Being fed by Jesus: what the Catechism teaches about the Lord’s Supper.

In last week’s post on baptism, I asked you to imagine a young couple who declared that a carved wooden model of a baby that they had made was a real child. I noted that although in many ways this model child might be like any other baby in its outward appearance it would lack the crucial characteristic of a real baby in that it would lack the life which can only be bestowed upon  a child as the result of a sexual union between a man and a woman.

I further noted that the only thing that could give life to a model baby would be a miracle, a supernatural occurrence that would result in it having the life that it would not naturally have. Let us  imagine for a minute that this miracle occurred. The young couple in our story would then have a real baby to look after and a central part of their responsibilities for this baby would be to ensure that it was regularly fed. This is because, after having received the gift of life human beings need to feed regularly in order that their lives may be sustained. Human beings require food in order to live.

The principle that life needs to be sustained by regular feeding applies not only to human beings as material creatures with physical bodies, but also to human beings as spiritual creatures created to have a relationship with God. Just as human beings as material creatures need to feed on material food for their physical life to be sustained, so also as spiritual creatures they need to feed on spiritual food in order for their relationship with God to be sustained.

It is this principle which underlies what the Prayer Book Catechism says about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Its teaching on this topic runs as follows:

‘Question. Why was the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper ordained?

Answer. For the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, and of the benefits which we receive thereby.

Question. What is the outward part or sign of the Lord’s Supper?

Answer. Bread and Wine, which the Lord hath commanded to be received.

Question. What is the inward part, or thing signified?

Answer. The Body and Blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.

Question. What are the benefits whereof we are partakers thereby?

Answer. The strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.

Question. What is required of them who come to the Lord’s Supper?

Answer. To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.’

As in its teaching on baptism, what the Catechism says about the Lord’s Supper distinguishes between ‘the outward part or sign’  and the ‘inward part or thing signified.’

The outward part is the bread and wine, which Jesus told his disciples that they should eat and drink in remembrance of him (Matthew 26-26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

The inward part is Jesus’ body and blood which were broken and shed for our salvation on the first Good Friday, and which are ‘verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.’  The benefit of this, the Catechism says, is the ‘strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.’

The concept that at the Lord’s Supper it is possible for people to take and receive Jesus’ body and blood and that their souls are strengthened when they do so is one that many people find baffling. This is for three reasons. Firstly, what is received at the Lord’s Supper is bread and wine and not flesh and blood. Secondly, Jesus body ascended into heaven at the end of his earthly life (Acts 1:6-11) and so is not present here on earth for us to feed on. Thirdly, even if Jesus’ body and blood were now physically accessible to us, consuming them would be cannibalism and it is impossible to see how this could benefit our relationship with God.

In order to make sense of what happens at the Lord’s Supper in the light of these objections we need to go back to the point I made in this blog two weeks ago about how material objects can be gifts of love. Consider a young man offering his young lady a bouquet of flowers, or an engagement ring. These are intended as a material expression of his love for her, and if she accepts them as such and returns his love, then their relationship will grow.  To put it another way, his gifts of love are a way in which their relationship can be nourished and grow as a result.

In a similar way, when the Lord’s Supper takes place, Jesus, acting through the person administering the sacrament, offers us the bread and wine as a material expression of his love for us shown in his dying for us on the cross (’this is (i.e. signifies) my body broken for you, this is my blood shed for you’).  If we accept the bread and wine as signs of his love for us and respond with love for him in return, then the result will be that our relationship with him (and with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit as well ) will be nourished (‘strengthened and refreshed’) and will continue to grow as a result.

However, as the Catechism goes on to warn, if the Lord’s Supper is to have this beneficial outcome three things must be present in those who receive the bread and wine,

First, there has to be repentance. Our relationship with God will not be able to grow unless we are willing to turn away from sin. Jesus died to deliver us from sin so we cannot say that we accept with gratitude  what he did for us unless we are willing to reject it.

Secondly, there has to be faith. Unless we have a ‘lively’ (i.e. living ) faith in the truth that Jesus died to save us then we will not be able to accept the bread and wine as signs of this fact and grow in our relationship with God as result.

Thirdly, there has to be  ‘charity with all men.’  In this context ‘charity’ means love and ‘men’ means people, regardless of their sex. As we have noted above, we have to respond to God’s love for us with love for him in return, and the sign that we have that responding love is our willingness to love our neighbour. Love for God and love for our neighbours go together. As 1 John 4:20 tells us: ‘he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.’

What all this means is that we have to take the Lord’s Supper seriously as a key means by which we may be fed spiritually by Jesus and through which our relationship with God may grow. We also have to approach it seriously, seeking God’s help to repent of our sins, to accept what Jesus has done for us, and to show love to our neighbours, so that there may be no barriers preventing us from receiving the love he wants to offer us through the sacrament.  

This post is the end of my short series on the Prayer Book Catechism. If you would like to know more about the Catechism and it’s teaching you might find the following books helpful.

Martin Davie, Instruction in the Way of the Lord – A guide to the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (London: Latimer Trust, 2014).

Frank Colquhoun, The Catechism and the Order of Confirmation (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1963).

Arthur Robinson, The Church Catechism Explained (Cambridge: CUP, 1903).

The last two are out of print, but can be obtained second hand.

The gift of life: what the Catechism teaches about baptism.

I want to begin this seventh post in my series on the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism by inviting you to imagine a young couple who have announced to their family and friends that they have now produced a baby. However, what they then show to their family and friends is a lifelike wooden carving of a baby which they have made.

In many ways this carving is like any other baby in its outward appearance. Nevertheless, it lacks one crucial characteristic of a real baby. It does not have the life which can only be bestowed upon  a child as the result of a sexual union between a man and a woman.[1]

There can be no doubt that what the couple claim to be their new baby has existence. It is not an imaginary baby in the sense of being an entity that exists only in their shared imagination. However, the form of existence that it has does not include life. The nature of things in this world means that wooden carvings of babies cannot have life in the same way that babies begotten through sexual union do. It follows that only thing that could give life to what our young couple claim to be their baby would be a miracle, a supernatural occurrence that would result in it having the life that it would not naturally have.

The reason why I have told this imaginary story is that it provides a good way in to understanding what the Catechism teaches about baptism. What we saw in last week’s post about the nature of the sacraments is that baptism is an effective sign of the love of God. It is effective in the sense that it effects something. It makes something happen.  If we ask what it effects the answer is that it gives the person who is baptised the opportunity to have life that they would not otherwise possess. In John’s Gospel Jesus declares ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10), and baptism is the sacramental means by which this new life is received.

Now at this point someone might well object that human beings do not need to be given life since they have it already as a result of the sexual union between their parents. What this objection fails to understand however, is that there are two different types of life. There is the life that we naturally have as a result of sexual union, and there is the life that comes to us supernaturally through the miraculous action of God.

In his book Mere Christianity  C S Lewis helpfully distinguishes between these two types of life. Just as the wooden baby in my story lacked life because it was made by the young couple rather than being begotten by them through sexual intercourse, in the same way, writes Lewis:

‘We are not begotten by God, we are only made by Him: in our natural state we are not sons of God, only (so to speak) statues. We have not got Zoe or spiritual life: only Bios or biological life which is presently going to run down and die. Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this;  that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. [2]

If we turn to what the Catechism says about baptism, we shall see that it tells us that the benefit of baptism is precisely that it enables us to become the children of God in the way Lewis describes.

‘Question. What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?

Answer. Water: wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question. What is the inward and spiritual grace?

Answer. A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

Question. What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer. Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament.

Question. Why then are infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?

Answer. Because they promise them both by their sureties: which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform.’

In line with Catechism’s general teaching about the sacraments that we looked at last week, these words declare that there are two parts to baptism, the ‘outward visible sign’ – the administration  of water in the name of the Trinity, and the ‘inward and spiritual grace’ – the gift of new life promised by Jesus in John 10.  

The Catechism says that our being born into this new kind of life  through baptism in the way described by Jesus in John 3:3-6 involves ‘death.’ This may initially seem difficult to understand. Why should ‘birth’ involve ‘death?’ This point becomes clear when we understand that death is used here to mean not biological death, but rather the cessation of a particular kind of existence.

In my story at the start of this post, for instance, in order for the couple’s wooden image to become a real baby it would have to cease to exist as a wooden image and become a living human being instead. In similar fashion, human beings need to cease to exist (‘die’) as they are and begin a new form of life instead.

Why? Because, as described in the Bible in Genesis 3, something went drastically wrong at the dawn of human history which means  that the natural life that we possess as a consequence of our biological birth is a self-centred form of life, in which we fail to love either God our neighbours as we should (this is what the Catechism means when it says that we are ‘born in sin’).

Since God is morally perfect, he must necessarily hate this form of life and our existence as those marked by it. To quote Lewis again ‘if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do.’[3] It this form of existence as the objects of God’s hatred that the Catechism refers to when it says we are ‘children of wrath.’

However, while God hates us, he nevertheless loves us[4] and therefore does not give up on us. Instead, he makes it possible for our existence as ‘children of wrath’ to come to an end and for us to begin a new life as ‘children of grace,’  people who share the life of Christ and who in consequence begin a new God-centred form of existence marked by love for him and for our neighbours (what the Catechism calls ‘righteousness’).

As saw last week, gifts of love have to be received as well as offered and this is true of what God offers through baptism. As the Catechism explains we have to receive it and this reception takes two forms. We have to say ‘no’  to our old life of sin (‘repentance’) and we have to believe in, and say ‘yes’ to, God’s promise of  new life through union with Christ (‘faith’). 

Those who are baptised as infants cannot make this response for themselves, so those who act for them (their ‘sureties’) respond on their behalf. When they become old enough to do so, those who are baptised as infants then have the obligation to make this response their own (‘which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform’). When they do this the seed of new life sown at their baptism comes to fruition.

In summary, like the wooden baby in my story human beings in their natural state have existence, but they lack life. In Lewis’ terms they have Bios, but are without Zoe. Jesus came to give us the life which he has, but we lack, and baptism, when received with repentance and faith, is the sacramental means through which that life is given to us.

[1] Even IVF treatment is an artificial form of sexual union. 

[2] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1984), p. 150.

[3] Lewis, p.37.

[4] Augustine puts it well ‘in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved even when he hated us’ (Tract in John 110).

Receiving love: what the Catechism teaches about the sacraments.

As I write this blog, yesterday was Mothering Sunday, a day when people traditionally give cards, flowers and other gifts to mothers as a sign of their love and appreciation for them. This is, of course, not the only occasion when such gifts are given. Birthdays, Christmases, and anniversaries are three other examples, and numerous other examples could also be cited.

For our purposes, the point to be noted about the gifts given on such occasions is that they are an outward sign of the inward feelings that the person giving the gift has for the person to whom they give it. If the giving of a gift is more than simply obedience to social convention, then it is a sign of the love that one person feels for another. Love is inward and invisible, and the gift is an outward and visible sign that shows that love exists.

Thinking further about signs, we can also observe that signs can make things happen. The Queen’s signature on a piece of legislation makes it law. Receiving a degree certificate makes someone a graduate. The acceptance of a ring makes a couple engaged. In all these three instances the visible sign points to a reality beyond itself, the Queen’s consent to a law coming into force, someone having successfully passed their exams, and the desire of a couple to eventually get married.

The two truths about signs that I have just outlined, that they can express love and make things happen are also the truths that underly what the Prayer Book Catechism teaches about the sacraments. This teaching runs as follows:

‘Question. How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?

Answer. Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Question. What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?

Answer. I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.

Question. How many parts are there in a Sacrament?

Answer. Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.’

The background to this section  of the Catechism is the disagreement between the Roman Catholic and Protestant sides at the Reformation.

In the earliest days of the Church there was no agreed definition about the number of the sacraments. In the Middle Ages however, the view came to be accepted that there were seven sacraments. These were: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, and matrimony. At the Reformation, the matter was debated once again, and while the Roman Catholic Church stuck with the Medieval list, the Church of England (like other Protestant churches) eventually decided that there were only two sacraments – baptism and ‘the Supper of the Lord’ ( another name for the Eucharist).  It is this view of the matter that is taught in the Catechism.

The Church of England of England took this view of the matter because it came to believe that a sacrament, properly so called, has to have two characteristics. It has to have been instituted by Christ, and it has to be an effective sign of divine grace. Baptism and the Support of the Lord meet these two criteria, but the other five Medieval sacraments do not.

We know that Christ instituted baptism and the Supper of the Lord because the New Testament tells us so (for baptism see Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16, and for the Supper of the Lord see Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-24 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). We also know that both involve the use of external signs, water in the case of baptism, and bread and wine in the case of the Supper of the Lord.

What is less obvious, however, is what it means to say that these signs are effective signs of grace. In order to understand this we need to go back to the point made at the beginning of this blog that signs can make things happen. It is this point that is being made when the Catechism says that the sacraments are ‘means’ by which we receive ‘an inward and spiritual grace.’

What the Catechism  means by ‘inward and spiritual grace’ is the new relationship between ourselves and God that Jesus made possible when he died and rose for our salvation. Baptism and the Supper of the Lord are methods (‘means’) established by God through which we enter into this new  relationship (in the case of baptism) and are sustained in it (in the case of the Supper of the Lord), which is the why the Catechism says they are ‘generally necessary for salvation.’

The two questions that arise at this point are (a) why does God use signs for this purpose and (b) do we automatically receive grace through them?

The answer to (a) is that God uses signs because as human beings the grace of God is invisible to and us so he uses signs to show it to us. As the sixteenth century Anglican writer Alexander Nowell explains, the answer to the question  ‘Why would God so have us to use outward signs?’ is that as human beings:

‘…  we are not endued with mind and understanding so heavenly and divine, that the graces of God do appear clearly of themselves to us, as it were to angels.  By this mean therefore God hath provided for our weakness, that we which are earthly and blind should in outward elements and figures, as it were in certain glasses, behold the heavenly graces which otherwise we were not able to see. ‘

God condescends to our weakness by giving us the sacraments in order to enable us to see the ‘graces of God’ (‘graces’ being used because God’s grace is manifold in its nature)  in visible form. When we see someone being baptised, or the bread and wine being given to people at the Supper of the Lord, there we behold God giving his grace to his human creatures. To put it another way, God loves his human creatures, and he demonstrates that love visibly through the sacraments, just as human beings demonstrate love in a visible way when they give flowers, presents, or engagement rings.

The answer to (b) is that grace is not automatically received through the sacraments. They are not the spiritual equivalent of inoculation. This is because love that is offered has then to be received.

Think for a moment of a boy giving a girl an engagement ring. For a new form of relationship as an engaged couple to be established between them the girl has to first of all believe what the offering of the ring signifies (i.e. that the boy really does love her and wants to marry her)  and secondly has to be willing to accept that love and let it change her life.

In a similar way, for a new form of relationship to be established through the sacraments, human beings have to believe that God loves them and is offering them the opportunity either to enter into a new relationship with him or to be sustained in that relationship  and they also have to being willing to accept what God offers and to let it change their life. This is what Christian theology means when it says that their needs to be ‘worthy reception’ of the sacraments. This does not mean that the people who receive the sacraments need to be worthy of God’s  grace (something that is never true of anybody). What is does mean is that those who receive the sacraments need to believe in the love that God offers, and are willing to receive it and to have their lives changed by it.  

Being dependent: what the Catechism teaches about prayer.

A fact which most of us fail to recognize most of the time is how dependent we are on other human beings.

This is clearly true in the case of babies and young children, who are utterly dependent on their parents, or other older people, for their food, their clothing, their hygiene, their transportation, and so forth. It is also clearly true in the case of very many people in extreme old age, and of people with severe mental or physical disabilities. However, it also true for all of us in a variety of ways.

For example, are we dependent on other people for most, if not all, of the food that we eat, for the water we drink and wash with, for our electricity supply, for our communications networks and (as the Covid -19 pandemic has underlined) for our healthcare. We may like to think of ourselves as independent beings, but this is simply not the case. We need other people to survive and to thrive.

We are even dependent on other people for the very thoughts that we have. As human beings we think in words and these words have been passed on to us by other human beings, who had words passed on to them in their turn.

What we also fail to realise is that we are dependent not just on other human beings, but also upon God. This point is highlighted by the Prayer Book Catechism in relation to our calling to obey God’s commandments. After the Catechism has set out what these Commandments are and what it means to live in accordance with them, the Catechist then declares:

‘My good child, know this, that thou art not able to do these things of thyself, nor to walk in the commandments of God, and to serve him, without his special grace; which thou must learn at all times to call for by diligent prayer.   Let me hear therefore if thou canst say the Lord’s Prayer.’

The point that is being made here is that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can live in the way we should without God’s grace enabling us to do so. We are as dependent on God’s help to live in obedience to him as a small child is on other people to enable him or her to walk. Furthermore, we do not receive this help automatically. We have to ask for it in prayer and the model for what this prayer should look like is the prayer given by Jesus to his first disciples (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4), what is commonly know as the Lord’s Prayer (which is why the Catechism introduces the Lord’s prayer in this connection).

The section of the Catechism on the Lord’s Prayer gives the words of the Lord’s prayer and then explains their meaning. It runs as follows:

‘Answer. Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. Amen.

Question. What desirest thou of God in this Prayer?

Answer. I desire my Lord God our heavenly Father, who is the giver of all goodness, to send his grace unto me, and to all people, that we may worship him, serve him, and obey him, as we ought to do. And I pray unto God, that he will send us all things that be needful both for our souls and bodies; and that he will be merciful unto us, and forgive us our sins; and that it will please him to save and defend us in all dangers ghostly and bodily; and that he will keep us from all sin and wickedness, and from our ghostly enemy, and from everlasting death. And this I trust he will do of his mercy and goodness, through our Lord Jesus Christ. And therefore I say, Amen, So be it.’

The first thing this section of the Catechism teaches us is that the primary thing we should desire for ourselves and for all other human beings is that we should worship, serve, and obey God. This is what human beings were created to do, and so we and others will never find true joy and fulfilment unless this is what we do.

The Catechism then goes on to say that what we also need to pray for what is necessary for our souls and bodies (so ordinary food and drink, but also the spiritual sustenance given to us through the Bible and other forms of spiritual nourishment), the forgiveness of our sins,  protection from spiritual and physical danger, protection from sin and the Devil, and finally protection from ‘everlasting death’ (that is, being cut off from God and all good for ever).

All the specific things we might ever need to pray for are covered by this list of topics for prayer. All of our bodily needs are covered, and so are all our spiritual needs, both in this world and the next.

Returning to the issue of dependence, the fact that we need to  pray for these things shows just how radically dependent upon God we are. If we pray it means we ask God for something. If we ask God for something it means that we need God to provide it because we cannot provide it for ourselves.

The fact that according to the pattern set out in Lord’s Prayer we need to pray for all the things we need for the wellbeing of our bodies and souls, both in this this world and in the world to come, therefore tells that we cannot provide these things for ourselves. Even though the things we need may often be passed on to us through the agency of other people, ultimately they all come to us from the hand of God. They all have their origin in him.

The truth that we need to pray for all these things also means that we need to take prayer seriously. In our day to day lives, all of us take the steps that are necessary to obtain the things that we need from other people, whether food, or drink, or clothes, or housing, or whatever else it is we require. Recognising our radical dependence upon God means recognising that we likewise need to do what is necessary to obtain the things we need from God, and what that means is praying.

As the Catechism reminds us, God is good and merciful, and because this is the case, he will answer our prayers. As Jesus taught:

‘Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.’ (Matthew 7:7-8)

We need the good things that come from God. When we pray he has promised to give them to us. So, let’s get praying.

The meaning of freedom:what the Catechism teaches about obedience to God’s commandments.

In the fourth in my series on the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism I am going to look at how freedom and obedience to God’s commandments fit together.

In contemporary British Society (as in the Western world as a whole) there is general agreement that freedom is a good thing. Furthermore, freedom has a very particular meaning. It is understood to mean the right of each individual to decide for themselves how they should live their lives. As Richard Bauckham explains, in a tradition of thought going back to the Renaissance:

‘Freedom is conceived as radical independence. Nothing is received, all is to be freely chosen. Freedom is the freedom to make of oneself what one chooses.’ [1]

The laws governing society are understood within this view of freedom. The prevailing view in Britain today is that these laws are a purely human construct and that they have authority because they represent the collective choice of the members of British society about how they wish to live. When that choice changes the law should change as well (as in the case of the change in the law to allow two people of the same sex to marry each other).

By contrast the Prayer Book Catechism holds that human beings should not regard themselves as free to live in any way that they choose. Rather, they are to live in the way laid down for them by God. This point is made clear in the section of the Catechism that is concerned with the Ten Commandments. This section runs as follows:

‘Question. You said that your Godfathers and Godmothers did promise for you, that you should keep God’s Commandments. Tell me how many there be?

Answer. Ten.

Question. Which be they?

Answer. The same which God spake in the twentieth chapter of Exodus, saying, I am the Lord thy

God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

I. Thou shalt have none other gods but me.

II. Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them. For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and shew mercy unto thousands in them that love me and keep my commandments.

III. Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless, that taketh his Name in vain.

IV. Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all that thou hast to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt do no manner of work, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, thy cattle, and the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.

V. Honour thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

VI. Thou shalt do no murder.

VII. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

VIII. Thou shalt not steal.

IX. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

X. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his servant, nor his maid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.

Question. What dost thou chiefly learn by these Commandments?

Answer. I learn two things: my duty towards God, and my duty towards my Neighbour.

Question. What is thy duty towards God?

Answer. My duty towards God is to believe in him, to fear him, and to love him, with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength; to worship him, to give him thanks, to put my whole trust in him, to call upon him, to honour his holy Name and his Word, and to serve him truly all the days of my life.

Question. What is thy duty towards thy Neighbour?

Answer. My duty towards my Neighbour is to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me: To love, honour, and succour my father and mother: To honour and obey the Queen, and all that are put in authority under her: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: To hurt nobody by word nor deed: To be true and just in all my dealing: To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart: To keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering: To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity: Not to covet nor desire other men’s goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me.’

What is taught  here is that human beings should not regard themselves as having the right to live in any way that they choose. Rather they have the obligation to live according to a pattern of behaviour laid down by God. At first sight this teaching in the Catechism may seem to amount to the negation of human freedom.  How can we be free if we have to obey a set of laws that God has laid down for us?

From a Christian perspective  this objection fails to reckon with the reality of the human situation. Contemporary Western thought rightly argues that we should be free to be true to ourselves. However, since we were created by God, who we really are is who we have been created by God to be. Consequently, being true to ourselves means being true to the person God has made us to be and choosing to live in the way that he has designed us to live. This is sometimes seen as inimical to human autonomy, but, as Richard Bauckham points out, the very opposite is true:

‘God’s law is not the will of another, in the ordinary sense in which this would be true of the will of another creature, but, as the law of the Creator and his creation, also the law of our own being, in conforming to which we become most truly ourselves.’ [2]

In summary, it is not the case that we have to make a choice between obedience to God and possessing freedom. Freedom is the ability to be true to ourselves, and, for the reasons given above, being true to ourselves  involves living both individually and collectively in obedience to the will of God. The importance of the section in the Catechism dealing with the Ten Commandments is that it gives a clear summary of what living in this way means in practice.

[1] Richard Bauckham, God and the Crisis of Freedom (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 32.  

[2] Bauckham, p.208.

Why we should be grateful: What the Catechism teaches about what God has done for us.

In the third of my series of posts on the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism I shall look at the topic of gratitude.

In contemporary British society, as in the Western world as a whole, there is division over what constitutes morally acceptable behaviour. However, there is general agreement that people ought to be grateful.

When people have something good done for them by other people, whether family members, friends, work colleagues, or those in the front line of the fight against Covid-19, the morally correct response is seen to be to feel grateful, and to express our gratitude in an appropriate fashion.

Conversely, those who do not feel grateful and fail to express gratitude are felt to be morally deficient. We can see this from the way in which the term ‘ungrateful’ is used. It is never a compliment to say that someone is ungrateful. It is always a criticism of the person concerned.

What is strange about our society, however, is that while it is felt to be a failure not to feel and express gratitude towards our fellow human beings, it is generally not felt to be a problem if people fail to feel and express gratitude towards God. The reason that this is strange is because in actual fact it is God who has done, and continues to do, the most for us, and therefore he is the one to whom we should be most grateful.

The reason why this is the case becomes clear if we unpack what the Prayer Book Catechism says about the basic tenets of the Christian faith as these are summarised in the Apostles Creed. What the Catechism says runs as follows:

‘Catechist. Rehearse the Articles of thy Belief.

Answer. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, And sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; The holy Catholick Church; The Communion of Saints; The Forgiveness of sins; The Resurrection of the body, And the life everlasting. Amen.

Question. What dost thou chiefly learn in these Articles of thy Belief?

Answer. First, I learn to believe in God the Father, who hath made me, and all the world.

Secondly, in God the Son, who hath redeemed me, and all mankind.

Thirdly, in God the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth me, and all the elect people of God.’

If we look at the question and answer at the end of this quotation we see that there are three basic theological truth that we learn about God from the Apostles Creed – that God made us, that God has redeemed us, and that God sanctifies us.

Why these three truths mean that we should be grateful to God is helpfully explained by the German Reformer Martin Luther in his exposition of the Creed in his Small Catechism of 1529.

According to Luther, the truth that  God made us means:

‘…  that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given me and still sustains my body and soul, all my limbs and senses, my reason and all the faculties of my mind, together with food and clothing, house and home, family and property; that he provides me daily and abundantly with all the necessities of life, protects me from all danger and preserves me from all evil. All this he does out of his pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on my part. For all of this I am bound to thank, praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.’

The truth that God has redeemed us means:

‘… that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death, in order that I may be his, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.’

The truth that God sanctifies us means:

‘ …. that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and all who believe in Christ, this is most certainly true.’ [1]

These words of Luther remind us of why we should be grateful to God above all. Our fellow human beings, however kind and beneficial they are to us, can  only give us a limited amount of temporal and spiritual assistance as we make our way through life. By contrast, as Luther makes clear, God gives us literally everything we need to flourish temporally and spiritually, both in this world and the next. Even those things we receive from other people are ultimately gifts from God. Our parents give us the gift of life, but that life comes from God, farmers provide us with food, but it is God who causes the crops to grow, the Church conveys grace to us through word and sacrament, but the source of that grace is God, and so on.  

What all this means is that we, and all other human beings, should be grateful to God and thank him for all that he has done and does, for us. So, next time we are in a discussion about the importance of gratitude and people start to bewail the fact that people are not grateful enough, we should chip in and remind them that the biggest deficit of gratitude in our society lies in a failure to be duly grateful to God.

‘O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever.’ (Psalm 136:1)

[1] The quotations from Luther’s Small Catechism are from taken from M Luther Small Catechism, in M A Knoll (ed), Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1991), p 68.

How should I behave? What the Catechism teaches about my obligation to God.

In last week’s post in my new series on the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism I looked at what the Catechism teaches about the issue of identity. In this week’s post I shall go on to look at what the Catechism teaches about the issue of obligations.

An obligation is something that we have a moral or legal duty to do and we are all familiar with the fact that we have obligations to numerous individuals and groups, such as our families and friends, our employers, those in need, or the authorities of the country in which we live. For example, the slogan with which those of us in this country have become familiar during the latest Coronavirus lockdown ‘Stay Home, Protect The NHS, Save Lives’ is a summary of the moral and legal obligation that we have to behave in a certain way in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

Because of the growing secularisation of British society over that past century, what many people are not aware of is that we not only have obligations to our fellow human beings, but first and foremost have obligations to God.

In last week’s post I noted that if we are a Christian our identity is fundamentally determined by the relationship we have with God, a relationship which he gave to us as a free gift when we were baptised. and which we are called to gratefully acknowledge and to view as the basis for the way in which we are to live our lives. To put it another way, the fact that we have been baptised means that we have an obligation to behave in a certain way as a result.

The nature of this obligation is set out in the second section of the Catechism. This section runs as follows:

‘What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?

Answer. They did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. Secondly, that I should believe all the articles of the Christian faith. And thirdly, that I should keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life.

Question. Dost thou not think that thou art bound to believe, and to do, as they have promised for thee?

Answer. Yes verily: and by God’s help so I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. And I pray unto God to give me his grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.’

The point that is being made here is not that the person who has been baptised is bound by the mere fact that promises have been made on their behalf. If, for example, what was promised was something wrong then that promise ought not to be kept. The point is rather that these promises should be kept because they express the obligation that we have to God because of what he has done for us. He has brought us into a ‘state of salvation,’ a relationship with God which enables us to flourish both in this life and in the world to come, but this state of salvation involves living in a particular way which the Catechism sets out.

The Catechism says that we have to renounce three things that will damage our relationship with God:

  • ‘The devil and all his works.’ This means both the devil himself and the sinful thoughts and actions which he inspires (1 Peter 5:8-9, 1 John 3:8).
  • ‘The pomps and vanity of this wicked world.’ This means all the things in this world which lead us away from God (1 John 2:15-17). They are called ‘pomps’ and vanities,’ things that are an empty show, in order to make the point that while they may superficially appear glamorous and attractive they are in reality ephemeral in comparison with the ‘solid joys and lasting treasures’ of the kingdom of God. 
  • ‘The sinful lusts of the flesh.’ This means the sins arising from the desires of our fallen human nature (Galatians 5:16-24).

The Catechism then goes on to say that not only do we need renounce these things, but that we also need to believe ‘the articles of the Christian faith,’ the fundamental truths about who God is and what he has done for us that are summarised in the Apostles Creed, and to obey ‘God’s will and commandments,’  everything that God wants us to do (or avoid doing) as summarised in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

From what has just been said it is clear that according to the Catechism the state of salvation to which God has called us through baptism is one that involves repentance, belief and obedience. It is a state in which we actively respond to what God has done for us.

However, this does not mean that being saved is dependent on our own efforts. It is not as if God did his bit at our baptism and we now have to do ours. We remain dependent on God’s grace for our salvation. This is why the final sentence of the section declares ‘And I pray to God to give me his grace that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end.’

In line with New Testament passages such as Matthew 10:22, Luke 8:13, John 15:5-6 and Hebrews 10:39, the Anglican Reformers of the sixteenth century believed that it was possible for people who had been called by God to salvation to fall away from him and they also believed that the remedy against this was both strenuous effort on the behalf of the believer, and a constant seeking for God’s grace which alone made such effort possible. They believed with Paul that it was only because ‘God is at work in you, to will and to work for his good pleasure’ that it is possible for believers ‘to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12-13) and they therefore believed that it was continually necessary to ask God through prayer to be at work in this way.

In summary, according to the Catechism salvation is a gift that has been given to us by God at our baptism, but this gift, which consists in being ‘a child of God, a member of Christ and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven’ carries with an obligation to repent, believe and obey. This obligation is something that we have to fulfil, but we can only do so because God is at work in us and that is something for which we need to continually pray.

To put the matter in the simplest terms, the Christian’s obligation is to repent, believe, obey, and pray.

Who am I? What the Catechism teaches about my identity.

The Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer is designed to give instruction in the basics of the Christian faith. This post is the first in a new series that will look at how the teaching of the Catechism remains relevant in the twenty-first century. In this post I shall consider what the catechism teaches us about the issue of identity.

Throughout history human beings have employed a variety of different ways to identify one human being from another. People have been identified according to their sex, their family ties, their nationality , their class and their religion. Thus Karl, who is  a male, married, middle class, Swedish Lutheran is different from Maria who is a female, single, working class, Italian Catholic. These traditional forms of classification are still used today, but forms of identity based on race (black, white, Hispanic etc.), sexual attraction (straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual etc.) and gender identity (cisgender, transgender, bigender etc,) are also becoming increasingly important, particularly in the political sphere.  

In the face of these various approaches to the issue of human identity what does Christianity have to say about the matter? The answer that the Catechism gives to this question is contained in the following questions and answers with which it begins.

‘Question. What is your Name?

Answer. N. or M.

Question. Who gave you this Name?

Answer. My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’

In the services for the baptism of infants in the Book of Common Prayer the priest baptises the child in the name given by the Godparents. That is what is being referred to in the opening two questions and answers here. The Catechism starts by inquiring about the name given at baptism because of the way in which name and identity go together. Someone’s name marks them off as a particular individual with a particular identity.

It goes on to ask who gave them this name in order to highlight the fact that the fundamental identity of the person who has been baptised is that given to them by God in baptism. Somebody’s surname declares that they were born of two earthly parents. It identifies them as members of a specific human family. Their baptismal name, by contrast, declares that through their baptism they were born  ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’  (John 1:13) and are therefore members of God’s family, the Church.

Because this new identity is given at baptism, the Catechism then says: ‘wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’ ‘wherein’ means ‘at this point’ and what the Catechism is saying is that when they receive their new identity at baptism they became what they were not before, namely a member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-13), a child of God who can call God ‘Abba, Father’ (Galatians 3:27-4:6) and someone who has inherited a place in God’s Kingdom (Titus 3:4-7, 1 Peter 1:3-4). In the words of the 17th century Anglican theologian Thomas Ken, it follows that ‘the happiness of a good Christian is altogether unutterable; he is one who has Christ for his head, God for his Father, and heaven, with all its joys and glories, which are eternal, for his inheritance.’

What is said in the Catechism offers a distinctive Christian take on the question of identity. It says that, fundamentally, who we are is not determined by who we think we are, or who our particular society classifies us as being, or our biological inheritance as the child of these parents belonging to this particular race (or these particular races). Who we are is fundamentally determined instead by the relationship we have with God, a relationship which he gave to us as a free gift at our baptism, and which we are called to gratefully acknowledge and view as the basis for the way in which we are to live our lives.

Therefore, if you are a baptised Christian, the next time someone asks you ‘who are you?’ maybe you should consider surprising them by saying  ‘I am a child of God, a member of Christ and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.’

Learning from J I Packer about principles for Christian unity.

As this is the last day of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight three quotations from chapter 3 of  J I Packer’s book Taking God Seriously [1] which are particularly relevant to discussions about Christian unity today.  

Unity as a present gift and a future goal.

The first quotation is about how Christian unity is ‘both a present gift and a future goal.’ Packer writes:

‘As each Christian is in Christ and is one with him, so all Christians are one with each other in and through him. ‘Christian’ here means , quite specifically, a believer who is born again, knows Christ, is indwelt by the Spirit, and seeks to live to the glory of the triune God. Christian unity is the active, acknowledged togetherness of all Christian people, who share their supernatural life in their Savior’s love and who love each other across all boundaries of race, color, social standing, and denominational churchly identity. From this standpoint Christian unity is a divine gift and foretaste of heaven, and is entirely the fruit of God’s grace.

From another standpoint, however, Christian unity is a goal not fully reached at this time, by reason of differences of belief and behavior among those who profess faith. Persons in the churches who depart from historic Christian and biblical standards in either department, and teach and lead others to do the same, obstruct, disfigure, and actually disrupt Christian unity, no matter how sincere they may be in thinking they are in the van of theological wisdom and spiritual progress. We cannot read hearts and are not therefore able to tell whether those who lapse in this way are Christians in the real sense or not, but we can and must say that their lapses create barriers to our acknowledging of Christian unity with them, for that is indeed the case. Full unity with merely partial believers is not possible.’

Unity as bounded by revealed truth.

The second quotation is about how Christian unity is ‘bounded by revealed truth.’  Packer writes:

‘What God thinks and says is for Christians the absolute standard of truth. God spoke freely to reveal his mind about the realities of redemption and of redeemed life throughout the entire history of his redemptive work, from the days of Genesis to the days of Christ and his apostles some two millennia ago. That revelation is recorded and embodied in the canonical Scriptures, which the Holy Spirit inspired so as to give the world in every age an accurate knowledge and understanding of what God had said and done. What was that revealed and recorded now stands over against every human idea and cultural consensus to measure how far they are true or false by the yardstick of God’s word. All who recategorize Holy Scripture as well-meant and religiously insightful but factually unreliable human tradition, and assume the right to pass judgement on its truth and wisdom rather than letting it pass judgement on them, undermine Christian unity rather than advance it, and create huge confusion and vast spiritual uncertainty in the process. Little as controversy should be encouraged or enjoyed, those who uphold the cause of Christian unity after make clear the falsity of this intellectual method and its results, and must go on making it clear until (please God ) this aberration becomes a thing of the past.’

Unity as involving a principled practice of Christian love.  

The third quotation is about how Christian unity involves  ‘a principled practice of Christian love.’ Packer writes:

‘Christian love for one another, as an expression of our unity in Christ, must be practised responsibly, in light of what God has told us in Scripture and shown us in Christ about his ideal standards for human living. Failure to do this will disrupt Christian unity yet again. The idea that loving people – one’s children, spouse, friends; disadvantaged and abused groups – means giving them everything they ask for and tolerating whatever they choose to do is a sad sub-Christian mistake. Love gives, certainly, but giving that does not observe the limits of behaviour acceptable to God and that does not, however indirectly, give encouragement and help toward self -control, emotional maturity, courage, humility, patience, truthfulness and trustworthiness, purity and holiness, and Christlikeness generally, is not Christian love in action. Moral insensitivity and indifference cancel Christian love, instead of expressing it. It is not loving, in the Christian sense, to confirm anyone, let alone fellow Christians, in wrong ways, and it is certainly not the way to acknowledge our Christian unity with anyone. Christian love is unconditional in the sense of accepting, respecting, and showing goodwill to people just as they are, but it is not unconcerned or undiscerning about being beneficent as distinct from merely indulgent. True Christian love holds to Christian standards all the way.’

What these principles mean for us today.

During the course of the twentieth century major strides were made in the fostering of Christian unity, both through ecumenical dialogues and agreements between churches and groups of churches, and through the development of ecumenical bodies such as the World Council of Churches or the World Evangelical Alliance. Since the beginning of this century, however, much of this ecumenical progress has gone into reverse as new divisions have opened up over the issues of transgender and same-sex sexual relationships, divisions which have split apart both individual churches and groups of churches.

In the face of this situation, we cannot abandon the quest for visible Christian unity. According to John 17:20-23, Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers on the night before his crucifixion and the fruit of the victory won by his crucifixion and resurrection was the formation of a community whose members  were ‘of one heart and soul’ (Acts 4:32) and who shared a common life of worship, witness,  and service as a result. That still has to be our goal today.

However, if we are serious about working towards the achievement of that goal in our day we have to take seriously the three principles concerning unity highlighted by Packer in the quotations given above. Christian Unity is impeded when people depart from ‘historic Christian and biblical standards’ of belief and behaviour. Christian unity is bounded by the truths revealed by God in Holy Scripture. Christian unity involves the practice of ‘principled’ rather than undiscriminating love.

In specific terms, what this means is that the divisions that have opened up over transgender and same-sex sexual relationships will only be properly healed if there is a return to the historic Christian belief, based on the teaching of Scripture, that human beings are called to live as the men and women God created them to be, and to live lives that are marked by either sexual faithfulness within heterosexual marriage, or sexual abstinence outside it, and if those in the churches are prepared to show principled love by encouraging people to live in these ways and giving appropriate support to those who find doing so particularly difficult.  

Paradoxically, in order to bring about the healing of divisions in this way in the long term, divisions may need to increase in the short term. This is because orthodox Christians may need to set up their own new churches, or new structures within existing churches, in order to provide settings in which traditional Christian belief and practice can be maintained against the day when revival comes and the Church as whole is willing to accept them once more.   

[1] J I Packer, Taking God Seriously (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013).

The Explanatory Memorandum from the Bishops of the Church in Wales – a response.

The Church in Wales has now published a Bill which, if passed, will allow services of blessing to take place in Welsh churches after Civil Partnership ceremony or civil partnership between two people of the same sex.[1]

The justification for this proposed development is found in the ‘Explanatory Memorandum’ from the Welsh bench of bishops which has been published alongside the Bill. The justification the bishops offer runs as follows. 

‘The Christian tradition from the early centuries received the union of one man and one woman for life as the normative and exclusive context for sexual intimacy, and received the Scriptures as enjoining this ideal, despite the fact that different patterns of polygamy are witnessed, and even seem to have tacit approval, in the pages of the Bible.

As with many aspects of human life, however, experience of human relations is rarely as straightforward as the traditional view of the ideal, and Scripture itself bears witness to a process of accommodation in relation, for example, to divorce, while differing levels of tolerance have been shown by the Christian Church down through the centuries to sexual activity in the context of betrothal and so-called “common law marriages”.  In the same way, patterns of sexual expression which seem accepted in Scripture without condemnation, such as sexual intercourse between a master and slave, or between a man and a concubine, are clearly now regarded as repugnant.

In the view of the bench, the Scriptures condemn “porneia”, unbridled lust, in which sexual activity is divorced from faithful and mutual commitment. It is true that in Scripture such faithful commitment is always portrayed as between a man and woman in covenanted union (marriage), and all other sexual activity, including references to same-sex activity, is portrayed as an expression of porneia. However, with new social, scientific and psychological understandings of sexuality in the last one and a half centuries, we believe that same-sex relationships can be understood in a radically different way, and that the teaching of Scripture should therefore be re-interrogated.

Same-sex friendships – although without any clear implication of sexual activity – are celebrated in the Bible. If Scripture is correctly read as condemning porneia, then the question can be asked whether loving and faithful long term same-sex commitments are properly categorised as the expression of “unbridled lust” (cf. Romans 1)’

What is said in this justification is wrong in multiple ways.

First, while polygamy is indeed witnessed to in Scripture (along with numerous other departures from the pattern for sexual established by God at creation) it is very rare, it is always implicitly condemned when it is described, and it is specifically ruled out by the Mosaic Law in Leviticus 18:18 and Deuteronomy 17:17.[2]

Secondly, while the Old Testament does make accommodation for divorce, divorce is never approved of and the New Testament makes it clear that divorce is only permitted in two circumstances  -where the marriage covenant has been broken by adultery (Matthew 19:3-9) and the repudiation of marriage by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). Rather than the Bible witnessing to a ‘process of accommodation’ in relation to divorce in which a gradually more permissive approach is taken, what we actually see in Scripture is a  process in which there is less accommodation of divorce in the New Testament than there is in the Old. 

Thirdly, following Jewish precedent, the teaching of the Church in both East and West has always been that it is not legitimate for a betrothed couple to have sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse has always been seen as something that should only take place within marriage.

Fourthly, in so far as the Church has seen sexual intercourse in common law marriages as legitimate this is because it has seen these relationships as genuine marriages that conform to the pattern of marriage established by God in Genesis 2:18-24 even though a marriage ceremony has not taken place in church.

Fifthly, the Old Testament does not regard having sex with a concubine as acceptable, and under the terms of Exodus 21:7-11 a man is only allowed to have sex with a slave girl if she has become his wife.[3]

Sixthly, ‘porneia’ does not mean ‘unbridled lust’, it means ‘unlawful sexual intercourse’[4] which in the Bible means any form of sexual activity forbidden in the Law of Moses, which in turn means any form of sexual activity which falls outside the pattern of marriage between one man and one woman established by God in Genesis 2.

Seventhly, it is not clear (and the bishops do not explain) what the ‘new social, scientific and psychological understandings of sexuality in the last one and a half centuries’ are that mean we can now understand same sex relationships ‘in a radically different way.’ All we know now is what we have always known, which is (a) that some human beings are sexually attracted to members of their own sex, either permanently, or at some point in their lives, and (b) they are free to make the moral decision as to whether to act on this attraction (just like those attracted to members of the opposite sex).

Eighthly, it is not a question of the same sex friendships celebrated  in the Bible (such as Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan and Jesus and the beloved disciple) not having ‘any clear indication’ of sexual activity, but rather that the issue of sexual activity doesn’t even arise. There is nothing in the accounts of these friendships to suggest even the possibility of sexual activity. The mention of these same sex friendships is thus a red herring.

Finally, when Paul talks in Romans 1:27 about men ‘burning with desire’ for other men this is simply a conventional Jewish way of saying that they have been overcome by a sinful form of desire. In a similar way, Sirach 23:16, for example, talks about a fornicator being overcome with ‘hot passion that blazes like a fire’ and Philo writes in that ‘all those who are rebellious will continue to be burned by their inward lusts, which like a flame will ravage the whole life of those in whom they dwell.’ [5]

This means that for Paul even those involved in ‘loving and faithful long term same-sex commitments’ would still rightly be described as ‘burning with desire’ if they continued to engage in same-sex sexual activity. For Paul (and for the Bible as whole) the issue is not that same-sex relationships are wrong because they involve ‘one night stands’ rather than committed relationships, they are wrong because God created human beings to have sex with the opposite sex (as evidenced by the design of their bodies – the point Paul is making in  Romans 1) and ordained heterosexual marriage as the context for sexual activity to take place.

What the Welsh bishops write thus simply does not hold water and thus does not provide a theological basis for the revision of the Church in Wales’ position which they support.

[1] Details can be found on the Church in Wales website at us/governing-body/meetings/

[2] For details see Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), ch. 5. 

[3] See Davidson pp.191-193.

[4] Walter Bauer, F W Gingrich and Frederick Danker, A Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1979), p.693.

[5] Philo, De Decalogo 49, quoted in Thomas Schmidt, Straight & Narrow (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), p. 74.