Why we should seek peace through victory

During the First World War there were a series of peace initiatives from 1914 onwards. These all aimed to bring the fighting to an end, but they were all unsuccessful until economic and political collapse, and military defeat, forced Bulgaria, Turkey, Austria-Hungary and finally Germany to accept the reality that they had lost and needed to accept whatever terms their opponents were willing to grant.

The problem that prevented the various peace initiatives from getting anywhere was not that the countries involved did not want peace. They did. The problem was that the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey) saw a peace settlement in terms of their being allowed to keep at least some of the territory they had conquered and a political settlement that would make them dominant in Europe and the Middle East. Meanwhile the Allied Powers (France, Russia (until 1917), Britain and its Empire, Belgium, Italy, The United States (from 1917) and other countries allied with them) saw peace in terms of the Central Powers giving up their conquests, making reparation for the death and destruction they had caused, and having their power and influence in Europe and the Middle East permanently curtailed.[1] 

I was reminded of this aspect of the history of World War I when I read an article on the news website Christian Today concerning the meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion which was held this week.

The headline for the article was ‘Archbishop seeks an end to longstanding divisions over human sexuality ahead of Lambeth Conference.’ It went on to say that: 

‘The Archbishop of Canterbury has said he hopes that the forthcoming Lambeth Conference will ‘draw a line under some of the inward-looking approaches of the past’ so that the Anglican Communion can move on from a crippling dispute over human sexuality.

Speaking to reporters at the end of a three-day Primates’ meeting in Jordan, the Most Rev Justin Welby said he wanted to see the Anglican Communion begin to focus instead ‘on those things that affect the world, be that climate change, conflict, the need for the Church to be confident in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, carrying it out into the world … [and] safeguarding.’[2]

It is always possible that the Archbishop has been misrepresented, but if the article is accurate then the position taken by the Archbishop is like those who engaged in peace initiatives during World War I. He wants both sides to agree to some new way forward that will bring the conflict to an end. However, the similarity between the current situation in the Anglican Communion and the situation that frustrated peace initiatives during Word War I means that his hopes for peace are likely to be disappointed, just as President Woodrow Wilson was disappointed in his hopes that he could broker peace during World War I. 

As in World War I, both sides in the disputes over sexuality in the Anglican Communion want peace to be restored. The problem is that, as in World War I, both sides have very different views of what peace should look like.

Those on the liberal side in the Communion have made significant gains since the Lambeth Conference in 1998 in terms of the acceptance by Anglican churches of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriages. Their vision of peace is being able to hang on to these gains as a springboard for further gains in future, both in the area of same-sex relationships and in the new area of gender transition. Just as the Central Powers wanted to ensure their future political dominance in Europe and the Middle East so also the liberal side in the Anglican Communion wants to ensure that their ‘progressive’ agenda with regard to human sexual behaviour and identity becomes dominant across the Communion as it has become dominant in many other parts of Western Society.

Those on the conservative side, however, have a very different vision of what peace within the Anglican Communion should look like. Just as the Allied Powers held that the conquests of Germany and her allies had to be halted and reversed, so also the conservatives in the Communion hold that the gains made by the liberals since 1998 need to be halted and eventually reversed and that steps need to be taken to ensure that a liberal view of sex and sexual identity is permanently ruled out as un-Anglican, in the same way that the Second Council of Constantinople in 381 ruled out all forms of Arianism and Semi-Arianism as contrary to the faith of the Catholic Church.

The reason they take this view is precisely because, like Archbishop Justin, ‘they believe in the need for the Church to be confident in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, carrying it out into the world.’  However, unlike the Archbishop, they understand that at the heart of the Gospel is the good news that God became Man in Jesus Christ to restore the ability of his human creatures to live as the people he created them to be. Central to this calling is (a) accepting the male or female sexual identity God has given us (as determined by our the sex of our bodies) and (b) accepting the boundaries that God has laid down for human sexual activity (sexual faithfulness within life-long, monogamous, heterosexual marriage, or sexual abstinence).

As I noted at the beginning of this paper, peace came in the end in in 1918 because one side won and the other side lost. In the same way peace will eventually be restored to the Anglican Communion because either the liberals, or the conservatives, will have been victorious and the other side will have conceded defeat.

Because, as I explained above, the traditional Christian view of sexual identity and sexual ethics is an integral part of  what the good news of Jesus Christ involves, those of us who seek to be faithful to this  good news have to hope that the conservative side in the Communion will be victorious and pray and work ensure that this happens. 

It is often suggested today that in World War I the Allied Powers should have been prepared to accept peace terms rather than fight on to achieve victory. However, what we know of the sort of peace terms Germany and the other Central Powers would have been willing to accept means that what would have resulted would, in the words of Nigel Biggar, been ‘neither a just peace nor a stable one.’[3]  This being the case. the Allied Powers were right to fight on to avoid this outcome.

In the same way the conservative side in the Anglican Communion needs to settle in for the long haul and refuse to accept as their long-term goal anything less than victory on the terms I have outlined above. A commitment to the Gospel demands nothing less.


[1] For details  see ‘Peace Initiatives,’  International Encyclopedia of the First World War, at https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/peace_initiatives

[2] Christian Today, ‘Archbishop seeks an end to longstanding divisions over human sexuality ahead of Lambeth Conference,’  15 January 2020 at https://www.christiantoday.com/article/archbishop-seeks-an-end-to- longstanding-divisions-over-human-sexuality-ahead-of-lambeth-conference/134028.htm

[3] Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War (Oxford: OUP, 2013) , p.139.

A review of  Tom Holland  Dominion – The Making of the Western Mind

What Dominion is about.

Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster who has written extensively about the ancient world and the early Middle Ages. His most recent and highly acclaimed book Dominion – The Making of the Western Mind[1] is much broader in scope in that it traces the development of Western thought from the fifth century BC to the present day.

As Holland explains in his Preface, the purpose of this book is ‘to explore how we in the West came to be what we are, and to think the way we do.’ (p. xxiv) The argument that he puts forward is that what has inescapably shaped the Western world is the influence of the Christian faith. As he puts it:

‘To live in a Western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian Concepts and assumptions. This is no less true for Jews or Muslims than it is for Catholics or Protestants. Two thousand  years on from the birth of Christ, it does not require a belief that he rose from the dead to be stamped by the formidable- indeed the inescapable – influence of Christianity. Whether it be the conviction that the workings of conscience are the surest determinants of good law, or that church and state exist as distinct entities, or that polygamy is unacceptable, its trace elements are to be found everywhere in the West. Even to write about it in a Western language is to use words shot through with Christian connotations. Religion, secular, atheist: none of these are neutral all though they derive from the classical past, come freighted with a legacy of Christendom. Fail to appreciate this, and the risk is always of anachronism. The West, increasingly empty though the pews may be, remains firmly moored  to its  Christian past.’ (p. xxv).

How Dominion is structured. 

The book is divided into three main parts.

Part 1 is called ‘Antiquity.’  This starts with two chapters that sketch out the Hellenistic and Jewish backgrounds to the rise of Christianity. The remaining five chapters then trace the history of Western Christianity from Paul’s mission in Galatia in the 50s AD to the defeat of the Muslim army at Poitiers in 732.

Part 2 is called ‘Christendom.’ This traces the history of Western Christianity from the martyrdom of Boniface in Frisia in 754 to the study of astronomy by Galileo in Rome and by Jesuit missionaries in China in the 1630s.

Part 3 is called ‘Modernitas.’ This starts with the story of the radical egalitarian Digger movement in England in the aftermath of the English Civil War and then traces the story of Christianity in the West to the time of the rise of the #MeToo movement in the second decade of this century.

Holland does not attempt a detailed account of the whole history of  Western Christianity. What he does instead is chose a selection of individuals and movements and to use these to tell the wider story of the development of Christian thinking and its influence on the Western world.

For example, in chapter V, ‘Charity,’ Holland illustrates the development of Christian thinking about wealth and poverty with reference to the actions and ideas of Julian the Apostate, Martin of Tours, Paulinus of Nola and Augustine of Hippo.  For another example, in chapter XV, ‘Spirit’ Holland uses the stories of the Digger movement, the radical Jewish thinker Baruch Spinoza and the Quaker Benjamin Law to introduce the growth of religious toleration and beginning of the campaign  for the abolition of slavery. For a third example, in chapter XXI, ‘Woke,’ Holland uses Angela Merkel’s approach to immigration, the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the rise of the #MeToo movement to indicate the continuing influence of Christianity in the modern world.

A Christian assessment of Dominion.

Dominion has been much praised by reviewers and it seems likely that it will be widely influential and will appear on reading lists for those studying the history of Christianity at universities or theological colleges and courses.

Christian readers will find that Dominion is very readable and that it gives them a lot of information of the history of Christianity in the Western world. They will also be in agreement with Holland’s basic argument about the fact that Western civilization is based on Christian ideas and values. Christian apologists have been making this point for years, but now a highly regarded secular scholar is also making it.

However, there are also a number of aspects of the book that are problematic from a Christian perspective.

1. There is the governing assumption, set out in the Preface, that historians have to leave God out of their account of the past.  Holland writes:

‘The crucifixion of Jesus, to all those many millions who worship Him as the son of the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth, was not merely an event in history, but the very pivot on which the cosmos turns. Historians, however, no matter how alert there may be to the potency of this understanding, and to the way in which it has swayed the course of the world’s affairs, are not in the business of debating whether it is actually true. Instead, they study Christianity for what it can reveal, not about God, but about the affairs of humanity. No less than any other aspect of culture and society, beliefs are assumed to be of mortal origin, and shaped by the passage of time. To look to the supernatural for explanations of what happened in the past is to engage in apologetics: a perfectly respectable pursuit, but not history as today, in the modern West, it has come to be understood.’ (p. xxv).

The problem with this argument is that it is simply an appeal to the approach that is now normally taken by the mainstream of the Western academic tradition. For most of Western history the idea that those who think and write about the past have to exclude God and the supernatural from consideration would have appeared ludicrous and Holland gives no reason as to why the prevalent modern approach is to be preferred. All study of the past takes place on the basis of some pre-understanding of what the world is like and there is no good reason why the conviction that God exists and is active in the world should not be the starting point for a historian’s investigation and explanation of the past.

2. In line with Holland’s governing assumption, the story that he tells in Dominion is a purely human one. According to his account, the history of the Church in the West has been solely the result of human activity. God’s only role has been to be the object of human belief. From a Christian perspective this systematic exclusion of God from the story necessarily renders Holland’s account untruthful. What has really been going on in and through all the human activity that Holland so vividly describes is the risen Christ acting through the Spirit to fulfil God’s good purposes as the world moves towards the coming of God’s eternal kingdom. An adequate account of the history of the Church has to make this point clear.

3.  As part of Holland’s exclusion of God from the picture, he regards the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as purely human writings rather than acknowledging that they have been inspired by God as the authoritative revelation of God’s activity in the world and his will for his human creatures.

4. Holland seems to accept (a) that the accounts of creation and the Fall contained in the Book of Genesis were not written by Moses, but came into existence as the result of the activity of Jewish scholars during and after Babylonian exile, and (b) that the conquest of Canaan under Joshua may well never have occurred. Many Christian scholars have exposed the problems with both these ideas and yet Holland never acknowledges or engages with their arguments.

5. Holland suggests that Yahweh had originally, ‘ranked as only one among the various gods of Israel’ and had only gradually ‘evolved to become the universal Lord of the heavens and the earth, without peer or rival.’  (p.44) As evidence for this claim Holland notes the references to other gods in  Exodus 15:11 ‘Who among the gods is like you, O Lord’ and Psalm 89:6 ‘For who in the skies can compare with the Lord? Who is like the Lord among the sons of the gods?’ and the plural form of the Hebrew word for God, ‘elohim.’  Originally, suggests Holland, Yahweh was a storm god from Edom worshipped in the form of a bull  and he had only gradually ‘come to be seen as supreme in the council of the gods’ (p.44) and finally seen as the only God there was.

The problem with this argument is that the point that both Exodus 15:11 and Psalm 89:6 is actually making is the uniqueness of Yahweh in relation to all the other entities labelled as ‘gods’ in the Ancient Near East. The Old Testament does not deny that there are ‘gods’ but it insists that these are either heavenly beings whom Yahweh has created or idols that human beings have created. By contrast Yahweh is the one true creator and ruler of heaven and earth and he always has been (‘from everlasting to everlasting thou are God’ Psalm 90:2). The use of the term elohim does not call this into question since there is no trace of it ever having been used in a way that suggests that God has gradually taken over the roles originally attributed in Israel to a pantheon of separate gods.

Furthermore, the description of Yahweh as coming from Edom in passages such as Judges 5:4 does not imply that he was originally a local deity from Edom, but that he led his people into Canaan from Edom at the conquest, and the Old Testament is quite clear that the worship of Yahweh in the form of a bull referred to in Exodus 32, 1 Kings 12:28 and Hosea 8:6 was a turning away from the true worship of god to idolatry rather than the way in which Yahweh had originally been worshipped. [2]

6. Holland fails to engage with the question of why it was that the human being Jesus of Nazareth came to be worshipped as God in a Jewish setting that held that God and human beings were completely distinct.

The nearest he gets to engaging with this question is when he comments concerning the depiction of Jesus in the gospels

‘…nothing was remotely as uncanny as the character of Jesus himself. No one quite like him had ever before been portrayed in literature. The measure of this was that Christians, when they read the gospels, were able to believe that the man whose life they depicted, a man whom they described as weeping, sweating and bleeding, a man whose death they vividly and unsparingly related, had indeed been what Paul claimed him to be: the Son of God.’ (p.86)

What Holland fails to do is explain in what way Jesus’ character was ‘uncanny’ and why this uncanniness led Christians to believe that he was the Son of God and as such the legitimate object of worship alongside God the Father. He also fails to explore the issue of whether the character of Jesus as depicted in the gospels was purely a literary invention or whether the gospels reflect what Jesus was really like.

In Dominion the question of who Jesus really was is never discussed and that is a truly extraordinary omission. As Holland rightly contends, the whole of Western civilisation has been shaped by a religious movement that originated with Jesus and yet Holland says nothing about who he thinks Jesus was or how we should understand his life and work.

Holland knows perfectly well that from the earliest days of the Church the explanation given by Christianity for its existence was that God became human in Jesus to bring salvation to a fallen world and that, to use an image employed by the theologian Karl Barth, the Church and its influence in history are the ‘bomb crater’ caused by this event. What he fails to do is either to accept this claim or provide any alternative explanation. If we ask him why Christianity came into being, he simply gives no answer.

7. Holland presents a seriously distorted view of the teaching of Paul. Holland quotes 1 Corinthians 10:23 ‘Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible but not everything is constructive’ and comments:

‘Here, plucked from the seeming implosion of the church in Corinth, was a momentous argument; that law was most properly ‘the law of Christ’ when it served the good of those who obeyed it. Commandments were just, not because God has decreed that they were, not because he had uttered them to a prophet, not because he had issued them amid fire and thunder from some distant mountain in the desert, but because they worked for the common good.’ (p.75)

He then goes on to argue, with reference to 1 Corinthians 13:1, that for Paul the test of what ranked as beneficial was whether or not something was an expression of love and to suggest that Paul was inconsistent when he went on to insist that homosexuality was wrong and that women should wear a veil in worship.

The problem with this argument is first of all that Paul never contrasted an approach to ethics based on what expresses love with the authority of the Mosaic law given by God at Sinai. As he makes clear in Galatians 5:14 and Romans 13:8-10, the importance of love is precisely that the person who truly acts in love as result of the activity of the Spirit within them will act in a way that fulfils the commandments of God given at Sinai. This means for Paul that any activity that claims to be loving but that contradicts these commandments is not really loving at all.

Furthermore, Paul was not being contradictory when he insisted that homosexuality was wrong and women should wear veils. This is because for him the framework for living rightly in obedience to God’s law included respecting the way God had created human beings as male and female, and this meant men and women having sex only with a member of the opposite sex and women dressing in a way that in that culture reflected their female identity.

8. Holland also argues that Paul failed to ‘push the radicalism of his message to its logical conclusion’ (p.82)  when he insisted that a Christian slave should be willing to remain a slave. What he has failed to understand is that it was precisely Paul’s radical vision that a person’s identity was no longer defined by their social status, but by their relationship with God in Christ, that led him to declare in 1 Corinthians 7: 20-24 that while a slave should accept their freedom should it be offered to them they should not be ‘constantly seeking to become free as through everything depended on it.’ They should not make ‘a change of status their overarching goal.’[3]  For Paul, people’s status in Christ was the really important reality and Christians needed to live in a way that reflected this fact. Being willing to remain a slave was one way of doing this since this was a way of testifying that freedom had already been given to them by Christ.

9.  Holland accepts the idea that both the Pastoral Epistles and Ephesians are non-Pauline in spite of the fact that both the external and internal evidence points to their Pauline authorship. Holland doesn’t engage with scholarship that has made this point, or even acknowledge its existence.

10.  Holland fails to do justice to the reasons why two of the Medieval heretical movements he covers were regarded as so serious by the Catholic Church.

The first of these movements is the Cathars. The Cathars are the centre of his chapter on the persecution of heresy by the Medieval Church and Holland argues that their persecution was unjustified because they were not really heretics at all but rather old-fashioned Christians ‘left behind by the new orthodoxies of the age’ (p.242). What Holland fails to engage with is the abundant evidence that the Cathars held to a dualist theology which regarded matter as evil and which consequently rejected the creator God of the Old Testament and both Jesus’ incarnation and his bodily resurrection. They also seem to have rejected Baptism, Holy Communion and marriage. This being the case, they were not simply people who had failed to catch up with the development of Catholic theology, but people who held beliefs that were completely incompatible with the basic teaching of the New Testament. It is perfectly legitimate to criticise the extreme violence with which the Church persecuted the Cathars, but this does not mean that the Church was not right to see them as seriously heretical.

The second of these movements is the cult of Guglielma. Holland tells us that the reason why the cult of Guglielma was suppressed as heretical and Guglielma’s corpse taken from its tomb and burned was that her ideas contradicted  the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:12 ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent.’ According to Holland ‘Here, in this single verse was all the justification the inquisitors had needed to suppress Guglielma’s cult.’ (p.259)

However, as Holland himself tells us, there was more to it than that. The reason that action was taken against this cult was that the evidence suggested that she had taught that ‘she was the Holy Spirit made flesh for the redemption of women’ and that she ‘baptised women in the name of the Father, the Son and of herself.’  It was also claimed by her followers that she had been raised from the dead and had ushered in a new feminine age of the Spirit (replacing the previous  age of the Son) in which the Church would be entirely run by women. (pp. 256-257).  What was at stake was therefore not just the issue of whether women could teach, or exercise authority in the Church, but the claim that Guglielma was God and was ushering an entirely new stage in God’s relationship with the human race.  What was at stake was therefore not just the application of one verse of Scripture, but the much bigger question of whether the Church should accept an understanding of God and God’s activity in the world that had no foundation in the New Testament or the orthodox Christian tradition and which, if not true, was completely blasphemous.

11. Holland is oversimplifying matters when he argues that ‘Aquinas, Augustine and Saint Paul’ would not have disagreed with John Lennon’s assertion that ‘all you need is love.’ (p.472).  Aquinas, Augustine and Paul would certainly agree that love is the fundamental principle that should shape human behaviour. However, their understanding of what living a life of love involves would be different from that of Lennon. For Lennon ‘love’ seems to mean simply a general attitude of amiability towards other people whereas for Aquinas, Augustine and Paul love for other people is the outworking of a relationship with God and involves acting towards other people in a way that is in accordance with our knowledge of what God wills for their good.  It is this theological framework for determining what love involves that has been widely discarded in the contemporary world.

12 Holland is misleading when he comments concerning the Islamic state movement:

‘The licence they drew upon for their savagery derived not from the incomparable inheritance of Islamic scholarship, but from a bastardised tradition of fundamentalism that was, in its essentials, Protestant. Islamic the Islamic state may have been; but it also stood in a line of descent from Anabaptist Munster. It was, perhaps, the most gruesome irony in the whole history of Protestantism.’ (p.496)

In reality, the Islamic State movement is an offshoot of the Wahhabi tradition within the Sunni branch of Islam. Wahhabism emerged in what is now Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth century as a reform movement calling for Islam to return to its original purity. It was an entirely indigenous development within Islam and there is absolutely no reason to label it as ‘Protestant’ since it has no historical links at all with the Protestant tradition within Christianity. Wahhabism and Protestantism are two entirely separate developments in the history of religion. The Protestant tradition  may be responsible for many things, but the Islamic State movement is thus not one of them. [4]

13. Holland is likewise misleading when he declares that ‘America’s culture wars were less a war against Christianity than a war between Christian factions.’ (pp. 514-515) It is true, as Holland notes, that the proponents of abortion, gay marriage and transgender equality have been influenced in their thinking by Christian assumptions about the dignity of women, about the monogamous nature of marriage and about the need to care for the persecuted and the vulnerable. However, this does not negate the truth that the campaigns for abortion, gay marriage and the acceptance of gender transition have  involve an attack on three fundamental Christian beliefs:  (a) that the unborn child is a person created by God who should not be killed, (b) that God created marriage to be a relationship between two people of the opposite sex and (c) that human beings are called to accept the sex that God has given them and that this sex is determined by their biology. The motives of those advocating abortion, gay marriage and gender transition may thus have been influenced by Christian ideas, but this has led them to adopt an anti-Christian approach on these three issues.

14. In his closing comments at the end of Dominion Holland highlights a key issue facing  the secular humanism that is becoming increasingly influential in Western civilisation:

‘If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution – a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America has left God dead – then how are its values more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth?’ (p.524)

Holland’s response to this challenge to secular humanism is to declare:

‘A myth, though, is not a lie. At its most profound – as Tolkien, that devout Catholic, always argued – a myth can be true.’  (p.524)

What Holland seems to be suggesting is (a) that we should now accept that Christianity is a myth, a story that is not factually true, and (b) that acknowledging that it is a myth does not actually matter because a mythical story can nevertheless in some way still be true and we in the West can and should continue to live by this truth.

There are two problems with this suggestion.

First, the idea that a myth can be true only works if a myth gives expression to something that actually is true. The reason that Tolkien held, for instance, that The Lord of the Rings was a true myth was because, although it was itself an imaginary tale, it gave expression to the Christian gospel, which was something that was factually true.

What Holland entirely fails to make clear is what the truth is to which the Christian myth points if it itself not factually true. If there is no God and if Jesus Christ was not  therefore not God become man for the salvation of the world then what is the truth that is left and how can this provide a sufficient basis for the Christian approach to morality than Holland still wants to uphold?  Holland simply does not tell us.

Secondly, in Dominion as a whole, Holland fails to establish that we should now view Christianity as a myth. Nowhere in Dominion does he actually give good grounds for thinking that God does not exist or that he did not become incarnate as Jesus Christ.

The closest Holland gets to doing this is when he testifies to his own loss of Christian faith, and says that this was because:

‘The reaches of time seemed too icily immense for the life and death of a single human being two thousand years ago possibly to have the cosmic significance claimed for it by Christianity;’ (p.520)

and because of the question, sparked by his childhood love for dinosaurs:

‘Why, if God existed, had he allowed so many species to evolve, to flourish, and then utterly to disappear?’ (p.520)

However, neither of these objections to Christian belief is convincing.

The first objection fails to take into account what cosmologists tell us has taken place in the universe in the immense amount of time since the Big Bang. What their studies indicate is exactly in line with what we are told in the Book of Genesis, namely that the universe is the work of an intelligent designer who has used the time since Big Bang to fine tune the cosmos so that it has given birth to the human race to know him, love him, and to share in his rule over the created order .[5] If this is the case, then it makes sense to say that existence of humanity is not an accident but the goal of the cosmic process, and it makes further sense to conceive that the intelligent designer, ‘God’, would have taken the necessary steps to ensure that his purposes in creating the human race achieve their fulfilment, even if this mean taking human nature upon himself in order to give humanity a fresh start when it needed one.

The second objection is a variant on the age-old argument against the existence of God on the basis of the existence of evil. The argument basically goes that a good God would not permit species to disappear, species have disappeared, therefore a good God cannot exist.

The first point that needs to be made in response is that if there is in fact no God the argument undercuts itself. The idea that an occurrence in nature (such as the extinction of the dinosaurs) is wrong only makes sense if there is  a standard against what happens in nature can be measured. This cannot be nature itself, so it must be a transcendent standard of goodness  beyond nature, what Christian theology calls ‘God.’  The whole argument is therefore in fact predicated upon the existence of a good God and human ability to know what God wills.

However, this still leaves the question of why God allows species to disappear. Part of the answer that Christian theology has to give is that it that it takes place because of the activity of the malign spiritual power known as the Devil, who constantly seeks to corrupt and destroy what God has made, and as a result of the influence of the Devil upon human beings. However, this still leaves the question of why God permits the Devil and human beings to act in this way. The only answer that finally makes sense is that God permits this because he knows that the ultimate result will be a particular kind of good that could not have been achieved in any other way, a good which he already perceives and that will come to pass in the fulness of time.

As the Book of Job reminds, as finite human beings we are never going not be able to understand fully in this world why God acts as he does (see Job 39:1-42:6). We know enough, however, to make it rational to believe that God exists and that he is wise and good and that it therefore makes sense to trust him in regard to things that we do not yet understand.

What all these thirteen points mean is that while Dominion is an interesting read it is nonetheless seriously flawed both in terms of the assumptions on which it is based and in terms of a number of the arguments which it puts forward.

M B Davie 12.1. 2020.

[1] Tom Holland, Dominion – The Making of the Western Mind (London: Little, Brown, 2019).

[2] For a helpful study of monotheism in the Old Testament see Richard Bauckham, ‘Biblical Theology and the Problem of Monotheism,’ in Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), pp. 60-126.

[3] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone – 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2003), pp.87 -89.

[4] For details about the origins of the Islamic State movement see Patrick Sookhdeo, Unmasking Islamic State, (McLean; Isaac Publishing, 2015), Chs. 1 -2.

[5] For this point see John Lennox,  God’s  Undertaker – Has Science Buried God ? (Oxford: Lion, 2009).

The significance of the Virgin Birth

For Christians the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate a miracle. The miracle in question is that, in the words of the Apostles Creed, Jesus Christ was ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.’ In this final blog post for 2019 I shall consider the significance of the fact that Jesus came into the world by means of this particular miracle.

The fulfilment of God’s word through Isaiah

The first thing to note is that this miracle tells us that what God says will happen comes to pass. As Matthew tells us: ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us).’ (Matthew 1: 22-23).

Over seven hundred years before Jesus was born, God declared through the prophet Isaiah that the eventual consequence of the unbelief of King Ahaz of Judah would be the collapse of the kingdom of Judah and the end of the Davidic dynasty. However, he also declared that that would not be the end of the story because beyond this disaster something new would take place: ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (Isaiah 7:14).

What the miracle of the virgin birth tells us is that things worked out exactly as God said they would. By the time Jesus was born the kingdom of Judah was no more and the Davidic dynasty had come to an end, and in that situation the Virgin Mary gave birth to a son whose ‘name’ (i.e. whose identity) was ‘God with us’ (‘us’ being the whole human race). [1]

Jesus’ divinity and humanity

The second thing to note is that this miracle points us to the truth that Jesus Christ is both divine and human. Jesus name is ‘God with us’ because he is God. He is ‘mighty God’ (Isaiah 9:6). He is the divine Word that from all eternity was with God and was God (John 1:1). He is ‘God over all, blessed for ever’ (Romans 9:5). However, his name is also ‘God with us’ because through the miracle of the virgin birth ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14) by taking our human nature upon him.

Jesus divine nature is bestowed on him by God the Father from all eternity. In the words of the Nicene Creed, he is ‘begotten of his Father before all worlds.’ His human nature, however, is something that he possesses because of his birth in time from the Virgin Mary. To quote the Athanasian Creed:

‘…the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man:

God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the substance of his Mother, born in the world.’

The grace of God in Jesus’ birth and our rebirth

The third point to note is that the particular form of this miracle points us to the truth that both the birth of Jesus and our own subsequent births as children of God are utterly dependent on the gracious activity of God himself.

As Charles Cranfield explains, the fact that Jesus was ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost’ means:

‘…that God himself made a new beginning in the history of his creation by coming in person and becoming part of that history. He himself originated this particular human life, that of Jesus, by a new act of creation. Therefore Jesus Christ is not a saviour emerging from the continuity of our human history, but God in person intervening in history from outside history.’ [2]

Furthermore, the fact that:

‘…  Jesus’ mother was a virgin attests that God’s redemption is ‘by grace alone.’ Here our humanity, represented by Mary, does nothing more than accept, than submit to, being simply the object of God’s grace. That is the real significance of the address ‘favoured one’ to Mary in Luke 1:28. The male, characteristically the dominant and aggressive element of humanity, is excluded from this action and set aside, and in Mary our humanity’s part is simply to be made the receptacle of God’s gift, the object of God’s mercy: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38).’[3]

When John describes how we become children of God through faith in Jesus he uses language which deliberately recall Jesus’ miraculous birth in order to emphasise that our new birth is likewise a result of divine rather than human activity.  As with Mary, so with us, the role of human beings is simply to believe in and accept the gift of new life that God gives to us. ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (John 1:12-13).

What all this means for us

For us as Christians today, the way that Jesus’ birth fulfilled the word of God spoken through Isaiah reminds us that we can always trust God to do what he says he will do. This means that we can rely on his promises given to us in Scripture that through Jesus he has rescued us from sin and death and will enable us in due time to live with him for ever in his eternal kingdom.

Secondly, the  fact that Jesus is both divine and human means that we have both an all powerful saviour who is able to perform what God has promised, and a sympathetic saviour who understands our human weakness and fragility from the inside. ‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Thirdly, the fact that both the birth of Jesus and our rebirth as children of God are gracious gifts that we as humans did nothing to achieve highlights our need for humility. We need to constantly recall that we have been saved by grace and that our calling is simply to be thankful and to express our thankfulness in lives of joyful obedience.

[1] For this interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 see J A Motyer. ‘Content and context in the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14,’ Tyndale Bulletin 21, 1970, pp.118ff.

[2] Charles Cranfield, The Apostles’ Creed (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), p.30.

[3] Cranfield, p.30.

The Church of England’s new charter for Relationship, Sex and Health Education.

What is the new charter?

Having recently produced a digital charter, the Church of England has now produced what it calls ‘A charter for faith sensitive and inclusive relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education (RSHE).’ [1]

The background to this new charter is the fact that from September 2020, all primary schools will be required to teach both Relationships Education. and Health Education and that all secondary schools will be required to teach Relationships Education and Sex Education. The new charter, which has just been issued by the Church of England’s education office, is intended as a document which ‘schools of all foundations, faiths or otherwise’ will sign up to as a declaration of the principles which will underly their teaching of these subjects.

The charter itself consists of eight commitments and it is preceded by introductory material from the education office which explains the thinking behind it.

Two problems with the thinking revealed in the introduction.

From an orthodox Christian perspective there are two serious problems with the thinking revealed in the introduction.

The first problem concerns the purpose of education.

The introductory material quotes two biblical passages which it says underpin the Church of England’s approach to education:

‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.(Genesis I:27, NRSV)

I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness.(John 10:10, GNB)’

It then says:

‘Everyone will be treated with dignity as all people are made in the image of God and loved equally by God. All pupils have a right to an education which enables them to flourish and is set in a learning community where differences of lifestyle and opinion (within that which is permissible under UK law) are treated with dignity and respect ; bullying of all kinds is eliminated; and where they are free to be themselves and fulfil their potential without fear’

These words are intended as an application of the two biblical passages to the sphere of education.  These words are fine in themselves, and set out principles for education which all Christians should accept and seek to put into practice. However, the problem is that they don’t address the crucial question of what human flourishing involves.

Down the centuries many answers have been given to the question ‘what does it mean to flourish as a human being?’, but the Christian answer is that people truly flourish when they live in the way that God created them to live. God created his human creatures to live in a certain way as those made in his image and they will only truly flourish, both in this world and in the world to come, if they obediently  live in this way.

That is what the  ‘life in all its fulness’ offered by Jesus means. Because of the power of sin in our lives we cannot naturally live in the way we were created to live, but Jesus offers us the supernatural opportunity to begin to do so.

This being the case, an education that is  intended to enable people to flourish needs to be an education that enables people to learn what it means to live in obedience to the way that God created them to live through faith in Jesus Christ. If we offer children and young people anything less, then we are selling them short. However much they learn about other subjects, they will never truly flourish as human beings unless they have learned about what Paul calls the ‘obedience of faith’ (Romans 1:5) and have begun to put it into practice.

The education office’s material is fundamentally flawed because of its silence on this point. What they are proposing is thus a sub-Christian form of education that will never lead people to the flourishing life God desires for them.

The second problem with the introductory material is that it declares that Church of England schools need to ‘clearly   differentiate between  factual   teaching   (biology, medicine, the law, marriage, different types of families and the composition of society) and moral teaching about relationships and  values.’

From a Christian perspective such differentiation is entirely mistaken. Moral teaching that faithfully reflects how God has created his human creatures to live is just as much factual teaching as teaching about the other subjects mentioned in this quotation. For example, it is factually just as much the case that God has said ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (Exodus 20:4) as it is that sex is biologically oriented towards pregnancy, or that the Equality Act prohibits discrimination against certain categories of people, or that there are now families where the adults are in a same-sex relationship.

The big point here is that God’s creation of the world means that there is a moral order that is both objective and universal in just the same way that there is a physical order which is objective and universal. We learn about this moral order, and what it  means to live rightly in the light of it, through the use of our natural reason and through the Bible, which authoritatively confirms and supplements what we learn through our natural reason. To be properly educated children and young people need to be taught that this is the case and what this means for the way they should behave.

Problems with the commitments in the charter itself.

These two problems with the introductory material are then reflected in the eight commitments of the charter itself.

These commit schools to helping children and young people to form ‘healthy relationships’ and to promoting ‘reverence  for  the  gift  of  human  sexuality.’ However, they are silent as to what ‘healthy relationships’ involve (except for the vacuous statement that they should be ‘hopeful and aspirational’) and they are equally silent about what it means to show ‘reverence for the gift of human sexuality.’

The charter further commits schools to giving children and young people the ‘wisdom and skills’ to ‘make their ‘own informed decisions’ but it is silent about what this means in practice.

This vagueness reflects the fact that there is no commitment to advocating any particular approach to morality, The idea seems to be that children and young people should be offered a smorgasbord of different approaches to sex and relationships and then left to make up their own minds. We would not take this approach when teaching them chemistry, or maths, or foreign languages, so why should it be adopted in teaching about sex and relationships?

Education surely needs to be about passing on knowledge to the next generation. As Christians we know that this knowledge includes (a) knowledge about the moral order made known to us by God through our natural reason and through the words of the Bible, and (b) knowledge about how through Jesus we are supernaturally enabled to live according to this moral order.

The charter seems to want to relativize this knowledge so that the truth God has made known to us is reduced to simply one of many ‘tenets and varying interpretations of religious communities on matters of sex and relationships.’  If the charter is put into effect children and young people will not be taught that there is a right way to live, and that through faith in Jesus Christ they can begin to live in this way. They will be taught instead  that there are very many different opinions about the right way to live and that it is up to them to make up their own minds about the matter and up to them to then try to live in the way they decide.

Two misleading arguments in relation to the charter.

It may argued that there is a legal obligation to teach RSHE in the way suggested by the charter and its introductory material because of what is said in Equality Act of 2010. The material from the education office implies this is the case by the way that it links the new charter to the requirements of the Equality Act. The introductory material notes, for example, that ‘All schools and academies are required to act within the requirements of the law, including the Equality Act of 2010’ and the third commitment in the charter declares that the way RSHE is taught will not ‘discriminate against any of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act.’

It is true that that schools are covered by the Equality Act. Part 6 Chapter 1 of the Equality Act lays down in detail how the act applies to schools. However, it also specifically states that ‘Nothing in this Chapter applies to anything done in connection with the content of the curriculum.’ [2]  This means that the Equality Act does not determine what should be in the RSHE curriculum. This argument is thus simply a red herring.

It may also be argued that schools have to teach in the way suggested by the charter  because we live in a pluralistic society in which there are many different religious and philosophical approaches to sex and relationships just as there are on many other matters, and in which there will be children and young people in school who come from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds and from a range of different types of families.  However, the plurality in society and in the backgrounds of school pupils does not negate the responsibility for those engaged in Christian education to pass on as clearly as possible the knowledge that has been revealed to us by God.

If Church of England schools are simply going to echo the variety of voices in contemporary society rather than clearly and confidently declaring Christian truth to the next generation, then there is very little point in their existence. Children and young people will not obtain the fulness of life Jesus offers unless someone tells them about it. It is surely the purpose of church schools to do this and that has to include giving clear teaching to children and young people about what it means to live rightly as followers of Jesus  in the areas of sex and relationships.

The charter that the Church of England has produced will not help this to happen. The education office should therefore be asked to withdraw it and produce a properly thought through plan for encouraging an authentically  Christian approach to teaching RSHE instead.

[1] The Church of England, ‘Relationship, Sex and Health Education,’ at

https://www.churchofengland.org/more/education-and-schools/church-schools-and-

academies/relationships-sex-and-health-education

[2] Equality Act 2010, 89 (2) at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/89.

A review of ‘Marriage, same-sex marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia.’

The context and contents of the collection.

In December 2017 marriage between two people of the same sex became legal in Australia. This development has raised the question of whether the Anglican Church in Australia should follow the example of other Anglican churches in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Scotland and New Zealand by either allowing same-sex marriages to take place in its churches or by allowing some form of liturgical recognition of civil same-sex marriages.

The new collection of essays from the Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia, Marriage, same-sex marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia,[1] addresses this question. After a Foreword by the Chair of the Doctrine Commission, Bishop Jonathan Holland, the collection consists of eighteen essays grouped under four headings.

Context:

Michael Stead  ‘The debates over the doctrine of marriage  in the Anglican Communion’

Michael Stead  ‘The doctrine of marriage of the Anglican  Church of Australia’

Matthew Anstey ‘A response: An alternative reading of BCP.’

Scripture and Hermeneutics:  

Matthew Anstey ‘Scripture and moral reasoning;’

Mark Thompson ‘Attentively reading Scripture;’

Meg Warner ‘How does the Old Testament help us think about marriage  and same-sex marriage?’

Katherine M Smith ‘Belonging to God in relational wholeness’

Dorothy Lee  ‘Marriage, headship and the  New Testament’

Claire Smith  ‘Family ties: marriage, sex, and belonging  in the New Testament.’

History, Theology and Ecclesiology:  

Muriel Porter ‘Christian marriage: a concise history’

Claire Smith ‘For better or for worse: The changing shape of marriage  in Christian history?’

Dorothy Lee ‘Friendship and religious life in the Bible  and the church’

Mark  Thompson ‘Friendship and the trinity’

Gregory Seach ‘Steps towards a theological understanding  of desire’

Rhys Bezzant  ‘To what end? The blessing of same-sex marriage ‘

Stephen Pickard  ‘Disagreement and Christian unity:  re-evaluating the situation.’

The Case For and Against:

Matthew Anstey  ‘The case for same-sex marriage’

Michael Stead ‘The case against same-sex marriage.’

Five of the essays do not argue for or against same-sex marriage.  Michael Stead’s essay ‘The debates over the doctrine of marriage  in the Anglican Communion’ outlines the debates over the doctrine of marriage that have taken place in in the Anglican Communion since the 1998 Lambeth Conference and notes seven questions which these debates raise for Australian Anglicans.  Dorothy Lee ‘Friendship and religious life in the Bible  and the church’ and Mark Thompson ‘Friendship and the trinity’ consider what Scripture and the Christian tradition have to tell us about the importance of friendship and how human friendship relates to the triune life of God. Finally, Stephen Pickard’s essay ‘Disagreement and Christian unity:  re-evaluating the situation’ rejects a binary division between unity and truth, arguing that this ‘can only deliver continued fracturing of the body of Christ; can only deliver a divided Christ’ and that what we should be seeking instead is ‘unity in truth’ and ‘truth in unity.’

The remaining thirteen essays present arguments for and against the acceptance of same-sex marriage.

Arguments for accepting same-sex marriage.

The arguments for are as follows.

1. The Book of Common Prayer marriage service is concerned only with heterosexual marriage. It does not say anything about the issue of same-sex marriage since this was not imagined as a possibility when the BCP was written.   (Matthew Anstey)

2. Scripture does not tell us what the content of our doctrinal and moral judgments should be but witnesses ‘to the way the people of God go about making such judgments in the light of God’s ongoing presence in the lives of God’s people and the world.’  (Matthew Anstey)

3. A ‘considered conversation about the doctrine of same-sex marriage’  requires ‘listening to how God’s people have responded to (new) manifestations of God’s presence in their lives, so as to discern together the mind of Christ on this issue. And clearly, the lived experience of gay and lesbian Christians is paramount to our deliberations.’  (Matthew Anstey)

4. The story of Sodom is not concerned with same-sex relationships but is instead ‘a caricature of grotesque inhospitality.’  (Meg Warner)

5. Lying behind the prohibition of same-sex sexual activity between men in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is the fact that such activity requires one partner to adopt the ‘feminine’ or receptive, role. ‘The shame of this would have been sufficient to warrant a blanket prohibition.’ (Meg Warner)

6. In the Old Testament women were ‘at least in some senses, the property of the men to whom they were related by birth or marriage’ and  woman ‘required a  relationship with a man in order to have security and to be able to function in society.’ Seeing Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as a blanket prohibition on sex or marriage between men today would affirm such misleading ideas about the status of women. (Meg Warner)

7. The current dangers of human overpopulation should give us pause ‘if we are inclined to argue that the centrality of procreation to the purpose of marriage militates against same-sex marriage.’ (Meg Warner)

8. The range of models of marital relationship found in Genesis tells against ‘the idea that Genesis 2:24 prescribes life-long union between one man and one woman as the model of marriage uniquely acceptable to God.’  Genesis 2:24  is not about an ‘exclusive or prescriptive model of marriage,’ but about ‘God’s will that his creatures might experience companionship in a shared vocation to serve his creation.’  (Meg Warner)

9. ‘In the contemporary Western world, a different kind of homosexual relationship has now become visible, one which need not be either abusive or promiscuous.’ ‘Homosexual Christians who have lived in faithful partnerships for decades believe that the Christian community should extend covenant blessing, and even marriage, to them in order to confirm and support their partnerships in the public setting of the Christian assembly.’ At the very least, ‘we need to listen carefully to our sisters and brothers in the faith and take seriously their experience and their reading of the Bible.’  (Dorothy Lee)

10. Jesus himself has nothing to say on the subject of same-sex relationships and the New Testament more widely has little to say. The idea that that Jesus taught that marriage must always be the union of one woman and one man is ‘an inference from texts that have no principle of exclusion.’ (Dorothy Lee)

11. The key test of spiritual authenticity is a life lived in love, justice and mercy (e.g., Matthew 7:15–20; Galatians 5:16–21; James 1:22–27). If such fruit is to be found in same-sex partnerships ‘is this not a point in favour of the church’s thanksgiving and blessing?’  (Dorothy Lee)

12. Jude 1:7 probably refers to a desire to have sex with angels, but if he ‘has in mind the homosexual intentions of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, he is condemning acts of gross sexual aggression and violence.’ (Dorothy Lee)

13. What is condemned in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:10 is ‘is the behaviour of those who are idolatrous, violent, indifferent to others, and sexually promiscuous.’ (Dorothy Lee)

14. It is unlikely that Paul knew anything about the idea of homosexuality as  ‘an abiding personal psychological orientation’ or about people who sexual orientation ‘is not the result of deliberate perversion, but something natural to them. He also did not envisage ‘homosexual partnerships that are exclusive and grounded in Christian virtue.’  For these reasons ‘some commentators argue that neither Romans nor any other book of the New Testament can be used to condemn the homosexual orientation that is natural to individuals today.’  (Dorothy Lee)

15. Support for same-sex unions can be seen as something that is not ‘explicitly endorsed by the biblical text but not overtly condemned by it either.’ (Dorothy Lee)

16. ‘The gospel principles of the New Testament present a model of marriage and partnership that dismantles male-dominated structures, valuing instead mutuality, fidelity, respect and love, without domination or subjugation. These principles overthrow notions of paternalistic marriage and challenge the necessity of wifely obedience. They also open the way for covenantal relationships that are not based on gender but strive for the same gospel values in their union.’  (Dorothy Lee)

17. Christian marriage in Australia in the twenty-first century is  very different in many respects from the patterns, rules and expectations of earlier centuries. It honours the Genesis 2 ideal of marriage as first and foremost for mutual companionship, help and comfort. Furthermore, as a result of the  ‘determined advocacy of the sixteenth century Reformers, it is also now accepted by Anglicans and Protestants, and increasingly by Roman Catholics, that people should not be expected to reject marriage unless they have what the reformers claimed was the rare God-given charism of chastity,’ Both these developments mean that ‘Christian marriage can and should be opened to same-sex attracted people desiring to live openly before God in loving, faithful, monogamous partnerships.’(Muriel Porter)

18. Gender complementarity is not a necessary part of the image of God.  The image of God revealed fully in Christ is reflected in our humanness and not ‘in any gendered or marital form thereof.’  Furthermore,  gender and marriage are irrelevant for our life in the world to come and ‘this future reality is to inform our current doctrine and practice (‘in Christ there is neither male nor female’ Galatians 3:28). (Matthew Anstey)

19. The fact that male-female marriage is a symbol of the Church ‘does not rule out same-sex relationships any more than it rules out celibacy.’ (Matthew Anstey)

20. It is not clear what the sin is that same-sex couples are supposed to commit. ‘If we take other types of sexual practice, such as adultery, incest, paedophilia, bestiality, sexual abuse, and so forth, the articulation of the harm and wrongness of the specific sexual activity is straightforward to articulate (and the rationales for such are broadly agreed to in modern secular society), and again, more to the point, the harm and wreckage of such forms of sexual expression is self-evident. But for homosexuality, opponents typically provide no comment on this; rather, its wrongness is simply assumed. The one ‘argument’—I use the term reservedly—present in such literature is one of divine fiat—homosexuality is wrong because God (it is claimed) declares it wrong. But that is not an argument, that’s simply a brute assertion. If it is indeed wrong, there needs to be a thoughtful, compelling, coherent account for its wrongness. But I know of no such argument, neither in scholarship nor, in all seriousness, at the local pub.’ (Matthew Anstey)

21. ‘Same-sex love is like all other good love (when it is good and not something distorted): it selflessly seeks the well-being of (agape) and union with (eros) the other, as Aquinas so argued. It is directed toward the other and yearns for that which is good and true and beautiful for them, and given its reciprocity, it yearns to be loved in equal measure, freely and completely, and to be united bodily with the other. Such love is Christ-like and Christ’s love for us is in fact the measure and standard of all love. ‘ (Matthew Anstey)

The arguments against same-sex marriage.

The arguments against are as follows.

1. The  Book of Common Prayer ‘understands complementary sexes to be of the essence of marriage’ because marriage is ‘the continuing expression of the form of relationship established by God between Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 1:27, 2:18; 2:23–25), and as affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19.’ Under section 4 of the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia  ‘this doctrine of marriage arising from the Book of Common Prayer is the doctrine of marriage of the Anglican Church of Australia.’ This means that a new form of service for same-sex marriage would contravene the Church’s doctrine unless ‘the doctrine of our Church were to be explicitly changed to allow same-sex marriage.’  (Michael Stead)

2. The marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer  ‘expressly ‘covers the field’ of marriage-like relationships—‘so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s Word doth allow are not joined together by God’. This leaves no scope for validating other forms of ‘coupling together’.’ (Michael Stead)

3. The Bible is ‘the word of God given to us through the conscious and creative agency of human authors whose humanity—including both their finitude and fallenness—was in no way a barrier to God’s clear communication of his character, will and purpose for people in all ages.’  (Mark Thompson)

4. ‘If God has spoken and effectively communicated to us that sexual behaviour between two members of the same sex is contrary to his will for humankind, then any attempt to bless this behaviour, or the unions in which it occurs, amounts to a repudiation of God’s authority over the lives of his people and, indeed, over all his creatures. That is why this has been a presenting issue in the current deep and enduring tear in the fabric of the Anglican Communion.’  (Mark Thompson)

5. ‘Gen 2:4–25 is part of a creation narrative (Gen 2:4–4:25) belonging to Israel, intending to form their worldview as a nation, particularly with regards to their relationship with YHWH, with the land that they are associated with, and in relationship with one another in community. A man forming a permanent relationship of oneness with a woman, as husband and wife, is the concept of marriage that is to form Israel’s norm within community under God’s kingship. A critical part of this worldview is that this norm established by Gen 2:24 is part of God’s creative purposes. It is not the function of ancient Near Eastern creation narratives to clarify what is not the norm; this is the role of law. The very fact that same-sex intimate relationships are not included in this picture is an instance where absence is evidence that same-sex relationships are not to be part of the norm for God’s covenant community.’  (Katherine Smith)

6. The fact that polygamy first occurs in Genesis 4:19 as part of an account of the consequences of the Fall is not a coincidence. ‘The emergence of polygamy along with an escalation of sin’s consequences suggests that polygamy is also a part of sin’s mastery and, as the narrative progresses beyond this second creation narrative, becomes part of a disordered world.’  (Katherine Smith)

7. Leviticus 18:22 is ‘clear in syntax and meaning: a man is not to engage in sexual acts with another man as with a woman. It is a prohibition of male-male same-sex sexual acts. This is an instance though, due to the kind of writing genre that Leviticus 18 exemplifies–a law list–that an absence of a parallel prohibition of female-female same-sex sexual acts does not mean evidence of absence. Although a prohibition of female-female intimate relationships is absent, this absence does not mean that there is freedom for women to engage in same-sex sexual activity; the principle and spirit of the prohibition still applies.’ (Katherine Smith)

8. Leviticus 20:13 mandates the death penalty for same-sex sexual activity. There is no other way around the syntax and meaning of this verse. In every instance of sexual offence addressed in [Leviticus 20] 10–19, the guilty bear their own penalty which, for the most part, is death.’ Underlying the lists of prohibitions and penalties in  Leviticus 18-20 is the conviction that  ‘The only way for Israel to have life with a holy God living in their midst is to be a people who belong wholly to him and who reflect wholeness and completeness in their family, marital, and sexual relationships.’  (Katherine Smith)

9. From Genesis to Deuteronomy what is said about marriage is consistent. ‘In God’s created order and as he begins to recreate order through Israel, marriage is a permanent commitment between a man and a woman where there is a mutual belonging.’ The remainder of the Old Testament builds on this understanding of marriage  ‘particularly in Wisdom Literature and also in the use of marriage in the Prophets as a metaphor for covenant obedience between YHWH and his people.’ The reason very little is said  ‘in the Writings and the Prophets about same-sex intimate relationships’ is because ‘the assumption is that the norm, even when Israel’s and Judah’s rejection of God leads to exile, is that marriage is between a man and a woman.’ (Katherine Smith)

10. The witness of the New Testament is that while  ‘the gospel does not make distinctions between gender or race, and those who are in Christ are new creations awaiting the completeness of the new creation, the boundaries of distinction within the unity of being human still remain in a marriage relationship while we await Christ’s return.’  (Katherine Smith)

11. The biblical texts normally cited as evidence for the rejection of same-sex relationships by the Bible (Gen 19:1–38; Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:24–27; 1 Cor 6:9–11; 1 Tim 1:9–10; Jude 6–7) are not isolated  texts, but reflect aa consistent biblical account of the nature of marriage.  (Claire Smith)

12. The consistent view of marriage in the Bible is ‘that marriage is the union of two people of opposing biological sex, and that this sexed complementarity is essential not incidental to the nature and purpose of marriage.’ The clearest articulation of this in the New Testament is found in  the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:3–9 and Mark 10:2–12. I this this teaching ‘Jesus shows there is a creational logic to the nature of marriage. It is not just that one person chooses to leave the family home and be joined to another, and their bodily sex is not significant. Rather, ‘from the beginning’ the Creator created humankind as sexually differentiated beings, male and female, and ‘for this reason’ a man and woman are joined in marriage—two equal and complementary image-bearers joined by God to be ‘one flesh’, united in a covenantal relationship unlike any other. One flesh in their exclusive sexual union, in the new family unit they create, in their companionship, and potentially, in offspring.’  (Claire Smith)

13. Those in the ancient world knew about ‘committed, consensual, same-sex peer relationships, and notions of same-sex marriage, and same-sex sexual orientation.’  However, in spite of this ‘Jesus and the apostles after him maintain the enduring authority and goodness of God’s creation design for marriage as between one man and one woman, and as the only proper domain for the expression of sexual desire and intimacy (cf. Matthew 5:28; Hebrews 13:4). More than that, they are not unaware or neutral about other types of sexual activity. Without exception, every reference to alternative sexual expression in the New Testament is negative, including every reference to same-sex sexual activity.’ (Claire Smith)

14. When Paul writes in Romans 1:26-27 about same-sex relationships between both women ands men being ‘contrary to nature’ what he is referring to is ‘the natural created order, which is evident in the many linguistic and thematic links to Genesis 1 that run through the text. It is the way that God designed his creation to work. Accordingly, the sexual relations that are ‘contrary to nature’ are those that are contrary to the created order and God’s purposes for it as revealed in Scripture. It is men and women doing with their own sex what God intended only to be done with the opposite sex— and that within marriage, as the rest of Scripture makes clear.’ (Claire Smith)

15. In 1 Corinthians 6:9  the word malakoi refers to thepassive male partner in a same-sex sexual act.’ The word arsenokoitai refers to  ‘the active partner in male same-sex sexual acts, and includes consensual sexual acts between adults, and cannot be limited to cultic settings or pederasty.’ In 1 Timothy  1:10  arsenokoitai is again used to refer to same-sex sexual activity, This verse rejects ‘all same-sex sexual activity as a specific form of ‘sexual immorality’ (pornois), which is listed immediately beforehand, and cannot be limited to exploitative practices of the slave trade.’  (Claire Smith)

16. In Jude 7  part of the sin of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah ‘was the desire to profane angelic beings,’ However  they ‘were unaware the visitors were angels. Rather, they desired them as ‘men’, and so it is difficult to exclude the active desire for same sex intercourse from their sin.’ (Claire Smith)

17. Marriage as we know it in this world  human marriage will not exist in the world to comer (Matt 22:29–30).  This is because its ‘purposes in this world, and its purpose as a gospel signpost to the eternal marriage of Christ and the church will have been fulfilled.’ However, until that happens  ‘marriage between a man and a woman, as he established it from the beginning, will continue as God’s gracious gift for the good of all people—believers and unbelievers, individually and communally—and human sexuality will continue as a precious gift from him, to be expressed only within the bonds of marriage as he designed it.’  (Claire Smith)

18. Building on the work of Augustine, the Anglican reformers of the sixteenth century  ‘recovered the biblical teaching on marriage and changed their belief and practice in order to align with God’s word, against the traditions and culture of their day. In our day, we are being asked to change our view of marriage to align with what is being celebrated and embraced by our culture, yet is against the word of God.’ (Claire Smith)

19. The word of God  ‘should and will continue to bring change—to our personal lives, to the traditions of the church, to how we order our lives together—because we are fallen and broken creatures living in a broken world. Church history is replete with such change, as it should be, given the principle of semper reformanda. But not all change is good change. If it is to please God, honour Christ, and promote human flourishing, the direction of change must always be towards the word of God not away from it.’  (Claire Smith)

20. ‘The language of blessing cannot serve the generic purpose of encouragement, but has a distinct shape within the biblical narrative, to which we must pay attention. If blessing affirms and promotes the divine order, but homosexual practice is sinful, then it is not possible to bless a homosexual union in the name of a holy God.’  (Rhys Bezzant)

21. In the light of Paul’s teaching in Romans 12:18 about living peaceably with our neighbours, Christians have ‘responsibilities for peace-making with individuals in same-sex marriages, but this is not something we do without recognition of prior theological commitments or reasonable pastoral constraints.’ (Rhys Bezzant)

22. The Anglican interpretative tradition means that we must read particular texts in the light of the teaching of the Bible as a whole and that fact that ‘Jesus reiterates the teaching about marriage in Genesis 1–2, and that Paul reiterates both the principle and the language of Leviticus 18 and 20 in relation to same-sex sexual intimacy demonstrates that what the Old Testament affirms in relation to marriage and what the Old Testament prohibits in relation to other expressions of human sexuality continue to apply to the New Covenant believer.’ (Michael Stead)

23. The way Jesus quoted Genesis 1 and 2 in relation to the Jewish debate about divorce ‘demonstrates that he understood these verses to be more than merely descriptive of Adam and Eve’s marriage. Rather, he treats Genesis 1–2  as normative for the pattern of marriage established by the Creator for his creatures, in which God joins a man and a woman in a ‘one flesh’ relationship.’ (Michael Stead)

24. While the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God is promised in  Old Testament texts such as Isaiah 56, Zechariah 2, Zechariah 8 and this promise is then fulfilled under the New Covenant. By contrast ‘there is nothing in the Old Testament (or indeed the New) that hints about a possible reversal of the condemnation of same-sex sexual intimacy.’ (Michael Stead)

25. Romans 1 does not mean people acting in a way that was contrary to their own nature, there ‘is nothing in the language of Romans 1 that would suggest that it is limited to abusive or predatory same-sex sexual intimacy’ or to promiscuous behaviour, and there is no reason to think Paul was ignorant of ‘consensual and loving same-sex unions’ (Michael Stead)

26. Malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 do not refer only to ‘pederastic or exploitative relationships’ and not to ‘loving, consensual homosexual sex.’  If Paul had wished to refer to ‘a limited set of homosexual acts, ancient Greek had a well-established vocabulary for this.’  In 1 Corinthians 6:9 a malakos is ‘a passive partner in homosexual sex’’ and an arsenokoites is ‘a man who has sex with a man. Those who do this, together with ‘fornicators, idolaters, and adulterers’ are ‘wrongdoers’.’ (Michael Stead)

27. Just because people have same-sex desire does not mean that it is right for them to act upon it, any more that it is necessarily right for a person with heterosexual desire to act upon it. (Michael Stead)

28. ‘The hypothetical fruit of the Spirit in the homosexual partners posited by the argument may genuinely be the gracious work of God in each of their lives, without necessarily being God’s validation of their relationship.’ (Michael Stead)

29. Marriage is not ‘the only or ultimate way’ to live a fulfilled Christian life and a ‘fulfilling sex-life is not the only answer to the frustration of ‘being alone’. God has provided friendship, family and the Christian community.’ (Michael Stead)

30. In relation to the argument that there is no good reason to object to object to same-sex sexual relationships we have rely on ‘the person and character of our Creator God, his innate goodness and his thoroughgoing commitment to the welfare of the creatures he has made. Where he chooses to give us the reasons for his commands, these confirm that goodness and compassion. Where he does not choose to give us reasons, then his person and character are still grounds for affirming that the command is good or the prohibition is gracious and compassionate.’ (Michael Stead)

Assessing the arguments in the collection.

The essays in this collection contain most of the arguments that are commonly put forward for and against the acceptance by the Church of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage. They also show that the arguments against the acceptance of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage are by far the stronger.

The arguments against correctly declare  that there is a consistent teaching in both the Old and New Testaments that God has created human beings as male and female, that he has ordained marriage as a relationships between one man and one woman and that all other forms of sexual relationship (including same-sex relationships) are sinful and therefore off limits for the people of God. In the light of this teaching the Book of Common Prayer is correct to see marriage as ordained in Genesis 2 as the only legitimate form of marriage and the Church would not be right to depart from this position in order to fit in with contemporary culture.

By contrast, the arguments offered for the acceptance of same-sex marriage and same-sex relationships rely on a series of highly  dubious readings of Scripture which are unsupported by a careful reading of the biblical texts. For example, that Genesis 2 is about companionship rather than marriage, that upholding the prohibitions of same-sex relations between men in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 would involve supporting the idea of women as male property, that Paul says nothing about the homosexual orientation that is natural to people today and that 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:10 condemn only abusive and idolatrous same-sex relationships.

They also rely on a number of  other highly dubious claims such as that the writers of the Book of Common Prayer cannot be said to have excluded same-sex marriages, that there is no necessary link between the image of God and male-female complementarity, that a modern ‘companionate’ view of marriage necessitates accepting same-sex marriages, that the love involved in same-sex relationships shows that the sexual element of such relationships is acceptable and that no one can explain the nature of the sin involved in a same-sex relationship (something that has in fact been done by Christian theologians on numerous occasions).

As Michael Stead argues at the close of the final essay in the collection: ‘In the current debate, there is no argument from Scripture in support of same-sex marriage. There is no argument from our Anglican interpretive tradition in support of same-sex marriage. The arguments from reason and experience do not (and cannot) overturn what the Scriptures say.’

The real challenge we face today lies not in determining what the Bible says about sex and marriage. That is clear. The challenge lies in both living out this teaching ourselves and teaching and supporting others to do likewise. This is a challenge that faces all Christians and not simply those who are same-sex attracted.

[1] Marriage, same-sex marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia (Mulgrave: Broughton Publishing, 2019).

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

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

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

‘Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.’[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, which should we believe?

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Why Scripture confirms that Lewis is correct.

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

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

They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt;
there is none that does good,
no, not one.’ (Psalm 14:2-3)

It is because this is so that the Psalmist prays:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. God’s solution to Man’s plight.

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

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

As John Calvin puts it:

‘…. our old man is destroyed by the death of Christ, so that His resurrection may restore our righteousness, and make us new creatures. And since Christ has been given to us for life, why should we die with Him, if not to rise to a better life? Christ, therefore, puts to death what is mortal in us in order that He may truly restore us to life.’ [9]

As a consequence the Christian life, the ‘godly, righteous, and sober life’ referred to in the general confession, is a life marked by mortification and vivification. ‘As mortification, holiness is the laying aside of that which has been put to death at the cross of the Son of God; as vivification, holiness is the living out of that which has been made alive in the Son’s resurrection.’[10]  In the words of 1 Peter 2:24: ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.’

This dual calling to mortification and vivification can often seem nothing short of utterly terrifying because it asks us to hand over the control of lives totally to God and do whatever he tells us to do, however counter-intuitive or painful this may seem. However, to quote Lewis one last time, terrifying though this may be, it is actually easier than what we naturally want to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Conclusion.

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

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

M B Davie 24.10.19

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

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, pp.36-37.

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

[6] The Thirty Nine Articles, Article 1.

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

[8] Ibid, p.50.

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

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

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

Brexit, the bishops and the rich fool

The bishops’ joint statement about Brexit.

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

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

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

The presupposition behind the Brexit debate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the bishops need to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M B Davie 30.9.19

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

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

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