A way forward? Reflections on a new report from the United Methodist Church


At the end of July a report was issued by a commission of the United Methodist Church (hereafter the UMC) setting out possible ways forward for the church to enable it to overcome its present divisions on the issue of human sexuality.

This report will be of interest to Anglicans as an example of how Christians from another tradition are attempting to address the same divisions over sexuality that are being experienced within the Anglican Communion.

This post will introduce the UMC for the sake of those who are unfamiliar with it, explain the nature of the report and the proposals it contains and provide a theological assessment of what the report has to say and what Anglicans can learn from it.

What is the United Methodist Church?[1]

The United Methodist Church is an episcopally ordered church in the Methodist tradition. It was created in 1968 by the union of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

The UMC has 12.5 million members worldwide and is the largest member of the worldwide Methodist family of churches. In the United States the UMC has approximately 7 million members and is the third largest denomination (after the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention), the second largest Protestant denomination and the largest mainline Protestant denomination.

In line with Methodist tradition the UMC is organised in a series of Conferences consisting of both clergy and laity. The highest authority in the UMC is the worldwide General Conference. This normally meets every four years and is the only body that can officially speak for the UMC as a whole.

Subordinate to the General Conference there are the twelve Jurisdictional and Central Conferences. There are five Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States: Northeastern, Southeastern, North Central, South Central and Western. Outside the United States there are seven Central Conferences: Africa, Congo, West Africa, Central & Southern Europe, Germany, Northern Europe and the Philippines.

Like the General Conference, the Jurisdictional and Central Conferences meet every four years. Their main purpose is to elect and appoint the bishops of the UMC who serve episcopal areas consisting of one of more Annual Conferences.

The Annual Conference is the rough equivalent of an Anglican diocese. As its name suggests, an Annual Conference meets once a year. UMC clergy are ordained at the Annual Conference and they are members of their Annual Conference rather than any individual congregation. They are also appointed to a local church or other appointment by the bishop at the Annual Conference.

The Annual Conferences are divided into Districts, each of which is served by a District Superintendent and which are made up of a number of local churches.

The law and doctrine of the UMC are contained in its Book of Discipline, which is binding across the UMC as a whole. This is published every four years to reflect decisions made by the General Conference.

Divisions over sexuality in the UMC[2]

Like other Christian churches, the UMC is divided over issues of human sexuality.

The UMC’s official position is conservative.

The Book of Discipline ‘affirms that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God’ and encourages United Methodists to be in ministry with and for all people. However, the UMC also affirms that sexual relations should take place ‘only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage’ and holds ‘the practice of homosexuality (to be) incompatible with Christian teaching.’

The UMC does not allow ‘self-avowed practicing homosexuals’ to be ordained or serve as ministers, supports ‘…laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman’ and prohibits unions between two people of the same sex, thus preventing UMC ministers and churches from performing same-sex marriages.

This position still has the support of many in the UMC. However, there are many who would like to see it change and in spite of the church’s official discipline there are serving UMC ministers who are openly gay or lesbian, United States Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences have ordained gay and lesbian ministers and elected a lesbian bishop, and UMC clergy have taken same sex weddings.

The Commission on a Way Forward

In the face of this division the General Conference of 2016 voted to approve a request from the Council of Bishops of the UMC to ‘pause for prayer’ and ‘form a commission to explore options that help maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.’

Following this vote the Council of Bishops formed the Commission on a Way Forward, inviting thirty two people (eight bishops, 13 other members of the clergy and 11 lay members) from all over the world who ‘identified on all sides of the issues’ to be part of it.

The Commission’s vision for its work was to:

‘…. design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. This unity will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.’[3]

The Commission began its work in January 2017 and its report was published on July 31 this year. On February 23-26 next year a special UMC General Conference will be held in St Louis Missouri which will consider a report from the Council of Bishops based on the Commission’s recommendations.

The frameworks for the Commission’s Recommendations

The recommendations of the Commission on the Way Forward are based on two frameworks.

The first is a fourfold ‘theological framework’ which runs as follows:

‘An Ecumenical Church [Acts 2; John 3; Genesis 1, 3]

United Methodists are part of the great ecumenical consensus expressed in the historic creeds of the

Christian faith: affirmations about the triune God, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the life giving ministry of the Holy Spirit, and inclusive of the marks of the church that remain before us as gift and task—one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The church is the community of people transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ so that personal and communal life manifests holiness by demonstrating love for God and their fellow human beings. We share with Christians across many communions, Eastern and Western, Protestant and Catholic, a commitment to the central role of scripture in forming and sustaining the church in doctrine and practice. We affirm the gracious work of God in creation, and the reality of the image of God in every human being, obscured by sin and alienation from God, but never utterly effaced.

Grace and Holiness [Romans 5, Mark 12]

As Wesleyans we are heirs of a distinctive account of grace, which is God’s pardon and God’s

empowerment in the whole journey of salvation. We believe in the universality of the call to repentance and return to God who is our life, and the universal reach of God’s Spirit which grants freedom and power to respond to that call. We affirm the free offer of unconditional pardoning love, along with the divine determination to transform and reclaim as God’s own individuals, along with the communities and institutions they inhabit. We understand the goal of salvation to be holiness, understood fundamentally as perfection in love toward God and neighbour, to be pursued in this life as well as consummated in the life to come.

Connection and Mission [Philippians 2, Matthew 28]

As the fruit of our history as a movement we affirm the communal and connected form of the church’s life, and bear witness to the social and relational character of growth in holiness through mutual support and mutual oversight. We lift up the centrality of practicing the means of grace as the essential nature of discipleship, that calls us to work out salvation trusting ever in the activity and power of the Holy Spirit. And finally, we understand the church is called into being for the sake of the world, to spread the good news of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ and to be a sign of God’s intention for peace, justice and flourishing for the whole creation. The church embodies God’s mission for the world through making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and is called into being for the sake of the world. 

A Convicted Humility [1 Corinthians 12-14]

We begin from the recognition that our members hold a wide range of positions regarding same sexrelations and operate out of sincerely held beliefs. They are convinced of the moral views they espouse, and seek to be faithful to what they see as the truth God calls the church to uphold. It remains the case that their views on this matter are distinctly different, and in some cases cannot be reconciled. We pray the exaggeration of our differences will not divide us. We also recognize and affirm that as United Methodists we hold in common many more fundamental theological commitments, commitments which bind us together despite our real differences. These also have implications for how we understand and express our disagreements, and for what we do about them. Therefore, we seek to advocate a stance we have called convicted humility. This is an attitude which combines honesty about the differing convictions which divide us with humility about the way in which each of our views may stand in need of correction. It also involves humble repentance for all the ways in which we have spoken and acted as those seeking to win a fight rather than those called to discern the shape of faithfulness together. In that spirit, we wish to lift up the shared core commitments which define the Wesleyan movement, and ground our search for wisdom and holiness.’[4]

The second framework is a ‘missional framework’ which affirms ‘unity in mission’ and then sets out what unity in mission requires:

‘Unity in Mission


▶ The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This mission begins with and belongs to God. The church and humans do not own or control mission. God’s mission reconciles individuals to God and each other through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, heals the brokenness of individuals and the world, and restores individuals and the world to God’s intended fullness for creation.

▶ The church exists to bring people to a saving knowledge of God through Christ, make and develop Christian disciples, worship the Triune God, and partner in God’s mission in the world. The church must be in mission to be fully the church. Mission is a shared responsibility of laity and clergy.

▶ Mission is incarnational. God’s mission always happens in specific times and places. Thus, it looks different in different contexts. It works through individuals’ and groups’ cultures, social systems, and senses of identity, even when it seeks to reconcile, heal, and restore them.

▶ Mission goes beyond the activity of any one group of Christians. All Christians everywhere are participants in God’s mission. All people everywhere, including all Christians, need God’s mission of reconciliation, healing, and restoration.

▶ While all United Methodists participate in the church’s mission, not all participate in the same way. The Holy Spirit gives distinctive gives and passions for mission. United Methodists as a tradition have distinctive gifts and passions while our sub-groups and members also have their own distinctive gifts and passions. We have historically been organized to support mission in all places and contexts.

To be unified in mission requires:

▶ Faithfulness. We will continue to practice shared ministry, conferencing, itinerant ministry, and general superintendency, not for their own sake but to be faithful to God’s mission.

▶ Humility. We will practice our faithfulness with humility, knowing that our understanding of God’s mission is always partial.

▶ Contextuality. We will practice our distinctive United Methodist ways of being church differently in different contexts, even as we seek agreement on their meaning.

▶ Creativity. We will experiment with new forms of mission and polity to support missional engagement with ever- changing contexts.

▶ Flexibility. We will be flexible in how we understand and practice being church to support creative experiments in United Methodism.

▶ Mutuality. We will recognize all contextual adaptations and creative expressions as valid expressions of United Methodism. No one expression is normative for all others.

▶ Generosity. We will encourage each other in the generous use of our distinctive gifts and passions for the sake of God’s mission.’ [5]

Three possible ways forward for the UMC

In the light of these frameworks the report suggests three possible ways forward for the UMC.

  • The One Church Plan

The first, called the One Church Plan, is the one that has been endorsed by the UMC’s Council of Bishops.

Under this plan the Book of Discipline would be amended to allow, but not require, UMC clergy to perform same-sex weddings in countries where these are legal, and to allow, but not require, Annual Conferences to ordain LGBTQ ministers.

Under this plan the report also proposes amending the Book of Discipline (at least as used in the United States) to delete the statement that the UMC ‘does not endorse the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching’ and to alter the statement on sexual ethics to say that sexual relations within ‘the covenant of monogamous marriage between two adults’ (the word ‘heterosexual’ being deleted before ‘marriage’). [6]

The report also suggests that if this plan were to be adopted the statement in the Book of Discipline on the church’s theological task should be amended by the addition of the following words: 

We agree that we are not of one mind regarding human sexuality. As we continue to faithfully explore issues of sexuality, we will honor the theological guidelines of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, acknowledging that God’s revelation of truth and God’s extension of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) may cause persons of good conscience to interpret and decide issues of sexuality differently. We also acknowledge that the Church is called through Christ to unity even amidst complexity. We affirm those who continue to maintain that the Scriptural witness does not condone the practice of homosexuality. We believe that their conscience should be protected in the church and throughout society under basic principles of religious liberty. We also affirm those who believe the witness of Scripture calls us to reconsider the teaching of the church with respect to monogamous homosexual relationships.’[7]

These amendments would apply only to the Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States. Central Conferences elsewhere in the world would have the authority to continue to uphold the approach contained in the present Book of Discipline or ‘adopt wording in these contexts that best serves their mission contexts.’

The report explains that the One Church Plan:

‘… honors the perspective of United Methodists who believe that our current impasse over marriage and ordination of homosexual persons does not rise to the level of a church dividing issue. Such persons are deeply convicted by and committed to the words of Jesus prayer for unity in John 17:20-26. Here Jesus prays, “that all of them may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (NRSV).’ [8]

With this perspective in mind the One Church Plan is designed to allow as much space as possible for different approaches to mission while continuing to maintain the current unity of the UMC:

‘The One Church Plan acknowledges that practices among vital churches need room to thrive depending on their mission field, and the necessary incarnational identification with those we seek to serve. The variety of answers to the question “Who is my neighbor?” determines how practices in one context will be different from another.

The Commission hears a yearning from both traditionalists and progressives for more space. More space means more structural distance from people who practice ministry differently or more autonomy to adapt practices to the context that may not be requested elsewhere. Traditionalists do not want to be required to participate in same-sex weddings, the ordination of gay persons, or the financial support of a bishop in a same- sex marriage. Progressives want space to freely exercise ministries that include same sex weddings, the ordination of gay persons, and the same-sex marriage of clergy. United Methodists in central conferences want space to shape conversations about sexuality according to their national context and without replicating whatever practices shape churches in the United States. Other United Methodists want to give space as generously as possible without compromising core identity and mission.

This desire for space is both a yearning for the necessary contextualization for missional vitality and a challenge to the unity of the church. Too much space challenges the unity of the church by risking

further separation of our connection. Little or no space will lead us to enforce uniformity in ways that could continue our impasse. The One Church Plan is built on the belief that it is possible to live with more space while we focus on our common mission.’ [9]

  • The Connectional Conference Plan

The second proposal, called The Connectional Conference Plan, would replace the current five geographically based Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States with ‘three values based connectional conferences.’

There would be a:

‘Traditional Connectional Conference, in which marriage shall continue to be defined asbetween one man and one woman, same-sex weddings cannot be performed, and those practicing homosexuality cannot be ordained, along with a covenantal commitment to a more traditional understanding of the doctrinal and moral standards of the church with enhanced accountability.’[10]

There would also be a: ‘Unity Connectional Conference, which acknowledges that members are not of one mind regarding biblical interpretations related to human sexuality, in which pastors are allowed but not required to perform same-sex weddings, annual conferences are allowed but not required to ordain those practicing homosexuality, local churches are allowed but not required to receive an LGBT person as pastor, and in which no bishop, pastor, or congregation is compelled to act against conscience in these matters.’[11]

Finally, there would be a:

‘Progressive Connectional Conference, in which same-sex weddings are performed by all clergy, all annual conferences ordain qualified LGBT persons, and all local churches welcome LGBT pastors who match the needs of the congregation and its ministry.’ [12]

Each of these three Conferences would cover the whole of the United States and Jurisdictional Conferences, Annual Conferences and local Methodist churches would have to decide which Conference they wanted to be part of. Outside the United States the existing Central Conferences would have the choice:

‘… of becoming their own connectional conference with the same powers as U.S. connectional conferences, or have the option of joining a U.S. connectional conference. U.S. connectional conferences joined by a central conference become a global instead of a U.S. connectional conference. Annual conferences that disagree with the decision of their central conference could vote to join a different connectional conference than their central conference. The central conferences in Africa could decide to unite in forming one African connectional conference (an option that is being discussed currently by African leadership).’ [13]

Under this plan the General Conference would be shortened, but would still have  ‘…authority over the shared doctrine and services of continuing general agencies.’ It would also ‘serve as a venue for connecting the connectional conferences, worship, sharing of best practices/learning, and inspiration.’ [14]

According to the report, what underlies this second plan is the recognition that the unity of the Church is threatened by ‘two interrelated but distinct dynamics.’

The first dynamic is ‘contextuality:’

‘… the church is called to embody and spread divine love in diverse social, cultural, economic, political, and national contexts. The way the church structures its life and engages in its mission is shaped by its dynamic relationship with these contexts. When one institutional church is present and witnessing in diverse contexts this witness will take different shapes leading to strain on the unity of the church, particularly when one group or context dominates the decision making processes. However, contextuality is vital to our mission and identity because love can only be embodied in relation to real people in concrete contexts.’[15]

The second dynamic is ‘freedom of conscience before God:’

‘Because we are fallen and fallible creatures our understanding of God and God’s purpose and will is always subject to mistakes and limitations. Christians sincerely seeking to love and serve God will come to different conclusions as to what God requires of them. Within a church people will have diverse and even contradictory understandings of the will of God. Our ultimate loyalty to God requires that we act in good conscience – that is, in accordance with what we are convinced is the will of God. Love for others requires that we do not coerce others to act against their consciences even when we are convinced that they are wrong.’ [16]

As the report sees it, the present conflict within the UMC over sexuality is a result of the ‘interaction of these dynamics’ :

‘The present conflict within the UMC over same gender marriage and ordination standards arises out of the interaction of these dynamics. Faithful Christians have come to different and contradictory understandings of God’s will in relationship to the affirmation of sexual relationships between people of the same gender. The UMC ministers in diverse socio-cultural and politico-legal contexts – these include contexts where homosexual relationships are criminal offenses punishable by death to places where same gender marriage is legal and religious or moral opposition to it is regarded as irrelevant.’[17]

The Connectional Conference Plan is designed to provide the UMC with a structure that will enable it embody and express God’s love and to remain in unity in the face of the pull towards division resulting from these dynamics:

‘The challenge before us is how to structure The United Methodist Church so that it embodies and spreads ‘the fire of heavenly love over all the earth’ given this diversity and contradiction in conviction and context. In the Connectional Conference Plan the different connectional conferences which could reflect both differences of conviction and/or context are expressions of love in the context of diversity and contradiction, while the uniting structures embody the desire to maintain as much unity and community as possible and to share resources in fulfilling our mission. Beyond this, staying together instead of dividing embodies the common core that we share.’[18]

  • The Traditionalist Plan

The third proposal, the Traditionalist Plan, is not presented in as much detail by the Commission as the other two because it received ‘modest support’ from the Council of Bishops and the members of the Commission and work on it was therefore discontinued. However, a request to include this model was received by the Commission from the Council of Bishops just before its last meeting in May 2018.

In the light of this request, a short sketch from the Commission outlining this third proposal is included in main body of the report. There is also an appendix giving further details about this proposal prepared ‘by a few members of the Council of Bishops.’

The summary of the Traditionalist Plan contained in the main body of the report is as follows:

Primary Action: Accountability to the current Book of Discipline language.

Disciplinary Language and Implications:

  • Broaden the definition of self-avowed practicing homosexual to include persons living in a same-sex marriage or civil union or persons who publicly state that they are practicing homosexuals.
  • Mandate that any just resolution shall include a commitment not to repeat the offense.
  • Require every annual conference to certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the     Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination.
  • Annual conferences that did not so certify would be encouraged to form something similar to an ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.’ As of 2021, annual conferences who could not so certify could no longer use the United Methodist name and logo, and they could no longer receive any funds from The United Methodist Church.
  • Require bishops (active and retired) to certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination. Active bishops who did not so certify would not be eligible to receive compensation for expenses as of 2021, and would be encouraged to join the ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church’ formed by the above annual conferences.
  • Local churches that disagreed with their annual conference’s decision to not enforce the Discipline’s standards could vote to remain with the UMC.
  • Local churches that disagreed with their annual conference’s decision to enforce the Discipline’s standards could vote to withdraw from the UMC and unite with the ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.’
  • Clergy who could not maintain the Discipline‘s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination would be encouraged to join the ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.’[19]

Put simply, what this means is that under this third proposal the current discipline of the UMC with regard to human sexuality would be maintained and enforced and those who were not able to accept it would be encouraged to form their own new church, which would not be part of the UMC, but would be in some form of ecumenical relationship with it.

The appendix on this proposal further explains that this proposal:

‘…. maintains the current stance of the church regarding the definition of marriage andthe ministry of and with LGBTQ persons. It flows from the presupposition that The United Methodist Church ought to have one unified moral stance on the issues of marriage and sexuality. This model continues to affirm that LGBTQ persons are welcome to attend worship services, participate in church programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows of membership become members of local churches.

At the same time, the Traditional Model acknowledges the deep conscientious objections on the part of some to the current stance and practices of the church. It accommodates those objections by fostering a gracious and respectful way for those persons who cannot live within the current boundaries of church practice to form or join self-governing bodies that allow them the freedom to follow their conscience and institute practices in keeping with their understanding of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Such a self-governing body could constitute a Wesleyan denomination that could maintain an ongoing connection with The United Methodist Church through a Concordat Agreement.’[20]

Echoing the emphasis on contextuality, freedom and mission elsewhere in the report, the appendix goes on to declare that:

‘The Traditional Model takes seriously the need for greater contextualization of our ministry. It provides clarity and freedom for different parts of our movement to embody our different theological emphases and values on the important questions of marriage and sexual behaviour. Given that the human sexuality disagreement is one of the most significant in American culture today, it is appropriate for there to be two different Wesleyan bodies who teach differently on the question of Christian marriage between same gender persons.

The unity of Christ’s church has, for the last 1000 years, taken different forms. There aredifferent types of unity and the Wesleyan movement itself is expressed in a variety of denominations many of which overlap geographically. We should see the formation of a new Wesleyan denomination as an opportunity for a different type of unity created for the sake of mission.’[21]

A theological assessment of the report

Given the very tight timetable under which the Commission was working, this report is an impressive piece of work.

It takes seriously the current divisions within the UMC and provides detailed proposals for possible ways forward that build on the current structures and disciplines of the UMC and seek to maintain as much unity as possible while allowing for appropriate contextual diversity for the sake of mission. It goes into copious detail about the legal amendments that would be needed for reach of the proposals and how matters such as pension arrangement would work.

Unlike similar reports from Anglican churches it does not assume that a ‘one church model’ is the only possible way forward and, albeit somewhat reluctantly, it includes proposals that would allow the UMC’s current discipline to be maintained and in fact strengthened. Unlike in many Anglican reports conservative concerns are taken seriously.

All this having been said, from a theological perspective there are a number of serious theological problems with the report and the proposals it contains.

The first problem, which emerges in the statement by the Commission about its vision for its work, is the way the report uses the concept of ‘contextual differentiation.’ What it means by this concept is allowing people the freedom to adopt different approaches to the issue of human sexuality in different contexts for the sake of the Church’s mission.

What the report never explains, however, is why it is the case that undertaking mission in different contexts may require different approaches to the issue of human sexuality. The historic Christian view point has been that what it means for humans to live rightly before God as sexual creatures is determined by God’s creation of the human race (as described in Genesis 1-2) and that for this reason there is one sexual ethic that applies to all human beings at all times and everywhere. The Commission seems to disagree with this historic approach, but it never says why its preferred approach, of allowing there to be different approaches to sexual ethics among different groups of people, is preferable.

What the report also fails to explain is what it thinks the limits of contextual differentiation should be. It declares that it wants to allow for ‘as much contextual differentiation as possible,‘ but it never spells what the limits of differentiation should be. The furthest the report proposes going is to say that the Christian sexual ethic requires sexual relations to be within marriage, but that marriage can be between two people of the same sex. However, it never says why the possibility of contextual differentiation should stop at that point. Why shouldn’t the Christian sexual ethic be extended to include polyamory, or extra-marital sexual relationships, if that is what is appropriate in particular cultural contexts? If the contextual adaptation of the Christian sexual ethic is appropriate then at what point does such adaptation cease to be appropriate and why? The report does not say.

A second and very similar problem is raised by the Commission’s suggestion that those in the UMC should ‘recognize all contextual adaptations and creative expressions as valid expressions of United Methodism.’ This is problematic because it seems to imply that anything anyone claims to be doing as a ‘contextual adaptation’ or ‘creative expression’ for the sake of mission has to be accepted as legitimate. This would mean accepting that Christian belief and practice are infinitely adaptable.

However, if Christian belief and practice were infinitely adaptable this would mean the concept of Christian belief and practice was meaningless. If any form of belief and practice could be called Christian then there would be nothing that was not Christian and so the term Christian would have no meaning. In addition, for something to be rightly called Christian there has to be some connection back to the teaching and practice of Jesus Christ and this puts limits on the forms of belief and practice that can be regarded as Christian. For these two reasons the report’s idea that all forms of contextual adaptation or creative expression should be accepted valid needs to be rejected.

This problem is not just a problem with what is said in a particular part of the Commission’s report. It is a problem with the argument of the report as whole. The reason the Commission suggests allowing some United Methodists to depart from the UMC’s current position of human sexuality is to allow for contextual adaptations for the sake of mission. However, unless all possible forms of adaptation are valid then the report has to spell out why the particular adaptations its proposals would make possible should be seen as valid. This it does not do.

A third problem, which again emerges in the Commission’s statement of its vision for its work, is the idea that the unity of Christians in the UMC, which the report seeks to promote, should be grounded not ‘in our conceptions of human sexuality’ but in ‘our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.’

The problem with this idea is that it suggests that affirmation of the Triune God who calls Christians to be a grace-filled and holy people can go alongside a range of different conceptions of human sexuality. The Christian tradition, however, challenges this suggestion. It has historically held that the Triune God has created human beings as men and women and has established marriage between one man and one woman as the sole legitimate context for sexual intercourse. As a result, living as grace-filled and holy people means living a life of chastity marked by sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual faithfulness within it. Affirming God and accepting the call to a chaste way of life necessarily go together.

The Commission seems to want to say that they do not need to go together, that is possible for Christians to affirm God while rejecting the call to chastity. What it again fails to explain is how this can be the case.

A fourth problem is with the selectivity of what the Commission says about the theological and missiological frameworks on which its proposals for a way forward for the UMC are based. These frameworks aim to set out what Methodists, as part of the wider Christian Church, have traditionally said about theology and the mission of the Church, but they ignore the fact that a particular anthropology, and a sexual ethic based on that anthropology, has been an integral part of Christian theology from the earliest days of the Church and that teaching people to live by this sexual by sexual ethic has been an integral part of Christian mission.

What the report never tells us is why these elements of Christian theology and the Christian practice of mission can be simply left out of the picture. The answer that the report seems to give is that they do not form part of the ‘core commitments’ of Christians in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. However, the report never explains what distinguishes these core commitments from the other things that Methodists have traditionally believed and practiced. and in the absence of such an explanation the exclusion of traditional of traditional Christian anthropology and the traditional Christian sexual ethic seems purely arbitrary, particularly given that the question of sexual ethics lies at the heart of what the Commission is discussing.

A fifth problem is with the Commission’s idea of ‘convicted humility.’ The problem here is that the Commission does not explore the important distinction between true and false humility. True humility lies in obeying St. Paul’s injunction that a Christian ‘is not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think’ (Romans 12:3). It means being honest about our importance (or lack of it) and about the limitations of our gifts, our holiness and our knowledge. False humility, on the other hand, consists in either pretending to be humble when we are not, or underplaying our importance and exaggerating our limitations.

It is this last point that is relevant to Commission’s notion of ‘convicted humility.’ As we have seen, what they advocate is that Methodists should exercise ‘humility about the way in which each of our views may stand in need of correction’ and that they should repent of ‘the ways in which we have spoken and acted as those seeking to win a fight rather than those called to discern the shape of faithfulness together.’ In terms of the debate about human sexuality what this approach would mean in practice would be those holding to traditional Christian teaching being willing to accept that their position might be wrong and therefore being willing to put this teaching to one side when thinking about what it might mean to live as a faithful Christian. They might legitimately hold on to their viewpoint as their position, but they should not insist that other Christians need to hold it as well.

From a traditional Christian perspective, however, adopting this approach would be a form of false humility. This is because the only way it would make sense for someone holding to traditional Christian teaching to take this approach would be for them to doubt the truthfulness of what they believe. They would have to be willing to accept that God might not have made it clear that sex should only take place within a marriage between one man and one woman. This is because if God has made this clear then there is no possibility of the traditional position being wrong and no justification for putting it to one side.

However, doubting the truthfulness of what one believes God has revealed is a form of false humility because it means unduly exaggerating the limitations of our knowledge of God’s will. If we believe God has made something clear to us then we have to accept that it is true and if what is true is true for everyone and not just for us (as in the case of the traditional Christian sexual ethic) then we need to be prepared to argue that everyone should accept it and live by it.

A sixth problem with the report is with its failure to offer any justification for the change in the UMC’s current teaching and practice envisaged under the One Church Plan. As we have seen, it is envisaged that under this proposal the UMC would change its statements on sexual ethics so as to accept homosexual activity in the context of same-sex marriage and would permit the celebration of same-sex marriages and the ordination of clergy in same-sex relationships. What the report does not explain is why such changes would be theologically justified.

The nearest the report gets to offering such a justification is when it claims that we should acknowledge ‘that God’s revelation of truth and God’s extension of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) may cause persons of good conscience to interpret and decide issues of sexuality differently.’ However the report does not go on to say why the fact that Jesus Christ was ‘full of grace and truth’ legitimates different views of sexuality.

A seventh problem is with the report’s statement that that the One Church Plan:

‘… honors the perspective of United Methodists who believe that our current impasse over marriage and ordination of homosexual persons does not rise to the level of a church dividing issue. Such persons are deeply convicted by and committed to the words of Jesus prayer for unity in John 17:20-26. Here Jesus prays, ‘that all of them may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ (NRSV).’

It may well be true that there are people in the UMC who are committed to the unity of the Church on the basis of Jesus’ words in John 17. However, this does not mean that they are right to claim that same-sex marriage and the ordination of those in same-sex relationships are not properly church dividing issues. To justify such a claim one would have to explain what constitutes a church dividing issue and why issues of human sexuality do not come into this category. Once again, the report fails to offer any such explanation.

An eighth problem is that the report fails to properly explain why under the Connectional Conference Plan the ‘Unity’ and ‘Progressive’ Connectional Conferences should be allowed to perform same-sex weddings and ordain those in same-sex relationships.

As before, the report refers to the importance of contextuality, but yet again it fails to explain why performing same-sex marriages and ordaining those in same sex relationships are legitimate contextual adaptations of the Christian tradition.

The report also refers to the importance of freedom of conscience. As we have seen, it declares:

‘Our ultimate loyalty to God requires that we act in good conscience – that is, in accordance with what we are convinced is the will of God. Love for others requires that we do not coerce others to act against their consciences even when we are convinced that they are wrong.’

All that is said in this quotation is true. However, it fails to recognise that there is a difference between not forcing people to act against their conscience and making provision under church law for them to act in particular ways. It is right that the Church should not force people to violate their consciences by celebrating same-sex weddings or ordaining those in same-sex relationships. However, this does not mean that that the Church should therefore permit people to perform these actions unless as a corporate body it believes that they are in accordance with God’s will. It is perfectly legitimate for the Church to recognise that someone wants in good conscience to do something and yet hold that they are wrong to want to do it.

The key point here is St Paul’s declaration in Romans 14:23 that ‘whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’ If I believe that an action is wrong before God then I am failing to act in faith if I do it and am therefore sinning. This is true even if my belief is mistaken (as in the case of the early Christians who believed it was wrong to eat food sacrificed to idols). However if I believe that I should do something and the Church believes it is wrong then the Church would not be acting with faith in permitting me to do it.

What this means is that while the UMC should take the freedom of conscience of its members seriously it should not permit the celebration of same-sex weddings or the ordination of those in same-sex relationships simply because there are those who think this is what they should do. The Church has to have good reasons to permit them to do these things that go beyond their personal convictions and the report fails to explain what these good reasons might be.

A ninth and final problem is the failure of the report to offer any justification for the Traditionalist Plan. The only argument it offers for the UMC maintaining its present position while progressives form their own church is that:

‘Given that the human sexuality disagreement is one of the most significant in American culture today, it is appropriate for there to be two different Wesleyan bodies who teach differently on the question of Christian marriage between same gender persons.’

What this seems to be suggesting is that because society is divided over sexuality the Church should be as well. This is not a convincing argument. One could equally well argue that because America contains an increasing number of unbelievers there should be a Wesleyan body that advocates atheism alongside another that maintains belief in God.

What should Anglicans learn from this report?

The Anglican Communion is as divided as the UMC over issues of human sexuality and as Archbishop Glen Davies[22] and Nicholas Okoh[23] have recently argued, thought does need to be given to an agreed way forward for the Communion to prevent the continuing uncontrolled fracturing of the Communion.

The UMC report provides a salutary warning however, that any such way forward will require proper theological justification. We will need to develop a way forward that we can be properly confident is in accordance with God’s will because it is line with God’s self-revelation in the world he has made and in the pages of Holy Scripture.

[1] Details about the UMC can be found at its website at http://www.umc.org/

[2] For the material in this section see ‘Human Sexuality Backgrounder’ at http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/human-sexuality-backgrounder and ‘What is the denomination’s position on homosexuality’ at http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/what-is-the-denominations-position-on-homosexuality .

[3] Commission on a Way Forward, p.6.

[4] Ibid, p.7-8.

[5] Ibid, pp.9-10.

[6] Ibid, p.20.

[7] Ibid, p.20.

[8] Ibid, p.13.

[9] Ibid, pp.12-13.

[10] Ibid, p.49

[11] Ibid, pp.49-50.

[12] Ibid, p.50.

[13] Ibid, p.27.

[14] Ibid, p.26.

[15] Ibid, p.28.

[16] Ibid, p.29.

[17] Ibid, p. 29.

[18] Ibid, p.29.

[19] Ibid, pp.55-56.

[20] Ibid, p.63.

[21] Ibid, p.64.

[22] ‘Archbishop presents proposal for NZ Anglican future,’ Sydney Anglicans, 25 August 2018 at https://sydneyanglicans.net/news/archbishop-presents-proposal-for-nz-anglican-future

[23] Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Chairman’s September 11th Letter, at https://www.gafcon.org/news/chairmans-september-11th-letter


Suum ius cuique, or why the Welsh Bishops are calling evil good.

‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.’ (Isaiah 5:20)

These words were addressed by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Judah as part of his warning of forthcoming divine judgement. They warn that God will judge those who seek to justify sin by arguing that it is not really sinful at all because good is evil and evil is really good. They came to mind following the announcement this week that the Governing Body of the Church in Wales had voted to support a proposal from the Welsh bishops to explore ‘formal provision for those in same-gender relationships.’

In this post I shall explain why the words of Isaiah apply to the Welsh decision.

The announcement from the Church in Wales did not explain exactly what is meant by ‘formal provision’ but the context of the statement as part of the long running Welsh discussion of same-sex relationships makes it clear that what is meant is at a minimum the liturgical blessing of same-sex relationships in Church and more probably the introduction of same-sex marriages. The fact that the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church was invited to talk to the Governing Body about the process by which the Scots came to allow the celebration of same-sex marriages is a clear indication that this is what the Welsh have in mind.

In 2015 the Governing Body voted in a secret ballot to allow same-sex marriages to be conducted in the Church in Wales, but the majority was not large enough to allow the matter to proceed further. The passing of the motion this week indicates that the intention is to re-visit this issue with a view to making it happen this time.

The motion voted on this week by took the form of the Governing Body being asked whether or not they agreed that it is ‘It is pastorally unsustainable for the Church to make no formal provision for those in same-gender relationships.’ In an explanatory memorandum provided for the debate on the motion the bishops declared ‘that it is pastorally unsustainable and unjust for the Church to continue to make no formal provision for those in committed same-gender relationships’[1] and what the Governing Body did was accept this argument.

What is meant by the current situation in the Church in Wales being ‘pastorally unsustainable and unjust’ is not entirely clear. The bishops did not spell this out in their explanatory memorandum and it has not been explained subsequently. However the argument seems to be that the current situation does not allow proper pastoral care to be offered to people with same-sex attraction and this is unjust. Making formal provision for same-sex relationships would allow proper pastoral care to be offered and this would be just.

It is this implicit argument that I think amounts to the bishops calling ‘evil good and good evil.’ To explain why, I want to start by considering what is meant by justice. To call something unjust means to say that it as an action that violates justice and so to evaluate the bishops’ argument we have to be clear about what justice involves.

The basic understanding of justice which those of us who are part of Western culture operate with (and which the Welsh bishops’ argument presupposes) is that classically expressed by the third century Roman writer Ulpian who said that the virtue of justice (iustitia) is ‘a steady and enduring will to render to each his or her ius (suum ius cuique tribuere).’[2] The word ius means that which someone has a right to, that which is their due. Hence the popular version of Ulpian’s maxim is that justice consists in ‘giving to each their due.’ We may owe people love, or money, or service, or whatever, but in each case justice consists in giving people what we owe them, that which is their due.

From a Christian perspective the fundamental obligation that we have as God’s creatures is an obligation to God. This obligation is to love God for who he is and what he has done for us, what the General Thanksgiving in the Prayer Book summarises as ‘our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life’ and above all ‘the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ…the means of grace…and the hope of glory.’ To act with justice is to fulfil this obligation. So important is this obligation that Jesus declared that the first commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ (Mark 12:30).

Loving God in this way involves obeying living in obedience to his commandments. ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15). These commandments take many specific forms, but these are all variations on one basic obligation, which is to observe the order established in creation by God when he created the world, an order which sin has disrupted, but which Jesus Christ has acted to restore.[3] For those of you who like C S Lewis, what we are talking about is the deep magic placed in Narnia at the dawn of time.

In order to understand what acting with justice in this way means in relation to the pastoral care of people with same-sex attraction we have to move on to consider what is meant by pastoral care.

The language of pastoral care is language taken from farming. It means to care for ‘the flock of God’ (1 Peter 5:2), both those who are currently part of God’s fold and the ‘lost sheep’ (Luke 15: 3-7) who are currently outside it, just as a good shepherd cares for their sheep.

Since human beings are not sheep, what does this caring for the flock involve? The overall answer given in Scripture, and in the Tradition of the Church following Scripture, is that it involves offering people the grace of God through word and sacrament in order that they will repent of their sins, receive God’s forgiveness, enter into the new life Christ has made possible through his death and resurrection and grow in holiness, so that in the next world they will live joyfully with God and his people forever. When this happens the order established by God is honoured because people live as the creatures he made them to be.

Christians have an obligation both to God and to their fellow human creatures to offer pastoral care in this way (see John 21:15-17, Acts 20:28-30, 1 Peter 5:2-4). It follows that it is just to offer such pastoral care and unjust not to offer it.

We can therefore agree with the Welsh bishops in saying that justice requires that people with same-sex attraction should be offered proper pastoral care, However, the issue that this leaves open is what form such proper pastoral care should take in this particular case.

To decide this issue we need to return to the idea that God has established an order in the world according to which his human creatures should live. What does this order look like in relation to human sexuality?

We find the answer to this question through the study of Scripture and the exercise of reason. Scripture (in the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 and in the rest of the biblical text building on them) and reason, looking at the observable reality of what human beings are like, tell us that:

  • The human race is a dimorphic species consisting of men and women whose sex is determined by the biology of their bodies;
  • Sexual intercourse is designed to take place between men and women and has as its purpose not only physical and emotional pleasure, but the procreation of children;
  • God ordained marriage between two people of the opposite sex as the sole legitimate setting for sexual intercourse.

Honouring God’s order means thankfully accepting that this is how God in his wisdom and goodness created us to be, living according to this created pattern ourselves, and encouraging and supporting others to do likewise.

It is true, of course, that there are people who are sexually attracted to people of their own sex, either for the whole of their life, or for some period within it.

From a biblical perspective, however, these people’s experiences are not due to God’s creative intention (they are not part of God’s order, see Romans 1:24-27). They are instead a result of the disorder introduced into the world as a result of the Fall, a disorder which Christ came into the world to overcome.

As a result, proper pastoral care for same-sex attracted people does not mean accepting this disorder as something good, but seeking to combat it by helping the people involved to live in a way that reflects as far as possible God’s original creative intention in anticipation of God’s final kingdom in which all things will finally be made whole.

What this means in practice is helping people who are same-sex attracted to understand that God did not create three types of people, men, women and gay people, but only two, men and women. This being the case, for them to live rightly before God means living as a man or a women. This in turn means for them (as for everyone else) being open either to entering into (heterosexual) marriage, or living a life of sexual abstinence as a single person. If their calling is to be single, then they will need  a network of friendship and support to sustain this vocation.

As with people with opposite-sex attraction, either of these vocations may represent God’s calling to a particular individual. Neither is better than the other. They are equally good ways to ‘glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 6:20). It is sometimes suggested that those with same-sex attraction will not be able successfully marry those of the opposite sex, or that it is impossible for people with same-sex attraction to lead fulfilled Christian lives as single people, but there are numerous counter examples which challenge both these suggestions.[4]

Justice requires that pastoral care be offered to same-sex attracted people along the lines just described. However, there is nothing in the current situation in the Church in Wales that prevents this happening. Therefore the suggestion by the Welsh bishops that it does, and that this situation is ‘pastorally unsustainable’ and therefore unjust, is simply untrue. They have called good evil.

Furthermore they have also called evil good by suggesting that proper pastoral care involves the Church making formal provision for same-gender relationships. This means suggesting that same-sex sexual relationships can be blessed by God and can even constitute marriage. Both of these suggestions are untrue and acting upon them would involve the Church in Wales leading people astray by encouraging those who are in such relationships to remain in them and those who are not yet in them to think that entering into them would be acceptable to God. In both ways the Church in Wales will be encouraging sin by calling it good. If it does this it will be turning its back on what God has said and leading people into a situation in which they are in danger of being cut off from God for ever (1 Corinthians 6:9-10), Galatians 5:16-21).

So what should faithful Christians do in response to the Welsh decision? In a word, pray. Pray for the Welsh bishops that they may be convicted of their error and turn back to God in repentance. Pray for the Welsh Governing Body that it may overturn the decision it has just made. Pray for the Evangelical Fellowship of the Church in Wales as it members seek to witness to the truth in an increasingly dark situation.

M B Davie 14.9.18

[1] Governing Body, Same-gender relationships, Explanatory Memorandum and procedural note.

[2] Quotation in Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love, Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2011, p.85.

[3] For a detailed discussion of the idea of divine order and its relation to Christian ethics see Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order 2ed, Leicester: Apollos, 1994.

[4] For information about pastoral care for same-sex attracted people see the resources on the Living Out  website at http://www.livingout,org.

On the flying of flags


The purpose of this post is to consider the issue of the flying of the LGBTI+ rainbow flag by Church of England churches, an issue which has been raised recently by the flying of this flag by Ely Cathedral in order to mark Ely Pride. I shall argue that current regulations do not permit Church of England churches to fly this flag, and that it would be wrong for the regulations to be changed to permit them to do so.

Current regulations on the flying of flags.

It is sometimes thought that the flying of flags is entirely a matter of individual choice and that anyone is entitled to fly whatever flag they want, wherever they want and whenever they want. However, this is not the case.

The flying of flags in the United Kingdom is governed by government regulations which were last revised in 2012 and which are helpfully summarised in the Plain English Guide to flying flags published by the Department for Communities and Local Government.[1]

These regulations lay down a series of ‘standard conditions’ for the flying of flags. They stipulate that all flags must:

  • ‘ be maintained in a condition that does not impair the overall visual appearance of the site;
  • be kept in a safe condition;
  • have the permission of the owner of the site on which they are displayed (this includes the Highway Authority if the sign is to be placed on highway land);
  • not obscure, or  hinder the interpretation of official road, rail, waterway or aircraft signs, or otherwise make hazardous the use of these types of transport, and
  • be removed carefully where so required by the planning authority.’ [2]

The regulations also state that the following flags may be flown without requiring specific consent:

‘(a) Any country’s national flag, civil ensign or civil air ensign;

(b) The flag of the Commonwealth, the European Union, the United Nations or any other international organisation of which the United Kingdom is a member;

(c) A flag of any island, county, district, borough, burgh, parish, city, town or village within the United Kingdom;

(d) The flag of the Black Country, East Anglia, Wessex, any Part of Lincolnshire, any Riding of Yorkshire, or any historic county within the United Kingdom;

(e) The flag of Saint David;

(f) The flag of Saint Patrick;

(g) The flag of any administrative area within any country outside the United Kingdom;

(h) Any flag of Her Majesty’s forces;

(i) The Armed Forces Day flag.’[3]

In addition, a number of other types of flag may also be flown without consent, ‘subject to certain restrictions regarding the size of the flag, the size of characters on the flag, and the number and location of the flags.’ These include:

  • ‘ House flag – flag is allowed to display the name, emblem, device or trademark of the company (or person) occupying the building, or can refer to a specific event of limited duration that is taking place in the building from which the flag is flown;
  • Any sports club (but cannot include sponsorship logos);
  • The horizontal striped rainbow flag, such as the “Pride” Flag;
  • Specified award schemes – Eco-Schools, Queens Awards for Enterprise and Investors in People.’ [4]

On the basis of these general regulations it might appear that a Church of England church would be within its rights to fly the rainbow flag, just like any other individual or organisation in the United Kingdom.

However, the Church of England has its own regulations for the flying of flags which are more restrictive than the general government regulations just noted.

These regulations can be found on the Church of England’s ‘Church Care’ website. Following directions given by the Earl Marshal in 1938, they lay down that the flag which should normally be flown by a church of the Church of England is ‘The Cross of St George and in the first quarter the escutcheon of the Arms of the See in which the church is ecclesiastically situated.’[5] In other words, the flag to be flown is the St George’s flag with the appropriate diocesan arms in the top corner nearest to the flag staff. In addition, ‘Churches may also, if they so wish, fly the Union Flag on the same days when it is flown from Government and other buildings.’[6]

There are also regulations for the laying up in churches of military colours and Royal British Legion standards.[7] No provision is made for any other flag to be flown.

What all this means is that there is no provision for Church of England churches to fly the rainbow flag. Churches that do so are therefore acting against the Church of England’s regulations on the matter.

Should the Church of England permit the flying of the rainbow flag?

The fact that current Church regulations do not permit Church of England churches to fly the rainbow flag raises the question of whether these regulations should be changed. As we have seen, the government’s general regulations concerning the flying of flags allow the rainbow flag to be flown. Why shouldn’t the Church of England’s regulations follow suit?

In order to answer this question it is first of all necessary to consider what the flying of a flag signifies. One can come up with a vast range of idiosyncratic reasons why an individual or group might decide to fly a flag, for example, to win a wager, to please/annoy their neighbours, out of antiquarian interest, or simply because of an aesthetic liking for the flag’s design and colour scheme. However, in general terms we can say that a flag is a symbol of the identity of a nation or group, and that flying its flag is normally intended to express allegiance, respect, or support for the nation or group concerned.

We can see this if we consider the significance of two flags, the Flag of Zion, the national flag of the state of Israel, and the Red Flag, the flag of the international socialist movement.

The Israeli flag

The blue and white Israeli flag, adopted in October 1948, echoes in its design and colour the pattern of a Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit, and also has on it the ancient Jewish symbol of the six  pointed Star of David. By the use of these two elements the flag symbolises the identity of the state of Israel as a national homeland for the Jewish people in the country of their ancestors.

If an Israeli flies this flag it symbolizes their allegiance to the state of Israel. If non-Israelis fly it this act symbolises their support for Israel (as when the flag is flown at a pro-Israel rally), or their respect for the existence of Israel as an independent sovereign state (as when the flag is flown outside the United Nations or at international event such as the Olympic Games).

The Red Flag

The Red Flag has been a symbol of left wing revolutionary activity since the French Revolution and since 1848 it has been the symbol of the international socialist movement. As such, it was for instance, the symbol of the British Labour Party from its foundation until 1986, signifying the Labour Party’s socialist identity.

Flying the Red Flag, as happened, for instance, at Sheffield Town Hall in the 1980s, has traditionally been a way of showing allegiance to the socialist movement and support for socialist policies. The significance of the Red Flag as a symbol of loyalty to the socialist cause is famously expressed in the well-known words of Jim Connell’s socialist anthem The Red Flag:

‘The People’s Flag is deepest red,

It shrouded oft our martyred dead,

And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,

Their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold.


Then raise the scarlet standard high.

Beneath its shade we’ll live and die,

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,

We’ll keep the red flag flying here.’

The rainbow flag

The LGBTI+ rainbow flag, also known as the ‘pride flag,’ was originally devised by the gay San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978 at the request of the gay leader Harvey Milk and was first used at the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco on 25 June that year. Its significance is best understood by analogy with the Red Flag.

Like the Red Flag, the rainbow flag is the symbol of a revolutionary political movement and flying it has become a way of indicating allegiance to that movement and support for its policies. However, the revolution the two movements are seeking to achieve is different. Whereas the socialist movement has sought to liberate the working class from oppression by capitalists and the capitalist economic system, the LGBTI+ movement has sought to liberate sexual minorities from oppression by the majority population and its traditional view of sexual ethics and sexual identity. In specific terms this has meant the LGBTI + movement striving for three things: (a) the acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships (and latterly same-sex marriage), (b) the right of transgender people to define their own sexual identity regardless of their biology and (c) the recognition of intersex people as having a sexual identity distinct from male or female.

Flying the rainbow flag has become a symbol of support for this programme by LGBTI+ people and their straight allies. The fact that the rainbow flag is now frequently flown by the government, and by other institutions and businesses, demonstrates the extent to which the LGBTI+ programme has now become a central part of the prevailing social and political ideology in this country, with support for this programme being seen as an integral part of ‘British values.’ Just as in the Soviet Union loyalty to the country and commitment to socialism were viewed as inseparable, so also in Britain loyalty to what Britain stands for is now increasingly viewed as inseparable from commitment to the beliefs of the LGBTI + movement.

In this context shouldn’t Church of England churches be permitted to fly the rainbow flag to demonstrate their commitment to Britain and its values in the same way that they currently do by flying the Union Flag? The answer to this question is ‘no’ and the reason that the answer is ‘no’ is because the LGBTI + programme , just like the socialist ideology of the Soviet Union, is incompatible with the Christian faith for which the Church of England stands.

The LGBTI + programme and Christian anthropology

The Christian faith involves a specific anthropology which is based on what God has revealed in the two books of nature and Scripture.

What the study of human nature reveals is that humanity is a dimorphic species consisting of two sexes, male and female, distinguished by their biology, and that these two sexes are designed to engage in sexual intercourse with members of the opposite sex and to produce offspring by this means.

A very small number of people (around 0.018% of live births) are genuinely intersex in the sense that they have bodies which combine male and female sexual characteristics. However, they do not constitute a ‘third sex’ alongside male and female since they do not have a separate set of sexual characteristics linked to a separate method of sexual reproduction. Their sexual characteristics are those of males and females, but these have become combined in a single individual due to a disorder in their sexual development. What we find in the bodies of people with intersex conditions is, in the words of Oliver O’Donovan, ‘an ambiguity which has arisen by a malfunction in a dimorphic human sexual pattern.’ [8]

What Scripture reveals in passages such as Genesis 1:26-28, 2:18-25, Mark 10:6-9, Ephesians 5:21-33, and Revelation 21:1-4, is that the existence of humanity as a sexually dimorphic species is not an accident, but is the result of the creative activity of God. Human beings have been created by God in his image and likeness as those who are biologically male and female and he has established marriage between one man and one woman as the context for sexual intercourse, which establishes a one flesh union between the man and woman involved and makes possible the procreation of children in accordance with God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ The marital union between men and women is a symbol of the union between God and his people which will be consummated in the eternal communion with God which his people will enjoy in the life of the world to come.

The LGBTI + programme goes against what is revealed in nature and Scripture because it refuses to accept that sexual activity should only take place between a man and a woman in marriage, disassociates sexual intercourse from procreation,  holds that a person’s sex can be different from their biology and  holds that there is a third sex alongside male and female. Because this is the case, it would be wrong for Christians in the Church of England to accept the LGBTI + programme and therefore also wrong for the Church of England to permit the flying of the rainbow flag which is the symbol of this programme.

Can Christians use the rainbow flag to convey their own message?

It might be argued, however that it could be right for Christians to fly the rainbow flag, not in order to signify acceptance of the LGBTI + programme, but in order to bear witness to the Christian conviction that lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex people have been created by God in his image and likeness and are unconditionally loved by him, that they are therefore welcome to be part of the Church, and that they should not be subject to unwarranted exclusion, unjust discrimination, violence or persecution.

It is fundamentally important that Christians should bear witness to this conviction in a context in which Christianity is often portrayed as hostile to those who are lesbian, gay, transgender or intersex. However, flying the rainbow flag is not an effective way to bear witness to this conviction.

The reason this is the case is because what is conveyed by the flying of a flag in a particular context is not necessarily what is intended by the person flying it. For example, there are those in the United States who wish to fly the Confederate flag in order to mark the continuing importance of Southern history and culture, or to honour those who gave their lives for the Confederate cause. However, in the current American context, and particularly among black people, this is not what flying the Confederate flag conveys. What it conveys is support for white supremacy.

Anyone thinking about flying the Confederate flag needs to take this reality into account and in a similar way anyone in the Church of England considering flying the rainbow flag needs to take into account the reality of what flying it will convey. It will not convey the nuanced message of Christian conviction noted above. What it will convey is a message that those flying it are on board with the entire LGBTI + programme. This is a not a message that Christians should give out and consequently they should not fly the rainbow flag.


What we have seen in this post is that current Church of England regulations do not permit the flying of the LGBTI+ rainbow flag and that because of what the flying of this flag signifies this should remain the case. Church of England churches should therefore not fly the rainbow flag and it would be helpful if the bishops would write to the clergy reminding them of this fact and the reasons for it.

Addendum: Should the rainbow flag be placed on the Lord’s table?

Since this post was first published, the further issue has  been raised of whether it is right to place the rainbow flag on the Lord’s table in Church of England churches during ‘inclusive’ services, such as the  service held at Reading Minster on 30 August to mark Reading Pride, or the ‘Rainbow Church Eucharist which is due to take place at Wells Cathedral on 22 September.

This specific issue is not covered by the regulations concerning the flying of flags from church buildings for the simple reason that a flag is not being flown. Furthermore, there do not appear to be any Church of England regulations concerning which flags (if any) may be placed on the Lord’s table.

The matter therefore has to be decided by asking what message is being sent out by placing any given flag on the Lord’s table. If the message is contrary to the Christian faith as the Church has received it, then that flag should not be placed there. For the reasons given above this is true of the rainbow flag and consequently it should not be placed on the Lord’s table in any Church of England church.

Furthermore, as Lee Gatiss notes in a helpful article on the Church Society website, the very concept of holding a ‘Rainbow Eucharist’ is problematic regardless of whether or not the rainbow flag is placed on the Lord’s table. In his words, such services: ‘are not just blasphemy; they politicise the sacrament in an entirely unhelpful and indeed sacrilegious way.’[9] They celebrate sin and they divide the unity of God’s people by holding a Eucharist which is only for the supporters of a particular political cause.

M B Davie 25.8.18

[1] Plain English guide to flying flags, London: Department for Communities and Local Government, 2012.

[2] Ibid, p.1

[3] Ibid, p. 2.

[4] Ibid, p.2.

[5] Church Care, Flags, http://www.churchcare.co.uk/churches/guidance-advice/looking-after-your-church/flags.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Oliver O’Donovan, Transsexualism: Issues and Argument, Cambridge: Grove Books, 2007, p.8.

[9] Lee Gatiss, Eucharistic Signalling at http://churchsociety.org/blog/entry/eucharistic_signalling/



GAFCON, the Archbishop and Lambeth 2020

Last month almost two thousand Anglicans from all around the globe met together in Jerusalem at the third Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON). This was one of the largest Anglican gatherings ever held and at the end it produced a ‘Letter to the Churches’ which reported on the conference and the conclusions reached in the course of its sessions.

Among other things this letter declares:

‘…. we respectfully urge the Archbishop of Canterbury:

  • to invite as full members to Lambeth 2020 bishops of the Province of the Anglican Church in North America and the Province of the Anglican Church in Brazil and
  • not to invite bishops of those Provinces which have endorsed by word or deed sexual practices which are in contradiction to the teaching of Scripture and Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, unless they have repented of their actions and reversed their decisions.

In the event that this does not occur, we urge GAFCON members to decline the invitation to attend Lambeth 2020 and all other meetings of the Instruments of Communion.’[1]

What are we to make of what is said in this section of the letter?

The first point to note is that the Archbishop is not being asked to do the impossible. Ever since Archbishop Charles Longley invited Anglican bishops to the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 it has been accepted that it is for the Archbishop of Canterbury to decide which bishops should be invited. He can invite who he likes and not invite who he likes and he is not obliged to have the agreement of any other person or body about the matter. The buck stops with the Archbishop.

This means that Archbishop Welby can fulfil the requests made in both the bullet points in the GAFCON letter. However, this still leaves the question of whether he should do so. To answer this question it is necessary to recall what has taken place in the Anglican Communion in the twenty years since the Lambeth Conference of 1998.

Two key things have happened.

First, in spite of being repeatedly urged not to do so, a number of provinces of the Anglican Communion (The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church in Canada, the Episcopal Church in Brazil, the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Aorateara, New Zealand and Polynesia) have acted in ways that go against Scripture and Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference by accepting, in terms of both doctrine and practice, the blessing of same-sex sexual relationships, same-sex marriages and the ordination of those in same-sex sexual relationships.

Secondly, in response to these developments, Anglicans in the United States, Canada and Brazil who have remained loyal to Scripture and Lambeth 1.10 have established the two alternative orthodox provinces mentioned in the first bullet point– the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Church in Brazil.

By acting in the way that they have, those Anglican provinces which have accepted same-sex sexual relationships have rejected the obligations that go with being a member of the Anglican Communion. These obligations were classically set out in the encyclical letter from the bishops who attended the 1920 Lambeth Conference. This letter declared:

‘For half a century the Lambeth Conference has more and more served to focus the experience and counsels of our Communion. But it does not claim to exercise any powers of control or command. It stands for the far more spiritual and more Christian principle of loyalty to the fellowship. The Churches represented in it are indeed independent, but independent with the Christian freedom which recognizes the restraints of truth and of love. They are not free to deny the truth. They are not free to ignore the fellowship.’[2]

Those provinces which have accepted same-sex sexual relationships have refused to accept the ‘restraints of truth and love.’ They have rejected the truth by ignoring the teaching of the Bible that God has created marriage to be between a man and a woman and sexual intercourse to be something that takes place solely within marriage (Genesis 2:18-24, Matthew 5: 27-30, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, Hebrews 13:4). They have rejected loyalty to the fellowship of the Anglican Communion by ignoring what the Communion as a whole has said about the matter.

Because they have thus shown that they wish to go their own way rather than accept the obligations involved in belonging to the Anglican Communion it is right that their membership of the Communion should be suspended until such time as they amend their ways. The Bible teaches that those who persist in ungodly behaviour should be disciplined by the Church (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13), both as a way of maintaining the holiness of the body of Christ and as a loving warning to the persons concerned that they need to repent of their wrongdoing and turn to God for forgiveness and a new start. Suspending the provinces concerned from the Communion would be a right exercise of such discipline and not inviting their bishops to the Lambeth Conference is the part of such suspension that the Archbishop of Canterbury has immediate power to enforce. This is therefore what he should do.

By contrast, those Anglicans who have formed the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Church in Brazil have demonstrated that they do take seriously the obligations involved in being faithful members of the Anglican Communion. They have gone through a very difficult and painful period as they have separated from The Episcopal Church, The Anglican Church in Canada and The Episcopal church in Brazil, but they have been willing to do so because they have wanted to remain loyal to Scripture and to Lambeth 1.10. It is therefore right that they should be recognised as full members of the Anglican Communion and one way this can happen is by the Archbishops of Canterbury inviting their bishops to be full members of the 2020 Lambeth Conference. This is therefore what he should also do.

In the final part of this section of the letter GAFCON members are urged not to attend meetings of the ‘Instruments of Communion’ if the Archbishop chooses to ignore their requests with regard to the Lambeth Conference. This means that they should not attend the Lambeth Conference itself, or the meetings of the Anglican Primates, or the meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council.

There are three reasons for this suggestion.

First, over the past twenty years the bodies just mentioned have repeatedly failed to address the disorder in the Anglican Communion by taking proper disciplinary action against those churches who have rejected the teaching of Scripture and Lambeth 1.10. If there is no indication from the Archbishop that this is going to change, then continuing to attend meeting of these bodies would be an exercise in futility. It would be a waste of time and money that could be better used in other ways.

Secondly, at the moment Anglicans representing provinces that have rejected the teaching of Scripture and Lambeth 1.10 are still included as full members of the Instruments of Communion whereas those representing the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Church in Brazil are not. This is unjust, and by not attending meetings of the Instruments until it is rectified GAFCON members would be registering a clear protest against this injustice and standing in solidarity with their orthodox brother and sisters in North America and Brazil.

Thirdly, the continuing attendance of orthodox Anglicans at meetings of the Instruments has been used by the powers that be in the Communion over the past twenty years to suggest that divisions over marriage and sexuality are not that important. Anglicans, it has been said, can learn to live with divisions over these matters while continuing to ‘walk together’ and while the other business of the Communion continues as normal. However, marriage and sexual conduct are primary rather than secondary issues because they are integrally bound up with creation and redemption and effect peoples’ eternal destinies. They are therefore not ‘matters indifferent’ on which Anglicans can disagree while conducting business as usual.[3] Refusing to attend meetings of the Instruments of Communion until the authorities in the Anglican Communion take appropriate action about these matters would be a clear way of drawing attention to them and preventing them from being illegitimately side lined.

The major argument against non-attendance would be that orthodox Anglicans would forfeit their ability to contribute to the development of the Communion. However, this is not the case. There is nothing to stop them relating directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury and, as the emergence of GAFCON has shown, it is possible for them to develop alternative structures to help Anglicans to relate to one another and to work together to take forward the mission of the Church. This argument is therefore not persuasive.

For the reasons given above, what this section of GAFCON’s Letter to the Churches says makes perfectly good sense. The Archbishop of Canterbury should listen to what GAFCON has said and act accordingly.

M B Davie 9.7.18

[1] Letter to the Churches – GAFCON Assembly 2018, at https://www.gafcon.org/news/letter-to-the-churches-gafcon-assembly-2018

[2] Conference of Bishops of the Anglican Communion 1920 – Encyclical Letter with Reports and Resolutions,London: SPCK, 1920 p.14.

[3] See Dennis P Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009 and David Peterson (ed),Holiness and Sexuality, Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2004.

GAFCON Seminar: Human flourishing and the mission of the Church

GAFCON Jerusalem 2018

Human flourishing and the mission of the Church.

Seminar outline

1. What do we mean by human flourishing and what accounts of human flourishing have been given by non-Christian religions and philosophies? Martin Davie (15 minutes)

Q and A Martin Davie (10 minutes)

2. What is the alternative Christian vision of human flourishing? Martin Davie (15 minutes)

How would you explain this Christian vision of flourishing to a Hindu? Canon Chris Sugden (10 minutes)

Q and A Martin Davie and Canon Chris Sugden (10 minutes)

3. Nathan Lovell interviewing Phumezo Masango on how we can help people to flourish as Christians in tough places like Khayelitsha township in South Africa (15 minutes)

Concluding Q and A Nathan Lovell and Phumezo Masango (15 minutes)

M B Davie 16.6.18

What do we mean by human flourishing?

GAFCON Jerusalem 2018

Human flourishing and the mission of the church.

What do we mean by human flourishing and what accounts of human flourishing are given by non-Christian religions and philosophies?

What do we mean by flourishing?

The New Oxford Dictionary of English tells us that the verb ‘to flourish’ means ‘to grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way.’ A moment’s thought will tell us that what this means varies according to what exactly it is that we are talking about.

We have just planted some rhubarb plants in my garden at home in England and I will judge whether these plants are flourishing by whether they produce big green leaves and long red stems. If they do they are flourishing, but if they don’t they are not and I shall need to see what, if anything, I can do about it. The rabbit population in my garden is also flourishing, but in this case I judge flourishing by a different criteria. For a rabbit population to flourish means that the individual rabbits are big and healthy rather than small and sick, and that there are lots of offspring.

In both instances I have an idea of what it means for the plant or animal to be healthy or vigorous and I judge whether they are flourishing according to that yardstick.

As well as thinking about what it means for plants and animals flourish, all human beings have some basic idea of what it means for human beings to flourish, even if this is not the term they would use. It is this idea which shapes the way they live their lives.

As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor notes in his book A Secular Age:

‘Every person, and every society, lives with or by some conception(s) of what human flourishing is: what constitutes a fulfilled life? What makes like really worth living? What would we most admire people for? We can’t help asking these or related questions in our lives. And our struggles to answer them define the view or views that we try to live by, or between which we haver. At another level, these views are codified, sometimes in philosophical theories, sometimes in moral codes, sometimes in religious practices and devotion. These and the various ill-formulated practices which people around us engage in constitute the resources that our society offers each one of us as we try to lead our lives.‘[1]

Why flourishing matters for mission.

As the Church engages in its God given mission to proclaim Christ faithfully to the nations it has to engage with the issue of human flourishing. This is because people will only begin to follow Jesus Christ, or continue to follow him if they do so already, if they believe that following him will lead them to flourish more than some other way of life.

We can see this point if we consider the famous words found at the beginning of Book I of the Confessions of St. Augustine, ‘Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in thee.’[2] The point that St Augustine is making is that human beings have been created by and for God and in consequence they can only truly flourish if they find rest in a right relationship with God. According to Augustine, the reason for being a Christian, rather than being a Neo-Platonist or a Manichee, is that Christianity enables people to find this rest and so to flourish as they were made to do. Just as being a flourishing rhubarb plant means having big green leaves and a big red stem, so being a flourishing human being means being people whose hearts find their rest in God and, says Augustine, being a Christian makes this possible.

If we are going to try to persuade people to follow Jesus Christ because doing so will best enable them to flourish we have to begin by understanding what they currently think about the matter. Think of St. Paul preaching in the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17. The Athenians whom he is addressing hold that what enables human flourishing is worshiping the various gods of the Greek pantheon. What St. Paul tells them is that they are right to take the need to worship seriously, but that the objects of their worship are wrong. In order to flourish they need to give up idolatry and worship instead the one true God who made heaven and earth and every human being and to whom the Greek poets bore witness.

In similar fashion we have to target our proclamation of the gospel so that it addresses what the people we are in conversation with think makes for human flourishing.

So what do people in the world today think makes for human flourishing? Obviously in the time available I cannot give a comprehensive account of the matter, but in the remainder of this first presentation I shall sketch out the main non-Christian options before going on in my second presentation to set out the Christian alternative.

The non-religious philosophies of the contemporary West.

a. Secular individualism


In much of the Western world the prevailing understanding is that what makes for human flourishing is something that each individual has to decide for themselves. To quote Charles Taylor again, what this approach says is that:

‘Everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense or what is really important or of value. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfilment. What this consists of, each must, in the last instance, determine for him-or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content.’[3]

This view fits in with the late capitalist consumer culture that dominates Western society. Life is seen as a vast shopping centre, or online shopping site, and we flourish when we are free to choose whatever we want from everything that is on offer. What we choose is up to us. It is having the freedom to choose what we want to choose that matters.

Three further points about this view are:

Firstly, that although people are theoretically free to choose a simple, or even ascetic, lifestyle, there is a strong cultural message that says the way to find self-fulfilment and therefore to flourish is through acquiring the latest brands of consumer goods. Secondly, although people are theoretically free to choose to be chaste or celibate, there is again a strong cultural message that says that in order to flourish you need to engage in consensual sexual activity with whatever sex (or sexes) are right for your particular sexual orientation and sexual needs. Thirdly, this approach to human flourishing is secular both in the sense that it leaves God out of the picture and in the sense that it is concerned with what happens in this world. The idea that this world is a preparation for the next is not part of the picture.

b. Marxism


Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s Marxism is not the force it was in human affairs. However, there are still countries, most notably China, that are still officially Communist, the Marxist critique of capitalism has seen a renaissance in response to the austerity following on from the 2008 financial crisis and Marxist thought is still influential in academic circles. Marxism therefore still requires our attention.

Marxism is a philosophy of history which declares that ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’[4] These struggles have been between a small class of exploiters and the majority who they have exploited. They have taken various forms, but the final struggle in which history finds its completion is the struggle between bourgeois capitalists and the proletariat who they subject to ‘naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.’[5]

For Marxist thought history will reach its proper end when, under Communist leadership, the proletariat rise up, overthrow the capitalist system and substitute an equitable system of economic and social relationships in which the ‘free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’[6] When this happens, Mankind as a whole, and each individual within it, will finally flourish. To achieve this flourishing not only does capitalism need to be overthrown, but so all do all forms of religion and ideas of a world to come, colonialism, and the nuclear family and the sexual ethics associated with it, since these are all tools by which the bourgeois keep the proletariat in enslavement.

Primal Religion

The traditional religions of tribal peoples, what used to be called primitive religion and is now called ‘primal religion,’ are in decline because of the growing influence of the world’s major religions, the growing impact of industrial civilization in the most remote corners of the globe and large scale migration from rural areas to the cities. Nevertheless they remain hugely important for many millions of people today.

As the researches of the Roman Catholic scholar Wilhelm Schmidt and others have shown, almost all traditional societies show evidence of belief in one, benevolent, creator God. However, what governs human affairs is not the activity of the transcendent creator, but the life force running through all things, the activities of lesser spiritual powers (what in Western terms might be described as ‘gods’ or ‘demons’) who may be benevolent, malevolent, or both at different times, and who are thought to inhabit the natural world, and the continuing influence of the ancestors who still wield power over the lives of their descendants.

Although the details of their beliefs and practices vary enormously, one can say that in general adherents of primal religions believe that human beings flourish (i.e. their life force is increased) when they respect the given order of the world by playing their proper part in the affairs of the tribe, adhering to the way of life laid down by the ancestors, and keeping the spirits on side by performing the appropriate religious rituals under the guidance of those with special knowledge in such matters.

As the importance attached to the influence of the ancestors indicates, primal religions generally include a belief in life after death, with some holding that the nature of that life will depend on how people have behaved in this one and whether they have received the proper burial rites. If people have behaved wickedly or not been properly buried they may be punished in the afterlife or be forced to wonder as a ghost.

The great religions of South and East Asia

a. Hinduism


Hinduism is a form of religion that gradually developed in South Asia over thousands of years.

The Hindu worldview holds that there is one supreme God (or for non-theistic Hindus one supreme reality) from which all things emanate and to whom all things will ultimately return. The various gods of the Hindu pantheon are understood as emanating from the supreme deity and representing some aspect of his existence. Human existence is seen as a cycle of birth, death and rebirth in which the soul passes through various reincarnations. The nature of these reincarnations depends on how the previous life was lived, in line with the principle of karma that holds all actions have consequences either in this life, or in the next. In order to flourish in each successive incarnation one needs to behave in accordance with dharma, the order which governs the cosmos and human behaviour within it. The highest form of flourishing, and the goal of human existence, is to achieve moksha, liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and union with God.

b. Buddhism  

Buddhism is a spiritual tradition that traces its origins to the teaching and practice of the Buddha (the ‘enlightened one’), Siddhartha Gautama, who lived sometime in the sixth century BC. In the Buddhist worldview there is no creator God, rather the universe is simply the working out of a cyclical process in which world-systems come into being, exist for a time, are destroyed and are then re-made. Within this cyclical worldview human beings are also seen as being trapped in an endless process of re-incarnation, experiencing suffering through many lives on the basis of their behaviour in previous incarnations). In this world view for human beings to flourish means to be achieve liberation from this cycle of death and re-birth (nirvana) by means of enlightenment.

According to Buddhist teaching the way to achieve nirvana is through ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’ which consists of:

(1) Right understanding (the acceptance of Buddhist teachings);

(2) Right intention (a commitment to cultivate right attitudes);

(3) Right speech (truthful speech that avoids slander, gossip and abuse);

(4) Right action (engaging in peaceful and harmonious behaviour, and refraining from stealing, killing and overindulgence in sensual pleasure);

(5) Right livelihood (avoiding making a living in harmful ways such as exploiting people, killing animals, or trading in intoxicants or weapons);

(6) Right effort (freeing oneself from evil and unwholesome states of mind and preventing them from arising in future);

(7) Right mindfulness (developing an awareness of the body, sensations, feelings and states of mind);

(8) Right concentration (the development of the mental focus necessary for this awareness).

c. Sikhism


Like Hinduism and Buddhism, Sikhism, which was founded by Guru Nanak in the fifteenth century, holds that human flourishing involves escaping from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The way of escape (known as mukti) involves, negatively, escaping from attachment to the world and the bondage of egoism and, positively, achieving total knowledge of, and union with, God.

According to Sikh teaching, the path to mukti involves avoiding five vices and performing three basic duties. The five vices are lust, covetousness, greed, anger and pride. The three duties or ‘pillars’ are:

  • Nam japna, ‘meditation on God through reciting, chanting, singing and constant remembrance followed by deep study and comprehension of God’s name and virtues’;
  • Kirt Karna, ‘to honestly earn by one’s physical and mental effort while accepting both pains and pleasures as God’s gifts and blessings’;4
  • Vand Chhakna, ‘To share the fruits of one’s labour with others before considering oneself.’[7]

Judaism and Islam

a. Judaism


Judaism goes back to the call of Abraham by God sometime around 1900 BC and the subsequent covenant entered into by God with Abraham’s descendants, the people of Israel, at the time of the Exodus from Egypt in about 1250 BC. Judaism is very diverse form of religion, but the traditional Jewish view is that human beings were created by the one creator God to be in right relationship with him. They flourish when this is the case and fail to flourish when they do not.

For those who are Jewish being in right relationship with God involves living according to the covenant between God and Israel at the time of the Exodus, by observing the teaching contained in the twenty four books of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (what we call the Old Testament) and the commentary on this teaching contained in the later Jewish texts known as the Mishnah and Talmud. Those who are non-Jewish can be in right relationship with God if they observe the seven laws which according to Jewish tradition were given by God to the sons of Noah as a set of laws for the entire human race. These laws are not to worship idols, not to curse God, to establish courts of justice, not to commit murder, not to commit adultery or sexual immorality, not to steal and not to eat flesh torn from a living animal

Judaism has also traditionally held that there is life after death, with the righteous ultimately being resurrected to share in the Olam Ha Ba (the world to come) and the wicked being finally and eternally excluded from this.

b. Islam.


Islam emerged in the seventh century AD. Its view of human flourishing is an outworking of its basic statement of faith (the shahada) which declares ‘There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.’ Like Judaism, Islam believes in one creator God and that for humans to flourish they need to be in a right relationship with him. Where it differs from Judaism is that it holds that being in a right relationship with God involves following the teaching contained in the Qur’an (the sacred text said to have been revealed by God to Muhammad, the final messenger or prophet of God) and also in the Sunnah (the record of Muhammad’s life and practice) and the Hadith (reports of what he said or approved).

To live in this way involves being part of the Ummah (the world wide Islamic community) and observing the basic five pillars of Islam (sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith, praying five times each day, paying a charitable tax to benefit the poor and the needy, fasting during Ramadan and going on pilgrimage to Mecca. Like Judaism, Islam believes in the resurrection of the dead and a final judgement which will lead people to either finally flourish in paradise or suffer in hell depending on the balance of their good or bad deeds.

What we have seen so far.

This is obviously a selective overview of the world’s religions and philosophies (for example I have not covered Confucianism or Taoism). However, what we have seen thus far has established the basic point that how to flourish is a vital issue for all human beings and that there are a variety of different religious and non- religious approaches held in the world today. This raises the question as to where Christianity fits into the picture. What do we have to say about human flourishing as we engage in mission? We shall begin to address this issue after a time for Q and A s.


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2007, p.16.

[2] St Augustine, The Confessions, Book 1:1.

[3] Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1992, p.14.

[4] The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1, at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist manifesto/ch01.htm#007

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Definition of the three pillars from Sikhwiki at http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Three Pillars

The Christian Vision of Human Flourishing

GAFCON Jerusalem 2018

Human flourishing and the mission of the church.

The Christian vision of human flourishing

In my opening remarks I explained why the concept of human flourishing is important for the mission of the Church and sketched out the understanding of human flourishing put forward by a range of non-Christian philosophies and religions.

The picture of flourishing in Psalm 1.

I shall now go on to consider what an alternative Christian view of flourishing looks like. I shall begin by looking at Psalm 1, since this is a section of the Bible which directly addresses the issue of what it means for a human being to flourish. If we ask what a flourishing human being looks like then Psalm 1 tells us.

Psalm 1 runs as follows:

‘1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners,  nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord,     and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree     planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so,     but are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,     nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,     but the way of the wicked will perish.’

This Psalm can be divided into two parts.

The first part is in verses 1-3. In these verses the man who is described as ‘blessed’ in verse 1 is said in verse 3 to flourish like a well-watered tree which produces a harvest of fruit at the proper time and whose leaves never wither because of drought. Just as this tree prospers so also it is said of the blessed man ‘In all that he does, he prospers.’

These verses also describe the characteristics of this flourishing man, first negatively and then positively.

Negatively, (1) he ‘walks not in the counsel of the wicked,’ That is, he does not ‘follow their advice rather than the guidance of God.’[1] (2) He does not stand ‘in the way of sinners,’ that is, share their way of life.’[2] (3) He does not sit ‘in the seat of scoffers’ by ‘making light of God’s law which ought to be one’s delight.’[3]

Positively, ‘his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.’ In other words, what he delights in is what God wants and this is what he constantly thinks about. Furthermore as the parallel verse in Joshua 1:8 indicates, this is not ‘merely an intellectual exercise, but, above all, it is a study of the will of God for the purpose of doing it.’[4]

The second half of the Psalm, verses 4-6, describes the fate of the ‘wicked.’ By the ‘wicked’ the Psalmist means the godless, those who lack the characteristics described in verses 1-3. They fail to flourish but are ‘like the chaff which the wind drives away.’ During the corn harvest in Old Testament times the corn was thrown into the air with the chaff, the dray scaly protective casing of the gain, being blown away by the wind and the heavier grain dropping to the floor to be collected and stored for subsequent use . Chaff is thus a metaphor for all that is useless and transitory and this is what is being said about the life of the wicked. ‘They are thought of as having become worthless in themselves, and their life as empty and without permanence.’ [5]

Objections to this picture.

So far everything seems nice and clear. If we take Psalm 1 as our basis we can construct a nice simple division between two types of human beings, the ‘blessed’ who reject sin and live in obedience to God, and so flourish, and the wicked who don’t and whose lives are therefore worthless and impermanent.

However, if we delve more deeply in to the biblical witness we find that things aren’t quite that simple. The Bible itself raises two objections to this view of human life.

First, it would appear that the sinfulness of the human race means that the category of the blessed as described in Psalm 1 is an empty category. It has nobody in it. We are told in Psalm 14 verses 2-3, for example, that:

‘The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,  to see if there are any that act wisely,  that seek after God,

They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt;  there is none that does good, no, not one.’

Secondly, as the write of Ecclesiastes testifies, experience calls into question the notion that the blessed flourish and endure while the wicked pass away. As Ecclesiastes 9:2 puts it:

‘… one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As is the good man, so is the sinner; and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath.’

How the Christian account of flourishing answers these two objections.

How can we respond to these two objections, given that God’s word in Holy Scripture cannot contradict itself?

If we start with the issue of the universal sinfulness of the human race, a good place to begin to respond is with the words of St. Paul in Romans 3:21-22. In the previous section of Romans, 1:18 – 3:20, St. Paul explains that both ‘all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin’ (3:9). However he then goes on to declare in verses 21-22:

‘But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.’

What these verses tell us about is a righteousness, a state of being in the right before God, that is not dependent upon what we do (‘law’) but which is given by God to all who have faith in Jesus Christ. As the Lutheran scholar Anders Nygren puts it:

By faith in [Christ] we are recipients of the righteousness which comes down from God. It is not an inner quality of our own, but an active intervention by God by which he transforms our existence and renews its circumstances. Formerly the wrath of God from heaven pursued man who was doomed to death. Now through Christ the heaven of righteousness and life stretches out over all who believe. By the grace of God man is included in God’s own righteousness. [6]

According to Romans, therefore, if we have faith Jesus Christ we stand before God as righteous, just like the blessed man in Psalm 1, even though in ourselves we are sinners. How can this be? To start off with, we need to recall that there is one exception to the otherwise universal tale of human sinfulness, one person who perfectly fulfils the picture of the blessed man in Psalm 1. That person is Jesus Christ. As Eric Costa notes:

‘Literally speaking, there is only one person who thoroughly fulfils Psalm 1, whose delight is fully in the law of the Lord, who never walked in the counsel of the wicked, whose works always prosper, who is in himself ‘the way, the truth and the life of the righteous.’ [7]

Having made this point, Costa then comments further:

This is encouraging, because if I look at Psalm 1, then look just at myself, then look back and forth a few more times, I begin to wonder whether I can truly consider myself among the congregation of the righteous. But if I look to Jesus Christ with faith as the one who fulfilled Psalm 1 for me, then in him I have the full assurance of the benefits mentioned in the Psalm.[8]

But how can I have this assurance on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ? Because, as Martin Luther puts it, drawing on the imagery used by St. Paul in Ephesians 5:21-33, through faith I am married to Christ. I therefore become one flesh with him and so my sin is his, but his righteousness is mine. Listen to Luther in his great tract of 1520 The Freedom of a Christian:

‘The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph.5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh and there is between them the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage – it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were his own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own.’[9]

This is good news, says Luther, because

‘…his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible that hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of his faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with eternal righteousness life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom. So he takes to himself a glorious bride ‘without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word’ [cf, Eph. 5:26-27] of life, that is by faith in the word of life, righteousness and salvation.‘[10]

Furthermore, through the work of the Holy Spirit the righteousness that Christ has achieved for me by coming, and dying, and rising, and uniting me to himself through faith begins to become manifest in my life as I start to live as the person God made me to be.

In the words of John Webster:

‘The Spirit… is the agent of those divine acts through which the creature really does become in full integrity what it is destined to be. The Spirit gives life, acting in and upon the creature in such a way that the creature attains its full stature, filling out its history in completion of the divine purpose. This gift of life is also the gift of holiness, as the Spirit makes actual and effective in the creature the blessing for which the creature has been livingly singled out and reconciled.’ [11]

This work of the Spirit does not mean that we will in this life ever cease to be sinners, ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). It does mean, however, that over time the objective righteousness and holiness we have in Christ will become increasingly reflected in our life and behaviour as we live for God within the particular vocations to which he has called us, a process which will be completed in the world to come when ‘we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2).

In summary, we can thus say with Luther that the Christian is ‘simul iustus et pecattor.’ In myself I am a sinner, but in Christ and through faith I am the blessed man of Psalm 1 and this reality is becoming reflected in my life through the work of the Spirit.

As the Evangelical commentator Thomas Scott comments, this means that when someone becomes a Christian he has ‘new desires, pleasures, hopes, fears, sorrows, companions, and employments: his thoughts, words, and actions are changed: he enters upon a new state and bears a new character.’ [12] However, this is not something that he can claim as his own achievement. Rather, it is the achievement of God in him. To quote St. Paul in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’

In response to the suggestion in Ecclesiastes that in reality ‘one fate comes to all’ what we have to note is that this is only true in the short term (which is what the writer of Ecclesiastes is describing).

Psalm 34: 34-36 declares:

‘Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to possess the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked.

I have seen a wicked man overbearing, and towering like a cedar of Lebanon,  Again I passed by, and lo, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found.’

As the Book of Revelation makes clear, these words will find their fulfilment at the end of time when those who are righteous through Christ will indeed ‘possess the land’ by entering into the life of the New Jerusalem in the ‘new heavens and the new earth’ in which they will dwell forever with God, worshiping him and reigning with him, and ‘and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:1, 4, 22:3-5). However, as the Psalmist says, the unrighteous will not be able to be found, because they will be permanently excluded from the new creation and consigned instead to the ‘lake of fire’ (Revelation 20:15) which is St. John’s symbol for the total, irrevocable and eternal destruction of the wicked, equivalent to Jesus’ description of the ‘furnace of fire’ where ‘men will weep and gnash their teeth’ in Matthew 13:41.

The Christian vision of human flourishing is thus an eschatological vision. It says that this world is not all that there is. Human life does not end with death. Beyond death there is judgement and for the blessed who are righteous in Christ there is eternal fulfilment in the world to come where the river of life flows through the midst of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2).

The Christian view of flourishing and other religions and philosophies.

That, then, is the Christian vision of flourishing. If we compare it with the vision of flourishing put forward by the other religions and philosophies we have looked at we find a series of contrasts.

  • First, unlike secular individualism, the Christian account declares that it is not possible for people to flourish in any way they choose. There is only one way for human beings to flourish and that is to become righteous through faith in Jesus Christ and to live a life pleasing to God in consequence.
  • Secondly, unlike secular individualism and Marxism, the Christian account says that flourishing is not something that can finally be achieved in this world. Only in the world to come will we fully become the people we were always meant to be.
  • Thirdly, unlike Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, Christianity says that you only get one shot at flourishing. It is what happens in this one life on earth between birth and death that determines whether or not you will flourish in the world to come.
  • Fourthly, unlike secular individualism, Marxism, non-theistic Hinduism, classical Buddhism, and to a large extent primal religion, the Christian account insists that you cannot leave God out of the picture. Christianity declares that to flourish human beings need to be rightly related to the God who created them and that only he can make this right relationship possible.
  • Fifthly, and following on from the previous point, whereas all the other religions and philosophies we have looked at say in different ways that flourishing happens through what we do, Christianity insists that flourishing is a result of what God in Christ does for us. As St. Paul says, eternal life is the ‘free gift of God’ (Romans 6:23).

Even in Sikhism, which stresses the grace (nadar) of God, ‘man has to strive in order to deserve His grace’ [13] Only in Christianity is flourishing something that happens from beginning to end through the totally undeserved grace of God

Given these sort of contrasts, Christians involved in mission need to think about the best way to explain and commend the distinctive Christian vision of flourishing to those of other faiths and philosophies. As an example, Canon Chris Sugden will now go on to explain how he would go about explaining the Christian vision of flourishing to someone who was a Hindu.


[1] A A Anderson, Psalms 1-72, Grand Rapids and London: Eerdmans/Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1981, p.59.

[2] Ibid, p.59.

[3] Ibid, p.59.

[4] Ibid, p.60.

[5] Ibid. p.61.

[6] Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980, p.152.

[7] Eric Costa, Reformation Theology, 14 February 2008,


[8] Ibid.

[9] Martin Luther, Three Treatises, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978, p. 286.

[10] Ibid, p.287.

[11] John Webster, Confessing God, London and New York: T&T Clark, 2005, p.128.

[12] Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible with Original Notes and Practical Observations, London: J S Jordan 1802, Psalm 1.

[13] http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/God_in_Sikhism.

M B Davie  16.6.18