A response to the Pastoral letter from the Bishops of the Church in Wales

The Bishops of the Church in Wales have now issued a ‘Pastoral Letter….to all the faithful concerning gay and lesbian Christians’ accompanied by two sets of prayers ‘that may be said with a couple following the Celebration of a Civil Partnership or Civil Marriage.’

What should we make of this letter from a theological perspective?

First, the reasons the bishops give for not changing the teaching of the Church in Wales in relation to marriage or permitting ‘the celebration of public liturgies of blessing for same sex unions’ are because a process of consultation has shown there is not the necessary support in the Church in Wales to do so and because to do so would be to go against the recent statement from the Primates of the Anglican Communion. These are good reasons, but they do not get to the theological heart of the matter.

The fundamental theological reason why the Church in Wales should not change its teaching and practice is because the Bible makes clear (Genesis 1-2, Mark 10:2-9) that God has created human beings as male and female and has created marriage as a lifelong exclusive relationship between one man and one woman and as the sole legitimate context for entering into sexual union.

Secondly, the bishops introduce an element of provisionality into their position by saying that they cannot support change ‘at this time.’  This is presumably because the necessary majority for change might develop in the Church in Wales and the Anglican Communion might also alter its position and if this were the case the bishops would then feel free to support a change in the Church’s teaching and practice. However, because the Church’s current teaching and practice reflects the way that God has created human beings and created marriage it can never rightly be changed, regardless of what a majority in the Church in Wales might want, or what the Anglican Communion might decide.  What God has created does not alter because of changes in human opinion.

Thirdly, both in the title of their letter and in its contents the bishops refer to people who are ‘gay and lesbian.’  Theologically this is a mistake because to describe people as gay and lesbian is to misrepresent their true identity. As the St Andrew’s Day Statement of 1995 puts it: ‘There can be no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality of Christ’ and within the reality of Christ people are either male or female and, if they are Christians, they are those who have died and risen with Christ and have been washed, justified and sanctified in his name and by his Spirit (Romans 6:1-11, 1 Corinthians 6:11).

The claim that people are gay and lesbian is incompatible with both of these realities and is therefore a claim that Christians should not recognise. There are of course people who experience same sex-attraction, who engage in same-sex activity, and who enter into same-sex unions. However, these are what they experience and what they do. They do not define who they are and to suggest otherwise is misleading and also unhelpful to the people concerned because by implication it rules out any possibility of change in their patterns of desire or behaviour.

Fourthly, the bishops join with the Anglican Primates in condemning ‘homophobic prejudice and violence.’ Prejudice, defined by the dictionary as ‘preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience’ resulting in ‘dislike, hostility, or unjust behaviour,’ is always wrong, as are all forms of unwarranted violence.  Furthermore they remain wrong even when caused by opposition to same-sex attraction and behaviour (which is what the use of ‘homophobic’ implies). However, this does not mean that there is anything wrong with such opposition, nor does it means that such opposition inevitably results in prejudice or violence. Any implication to the contrary is itself a form of prejudice in the sense of not being based on ‘reason or actual experience.’ There is nothing in reason or experience to suggest that those who believe that same-sex attraction and behaviour are contrary to God’s will therefore necessarily engage in prejudice or violence, or encourage it in others.

Fifthly, the bishops are entirely correct to commit to offering those with same-sex attraction and in same-sex relationships ‘the same loving service and pastoral care to which all humanity is entitled.’ However, to truly love someone and to offer them genuine pastoral care means seeking to help them to become the people God wants them to be and among other things this means helping them to live lives of sexual holiness involving sexual faithfulness within marriage and sexual abstinence outside it.  According to the witness of the Bible and the universal tradition of the Christian Church same-sex sexual activity is incompatible with such holiness. It is contrary to God’s law (1 Timothy 1:10), it is a manifestation of humanity’s rebellion against God (Romans 1:26-27) and it excludes people from God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

The bishops are likewise correct to say that the Church needs to provide a ‘safe space’ in which people with same-sex attraction can be ‘honest and open, respected and affirmed.’  However, this does not mean that that the Church needs to affirm their attraction or those relationships which stem from it.  What the Church needs to be is a place where people can be honest and open  about having feelings which are contrary to God’s will and where they can be respected and affirmed as people as they learn to deal with them in a godly fashion.

Sixthly, because the traditional Christian teaching about sexual holiness is rooted in the clear teaching of Scripture it is not something about which there can be, as the bishops suggest, ‘honest and legitimate differences.’ Views which are contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture are never legitimate however honestly they may be held.

Seventhly, the two forms of prayer for use after Civil Partnerships and Civil Marriages are problematic for three reasons.

  1. Although these prayers are not blessings in the technical sense of being ‘the authoritative pronouncement of God’s favour,’ they are nevertheless prayers of blessing in the sense of being prayers which ask for God’s favour to rest upon the people involved and their relationships. Such prayers are wrong in principle if God is being asked to bless forms of activity which he has declared to be sinful and that is true here since what is being prayed for is same-sex relationships which, for the reasons outlined above, are contrary to the way God has created human beings and to the holiness which is God’s gift and calling to his people.
  2. By authorising the use of these prayers the bishops are shifting the position of the Church in Wales, even though this has not been agreed by the Church’s governing body. They are not in fact respecting the ‘range of views’ in the Church on this matter, but unilaterally imposing their own convictions.
  3. Most importantly, and contrary to what the bishops suggest, these prayers do not respond to the real ‘pastoral need’ of those who have entered in same-sex unions. As we have said, genuine pastoral care involves helping people to become the people God wants them to be and offering prayers which imply that same-sex unions are in line with God’s will and that he will bless them will hinder rather than help this process. This is because if you give people the message that same-sex unions are acceptable in God’s sight you will necessarily discourage them from thinking that they are something which they need to repent of and depart from. You are reinforcing them in a sinful pattern of life.

What all this means is that what the Welsh bishops have put forward is deeply flawed theologically and as such does not provide a model for the Church of England to follow.

M B Davie 18.4.16

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Misprints, original sin and the love of God

Misprints, original sin and the love of God

Over the Easter period a news story which caught my attention was the report that a mix up at the printers resulted in Acomb parish church in Yorkshire being delivered four banners declaring the good  news that ‘Chris is risen.’  This is not, of course, the first time that such a misprint has occurred and what interests me is the way in which, if you think about them carefully enough, misprints can point you towards theological truth.

This is true, for instance of the misprint which declared ‘Glory to God in the high st’ rather than ‘Glory to God in the highest.’ This mistake reminds us that God is to be glorified in the day to day life of the high street and not just in church buildings on Sundays.  In the same way the declaration ‘Chris is risen,’ although also a mistake, bears witness to a vital aspect of the Easter message.

To understand why this is the case we need to first of all to understand the problem to which the Easter message offers the solution. That problem is the existence of sin.

No one who is prepared to be honest about the human condition in general, or about their own life in particular, can deny the existence of sin. Sin is the failure to live as God made us to live and that is something that is true of all of us, as our troubled consciences make clear (this is a point made brilliantly by C S Lewis in the opening chapters of his book Mere Christianity).

As St. Paul puts it in Romans 3:23 ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’  To quote the classic words of the Book of Common Prayer, what this means is that:

‘We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.’

Furthermore, there is no area of our lives which sin does not affect. As the Church of England’s Homily ‘Of the Misery of all Mankind’ puts it:

‘…truly there be imperfections in our best works: we do not love God so much, as we ought to do, with all our heart, mind, and power; we do not fear God so much, as we ought to do; we do not pray to God, but with great and many imperfections; we give, forgive, believe, love, and hope unperfectly; we speak, think, and do unperfectly; we fight against the devil, the world, and the flesh unperfectly.’

This bias towards sin is not something that only affects us today. The witness of Scripture and the evidence of human history both tell us that what is wrong with humanity goes right back to the very origins of the human race (hence the term ‘original sin’).  There is something wrong with human nature that has affected and continues to affect every single generation of human beings.  In the words of Article IX of the  Thirty Nine Articles (the historic doctrinal standard of the Church of England), there is a ‘fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness , and is of his own nature inclined to evil.’

The existence of sin as an endemic feature of human existence relates to the declaration that ‘Chris is risen’ because this misprint points us to God’s solution to original sin.

It is sometimes asked why, if God is love (1 John 4:16), he does not simply overlook or tolerate our sinfulness. The answer is that he will not do this precisely because he is love.  As C S Lewis notes in his book The Problem of Pain:

‘… Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; …the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love. When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care? Does any woman regard it as a sign of love in a man that he neither knows nor cares how she is looking? Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved; his ‘feeling is more soft and sensible than are the tender horns of cockled snails.’ Of all powers he forgives most, but he condones least: he is pleased with little, but demands all.

When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that he has some ‘disinterested’ because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love.  You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of the conscientious magistrate, not the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.’

Because love demands the perfecting of the beloved and because God loves his human creatures it follows that he requires an end of our existence as sinners so that we can become the people he created us to be and the good news of Easter is that is precisely what he achieved on our behalf through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the words of the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth:

‘In the death of Jesus Christ, God took man’s place in order to suffer in his place the destruction of sinful man and, at the same time to realise the existence of the new obedient man. The way is therefore open to restore the lost right of man, his right to live as the creature of God.’

As those trapped by original sin human beings require a radical new start and this is what the death and resurrection of Christ provide.

St Paul tells us in Romans 6: 6-7: ‘We know that our old self was crucified with him that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin.‘  That is to say, our old fallen nature was slain in the death of Christ in order that we might have liberation from the domination by sin which our old nature necessarily entails.

Christ’s death thus brings together God’s judgement and God’s love. The cross was an act of God’s judgement in that on the cross the death penalty was carried out on us as sinners. Our sinful existence has no right to exist before God and was therefore brought to an end. The cross was at the same time an act of love since the purpose of this judgement was to destroy our enslavement to sin in order that we might become free to be the people God in his love for us always intended us to be.

This is a point made forcefully by Martin Luther in his Lectures on Romans. Commenting on Romans 6:3, Luther notes that in Scripture there is alongside the temporal death of the body,  a form of eternal death which is a: ‘very great evil’ in which: ‘it is man that dies, while sin lives and remains for ever’. This is the eternal death suffered by the damned. However, there is also a form of eternal death that is a: ‘very great good’. This is the form of death that took place in Christ:

‘It is the death of sin and the death of death, by which the soul is freed and separated from sin and the body from corruption, and the soul is united by grace and glory with the living God. This is death in the strict and proper sense of the word (for in every other death some mixture of life remains, but not in this one, in which there is nothing but life itself: eternal life). It is only this death that the conditions of death fit absolutely and perfectly; whatever dies in it, and in it alone, vanishes entirely into everlasting nothingness, and nothing ever returns from it (indeed it inflicts death also upon eternal death). Thus sin dies, and also the sinner when he is justified, for sin does not ever return, as the apostle says here: ‘Christ dies no more,’ etc. (Rom 6:9). This is the principle theme of the Scripture. For God arranged to take away through Christ whatever the devil brought in through Adam. And the devil brought in sin and death. Therefore, God brought about the death of death and the sin of sin, the prison of prison and the captivity of captivity. As he says through Hosea: ‘O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.’ (Hosea 13:14) ‘

It was this death – the death of death and the death of sin – that was undertaken on our behalf by Christ through His death on the cross. Our sins are no longer a barrier between us and God, because in Christ our sinful existence has been brought to an end. It is a closed chapter. That is why in Matthew’s account of the death of Christ the curtain of the Temple is torn in two and the tombs of the saints are cracked open (Matthew 27:51-53). The sin and death which barred access to God and kept the saints in their graves have been done away with by the death of Christ.

However, there is more to the work of Christ than simply the termination of our existence as sinners. The work of God in Christ was not simply, or even primarily, a destructive work. As an expression of God’s love for us it was primarily a work of re-creation. This brings us on to Barth’s second point which is that the purpose of Christ’s death is to ‘realise the existence of the new obedient man’. In the words of St. Peter in 1 Peter 2:24: ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness’.

This purpose was not achieved through the cross alone because if the cross was all there was then the story of God’s involvement with mankind would have reached its terminus point on Calvary. If we were to have a future our old existence as sinners had to be replaced with a new kind of existence

This new kind of existence is what has been made possible for us by Christ’s resurrection on the third day. The resurrection is an act of divine re-creation in which a new way of being human is opened up in which we are not only dead to sin but alive to God. That is why St Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17: ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come’ and why he writes in Romans 6:10-11 ‘The death he died he died to sin once and for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’ That is why Christ declares in John 11:25-26: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die’.

If we consider the cross and resurrection together what we therefore have is a twofold divine operation in which, to quote John Stott:

‘We have died and risen with him, so that our old life of sin, guilt and shame has been terminated and an entirely new life of holiness, forgiveness and freedom has begun.’

Or, as John Calvin puts it:

‘…our old man is destroyed by the death of Christ, so that His resurrection may restore our righteousness, and make us new creatures. And since Christ has been given to us for life, why should we die with Him, if not to rise to a better life? Christ, therefore, puts to death what is mortal in us in order that He may truly restore us to life.’

How then does God in his love deal with original sin? He does so by bringing an end through Christ’s death to our old existence dominated by sin so that through Christ’s resurrection we might enter into a new future in which are dead to sin and alive to God in the power of the Spirit, a future which will find its completion when the God’s kingdom is manifested in its fullness in a renewed universe at the end of time and the remnants of sin which continue to dog us in this life are done away with for ever.

To go back to the Acomb misprint with which we began, the good news of Easter is not just that Christ is risen, but that anyone who wants to do so can participate in his rising through faith and baptism, whether Chris, or Dennis, or Angela, or Margaret, or any other human being. Anyone who needs and wants a new start can find it in Christ’s resurrection.

Chris is risen. He is risen indeed, Hallelujah!

M B Davie 6.4.16

 

 

 

 

A Review of ‘Intentional Discipleship and Disciple Making – An Anglican Guide for Christian Life and Formation’

Intentional Discipleship and Disciple Making, which has been edited by John Kafwanka and Mark Oxbrow, is a new report which has been published by the Anglican Consultative Council and is intended to be a major resource document for both the Council itself and the wider Anglican Communion.

As its Preface explains:

‘This book brings together research, experience, and aspirations from theologians and mission leaders around the Anglican Communion. It seeks to stimulate further reflection and presents a foundation for thinking about discipleship and disciple-making as the Church’s primary mandate given by Jesus Christ under the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

The book is not complete in itself or in any way, but is offered as a resource to foster what must come naturally as central to the being and character of the Church, not just when it is convenient but in every sphere of the life of all the baptized.’[1]

The book is in two parts.

Part A is called ‘Theological Background.’  After an Introduction which explains what the book is about and the terminology that it uses, this part consists of eight chapters. Chapter 1 provides ‘A Biblical Theology of Disciple-Making’ and chapters 2-8 then look in turn at discipleship in the Early Church, in recent Roman Catholic theology, and in the Orthodox tradition, at the history of ‘Anglican Formation and Discipleship,’ at the Five Marks of Mission, at the relationship between healing and discipleship and at what the Instruments of Communion have had to say about various topics relating to discipleship and the making of disciples.

Part B is called ‘Contemporary Anglican Praxis of Discipleship.’  Following an Introduction, chapters 9-12 consist of a series of case studies of discipleship and disciple making in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas and chapters 13-16 look in turn at what Anglicans are doing to develop discipleship among children and young people, at the place of the Bible, worship, and the sacraments in discipleship, at the Church as ‘eucharistic community,’ and at various initiatives Anglicans are currently engaged in in order to develop discipleship. Finally, chapter 17 concludes the report by making ‘The Case for Intentional Discipleship in the Communion.’

This chapter argues that:

‘Discipleship is the future of the Anglican Communion. It is only as we call each generation anew to a daily walk with God, a living discipleship, that the Anglican Church can grow or even survive. Without new disciples our future is no longer than one generation.

Discipleship is the hope of the Anglican Communion. It is only through calling all Anglicans, and those who will join as new Christians, to a daily following of Christ that we will avoid error, division, and distraction and know the constant renewal of the Spirit that gives hope for eternity.

At a period in its history when the Anglican Communion is experiencing division, decline, and growth (in different regions, but also side by side) and theological challenge, it will not retain its relevance in contemporary society and the Kingdom through discipline, debate, or even discourse alone, but primarily through the deepening of the discipleship of all members in every aspect of their lives, in every place. Discipleship is the lifeblood of the Anglican Communion.’[2]

Because of the importance of fostering discipleship, the chapter further argues that

‘…the need for a Communion-wide period of emphasis on intentional discipleship, intentional equipping of all the baptized members to live out their faith with their gifts and skills in everyday life as Christ’s ambassadors, is both necessary and urgent.

There is need to mobilize and disseminate experience, good practice, and resources, and to promote collaboration and learning from each other, so as to build up the Body of Christ in its witness to Christ’s reconciling love today (and tomorrow)’.[3]

Furthermore, it says:

‘It is important to appreciate that putting emphasis on intentional discipleship will have implications for the whole life of the Church, including its structures, liturgy, prayer and worship, selection and training of ordination candidates, and leadership formation and deployment in general, etc., and it will have to be aligned in accord with this vision.’[4]

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this report?

The report has three strengths

First, it gives a reasonable overview of some key biblical material relating to discipleship; secondly, it provides an overview of what Anglican and other churches have done, and are doing, to encourage growth in discipleship and the making of new disciples; and thirdly, it rightly emphasises that discipleship and the making of disciples is something which the Anglican Communion needs to focus on in line with the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

However, the report also has a number of major weaknesses.

First, it fails to explore the theological framework within which discipleship takes place. From a biblical perspective discipleship has to be understood within a framework of election, faith, baptism, sanctification and glorification and the report fails to even note, let alone consider, this framework.

Secondly, it fails to give any overall account of how the basic elements of what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ fit together. It gives us lots of different bits of the picture, but it never pulls these together into a coherent whole.

Thirdly, it lacks any critical analysis of the material it considers.  We are given lots of brief snapshots of different aspects of what churches have done and are doing in the area of encouraging discipleship and discipleship making, but there is no consideration in the report of the strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches that are surveyed and there is no reflection on what we can learn from them.

Fourthly, all this means that all the report really gives us is an exhortation to take discipleship and the making of disciples more seriously. What it does not provide is any additional resources to help with this task.

If the Anglican Communion is to make discipleship and the making of disciples central to its life, a better way forward than this report would be the development of Communion wide resources in this area using the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer as a basis.  This catechism is short, biblically based and contains all the basic element of Christian discipleship within a clear overall theological framework in which the Christian life is viewed as a response to the prevenient grace of God which is made possible by the assistance of God asked for in prayer.  Using the catechism as a basis would provide a clear agreed base line for the development of Christian discipleship that could then be applied in specific local contexts. [5]

The Communion would also be well advised to make use of To Be a Christian, the important new catechetical material produced by the Anglican Church in North America.  As its introduction explains:

‘This catechism (a text used for instruction of Christian disciples) is designed as a resource manual for the renewal of Anglican catechetical practice. It presents the essential building blocks of classic catechetical instruction: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue). To these is added an initial section especially intended for those with no prior knowledge of the Gospel. Each section is presented in the question-and-answer form that became standard in the sixteenth-century because of its proven effectiveness. Each section is also set out with its practical implications, together with biblical references.’[6]

As it goes on to say:

‘In one respect, this catechism breaks new ground for Anglicans. The historic Catechism in the English Book of Common Prayer is brief, and specifically designed to prepare young people for confirmation and church membership. However, this present work is intended as a more comprehensive catechetical tool for all adult (or near-adult) inquirers, and for all Christians seeking deeper grounding in the full reality of Christian faith and life.

As such, this catechism attempts to be a missional means by which God may bring about both conversion to Christ and formation in Christ (or regeneration and sanctification, to use older words). This vision of comprehensive usefulness has been before the minds of the writing team from the beginning.’[7]

Because of its length and the detail of its contents To Be a Christian is not a replacement for the BCP catechism as a basic tool for Christian catechesis. However, it is an extremely important resource for those seeking additional, more advanced, catechetical material.

One final point to note in relation to Intentional Discipleship and Disciple Making is that a concern for a fresh emphasis on Christian discipleship cannot be separated from the current debate within the Anglican Communion about human sexuality. The Communion cannot decide to agree to disagree about sexuality and focus on discipleship instead.  This is because in the Bible, and in the orthodox Christian tradition building on the Bible, right sexual practice, consisting of sexual abstinence outside heterosexual marriage and sexual faithfulness within it, has always been seen as an integral part of what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. This being the case the acceptance and advocacy of alternative patterns of sexual conduct in parts of the Anglican Communion has to be seen as inimical to Christian discipleship and rejected as such. To be serious about discipleship means being serious about sexual holiness and rejecting all forms of behaviour incompatible with it.

Martin Davie 5.4.16

[1]               Intentional Discipleship and Disciple Making, London: ACC, 2016, p.xii.

[2]               Ibid, p.127.

[3]               Ibid, pp.130-131

[4]               Ibid, p.131.

[5]               For an introduction to the Catechism see Martin Davie, Instruction in the Way of the Lord – A Guide to the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, London: Latimer Trust, 2014.

[6]               The Anglican Church in North America, To Be A Christian, p.3 text at Anglican Church in North America http://anglicanchurch.net/?/main/catechism

[7]               Ibid, p.4.