GAFCON, the Archbishop and Lambeth 2020

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

Among other things this letter declares:

‘…. we respectfully urge the Archbishop of Canterbury:

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

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

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

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

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

Two key things have happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are three reasons for this suggestion.

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

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

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

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

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

M B Davie 9.7.18

[1] Letter to the Churches – GAFCON Assembly 2018, at

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

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


GAFCON Seminar: Human flourishing and the mission of the Church

GAFCON Jerusalem 2018

Human flourishing and the mission of the Church.

Seminar outline

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

Q and A Martin Davie (10 minutes)

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

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

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

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

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

M B Davie 16.6.18

What do we mean by human flourishing?

GAFCON Jerusalem 2018

Human flourishing and the mission of the church.

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

What do we mean by flourishing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why flourishing matters for mission.

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

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

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

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

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

The non-religious philosophies of the contemporary West.

a. Secular individualism


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

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

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

Three further points about this view are:

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

b. Marxism


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

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

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

Primal Religion

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

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

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

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

The great religions of South and East Asia

a. Hinduism


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

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

b. Buddhism  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. Sikhism


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

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

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

Judaism and Islam

a. Judaism


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

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

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

b. Islam.


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

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

What we have seen so far.

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


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

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

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

[4] The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1, at manifesto/ch01.htm#007

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Definition of the three pillars from Sikhwiki at Pillars

The Christian Vision of Human Flourishing

GAFCON Jerusalem 2018

Human flourishing and the mission of the church.

The Christian vision of human flourishing

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

The picture of flourishing in Psalm 1.

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

Psalm 1 runs as follows:

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

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

This Psalm can be divided into two parts.

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

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

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

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

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

Objections to this picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Christian account of flourishing answers these two objections.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having made this point, Costa then comments further:

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

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

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

This is good news, says Luther, because

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

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

In the words of John Webster:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 34: 34-36 declares:

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

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

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

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

The Christian view of flourishing and other religions and philosophies.

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid, p.59.

[3] Ibid, p.59.

[4] Ibid, p.60.

[5] Ibid. p.61.

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

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

[8] Ibid.

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

[10] Ibid, p.287.

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

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


M B Davie  16.6.18


Ruritania, authority and the Jerusalem Declaration


The third global GAFCON conference will be held in Jerusalem next week. Sadly, there are some people who feel that they cannot attend the conference because they cannot sign up to paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration, GAFCON’s statement of faith.

The paragraph in question runs as follows ‘We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed. We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord.’ In this paper I shall look at why this statement is one that every Christian ought to be able to sign up to with a good conscience and therefore should not be an obstacle to people attending the forthcoming meeting in Jerusalem.

What do we mean by authority?

In order to understand what is being said in the paragraph we need first of all to define what we mean by the word ‘authority.’ The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines authority as ‘the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.’ To say that someone has authority means to say that they have this power or right and to deny that they have authority means to say that they do not have it.

To illustrate this point let’s consider the case of an imaginary country which, for the sake of argument, we shall call Ruritania after the fictional country invented by Anthony Hope.

Ruritania is a monarchy ruled over by a good and wise king. He is a wise and beneficent ruler and his subjects accept that he has the power and right to give orders, make decisions and enforce obedience, because they know that the actions that he takes will always be for their good.

One day, however, there is a rebellion in Ruritania. The king’s ministers depose the king, but they continue to rule in his name. However, the actions they take are ones which they decide and they are not for the good of the inhabitants of Ruritania, but purely for their own personal interests. When the Ruritanians discover what has taken place they deny that the ministers have authority to rule over them because, although they claim to be acting in the king’s name, what they are doing is not according to his will, but their own, and is not for the good of the king’s subjects.

What the ministers are doing possesses nominal authority because it is done in the king’s name, but it lacks proper authority because it is not actually done on the king’s behalf and according to his will.

How this relates to paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem declaration.

The example which we have just looked at of nominal as opposed to proper authority relates to what is said in paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration.

According to the Christian faith, God is the supreme king over all the world. He is ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ (Revelation 19:16). Because God is infinitely wise, good and powerful and always acts for the good of his creatures, he has proper and universal authority. That is to say, he has the power and right to give orders, make decisions and enforce obedience, not just in relation to particular groups of people, but in relation to all human beings.

Like the ministers of the King of Ruritania, Christian churches and leaders possess a derived authority. They have the power and right in particular circumstances to give orders, make decisions and enforce obedience. As Article XX of the Thirty Nine Articles declares ‘The Church hath power decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith.’ Churches and their leaders can rightly say to people what they should believe and what they should do. However, they act in God’s name and can only rightly exercise authority when they act in accordance with God’s will. When they do not do so they may still possess nominal authority, but like the wicked ministers in our fictional story they forfeit proper authority.

A classic biblical example of this distinction between nominal and proper authority can be found in Jeremiah 23:21-22:

‘I did not send the prophets,  yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council,     then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way,  and from the evil of their doings.’

The prophets whom Jeremiah is denouncing claimed to be acting in God’s name. They claimed to have authority from God to declare that the kingdom of Judah would be protected by God from the onslaught of the Babylonian empire. What Jeremiah is declaring, however, is that the authority they are claiming is purely nominal. They lack proper authority because the message they are giving to the people is not from God but from their own imagination.

A parallel point is being made in paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration. What it means by the ‘orthodox faith’ is the truth about God and his will that has been made known to us, partly through creation, but primarily through the biblical witness to God’s self-revelation in the history of Israel and in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

What the paragraph is saying is that, however much nominal authority they possess, churches and church leaders lack proper authority when what they teach and what they do is not in accordance with the truth about God and his will that has been made known to us in this way. Like the prophets denounced by Jeremiah, they may claim to be speaking and acting on behalf of God, but their claim is bogus and needs to be rejected.

The paragraph then goes on to say that when people have acted wrongly in this way the demands of Christian charity mean ‘We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord.’ If we love them as we should, we cannot be content for them to persist in their error, but must rather take action to try to save them from it. Prayer and witness are the two ways in which we can do this.

Throughout the history of the Church both of these points have been accepted by Christians of all traditions. Christians have obviously disagreed in detail about what constitutes the orthodox (or as it has sometimes been called the ‘Catholic’) faith, but there has been general agreement that there is such a thing, that Christians do not have the authority to depart from it in word or deed, and that when people do depart from it Christians should pray for them and call upon them to repent.

The basic theological principles underlying paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration are thus part of the historic Christian consensus and for the reasons given above they are principles which all Christians should be able to accept.

Have churches and leaders rejected the orthodox faith?

Someone might still argue, however, that although they accept the basic principles underlying paragraph 13 they cannot accept the claim being made in it that there are churches and leaders today who have departed from the orthodox faith in word and deed and whose actions therefore lack authority and should be rejected. However, this claim is justified because there is no question that over the past two decades there have been churches and leaders within the Anglican Communion who have departed from the orthodox faith. They have done this by supporting same-sex sexual relationships and same sex marriages in word and deed and increasingly by also supporting the idea that it is right for people to claim a sexual identity that is at variance with their God given biological sex.

When they have done these things they have gone against the truth revealed to us in nature and Scripture that God has created human beings as male and female, with their sex determined by their biology, and that He has created them to have sexual intercourse with members of the opposite sex solely within the bounds of a permanent and exclusive marital relationship between one man and one woman (see Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12).

It follows that they have acted without proper authority and that therefore, as paragraph 13 says, their claim to have authority to act in this way should be rejected by faithful Christians who should instead pray for them and call on them to repent and return to obedience to God.

What all this means is that there is no good reason for anyone to be unable to sign up to paragraph 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration and to therefore be unable to attend GAFCON.

What should acceptance of paragraph 13 mean in practice?

What it means in practice is first of all being prepared to say ‘no’ to teachings and acts that lack authority for the reasons described above. If a church or a Christian leader says that the Christians should teach things, or do things, or agree to things that go against the orthodox faith then Christians have to refuse to say them, do them, or agree to them. As St. Peter and the other apostles say in Acts 5:29 when ordered by the high priest to stop teaching in the name of Jesus, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’

Secondly, it means being prepared to call on the people responsible to repent. In line with Matthew 18:15-20 we should first of all raise our concerns privately with them, but if they do not respond it may become necessary to make our call for repentance public in order to bear clear witness to the truth which their actions have called into question (see the actions of St. Paul in response to St. Peter’s separation of himself from the Gentiles in Galatians 2:11-14). We should not make personal attacks on the people concerned, but we should be willing to explain courteously and clearly why we believe their actions are wrong and why we believe they need to desist from them.

Thirdly, it means praying for the people concerned. It will in the end be God through the work of the Spirit who will bring people to repentance and we need to pray seriously and persistently for this to happen. It is not enough to remain orthodox ourselves. We need to care for the spiritual well-being of those who have departed from orthodoxy and this means being faithful in prayer for them.

‘But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire; on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.’ Jude 20:23.

M B Davie 16.6.18

Waiting by the sea

Why it is bad form to refer to the devil.

If today one links the devil to a particular political, social, or theological development one runs the risk of being immediately dismissed as part of theology’s lunatic fringe. In mainstream Western theological circles the potential influence of the devil upon such developments is almost entirely ignored and invoking his influence is regarded as bad form.

Three valid concerns can be seen to lie behind this state of affairs.

The first is that describing a particular development as being influenced by the devil has the effect of immediately ruling out any degree of movement or compromise on the matter in question. If one seriously believes that a particular development is due to the influence of the devil, the argument goes, then one has no alternative but absolute opposition to it. After all, one cannot reach a legitimate accommodation with the devil. Hence if one believes that accommodation, compromise, or ‘good disagreement’ are things that are important for the well-being of society and the Church, talking about the influence of the devil is necessarily problematic.

The second is that describing developments as being influenced by devil’s activity risks ignoring the truth that political, social and theological developments take place because of the choices made by human beings. If we say that this or that development is a result of the work of the devil, so the argument goes, we will then cease to take seriously the human dynamics involved.

The third is that seeing a particular development as inspired by the devil will lead to the demonization of the people involved with that development. Their perceived association with the devil will be seen as more significant than their humanity and there will be a risk of their being treated in abusive, violent or even lethal ways in consequence (the long sad history of the treatment of those suspected of witchcraft graphically illustrates the reasons for this concern).

Why we should not stop talking about the devil.

Although these three concerns are valid, in the sense that they highlight genuine issues, they do not mean that we should not include the devil in our understanding of what is going on in the world.

The answer to the first concern is that acknowledging the influence of the devil on a particular development does not rule out constructive engagement with it. For example, one can make out a good case for saying that behind the atheistic ideology and totalitarian oppression of the old Soviet bloc there lay the influence of the devil, seeking to turn human beings away from God and godly forms of behaviour. However, this did not mean that it was wrong for Western politicians and diplomats to engage with the Soviet bloc in order to as far as possible prevent war and promote justice and human well-being. They were right to do so because this was arguably the best way to counter the disorder in human affairs that the devil was seeking to promote. In similar fashion, the Early Church was acutely aware of the demonic influence lying behind the Roman imperial system and yet Christians were prepared to obey, and work with, the Roman authorities on matters that did not compromise their faith.

The answer to the second is that acknowledging that things happen because of the choices that human beings make does not rule out taking seriously the influences that shape those choices. As an example of this point, one can think about what happens when someone shops at a supermarket. When they do this they make choices about what they want to buy. They decide to buy these biscuits rather than those. However, the choices they make do not take place in a vacuum. They are influenced by a whole range of social and cultural factors and even by the way the supermarket has decided to display its products. A free choice is made, but it is an influenced choice. In the same way it makes perfect sense to say that we must acknowledge that political, social and theological developments are a result of human choices whilst also holding that among the factors that have influenced those choices is the work of the devil.

The answer to the third is that we have to take seriously the dangers of de-humanisation to which it alerts us. However, this does not mean we therefore have to rule out a belief that the devil is at work in human lives. This is because it makes perfectly good sense to say that an individual, or group of individuals, has been influenced by the devil to turn away from God and the way God wants his human creatures to behave and yet also to say that the people concerned should at all times be treated with love and justice. From an orthodox Christian perspective, however much influence the devil may have in their lives, all people have infinite and permanent value because they are those whom God has created and for whom Jesus died and how we treat them always needs to reflect this fact.

Even when we have addressed these concerns, however, the big question still remains as to why it is right to believe that the devil exists and that he influences human affairs.

There are two good answers to this question.

The first answer, which is provided by natural reason, is that just as the existence of good points us to the existence of the good power we call God as its ultimate source, so also the existence of evil points us to existence of another power, which the Christian tradition has called the devil. Because God is wholly good he cannot be the source of evil and therefore evil must come from this other source.

Furthermore, the idea known as dualism, that these two powers are both equally original so that the universe is governed by two independent powers, one good and one evil, will not work because the very nature of evil is that it is parasitic upon some pre-existing good. To quote C S Lewis in Mere Christianity ‘Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.’[1]

Applying this truth to the existence of the evil power shows us that his very existence must depend on the preceding existence of the good power. To quote Lewis again:

‘To be bad, he must exist and have intelligence and will. But existence, intelligence and will are in themselves good. Therefore he must be getting them from the Good Power: even to be bad he must beg or steal from his opponent. And do you now begin to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for the children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable evil to carry on are powers given to it by goodness.’ [2]

What reason shows us, therefore, is that the world as we experience it points us to the existence of two powers, one good and one evil. However, they are not both equally original. The good power (God) must have come first and has to be the source both of the existence of the evil power (the devil) and of the good which the evil power distorts.

The second answer is that the God ‘who never lies’ (Titus 1:2) has told us in Scripture both that the devil exists and that he influences human affairs. According to Scripture it was the devil in the guise of a snake who induced the first parents of the human race to rebel against God (Genesis 3) and has been tempting all human beings (including Jesus, Matthew 4:1-11) to continue that rebellion ever since. So great is his influence that 1 John 5:19 declares that ‘the whole world is in the power of the evil one.’

Reason and Scripture together thus tell us that we should believe in the existence and influence of the devil.

The defeat of the devil.

What Scripture also tells us, however, is that God the Son came into world to overthrow the devil’s power. ‘The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:8). What St. John teaches in this verse is helpfully expounded by John Stott as follows:

‘…the devil’s activity is manifold. His works include all those things which he has insinuated into the perfect creation of God, in order to spoil it. Morally, his work is enticement to sin; physically, the infliction of disease; intellectually, seduction into error. He still assaults our soul, body and mind in these three ways; and Christ came to destroy his works. The destruction was a ‘loosing’ (lyse) as if those diabolical works were chains which bound us. Of course we know from experience that they are not in an absolute sense destroyed’ (cf. Rom. 6:6, 2 Tim 1:10; Heb. 2:14, where the verb katargeo evidently does not mean to liquidate or annihilate, but rather to deprive of force, render inoperative, conquer and overthrow). The devil is still busy doing his wicked works, but he has been defeated, and in Christ we can escape from his tyranny.’[3]

The biblical message, then, is that the devil has been defeated. Because of the work of Christ he no longer has the power to keep anyone trapped in the power of sin and death and cut off from God forever except if they choose that this should be the case. However, he has not vanished and is still at work in the way that Stott describes.

The continuing work of the devil in human societies.

We often think of the devil as leading individuals astray, but Scripture also tells us that whole societies continue to be shaped by the devil’s influence. We can see this in chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation where the two monstrous beasts who represent the Roman Empire as a whole, and its local manifestation in the province of Asia, are seen as manifestations of the activity of the ‘dragon’ who has previously been identified as ‘the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of whole world’ (Revelation 12:9). In Revelation 13 the identification of the beast/Empire and the dragon/devil is so close that 13:4 declares that when people worship the beast (i.e. accept the imperial ideology and live according to it) they are at the same time worshipping the dragon.

Now obviously if you asked the Roman authorities whether they were working for the devil their answer would have been ‘no.’ They would have said that they were serving the Emperor and enacting imperial law. What St. John is doing, however, is revealing what is really going on. The devil is the ‘deceiver’ and part of his deceit is to persuade societies that they are running things according to their own ideas, laws and customs when in fact they are in fact being controlled by the devil and manipulated by him for his malign purposes.

If we ask how we can tell whether this is case, the answer Revelation gives is that if a society’s ideology and practice persecutes God’s people for being God’s people and calls on them to violate the exclusive worship of the one true God and behave in ways which are contrary to God’s commands, then that society is under the influence of the devil, no matter what it thinks about the matter.

Translated into our context this means that we can see the influence of the devil in the very large number of societies in the world today where the prevailing ideology is contrary to the Christian message, whether on religious or political grounds, and in which the Church is subject to persecution.[4] This does not mean everything that happens in those societies is bad (any more than everything that happened in Roman society was bad), but it does mean that their overall ethos has to be seen as reflecting the devil’s handiwork. The same is also true in the increasingly secularised liberal democracies of the West in which the prevailing ideology puts personal self-expression and the acquisition of material possessions before God, in which ungodly forms of personal behaviour are now supported by the state (particularly in the area of sexual ethics) and in which, while the Church is not persecuted, Christians are coming under increasing legal, political and social pressure to conform to the secular liberal agenda. In these societies too the devil is at work.

The second Exodus.

Faced the work of the devil in all these places, the temptation with which Christians are faced is to give way, either abandoning the faith entirely, or seeking to compromise in either theology or practice with the prevailing social norms in order to avoid unpopularity, trouble, or persecution. This temptation is not new. It is exactly the same temptation experienced by the first Christians when they faced the might of Rome and asked ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against him?’ (Revelation 13:4). The devil working through Rome seemed invincible then, and the devil working through our societies can seem invincible now.

However, St. John’s message to the first Christians in their situation and to Christians in parallel situations today is ‘stand firm.’ A key way he makes this point is through what he says in Revelation 20:1-10. In these verses the devil is seized and bound for a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-3), is released to deceive the nations and attack the Church once again (Revelation 20: 3, 7-9), and is then finally subject to total and irrevocable judgement and destruction (Revelation 20:9-10).

As Laurie Guy notes in his book Unlocking Revelation, the story St. John tells in these verses is a deliberate echo of the story of the Exodus from Egypt in Exodus 12-14 in which Israel is delivered twice, once at the at the Passover and once at the Red Sea:

‘So why is Satan ‘released’ in Revelation 20? A crucial shaper of the Revelation 20 storyline is the Exodus story. There are significant parallels between the circumstances of Israel prior to the final deliverance at the Red Sea and those of the seven churches of John’s day. Both are trapped in an apparently hopeless situation. In the Exodus storyline there needed to be two deliverances to effect a total emancipation. In that story the apparently hopeless time between the first deliverance (following the ten plagues) and the final deliverance from Egypt at the Red Sea proved to be a situation of hopefulness and soon-to-be triumph. That Exodus two-stage deliverance served as a template for the binding and loosing of Satan (and for the ‘millennium’) in Revelation 20.’ [5]

The reason why St. John harks back to the Exodus story is that it provides the Christians to who he is writing with a firm ground for hope in what could seem to be an utterly hopeless situation. God, he is saying, has come through for his people before, and he will come through for them again, giving them a final, total victory. To quote Guy again:

‘What John is doing in Revelation 20 is reframing the pressured Christian communities’ understanding of their circumstances. Their situation is not one of despair but of hope, John’s portrayal of the need for two deliverances, a binding of Satan and his original overthrow, meshes with the lived experience of the Revelation Christians. They have had their first deliverance, their exodus through the blood of the Lamb. But the devil is not finished with them yet. In fact the devil’s power seems as overwhelming as ever. They feel trapped. Yet they can take heart. As God came through at the Red Sea, so he will come through for the embattled Christian community. There is the promise, the hope, the confidence – final victory, final judgement over Satan, final victory over evil – for all time. The smoke, the burning, the destruction of evil will continue forever (19 v 3: 20 v10). The present experience of the small Christian communities is that of being cornered – trapped in the face of overwhelming evil. ‘Take heart,’ says John. ‘That is not the end, in fact your situation is hopeful, not hopeless. Think of the Exodus, Think of the second deliverance at the Red Sea. Don’t give up. The second deliverance – that will be the last word. Stay on the winning side – forever.’ [6]

As obvious objection to St John’s message is to say that by the time the final victory comes round I may be dead so how will it benefit me if this is the case? The answer that St. John, in common with the New Testament as a whole, would give to this objection would be one word, ‘resurrection.’ St. John tells us that when the devil’s power has finally been broken forever the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise the faithful departed to live with him for ever in the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21-22). If we are dead before the final defeat of the devil we will therefore not lose out.

Where this leaves us.

Where this all leaves us as Christians is waiting like the people of Israel beside the Red Sea, knowing that God has delivered us once and looking for him to deliver us again.

We know from both natural reason and biblical revelation that the devil exists.

We know that the devil has been defeated by Jesus Christ and so no longer has the power to keep us cut off from God.

We know that nonetheless he is still at work in the world. He is the force behind the rejection of God’s truth and the attacks on God’s people that are taking place in societies around the world and the increasing rejection of the Christian faith in the Western democracies.

Finally, we know that the devil will not win in the end. Just as the armies of Pharaoh were swallowed up by the waters of the Red Sea so the devil will be destroyed once and for all by the judgement of God and will trouble God’s good creation no more.

The only thing that can stop us from participating in this victory is if we cease to believe in it and turn away from obedience to God in consequence. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer ‘believe in the victory and it is yours.’ [7]

M B Davie 31.5.18

[1] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, Glasgow: Fount, 1984, p.46.

[2] Ibid, p.47.

[3] John Stott, The Letters of John, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989, p.129.

[4] For details see the websites of bodies such the Barnabas Fund or Release International.

[5] Laurie Guy, Unlocking Revelation, Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2016, Kindle edition, Loc. 1963-1973.

[6] Ibid, Loc. 1973-1982.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, London: Fontana, 1970, p. 213.

Reimagining reimagined – A review of Justin Welby’s Reimagining Britain.

I. Introduction.

‘The church was absolutely packed. In all the time I’d lived in Oxford, I’d never seen so many people at a church service. There were a thousand at least. People were crammed into pews, and lined up in the wide windowsills all around the sanctuary. Extra chairs were crowded into the back in every available space. The kneeling-benches had been pulled out and placed in the aisle to accommodate the overflow. When that did not suffice, they opened the doors so the people outside could hear.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked, bewildered by the noise and hubbub. ‘What’s all this?’

‘Just church,’ Susannah said, puzzled by my question.’[1]

The words just quoted come from the end of the Song of Albion trilogy by the Christian fantasy writer Stephen Lawhead. He imagines a Britain that has been transformed by a feat of heroic self-sacrifice performed in the parallel dimension of Albion. In that transformed Britain packed out churches are something that are regarded as completely normal, which is why Susannah is puzzled when asked about it.

Lawhead’s picture of what a transformed Britain might look like is one way of imagining the future of this country from a Christian perspective. Another, very famous, Christian attempt to imagine what the future of Britain might look like is Archbishop William Temple’s book Christianity and Social Order,[2] which was first published in 1942, and which is widely seen as having contributed to the development of the welfare state in the period immediately after the end of World War II.

This year, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has followed in Temple’s footsteps by giving us his own vision for the future of Britain in his new book Reimagining Britain.[3]

In his Introduction Welby notes that ‘For almost every nation on earth this is a time of extraordinary challenge amid rapid change.’ ‘Our technology,’ he says, ’is driving us onwards in ways that would have seemed like science fiction within the last generation.’ At the same time ‘the planet groans under the weight of the peoples and economies that it sustains. Social tensions grow as traditional societies and structures either resist or seek to adapt to change.’ ‘For most people,’ he declares, ‘the impact of these changes will be revolutionary – for jobs, development, life expectancy, as well for the terrible possibilities of war or the wonderful gifts of peace.’ [4]

In his view ‘we must find fresh strength and passionate commitment to imagine ourselves afresh in the midst of such change.’[5] His book is his personal contribution to this process of re-imagining what Britain could and should like in the twenty first century. This review of his book will summarise his vision for Britain’s future, explain what is helpful and unhelpful in his proposal, and finally sketch out an alternative Christian vision for the future of this country.

II. Archbishop Welby’s vision for Britain’s future.

A society that lives in love.

At the centre of Welby’s vision for the future of Britain is his belief in the significance of the story of Jesus Christ. He holds that:

‘At the heart of the story of Jesus Christ are restored relationships, first with God, but also with others. They are summed up in the phrase ‘God is love.’ The writer of that phrase, the Apostle John, does not use the word ‘love’ to mean romantic affection, but to denote active pursuit of the well-being of others, without seeking return.’[6]

According to Welby:

‘Good societies reflect this love-in-action. Values in a society that begin with moral exhortation or rules are doomed to failure, even to oppression and cruelty. Values spring from practices of love and love reinforces values. That simple approach is at the heart of this book. In essence it argues that a society that lives in love will flourish and develop, and will liberate the vast majority of its members, whether or not they themselves accept the premises of the Christian faith.’[7]

Community, courage and stability.

When he moves on to set out his understanding of what a society that lives in love will look like he begins by arguing for the importance of three values.

The first value is community, which he understands in terms of five principles derived from Catholic social teaching.

‘Community, made up of the universal destination of goods, gratuity, solidarity, the common good and subsidiarity, enables us to stick together.’[8]

  • The universal destination of goods means that ‘all that exists is given by God for all’ (including generations yet to come)’ [9]
  • Gratuity means ‘love given freely, an abundance of generosity without hope of return.’[10]
  • Solidarity involves ‘caring for those with who we have connections,’ potentially any other human being regardless of ‘nationality, history, gender, race and sexuality.’[11]
  • The common good is concerned with what makes for ‘the totality of flourishing in the group.’ [12]
  • Subsidiarity is the principle that all ‘actions and decisions in any group or organization should be handled by the smallest, lowest, most local or lest centralized level that is practical and efficient.’ [13]

The second value is courage.

‘Courage, with aspiration, creativity and competition, gives us strength to move forward.’[14]

  • Aspiration is ‘the desire to make a mark, to change things, to achieve at some level or another.’[15]
  • Creativity sits alongside aspiration because ‘If I want to add to the world then something new must appear.’[16]
  • Competition, whether between individuals or organisations ‘recognises, and seeks to dispel, the natural complacency of human beings’ by encouraging them to strive to do better.[17]

The third group is stability.

‘Stability, built on reconciliation, resilience and sustainability, enables us to cope with the chances and changes of a rapidly moving world.’[18]

  • Reconciliation (which is at the core of Christian faith) is ‘the transformation of destructive conflict into creative and dynamic diversity which encourages growth and development.’[19]
  • Resilience is the capacity ‘to deal with shocks and traumas’ and to maintain values ‘in times of prosperity and flourishing.’[20]
  • Sustainability means the ability of values to be maintained under pressure ‘whether pressure of fear, of exhaustion, or of the natural human desire to protect oneself and those closest around.’ [21]

Intermediate institutions.

As well as emphasizing the importance of these values, Welby also emphasizes the importance of ‘intermediate institutions,’ by which he means bodies ranging from households, to faith groups, to companies and trades unions which stand between the individual and the state. As he sees it:

‘Values are developed and refined above all intermediate institutions, which is where democracy is founded, and our diversity preserved and nurtured for the common good. Intermediate groups are where we build social capital, integrate, learn loyalties, practices and values, learn to disagree well – to build hope and resilience.’[22]

Having set out the values which he thinks need to underpin Britain’s future, Welby then goes on to look at what he calls ‘the basic building blocks’[23] of British society. There are five of these, family, education, health, housing and economics and finance.

The family.

On the family Welby argues that although families can be the location of much harm, nevertheless families are important because:

‘The good family is the foundational intermediate institution in society, and one to which every human being necessarily belongs in one way or another. It addresses issues of care, isolation and rootlessness. It is a gift of God in any society, bearing burdens, supporting the vulnerable and stabilizing both those who believe themselves to be autonomous and those who feel themselves to be failures.’[24]

Welby argues that we must acknowledge the variety of forms of marriage and family life that exist in contemporary British society and evaluate them in terms of whether they ‘emphasize and incite community, courage and stability’ and, from a Christian viewpoint whether they reflect the character of God through possessing ‘holiness, fidelity, hospitality and love.’[25]

In policy terms, Welby argues for greater recognition and state support for extended families and for those caring for family members and for the need to avoid both complacency about the reality of abuse within families and overmuch interference in family life by outside agencies. He rejects the proposal to introduce Sharia law into the family law of this country on the grounds that there needs to be ‘one legal basis of oversight and one philosophical basis of understanding’ for families and households and the ‘cultural narrative’ underpinning Sharia law stands outside this.[26]


On education Welby declares:

‘No society or country can flourish without an education system that is world class, and that offers every person who chooses to take it the possibility of living ‘life in all its fullness,’ a phrase used by Jesus.’ [27]

He sets out five principles for the development of education.

  • First, ‘all education must be seen as a principal place confidently to develop values that are widely held.’[28]
  • Secondly, Higher and Further education institutions are important as ‘intermediate institutions which exist to being fullness of life and are nurseries of community living.’[29] As such, they need to develop stories of the common good, generate inspiration and aspiration and enable the creation of resilience and sustainability.[30]
  • Thirdly, ‘there cannot be Cinderellas’ (i.e. neglected parts of the education system).[31] In Welby’s view, Further Education, technical education and frequently adult learning fall into this category today.
  • Fourthly, there need to be ‘stronger partnerships’ between educational institutions and both potential employers and other ‘cultural, charitable and social institutions.’[32]
  • Fifthly, ‘there is profound need for training and development to improve, especially in the areas of anthropological and religious literacy, in history and ethics, so that the indispensability of confident values is recognized and the tools for their development are offered.’[33]


On health, Welby contends that ‘Caring equally for the health of all, regardless of perceived economic or societal value, is a clear sign of our values’[34] and that ‘A reimagination of Britain as a country in which human beings flourish has to put high-quality social care, public and mental health at the heart of its objectives.’[35]

In terms of policy he argues for free school meals for all children, greater participation in sport, greater funding for art and music therapy, better support for the mental health of those in prison and the development of proper structures of training and pay for those providing social care.


On housing, Welby argues that the two problems with housing are its high cost due to the way in which houses are used as a form of investment, and the fact that we too often have the building of new houses rather than the creation of new communities.

He suggests that we need to tackle these problems in two ways.

First, we need to reclaim the idea that:

‘Housing exists as a basis for community and community exists for human flourishing. Building new housing without clear community values and aims will lead to the same problems being created again in the future. Although these will never be such a thing as a perfect community, and human fallibility and sin will always put paid to utopian schemes, there can be communities which provide incentives and means for gathering people together and for the development of hope and expectations of good behaviour.’ [36]

Secondly there need to be fiscal measures to address the use of housing purely for investment and steps need to be taken to ensure that housing associations have an obligation ‘to deliver healthy communities’[37] and that ‘all permission or encouragements relevant to housing, and to new building, must include a strong element of community-enhancing aspects.’[38] New developments should include community buildings (including places of worship), have a ‘significant proportion of genuinely low-cost housing’[39] and should be environmentally friendly.

Economics and finance.

On economics and finance Welby maintains that the British economy is too heavily dependent on the London based financial sector. As he sees it, we need to:

‘…move away from the unnatural domination of financial services, corrupting in their cause of inequality, distorting all possibility of a fair and open economy at a national level and depriving the vast majority of the population and of the economically active of real opportunities for community, courage and stability.’ [40]

As an alternative, he proposes that:

‘An economy that represent values embedded in our history and culture will be balanced across the nations and regions, and across income groups. It will provide a wide range of opportunities for all levels of business to realize their potential, with firms and businesses that apply for government contracts being required to sponsor students at university and apprentices in highly skilled jobs. It will be supremely flexible, able to adapt rapidly to the fourth industrial revolution of robotics, driverless vehicles, the development of ever more renewable energy, and a thousand other changes that are as yet unforeseeable.’ [41]

He also proposes that the issue of inequality of income should be addressed:

‘As in a number of prosperous countries today, inequality is accepted within reasonable limits, but it is expected that the vast majority of people will live in ways that demonstrate the common good and mutual care. There will justification to the intuitive approach to differentials of reward that says that those who care for other people in their jobs should not be paid vastly less than those who seek to trade in finance and commodities without direct participation in the underlying assets. At the same time, the entrepreneurs who create employment, develop new industries and risk all in their creativity will gain a reward for their skills.’ [42]

Having looked at these five building blocks of British society, Welby next looks at how Britain should express its values in its relation to the world of which it is a part, considering British foreign policy, immigration and integration and the challenge posed by climate change.

Foreign policy.

In relation to foreign policy Welby writes:

‘The UK cannot solve every, or even any, global problem, but it is both right and in our interests to have a foreign policy that is committed to peace, stability and development – three essential foundations for giving hope to those affected by poverty and war – and thus reducing the pressure to move or the necessity of armed intervention. In so doing we practice our values of the common good, of courage and of resilience over the long term.’ [43]

He goes on to warn that while tackling instability abroad is in Britain’s own interests it is also demanding:

‘Tackling instability abroad is in the interests of the UK because it is protection against uncontrolled movements of people and it potentially opens up foreign markets and cultures to fair and free trade to the benefit of all. Yet the requirement which follows of a proactive foreign policy is immensely demanding of our own courage and resilience. Reconciliation in areas of war is the work of generations not months. It will involve creating stability, occasionally with the use of armed force – so long as it is capable of achieving its ends, has a clear objective, has a pre-determined exit strategy, and above all is proportionate, legally authorized internationally, and part of a long-term plan for peace and reconciliation.’[44]

Immigration and integration.

In relation to immigration and integration Welby reminds his readers that ‘Immigration has always been part of our country’s history, and the granting of asylum one of our most valuable contributions to the world.’[45]

He goes on to argue that immigration is ‘inescapably linked to integration’[46]and that the challenges it poses are greater today because of the increased numbers of people moving around the world and the very large differences of culture between immigrants and host communities.

What is needed for successful integration is support for local communities receiving immigrants so that they do not feel overstretched, immigrants becoming fluent in English and learning about British history and culture, and an acceptance by immigrants of ‘an established moral framework with which to understand society and to make essential ethical judgements.’[47]

Finally, Welby declares that ‘Integration must be a two-way process in which the richness of other cultures and identities is not lost, but reacts with the host culture for the common good.’[48]

Climate change.

In relation to climate change Welby accepts the scientific consensus that man-made climate change is a reality and states:

‘There is good reason to be nervous about the future of the climate and of our planet. Outcomes may not be certain, but if the predicted negative impacts happen, they will be irreversible for many centuries and will pose a life – and prosperity – threatening danger not only to those being born today but also to those yet to be born.’[49]

However, drawing on the work of Nicholas Stern,[50] he goes on to suggest that there is a good way forward in the face of this threat:

‘Uncertainty, the current value of human future human beings, a religiously based call for stewardship: all these call for costs to be paid today to ensure that the climate is resilient and sustainable, so that we see ourselves in solidarity with the as yet unborn, seeking their good in common with ours. Lord Stern sets out an optimistic and aspirational challenge to be at the forefront of the new economies that are required to express solidarity without kicking away the developmental ladder for the billions alive today. If we respond to that challenge with courage, as well as through community and sustainability, we have a chance almost literally to build a different future.’[51]

In two further chapters Welby looks at the ‘key actors’ in the shaping of British society and the place of the churches and other faith groups within it.

Key actors.

In line with what he said in previous chapters about the importance of intermediate institutions and subsidiarity, Welby declares that these institutions are key actors in British society and that in order for Britain to flourish in the future there needs to be a positive relationship between them and a government committed to subsidiarity:

‘The basic principle is that intermediate institutions, including business, are essential to a society’s capacity to reinvent itself. They require a benevolent ecosystem of regulation and encouragement. They interact with every level of government, which itself, if it is to be virtuous in its values, must be committed to subsidiarity in ways that strengthen the local, enabling accountability, close relationships with the communities they serve and a sense of the local driving its own agenda.’[52]

The churches and other faith groups.

According to Welby, an important function of churches and other faith groups in British society is to challenge the prevailing secular liberal world view with their own alternative narratives. As he sees it:

‘Counter-narratives, and the challenge to a liberal hegemony that is dominated by the rule that there are no absolutes except for the statement that there are no absolutes, are essential components of the future of Britain. The churches especially, as well as other faith communities, are at the centre of retaining a sense of legitimate diversity of view. The resulting conflict and confusion is healthy for all in society, because it tests assumptions and requires relativism to prove itself against the claims of revelation, and against the demands of a vision of life that has a teleology, a clear destination, and which is accountable not only in this world but thereafter.’ [53]

Building on the words written by Jeremiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon recorded in Jeremiah 29:5-7, Welby further argues that:

‘The role of faith communities should be to bless the society in which they live, not to circle the wagons and seek to retain purity through separation. Their vocation includes supporting a good society, and preserving and developing its character on the basis of incarnational activity that is an outworking of the commands and nature of God. Of course, in return they should be able to expect to be treated with justice and fairness, the same rights as, in modern understanding of human rights, are expected for every human being.’ [54]

In Welby’s view there are good reasons why British society should provide space for religious bodies to bless society in this way. These reasons are not simply pragmatic, but have to do with the values that British society needs to respect.

‘Given the intellectual and cultural turbulence of the present, it is very good policy to provide space for the expression of such blessing. That means, for example, within the educational system and subject to the National Curriculum, allowing opportunity for schools of a faith confession. They should be places of lively interaction of beliefs, not of forced observance, nor of sectarian habits and cultures that would subvert a hospitable, generous, sustainable, aspirational society.

Making space for an untidy collection of conflicting worldviews is not merely pragmatic, since the internet and social media (among other things) make the imposition of a single view impossible. It is also an expression of values. Such space demands solidarity without central control, and thus respects subsidiarity. It encourages communities as well as individuals to aspire to have an impact on society through the quality and abundance of the blessing they bring. It provides resilience, natural bulwarks against populist extremism and sectional domination.’ [55]


In the final chapter of his book, ‘Conclusion,’ Welby summarises his argument and suggests five things we need to do now.

First, we need ‘to create a sense of reasonable but positive expectation, and to base it on values, not just self-interest.’[56]

Secondly, ‘there needs to be an exercise, which will be highly political and robustly debated, of defining the kind of education, housing and health system we want, in looking at the values underpinning households and families, the economy and finance, the environment, immigration and integration and so on.’[57]

Thirdly, ‘practices must be related to values and virtues.’[58]

Fourthly, ‘there has to be a constant feeding of intermediate bodies of all sorts and shapes and sizes.’[59]

Fifthly, ‘there has to be some kind of narrative of the UK, and of the way in which values are understood, that captures the imagination and anchors what is said in a coherent pattern.’ [60]

Welby thinks that this narrative is best produced through action. ‘Giving space and funding for different groups to work, encouraging a UK equivalent of the US Peace Corps for overseas service, advocacy of robust debate and critique of even the most widely accepted of ideas, all these build ways in which a national narrative emerges.’[61]

Finally, in the closing sentence of the chapter and of his argument Welby writes: ‘The UK grew from Christian roots: my hope is that in the future it rediscovers the power of the narrative that has shaped it for so long and set its values so deeply.’[62]

III. What is helpful and unhelpful in the book.

What is helpful.

Contrary to what is said in the blurb on the back cover of the book, the Archbishop is not offering ‘a radical vision for 21st century Britain.’ If all that he proposes came to pass, British society would not actually change that much. What he is offering is a modest proposal for the development of existing British society and government policy along lines that have also been put forward by a large number of other writers on this topic.

What is helpful about the Archbishop’s proposal is that he identifies a number of key issues which anyone concerned with the development of British society needs to bear in mind.

  • Practices must reflect values and virtues.
  • In order to flourish Britain needs to be a society marked by the practice of love and by the values of community, courage and stability.
  • There need to be Intermediate institutions (including households and religious groups) that exist between the individual and the state.
  • Families, education, health, housing, and economics and finance are the basic building blocks of British society and problems in these five areas need to be addressed.
  • Britain needs to express its values in relation to immigration and integration, foreign policy and climate change.
  • It is important that churches and other religious groups should be given the freedom to challenge a liberal hegemony and be encouraged to bless society through their activities.

The specific policy proposals made by the Archbishop, such as giving greater support to those caring for family members, ensuring that those responsible for new housing encourage the development of community life and rebalancing the British economy so that it is less dependent on the financial sector, are also sensible and would have widespread support.

The Archbishop’s policy proposals are lacking in detail. For example, he does not say how those caring for family members should be given additional support, what the requirement for a ‘significant proportion of genuinely low cost housing’ in private housing developments should mean in practice, or how we should ensure that those who care for others are not paid ‘vastly less’ than those who ‘trade in finance and commodities.’ However, to be fair to the Archbishop, it is clear that he is seeking to lay down principles for policy rather than to give detailed policy prescriptions and when judged on this basis the lack of detail in his proposals is not a problem.

What is unhelpful.

Where the book is unhelpful is that there are a number of very important issues that it does not address at all.

For example, while the book address the issue of pay differentials it says nothing at all about the fact that there are many people in this country who lack sufficient income to feed themselves and their families. It says nothing about the problem of the chronic shortage of affordable rental accommodation. It says nothing the growing problems of pornography, or modern day slavery. It says nothing about what would constitute a reasonable level of immigration into this country and how we should decide what categories of people should be admitted. It talks about our responsibility for those as yet unborn in the context of climate change and yet is totally silent about abortion.

Most importantly of all from a Christian perspective, the book does not address the problem of the predominantly secular nature of contemporary British society. Contemporary British society is secular in two ways. It is a society which is focussed on this world (Latin saeculum) rather than on the world to come and it is a society which for the most part leaves God out of the picture. The Archbishop’s book is likewise largely secular. It is exclusively focused on this world and it says nothing about the need for human beings to live in right relationship with God.

In his book Welby draws on the idea of ‘deep magic’ from the C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a way of describing ‘what makes for virtue, what is good in absolute and permanent terms’[63] What he fails to reflect, however, is the key piece of teaching C S Lewis puts at the end of the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle. In this book Lewis describes how the world in which Narnia exists comes to an end and how the Pevensey children then go on to a new world in which all that was good both in Narnia and in this world have been perfected and preserved for ever. Lewis comments

‘And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.’[64]

In ending the Chronicles of Narnia in this way Lewis is expressing the teaching of the Bible, and the Christian Tradition building on the Bible, that life in this world is only the preparation for a blessed existence in the world to come which those who are rightly related to God shall enjoy forever. As the 17th century English theologian John Pearson puts it, Christians believe that at the end of time the just will be raised from the dead and:

‘…shall as the blessed of the Father obtain the inheritance, as the servants of God enter into the master’s joy, freed from all possibility of death, sin and sorrow, filled with all conceivable and inconceivable fullness of happiness, confirmed in an absolute security of an eternal enjoyment, and so they shall continue with God and with the Lamb for evermore.’[65]

In The Last Battle Lewis also describes how not everyone enters into the joy of the world to come. Some look on face of Aslan (i.e. God) with ‘fear and hatred’ and they disappear into darkness.[66] In saying this Lewis is continuing to express the teaching of the Bible and the Christian tradition, which hold that those who chose to reject a relationship with God shall be eternally excluded from the joy of God’s kingdom in the world to come. In the words of the contemporary English theologian J I Packer, they will suffer ‘the loss, not merely of God, but of all good, and everything that made life seem worth living.’ As he goes on to say: ‘The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference.’[67]

If this is true, and as an orthodox Christian Welby must believe that it is true, it follows that the one really big issue facing all people in this world, including those living in Britain, is whether or not they will spend eternity with God enjoying the life of his kingdom. Whatever else someone may do in their life, however successful their life may appear to have been, if they miss out on eternal life with God (what the Bible calls losing one’s soul) then their life as whole has been a failure. As Jesus asks, ‘For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?’ (Matthew 16:26).

This understanding of human life is not reflected in Reimagining Britain, which contains no reference to the idea that there is life beyond our life in this world. It is true that Welby refers to the description of God’s judgement in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25,[68] but he uses the parable to illustrate our need to act according to our own British values in in the matter of healthcare rather than a warning that we have to shape our lives so as to enter into eternal life. In Reimagining Britain as whole both the truth that we are facing God’s judgement and the truth that we need to so live that we will enter into eternal life are simply ignored.

As we have noted, in his chapter on education Welby quotes the words of Jesus in John 10:10 about ‘life in all its fullness.’ However, he interprets these words as referring to a flourishing life in this world achievable through a good education rather that what Jesus is actually talking about, which is eternal life, beginning now, lasting for ever in the world to come, and made possible through a right relationship with God.

Just as he is silent about the existence and importance of the life of the world to come, so also he is silent about the need and possibility of a right relationship with God.

Welby mentions sin four times in his book.[69] However, he nowhere describes sin in biblical terms as something that cuts us off from God in this world and will bar us from entering into God’s kingdom in the next. Welby must be aware that the Anglican tradition, like the Christian tradition as a whole, teaches that sin ‘deserveth God’s wrath and damnation,’[70] but this is a consequence of sin about which Reimagining Britain says nothing.

Imagine someone writing a book about the challenges facing Britain in which the existence of a disease threatening the lives of the whole British population was never mentioned. Such a book would be judged gravely defective. This is the equivalent to what Welby has done. From a Christian perspective sin is a deadly spiritual disease that threatens all those who live in Britain with the loss of eternal life and yet Welby chooses not to even mention this fact.

Imagine further that the author of the book just mentioned knew not only that the disease existed, but also knew what the cure for the disease was and yet said nothing. This again is the equivalent of what Welby has done. He knows the disease, he knows the cure for it, and yet he remains silent.

In chapter 1 of his book Welby talks about the Christian understanding of reconciliation. He declares:

‘In Christian understanding, the paragdigmatic act of reconciliation is found in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, with the empowering sending of the Holy Spirit. The cost is huge: the life of the Son of God. There is no coercion: the party with all the power, the one offering the means of reconciliation – God the Father, through Jesus Christ – is bound by promise to the offer of reconciliation. The ones to whom it is offered (every single one of us) are free to choose whether to pursue its aims. Its outcomes are new relationships with God, with community of believers, with the world, even with enemies, all of whom are loved with the overflowing love given by the Father through Jesus in the Holy Spirit.’[71]

All that is said in this quotation is true, but nowhere in Reimagining Britain does Welby build on it. He never explains with whom we need to be reconciled, why we need to be reconciled, how the life of the Son of God achieves reconciliation, or how we can receive reconciliation.

What he should have done was to explain that we all need to be reconciled to God, that the reason we need to be reconciled to God is because of sin, that Jesus Christ makes reconciliation possible by overcoming sin through his death and resurrection, and that we receive reconciliation through faith and baptism.[72] He should then further have explained that those who have a right relationship with God through the Holy Spirit because they have been reconciled in this are way called to turn away from sin and instead practice love for God and their neighbours.[73]

If he had done this this it would have fleshed out his otherwise cryptic reference to the Christian belief that ‘At the heart of the story of Jesus Christ are restored relationships, first with God, but also with others.’

What would have made Reimagining Britain a far stronger book would have been if Welby had made the theme of reconciliation the book’s overarching theme. He could have started by explaining why we need reconciliation, then looked at how God has made reconciliation possible and how the Christian Church has a unique role in society both in enabling people to understand their need of reconciliation and in enabling them to receive it, and finally he could have then explained how those who have been reconciled to God through Christ are called to respond in particular ways to the political and social problems Britain is facing.

A response to this suggestion might be to say that Welby was not trying to write a book about theology, but a book about the future of British society. However, he declares at the start of the book that it is ‘written from a Christian perspective’[74] and throughout the book he makes reference to Christian theological ideas and to stories from the Bible. The problem is that these Christian elements in the book are additions to an overall narrative which is, as we have noted, basically secular. A truly Christian perspective on contemporary British society would have challenged this secular narrative by explaining why we need to understand our society and the issues it is facing through the lens provided by the biblical account of human existence.

As we have seen, Welby finishes his book by expressing the hope that the UK will rediscover the power of the Christian narrative. What he could and should have done is attempt to contribute to this rediscovery by using his book to explain this narrative and its relevance for Britain’s present and future.

For Welby one of the important functions of religious groups is to produce ‘counter narratives’ to challenge the hegemony exercised by secular liberal thought. In his book he had a golden opportunity to set out such a counter narrative. Tragically, he failed to take it.

IV. Britain reimagined.

If we try to imagine what a Britain shaped once again by the Christian narrative would look like, then we can imagine that it would have the following features. It would be:

A country which accepted the Christian faith as public truth. That is to say, it would be a country in which the government, the education system and the media all worked together with the Church to promote the understanding and acceptance of the Christian message and to encourage people to live out their faith in their individual and communal lives;

A country in which it would once again be regarded as normal for people to be brought to baptism as infants, to then be instructed in the faith by their parents and by the Church, to commit themselves to a life of Christian discipleship when old enough to do so and to make that discipleship the basis for how they lived their lives;

A country in which people were aware of the world to come and strove to live their lives in a way that prepared them for life in God’s eternal kingdom;

A country in which those who were honoured and admired would be those whose lives were most marked by love for God and their neighbours and in which caring for children and other family members was valued as much as paid employment outside the home;

A country which would fully accept people’s right to follow a non-Christian religion, or to be non-religious, and to share their convictions with others, but would also encourage and support Christians sharing the gospel with those who did not yet accept the Christian faith;

A country where, as Lawhead imagines, the churches were packed out week by week and where abundant resources were made available to build new churches and to train and deploy new clergy;

A country in which in place of the present confusion about sexual morality and family life (something which Welby notes, but declines to challenge) it was accepted that God created marriage to be a life-long relationship between a man and a woman and that marriage is the only legitimate place for sexual intercourse and the procreation of children;

A country where intentional singleness was highly regarded as a God given vocation and where those who were single were not lonely because they were given love and support by the family of the Church;

A country in which action was taken to ensure that everyone had enough to live on and in which affordable housing and decent healthcare were available to all;

A country in which everyone would have the opportunity to serve God and the community by employing their God given skills for the benefit of others and to earn a sufficient income to provide for the needs of themselves and their families;

A country in which people used the resources of the earth with care, aware of the need to act as good stewards of God’s creation and to ensure the well-being of future generations;

A country that pursued foreign and aid policies designed to uphold justice, to support those in need and to support the Christian Church in spreading the gospel;

A country which was as generous as possible in welcoming refugees and migrants and which would intentionally seek to ensure that they had the opportunity to hear and accept the Christian message if they were not Christians already.

Such a country would not be perfect. The continuing presence of sin even in the lives of the most dedicated of Christian disciples would mean that it was always a country that failed to live up to the Christian ideal. However it would arguably be a country that came much closer to the Christian ideal than the Britain we live in at present.

Reimagining Britain in this way is important because it gives us something to hope for, to work for and to pray for. We can and should dare to dream that one day, by the grace of God, this is the sort of country Britain might be and then strive to make this dream a reality.

So, Archbishop Welby is right to say that we need to reimagine Britain, but our imagining needs to be more Christian and more radical than the vision he puts forward.

M B Davie 4.4.18

[1] Stephen Lawhead, The Endless Knot, Oxford: Lion, 1993, pp.418-419.

[2] William Temple, Christianity and Social Order, London: Shepheard-Walwyn/SPCK, 1976.

[3] Justin Welby, Reimagining Britain, London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018.

[4] Ibid, p.1.

[5] Ibid, pp.1-2.

[6] Ibid, p.4.

[7] Ibid, pp.4-5.

[8] Ibid, p.54.

[9] Ibid, p.35.

[10] Ibid, p.37.

[11] Ibid, pp. 39-41.

[12] Ibid, p.38.

[13] Ibid, p.41.

[14] Ibid, p.54.

[15] Ibid, p.44.

[16] Ibid, p.45.

[17] Ibid. p.46.

[18] Ibid, p.54.

[19] Ibid, p.48.

[20] Ibid, p.51.

[21] Ibid, p.53.

[22] Ibid, p.59.

[23] Ibid, p.61.

[24] Ibid, p.65.

[25] Ibid, p.69.

[26] Ibid, p.82.

[27] Ibid, p.85.

[28] Ibid, p.101.

[29] Ibid, p.101.

[30] Ibid. p.101.

[31] Ibid, p.102.

[32] Ibid, p.103.

[33] Ibid, p.104.

[34] Ibid, p.107.

[35] Ibid. P.114.

[36] Ibid, p.139.

[37] Ibid, p.144.

[38] Ibid, p.147.

[39] Ibid. p.147.

[40] Ibid, p.166.

[41] Ibid, p.167.

[42] Ibid. pp.169-170.

[43] Ibid, pp.189-190.

[44] Ibid, pp.191-192.

[45] Ibid, p.213.

[46] Ibid, p.213.

[47] Ibid, pp.210-211.

[48] Ibid, p.213.

[49] Ibid, p.225.

[50] Nicholas Stern, Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency and Promise of Tackling Climate Change, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2015.

[51] Ibid, pp.232-233.

[52] Welby, op.cit, p.251.

[53] Ibid, p.262.

[54] Ibid, p.267.

[55] Ibid, pp.268-269.

[56] Ibid, p.279.

[57] Ibid, p.279.

[58] Ibid, p.280.

[59] Ibid, p.280.

[60] Ibid, p.281.

[61] Ibid, p.282

[62] Ibid, p.283.

[63] Ibid, p.15.

[64] C S Lewis, The Last Battle, St Helens, London: Collins, 1997, p. 172.

[65] John Pearson, An Exposition of the Creed, London: George Bell, 1902, p.601. For the biblical basis for Pearson’s words see Matthew 25:31-46, 1 Corinthians 15:35-58, 1 John 3:2, Revelation 21-22.

[66] Lewis, op.cit, p. 144.

[67] J I Packer, Knowing God, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973, pp.169-170. For the biblical basis for Packer’s words see Matthew 25:31-46, 2 Corinthians 5:10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Revelation 20:11-15.

[68] Welby, op.cit. pp.112-16.

[69] Ibid, pp.155, 162, 236, 280.

[70] The Thirty Nine Articles, Article IX.

[71] Welby, op.cit. p.49.

[72] See Romans 5:1 – 6:4.

[73] See Galatians 4:4-6, Romans 6:5-14, Galatians 5:13-15.

[74] Welby, op.cit, p. 4.