Failing the Green Test II: A critical examination of the advice from the Church of England’s Legal Office

Introduction

In the midst of the current discussion about the House of Bishops’ response to the LLF process and the new liturgical resources that accompany it,  there is one thing that is agreed on all sides, which is that to be legal what is proposed has to conform to the requirement of the Canons of the Church of England that any liturgical development is ‘neither contrary to, not indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’[1]

In the legal note on page 22 of the new Prayers we are told that the propose new liturgical resources meet this test:

‘The prayers and forms of service commended here are ‘neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’ (including, but not limited to, the definition of Holy Matrimony in Canon B 30).’

Yesterday the legal advice from the Church of England’s Legal Office underlying this claim was published as GS Misc 1339 ‘Prayers of Love and Faith: A note from the Legal Office.’ [2]

In my previous paper on the bishops’ proposals[3] I applied what I called the ‘Green test.’ This test, named after the late Canon Michael Green who taught it to me, holds that that there are two key questions that a student should ask of any item on a theological reading list. These two questions are (a) ‘What is this writer trying to sell me?’ and (b) ‘Is this something I should buy?’  In my previous paper I argued that the bishops’ proposals failed this test. In this new paper I want to argue that the advice from the Legal Office likewise fails this test with the consequence that it does not show that what the bishops are proposing is legal.

The advice from the legal office

The starting point for the advice from the legal office is the claim that a service for a same-sex couple would be lawful if it did not treat their civil marriage as ‘Holy Matrimony.’

‘The Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony as being between one man and one woman is set out in Canon B 30. The effect of Canon B 5.3, in the light of the doctrine described in Canon B 30, is that it would not be lawful for a minister to use a form of service which either explicitly or implicitly treated or recognised the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex as corresponding to Holy Matrimony. But it would in principle be lawful for a minister to use a form of service for two persons of the same sex who wished to mark a stage in their relationship provided that it did not explicitly or implicitly treat or recognise the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex as corresponding to Holy Matrimony.’ (Para.3)

In defence of this claim the advice then goes on to say:

‘The Legal Office has carefully examined the draft Prayers. It considers that none of the text contained in the draft Prayers of Love and Faith treats the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex, either expressly or impliedly, as amounting to Holy Matrimony. The Prayers are careful to avoid any such implication. Moreover, the Prayers are framed so that they do not bless civil marriages (or civil partnerships); any blessing is of the couple and the good in their relationship, not of the civil status they may have acquired (bearing in mind that not all will have a civil status – those in covenanted friendships in particular). Note 5 in Notes to the Service specifically states, “Any adaptation or new texts added by the minister here or elsewhere in the service must not involve the incorporation of the blessings contained in the Marriage Service from the Book of Common Prayer or Common Worship.” Accordingly, nothing contained in the draft prayers would amount to, or be indicative of, a departure from the doctrine contained in Canon B30.’ (Para 4)

To put it simply, what the advice is saying here is that the prayers are legal because:

  • They do not state or imply that a civil marriage is ‘Holy Matrimony’
  • They do not involve the blessing of a civil same-sex marriage as if it was Holy Matrimony (as shown by the avoidance of the blessings of marriage contained in the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship).

These two points are critical because Canon B.30 ‘Of Holy Matrimony’ holds that marriage is a union of ‘one man with one woman’ and therefore to imply that a same-sex civil marriage was Holy Matrimony, or to treat it liturgically as if it was, would be contrary to this Canon and as such a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England and therefore illegal.

However, these two points are entirely dependent on the proposition that civil marriages are not Holy Matrimony being true. The Legal Office advice argues that this distinction is a consequence of the 2013 Act of Parliament legalising the marriage of same-sex couples:

‘This follows from the terms of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which explicitly provides for a definition of marriage in ecclesiastical law (one man and one woman) which is different from the definition in the general law. The two definitions are mutually exclusive and this can be seen as having resulted in there now being two different institutions by the name of “marriage”. Since the coming into force of the 2013 Act, civil marriage in England has taken no notice of the respective sexes of the parties to a marriage; it has become in effect a ‘gender-neutral’ institution. But Holy Matrimony continues to be defined by ecclesiastical law – not by the changed position in the general law brought about by the 2013 Act – and remains “in its nature a union … of one man with one woman”. The 2013 Act explicitly preserves the position in the Canons of the Church of England. Because the sexes of the parties are irrelevant so far as the general law concept of marriage is concerned, the concept of civil marriage is now of a different nature from the concept of marriage set out in Canon B 30 (Holy Matrimony).’  (Paragraph 6)

As a result of this distinction:

‘The proposed prayers and other forms of service which may be used for a same sex couple who have entered a civil marriage, do not indicate or imply that the couple are considered to be in a state of Holy Matrimony; they recognise that the couple’s relationship has been marked by their entering into a particular civil status (albeit regarded by the State as “marriage”). Provided that the prayers meet the requirements described in the preceding paragraphs, the fact that they are for use – among other occasions – for a couple who have entered into a civil marriage is not indicative of a departure from the doctrine of Holy Matrimony as set out in Canon B 30, just as that would not be the case for prayers for use with a couple who have entered into a civil partnership or a covenanted friendship.’ (paragraph 8).

At the end of the Legal Office’s advice two further points are then made.

The first relates to content of the draft prayers proposed by the bishop. It argues that they are legal because they do not imply that the relationships being prayed for involve same-sex sexual activity.

‘Some people have raised concerns that the draft Prayers of Love and Faith are contrary to, or indicative of a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in an essential matter, on the basis that they are for use in connection with relationships that involve sexual relations between persons of the same sex. But a sexual relationship is not inherent in a same sex marriage, any more than it is in a civil partnership. The draft Prayers contain  no implication that what is being celebrated or blessed is a sexual relationship. The argument that the Prayers are therefore indicative of a departure from doctrine so far as sexual relationships are concerned cannot be sustained; they are simply silent on that point.’ (Paragraph 9)

Secondly, what follow from this  is that ‘nothing in the draft Prayers pre-empts what the replacement [for Issues in Human Sexuality} might say on the subject of sexual relationships.’ (Paragraph 10)

Should we accept the Legal Office’s advice?

The first thing to note about the Legal Office’s advice is that it is not derived from anything that is said in the 2013 legislation to permit same sex marriages.

The 2013 Act does not create two different kinds of marriage, religious and civil. What the relevant portion of the Act says is that:

‘A person may not be compelled by any means (including by the enforcement of a contract or a statutory or other legal requirement)—

(a)to conduct a relevant marriage,

(b)to be present at, carry out, or otherwise participate in, a relevant marriage, or

(c)to consent to a relevant marriage being conducted,

where the reason for the person not doing that thing is that the relevant marriage concerns a same sex couple.’ [4]

What this section of the Act provides is an exemption for, among others, ministers of the Church of England from having to perform the marriages of same sex couples. The very fact that such an exemption is required  shows that there is one form of marriage. Were this not so, a Church of England minister could refuse to celebrate the marriage of the same sex couple simply on the grounds that the Church of England performs ‘Holy Matrimony’ and not ‘marriage’ and therefore a normal legal requirement to conduct a marriage does not exist.

In addition, the Government’s own commentary on the legislation specifically states that the Act:

‘Ensures that the common law legal duty on the clergy of the Church of England  and the Church in Wales to marry parishioners does not extend to same sex couples. It also protects the Church of England’s Canon law, which says that marriage is the union of one man with one woman, so that it does not conflict with civil law.’ [5]

Here again there is the presumption that there is a single entity, namely marriages, and not two separate entities, marriage and Holy Matrimony.  It follows that the advice from the Legal Office is at variance with what the Government thinks the implications of the 2013 Act are.

Furthermore, since 2013 the Church of England has never previously said or implied that there is a distinction between marriage and Holy Matrimony.

The House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage in 2014 (which was presumably drawn up with advice from the Legal Office) has an entire section on the effect of the 2013 Act. This section states:

‘9. The Government’s legislation, nevertheless, secured large majorities in both Houses of Parliament on free votes and the first same sex marriages in England are expected to take place in March. From then there will, for the first time, be a divergence between the general understanding and definition of marriage in England as enshrined in law and the doctrine of marriage held by the Church of England and reflected in the Canons and the Book of Common Prayer.

10.  The effect of the legislation is that in most respects there will no longer be any distinction between marriage involving same sex  couples and couples of opposite genders. The legislation make religious as well as civil same sex weddings possible, though only where the relevant denomination or faith has opted in to conducting such weddings. In addition, the legislation provides that no person may be compelled to conduct or be present at such a wedding.

11.  The Act provides no opt in mechanism for the Church of England because of the constitutional convention that the power of initiative on legislation affecting the Church of England rests with the General Synod, which has the power to pass Measures and Canons. The Act preserves, as part of the law of England, the effect of any Canon which makes provision about marriage being the union of one man with one woman, notwithstanding the general, gender free definition of marriage. As a result Canon B30 remains part of the law of the land.

12.  When the Act comes into force in March it will continue not to be legally possible for two persons of the same sex to marry according to the rites of the Church of England. In addition, the Act makes clear that any rights and duties which currently exist in relation to being married in Church of England churches do not extend to same sex couples.’ [6]

Paragraph 9 here notes the divergence that the Act creates between the understanding of marriage held by the state and that held by the Church of England. However, the guidance does not go on to say that there is therefore a general distinction between marriage and Holy Matrimony such that everyone who has not been married by the Church of England is civilly married but not in a state of Holy Matrimony.  

No subsequent Church of England document prior to the new Legal Office advice has then made this distinction, and such a distinction is contrary to both the Church of England’s practice and its theology.

It is contrary to Church of England practice in three crucial ways.

First, when Church of England clergy marry a couple they act on behalf of both the Church and the state. The one action creates one marriage that both the Church and the state then recognise.

Secondly, the converse is also true. When, with the exception of same sex marriages,  when a couple marries in a civil ceremony (or in a religious ceremony made legal by the presence of a civil registrar) the Church of England automatically recognises that couple as married both in the eyes of God as well as in the eyes of the state. That is why, for instance, the service of ‘Prayer and dedication after a Civil Marriage’ refers to the couple as already being husband and wife. Thus, in the Preface to the service the minister declares:

‘N and N, you stand in the presence of God as man and wife to dedicate to him your life together, that he may consecrate your marriage and empower you to keep the covenant and promise you have solemnly declared.’[7]

The Legal Office’s denial of this reality would mean, for example, that from a Church of England’s perspective a Christian opposite sex couple civilly married in an Evangelical Free Church whose minister was not licensed to act as registrar would not be properly married. Their union would not be ‘Holy Matrimony.’ Really?

Thirdly, the Church of England has never accepted the claim that a couple in a civil marriage can enter into a state of Holy Matrimony without their previous marriage being ended by either death or divorce. Unless either of these two events happens, they cannot enter Holy Matrimony because they are still married and would be committing bigamy.

It is contrary to Church of England theology because of what the Church of England believes about the nature of marriage. To quote the 2013 Faith and Order Commission report  Men and Women in Marriage:

‘Neither the state nor the Church can claim a prior right over marriage, nor does either of them ‘make’ marriages, which is done by God’s providence working through the public promises of the couples themselves.’ [8]

The point being made here reflects the point previously made in the Marriage Service in the Book of Common Prayer which declares that Holy Matrimony (which it also calls ‘matrimony’ or simply ‘marriage’ – the terms are synonymous[9]) ‘is an honourable estate, instituted by God in the time of man’s innocency.’  These words refer us back to the account of the institution of marriage by God given to us in Genesis 2:18-25. In line with Genesis 2:24 (‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and the two shall become one flesh’) they hold that all subsequent marriages owe their origin to  this institution of marriage by God.

Marriage, that is to say, is state of life (an ‘estate’) created by God which human beings can then enter, and the way that a man and woman enter into it is through an exchange of vows through which they commit themselves to live in it. To quote the Marriage Service again, it is the ‘vow and covenant betwixt them made’ that makes them married before God and by God. The form of their making this vow and covenant, and the subsequent legal recognition of their act by the state or the Church, are secondary matters (which is why a man and a woman stranded alone on a desert island could perfectly properly marry each other).  

All this means is that the Church of England’s recognition of a marriage is precisely that. It is a recognition of an antecedent reality and the basis of this recognition is that the couple have thus entered into the way of life instituted by God and described in Genesis 2. The converse of this is that if they have not entered into this way of life then they are not married. That is the point of the warning in the Marriage Service ‘… by ye well assured that so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s Word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their Matrimony lawful’ (that is, lawful according to God’s law, and not just the law of the state or the church).   

In the light of all this, we have to say that the distinction made by the Legal Office between civil marriage and Holy Matrimony (and on which their defence of the bishops’ proposals ins principally based) has no merit.  The objection to what the bishops’ propose is not that their draft prayers mark civil marriages as if they were Holy Matrimony (as we have seen, in Anglican thought as well as in the 2013 Act no fundamental distinction is made between the two).

The objection is that by allowing the marking in a church service of same sex civil marriages the Church of England would be saying that it is right (in the words of the Preface to the draft prayers) ‘to celebrate in God’s presence the commitment two people have made to each other,’ even when the couple involved are ‘coupled together otherwise than God’s word doth allow.’

As I noted in my previous post, no provision is made in Scripture for same-sex ‘marriages’ or partnerships and there is no theological room within the teaching of Scripture for them to exist. As Michael Brown observes:

  • Every single reference to marriage in the entire Bible speaks of heterosexual unions without exception, to the point that a Hebrew idiom for marriage is for a man ‘to take a wife’.
  • Every warning to men about sexual purity presupposes heterosexuality, with the married man often warned not to lust after another woman.
  • Every discussion about family order and structure speaks explicitly in heterosexual terms, referring to husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
  • Every law or instruction given to children presupposes heterosexuality, as children are urged to heed or obey or follow the counsel or example of their father and mother.
  • Every parable, illustration or metaphor having to do with marriage is presented in exclusively heterosexual terms.

In the Old Testament, God depicts his relationship with Israel as that of a groom and a bride; in the New Testament, the image shifts to the marital union of husband and wife as a picture of Christ and the Church.[10]

The basic problem, which the legal advice does not  so much as acknowledge, is that within the framework of Anglican doctrine to liturgically mark with celebration, in the presence of God, a form of life which is unlawful because it claims to be marriage but is not in line with marriage as God has ordained it to be, is something that is never right to do. It is blatantly ‘contrary to, and indicative of a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England.’

This problem would exist even if the same sex unions in question were completely sexually abstinent. They would still be ‘unlawful.’

However, the fact that the pattern of liturgical practice proposed by the bishops does not distinguish between sexually abstinent and sexually active unions does create another problem. This is because, as I noted in my previous post, both Scripture and the entire Christian tradition declares with one voice that same sexual activity (along with any other sexual activity outside marriage) is sin. Accordingly, as the 1987 General Synod motion notes, this activity has to be met not only with compassion but also a call to repentance.

The Legal Office is probably right when it says that the prayers don’t explicitly refer to sexual activity, but you cannot simply detach a relationship from the sexual activity within it. The obvious point that the Legal Office either hasn’t thought about, or has chosen to ignore,  is that the fact you would not allow any liturgy to pray for incestuous or adulterous relationships or for ones involving sado-masochistic activity highlights this point. Why wouldn’t you pray for them? Because the sexual activity involved makes them wrong.

Two points follow from this. First, there needs to be a distinction, which the draft prayers do not make, between the kind of same-sex relationships which it might be right to pray for (such as non-marital sexual friendships) and those which it would never be right to pray for (any involving sexual activity outside marriage) so that the clergy and others know which they can pray for and which they cannot. Secondly because liturgy is a declarative active which states what the Church believes to be right, the Church has to distinguish publicly between these different categories of same-sex relations (something for which again no provision is made). Without such clarity the proposed liturgies would be ‘indicative of’ a departure from the existing doctrine of the Church of England and therefore unlawful.

Back in 2005 the House of Bishops noted that it would not be right to ‘produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships’ precisely because of the ‘ambiguity’ caused by the fact that ‘people in a variety of relationships will be eligible to register as civil partners, some living consistently with the teaching of the Church, others not.’ [11] Eighteen years later this point still applies, not just to civil partnerships, but to all forms of same sex unions. Unless the Church of England can make an explicit public distinction between such unions, saying which are licit and which are illicit, and why, it cannot make them the subject of public prayer.

A final point is that because the draft prayers allow for same-sex marriages, and sexually active same sex unions in general, to be celebrated before God through the liturgy this must pre-empt the guidance that will be provide to replace Issues in Human Sexuality.

If such relationships are already allowed to be celebrated how then does this not mean that the Church believes that to do so is right in God’s sight?  

Conclusion

As with the House of Bishops proposals as a whole, for the reasons set out above the advice from the Legal Office fails the Green Test. It is trying to sell us something that we should not buy.  

Appendix – Failing the Green Test II – A Defence

A paper on the EDGE facebook site has criticised my paper ‘Failing the Green Test II’ on the following lines:

‘Unfortunately he’s making the mistake that keeps being made since the release of the Prayers. The bishops (and their lawyers) are NOT saying that only the CofE can perform Holy Matrimony services!!! Why do we keep misunderstanding this point?

What they’re saying, and *it is something that bishops have argued before*, is that there are two overlapping definitions of marriage. It is only at the point at which they depart (namely, where the state marries people of the same-sex) that what the State does is not Holy Matrimony (i.e. marriage as the Church has always understood it). An opposite sex couple that legally marries anywhere and in any way IS entering into a state of Holy Matrimony, and the bishops have not argued otherwise.

Please, please can we stop attacking that straw man.’

While I am grateful for this critique because all criticism is useful in forcing me to think carefully about the validity of my thinking, I nonetheless still think that my argument stands.

The key defence made by the bishops and the lawyers of the legality of the proposed services to mark among other things same-sex civil marriages is that the prayers themselves do not ‘treat the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex, either expressly or impliedly, as amounting to Holy Matrimony.’

This defence absolutely depends on a distinction between ‘civil marriage’ and the entity referred to as ‘Holy Matrimony.’

The problem with this defence is that it fails to engage seriously enough with the fact that there are now two understandings of marriage in this country, which for convenience we shall call understandings A and B.  

Understanding A, which is held by the state, and by some religious bodies and individuals, holds that marriage is a permanent and exclusive relationship between two people regardless of sex.

Understanding B, which is held by the Church of England and reflected in the Prayer Book marriage service and Canon B.30, holds that marriage is permanent and exclusive relationship between one man and one woman.

The Church of England holds that understanding B describes what marriage actually is because it is the form of marriage created by God as recorded in Genesis 2 and endorsed by Jesus in the Gospels. It follows from this that the Church of England holds that all who have entered into this way of life have entered into marriage (the term Holy Matrimony is a red herring because, as I point out in my paper, in both the Canon and the Prayer Book ‘Holy Matrimony’ is a synonym for marriage). This applies whether they have entered into a civil marriage or been married in a Church of England service. Marriage is marriage, is marriage (which is why, as I point out in my paper, the Church of England treats those who are civilly married as married).

Under the bishops’ proposals, however, it would be possible to use individual prayers, or to hold a form of service, to mark a civil marriage between two people of the same sex. According to understanding B their relationship is not a marriage at all. Whatever the state says, they are not married in the eyes of God, and this means that they are not married.

This obviously creates a problem because how can you mark a same-sex civil marriage when according to the doctrine of the Church of England (and in the eyes of God) it is not a marriage at all but a human fabrication which rebels against the order  that God has established for his creation?

The bishops and lawyers try to get round this by saying, ‘Ah but we are not marking it as Holy Matrimony.’ This does not work because as I have indicated, marriage and Holy Matrimony are two ways of describing the same thing.

If you accept that a same-sex couple are married and liturgically celebrate that fact with rejoicing thanksgiving and hope as the bishops suggest clergy and lay ministers should be allowed to do,  then you are saying precisely that they have entered into Holy Matrimony. This in turn means that you are reflecting a type A understanding of marriage rather than the type B understanding held by the Church of England. Consequently, you are breaking Canon law by instituting a form of service that is ‘contrary to, or indicative of a departure from’ the doctrine of the Church of England.

Of course, you could even more desperately try get round this by saying to the couple concerned ‘We think you are not married, but we will pray for you anyway.’  Even if they would accept this (which is unlikely in the extreme) the only legitimate form of prayer for a relationship formed in rebellion against God’s ordering of creation is a form of prayer marked by confession, repentance and absolution and this is absolutely not what the bishops are proposing. To celebrate with thanksgiving an act of rebellion, and therefore of sin, would itself contravene the doctrine of the Church of England.

What all this means is that the bishops and lawyers face a simple choice. Either they persist in trying to distinguish between Holy Matrimony and marriage (which is something that simply does not work given that the two terms are simply synonyms) or they have to concede that what they are proposing is inconsistent with existing Church of England doctrine (and as such illegal).


[1] Canons B2.1, B4.-3, B5.3.

[2] GS Misc 1339 ‘Prayers of Love an Faith: a Note from the Legal Office’ at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2023-01/GS%20Misc%201339%20Legal%20Note%20for%20Synod%20Jan%202023_0.pdf

[3] Martin Davie ‘Failing the Green test – A critical examination of the material from the House of Bishops’ at mbarrattdavie.wordpress.com

[4] Marriage (same sex couples) Act 2013, Part 1.2 at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/30/contents/enacted

[5] ‘Marriage (Same Sex Couples Act): A Factsheet’ at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/306000/140423_M_SSC_Act_factsheet__web_version_.pdf

[6] ‘House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage’ at https://www.churchofengland.org/news-and-media/news-and-statements/house-bishops-pastoral-guidance-same-sex-marriage

[7] ‘An order for Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage’ at https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/marriage#mm107

[8] The Faith and Order Commission, Man and Woman in Marriage (London: Church House Publishing, 2013), p.13.

[9]Similarly Canon B.30 refers synonymously to ‘Holy Matrimony.’ ‘marriage’ and ‘marriage’ without distinguishing between them.

[10] See Michael Brown, Can You Be Gay and Christian? (Lake Mary: Front Line, 2014)

[11] ‘Civil Partnerships- A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England,’ paragraph 17, at  https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/House%20of%20Bishops%20Statement%20on%20Civil%20Partnerships%202005.pdf

Failing the Green Test – a critical examination of the material from the House of Bishops

The Green test

When I began my study of theology in Oxford in the 1980s  one of my theological mentors was the late, great Michael Green. Among the very many things I learned from him was the ‘Green test’, the two questions that a student should ask of any item on a theology reading list. These two questions are (a) ‘What is this writer trying to sell me?’ and (b) ‘Is this something I should buy?’

In this article I shall apply the Green test to the material produced by the House of Bishops last week as their response to the Living in Love and Faith process.  I shall apply the Green test and I shall argue that (a) the bishops are trying to sell a wholesale revision of Christian sexual ethics and that (b) the Church of England (and specifically the General Synod) should on no account buy what they are selling.

What the bishops have produced

The bishops produced two items last week.

The first item was a report entitled  Living in Love and Faith:  A response from the Bishops of the Church of England about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage.[1]

This report is in four parts.

  • ‘A pastoral letter from the Bishops of the Church of England,’ which includes an apology  ‘for the ways in which the Church of England has treated LGBTQI+ people.’ [2]
  • ‘About Prayers of Love and Faith,’ which provides an introduction to and a rationale for the new set of liturgical resources produced by the bishops.
  • ‘Towards new pastoral resources,’ which gives details of the work that will be undertaken by the members of a new Pastoral Advisory Group’ to  ‘support and advise bishops and dioceses on pastoral responses to circumstances that arise concerning identity, relationships, sexuality and marriage among clergy, ordinands, lay leaders and the lay people in their care.’ [3]  The advice produced by this group will supersede the existing 1991 House of Bishops report Issues in Human Sexuality.
  • ‘Areas for the Church to attend to and develop,’ which sets out the further work that that the bishops think that Church of England needs to undertake in the four areas of ‘Human Embodiment.’  ‘Singleness, celibacy, friendship, community, family and household,’ ‘Human identity’ and ‘Everyday faithful relationships.’

The second item was Prayers of Love and Faith.[4]  These are the liturgical resources previously mentioned and their purpose is to provide ‘resources in praying with and for two people who love one another and who wish to give thanks for and mark that love in faith before God.’ [5]

Following a ‘Pastoral Introduction.,’ these resources are in four sections, which are ‘Prayers Acclamations and Promises’, ‘Psalms and Readings, ‘Service Structures’  and ‘Sample Services.’ Among those for whom the resources are intended are same-sex couples who have ‘registered a civil partnership, or entered into a civil marriage’[6] and no distinction is made with regard to whether the relationships involved are sexually active or sexually abstinent.

The motion to be debated at Synod

On 8 February the members of General Synod will be asked to endorse the material in these two items by means of the following motion:

‘That this Synod, recognising the commitment to learning and deep listening to God and to each other of the Living in Love and Faith process, and  desiring with God’s help to journey together while acknowledging the different deeply held convictions within the Church:

(a) lament and repent of the failure of the Church to be welcoming to LGBTQI+ people and the harm that LGBTQI+ people have experienced and continue to experience in the life of the Church;

(b) recommit to our shared witness to God’s love for and acceptance of every person by continuing  to embed the Pastoral Principles in our life together locally and nationally;

(c) commend the continued learning together enabled by the Living in Love and Faith process and resources in relation to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage;

(d) welcome the decision of the House of Bishops to replace Issues in Human Sexuality with new pastoral guidance;

(e) welcome the response from the College of Bishops and look forward to the House of Bishops further refining, commending and issuing the Prayers of Love and Faith described in GS 2289 and its Annexes;

(f) invite the House of Bishops to monitor the Church’s use of and response to the Prayers of Love and Faith, once they have been commended and published, and to report back to Synod in five years times.’[7]

If this motion is passed, the material produced by the bishops will have been endorsed by the Church of England. So, the question is ‘Should the motion be passed?’  I think the answer is ‘No’ and to explain why I want to move on to look at what the bishops are selling  in their material.

What the bishops are selling

The initial reports about the bishops’ new material in the media, both secular and religious, have concentrated on three things, that the bishops have apologised to LGBTQI+ people, that they have refused to allow same-sex marriages, and that they are going to allow services of blessing for same-sex couples.

All these three points are true, but they do not get to the heart of what the bishops are proposing. As I have said, what the bishops are proposing is a radical revision of Christian sexual ethics. To understand this point it is useful to employ the motion on human sexuality passed by the General Synod in 1987 (the ‘Higton motion’) as a base line since this is still the official synodical teaching on the matter. This motion runs as follows:

‘This Synod affirms that the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in

personal relationships is a response to, and expression of, God’s love for each one of us,

and in particular affirms:

▪ that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly

within a permanent married relationship;

▪ that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a

call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;

▪ that homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be

met with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;

▪ that all Christians are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, and that

holiness of life is particularly required of Christian leaders.’[8]

That is, officially at least, where the Church of England currently stands. Now compare the 1987 motion with the following quotations from the new bishops’ material.

From A Response from the Bishops of the Church of England.

‘We are united in our desire for a church where everyone is welcome, accepted and affirmed in Christ. With joy we cherish and value the LGBTQI+ members of our churches and celebrate the gifts that each brings as a fellow Christian. We are united in our condemnation of homophobia. We commit ourselves – and urge the churches in our care – to welcome same-sex couples unreservedly and joyfully.’ (p.3)

‘We continue to seek to be a church that embodies ‘the radical new Christian inclusion’ to which the Living in Love and Faith project was called by the Archbishops in 2017: an inclusion that is ‘founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it – based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.’’ (p.3)

‘We want to find ways of affirming same-sex couples – inside and outside the church – while committing ourselves to respecting the disagreement, in conscience, of those who believe this compromises the Church’s inherited tradition and teaching.’ (p.4)

‘The Living in Love and Faith process has called the Church of England to reflect on the diversity of relationships that we recognise in our worshipping communities and among our friends and families. This has revealed a need for the Church to find ways of responding to the goodness of relationships between two people who are committed to one another in love and faith.’ (p.5)

‘While not explicitly stated in the Church’s Canons, for many years the Church has taught that the only rightful place for sexual activity is marriage. There is disagreement in the Church about how this applies in our culture today. The reality within which the Church now lives is that couples inhabit their relationships differently. Many would say that when two people aspire to be faithful to one another and fruitful in their service of others and of God, these ‘goods’ of relationships are worth recognising and celebrating. The prayers offered here are an attempt to respond by celebrating what is good and asking God to fill these relationships so they can grow in holiness.’  (p.8)

From Prayers in love and faith

‘These Prayers of Love and Faith are commended by the House of Bishops as resources in praying with and for two people who love one another and who wish to give thanks for and mark that love in faith before God. To celebrate in God’s presence the commitment two people have made to each other is an occasion for rejoicing. The texts are offered to express thanksgiving and hope, with prayer that those who are dedicating their life together to God may grow in faith, love and service as God’s blessing rests upon them.’ (p.2)

What we find by comparing the 1987 motion and this new material is that according to the 1987 motion that Church of England holds that same-sex sexual activity, like all other forms of sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, are sins and are to be responded to not only with that compassion that Christians must show to all sinners in need of the grace of God, but also with a ‘call to repentance.’

The new proposal, by contrast, is that the ‘radical Christian inclusion’ to which the Church is called means that all same-sex couples, even if they are in a same-sex sexual relationship, must be unreservedly and joyfully welcomed affirmed and celebrated by those in the Church on the grounds of the ‘goodness’ to be found in such relationships.

This includes marking such relationships liturgically with thanksgiving and celebration and with prayer that God’s blessing will rest upon them. This is important because the ancient Christian principle Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing) which the Church of England has always accepted means that how the Church prays shows what it believes.[9] It follows therefore that if the new liturgical materials are adopted by the  Church of England then this will mean that the Church of England holds that same-sex sexual relationships, including same-sex marriages, are worthy of thanksgiving and celebration and may be expected to be the subject of God’s future blessing.

Paul Roberts may well be correct in his claim that the service which the Church of England is offering to LGBTQI+ people in the new rites is not ‘comparable to what it offers to heterosexual couples following a civil marriage.’ [10] As someone who is not a liturgical expert, I am prepared to accept his opinion unless shown otherwise. However, even if this is case, that is not the main issue. The main issue is that what the Church of England is proposing is a form of liturgy that must mean that same same-sex marriages and same-sex sexual relationships in general are acceptable before God. If this was not the case they would have to be met with prayers of confession, penitence and absolution rather than with prayers  of thanksgiving and celebration and for blessing.

It follows that the critique applied by J I Packer and Edith Humphrey to the prayers of same-sex blessing introduced by the Canadian diocese of New Westminster back in 2003 also apply to what is being proposed by the bishops:

J I Packer writes:

‘To bless same-sex unions liturgically is to ask God to bless them and to enrich those who join in them, as is done in marriage ceremonies. This assumes that the relationship, of which the physical bond is an integral part, is intrinsically good and thus, if I may coin a word, blessable, as procreative sexual intercourse within heterosexual marriage is.’[11]

Edith Humphrey writes:

‘ What would it mean to bless same-sex erotic arrangements? It would be to declare that these so-called “unions” are in themselves pictures or icons of God’s love, to say that they display the salvation story, to rejoice that that they are glorified or taken up into God’s own actions and being. It would be to declare that they have a significant and fruitful part in creation, and that they are symbols of the in-breaking and coming rule of God, in which the Church now shares and in which we will eventually participate fully. It would be to “speak a good word” about this sort of relationship, explicitly declaring it to be a condition in which the way of the cross and the way of new life come together.’[12]

A number of further consequences also follow from what the bishops are proposing.

First, the other things that the bishops say fill out the content of the apology that the bishops offer to LGBTQI+ people for the Church’s past conduct. This apology runs as follows:

‘We want to apologise for the ways in which the Church of England has treated LGBTQI+ people – both those who worship in our churches and those who do not. For the times we have rejected or excluded you, and those you love, we are deeply sorry. The occasions on which you have received a hostile and homophobic response in our churches are shameful and for this we repent. As we have listened, we have been told time and time again how we have failed LGBTQI+ people. We have not loved you as God loves you, and that is profoundly wrong.’ [13]

In this quotation the precise details of what is being apologised for are not specified. However, if the Church now believes that the proper response to same-sex couples is  unreserved and joyful welcome, affirmation and celebration, it follows that the Church’s failure to do provide this must be a at least part of what the Church is apologising for. That in turn means that all those churches, clergy and laity who have followed the Church’s existing teaching by suggesting that same-sex sexual activity is sinful and requires repentance have been in the wrong and themselves need to apologise.

Secondly, all the future work proposed by the bishops will be governed by the principle of ‘radical inclusion’ understood as outlined above. This in turn means that everything that the Church of England believes and how it acts will gradually be shaped by a belief that same-sex sexual relationships and other items on the LGBTQI + agenda must accepted and affirmed.

Thirdly, although the bishops talk about ‘respecting the disagreement, in conscience’  of those who believe that the approach the bishops are commending ‘compromises the Church’s inherited tradition and teaching’ what will inevitably happen in practice is that these people will find lees and less room to exercise this disagreement because as just noted the Church of England will move further and further in a revisionist direction and those who cannot ‘get with the programme’ will become an increasingly despised minority whose freedom to act in accordance with their conscience will become increasingly restricted (as has happened in all the other churches where developments similar to those the bishops are proposing have been implemented).   

Fourthly, if what the bishops propose becomes the position of the Church of England then there can be no good reason for not holding same-sex weddings in church. If same-sex marriages can and should be marked liturgically with thanksgiving, celebration and prayers for blessing then there is absolutely no theological reason for not going the whole way and celebrating same-sex marriages in the same way as opposite sex-marriages. All that will prevent this is institutional inertia and that will not last for ever.

Should Synod buy what the bishops are selling?

The first reason why it might be argued that Synod should buy this is that it is necessary to uphold the unity of the Church of England. To quote the Synod motion it is needed  so that we can with ‘God’s help… journey together while acknowledging the different deeply held convictions within the Church.’

Obviously, it is important to try to ensure the institutional unity of the Church of England to the greatest extent possible.  However:

  • Such unity could also be achieved through action to ensure that in future everyone accepted and acted upon the existing policy of the Church as set out in the Higton motion – an approach which the bishops do not seem to have even considered.
  • Unity might also potentially be maintained through the kind of structurally differentiated unity that the Church of England Evangelical Council explores in its paper Visibly Different[14] and which has been discuss by Evangelicals and Liberals together in the St Hugh’s Group – once again an approach which the bishops do not seem to have considered.
  • Unity is not an absolute good. As the Elizabethan theologian John Jewel noted in his Apology for the Church of England ‘there was the greatest consent that might be amongst them that worshipped the golden calf and among those who with one voice jointly cried out against our Saviour Jesu Christ, ‘Crucify Him!’’[15] In other words, unity that is based on acting against God’s will is not a unity that is to be desired.

This brings us to the question of whether what the bishops are proposing is for or against God’s will. According to Anglican tradition there are three principal ways to know the will of God. The reflection of reason on the natural order that God has created, the reflection of reason on God’s additional revelation in Scripture (which confirms and supplements what is revealed by the natural order) and the teaching of the orthodox Fathers and Councils of the Early Church and of the ‘historic formularies’ of the Church of England, the Thirty-Nine Articles, The Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal (see Canons A5 and C15), which bear faithful witness to the teaching given to us in Scripture. This approach is often summarised by saying that Anglican theology draws on Scripture, reason and tradition.

The bishops give a nod to this traditional approach when they write that:

‘It has been our work as bishops and teachers of the faith to draw on Scripture alongside tradition, reason and prayer to discern the direction we believe God is calling the Church to take regarding same-sex relationships.’[16]

However, all they give is this nod. They make no attempt, and I mean no attempt, to show that what they are proposing is in accordance with the revelation of God through the natural order, through Scripture and through the witness of the Fathers and the historic formularies.

The fact that they fail to ‘show their working’ in this way is of itself a good reason not to give their work approval. More fundamentally, however, even if they had attempted to show that nature, Scripture and tradition support their approach they would necessarily have failed in this attempt.

A study of human nature shows us that human beings have many things in common. As we have seen previously in this series, all human beings have bodies and souls and human bodies have common features such as heads, feet, hearts, and fingernails. However, alongside the things humans have in common there are also differences which allow us to tell one human being from another.

For example, some people have red hair while others are blonde, some have blue eyes while others have brown eyes, and some people are tall while others are short. Such differences enable us to distinguish Frank, who is blonde, has blue eyes, and is tall from Bill, who has red hair, has brown eyes and is short. The most significant of these differences between human beings is that they differ in their sex.

There are various physical and psychological differences between men and women which develop from the moment of conception, but all of these differences are characteristics of people who are fundamentally differentiated by the fact that their bodies are ordered towards the performance of different roles in sexual reproduction and in the nurture of children once they have been born. It is because male and female bodies are ordered in this way that the human race continues to exist. Every human being is in existence because one parent had male physical characteristics and the other had female physical characteristics.

Like nature, Scripture teaches us that there are two sexes, male and female. However, in Genesis 1:26-31 and Genesis 2: 18-25 the Bible gives us additional teaching about our existence as men and women.

First, it teaches us that the division of human beings into two sexes is not an evolutionary accident. It is how God, in his infinite wisdom and goodness, has created human beings to be. ‘Male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27).

Secondly, it teaches us that, like everything else created by God, the division of humanity into two sexes is something that is good. ‘And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31).

Thirdly, it teaches us that it is as male and female that human beings are the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1: 26-27). For human beings to exist as the image and likeness of God means that they have the capacity to know and love God, each other, and creation as a whole and the vocation to rule over creation on God’s behalf. However, they can only rightly exercise this capacity and fulfil this vocation as men and women acting together. That is why God says in Genesis 2:18 ‘it is not good that the man should be alone.’

Fourthly, it teaches us that there is a correspondence between the existence of human beings as male and female and the life of God himself. As the plural verb in Genesis 1:26 (‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’) indicates, God exists as three divine persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who possess both identity and difference. They are identical as God, but different in the way they are God.

As Genesis goes on to say, God has made human beings as persons who are likewise marked by both identity and difference. The identity and difference between men and women (identical in their humanity, differentiated by their sex) is the primary form of this human identity and differentiation from which all other forms of identity and difference then flow.

Fifthly, it teaches us that by creating the first man and woman and then bringing them together in marriage (Genesis 2:22-23) God has established the model for human sexual relationships for all time. As the American Old Testament scholar Richard Davidson notes, the introductory word ‘therefore’ in Genesis 2:24  ‘indicates that the relationship of Adam and Eve is upheld as the pattern for all human sexual relationships.’[17]

According to this pattern, the context for sexual intercourse is a permanent marital relationship between one man and one woman that is outside the immediate family circle, is freely chosen, is sexually exclusive and is ordered towards procreation in accordance with God’s command that men and women should ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28).

In Scripture all forms of sexual activity outside of marriage thus defined are seen explicitly or implicitly as what the New Testament calls porneia – forms of sexual sin which have no place in the life of God’s people. This includes all forms of same-sex sexual activity (see Genesis 19, Judges 19:22–30, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Deuteronomy 23:17–18, Mark 7:21, Acts 15:29, Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9–1, 1 Timothy 1:10, Jude 7. [18]

No provision is made in Scripture for same-sex ‘marriages’ or partnerships and there is no theological room within the teaching of Scripture for them to exist. As Michael Brown observes:

  • Every single reference to marriage in the entire Bible speaks of heterosexual unions without exception, to the point that a Hebrew idiom for marriage is for a man ‘to take a wife’.
  • Every warning to men about sexual purity presupposes heterosexuality, with the married man often warned not to lust after another woman.
  • Every discussion about family order and structure speaks explicitly in heterosexual terms, referring to husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
  • Every law or instruction given to children presupposes heterosexuality, as children are urged to heed or obey or follow the counsel or example of their father and mother.
  • Every parable, illustration or metaphor having to do with marriage is presented in exclusively heterosexual terms.

In the Old Testament, God depicts his relationship with Israel as that of a groom and a bride; in the New Testament, the image shifts to the marital union of husband and wife as a picture of Christ and the Church.[19]

It is because Scripture is thus clear about the matter that not only the Church of England but also the entire Christian tradition in all its forms has consistently upheld a pattern of sexual ethics based on either heterosexual marriage or sexual abstinence and has rejected same-sex sexual relationships as intrinsically sinful.[20] Space does not allow me to quote the sources in detail but Augustine speaks for the tradition as a whole when in the Confessions he describes the sin of the men of Sodom as ‘shameful acts against nature’ and comments:

‘If all nations were to do such things, they would [equally]be held guilty of the same crime by the law of God, which has not so made men that they should use one another in this way.’

Similarly, Thomas Aquinas declares that homosexual acts are ‘…always an injury done to the Creator, whether or not any offence is at the same time committed against one’s neighbour’ (as in the case of adultery, fornication and rape) the reason being that they violate God’s creative intent for his human creatures and the beauty of His work in creating them.

This being the case, there is no place within the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi as Anglicans have understood it for the Church of England to allow for the liturgical affirmation of same-sex partnerships. The marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer declares ‘that so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s Word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their Matrimony lawful’ (‘lawful’ not just according to the law of the state, but according to the law of God).

All forms of same-sex sexual partnerships (same-sex marriages included) are examples of relationships ‘otherwise than God’s Word doth allow.’ It is for this reason that the Church of England as a church, with a liturgy based on Scripture, cannot give any form of liturgical affirmation to such relationships.

Because all this is case it follows that we have to say that from an Anglican perspective we have no choice but to say that what the bishops are proposing is contrary to God’s  known will and therefore not something Synod can rightly support.

The reference that bishops make to prayer is irrelevant. Private revelations received by bishops in the course of prayer are not an accepted Anglican authority (particularly when they contradict Scripture, reason and tradition).

It also needs to be further noted that in so far as what the bishops propose is contrary to the established doctrinal tradition it goes against the insistence in Canons B4 and 5 that any liturgical innovations ‘shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’ and as such is arguably illegal.

It might finally be argued that notwithstanding what has been said, what the bishops propose is necessary in order to show love to LGBTQI+ people. As Christians we are called to show love and this is a way to do it. However, this argument fails to understand the difference noted by Natasha Crain between the modern secular idea of love and the biblical approach. As she explains, the secular view holds that ‘feelings are the ultimate guide, happiness is the ultimate goal and judging is the ultimate sin, so love equals affirmation.’  In the biblical worldview, however, love is ‘the act of wanting for others what God wants for them’ [21] In wanting to give to LGBTQI+  people what God does not want to give them (i.e. affirmation for sinful behaviour) the bishops are thus proposing not to show them love at all and so this argument too falls.

What follows from all this is that the members of Synod cannot justifiably buy what the bishops are seeking  to sell them. The bishops have failed the Green test.

This means that either the bishops should withdraw their proposals, or that the clergy and laity in Synod should unhesitatingly vote ‘No’ to the motion that they are being asked to accept.

Appendix – response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a question about the blessing of same-sex unions

This official statement from Rome in 2021 points us to what the bishops should have said.

‘…..when a blessing is invoked on particular human relationships, in addition to the right intention of those who participate, it is necessary that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord. Therefore, only those realities which are in themselves ordered to serve those ends are congruent with the essence of the blessing imparted by the Church.

For this reason, it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex The presence in such relationships of positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated, cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of an ecclesial blessing, since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator’s plan.

Furthermore, since blessings on persons are in relationship with the sacraments, the blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit. This is because they would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing invoked on the man and woman united in the sacrament of Matrimony, while in fact “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”

The declaration of the unlawfulness of blessings of unions between persons of the same sex is not therefore, and is not intended to be, a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite and of the very nature of the sacramentals, as the Church understands them.’

The full text can be found at: Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a dubium regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex (vatican.va)


[1] This can be found at:  https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2023-01/FINAL%20Bishops%27%20Response%20to%20LLF%2020%20Jan%2023_0.pdf

[2] Bishops response, p.2.

[3] Bishops response p.9

[4] This can be found at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2023-01///FINAL%20Draft%20Prayers%20of%20Love%20and%20Faith.pdf

[5] Prayers of Love and Faith, p.2.

[6] P.2.

[7] GS 2283, The Agenda, February Group of Sessions 2023, p.11 at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2023-01/GS%202283%20Agenda%20Feb%2023%20v2.pdf

[8] General Synod Report of Proceedings, Vol 18 No 3, London: Church House Publishing, 1987 pp.955-

  956.

[9] See Martin Davie, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi (London: Latimer Trust, p.,19).

[10] Paul Roberts, ‘Prayers of Love and Faith – The Draft Rites’ at http://digitaltheology.uk/paulsblog/?p=752

[11] J I Packer  ‘Why I walked’  at https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/january/6.46.html.  

[12] Edith Humphrey ‘The New Testament Speaks on Same-Sex Eroticism’

https://www.wycliffecollege.ca/archive/document/new-testament-speaks-same-sex-eroticism

[13] Bishops’ Response, p. 2

[14] Visibly Different at https://ceec.info/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/visibly_different_-_dated_26_july_2020.pdf.

[15] Quoted in Philip Hughes, Theology of the English Reformers (London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1965), p.254.

[16] Bishop’s Response, p.6.

[17] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), p.43.

[18] See, for example, Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), Ch.16; Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville Abingdon, 2001); Michael Brown, Can You Be Gay and Christian? (Lake Mary: Front Line, 2014); Martin Davie, Studies on the Bible and Same-Sex Relationships since 2003 (Malton: Gilead, 2015) .

[19] For this point see Brown pp.86-90.

[20] See S, Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016).

[21] Natasha Crain, Faithfully Different (Eugene: Harvest House, 2022), Kindle edition, p.95.

A critical examination of the Bishop of Worcester’s arguments for the Church blessing same-sex marriages

In his open letter to the Diocese of Worcester published on 9 January, Bishop John Inge sets out nine arguments that he thinks mean that the Church of England should recognise and bless same-sex marriages.

In this article I shall look at each of these arguments in turn and explain why they fail to make a persuasive case for the Church of England changing its current position with regard to marriage. In each case I shall quote the Bishop’s words and then give my response.

Argument 1 – Sexual orientation is not a choice

‘Until recently it was thought by many that the expression of homosexuality was simply a perverse lifestyle choice. Though, as yet, there is no scientific certainty about what factors determine sexual orientation, there is general consensus that it is not a choice.  There is even stronger consensus that ‘sexual orientation change efforts’ (SOCE), sometimes called ‘conversion therapies’ for homosexual orientation are both ineffective and harmful.’

Response

This part of the bishop’s argument ignores the fact that it is increasingly acknowledged even by gay rights campaigners such as Peter Tatchell that people’s sexual attraction can often be fluid, changing over the course of their life for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it is simply not always the case that those who currently identify themselves as gay or lesbian have a fixed same-sex sexual orientation. The reality is actually more complicated than that.  Furthermore, those who do experience same-sex sexual attraction, either temporarily or throughout their lives, still have a choice of whether or not to act on it. As with heterosexual sexual attraction, desire is not destiny. People have the ability to choose what to do.

In addition, the available evidence does not support the consensus that SOCE are always ineffective and harmful. What the evidence actually tells us is that there is no convincing evidence that they are always harmful and that in fact such efforts are found beneficial by a good number of people.

Argument 2 – What the Bible condemns is exploitative same-sex relationships

‘I do not think that the oft quoted passages in Leviticus and Paul refer to anything comparable to the faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships which some of us are suggesting the Church should celebrate … It must be admitted that wherever instances of same-sex sexual activity are found in the Bible they are unequivocally condemned but what I believe the Bible condemns is something that every gay person in the Church today would also condemn – abusive, oppressive, exploitative relationships.  The Bible never explains why same-sex sexual activity is condemned: it may well be the exploitative nature of the activity described.’

Response

The problem with this argument is that there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that only exploitative same-sex relationships are unacceptable. There is no evidence to suggest that all same-sex relationships in the ancient world were abusive, oppressive, or exploitative in character, and equally there is nothing in the language used in the relevant biblical passages that indicates that it is only same-sex relationships of this character that are unacceptable to God.

Furthermore, the Bible does actually make clear why same-sexual relationships are unacceptable to God. In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the context makes it clear that the reason why same-sex sexual activity between men (and by extension between women as well) is an ‘abomination’ is because such  activity is contrary to God’s creation of human beings as male and female and his establishment of monogamous heterosexual, non-incestuous, marriage as the context for sexual activity and the procreation of children. Similarly in Romans 1:26-27 both gay and lesbian same-sex sexual activity is seen as sinful because it is activity that is ‘unnatural’ in the sense of being contrary to God’s creation of human beings as male and female creatures biologically designed for sexual activity and procreation with members of the opposite sex.  

This being the case, even ‘faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships’ have to be seen as unacceptable before God  – even if they are relatively less sinful than abusive, oppressive or exploitative same-sex relationships. A good comparison is adultery. Abusive, oppressive and exploitative adulterous relationships  are comparatively more sinful than loving adulterous relationships, but the latter are nonetheless still sinful. So it is with same-sex relationships.

Argument 3 – What the biblical material is concerned with is active and passive sexual roles

‘Equally, Paul is not talking about what we would term sexual orientation, a very modern concept. Arsenokoites and malakos describe roles being adopted in same-sex sexual acts. To be a man in the ancient world was to be assertive and dominant; to be a woman was to be passive and receptive. Men who were malakos in the relationship were a scandal, ‘effeminate’ and mocked. When Leviticus 18 specifically condemns lying with a man ‘as with a woman’ there seems to be a similar concern with roles. God willing, we don’t nowadays understand love-making and sexual intimacy in terms of active and passive roles, with men as active and dominant and women as passive. Surely a Christian understanding of love and relating is about mutuality and partnership? I would suggest that gospel teaching about love redefines ancient assumptions about hierarchy and role, both socially and theologically.’

Response

Paul would have been aware of the idea that that there were some people who were innately attracted to the members of their own sex since this idea was well known in the first century, but for him it would have been theologically irrelevant. This is because for him what mattered was not the sexual desires that some people experience as a consequence of humanity’s corporate alienation  from God, but the way God created human beings to behave as witnessed to by their bodies.

Furthermore, there is nothing in the Bible to support the idea that same-sex sexual activity is sinful because it involves men taking passive sexual roles and women taking active ones. The concept that there are proper roles within sexual activity is not something that is found in Scripture. In Leviticus 18:22 lying with ‘a man as with a woman’ is simply a Hebrew euphemism for same-sex sexual intercourse and in 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul makes clear that both the active (arsenokoites) and passive (malakos) roles in same-sex intercourse are equally sinful.

Argument 4 – Jesus was silent about homosexuality

‘Jesus made no mention of homosexuality, though the fact that he refers to a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife in the same passage as he prohibits divorce (Mark 10. 7-10), with a reference back to Genesis, leads some to suggest that the marriage of one man to one woman is a creation ordinance.’

Response

It is not simply ‘some’ who suggest that the words of Jesus point to the marriage of one man and one woman being a creation ordinance. It is generally accepted that this is what Jesus was saying. His argument on divorce in Mark 10:7-10 and in the parallel passage in Matthew 19:3-9 depends on monogamous heterosexual marriage being a creation ordinance. ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6).

Furthermore, it is simply not true that Jesus made no mention of homosexuality. The Gospels tell us that Jesus taught that porneia rendered human beings unclean in the sight of God (Matthew 5:19 and Mark 7:21) and porneia was a catch all term for all the sexual offences condemned in Leviticus 18, homosexuality included. In addition, if Jesus had taught that same-sexual relationships were acceptable before God this would have been a radical breach with accepted Jewish thought that would have left a trace in the Gospel record. The fact there is no such trace indicates that Jesus did no such thing.

Argument 5- There is no single biblical view of marriage

‘The trouble is that there is no such thing as a fixed ‘biblical’ view of marriage. We know that the Bible countenances men having quite a few wives – Solomon, we are told, had 700 –  so the witness is mixed, to say the least. The number of marriages in the Bible which can be held up as examples of what we would understand to be a ‘good’ marriage is surprisingly few.’

Response

The problen here is that the bishop has failed to distinguish between what the Bible reports and what the Bible approves.

What a study of the Bible actually shows is that the pattern for marriage established by God in Genesis 2:18-25 and subsequently reiterated by Jesus is the normative biblical pattern for what marriage should be. All other forms of marital or quasi marital relationships that occur in the biblical record are declared either implicitly or explicitly to be devitations from this pattern resulting from human fallenness.

In the specific case of Solomon’s wives, the point of the account in Kings 11:1-13 is that he has broken the commanment of God in Deutronomy 17:17 that the king of Israel should not ‘multiply wives for himself’ and the end result of his disobedience is the subsequent division of the Kingdom of Israel.

Argument 6  – Gender is not that important

‘It is also suggested that Genesis 2.24-26 concerning a man leaving his father and mother and being united to his wife is a ‘creation ordinance’. That is to say, it is one of the principles that God gave to humanity at the beginning of creation before the fall.  I have come to think that we tend to overplay the significance of gender in God’s scheme of things. In Genesis we read ‘male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them.’ It is not gender which is essential in reflecting the image of God, though.’

Response

In the literary structure of Genesis, Genesis 1 and 2 are intended to complement each other. In Genesis 1 we are told that human beings are created to be God’s image bearers as male and female human beings who are to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ and in Genesis 2 it is underlined that for human beings to perform the role assigned to them by God both sexes are required (Adam cannot do the job without Eve as his helper). Genesis 2 also makes it clear that just as God created human beings in his image as male and female, so also he created marriage as a sexual union between a man and a woman. As Jesus indicates in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, the one follows from the other.

Argument 7 – Sexual identity is not something that will exist in eternity

‘Equally, neither sex nor gender have eternal significance. Jesus tells his hearers that ‘at the resurrection they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, they will be like the angels in heaven.’ (Matt 22.30) This correlates with what Paul writes to the Galatians, that ‘in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male nor female’. (Gal 3.28).’

Response

Even if sexual distinction did cease to exist in the world to come this would not in itself mean that same-sex relationships were acceptable in this world. However, as has been recognised since Patristic times, while Jesus makes it clear that there will be no sex or procreation in the world to come  and that in that sense humans will be ‘like the angels,’ his argument actually depends on the fact that humans will continue to be male or female in eternity. If it were otherwise the issue of marriage in the world to come simply would not arise.

Furthermore, the very concept of resurrection involves the resurrection of the body, and this means the continuing existence of sexual distinction since the bodies that will be raised are male or female bodies (as Jesus was raised with the male body that was laid in the tomb on Good Friday).

In addition, Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 do not mean that the distinction between male and female has ceased to exist in this world, or will cease to exist in the world come. What Paul is saying is that there is no distinction between male and female in terms of their ability to receive the blessing from God promised to Abraham as a result of their common relationship with Christ  (‘if you are Christs, you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise’ – Galatians 3:29).  

Argument 8 – the traditional ‘goods’ of marriage can be enjoyed in a same-sex marriage

‘I have come to see that all the traditional ‘goods of marriage’ except procreation can be enjoyed by those in a same-sex marriage. The latter, in any event, is bracketed out in the Common Worship rite and, as we all know, not all heterosexual marriages produce children. The other two ‘goods of marriage’ which, after Augustine, are mutual love and support and sexual intimacy, are available in a gay relationship. If the Church were to accept equal marriage it could hold to its teaching that sexual activity properly belongs within marriage and it could give all the support it gives to heterosexual couples to homosexual ones. ‘

Response

The problem with this argument is by God’s ordinance a marriage is relationship between a man and a woman. This means that the goods of marriage cannot be enjoyed in a relationship between two people of the same sex since their relationship is simply not a marriage. A comparison with adultery is again helpful here. It is perfectly possible for an adulterous relationship to provide those involved with mutual love and support and to result in the procreation of children. However, we cannot rightly say that those in an adulterous relationship are enjoying the goods of marriage because their relationship is not a marriage. So also, with a same-sex relationship. It may provide mutual love and support and sexual intimacy, but it is still not a marriage and therefore cannot be blessed by the Church as if it was.   

Circles and squares are both one dimensional shapes, but a square is not a circle. Lions and tigers are both big cats, but a tiger is not a lion. It is the differences that make all the difference.

Argument 9- Gay Christians today are seeking the blessing of monogamous, committed, loving faithful relationships.

‘We need to recognise that gay Christians today, seeking to live consecrated, faithful lives in the way of Christ, simply do not find themselves described in these [Pauline] texts. They do not advocate or practise those exploitative sins of which Paul speaks. Indeed, the suggestion is deeply offensive. This must be taken with full seriousness. What they want is something different, very different: for the Church to bless their monogamous, committed, loving, faithful relationships.’

Response

As we have seen, Paul does not reject same-sex relationships because they are exploitative in nature. He rejects them because God created his human creatures to have sexual relationships in the context of marriage with those of the opposite sex. To depart from this pattern created by God is necessarily sinful because it involves saying to God ‘my will be done’ rather than ‘thy will be done’ and, unless repented of, is behaviour that will bar someone from the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:11) in the same way that any other form of porneia will do.  

However  monogamous, committed, loving and faithful same-sex relationships may be, this truth still applies and a Church that really care for people’s well being in this world and in the world to come.  will not pretend otherwise. The Church of England cannot second guess God by blessing what he does not bless and calling holy behaviour that he describes in his word as unholy.  

Conclusion

The Bishops of Worcester’s arguments do not provide a cogent reason for the Church of England to change its position on marriage. The Church of England is called to echo Paul’s message to the Corinthians ‘flee sexual immorality’ (1 Corinthians 6:18) and it cannot do this if at the same time it agrees to bless same-sex relationships as if they were marriages.

The Church of England cannot both call on people to choose to live in accordance with God’s will while also blessing in God’s name a pattern of life that is contrary to it.

Why services to mark same sex relationships would be a change too far.

It is possible that the House of Bishops will bring some proposal for change to General Synod in February concerning the way forward for the Church of England on the subject of human sexuality following the end of the Living in Love and Faith process.

A possible ‘small change’ proposal

At present there is no definite intelligence about what precise form this proposal might take. We will only know this for sure when the paperwork for Synod goes out towards the end of this month.  However, one rumour that is circulating and that has a degree of credibility is that the House of Bishops will propose something along the lines of what was suggested in the Pilling report in 2013, namely giving the clergy, with the assent of the relevant PCC, the freedom ‘to mark the formation of a permanent same sex relationship in a public service.’[1] Some have described this as a ‘small change’ proposal :there would not be a formally authorised liturgy for such a service, but the bishops might provide some general guidance as to what such a service might contain, and the language of ‘blessing’ would not officially be used to describe it.

What Canon B4 allows and does not allow

The authority that the House of Bishops has to make such a proposal, and to then implement it, is the authority given to bishops in Canon B4 to ‘approve forms of service for use in any cathedral or church or elsewhere.’ What is important to note, however, is that the Canon lays down not only that the ‘words and order’ of a such a service have to be, in the opinion of the bishops, ‘reverent and seemly’ but also that they to be ‘neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from,  the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.’

The problem that this last point raises is that any  service to mark the formation of a permanent same sex relationship in a public service would necessarily be contrary to, and indicative of a departure from, the current doctrine of the Church of England on an essential matter. For this reason, such a service would be something that the bishops have no right to approve.

We can, I think, take it as a given that a service along the lines suggested in the Pilling report would be affirmative and celebratory in nature. It would in theory be possible to mark the formation of a same sex relationship with a service of lament and repentance, but no one has ever suggested this idea. What people who have called for such a service have all suggested is that it should be a way of affirming and celebrating the new relationship before God and seeking God’s blessing on the relationship in prayer (even if a formal blessing does not form part of the service). This is also the form that unauthorised church services to mark same sex relationships have already taken when they have occurred.

If this is indeed the form that the kind of service that the bishops will propose will take, then it would involve a clear departure from the accepted doctrine of the Church of England.

The biblical position : two honourable states

As C S Lewis correctly notes in Mere Christianity, the traditional rule of the Christian Church as a whole with regard to sexual conduct is very simple: ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ [2] This same rule has also been upheld by the Church of England. We can see this, for example, in the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer which tells us that the second reason why marriage was ordained was: ‘for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.’ Continency here means sexual abstinence, and what the marriage service is saying is that if you want to live rightly before God the only two options open to you are either sexual abstinence or marriage. Anything else involves being defiled by sexual sin or ‘fornication.’ 

Furthermore, the Church of England, like the Christian Church as whole, has always had a very clear understanding of what marriage is, an understanding which is expressed in the BCP marriage service and summarised in the words of Canon B.30: ‘marriage is in its nature a union permanent and life-long, for better or worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side.’

From the standpoint of this accepted Church of England doctrine if follows that same-sex relationships are not marriages (even if the state has chosen to regard them as such ) and that in so far as they involve sex outside marriage they are forms of fornication and as such contrary to the will of God.

What this means, as I have already noted , is that any form of service proposed by the House of Bishops that marked same-sex relationships as if they were marriage or affirmed them as good before God, and as such worthy of celebration and fit subjects of God’s blessing, is contrary to, and a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England (as also the traditional doctrine of the Christian Church as a whole)

Are matters of sexual behaviour ‘essential’?

It might be argued, of course, that while such a service did constitute a departure from established doctrine, it was not a departure on an ‘essential matter.’ Who people have sex with, it will be said, is  not really that important compared with adherence to the great truths  of the Creeds or a commitment to social justice. The Church of England can therefore live with different forms of belief and practice on this matter.

However, this argument is unsustainable. The homily ‘Against Whoredom and Uncleanness’ (or in modern language ‘Adultery and Sexual Sin’) in the First Book of Homilies (still an officially recognised source of Church of England teaching) notes, for example, the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 laid down that Christians must refrain from both idolatry and fornication. The homily comments:

‘Note here how these holy and blessed fathers of Christ’s Church charge the congregation with nothing more than was necessary. Notice also how fornication and sexual immorality are among those things from which the brethren of Antioch were urged to abstain. It is therefore necessary, by the determination of the Holy Spirit and the apostles and elders, with the whole congregation, that we must abstain from idolatry and superstition and also from fornication and sexual immorality. Is it necessary to salvation to abstain from idolatry? So it is also to abstain from sexual immorality. Is there any better way to lead to damnation than to be an idolater? No, and neither is there a better way to damnation than to be caught up in sexual sin.

Now, where are those people who so lightly esteem the breaking of marriage vows, sexual immorality, fornication and adultery? It is necessary, says the Holy Spirit, the blessed apostles, the elders, with the whole congregation of Christ – it is necessary to salvation, they say, to abstain from sexual immorality. If it is necessary for salvation, then woe to those who neglect their salvation and give their minds to so filthy and stinking a sin, to so wicked a vice, and to such detestable abomination.’[3]

We might find the language of the homily rather too direct for our taste today, but the truth of its content is undeniable and is supported not only by the teaching of the New Testament as a whole (see for example Matthew 5:27-30, Galatians 5:16-21, 2 Peter 2:1-22, Revelation 21:8)  but by the unbroken witness of the Christian Church until the end of the last century.[4] The New Testament and the historic Christian tradition are clear. Sexual sin is damnable and therefore something that needs to be taken with absolute seriousness. It is forgivable, but only on the basis of repentance (see 1 John 1: 8-9).

Any authorised service that involved an affirmation of the goodness of same-sex sexual relationships would point the people involved away from their need for repentance and would therefore have the potential to put their souls at risk. The issue of services to mark same-sex relationships is therefore an ‘essential matter’ since anything that has to do with the salvation of souls is by definition essential.

In conclusion

In summary, under Canon B4 the House of Bishops would in theory have the right to authorise permissive services to mark same-sex relationships. However, in practice, because the content of such services would be contrary to, and indicative of a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England on an essential matter, such services would not be permissible under the terms of this Canon.

The House may well pitch such services as only a small change. However, for the reasons given above they would be a change too far and one which Synod must reject. 


[1] House of Bishops, Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality (London: CHP, 2013),

  p.151.

[2] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount, 1984), 86.

[3] Lee Gatiss (ed), The First Book of Homilies (London: Lost Coin Books 2021), p. 163.

[4] For the evidence for this claim see for instance Kyle Harper, From shame to sin (Cambridge Mass: Harvard

   University Press, 2016) and S Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams, Unchanging Witness (Nashville B& H

 Academic, 2016)

Can a priest be non-binary?

This week there have been articles in both the Daily Mail [1]and the Liverpool Echo[2] about the Revd Bingo Allison who is described as the Church of England’s first ‘openly non-binary priest.’

In this post I don’t wish to comment on the specific case of Bingo Allison. I want instead to consider two fundamental questions which Bingo Allison’s story raises and which the Church of England has not addressed. The first question is whether, from a Christian perspective, anyone can properly be described as ‘non-binary.’ The second is whether it would be right for someone who describes themselves in this way to be ordained.

In order to address these questions we first need to be clear what is meant by the term ‘non-binary.’ As the Evening Standard explains in an article to mark International Non-Binary People’s Day, the term non-binary:

‘….is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity doesn’t conform to ‘man’ or woman.’

It quotes Stonewall as saying:

 ‘Non-binary identities are varied and can include people who identify with some aspects of binary identities, while others reject them entirely. Non-binary people can feel that their gender identity and gender experience involves being both a man and a woman, or that it is fluid, in between, or completely outside of that binary.’ [3]

To put it another way, someone who identifies as non-binary is someone who may identify as both male and female, or between male and female, or outside the male-female distinction entirely, but what they do not see themselves as being is either exclusively male or exclusively female.

From a Christian perspective the claim made by non-binary people that they have an identity that falls outside the male-female binary in this way raises the issue of whether God has actually created any of his human creatures in this way.

The answer, I would argue, is ‘no.’ This is for two reasons.

First of all, the ‘book of nature,’  that is to say the observable nature of what God has created, teaches us that all human beings are in fact either male or female. All human beings have bodies and these bodies have a sex that is either male or female, but not neither and not both.  As Christopher Tollefsen writes:

‘Our identity as animal organisms is the foundation of our existence as selves. But fundamental to our existence as this animal is our sex. We are male or female organisms in virtue of having a root capacity for reproductive function, even when that capacity is immature or damaged. In human beings, as is the case with many other organisms, that function is one to be performed jointly with another human being; unlike the digestive function, no individual human being suffices for its performance.

Accordingly, reproductive function in human beings is distributed across the two sexes, which are identified by their having the root capacity for one or the other of the two general structural and behavioral patterns involved in human reproduction. In male humans, this capacity is constituted by the structures necessary for the production of male gametes and the performance of the male sex act, insemination. In females, the capacity is constituted by the structures necessary for the production of oocytes and the performance of the female sex act, the reception of semen in a manner disposed to conception.’ [4]

There are a variety of other physical and psychological differences between men and women that have been noted,[5] but these are all characteristics of human beings who are fundamentally differentiated by the fact that their bodies are ordered towards the performance of different roles in sexual reproduction and in the nurture of children once they have been born.

At this point someone may raise the issue of those who are intersex since it is often held that those who are intersex sit outside the male-female sexual binary. However, this idea is mistaken. People who have intersex conditions have bodies that are atypical of their sex to a greater or lesser degree. Nevertheless, this does not mean that they are not male or female. As we have seen in the quotation from Tollefsen, to be male or female is to have a body that is ordered to play either the male or female role in the process of sexual reproduction and this true of all human beings, even those with intersex conditions.

As Abigail Favele notes in her study The Genesis of Gender, there are no human hermaphrodites. Using the term the more accurate term CCSD (Congenital Condition of Sexual Development) to refer to intersex conditions she writes:

‘Hermaphrodites are species that do not have separate sexes, such as snails and slugs; instead, each member of the species has the ability to produce both large and small gametes[6] and can thus take on either the male or female role in reproduction. For this kind of species, hermaphroditic reproduction is the norm. Humans biology on the other hand, does not support this mode of reproduction. In the rarest CCSD an individual can develop both ovarian and testicular tissue, but even in this case he or she will produce one gamete or the other not both. There have only been about 500 documented cases of ovotesticular CCSD in medical history and there is no direct evidence in the literature of a hermaphroditic human being, someone able to produce both small and large gametes.

When all the dimensions of sex are taken into account sex can be discerned in each human being. To conclude otherwise is to exclude some individuals from a reality in which we all participate.’ [7]

As she goes on to say:

‘The most humanising and precise way to view CCSDs is to understand these conditions not as exceptions from the sex binary, but as variations within the binary.’[8]

Secondly, the Bible confirms what we learn from nature. It too teaches that human beings come in two sexes, male and female . However, in the twin creation narratives in Genesis 1:26-31 and Genesis 2: 18-25 (narratives endorsed as authoritative by Jesus in Matthew 19:3-6 and Mark 10:2-9) the Bible gives us additional teaching about our existence as men and women.

First, it teaches us that the division of human beings into two sexes is not an evolutionary accident. It is how God, in his infinite wisdom and goodness, has created human beings to be. ‘Male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27).

Secondly, it teaches us that, like everything else created by God, the division of humanity into two sexes is something that is good. ‘And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31).

Thirdly, it teaches us that it is as male and female that human beings are the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1: 26-27). For human beings to exist as the image and likeness of God means that they have the capacity to know and love God, each other, and creation as a whole and the vocation to rule over creation on God’s behalf. However, they can only rightly exercise this capacity and fulfil this vocation as men and women acting together. That is why God says in Genesis 2:18 ‘it is not good that the man should be alone.’

Fourthly, it teaches us that there is a correspondence between the existence of human beings as male and female and the life of God himself. As the plural verb in Genesis 1:26 (‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’) indicates, God exists as three divine persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who possess both identity and difference. They are identical as God, but different in the way they are God.

As Genesis goes on to say, God has made human beings as persons who are likewise marked by both identity and difference. The identity and difference between men and  women (identical in their humanity, differentiated by their sex) is the primary form of this human identity and differentiation from which all other forms of identity and difference then flow.

Fifthly, it teaches us that by creating the first man and woman and then bringing them together in marriage (Genesis 2:22-23) God has established the model for human sexual relationships for all time. As the American Old Testament scholar Richard Davidson notes, the introductory word ‘therefore’ in Genesis 2:24  ‘indicates that the relationship of Adam and Eve is upheld as the pattern for all human sexual relationships.’[9]

According to this pattern, the context for sexual intercourse is a permanent marital relationship between one man and one woman that is outside the immediate family circle, is freely chosen, is sexually exclusive and is ordered towards procreation in accordance with God’s command that men and women should ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28).

What all this means for us is that living rightly before God as those made in his image and likeness means living as the man or woman God has created us to be, serving God in company with members of the opposite sex, and having sexual intercourse only in the context of the sort of marriage that Genesis describes.

As Oliver O’ Donovan writes:

‘….. we cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits. Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature – to the ordered good of the bodily from which we have been given.’ [10]

As he goes on to say:

‘When God made mankind male and female, to exist alongside each other and for each other, he gave a form that human sexuality should take and a good to which it should aspire. None of us can, or should, regard our difficulties with that form, or with achieving that good, as the norm of what our sexuality is to be. None of us should see our sexuality as mere self-expression, and forget that we can express ourselves sexually only because we participate in this generic form and aspire to this generic good. We do not have to make a sexual form, or posit a sexual good. We have to exist as well as we can within that sexual form, and in relation to that sexual good, which has been given to us because it has been given to humankind.’[11]

This means it is not legitimate to deny the God-given form by rejecting the ‘gender binary,’ or to deny the particular version of that form that God has given to us by making us either male or female. However difficult this form may be for us to accept, to deny it would be a form of sin since it would involve a refusal to say to the God who created us in a particular way ‘thy will be done’ (Matthew 6:10).

Because denying the exclusively male or female sex God has given to us is a form of sin it follows that it cannot be right for the Church of England to ordain those who identify as non-binary. As the 1662 Ordinal declares, those who are ordained are called to provide ‘wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ.’ That is to say, they are not only to tell people how God wants his human creatures to live in their sermons and other teaching, but also to model it in the way that they behave. Those who are living openly and unrepentantly as non-binary cannot do this since the sinful manner of life they have chosen to adopt is contrary to how God wants human beings to live. Consequently, it is not right for them to be ordained so long as this state of affairs persists.

In summary, we can say that a priest cannot truly be non-binary for the simple reason that that no one can truly be non-binary. All priests, like all other human beings, are either male or female. In addition, no priest should live as if they were non-binary because this would mean living in a way that did not provide a wholesome example or pattern to the flock of Christ and no one who does live as if they were non-binary should be ordained by the Church of England.


[1] The Daily Mail,2 January 2023, ‘Britain’s ‘first non-binary CofE priest says ‘God guided me to the truth”

[2] The Liverpool Echo, ‘Church of England Priest on how God guided them on their journey of becoming queer’ at:

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/newsliverpool/church-of-england-priest-on-how-god-guided-them-on-their-journey-of-becoming-queer/ar-AA15RkF9

[3] The Evening Standard, ‘International Non-Binary People’s Day’ at: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/international-non-binary-peoples-day-gender-identity-meaning b1012455.html#:~:text=Nonbinary%20is%20an%20umbrella%20term%20for%20people%20whose,of%20binary%20identities%2C%20while%20others%20reject%20them%20entirely.

[4] Christopher Tollefsen, ‘Sex identity,’ Public Discourse, 12 July 2015, text at http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/07/15306/

[5] See for example, Richard A Lippa, Gender, Nature and Nurture,2ed (London: Routledge, 2005).

[6] Eggs and sperm.

[7] Abigail Favele, The Genesis of Gender (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2022), p.129. 

[8] Favele, p.131.

[9] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), p.43.

[10] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: OUP, 1984), p. 29.

[11] O Donovan, pp.29-30.


Welcome to the multiverse: 10 Why the multiverse exists and how to live well in it.

  1. Why Christians need to understand the multiverse

It is important for Christians to recognise both the existence and complexity of the religious and philosophical multiverse that now exists in Britain. This is because in order to relate properly to our family members, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, and so forth, we have to understand that they are likely to view the world in a variety of different ways and that the majority of them are likely to view the world in a way that is different from the way that orthodox Christianity views it.

There is a tendency among some Christians today to think that the main challenge to Christianity comes from the critical theory variant of the Postmodern worldview. This tendency is understandable given the high public profile and official support for the critical theory approach at the moment, especially in relation to matters to do with race, transgender and same-sex sexual relationships.

However, it obscures the fact that the number of people who actually hold to a Postmodern or critical theory approach to the world is very small (although disproportionately represented in academia and the media). A far larger number of people in this country hold, often unconsciously, to a Deist or Materialist worldview, or hold to a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Sikh worldview, or to one of the other, smaller, worldviews noted in the introduction.

As has been noted repeatedly in these articles there is great diversity among those who share the same overall worldview. Thus, Materialists will disagree with each other over a whole range of matters, as will Muslims and Buddhists. However, this does not mean that overall world views do not exist. They do, and Christians need to understand them if they are to understand the world they live and be effective witnesses for Christ within it.

It is also the case that many people today have an eclectic worldview in which they consciously or unconsciously view the world in a way that is influenced by a number of different worldviews. For example, there are people whose lives are basically shaped by a Christian worldview, but also embrace a pantheist understanding of God influenced by Hinduism and practice Buddhist meditation techniques as part of their spiritual discipline. For another example, there are those who embrace a materialist or postmodern worldview but whose ethical values, such as a belief in equality, compassion, freedom, and progress are nevertheless derived from Christianity. For a third example, there are LGBTQ+ Muslims who seek to combine a Muslim worldview with a view of sexual freedom and the fluidity of sexual identity derived from Postmodernism.

If Christians are to be effective witnesses to people who hold such eclectic worldviews, they need to understand the different worldviews that these people are combining and how to address these from a Christian perspective.  

2. The history of the multiverse

A key question that the existence of all these different worldview raises is how the multiverse came about. Why is it the case that Materialist, Muslims, Buddhists and others exist alongside Christians, both in this country and in the world as a whole?

To answer this question, we have to go back to the beginning of human history.

The biblical account of the beginning of the human story tells us that the original religion of humanity was the worship of the one creator God described in Genesis 1 and 2, the God who subsequently revealed himself to Israel as Yahweh, or in English versions of the Bible  ‘the Lord.’ Thus, in Genesis 4:26, which is intended to give a description of what Gerhard von Rad calls ‘the primeval religion of mankind in general,’ we are told that in the time of Seth the son of Adam ‘men began to call upon the name of the Lord’ (‘call upon’ meaning worship).

The God who created the world had made himself known by means of personal revelation to the first ancestors of the human race (Genesis 1:26-30, 2:15-24, 3:8-19, 4:1-7) and it was this same God, Genesis says, who was worshipped when corporate worship was instituted in the time of Seth.

In the nineteenth century, as part of a general revolt against the historical veracity of the Bible, the biblical picture of religion beginning with the worship of a single creator God came to be widely rejected by Western writers on the origins of religion. What came to be held instead was that religion was a purely human construct that had gradually evolved as part of the general development of human culture.

The explanations given by scholars as to the ultimate origins of religion varied from the personification of the forces of nature, the worship of the spiritual forces believed to inhabit human beings and nature as a whole, the propitiation of the spirits of the dead, and the invocation of the spiritual power of the animal symbol (totem) of a particular clan. However, there was general agreement that the religion of early human cultures was primitive and polytheistic, and that monotheism was a late development which emerged as a reaction against this primal polytheism.

This understanding of human religious development has become part of the mental furniture of Western secular culture, something that ‘everybody knows.’

However, like many things that ‘everybody knows’ it can be shown to be wrong. The scholars mentioned above based their work on the assumption that (unlike them) early human beings were ignorant savages, and so their religion must also have been ignorant and savage. Sophisticated ideas such as monotheism must therefore have developed later. The problem with this theory was that it faileed to do justice to the discoveries about the actual religious beliefs and practices of indigenous peoples around the world as these began to be uncovered by students of ethnography from the nineteenth century onwards.  Such peoples had cultures which could be seen to preserve elements of human culture that predated the developments in later and more sophisticated cultures, and when their religion began to be studied it became clear time after time that these cultures had preserved an awareness of a single creator god.   

A vivid example of what took place is given by G K Chesterton in his book The Everlasting Man.

‘A missionary was preaching to a very wild tribe of polytheists, who had told him all their polytheistic tales, and telling them in return of the existence of the one good God who is spirit and judges men by spiritual standards. And there was a sudden buzz of excitement among these stolid barbarians, as at somebody who was letting out a secret, and they cried to each other, ‘Atahocan! He is speaking of Atahocan!’

As Chesterton goes on to say:

‘…there are any number of similar examples. They all testify to the unmistakeable psychology of sa thing taken for granted, as distinct from a thing talked about. There is a striking example in a tale taken down word for word from a Red Indian in California, which starts out with hearty legendary and literary relish: ‘The sun is the father and ruler of the heavens. He is the big chief. The moon is his wife and the stars are their children;’ and so on through a most ingenious and complicated story, in the middle of which is a sudden parenthesis saying that the sun and moon have to do something because ‘It is ordered that way by the Great Spirit Who lives above the place of all.’ That is exactly the attitude of most paganism towards God. He is something assumed and forgotten and remembered by accident; a habit possibly not peculiar to pagans.’

In addition to the evidence provided by the cultures of indigenous peoples, scholars also found evidence for original belief in monotheism by studying the later development of language and culture around the world. For example, as Robert Brow notes, study of the Indo-European language group shows an awareness of the one creator God among all the Indo-European peoples:

‘His first name was Dyaus Pitar (‘divine father) which is the same as the Greek Zeus Pater, the Latin Jupiter or Deus, the early German Tiu or Ziu and Norse Tyr. Another name was ‘the heavenly one’ (Sanskrit varuna, Greek ouranos) , or ‘the friend’ (Sanskrit mitra, Persian mithra). By metaphor a simile other names were added. God is called ‘the sun,’ ‘the powerful one’ and ‘the guardian of order.’’

The peoples involved eventually became polytheistic, but the linguistic evidence for an original monotheism remains.

In similar fashion, the evidence from China indicates that the earliest form of Chinese religion that we know about involved the worship of the one supreme sky-god known as Shang-Ti or Hao-Tien who was, as Corduan writes, ‘sovereign, eternal immutable, all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present, infinite, love, holy, full of grace, good, faithful, merciful, compassionate, just, righteous and wise.’  When Confucius and other Chinese writers refer to heaven (as in ‘the mandate of heaven’) the evidence suggests that they are referring periphrastically to this god. As Chinese religion developed the worship of Shang-Ti faded into the background, but sacrifice was offered to him three times a year by the Chinese Emperor until the end of Imperial China in 1911.

These kind of examples of evidence for primeval monotheism from all round the world were compiled  by the Scottish scholar Andrew Lang in his book The Making of Religion, first published in 1898, and were then set out in exhaustive detail by the Austrian Catholic scholar Wilhelm Schmidt in the 11,000 pages of his twelve volume Der Ursprung der Gotersidee (the Origin of the idea of God) which was published from 1912 onwards.  Further study since their time has confirmed rather than overthrown their findings. The evidence of historical, ethnographic, and linguistic study confirms the biblical idea that the original religion of mankind was the worship of one creator god. 

The existence of this evidence raises the issue of the ultimate origin of this religion. We know it existed, but why did it exit? As we have seen, the biblical answer is that God revealed himself personally to the earliest human beings, and this biblical answer is supported by the ethnographical evidence which time after time says that the first ancestor(s) of the people in question learned about God from God, and then passed this information on to their subsequent descendants.

To quote Schmidt:

‘The bottom line is that the reports we have from the adherents of the oldest religions themselves are not only merely disinclined towards the supposition that the religions were created by seeking and searching human beings; rather, worse yet, they do not even mention it with a single word. All their affirmative responses are directed to the side of divine revelation: it is God Himself Who taught humans what to believe about Him, how to venerate Him, and how they should obey the expression of His will.    ‘The bottom line is that the reports we have from the adherents of the oldest religions themselves are not only merely disinclined towards the supposition that the religions were created by seeking and searching human beings; rather, worse yet, they do not even mention it with a single word. All their affirmative responses are directed to the side of divine revelation: it is God Himself Who taught humans what to believe about Him, how to venerate Him, and how they should obey the expression of His will.’

As Schmidt further argues, the sort of experience to which these testimonies bear witness is required to explain the evidence that we have concerning primeval religion:

‘Something of such intense force must have come upon these most ancient human beings in an encounter that became an all-encompassing de-stablising experience, penetrating their entire being to its innermost core, so that immediately, due to its overpowering might, it gave rise to the unity and comprehensiveness that we observe, in these, the oldest of religions

This ‘something’ could not have been merely a subjective process inside of the human being himself; for then it could not have held either the power or the complete blueprint of these, the oldest of religions. There would have been no way in which the clarity and solidity of their outlook of faith, as well as the cultural forms associated with it, could have been implemented. Neither could it have been a purely material thing or event, no matter how unusual it may have appeared. For then it would have become increasingly inexplicable how mere material stuff could act on the combined personhood of these ancient people with the power, firmness, and clarity that we admire in these, the oldest of religions.

No, it must have been a powerful mighty person, who stepped toward them, and who was able to chain their intellects with illuminating truths, to bind their wills with high and noble precepts, and to win their hearts with enticing beauty and goodness. And again, this person could not have been an inner chimera or phantasm of mere human origin because such an entity could not even have come close to possessing sufficient actual power to cause the effects we see in these, the oldest of religions. Instead, it must have been a person who came to them as a genuine reality from outside of them, and it is precisely the power of this reality that convinced them and conquered them.’

If the evidence shows that the earliest religion of humankind was monotheism based on direct divine revelation, then why is there the diversity of religions and philosophies that we see today. What happened? 

The answer seems to be that the present state of affairs emerged in several stages.

First, there was the emergence of polytheism,  a development which saw the one god of monotheism become part of a pantheon of different divine beings. Thus, Zeus, the divine father, is still worshipped, but becomes only one among a range of Greek deities and the same is true of Tyr who ends up as a fairly minor Norse deity. Alongside this development there was also the development of idolatry as both people (such as the Egyptian Pharaohs), and created objects such as statues, came to be seen as the places where the gods manifested themselves on earth, and therefore became the objects of worship In their own right.

Secondly, in the sixth century BC there was what has been described as the ‘axial age,’ a time which saw the emergence not only, as we have seen, of Vedanta Hinduism and Buddhism, but also of Jainism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, and Confucianism and Taoism in China.

These religions all seem to have emerged as a result of a revolt against the religious teaching, and also the economic and political power, of the priesthoods of the existing polytheistic religions in India, China and Persia. They introduced a range of religious ideas and practices, but none of them marked a return to a simple creational monotheism. Instead, these new forms of religion were marked by pantheism, or atheism, or agnosticism, or, in the case of Zoroastrianism, a dualism between the good creator god Ahura Mazda and the co-equal and co-eternal evil deity Ahura Mainyu.

The sixth century revolt against polytheistic religion just described seems also to have sparked off the revolt against polytheistic forms of religion which can be found in Greek and later Roman philosophy, a movement which, while challenging existing forms of religion, once again failed to produce a return to creational monotheism.  

Thirdly, in the seventh century Islam emerged as a reaction against Arabian polytheism. As we have noted, Islam is an uncompromisingly monotheistic form of religion, and it may have had its roots in ancient Arabian monotheism, but it is theologically problematic because although one of its fundamental claims is that it is in line with the monotheistic religion taught in the Old and New Testaments this is not in fact the case.

Fourthly, Sikhism emerged out of the Hindu tradition in the fifteenth century. It too is monotheistic, but, as noted in article 9 in this series, its form of monotheism also raises a range of theological problems due to its attempt to combine monotheism, with monism and reincarnation.

Fifthly Deism, followed by Materialism and Postmodernism,  developed as a revolt against Christian monotheism from the end of seventeenth century onwards.

This leaves us with Judaism and Christianity. To understand their emergence, we need to note that both the Christian faith, and a range of primeval religious traditions from around the world, bear witness to the fact that the creative activity of the single good creator God has been undermined by the work of an evil spiritual power, with the result that the world as it now exists is not how it was originally meant to be. For example, as Corduan notes, the creation account of the Lenape people in the Eastern United States declares that after the Great Manitou created the heavens and the earth:

‘Everyone was content. Unfortunately, the harmony of the world was eventually disrupted by the appearance of an evil magician who brought strife, natural disasters, sickness and death to all people.’

What the Bible tells us is that in order to rectify the disharmony introduced into his good creation by this evil power (what Christian theology calls the Devil), God revealed himself to Abraham and established a covenant relationship with him and his descendants (the people of Israel) through which  all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3).

The God worshipped by Abraham is identified in Genesis 17:1 as El Shaddai, God Almighty, who is further identified in Genesis 14:22 as ‘the Lord God Most High, maker of heaven and earth,’ the same deity of whom Melchizedek was a priest (Genesis 14:18-19) and in the context of Genesis the same almighty creator  God described in the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. What we learn from this is that a continuing form of pure monotheistic religion had survived among people like Melchizedek, and that Abraham, who had been a polytheist (Joshua 24:2) converted to this pure monotheism after his personal encounter with God.

The Old Testament then goes on to tell us that this same creator God subsequently appeared to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:13-15, 6:2-4), rescued the people of Israel from Egypt, and established them in the land that he had promised Abraham he would give them. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of how this God maintained his relationship with the people of Israel in spite of their constant rebellion against him, and how he spoke to them through a series of prophets who warned them to worship God alone and to live in obedience to God’s laws, and who also promised that God would act in new way to fulfil the promise of universal blessing made to Abraham.

The New Testament tells the story of how this promise was fulfilled when the creator God took human nature upon himself in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18, Hebrews 1:1-14), and began a process of cosmic renewal through Christ’s death and resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Romans 8:1-25), a process that will culminate in the coming of a ‘new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1) in which God’s people will dwell with him for ever in which ‘death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4). 

As we have seen in articles 1 and 2, the difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Judaism accepts the witness of the Old Testament, but not the witness of the New Testament, while Christianity accepts both. It is for this reason that it is in Christianity alone that the true and full knowledge of who God is, and what he has done in the past and will do in the future, has been passed down and continues to exist today.

What this means is that the story of the development of the multiverse is a story of degeneration and regeneration.  It is a story of degeneration in that it tells how the knowledge of the one creator God has gradually become lost during the course of human history. It is a story of regeneration in that it tells how God has acted to restore and deepen this knowledge through the history of Israel, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Spirit, as part of his overall regeneration of the created order in the face of its corruption by the activity of the Devil and the human alienation from God that has resulted from it.

The development of Islam and Sikhism represent genuine attempts to restore monotheism, but the particular forms of monotheism that resulted are flawed for the reasons previously noted, and they do not give an accurate account of the nature of God and his activity in the world.

3. Living well in the multiverse

Living well in the multiverse involves two key activities, standing firm and reaching out.

Standing firm involves holding on to the truth about God and the human situation before God the God has revealed and that the orthodox tradition has preserved. The history of the human race shows that it is all too easy for the truth about God to become forgotten and distorted and the Christian calling is to stand find in ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) so that this does not happen.

Standing firm also involves living in the way that God wants his human creatures to live. As the all good and all wise creator, God has laid down how we should live and the Christian vocation is to be faithful in living this way, obeying all that God has commanded us to do, and rejecting all that God has commanded us not to do.

In the words of Os Guinness:

‘The Church of Jesus can never be the church without both faith and faithfulness, and both of them in a form that is strong to the point of being stubborn. The supreme challenge of the hour for the Church of Jesus in the advanced modern world is to so live and speak as witnesses to our Lord that, as in the motto of the US Marines, we are ‘Semper Fi’  – always Found Faithful. Rarely in two thousand years of Christian history has that calling been so tested as it is in our time. Come threats of death or seductive temptations to an easy life, our task is to stand faithful to our Lord in every moment of our lives and faithful to our last breath.’  

Reaching out involves bearing witness to others who do not yet know or accept the Christian worldview in obedience to Jesus’ commission to his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20, with the goal that they too may become baptised disciples of Jesus. What this needs to mean in practice has been helpfully summarised by the great twentieth century missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin who makes four key points.

First, there needs to be recognition. We must discern and acknowledge the signs of the work of God in the lives who are not yet Christians:  

We shall expect, look for, and welcome all the signs of the grace of God at work in the lives of those who do not yet know Jesus as Lord. In this, of course, we shall be following the example of Jesus, who was so eager to welcome the evidences of faith in those outside the household of Israel. This kind of expectancy and welcome is an implication of the greatness of God’s grace as it has been shown to us in Jesus. For Jesus is the personal presence of that creative word by which all that exists was made and is sustained in being. He comes to the world as no stranger but as the source of the world’s life. He is the true light of the world, and that light shines into every corner of the world in spite of all that seeks to shut it out. In our contact with people who do not acknowledge Jesus is Lord, our first business, our first privilege, is to seek out and to welcome all the reflections of that one true light in the lives of those we meet.

Secondly, there must be co-operation. Christians need to be:

… eager to cooperate with people of all faiths and ideologies in all projects which are in line with a Christian understanding of God’s purpose in history. I have repeatedly made the point that at the heart of the faith of a Christian is the belief that the true meaning of the story of which our lives are apart is that which is made known in the biblical narrative. The human story is one which we share with all other human beings – past, present, and to come. we cannot opt out of the story. We cannot take control of the story. It is under the control of the infinitely patient God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every day of our lives we have to make decisions about the part we will play in the story, decisions which we cannot take without regard to the others who share the story. They may be Christians, Muslims, Hindus, secular humanists, Marxists, or some other persuasion.  They will have different understandings of the meaning and end of the story, but along the way there will be many issues in which we can agree about what should be done. There are struggles for justice and for freedom in which we can and should join hands with those of other faiths and ideologies to achieve specific goals, even though we know that the ultimate goal is Christ and his coming in glory and not what our collaborators imagine.

Thirdly, co-operation will open the door for dialogue:

It is precisely in this kind of shared commitment to the business of the world that the context for true dialogue is provided. As we work together with people of other commitments, we shall discover the places where our ways must separate. Here is where real dialogue may begin. It is a real dialogue about real issues. It is not just about a sharing of religious experience, though it may include this. At heart it will be a dialogue about the meaning and goal of the human story. If we are doing what we ought to be doing as Christians, the dialogue will be initiated by our partners, not by ourselves. They will be aware of the fact that while we share with them in commitment to some immediate project, our action is set in a different context from theirs. It has a different motivation. It looks to a different goal.

Fourthly, Christians need to be willing to tell the Christian story, content to leave the outcome to God:

The essential contribution of the Christian to the dialogue will be simply the telling of the story, the story of Jesus, the story of the Bible. The story is itself, as Paul says, the power of God for salvation. The Christian must tell it, not because she lacks respect for the many excellences of her companions -many of whom may be better, more godly, more worthy of respect than she is. She tells it simply as one who’s been chosen and called by God be part of the company which is entrusted with the story. It is not her business to convert the others. She will indeed – out of love for them – long that they may come to share the joy that she knows and pray that they may indeed do so. But it is only the Holy Spirit of God who can so touch the hearts and consciences of the others that they are brought to accept the story as true and to put their trust in Jesus. This will always be a mysterious work of the Spirit, often in ways which no third party will ever understand. The Christian will pray that it may be so, and she will seek faithfully both to tell the story and – as part of a Christian congregation -so conduct her life as to embody the truth of the story. But she won’t imagine that it is her responsibility to ensure that the other is persuaded. That is in God’s hands.

It is as Christians understand the multiverse in which they live, remain faithful to God in their belief and practice, and reach out to others in the way that Newbigin describes, that they will best be able to fulfil their calling to be ‘God’s fellow workers’ (1 Corinthians 3:9) furthering God’s good purposes for the world that he has made.

Books referred to in the arricles in this series

Andy Bannister, Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? (London: Inter -Varsity Press, 2021) 

R Pierce Beaver et al, The World’s Religions (Oxford: Lion, 1992)

G K Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993)

Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God,  (Nashville, B&H Publishing, 2013)

Winfried Corduan et al, Eastern Religions (Areopagus Journal, May/June 2009)

Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin, 2013)

Os Guinness, Impossible People (Downers Grove, IVP, 2016)

Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988)

Andrew Lang, The Making of Religion (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1898)

Martin Luther, Shorter Catechism, in John Leith (ed) Creeds of the Churches  (Oxford: Blackwell 1973)

C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount, 1984)

Stephen Meyer, The Return of the God Hypothesis (London: Harper One, 2021) 

Lesslie Newbiggin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989)

Eleanor Nisbett, Sikhism – A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2005)

William Paley, Natural Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2008)

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories, (Rugby, Swift Press, 2020)

John Polkinghorne, One World (London: SPCK, 1986)

Bertrand Russell Mysticism and Logic (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2017)

Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin of the Idea of God (Munster: Aschendorff, 1912-1955)

Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: OUP, 2005)

James Sire, The Universe Next Door, 6ed, (Downers Grove, IVP, 2020)

Kevin Vanhoozer, Is there a meaning in this text? (Leicester: Apollos, 1998)

Those who are interested in reading the texts of non-Christian religions for themselves can find online translations at  The Internet Sacred Text Archive (www.sacred-texts.com )

Welcome to the multiverse: 9 The Sikh Universe

  1. The Sikh Universe

Sikhism is the youngest and fifth largest of the world’s religions. There are approximately twenty million Sikhs in the world, the majority of whom live in the province of Punjab in North-West India, although there is now a worldwide Sikh diaspora (for example, there is a large Sikh temple, the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara, in Gravesend in Kent).

Sikhism began to develop in the fifteenth century in the Punjab district of what is now India and Pakistan (the district was divided between the two at the Partition of India in 1947). It was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539) and is based on his teachings and that of the nine Gurus who followed him.

The fundamental tenet of Sikhs is belief in the Ik Onkar, the ‘one constant’, which in Western religious terms translates into belief in one God who creates and sustains all things. What Sikhs believe about God is set out in the opening line of the Sikh Scriptures, the Adi Granth. This declares:

‘There is but one all pervading spirit, and truth is its name! It exists in all creation; it does not fear; it does not hate; it is timeless and universal and self-existent.’

All human beings, regardless, of sex, race or religion, are the creation of this one God and as such have equal value and dignity. Like Hinduism and Buddhism, Sikhism believes that human beings exist within a cosmic cycle of life, death and rebirth. All beings, animal and human, have within them a soul, or atma, which is a part of God, and the form of existence that each soul has in each in each new life depends on the operation of the law of karma which determines the form of that life in accordance with how the soul behaved in its previous life.

Once again like Hinduism and Buddhism, the central question to which Sikhism provides an answer is how to escape from this cycle in which it takes 8.4 million reincarnations for a soul to be born as human being. The answer that Sikhism provides is that the way of escape (which is called mukti or liberation) is through achieving total knowledge of, and union with, God. In order to achieve mukti a person has to switch the focus of their attention from themselves to God and live accordingly. This is something that happens through the grace of God at work in a person and takes place as God shows them the best way to get close to him through their own personal religious experience and through the teaching of holy books and holy people. To quote the Adi Granth again:

‘The man who is lost in selfishness is drowned without water, his mind is like a frog and his vice like mud. Yet the Lord is the ocean and the disciple a little fish; once this is realised that a union becomes possible, and that is like metal being welded to metal, like water mixing with water. This union is achieved by the word of the true Guru. Man’s heart is penetrated by the Guru’s word, it is imperishable and has the power to create and to destroy. Once it comes it is as though a lotus flower blossoms in the heart; it serves as a ship whereby we may cross the evil ocean of existence. The one who is  asleep is awakened, and he who was aflame with fever is cooled. Once this experience comes no one will assert that he has deserved it. It is as though the disciple has no purity of its own, but the Lord seizes his arm and washes him. Then the body ceases to be a puppet of maya and is free to serve the true Guru.’

The way of life that Sikhs see as forming the path to liberation involves avoiding five vices and performing three basic duties.

The fives vices are lust, covetousness and greed, the attachment to the things of this world, 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’;

Vand Chhakna, ‘To share the fruits of one’s labour with others before considering oneself.’

The ultimate theological authority within Sikhism that provides along the path to mukti is the teaching of the eleven Gurus. In Sikh belief there are ten human Gurus: Guru Nanak and his nine successors and a written Guru, the Sikh holy book, the Adi Granth. As Eleanor Nesbitt explains, ‘In Sikh belief all are the physical embodiments of the same Guru. One Sikh analogy for Guru-ship is a flame that lights a succession of torches.’

As the entry on the Adi Granth in the online Sikh encyclopaedia SikhWiki notes:

‘Guru Granth Sahib or Adi Sri Granth Sahib Ji … (also called the Adi Granth or Adi Guru Darbar) is more than just a scripture of the Sikhs, for the Sikhs treat this Granth (holy book) as their living Guru. The holy text spans 1430 pages and contains the actual words spoken by the founders of the Sikh religion (the Ten Gurus of Sikhism) and the words of various other Saints from other religions including Hinduism and Islam.’Guru Granth Sahib or Adi Sri Granth Sahib Ji … (also called the Adi Granth or Adi Guru Darbar) is more than just a scripture of the Sikhs, for the Sikhs treat this Granth (holy book) as their living Guru. The holy text spans 1430 pages and contains the actual words spoken by the founders of the Sikh religion (the Ten Gurus of Sikhism) and the words of various other Saints from other religions including Hinduism and Islam.

Guru Granth Sahib was given the Guruship by the last of the living Sikh Masters, Guru Gobind Singh Ji in 1708. Guru Gobind Singhsaid before his demise that the Sikhs were to treat the Granth Sahib as their next Guru. Guru Ji said – ‘Sab Sikhan ko hokam hai Guru Manyo Granth,’ meaning, ‘All Sikhs are commanded to take the Granth as Guru.’ So today, if asked, the Sikhs will tell you that they have a total of 11 Gurus (10 in human form and the SGGS).’

Alongside the Adi Granth there are two other texts which are also  important for Sikh belief and practice. The first of these is the Dasam Granth which contains texts attributed to the tenth Guru. These texts are important to many Sikhs, but the Dasam Granth does not have the same authority as the Adi Granth. The second are the Janamsākhīs (literally ‘birth stories’), writings which provide accounts of the life of Guru Nanak and the foundations of the Sikh religion.

The most well-known symbols of Sikh identity, and what most people think of when they think of Sikhism, are what are known as the ‘five ks’. These are five physical symbols worn by male Sikhs who have undergone the Sikh initiation ritual or amrit as a sign of their dedication to God.

These symbols are:

Kesh (uncut hair)

Kara (a steel bracelet)

Kanga (a wooden comb)

Kaccha – also spelt, Kachh, Kachera (cotton underwear)

Kirpan (steel sword)

As well as keeping their hair uncut Sikh men (and increasingly women as well) wear a turban as a further sign of their dedication to God. As the article ‘Why do Sikhs wear turbans?’ on the SikhNet website puts it:

‘The turban tells others that we are different. By having a distinct appearance, Sikhs become accountable for their actions. Our distinct Sikh appearance not only makes us think more often about our conduct and its reflection upon a wider society, it also makes us reflect upon our own ideals and how they reflect the teachings of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. The turban is there to remind us of our connection to God. It frames us as devotees of God and gives us a way to live in gratitude for this gift of recognition. This responsibility of being recognized is also a way of keeping ourselves from self-destructive habits, such as smoking, drinking, etc. The thing is, in our religion our identity goes hand in hand with the turban. There is no other religion in the world that wears a turban as a daily badge of identity. The turban of a Sikh is his or her primary identifying feature. It is a statement of belonging to the Guru, and it is a statement of the inner commitment of the one who wears it.’

2. Christianity and Sikhism

The Christian faith agrees with Sikhism that there is one creator God and that to find eternal happiness human beings need to switch their focus from themselves to God. It also agrees with the Sikh rejection of the five vices and the basic way of life set out in the three pillars of Sikhism (although the focus of a Christian’s meditation and prayer will obviously be the divine revelation contained in the Old and New Testaments rather than the teaching of the Sikh Gurus). 

However, Christianity also parts company with Sikhism in a number of respects.

First, while Christianity and Sikhism both believe in one eternal creator God, the God described by Sikhism is not the Triune God described in the Bible who as Jesus Christ became incarnate for our salvation.

Secondly, from a Christian perspective the Sikh belief that the soul is part of God and that the goal of human existence is for the soul to be merged back into God, ‘like the drop of water mingles with the ocean’  as one Sikh writer puts it, gives the soul both too great and too little significance. Too great significance because the soul is part of creation rather than part of the creator, too little significance because the goal of human existence is for the soul, together with the body, to continue to exist in an eternal loving relationship with God rather than simply ceasing to exist.

Thirdly, from a Christian perspective the Sikh doctrine of reincarnation raises the same basic problem as the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, namely that it fails to do justice to the truth that each person is created by God as a unique being consisting of a material body and an immaterial soul united together, and that this combination of body and soul will endure for eternity.

Fourthly, the previous point means that from a Christian perspective, Sikhism, like Hinduism and Buddhism, misunderstands the fundamental problem facing human beings. For Sikhism the problem for human beings is that their souls still have a separate existence from God, and the solution is to bring that separate existence to an end by diligently following the spiritual path revealed by God through the Sikh Gurus.

For Christianity, by contrast, the existence of human beings as creatures separate from God is a good thing. God wills that we should continue to exist as separate beings in right relationship with him for all eternity. The problem is that we are alienated from God because of sin and are subject to death as a result, and the solution is the act of re-creation undertaken by God at the incarnation by means of which our sinfulness is done away with and because of which our death has been overcome.

Fifthly, this means that Christianity and Sikhism have a different understanding of grace. For Sikhs grace is the opportunity to possibly obtain mukhti through diligent adherence to the Sikh spiritual path. For Christians grace is God having done everything necessary to give us a new life in right relationship with him through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and by making that work of salvation effective in us through the Spirit.

Welcome to the multiverse: 8 The Buddhist universe

1.The Buddhist worldview

Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion, with over 520 million followers. It traces its origins to the teaching and practice of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived sometime in the sixth century BC.

He was born into a royal family in present-day Nepal and lived a life of privilege and luxury until one day he left the royal enclosure and encountered for the first time, an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and lastly an ascetic holy man who was apparently content and at peace with the world. As a result of these four encounters, he abandoned royal life and entered on a spiritual quest that eventually led him to become enlightened (the term Buddha means ‘enlightened one’) about how to escape from being trapped in the endless cycle of suffering and re-incarnation. Following this enlightenment he attracted a band of followers, instituted a monastic order and spent the rest of his life travelling throughout the North-Eastern part of the Indian subcontinent teaching others about the path of awakening that he had discovered.

There are now numerous schools of Buddhism that seek to follow the path laid down by the Buddha in a variety of different ways. The two largest are Theravada Buddhism, which is most popular in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, and Mahayana Buddhism, which is strongest in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. Although Buddhism is strongest in South and South East Asia, as in the case of Hinduism there are now Buddhist communities around the world.

For most Buddhists the foundations of their belief and practice lie in what are known as the ‘three jewels’. These are the Buddha himself, the teachings of Buddha (the Dharma) and the congregations of monastic practitioners (the Sangha) who preserve the authentic teachings of the Buddha and provide further examples of the truth of the Buddha’s teaching that enlightenment is attainable. There is no one single text that is regarded as spiritually authoritative by all Buddhists with the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism each having their own set of texts (the Pali Canon and Mahayana Sutras respectively).

In spite of the diversity within Buddhism, it is possible to talk about an overall Buddhist worldview. In this worldview, although there are a variety of spiritual beings who in Western terms would be described as gods and demons, 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 (what is known as ‘contingent origination’). Only achieving nirvana, or liberation, through enlightenment can lead to freedom from this cycle of death and re-birth.

The account of the Buddhist view of being human outlined in the last two sentences of the previous paragraph might seem to suggest the Buddhists believe, in accordance with Hindu and Western thought, that there are persons who are trapped in the cycle of reincarnation and who require liberation through enlightenment. There are Buddhists today who present such a ‘personalist’ account of Buddhist anthropology, but this is not the mainstream Buddhist way of looking at the matter. The mainstream Buddhist view is the ‘no soul’ view of humanity.

The no soul view holds that what we normally think of as persons are a bundle of different elements that only momentarily exist and that we think as the enduring existence of persons over time is simply a sequence of such bundles one after the other. This point is made by the Buddha in the Potthapada Sutta as follows:

Kitta, the son of an elephant trainer, inquired of the Enlightened One (the Buddha) whether any of the three modes of personality – the past you, the present you, and the future you -are real. The Enlightened One replied:

Just so, Kitta, as from a cow comes milk, and from the milk curds, and from the curds butter, and from the butter ghee, and from the ghee junket; but when it is milk it is not called curds, or butter, or ghee or junket; and when it is curds it is not called by any of the other names  and so on – Just so, Kitta when any of the three modes of personality is going on, it is not called by the name of the other. For these, Kitta, are merely names, expressions, terms of speech, designations in common use in the world. And of these a Tahthagata (one who ihas won the truth) makes use indeed, but is not  led astray by them.

The point here is that just as milk, curds, butter, ghee, and junket are different things that exist in sequence, so it is with the past, present and future selves. We should not be led astray by the common use of the term ‘you’ to think that there is a continuously existing self in the past, present and future. This understanding that there is no self, what is known as anatta, is a key part of the ‘four noble truths,’ the four key elements of the Buddha’s teaching.

As Peter Kreeft explains:

‘The first noble truth is it all of life is dukkha, suffering. The word means out-of-joint-ness or separation – something similar to sin but without the personal relational dimension: not a broken relationship but a broken consciousness. inner brokenness is Buddhism’s ‘bad news,’ which precedes its gospel, or ‘good news.’

The second noble truth is that the cause of suffering is tanha, grasping selfish desire. We suffer because of the gap between what we want and what we have. This gap is created by our dissatisfaction, our wanting to get what we do not have or wanting to keep what we do have (e.g. life, which causes fear of death). Thus desire is the villain for Buddha, the cause of all suffering.

This second truth explains the no soul doctrine. Desire creates the illusion of a desirer alienated from the desired object, the illusion of twoness. Enlightenment is the extinction of this illusion. ‘I want that’ creates the illusion of an ‘I’ distinct from the ‘that’; and this distinction is the cause of suffering. Desire is thus the fuel of suffering’s fire.

The third noble truth follows inevitably. To remove the cause is to remove the effect; therefore suffering can be extinguished (nirvana) by extinguishing  cause, desire. Remove the fuel and you put out the fire.

The fourth noble truth tells you how to extinguish desire: by the ‘noble eightfold path’ of ego reduction in each of life’s eight defined areas, inward and outward (e.g. ‘right thought,’ right association’).’

The ‘eightfold path’ 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).

At the basis of Buddhist ethics are what are known as the ‘five lay precepts’ which are not absolute commands or prohibitions, but training rules designed to enable people to live a life in which they are happy, without worries, and can meditate well. These five precepts are not to kill, steal, lie, commit sexual misconduct, or take intoxicants. These five basic precepts are expanded to eight for lay people who want to adopt an ascetic way of life, to ten for novice monks and nuns and to more detailed sets of rules for those who have fully embraced a monastic way of life (227 rules in the Theravada tradition). All these precepts and rules are intended to help people travel the path to nirvana more effectively.

2. Christianity and Buddhism

Christians agree with Buddhism that the untamed desires of the ego are a serious problem for human beings since they are what present us from living rightly before God (see Genesis 3:1-7). They also agree with many, if not all, of the elements contained in the eight fold path and the five lay precepts.

However, from a Christian perspective there are also four major problems with the Buddhist worldview.

First, the atheist (or at best agnostic) nature of Buddhist cosmology is unsatisfactory because it runs into the same problem that exists for the Western rejection of God’s existence, namely, that the existence of an absolute, intelligent, personal, and wholly good creator God is the only satisfactory explanation of the world in which we live. By contrast Christians would question the existence of the deities that are acknowledged in Buddhism and would see the worship given to them as a form of idolatry.

Secondly, the Buddhist teaching of an endless cosmic cycle of creation and destruction and its belief in reincarnation raise the same problems as the Hindu version of the same ideas noted in the previous article in this series.

Thirdly, the Buddhist no soul doctrine not only goes against the Christian belief that each individual self does exist and will continue to exist eternally because of the activity of God in creating, preserving and resurrecting them, but is also internally incoherent. As Keith Yandell notes, in Buddhist thought:

‘Enlightenment occurs when full acceptance of the typical Buddhist doctrine of what lies behind talk of a self is joined by bliss, peace and detachment. In a meditative state, you ‘see’ the structure of your existence as nothing more than a collection of states.’

The problem for Buddhists is that analysis of this statement reveals that for it to be true the collection of states that is enlightened has to be a collection of states that has one overall experience, is aware of having this experience, and that can act because it can recall the past and look forward to the future, and what is that if not a ‘self’? Ultimately Buddhists are in the self-refuting position of the man who cries ‘I do not exist.’

What is more, there is no reason to think that this self does not continue to exist over an extended period of time.

The fourth and final problem lies in Buddhism’s blanket rejection of desire. To quote Kreeft again, on this issue:

‘Christianity and Buddhism seem about as far apart as possible, for where Buddha finds our desires too strong, Christ finds them too weak. Christ wants us to love more, not less: to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. Buddha solves the problem of pain by a spiritual euthanasia: curing the disease of egotism and the suffering it brings by killing the patient, the eco, self, soul, or I- image of God (I AM) in man.

Yet perhaps things are not quite as contradictory as that, for the desire Buddha speaks of is only selfish desire. he does not distinguish unselfish love (agape) from selfish love (eros); he simply does not know of agape at all. He profoundly knows and condemns the desire to possess something less than ourselves, like money, sex, or power; but he does not know the desire to be possessed by something more than ourselves. Buddha knows greed but not God. And surely we Westerners, whose lives and economic systems are often based on greed, need to hear Buddha when he speaks about what he knows and we have forgotten. But Buddhists even more desperately need to hear what they do not know: the good news about God and his love.’

Welcome to the multiverse: 7 The Hindu universe

The Hindu worldview

The centre of Hinduism remains India, where the majority of the population are Hindu, where Hinduism is extremely significant culturally, and where Hindu nationalism is now a very important political force. However, as a result of emigration there are now Hindu communities across the world. For example, there is now a very large Hindu temple, the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, in Neasden in North-West London. Interest in Hinduism as an alternative word view to either Christianity or materialism has grown across the Western world since the nineteenth century, and there a number of practices which have become prevalent in modern Western culture are Hindu in origin, such as yoga and the practice of mindfulness.

Hinduism is not something that is easy to define. It is a form of religion that has gradually developed in South Asia over many thousands of years and that encompasses a vast range of religious beliefs and practices. Nevertheless, in spite of Hinduism’s immense diversity, there are a set of texts which can be said to form the Hindu scriptures and provide the basis for Hindu religious activity.

The most important of these texts are the Vedas. These are the fundamental texts of Hinduism and are viewed as containing eternal truths revealed to the ancient sages by Brahman (the supreme reality underlying all things). There are four Vedas, the Rigveda, the Samaveda, the Yajurveda and the Atharavaveda. Each of these four Vedas has in turn been further classified into four major types of text: the Samhitas (mantras and benedictions), the Aranyakas (texts on rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices and symbolic-sacrifices), the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices), and the Upanishads (texts discussing meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge).

Alongside the Vedas, and regarded as compatible with them, there is a variety of other texts which have helped to shape Hindu belief and practice. These include epic texts such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Puranas, an encyclopaedic collection of texts on a diverse range of topics including cosmogny, cosmology, the genealogies of the gods, goddesses, demigods, kings, heroes and sages, folk tales, pilgrimages, temples, medicine, astronomy, grammar, minerology, humour and love stories, as well as theology and philosophy, and legal texts such as the Law of Manu, which has traditionally been regarded as the basis for the Hindu caste system. Part of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, a text which is sometimes regarded as an additional Upanishad because its contents are seen as similar to the Upanishads in the Vedas.

Based on these texts and others there is an overall Hindu worldview which views the existence of both the cosmos as whole, and of particular human beings within it, in cyclical terms.

The cosmos (made up of numerous universes) has been created and destroyed numerous times in a process, known as the kalpa cycle, that will go on forever. This cycle of creation and destruction is without any purpose. It is simply what is described as a form of ‘play’ (lila)  by Brahman.

Human existence consists of a cycle of birth, death and rebirth in which the non-material soul (atman) passes through various forms of reincarnation (samsara) which may be in a human or non-human form. The nature of these reincarnations depends on how the previous life was lived, in line with the principle of karma, the principle that all actions have consequences either in this life or in the next.

In order to live well in each successive incarnation, one needs to behave in accordance with dharma, the order which governs the cosmos and human behaviour within it. The more one lives in accordance with dharma in this life the better one’s next reincarnation will be. The Hindu caste system has traditionally been based on this idea. Thus, one person is a hight caste Brahmin because they have lived well according to dharma in their previous life while another person is a low class Shudra because they have lived less well.

The eventual goal of human existence is to achieve moksha, liberation from this whole cycle of death and rebirth.

As has already been noted, a vast variety of different forms of belief and practice have developed on the basis of these tests and this basic world view. For example,  the majority of Hindus are theists, whilst the Samkhya school of Hinduism is atheistic. However, there are two forms of Hinduism that are most likely to be encountered by people living in this country. These are Vedanta Hinduism and Bhakti Hinduism.

Vedanta Hinduism is a form of Hindu philosophy which developed in the sixth century BC and which  draws its inspiration from the teaching contained in the Upanishads. In this form of Hinduism, the supreme reality, Brahman, is beyond all thought, reason, and conceptualization. Thus, the Chandokya Upanishad describes learning about Brahman as receiving: ‘that instruction by which we hear what cannot be heard, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived, by which we know what cannot be known.’ Because this supreme reality is beyond description, we cannot describe it as being personal, but what we can say is that this supreme reality is the only thing that truly exists and therefore anything else that appears to exist is maya, illusion. To quote James Sire, for Vedanta Hinduism:

‘…anything that appears to exist as a separate and distinct object – this chair, not that one; this rock, not that tree; me, not you – is an illusion. It is not our separateness that gives us reality, it is our oneness, that fact that we are Brahman and Brahman is one. Yes, Brahman is the One.’

In the Vedanta tradition the way to achieve moksha is to experience the truth that ‘Atman is Brahman’ that Brahman and the soul are identical. This state is achieved through a life of dedicated meditation and the Mandukya Upanishad refers to it as the ‘awakened life of pure consciousness.’ Paradoxically, this ‘life of pure consciousness’ is one which there is no consciousness of anything at all. This  because such consciousness would involve a dualism between knower and known, rather than a state where moksha is achieved because everything is experienced as one.

By contrast, Bhakti (or devotional) Hinduism is a form of Hinduism which involves devotion to the Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva, or Kali, or one of their many incarnations or avatars, such as Krishna the incarnation of Vishnu. In the words of Winfried Corduan:

‘This is the religion of the majority of Hindus. Many of them have never even heard of the Atman-Brahman identity and for many of those who have, it is a piece of speculation that is not very relevant to them. They worship personal gods, who are ultimately without form, but who – for our sake – have taken abode in the statues in temples so that people can have an easy opportunity to worship them.’

The purpose of the worship of these gods is to achieve moksha. Thus, in the Bhagavad Gita Krishna declares:  ‘After attaining Me, the great souls do not occur rebirth in this miserable transitory world, because they have attained the highest perfection.’

However, as Corduan goes on to explain, we should not:  ‘…think of this offer as free grace. For the most part devotion to a god implies a life of complete dedication, which it is not easy to carry out.’ For instance, in the Bhagavad Gita the hero Arjunais told  ‘Fly unto Him [Krishna ] alone for refuge with your whole being, Arjuna. From His grace, you shall attain supreme peace and the eternal abode.’  What this involves is Arjuna practising the yoga, or form of life, that Krishna commands and focusing his entire being on Krishna, all day and every day. The offer is one of deliverance through complete obedience.  

Christianity and Hinduism

There are a number of points on which the Christian and Hindu worldviews agree. For example, Christians  agree with Hindus that there is a supreme reality underlying all things, that the world is governed by an objective moral order, and that how one behaves in relation to this moral order has consequences not only for this life, but for the life to come. However, there are also six fundamental differences between Christianity and Hinduism.

First, the Christian belief in God as the supreme reality means that they disagree with the atheism of the Samkhya school of Hinduism in the same way, and for the same reasons, that they disagree with the materialist atheism that exists in Western thought.

Secondly, the Christian doctrine of creation rules out the cosmic pessimism of the kalpa cycle. Rather than saying that there is an endless and purposeless cycle of creation and destruction it teaches that God created all things for a purpose and that that purpose will be fully and eternally fulfilled.

Thirdly, the Christian doctrine of creation also rules out the Hindu belief in reincarnation. This is because Christianity holds that each person is created by God as a unique being consisting as a material body and an immaterial soul united together and so it makes no sense to say that that person can exist in some other bodily form. It is because humans are a combination of body and soul that the Christian hope for the future is a resurrection life involving both, a hope that that based on the resurrection in body and soul of Jesus Christ.

Fourthly, the Christian doctrine of creation further rules out the Hindu idea of karma. If I have not lived a former life, then the conditions of my life in this world cannot be the result of what I did in that former life. In addition, belief in karma also logically entails that there is no value in relieving the sufferings of others since they need to experience those sufferings as the necessary outworking of their previous misdeeds.

Fifthly, from a Christian perspective the view of the Vedanta tradition that the purpose of existence is to  learn the truth that ‘Atman is Brahman’ – that I am the infinite God, makes no sense. If the infinite is truly infinite than it must know it is infinite (otherwise it would not be infinite in knowledge). Hence the person seeking to know that they are infinite cannot truly be infinite. To quote Corduan again, it cannot be:

‘…the infinite that is spending a lifetime learning that it is infinite, because the infinite certainly cannot have forgotten that it is infinite and now be in the process of learning its infinity through meditation and yoga.’

What is more, the pantheism of the Vedanta tradition logically involves the annihilation of the distinction between good and evil, which is fundamental to Christian theology and ethics. If everything is one, then so are good and evil. In the words of Sire, in this tradition ‘The only ‘real’ reality is ultimate reality, and that is beyond differentiation, beyond good and evil.’ It follows therefore that:

‘Like true and false, ultimately the distinction between good and evil fades away. Everything is good (which, of course is identical to saying, ‘Nothing is good,’ or ‘Everything is evil’). The thief is the saint is the thief is the saint…’

Finally, from a Christian perspective the worship of the gods in the Bhakti tradition of Hinduism is a form of the age old human tendency to idolatry. Like the gods of Greek and Roman mythology which the early Christians refused to worship, the Hindu gods do not truly exist. They are human constructs and the worship of them violates the command to worship God alone (Exodus 20:3-4). Furthermore, their non-existence means that any help one may think they can offer is illusory. Only the ‘living and true God’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9), the ‘unknown God’ (Acts 17:23-24) who Hindus are unconsciously seeking can give them the moksha that they desire.  

Welcome to the multiverse: 6 The Islamic Universe

The worldview of Islam

Islam is the second largest religion in the world after Christianity with some 1.8 billion adherents worldwide.  It began in Arabia the seventh century as a monotheistic movement led  by Muhammad which challenged the prevailing Arabian polytheism.

There are two major branches of Islam, the majority Sunni community  (85-90% of Muslims) and the  minority Shia community (10-15% of Muslims), the division between them originating in the seventh century in differences  about who should succeed Muhammad as the leader (caliph) of Islam. Each branch has different groups within it (such as, for instance, the Salafist reform movement within Sunni Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia), and in both branches there is a debate about how traditional Islamic teaching and practice relate to today’s world. 

All this means that there is great diversity in Islam, as there is in Christianity and Judaism. Nevertheless, it still possible to talk about an overall Islamic worldview.

The foundation for the Islamic worldview is the basic creed of Islam, the shahadah, which Muslims are under an obligation to recite daily. In English translation this creed states ‘There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.’  The first half emphasises the oneness of God over against polytheism, and the second emphasises the role played by Muhammad as God’s messenger.

Expanding these two points we can summarise the overall Islamic worldview as follows:

First, Muslims believe in one wholly transcendent God (in Arabic Allah) who has offspring, no race, no sex and no body, and is unaffected by the characteristics of human life. This one God created all things, the material universe, the angels who worship God and carry out God’s orders throughout the universe, and the human race. Furthermore, everything that happens is governed by God’s decrees (hence the commonly used Arabic expression inshallah, ‘if God wills it’).

Secondly, human beings are rational creatures  created by God to live in obedience to him and to rule as his vice regents over the world. However, as is shown by the Islamic version of the story of Adam and Eve, human beings have been created by God as weak, fallible, and forgetful beings and therefore easily led astray from obedience to God.

Thirdly, to counteract this human tendency to stray from obedience to God and to worship other gods instead of him, God has sent a series of messengers or ‘prophets’ to the nations of mankind to remind human beings who they ought to worship and how they ought to live. The first prophet was Adam and other prophets include Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. The last and most important of these prophets was Muhammad, who was sent by God to bring the message of Islam to all humankind.

Fourthly, God revealed holy books or scriptures to a number of these prophets. These include the Scrolls (given to Abraham), the Torah (given to Moses), the Psalms (given to David), the Gospel (given to Jesus) and the Quran (given to Muhammad). In their original form all these writings contained the same identical message, but the other writings have been corrupted by Jews and Christians, and only the Quran in Arabic contains exactly the words revealed by God.

Fifthly, there are two key sources of instruction for those who want to live according to God’s will. The first is the Quran and the second is the Sunnah, the tradition of the words and deeds of the Muhammad. Muhammad is considered by Muslims to have perfectly exemplified what it means to live rightly before God and so the Sunnah as well as the Quran tells Muslims how they too ought to live.   Sharia, the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence, reflects what generation of Islamic scholars have taught about how Muslims should live, individually and communally, in accordance with the Quran and the Sunnah.

Sixthly, at the end of time there will be a day of judgement in which human beings will be judged for their actions in this life. Those people who have followed God’s guidance will be rewarded with a place in heaven (described in the Quran as ‘gardens of perpetual bliss’) and those people who have rejected God’s guidance will be punished with hell, a place of perpetual torment.

Alongside this worldview, and giving expression to it, are five forms of Islamic practice (the ‘five pillars of Islam’) which need to be observed by all Muslims who are capable of doing so. These are, the recitation of the Shahadah, observing the five daily times of prayer, performing acts of charity, fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and undertaking at least one pilgrimage to Mecca. 

Christianity and Islam

At first sight it might appear that Muslims and Christians share a very similar world view. Like Muslims, Christians believe:

  • There is one transcendent, personal, God who has created and who rules over all things;
  • God has created human beings as rational creatures who are called to live in obedience to  him and to rule as vice-regents over his  creation;
  • God has communicated his will to his human creatures through messengers whom he has appointed, and has preserved their messages in a series of holy writings;
  • God will judge all human beings at the end of time, resulting in some people going to heaven and others going to hell.

However, upon closer inspection, these apparent agreements between the Islamic and Christian worldviews conceal fundamental differences between the worldviews of the two religions.

First, Islam specifically rejects the basic Christian conviction that God is the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that God the Son became incarnate in the person of the God-Man Jesus Christ. Thus, addressing Christians (the ‘people of the book’) the Quran states:

‘O people of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an Apostle of Allah and His Word which He bestowed on Mary and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and his Apostles. Say not ‘Trinity’: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One Allah: glory be to him: (for Exalted is He) above having a son. To him belong all things is heaven and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs.’O people of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an Apostle of Allah and His Word which He bestowed on Mary and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and his Apostles. Say not ‘Trinity’: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One Allah: glory be to him: (for Exalted is He) above having a son. To him belong all things is heaven and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs.’

For Islam, Jesus was a prophet reiterating previous declarations of God’s will and pointing forward to the coming of Muhammad. 

Secondly, while affirming Jesus’ virgin birth. Islam denies Jesus’ death on the cross and subsequent resurrection, holding that God took Jesus directly to paradise and substituted someone else in his place. Thus, the Quran declares concerning the Jews:

‘That they said (in boast) ‘We killed Jesus the son of Mary the Apostle of Allah;’ but they killed him not nor crucified him but so it was made to appear to them and those who differ therein are full of doubts with no (certain) knowledge but only a conjecture to follow for of a surety they killed him not.

Nay Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is exalted in Power Wise.’Nay Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is exalted in Power Wise.’

Thirdly, Islam and Christianity differ over the human plight and its solution. As the Christian writer on Islam, Andy Bannister, explains:

‘…for the Qu’ran the problem is human ignorance and forgetfulness; the solution is knowledge and information. By contrast, for the Bible, the problem is our sinful nature and alienation from God; the solution is atonement and reconciliation.’

Furthermore, as we saw in the first article in this series, for Christianity atonement and reconciliation are possible because the Triune God took human nature upon himself at the incarnation, in the person of the God-Man Jesus Christ, died and rose to give the human race a fresh start through the defeat of sin and death, and makes this fresh start effective through the work of the Holy Spirit , who makes those who believe the holy children of God and enables them to call God Father (Romans 8:1-17, Galatians 4:1-7).

These are all beliefs which the Quran denies, and this brings us to the final issue between Christianity and Islam. As previously noted, Islam claims that the Quran, given by God himself, teaches what is also taught in the holy books inspired by God that preceded the Quran, what Christians call the Old and New Testaments. However, a study of the Old and New Testaments shows that they teach the beliefs held by Christianity, which are different from the beliefs taught by the Quran.

Islamic scholars have attempted to get round this issue in two ways. Either they have argued that there has been major textual corruption in the present versions of the Old and New Testaments (something for which there is no evidence), or that Christian theology has misunderstood and/or misrepresented the message of the Old and New Testaments (something which the Quran itself seems to maintain, but for which again there is no evidence).

This is a major problem for Islamic theology , because it means that either the Quran is wrong in maintaining that the Old and New Testaments were inspired by God, or that the Quran is wrong in what it teaches about God and his saving activity. Either way, the basic claim of Islam, namely, that the Quran revealed by God to Muhammad gives a truthful account of God and his activity, is mistaken.

From a Christian perspective this means that in the end the claims made by Islam contradict each other. They would agree with Islam that the books of the Old and New Testaments were inspired by God, but that for precisely this reason Islamic theology is mistaken in what it says about God, the human plight, and God’s solution to it.