‘Don’t go listening to lies’? Absolutely. A response to Rosie Harper.

  1. The general confession in the Book of Common Prayer.

For centuries members of the Church of England have confessed their sins using the words of the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer. They have prayed:

‘Almighty and most merciful Father, 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: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.’[1]

Those who have prayed in this way have believed that the words they have said correspond to the truth of the human situation. We have turned from God’s ways and have become people who are at odds with God and consequently we need to ask his forgiveness and seek his help to amend our lives.

  1. Why Canon Harper holds that what the confession says is a lie.

Today, however, there are members of the Church of England who tell us that those who have believed this have been taught and accepted a lie.

We can see this, for example, if we look at the recent article ‘Don’t go listening to lies’ written by Canon Rosie Harper, the Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and a member of the General Synod.[2] In her article Canon Harper begins by quoting with approval a song she heard sung at a school assembly, a song which began with the words  ‘Don’t go listening to lies.’  She argues that this is a lesson that we all need to learn and that it is particularly important that we should not go listening to lies about God.

As she sees it, the fundamental lie to which we should not listen is the lie that there is something wrong with us in God’s eyes. In her words, ‘The fundamental lie is that you simply being you won’t do.’  She goes on to say that we need to reject, and be mentally healed from, are the ideas that there is an ‘angry God’ who ‘will never fully accept you the way he created you’  and that ‘it isn’t only what you do, but who you are that is wrong.’

If we compare what Canon Harper says with the words of the general confession we can see that the two are totally incompatible, The Book of Common Prayer tells us that ‘there is no health in us.’ Canon Harper tells us that this is a lie. If one is true, then the other is not.

So, which should we believe?

  1. C S Lewis and the significance of the moral law.

A helpful way to start to think about this issue is provided by C S Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. In the opening chapters of this book Lewis notes that all of us, whether we are religious or not, have a basic and ineradicable sense that there is moral law, a law concerning right and wrong, that we ought to obey.

He then notes two further things. First, that when we are honest with ourselves we all know we have broken this moral law. Secondly, that the existence of this moral law only makes sense if there is lawgiver, an ‘absolute goodness,’ whom Christians call ‘God.’

These three facts, that there is a moral law, that there has to be a God who has given this law and that we have broken this law, should, he declares, give us ‘…. cause to be uneasy.’[3]  The difficulty we are faced with, writes Lewis:

‘… is that one part of you is on his [God’s] side and really agrees with His disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. This is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and we are not in the least likely to do any better to-morrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we must need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger – according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.’ [4]

  1. Why Scripture confirms that Lewis is correct.

These words by Lewis are an example of what is known as ‘natural theology,’ that is, theology based on our ordinary everyday experience. They are confirmed by what God himself tells us in Scripture. Thus, the Psalmist tells us:

‘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.’ (Psalm 14:2-3)

It is because this is so that the Psalmist prays:

‘Enter not into judgment with thy servant;for no man living is righteous before thee.’ (Psalm 143:2)

It is also why the Apostle John tells us: ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.’ (1 John 1: 8-10)

In addition to these specific declarations of human sinfulness (of which there are many others in Bible) the whole story arc of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is one long narrative about how all human beings bar one have sinned against God in a multitude of different ways, not loving God and not loving their neighbours as themselves.  Furthermore, the biblical narrative also tells us that God not only expresses his disapproval of human sin, but that he reacts to it with a series of temporal judgements that prefigure the final judgement at the end of time when those who have not repented of their sins enter into the ‘second death (Revelation 20:14) in which they are cut off from God and all good forever.

  1. The two problems with Canon Harper’s approach.

For Canon Harper, it appears, all this is a lie. God does not ever really disapprove of who we are and what we do[5] because we are as he created us to be. There are two problems with this claim.

First, it is at odds with both natural and revealed theology, both universal experience and Holy Scripture. This raises the question, which she never addresses, of why she thinks what she says is true. What is her additional, and more reliable, source of information about God and the human condition?

Secondly, she fails to acknowledge the problem of human brokenness. If we are how God intended us to be then, frankly, he has not made a very god job of creating us. He is like a dodgy builder who has thrown up a house where the plumbing doesn’t work, the doors don’t fit and the roof leaks.

The only rational way we can continue to make the Christian affirmation that God possesses ‘infinite power, wisdom and goodness’[6] is if we say that we are not the people we were created to be. We have to say that something that has gone wrong that has been contrary to God’s original intention for his human creatures.

This is, of course exactly what Scripture and the orthodox Christian tradition do say. They tell us that what has gone wrong is that starting right back at the beginning of human history humans have mis-used the free will God gave them by rebelling against him at the behest of an evil spiritual power whom the Bible calls Satan.  To quote Lewis again:

‘What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could be like gods – could set up on their own as if they had created themselves – be their own masters – invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.’[7]

As Lewis goes on to say, this attempt to find happiness apart from God has never succeeded and will never succeed.

‘God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.’ [8]

  1. God’s solution to Man’s plight.

If this is the human situation, it might appear that there is no hope for any of us. We were created to find our happiness in God, but it is God against whom we have rebelled and continue to rebel. Why, then, have those who have prayed the general confession continued to look to God with expectation and hope? It is because they know that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves.

God became Man in Jesus Christ and on the first Good Friday he died on the cross in our place in an act of divine judgement. He did this in order to put to death our old sinful natures so that we might receive instead a wholly new life through his resurrection (Romans 6:6-11).  In the words of the Apostle Paul, we become a ‘new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

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.’ [9]

As a consequence the Christian life, the ‘godly, righteous, and sober life’ referred to in the general confession, is a life marked by mortification and vivification. ‘As mortification, holiness is the laying aside of that which has been put to death at the cross of the Son of God; as vivification, holiness is the living out of that which has been made alive in the Son’s resurrection.’[10]  In the words of 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 dual calling to mortification and vivification can often seem nothing short of utterly terrifying because it asks us to hand over the control of lives totally to God and do whatever he tells us to do, however counter-intuitive or painful this may seem. However, to quote Lewis one last time, terrifying though this may be, it is actually easier than what we naturally want to do:

‘The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves,’ to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way -centred on money or pleasure or ambition and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us that you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, that change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.’[11]

Furthermore, God does not leave us to undergo the process of being ploughed up and re-sown on our own. He gives us the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit – that same power which empowered Jesus Himself – he gives us the Scriptures to direct our paths, he gives us the sacraments and our Christian brothers and sisters, and he responds to our prayers for help whenever we remember to ‘ask, seek and knock’ (Matthew 7:7-11).

The Christian way is thus hard, but it is not impossible, and it is the path that leads us to the life with God which God has intended for us all along.

  1. The traditional Christian approach and the issue of mental well-being.

A further point that needs to be noted, is that the Christian path is also the one that corresponds to the principles of mental well-being. Canon Harper refers in her paper to ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ and seems to suggest that what is required for mental health is for people to simply receive unconditional acceptance. They simply need to know that they are accepted as they are by God and others. However, the achievement of mental health is more complex than this simplistic model.

Mental well-being requires two key things, acceptance of reality, of how things really are, and a willingness to take responsibility for what we have done in the past and need to do in the present and future to make things better for ourselves and others. Without these two factors being in place people will remain trapped in what is known as ‘denial’ and will not be able to make progress with their lives.

As an example, consider someone who is an alcoholic. It no use them simply receiving acceptance. If they are to move forward and achieve a better life, they need to admitthat they have a problem with alcohol, take responsibility for the harm their abuse of alcohol has caused and take responsibility for ensuring they do not abuse alcohol in the future.

In a similar fashion we are all, all of us, sin addicts in various ways. If we want to move forward to achieve the lives for which we were created, we need to (a) acknowledge this fact, (b) take responsibility for the hurt our sins have caused to God and others, and (c) take responsibility, with God’s help, for turning our back on these sins and living the new life that Christ died and rose to make possible.

Canon  Harper’s approach of acceptance and affirmation may superficially appear kind and loving, but, in reality,  it is deeply cruel. This is because it leaves people with the illusion that they are Ok as they are. However, it is only when this illusion is shattered, when we understand and accept that we are sinners who need God’s mercy and a completely new start, that we can actually make progress with God.

It is neither kind nor loving to tell someone with a potentially fatal disease that there is nothing wrong with them. In a similar way it is neither kind nor loving to tell unrepentant sinners that they are Ok before God as they are.

  1. Conclusion.

In conclusion, Canon Harper is completely right when she says ‘Don’t go listening to lies.’ However, the big lie is the lie that says we are Ok as we are. We are not. We are sinners facing the judgement of God and we need to accept God’s offer of forgiveness and a new start while there is still time. To use the old language, there needs to be repentance and amendment of life. Furthermore, this is not a one-off thing. We need to die to sin daily and we will need to continue to do this until the day we finally enter God’s eternal kingdom.

That is what we ourselves need to accept. That is what we have to tell others. Anything else is a cruel deception. It is a lie which we need to reject. Don’t go listening to lies…

M B Davie 24.10.19

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, the general confession at Morning and Evening Prayer.

[2] Rosie Harper, ‘Don’t go listening to lies,’  Via Media .News, 22 October 2019 at

https://viamedia.news/2019/10/22/dont-go-listening-to-lies/.

[3] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, Glasgow: Fount, 1984, Ch.5, title.

[4] Ibid, pp.36-37.

[5] It is worth noting that being and doing cannot be separated. We are not good people who inexplicably  do bad things. We are all bad people (‘there is no health in us’) who commit sin because we are bad people.

[6] The Thirty Nine Articles, Article 1.

[7] Lewis, op.cit., p.50.

[8] Ibid, p.50.

[9] John Calvin, Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, Edinburgh: The SaintAndrew Press, 1961 pp.122-3.

[10] John Webster, Holiness, London: SCM, 2003, p.88.

[11] Lewis, op.cit., pp.165-166.

Brexit, the bishops and the rich fool

The bishops’ joint statement about Brexit.

Following the events that took place in the Supreme Court and Parliament last week the Bishops of the Church of England have issued a joint statement about Brexit in which they make four key points:

  • First, that the result of the 2016 referendum ‘should be honoured.’
  • Secondly, that in debates about Brexit we ‘should speak to others with respect’ and should also listen, especially to the poor, the marginalised and ‘those whose voices are often not heard in our national conversation.’
  • Thirdly, politicians should ‘adhere rigorously to the rule of law ‘and everyone should ‘respect and uphold the impartiality of the courts and our judiciary.’
  • Fourthly, we must renew the structures in our national life that ‘enable us ‘to love one another.’ [1]

These four points are unexceptionable, if rather lacking in detail (what exactly does it mean, for example to ‘honour’ the result of the referendum, or to ‘renew’ the structures of our national life?) and one has to acknowledge that getting 118 bishops to agree a statement on Brexit was no mean feat.

The presupposition behind the Brexit debate.

Nevertheless, the statement is seriously flawed because the bishops have failed to address the most fundamental issue facing our nation at the moment, an issue which the Brexit debate has ignored ever since the original referendum campaign back in 2016.

To understand why this is the case we need to note that the presupposition shared by those on both sides of the debate about Brexit is that the key issue facing our country at the moment has to do with economics.

Although the debate has also touched on issues of national identity and national sovereignty, at the heart of the Brexit debate is a division of opinion about what will be most economically beneficial for the future of this country. On the one hand there are those who think we have the best chance of economic prosperity if we leave the European Union and make our own new trading arrangements with other nations, and on the other hand there are those who think we have the best chance of economic prosperity in both the short and long term if we remain within it.

From a Christian perspective the question of what future political arrangements are most like to bring about economic prosperity is an important one. This is because people in this country, as in all countries, need food, clothing, housing, education, jobs, healthcare and so forth, and we need the means to enable them to have these things. In particular, we need to take whatever steps we can to ensure that these things are available to those who are in especial need because of the place where they live, or because of their personal circumstances.

However, the problem is that in contemporary discussions about the future of our country, including the debate about Brexit, it is generally assumed that the most important thing that people need is material prosperity. The current divisions in our political system are not about whether this is the case. All sides assume that it is. What they differ over is the best way for material prosperity to be achieved.

Jesus’ teaching about the rich fool and its relevance to Brexit debate.

From a Christian viewpoint, however, the assumption that material prosperity is the highest good for human beings is one that needs to be challenged. This is made clear in the teaching of Jesus in Luke 12:13-21 which runs as follows:

‘One of the multitude said to him, ‘Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.’  But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ And he told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.’

The key point Jesus is making is that ‘a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’  However many possessions (or however much money) we manage to acquire during the course of our life in this world, at the end of our life they will be taken away from us. As the Spanish proverb puts it ‘there are no pockets in a shroud.’ What matters at the point of death is therefore what we can take with us into the world to come, namely our relationship with God.

When we die all that will be of importance is whether or not we have a right relationship with God, whether, in Jesus’ words, we are ‘rich towards God.’  This is because it is only if we have such a relationship that we will be happy with God for ever in his eternal kingdom. If, like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, we chose to focus on ourselves and our possessions and turn our back on God we shall instead suffer what the Bible calls the ‘second death’ (Revelation 21:8), alienation from God and all good for ever. In the words of J I Packer, ‘the unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his choice.’ [2]

The most fundamental issue facing our nation at the moment is that we have collectively come to take the attitude of the rich fool. Historically, as the historical records show, the inhabitants of what is now the United Kingdom have acknowledged that the most important thing in human existence is to be rightly prepared for the world to come. In the words of the Prayer Book funeral service, they have acknowledged that ‘Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live’ and they have therefore prayed:

‘We meekly beseech thee, O Father, to raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness; that, when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him, as our hope is this our brother doth; and that, at the general Resurrection in the last day, we may be found acceptable in thy sight, and receive that blessing, which thy well-beloved Son shall then pronounce to all that love and fear thee, saying, Come, ye blessed children of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world: Grant this, we beseech thee, O merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer.’

Today, however, most people in this country no longer see the need to prepare for life after death. They no longer seek the mercy of God through Jesus Christ in order that they may have a blessed eternity. Like the rich fool, they see life in this world as all that matters and that is why they see achieving material prosperity in this life as the top political priority. That, in turn, is why the pitch made to voters by the political parties is that they the one who are best able to provide material prosperity and that is why in the Brexit debate both side have proclaimed that their approach is that one that will guarantee material prosperity in the future.

What the bishops need to do.

All this being the case, it is not sufficient to do as the bishops have done and tell politicians and others that they can carry on the same debate, but need to dial back the rhetoric a bit.

What the bishops need to do instead is to go back to basics and produce a much more radical document designed to reframe the whole national conversation.

In this document they need to challenge the way in which the issue of whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union has come to be given absolute importance. They need to remind people that, whatever happens to Britain’s relationship with the European Union, God will still be God and people will still need to be properly related to him if they want to avoid a lost eternity.

They also need to remind people that the issue facing the nation is not just about not giving overmuch weight to the Brexit debate. More basically it is about not attaching too much importance to the quest for material prosperity in general. Jesus is quite clear. ‘You cannot serve God and mammon’ (Matthew 6:24). Mammon means ‘wealth’ or ‘riches’ and what Jesus is saying is we have to choose who we will give our allegiance to. If the focus of our life lies in acquiring money or material possessions then we have necessarily rejected God, even if we acknowledge that God exists and sometimes give him some attention. As John Stott writes:

‘…anybody who divides his allegiance between God and mammon has already given it to mammon, since God can only be served with an entire and exclusive devotion. This is simply because he is God: ‘I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other [Isaiah 42:8, 48:11]. To try to share him with other loyalties is to have opted for idolatry.’ [3]

From this perspective the Brexit debate illustrates the fact that we have become an idolatrous nation and the bishops need to say so.

Finally, they need to urge people to turn back to God while there is still time. God is patient and merciful and allows people time to come back to him. However, his patience will not last forever. One day, like the rich fool, we will find that time has run out and at that point all that will matter is where we stand with God.

It will be said that there is no way that the bishops will be prepared to issue such a radically counter cultural statement, or that the nation will listen if they do. Both these points may well be true, but, if they are, what this shows is just how far the Church and the nation have turned away from the Christian faith.  If this is the case then the calling of faithful Christians is not be silent, but rather to be courageous in reminding the Church and the nation of Jesus’ warning about the fate of the rich fool and to pray that God will send a revival that will turn the Church and nation back to him.

M B Davie 30.9.19

[1] ‘Bishops call for respect on all sides amid Brexit debate,’ at https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/bishops-call-respect-all-sides-amid-brexit-debate.

[2] J I Packer, Knowing God, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975, p.170.

[3] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, Leicester: IVP, 1978, pp.158-159.