our decision to allow only orthodox Christian teaching from Word Alive platforms, and Spring Harvest’s subsequent decision has caused enormous pain and regret. However, UCCF believes it can no longer work with those whose understanding of the gospel and the distinctive nature of the atonement is so different to theirs, and mainstream Evangelicals in the UK and across the world.”
The statement rebuts suggestions that women do not get a platform at Word Alive, either. It announces a new Word Alive event, to be organised jointly by UCCF and Keswick Ministries.
Bishop Broadbent described the reasons for Spring Harvest’s and Word Alive’s parting company as “perfectly normal”. He said on Tuesday: “They’re trying to make it a big issue over Steve Chalke, which isn’t true. He’s one factor among many.” In a later statement, he said: “It’s terribly sad that UCCF are now coming out with an official statement that simply isn’t true to what actually took place.
“I don’t want to get into a public row with UCCF, whose ministry among students I support. . . They seem to want to define themselves over against Spring Harvest, which I regret. We stand for the same faith and the same gospel.”
The original statement put out last year by the three partners, Spring Harvest, Keswick Ministries, and Word Alive, says: “Of late, it has been difficult to accommodate Word Alive as a separate week within the total mix, and after much discussion, the Spring Harvest Council of Management gave notice that Spring Harvest Word Alive could not continue beyond this year.”
Various people had since attempted to “spin” the reasons for the separation, said Bishop Broadbent. “Wallace Benn and I stood on a public platform at Spring Harvest Word Alive, wished our respective events well, prayed for each other, and departed on the best of terms.
“[A] blog has already linked to the statement made jointly by Wallace Benn and myself on behalf of Spring Harvest Word Alive criticising Jeffrey John’s inflammatory stuff on the atonement. So there is no way that anyone can represent Spring Harvest as being anywhere other than the orthodox biblical stance on the atonement.”