Many Christians, whether from Wales, England, or further afield, have happy memories of the Evangelical Movement of Wales (EMW)’s Aber Conferences. The move online this August – branded as ‘Aberlite’ – led some to enjoy the main sessions instead of their midweek meetings.
The main speakers were Stephen Clark, Ian Parry, and Phil Swann. Swann reminded believers why, despite troubles like Covid, ‘we do not lose heart’ (2 Cor 4:1,16). He helpfully identified losing heart as often ‘a slow withdrawing from your commitment to the life of the fellowship …of commitment, of service.’ He pointed believer and unbeliever alike to Christ and eternal glory.
Aber draws its speakers from a range of theological persuasions. But its ‘Extratime’ seminars, aimed at 16-22 year olds, showed the extent of theological breadth its EMW organisers are prepared to platform. They had hundreds of views on YouTube and generated comment on social media.
The first of these seminars, ‘Living a Christian life in the age of pride’, was by Noddfa pastor John Furnell, who is on the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine. He outlined an utterly tragic story of a young man being fostered after a background of ‘horrific neglect’. While attending the church youth group, the teenager began identifying as a girl, and committed suicide about a year later. Furnell described the church leading an open-air funeral that concluded with pink balloons being released.
The viewer was left in no doubt about Furnell’s passion to reach out, build bridges and demonstrate Christian love. However, several of his statements raised questions regarding his teaching on the nature of sin, repentance, and sanctification. Furnell was the first person to whom the young man revealed his transgender desires. Furnell told the teenager that he ‘was very proud of him’. Encouraged by others (not Furnell), the boy began to identify as a girl. Furnell used both the boy’s new name and female pronouns. He stated that ‘as a church we had to accommodate in certain ways’.
In his seminar, Furnell seemed to divorce faith from repentance, stating that ‘being gay has nothing to do with it, our salvation is based on faith in Christ Jesus’. Evangelism was ‘not beating people with the sin-stick because of their current lifestyle choices. Friends, the LGBT+ debate is an issue of discipleship, not evangelism’. Furnell said that people’s problem is that they have a ‘God-shaped hole in their heart they are trying to fill’.
Furnell appeared to accept the cultural concept that our desires define our identity, using terms like sexual orientation. Furnell’s strong book recommendation was A War of Loves by David Bennett. Furnell stated: ‘David Bennett is a gay man who used to resent God for making him gay but has since realised that his homosexuality is a gift [word said with emphasis] that has been given to him where he can glorify God in ways that heterosexuals can’t.’ This raises the question: is our original sin God’s gift to us?
Furnell partly based his appeal for churches to be more accommodating to those with a LGBT+ background on statistics. He cited a 2016 ONS study to claim that 6.8% of the population identify as LGBTQ. However, the latest ONS figures (2018) show that 94.6% of the UK population overall identify as heterosexual or straight and only 2.2% identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Furnell also cited a 2017 Ipsos Mori poll to claim that 34% of Generation Z are LGBT+. This is slightly misleading because a mere 15% were either ‘equally attracted to both sexes’ or ‘only’ or ‘mostly’ attracted to the same sex and 80% were mostly or only attracted to the opposite sex.
Despite this, Furnell was undoubtedly correct to highlight the increasing need for churches to engage with those identifying as LGBTQ. In schools across the UK, pupils are being encouraged to think that being attracted to the opposite sex is only one of a wide range of options. As they undergo puberty, pupils are being told to look inwards to discern their own gender identity. Increasing numbers of schools have an LGBTQ group where young people are encouraged to understand feelings of not quite fitting in through the lenses of their sexuality and gender.
Often the youth Q&A session panel has featured the Aber main conference speaker. This year the panel was made up of Furnell and some others, and livestream only. Furnell expanded on his views of sanctification, stating that increasingly believers should love their Saviour more than they love their desires.
Another speaker left it up to people to come to their own position on women preaching. He also, while not favouring attending gay weddings, left it up to the individual to judge whether they could attend without compromising their conscience.
The second extra-time seminar, by Sam Liu, dealt with race. A significant portion was a Biblical-theological overview of the Scriptures highlighting diversity in the Trinity, in creation, and in God’s redemptive process.
Furnell’s seminar was on LGBTQ, which our culture celebrates, whereas Liu’s seminar was on race, which our culture condemns. This appeared to affect how they chose to speak about sin. On LGBTQ issues, Furnell was ambiguous and selective in speaking about sin. But on race issues, Liu was explicit and expansive, speaking about the sin of racism in ‘thought, word, behaviour and attitude’.
Despite acknowledging Wilberforce, Liu asked regarding the slave trade, ‘are we the baddies? . . . yes! . . . as the church.’ His specific supporting example was Pope Nicholas V’s actions in 1492, ‘when we would have been Catholics’. But is this true? Gatherings of converted people were found amongst the Waldensians in Italy, Hussites in Bohemia and Lollards in England. Furthermore, on the eve of the Reformation, papal authority was far from universally acknowledged in the institutional church itself.
Sometimes historians, even believing ones, fail to distinguish between the history of the institutional Catholic church and the history of the church of Jesus Christ. For those who want to use the lens of oppressors and oppressed, in 1492 Bible-believers like the Lollards were being oppressed by the papacy.
Liu urged his listeners to ask their churches not to use ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ as a tune (the Praise! hymnbook, for example, uses this tune). Liu said the tune was ‘loaded with baggage’. This fits with a Social Marxist historical narrative. Liu speaks elsewhere in these terms, for example referring to ‘micro-aggressions’ and calling for people to ‘allow space for those in the minority culture’. But the history of empire is complex. On the one hand there was economic exploitation and racism. On the other there were improvements in education, technology, and medical care – and the spread of the gospel.
Some were concerned that Liu’s statement ‘Genesis 1 & 2 gives us a poetic insight into the formation of all things’ fitted better with a figurative rather than a literal view of Genesis.
Also at Aberlite, an EMW talk was plugged where Roger Abbott would ‘present some alternative ways to demonstrate the gospel in the light of a pandemic disaster that concur with both good theology and good science that avoid the typical evangelistic apologetics of theodicy or nature’s curse’.
Abbott is from the Faraday Institute which propounds theistic evolution. Typical apologetics – that see natural disasters and diseases like Covid as the result of the fall – are used by those who, like the apostle Paul, hold to a literal fall. Do EMW view a literal creation, literal Adam, and literal fall preceding death and disease as essential doctrines? Those who have loved listening to Joel Beeke and Conrad Mbewe at recent conferences are understandably bemused. Do the talks by Furnell, Liu, and Abbott represent the theological trajectory of EMW?
Many UK evangelicals know and love people deeply involved in EMW. They want to be able to trust the messages given at their events, especially to young people, on issues like creation, original sin, and biblical sexuality. Scriptural clarity is most needed where the pressure to conform is most intense.
Commonly a conference talk, given by an engaging speaker, is more memorable than someone’s regular diet of Bible teaching. Young people are under unprecedented pressure to compromise with the culture on issues like sexual identity. They need biblical clarity. But the question is raised: why are speakers being given EMW platforms who propagate views like those mentioned?
Mark Thomas, General Secretary of EMW, responded: ‘We have reviewed the matters raised with us by ET and are confident that there was no intention to depart from a biblically faithful position on the issues addressed and we are considering how to address these issues more fully in the future. We encourage anyone who may be troubled by matters raised in the ET article, to contact us directly at [email protected]
‘Our desire has always been to honour our Lord Jesus Christ and serve his people in the gospel in Wales. Please pray with us that all we do may be God-glorifying, biblically faithful, pastorally sensitive, and practically helpful to God’s people in these rapidly changing and challenging days.’
After two weeks, Aber removed the Extratime seminars from their YouTube Channel. This may or may not suggest that some within EMW do have concerns with what was said.
For helpful resources on holding fast to biblical truth in areas of great pressure to compromise with the culture, see:
Stephen Lloyd: ‘Adam or death: which came first?’ – exclusive link for ET readers https://biblicalcreationtrust.org/chronological_creationism_a5-single.pdf
Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock: Sexuality and Identity Trilogy (See review)
Paul Smith is a full-time elder of Grace Baptist Church, Broadstairs, Kent, and a director of ET.