Yes, but…A response to Christina Beardsley’s letter to the Next Steps Group.

In her letter to Bishop Sarah Mullaly as Chair of the LLF Next Steps Group on 19 July 2021[1]questioning the need for a further working group on gender identity and transition, Christina Beardsley declares that the understanding of the Changing Attitude group is that:

‘…the Church of England is committed to:

  • the ‘unconditional affirmation of trans people’
  • the liturgical marking of gender transition
  • the opposite sex marriage in church of a trans person with legal gender recognition
  • and that trans and non-binary people are welcome to enter the discernment process for  ordination.’

She then asks:

‘Can the Next Steps Group tell us what the missing elements are that a working group on gender identity and transition would need to consider? Are there substantive matters needing research beyond the fact that some people choose to disagree with the Church of England’s official position?’

She further adds that if the Next Steps Group:

‘…. wish to be better informed about trans people’s lives and the current scientific research in this field, I will gladly fund an evidence-based training session for the Group, delivered by GIRES (the Gender Identity Research and Education Society), which has an excellent reputation.’

In response to the first of these points I agree with Beardsley that the Church of England has committed itself to the ‘unconditional affirmation of trans people,’  that it has made provision for services to liturgically mark gender transition, that it does allow those who have legally changed their gender to marry in church according to their new legal identity, and that it is happy for trans and non-binary people to enter into the discernment process for ordination.

However, there is an elephant in the room which she does not acknowledge, which is that the Church of England has never provided a proper theological justification for its position on these matters.

With regard to the ‘unconditional affirmation of trans people,’ the House of Bishops’ 2018 paper – ‘An update on ‘Welcoming Transgender People’ (GS Misc. 1178) states in paragraphs 3 and 6:

‘The House of Bishops welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people, within the Church, the body of Christ, and rejoices in the diversity of that one body, into which all Christians have been baptized by one Spirit.

The image of God, in which we are all made, transcends gender, race, and any other characteristic, and our shared identity as followers of Jesus is the unity which makes all one in Christ (Galatians 3.27-28).’

What is said in these two quotations is in itself true and helpful. It is right to welcome and affirm unconditionally as people those who identify as transgender and it is right to rejoice in the God given diversity of the body of Christ. It is also right to say that all human beings are created in God’s image regardless of their gender, race, or any other characteristic and that it is being followers of Jesus that unites Christians together.

However, none of this tells us why it is right to affirm gender transition.  Welcoming and affirming people as those whom God has created and redeemed, rejoicing in the contribution they make to the diversity of the body of Christ, and acknowledging that they have been made in God’s image and that we are united to them as fellow followers of Jesus, does not mean that we have to accept every claim that people make about themselves or everything that they do. Indeed, the warning given by St. Paul in Romans 1:18-32 about the way in which human thinking and behaviour has been distorted by the Fall means that we have to accept that some of the claims people make about themselves will be untrue, and some of things that they do will be wrong.

This means that we cannot simply accept at face value the claim made by transgender people that they are trapped in bodies which do not express their true, God given, identities, or that it is, or has been, right for them to undergo a process of gender transition.  Reasons have to be put forward for accepting either of these claims and GS Misc. 1178 does not offer such reasons.

With regard to the liturgical marking of gender transition, neither of the two supporting papers for the 2017 General Synod debate on holding services to mark gender transition, ‘Welcoming Transgender People, A note from The Revd Chris Newlands’ (GS 2017A) and Welcoming Transgender People, A note from The Secretary General’ (GS 2071B), explain why it is right to hold that someone who is biologically male or female is in fact in the sight of God a member of the opposite sex. A service to mark gender transition only makes liturgical and theological sense of this is the case and yet neither of these papers show why it is the case (and no explanation  was offered during the Synod debate either).

The House of Bishops’ ‘Pastoral Guidance’ published in December 2018 which explains what would be involved in using the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith (or the rites of Baptism and Confirmation if these are felt to be more appropriate) in order ‘to recognize liturgically a person’s gender transition’ simply repeats what was previously said in paragraphs 3 and 6 of GS Misc. 1178 and therefore presents the same problems.

What all this means is that the Church of England permits the liturgical marking of gender transition, but it has given no adequate theological justification for doing so.

The same is true with regard to the marriage of people who have legally changed their gender. The Church of England has never explained why it thinks that a legal change of gender means that someone is genuinely a member of the opposite sex from their biology and why, therefore, it is right to regard them as a member of that sex for the purposes of marriage. This means it has never explained why it thinks that marriages between a cisgender man and a transgender woman, or a cisgender woman and a transgender man, are not in fact same-sex marriages and therefore contrary to the definition of marriage in Canon B.30.

Likewise the Church has never explained why it is right to ordain trans or non-binary people. The decision that people who had gone through gender transition could be ordained was decided at a discussion in the House of Bishops in 2002 prompted by a specific case in the Diocese of Bristol. I was present in the room when the decision was taken as the then theological consultant to the House of Bishops, and I can say with certainty that there was no theological discussion of the matter. The issue was whether there was any canonical prohibition of transgender people being ordained and, as there was not, it was accepted that they could be, with the caveat that no bishop had to ordain in such circumstances. This decision was then simply later extended to include non-binary people.

The question of whether someone who identifies as transgender (or non-binary) can rightly be seen as embodying the holiness of life that the Church requires of its ordained ministers was not discussed in 2002 and has never been discussed by the Church of England since. As before, the theological work simply has not been done.

The nearest thing that the Church of England has to a theological statement on transgender is the memo issued by the House of Bishops in 2003. As Beardsley notes in her letter, this memo (HB 03 M1)  runs as follows:

‘The House recognised that there was a range of views within the Church on transsexualism and accepted that (as matters stood at present) both the positions set out below could properly be held:

 a) some Christians concluded on the basis of Scripture and Christian anthropology, that concepts such as ‘gender reassignment’ or ‘sex change’ were really a fiction. Hormone treatment or surgery might change physical appearance, but they could not change the fundamental God-given reality of ‘male and female He created them’.

b) others, by contrast, whilst recognising that medical opinion was not unanimous, were persuaded that there were individuals whose conviction that they were ‘trapped in the wrong body’ was so profound and persistent that medical intervention, which might include psychiatric, hormone, and surgical elements, was legitimate and that the result could properly be termed a change of sex or gender.’

The context of this memorandum was the discussions which the Church of England was then having with the Lord Chancellor’s Department to safeguard the freedom of bishops not to ordain transgender candidates and the right of clergy not to marry transgender people in their chosen sex once such a marriage became possible in law (as it did under the Gender Recognition Act the following year).

In this context the purpose of the first paragraph was to make clear that the view that ‘gender reassignment’ or ‘sex change’ was a fiction could properly be held by members of the Church of England and that therefore freedom of religion meant that such a view should be protected in law with the consequence that bishops should not have to ordain transgender candidates or clergy have to marry people in their assumed identity.  

From the standpoint of orthodox Christian theology, it is easy to see why the bishops state that this position (position a) can properly (i.e. rightly) be held within the Church of England. Orthodox Christian anthropology holds on the basis of Scripture, reason and tradition, that the unity of the human person means what makes someone male or female is their biology. Because this is immutable it follows that any claim to have changed sex is a fiction. Someone can adopt the role of a member of the opposite sex (or of someone who is neither make nor female), but this is not who they truly are.

What the bishops do not make clear, however, is why the alternative position (position b) can also properly be held. There is a growing body of evidence that medical intervention is not necessarily the best way to help people who find it difficult or impossible to accept their sex.[2] Furthermore, it is difficult to see on what basis the results of such intervention could rightly be called a change of sex. Hormones and surgery can mask someone’s biological sex, but they cannot fundamentally alter it. It follows that a change of sex does not and cannot occur. As John McHugh puts it, ‘Transgendered men do not become women, nor do transgendered women become men.’[3]

The only way it could be held that someone’s true identity was different from their biology would be to go down the route of dividing the self from the body and the problem with this approach is that it involves a gnostic dualism which is incompatible with orthodox Christian anthropology.

This anthropology tells us that  in his goodness and wisdom God made human beings as a unity of body and soul. Rocks are purely material, angels are purely spiritual, but human beings are a unity of a material body and an immaterial soul. This unity means that we are our bodies and our bodies are us, which is why it makes sense to say I got up in the morning, I ate and drank, and I went to bed at night. All these are actions of the single self who is both body and soul. It is this combination of body and soul that we see exhibited in the stories in the Gospels about the humanity of Christ. Christ is one self in whom a human body and soul exist and act together.[4]

It is as this unity of body and soul that we are either male or female. To be male or female is to have certain bodily characteristics that are designed by God to enable us to fulfil his command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28) by playing a particular role in the procreation and nurture of children. Furthermore, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body teaches us that we will be biologically male or female for all eternity.

The bishops’ memorandum suggests that it is possible for medical intervention to change someone’s sex by changing their body, but for the reason noted above this suggestion does not work. Even after the application of hormones and surgery a biological male will always remain biologically male and a biological female will always remain biologically female. This means one either has to buy into body-self dualism, or say that the claims about their identity made by those who have undergone gender transition are indeed fictitious.

What all this means is that, in response to Christina Beardsley’s question, there is indeed something for a working party on gender identity and transition to consider. Such a working party needs to undertake the theological work on these matters that the Church of England has never properly done, and then consider whether the Church of England’s current policies with regard to transgender and non-binary people are compatible with the results of such work.  

It is not the case, as Beardsley seems to suggest, that all the information that the Next Steps Group needs can be provided by a briefing from GIRES. This is for two reasons. First, GIRES is a secular think tank that is not in position to help either the Next Steps Group with the theological work that needs to be done on the transgender issue. Secondly, GIRES is a partisan think tank that represents only one side in the current secular debate about the nature of transgender and the best treatment for  gender dysphoria. A briefing solely from GIRES would give the group a very biased view of the nature of contemporary secular thinking about these matters.

To summarise,  Beardsley is right is what she says about where the Church of England currently stands on the issue of transgender and non-binary people. However, what she fails to note is that this position lacks a proper theological foundation, and so there is still further work that the Church of England needs to do, work that could potentially lead to the current position being changed. Her suggestion of the Next Steps Group being briefed by GIRES fails to take into account that GIRES is a secular group representing only one side of the current debate about transgender issues. A briefing by them would therefore not tell the Group everything it needs to know.


[1] Christina Beardsley, ‘We’ve made our decision’: the Church of England and trans people’  at:

   http://www.unadulteratedlove.net/blog/2021/7/20/weve-made-our-decision-the-church-of-england-and-   

   trans-people

[2]  See Lawrence Meyer and Paul McHugh, ‘Gender identity’,  New Atlantis, Fall 2016,Part 3 and Ryan T  

   Anderson, When Harry became Sally (New York: Encounter Books, 2018), Ch. 5-6 and Mark Yarhouse,   

   Understanding Gender Dysphoria, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015) Ch. 5.

[3] John McHugh, ‘Transgenderism: A Pathogenic Meme,’  Public Discourse, June 10, 2015 at:  htttps://www.thepublic

discourse.com/2015/06/15145/

[4] In the words of the Athanasian Creed, Christ was (and is) ‘Perfect God and Perfect Man: of a reasonable

   soul and human flesh subsisting.’

Why we need to have sex on the brain – a response to Bishop Paul Bayes.

The keynote address given by the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, at the conference of the new MoSAIC[1] network in the Church of England entitled ‘Sex on the brain’ [2] has attracted headlines because of his argument that the Church of England should adopt a ‘gender-neutral marriage canon’ that would allow the Church of England to fully endorse and celebrate same-sex marriages. As the headline to the Guardian report puts it. ‘Church of England should recognise same-sex weddings, says bishop.’ [3]

What is interesting about the Bishop’s address, however, is not only the conclusion that he reaches, but the argument that he employs in order to get there. In this response to his address I shall explore why the argument that he puts forward is unconvincing, and why, therefore, it does not provide grounds for the Church of England to amend its teaching on marriage in the way that he suggests.

Why inclusion is code.

The Bishop begins his address by declaring that MoSAIC is a ‘valuable and indeed necessary part of the Church’ [4] and that the reason this is the case is because ‘inclusion is a Gospel matter. Inclusion speaks of love, and inclusion is seamless.’[5]  The problem with this part of the Bishop’s argument is that he fails to explain what he means by the term ‘inclusion.’  As it stands the statement runs the risk of saying ‘we should be in favour of everything.’ If inclusion is ‘seamless’ this would seem to mean that the Church should provide a home for every kind of belief and practice, in which case the logical outcome of the Bishop’s argument would be the Church’s acceptance of Neo-Nazi ideology and the racist practices that flow from it.

Now, of course, the Bishop does not mean this. As his comments later on in his address make clear, inclusion is a code word which means being not only anti-racist and supportive towards people with disability, but also in favour of same-sex sexual relationships and gender transition.  The question becomes, therefore, why it is important to be inclusive in this specific sense.

What should set the Church’s agenda?

The answer that the Bishop gives to this question can be summarised in the words ‘because the world says so.’ He quotes with approval what he says was the understanding of mission developed by the Would Council of Churches in the 1960s,  ‘Let the world set the agenda,’[6] and goes on to argue that in our day this means accepting the forms of inclusion I have just described, and embracing same-sex sexual relationships in particular.

There are five major difficulties with his argument.

First, the Bishop misrepresents what the World Council of Churches said. If you take the time to look at the report of the 1968 Uppsala meeting of the WCC to which the Bishop is obliquely referring, you will discover that what the WCC actually said was not, as the Bishop suggests,  ‘Let the world set the agenda’ in the sense that the Church must follow the moral agenda set by the world. What it said was ‘The world sets the agenda’ in the sense that in its mission to the world the Church has to discern how to respond to what is happening in the world at any given moment of time. In other words, mission always has to be contextual. [7]  The Church’s God given mission and message remain constant down the ages (Matthew 28:19-20), but the form of its activity will necessarily vary in the light of the different situations it encounters in the course of its journey towards the city of God, as we see from the paradigmatic account of the history of the early Church in the Book of Acts.

Secondly, the claim that the Church should follow the moral agenda set by the world begs the question what we mean by the world’s moral agenda. If what we mean by this is that the Church should accept what people in the contemporary world believe to be right the obvious question is ‘which people’?  There are a very large number of people in the world, probably the majority of the world’s population, who do not agree with all or some of the inclusive agenda that the Bishop advocates. On closer inspection, it turns out that, like ‘inclusion,’ the ‘world’s moral agenda’ is a piece of code. What he really means is the approach to ethical issues that has become dominant in Western society from the latter part of the twentieth century onwards and which includes acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships.

Why the appeal to the arc of history does not work.

This brings one to the third difficulty with the Bishop’s argument, which is the issue of why the Church should accept this approach to ethical issues. The answer the Bishop appears to give is because ‘the arc of the moral universe keeps on bending towards justice.’[8] This phrase, which the Bishop takes from Martin Luther King, is rather opaque, but the argument that the Bishop seems to be putting forward is that history is on a trajectory towards justice, therefore our ideas of what constitutes justice are necessarily developing in the right direction, therefore more recent ideas of justice are better than older ones.

A little thought shows that this argument is extremely difficult to accept. This it because it would mean that every new idea of justice would automatically be right. In 1917 the Bolshevik idea that it was right to institute a dictatorship of the proletariat was new. Was it therefore correct?  In the 1930’s the Nazi idea that it was right that the Aryan race should rule over the Untermensch was new. Was it therefore correct? In our day the interpretation of Islamic justice put forward by Islamic state is new. Is it therefore correct?  One could expand such a list of examples almost indefinitely, but the point is clear. The rule  new = right does not allow for sufficient moral discrimination between different forms of belief and practice. The point is not that new ideas are never better than old ones. Sometimes they may be. The point is that we have to discern whether they are better or not.

The only way that we can engage in such discernment is if there is a transcendent and unchanging standard of justice standing outside the flux of history against which new ideas of justice can be measured, and as the Christian faith tells us, this standard is provided by the will of God. On the basis of God’s self-revelation through Scripture and the created order, we know that God is unchangeably perfect in goodness, love and wisdom, and because this is the case what he tells us about what it means to behave justly is the plumb line that establishes whether we are behaving justly or not.

In thinking about justice what we need to do is engage the brains that God has given us in order to understand what God has said about how we should behave, and therefore what justice requires, and behave accordingly.

Why we have to use our brains.

This brings us to the fourth difficulty with the Bishop’s argument which is that he advocates abandoning the use of the brain when engaging in sexual ethics. As the Bishop sees it, our bodies and our loves are ‘mysterious’ in the same way that God is mysterious[9] and this means that it is wrong to ‘have sex on the brain’  in the sense of seeking to determine rationally how people ought to behave.[10] According to the Bishop: ‘People grow up and fall in love and their mysterious bodies lead them to love as they love, and they will love whom they love, and no amount of harrumphing is going to change that.’ [11]

There are two problems with this argument.

First, although God is certainly mysterious in the sense that (in this life at least) we only have incomplete knowledge of what God is like, this does not means that what we do know about him does not provide us with a reliable guide as to how we should behave. Similarly, although we do not fully understand ourselves or our fellow human beings, this does not mean that we do not know enough to understand how we and others should behave.

The Bishop clearly does not in fact believe this, or else he would give up on all attempts to instruct people on how to behave, and hence would cease his advocacy of liberal religious and social causes. His advocacy of such causes only makes sense if he thinks that we can understand how people should behave and can cause people to change their behaviour accordingly.

Secondly, it is certainly true the people do not choose the sexual desires they have or the people they fall in love with. However, (a) this does not mean that people cannot choose how they behave and (b) it does not mean that people cannot be led to behave in ways that  go against their desires. If either were true we would simply have to give up on sexual ethics entirely. We would simply have to say that people will behave as they want to behave and there is nothing that we can or should do about it.

The question the Bishop’s argument begs is whether he really wants to adopt this position. Does he really want to say, for example, that casual sex, adultery, incest, polyamory, paedophila, and sexual violence are things we just have to accept and that we should stop ‘harrumphing’ about?  After all, in all these cases people can and do claim that their conduct was motivated by love.

I suspect that the Bishop would claim that these forms of behaviour are not truly loving and that for this reason people should not engage in them, but he would have to make a rational argument in order to make good this claim. The brain would have to make a come back and so his argument that we should not use the brain would be fatally undermined.

In reality, as I have said, sexual ethics is, or at least should be, a rational branch of human intellectual enquiry in which we employ the reason (the ‘brain’) that God has given us to determine how God wants us to behave in relation to a given situation. To give a basic example, I discover by rational enquiry that God forbids adultery (Exodus 20:14). I further discover that adultery means sex with someone who is not my spouse. I conclude as result that I should not have sex with a person who is not my spouse.

Why there is no good argument for changing the Church’s position on same-sex marriage.

This brings us to the fifth and final  difficulty with the Bishop’s argument which is that although he tells us he wants the Church of England to adopt a gender-neutral marriage canon and as an interim measure he wants ‘conscientious freedom for the Church’s ministers and local leaders to honour, recognise and, yes indeed, to bless same-sex unions whether civil partnerships or civil marriages,’[12] he fails to give any reason why the Church should do any such thing.

As we have seen, his appeals to seamless inclusion, to following the world’s moral agenda, and the need to give up the use of our brains simply do not work, and he offers nothing else.

Furthermore, the Bishop cannot in fact make a convincing Christian argument for either marrying people in same-sex relationships, or blessing such relationships, because no such argument exists.

The reason for this is very simple. As both nature and Scripture tell us, God has created human beings as male and female creatures designed to have sexual intercourse with members of the opposite sex and by this means to propagate the human species (Genesis 1:26-28). God has also established life-long marriage between one man and one woman as the context for sexual union between men and women and for the begetting and raising of children (Genesis 2:18-25, Matthew 19:3-6). In addition. God has instituted marriage between men and women as a living witness to the eternal relationship of loving communion that exists between God and his people and that will be fully enjoyed in the would to come (Ephesians 5:21-33, Revelation 19:7).  Because all this is the case, marriage cannot be between two people of same-sex and all sex outside marriage (including sex between two people of the same-sex) is contrary to God’s will and therefore sinful.

To put it in the form of a logical argument. God wills that sex should take place solely within marriage, marriage is between two people of the opposite sex, therefore people of the same sex cannot be married, therefore same-sex sex is sinful.

What follows from this is that the Church of England cannot institute a marriage canon saying that marriage can be between two people of the same-sex when this is simply not the case, and it cannot bless same-sex sexual relationships as though they were not contrary to God’s will.

None of this means that the Church should not welcome those who are same-sex attracted, give them appropriate forms of love and support, and gratefully receive the range of gifts which they have to offer.  The Church can and must do all these things, but in so doing it cannot compromise on the pattern for sexual relationships that God has laid down. This pattern is the agenda to which the Church must adhere as it engages with the challenges posed to it by the contemporary world using God’s good gift of rationality as it does so.

As Paul teaches us in Romans 12, if we submit to God and allow him to work in our lives he will renew our minds through the work of the Holy Spirit so that we are able to discern rightly his perfect will for our lives and how we are to serve him in the world in which he has placed and to which he calls us to bring the good news of Jesus Christ.

‘Do not be conformed to this worldbut be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’. (Romans 12:2)

We need to have sex on the brain.

Note:  the anthropology of the Uppsala Report

In view of Bishop Paul’s appeal to the WCC’s 1968 Uppsala Report it is worth noting what that report had to say about what the Christian faith teaches about what it means to be human. 

In the section of the report on ‘Renewal in Mission’ we find the following words:

‘Men can know their true nature only if they see themselves as sons of God, answerable to their Father for one another and for the world. But because man refuses both the obedience and the responsibility of sonship his God-given dominion is turned into exploitation, and harmony into alienation in all his relationships. In this condition man, with all his amazing power, suffers an inescapable dread of his own helplessness and his deepest cry, albeit often unrecognized, is for the Triune God.

Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, is the new man. In him was revealed the image of God as he glorified his Father in a perfect obedience. In his total availability for others, his absolute involvement and absolute freedom, his penetrating truth and his triumphant acceptance of suffering and death, we see what man is meant to be. Through that death on the Cross, man’s alienation is overcome by the forgiveness of God and the way is opened for the restoration of all men to their sonship. In the resurrection of Jesus a new creation was born, and the final goal of history was assured, when Christ as head of that new humanity will sum up all things.

But the new manhood is not only a goal. It is also a gift and like all God’s gifts it has to be appropriated by a response of faith. The Holy Spirit offers this gift to men in a variety of moments of decision. It is the Holy Spirit who takes the Word of God and makes it a living, converting word to men. Our part in evangelism might be described as bringing about the occasions for men’s response to Jesus Christ. Often the turning point does not appear as a religious choice at all. Yet it is a new birth. It sets a pattern of dying and rising which will continually be repeated. For we have to be torn out of the restricted and perverted life of ‘the old man’. We have to «put on the new man» and this change is always embodied in some actual change of attitude and relationship. For there is no turning to God which does not at the same time bring a man face to face with his fellow men in a new way. The new life frees men for community enabling them to break through racial, national, religious and other barriers that divide the unity of mankind.’ [13]

These paragraphs are an excellent summary of the teaching of the Bible about what it means to be human. To be human is to be disobedient to God’s call to sonship, to be restored to sonship through the saving work of Jesus Christ, and to converted and renewed through the work of the Holy Spirit and thus called into a life marked by a new pattern of relationship with other people.

If we go on to ask what the New Testament tells us about how human sexuality fits into this picture,  Paul tells us in no uncertain terms in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20:   

‘Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own;  you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.’

The word translated ‘immorality’ in the RSV is the Greek word porneian which is a catch all phrase referring to all types of sexual activity outside marriage (same-sex sexual relationships included). What Paul is saying is that as Christians we have been redeemed from sin and death by the work of Christ  (‘you were brought with a price’) and our bodies have become places where God dwells through his Spirit. We are to live accordingly and this means that all sex outside marriage is strictly off limits.

What Bishop Paul is hoping that the Church of England will do flies directly in the face of this teaching and for this reason it should not happen.

Martin Davie


[1] Movement of Supporting Anglicans for an Inclusive Church.

[2] Paul Bayes, Sex on the brain’  (MoSAIC keynote, June 2021) at

https://drive.google.com/file/d/18wweoQMUOVZP5Y4pYqxHk2o2-Z79iJtP/view

[3] ‘Church of England should recognise same-sex weddings, says bishop,’ The Guardian 26 June 2021.  

[4]  Bayes, p.1.

[5] Bayes, p.1.

[6] Bayes, p.1.

[7] The World Council of Churches, The Uppsala Report, 1968 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1968). 

[8] Bayes, p.1.

[9] Bayes, p.3.

[10] Bayes, p.3.

[11] Bayes, pp.3-4.

[12] Bayes, p.5.

[13] Uppsala Report, p. 28.

On leadership and building bridges – a response to David Runcorn.

Where David Runcorn and I disagree.

In his article ‘Living in Love and Faith ‘is building the bridge as we cross it’ published in the Church Times on 19 June 2021 David Runcorn declares that Living in Love and Faith (LLF) says to:

…. those in leadership — national, local, and all expressions between. Your task is not to take front stage, guarding received understandings, or ‘telling’ people what the truth is. It is to stand in the midst, to enable others to think, to be alongside them, to journey with and guide the discernment of the mind of God within that.[1]

I agree with David that this is what LLF says. Where I disagree with David is that, while he thinks this is a good thing, I do not. In the rest of this essay, I shall explain why.

The key issue is that David seems to be in favour of what I would describe as a ‘non-directive’ approach to Christian leadership, whereas I think the calling of Christian leaders is precisely to give direction.

The meaning of shema.

In his article David accepts the claim made by the late Lord Sacks that the Hebrew Bible has no word which means ‘obey.’ This idea is misleading. The reason that it is misleading is that the Hebrew verb shema, although it has the basic meaning ‘to hear,’ also has the wider meaning of ‘hear and obey.’

This point is helpfully made in Lois Tverberg’s article ‘Shema: to hear is to obey.’ In this article she writes as follows:

‘Biblical Hebrew includes only about 8,000 words, far fewer than the 100,000 or more we have in English. Because Hebrew has so few words, each is like an over-stuffed suitcase, bulging with extra meanings that it must carry in order for the language to fully describe reality. Unpacking each word is a delightful exercise in seeing how the ancient authors organized ideas, sometimes grouping concepts together in very different ways than we do. For example, the word shema (pronounced ‘shmah’) is often translated as ‘hear.’ But the word shema actually has a much wider, deeper meaning than ‘to perceive sound.’ It encompasses a whole spectrum of ideas that includes listening, taking heed, and responding with action to what one has heard.

I discovered the wideness of the word shema in my first Hebrew class. One classmate had a smattering of Hebrew knowledge gleaned from other places, and he let us all know it. He’d come late, leave early, and goof around during class. The teacher would pose a question to someone else, and he’d blurt out the answer before they could respond. Annoyed, one classmate pointedly inquired, ‘How do you tell someone to obey?’

‘Shema,’ responded my instructor.

Later that afternoon, curiosity prodded me to search for verses that contained ‘obey’ in my computer Bible program. In almost every case, the Hebrew behind ‘obey’ was shema!

For instance, in the English, we read Deuteronomy 11:13 as, ‘So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today…’ Literally, though, this verse reads, ‘And it will be if hearing, you will hear…’

And after Moses recited the covenant to the people of Israel, they responded, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey’ (Exodus 24:7, NIV). But the Hebrew here actually reads, ‘All that God had said we will do and we will hear.’ The two verbs here are really synonymous—to hear is to do, to be obedient.

This became even more clear one sticky summer evening when I was visiting an old college friend. As we chatted together in her front yard, we could hear squealing and laughter coming from behind her house. Her kids were drenching each other in a water fight, a duel between the garden hose and a big squirt gun.

As the sun sank below the horizon it was getting past their bedtimes, so we paused our conversation so that she could call them inside. ‘It’s getting late—time to go in,’ she announced. But the giggling and chasing didn’t even slow down. She repeated her command, louder and louder. No effect.

‘My kids seem to have a hearing problem, Lois,’ she sighed, wearily.

Since I knew that she had studied some Hebrew, I commented, ‘You know, actually, what I think your kids have is a shema-ing problem.’ Her words were vibrating their eardrums, but not actually moving their bodies toward the door to her house. She could have been talking in Klingon for all their response. She knew as well as I did that the natural outcome of listening should be response.

Grasping the wider meaning of shema yields insights to other biblical mysteries. In the psalms, David pleads, ‘Oh Lord, please hear my prayer.’ But he wasn’t accusing God of being deaf or disinterested. Rather, he was calling on God to take action, not just listen to his words. When the angel appeared to Zechariah to announce that his wife Elizabeth was pregnant with John, he declared that their prayer had been heard—that God was answering the barren couple’s prayerful longings to have a child. (Luke 1:13)

Understanding the word shema also helps us see why Jesus often concluded his teaching with the words ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear!’ What he really meant was, ‘You have heard my teaching, now take it to heart and obey it!’ He wants us to be doers of his words, not hearers only (James 1:22).’ [2]

Obedience and the role of leaders in the New Testament.

This Jewish understanding of the need for hearing to result in obedience is also found in Matthew 28:19-20 and Romans 1:5, two key passages which summarise the missionary mandate given by Jesus to  his Church.

In Matthew 28:19-20 we read

‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’

Here we see that making disciples involves teaching people to be obedient to what Jesus has commanded. Jesus is the new and better Moses who gives God’s commands to God’s new covenant people drawn from all nations, and the Church’s calling is to teach people to obey these commands.

In Romans 1:5 we read that Paul has received ‘grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.’ In other words, the apostolic task given to Paul by the risen Christ is, as in Matthew 28, to establish obedience to God among people from all nations. This obedience consists first and foremost in obedient acceptance of the gospel message taught by Paul (‘faith’), but, as Paul’s letters make abundantly clear, it also involves living a new way of life in which this obedience of faith is manifested in daily life.

In neither of these passages is there any idea that the task given by Jesus to the apostles was to accompany people as they discerned for themselves what obedience meant. Just as Jesus taught the apostles what obedience meant so they were to teach others in their turn. Moreover, contrary to what David suggests in his Church Times article,  this did not involve simply telling stories, either the story of what God had done in Jesus Christ, or their own personal stories. What we see in the New Testament. as in the Old , is that teaching people to live obediently involves teaching people the overarching story, the ‘meta-narrative,’ of the mighty acts of God in creation and redemption, but not stopping at that point. People also need to be taught how to live rightly in the light of that story rather than being left to try to work this out for themselves.

Leadership in the Early Church and in the 1662 Ordinal.

In the earliest days of the Church such teaching was undertaken primarily by the apostles, but as time went on and they knew that death was coming they passed on this responsibility to a new generation of leaders as we see in Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (Acts 20:17-38), in 1 and 2 Timothy, James and 1 Peter, and in the testimony of writers from the Patristic period.

In this way the leadership of the Church by bishops and elders was established, with bishops in particular having responsibility for teaching their flocks the path of Christian obedience, a path which involved both right belief and right conduct. That is why the bishop had a cathedra, a teaching chair, with the cathedral being the place where the chair was situated. [3]

At the Reformation the Anglican Reformers sought to re-emphasize the teaching responsibility of both bishops and elders (‘priests’). That is why in the 1662 Ordinal both are asked whether they will ‘instruct the people committed to your charge’ on the basis of the teaching of Scripture, such instruction to include both belief and behaviour as we see, for example, in the Prayer Book catechism.

Because deacons are assistant leaders and therefore do not have people committed to their charge in the same way as bishops and priests the Ordinal does not ask deacons the same question. However, it does say that instruction is part of their role too since they are to ‘instruct the youth in the catechism’ and to preach if authorised by their bishop to do so.

The standard criticism of this view of the role of leaders is that it gives insufficient responsibility to the laity, but in fact they have very important responsibilities. They have the responsibility to listen with attention and understanding to what is taught to them, to take it to heart, to act upon it, and to pass it on to others.

The view of the role of leaders that I have sketched out remains the pattern to which the Church of England remains officially committed, the major change being that the responsibility for instruction is now given to authorised lay ministers as well as to bishops, priests and deacons.

The problem with LLF.

The reason why, unlike David, I have a great problem with LLF is that I think that it involves a failure by the bishops to fulfil their responsibility to give instruction to the people given to their charge.

There is now great confusion not only in society, but also in the Church, regarding sexual ethics. In this situation the responsibility of the bishops is to teach those in the Church of England, and anyone else who is willing to listen, that obedience to God means living as the men or women God created us to be (as determined by our biology) and refraining from all forms of sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage, same-sex marriage included. It is in this way, and only in this way, that people can fulfil the biblical injunction to ‘glorify God in you body’ (1 Corinthians 6:20).

Tragically the bishops have failed to fulfil this responsibility. Instead  In LLF they have essentially told the faithful to try to work out a pattern of sexual ethics for themselves on the basis of material that only adds further to the existing confusion because of the way it combines orthodox and unorthodox views of sexual ethics with no criteria for how to distinguish between them.

Contrary to what David thinks, the task of Church leaders, and bishops in particular, is precisely to tell people ‘what the truth is.’

One of the standard images used for a bishop in in the early Church is a physician of souls, the idea being that like a doctor they are responsible to helping people to live healthy lives, but in this case spiritually rather than physically (see for example Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule). Now, imagine someone saying that a doctor should not tell you the truth about your condition and what you need to do about it. You would think that they had entirely failed to understand what a doctor is for. Similarly,  anyone who thinks that a bishop should not tell people what the truth is and what they should do about it has entirely failed to understand what a bishop is for.

The calling of bishops is to tell people the truth about what obedience to God involves on the basis of the teaching given to us by God himself in Scripture. In the case of LLF the bishops of the Church of England have failed to live up to this calling.

Why do we need to build a bridge?

A final issue raised by David’s article has to do with the idea that LLF involves ‘building the bridge as we cross it.’  The image itself is confusing as it is not entirely clear how you can cross a bridge while you are still building it. However, the more fundamental question is why the bridge needs building in the first place.  

Imagine a group of travellers approaching a river. They see a bridge, but rather than going across it in order to continue their journey, they stop and build a bridge of their own. Assuming that they are not mad, or simply like building bridges, the reason for their action must be that they do not trust the existing bridge to get them safely across the river.

If we use this as an image for the current disagreements in society and in the Church about human sexuality we can say that there is already a bridge built by God himself, namely the teaching about sexual ethics given in Scripture and the orthodox Christian tradition drawing on Scripture. If people are now seeking to build a new bridge this must be because they think the existing bridge is inadequate. That is to say, it must mean that they think that the teaching that God has provided is inadequate as a guide for human sexual conduct.    

This means that they implicitly are denying the wisdom and goodness of God. They are saying that God cannot be trusted to teach us how to live our lives. And, of course, this is something which no one can ever rightly say. It is a repetition of the primordial sin recorded in Genesis 3 where Adam and Eve conclude that they can decide better than God whether they should eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

As Christians we do not need to build our own bridge. We need to thankfully use the bridge that God in his wisdom and goodness has already built for us.


[1] David Runcorn, ‘‘Living in Love and Faith ‘is building the bridge as we cross it,’ the Church Times, 19 June 2021 at  https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2021/25-june/comment/opinion/living-in-love-and-faith-is building-the-bridge-as-we-cross-it.

[2] Lois Tverberg, ‘‘Shema: to hear is to obey’ at https://ourrabbijesus.com/Shema-to-hear-is-to-obey.

[3] For a good overview of Church leadership in the Early Church see Christopher Beeley, Leading God’s People (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).  

Why the silence, Archbishops?

The brilliant 1995 film The American President, written by Aaron Sorkin, ends with the film’s hero, the fictional President Andrew Shepherd, saving his presidency (and getting the girl) by breaking his silence and telling a press conference exactly what he thinks about the issues raised against him by his chief, opponent, the villainous Senator Bob Rumson.

Even if, like me, you do not agree with Sorkin’s particular brand of social and political liberalism, the message he gives in the film is nonetheless a very important one, namely, that a healthy political culture depends on politicians (and by extension others in public life) not taking refuge in silence, but being willing to stand up and say what they really believe.

I was reminded of the film, and Sorkin’s message, today, as I reflected on the continuing silence from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York  about the case of Dr Päivi Räsänen who is being prosecuted by the authorities in Finland for publicly upholding traditional Christian teaching on sexual ethics. I posted an open letter to the Archbishops concerning her case on 5 May[1] and since then, although there has been widespread coverage of the matter, the Archbishops have remained silent about it.

This raises the question, why the silence? Why aren’t the Archbishops willing to say what they think about this case, which has become a cause of concern among Christians across Europe and around the world? Do they believe that it is right that a Christian from a church with which the Church of England is in communion should face the prospect of up to two years in prison for declaring publicly traditional Christian teaching about human sexuality (teaching to which the Church of England still officially adheres)? If they don’t believe that this is right, then why aren’t they willing to come out and say so?

This week the European Evangelical Alliance, representing 23 million Evangelical  Christians across Europe wrote to the Finnish Government about the prosecution of Dr Räsänen. Its letter runs as follows:

‘The  European  Evangelical  Alliance  (EEA)  defends  freedom  of  religion  or  belief  and freedom of expression for people of all faiths and none. These human rights are vital pillars of democracy.

EEA  is  therefore  dismayed  to  hear  of  a  case  in  Finland  of  a  woman  who  faces prosecution and up to 2 years  in prison for 3 separate cases for  expressing  biblical views.

The police were asked to investigate 3 incidents  of supposed ‘hate speech’, or more precisely in Finnish law ‘ethnic agitation’.  On each occasion, they concluded that there was no case to answer. In the case of a brochure published in 2004, the police added that, if it was decided that biblical views were considered per se to count as agitation, then it would have to become a crime to make the Bible available. Clearly, such  a  situation  would  be  ludicrous.  Foundational  issues  of  freedom  of  religion  or belief and freedom of expression are both at stake.

Despite the police’s warning, the Public Prosecutor has decided to proceed with the prosecution  of  the  individual  at  the  heart  of  this  situation;  Päivi Räsänen,  former Minister of the Interior of Finland.

International  human  rights  law  protects  the  fundamental  right  to  freedom  of expression.  Under  Article  10  of  the  European  Convention  on  Human  Rights  and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, people have the right to express their views in public.

The United Nation’s Rabat Plan of Action has set certain criteria for defining hate speech. In all three situations for which she stands trial, Päivi Räsänen’s actions do not cross the Rabat threshold for hate speech. The context, content and form of her words were fine.  There is no hint of intent, likelihood, or imminence of acts of hatred happening. The only thing one could say is that, as a public figure, Mrs Räsänen’s words  have  reach.  But  there  is  obviously  no  problem  in  having  reach  when  the content, form and context were all fine.

Is  the  Public  Prosecutor  attempting  to  redefine  human  rights  law?  Freedom  of expression gives the right for anyone to share their opinion.  The right to freedom of expression exists to legally protect those that express views which may offend, shock or disturb others. 

Therefore, EEA calls upon the Finnish court system to uphold freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. We urge the Finnish government to make clear its unequivocal support for these fundamental freedoms, and the Rabat Plan of Action’s threshold for hate speech.

Thomas Bucher

General Secretary

European Evangelical Alliance’[2]

Do the Archbishops agree with what the EEA have said in this letter? If they don’t, then why not? If they do, then why haven’t they said something similar? Why the silence, Archbishops?


[1] ‘An open letter to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on the prosecution of Dr Päivi Räsänen’ athttps:/mbarrattdavie.wordpress.com

[2] EEA Statement on Päivi Räsänen,’ 12 May 2021 at https://www.europeanea.org/eea-statement-on-paivi- rasanen-may-2021/

Please don’t abuse abuse.

Back in the mid 1980s, when I was a Post Graduate student at Oxford, I attended a fascinating talk by John Wolffe, now a Professor at the Open University, on his doctoral research on anti-Catholicism in Britain in the middle years of the nineteenth century.[1] Among other things he introduced his audience on that occasion to a now largely forgotten sub-genre of Victorian literature, the anti-Catholic novel. He explained that books had been written with titles such as Griselda the demon nun in which naïve Victorian maidens were led astray by the Church of Rome and ended up in continental nunneries where they were subjected to various unspeakable horrors until they were eventually rescued by their brother/ father/rejected fiancé.

The point of such literature was to try to establish a link between Roman Catholic theology and moral error. Not only was Roman Catholicism doctrinally erroneous, the argument went, but its erroneous doctrines led its adherents towards the kind of immoral behaviour to which the novels refer.

I was reminded of this sad episode in British religious history by an article by Stephen Parsons which was published on the website Surviving Church on 11 April this year. The article is entitled ‘Towards humility? Anglican conservatives after Jonathan Fletcher.’ [2] and it follows the pattern of the Victorian literature I have just referred to by attempting to link theological error with immoral behaviour, in this case the abuse perpetrated by Jonathan Fletcher at Emmanuel Wimbledon.

There are two key sections in the article which contain the heart of Parsons’ argument.

The first declares:

‘Within the world of the conservative Anglicanism, as exemplified by JF, St Helen’s Bishopsgate and All Souls, the inerrant authority of Scripture, interpreted by the godly ‘sound’ preachers gives a semblance of unity to the whole institution.  If the appointed leader has the divine authority to preach the word of God, this logically allows him to exercise control in other areas of church governance.  If any part of this authority is shown to be shaky, then the rest of the authority structure is under threat.  The democratic impulse is not one well cultivated in these circles. If the hard line preaching on moral issues is ever contested, the institution must push back strongly.  Any concession to another version of truth puts a possible doubt over the legitimacy of the leaders.  JF skilfully used the structures of conservative Anglicanism to maintain an enormous amount of power for himself.  He used the power of the institution to resist challengers within.  More importantly, he had power as the preacher of the infallible word of God.  To oppose such a leader, is to oppose God himself.  Who wants to be on the wrong side of God?’

The second declares that in conservative Anglicanism:

‘The Bible, the institution, the doctrine and the leaders – all have to be part of seamless whole that knows no doubt or error.  The logic of infallibility as a doctrine of the Bible is extended to the whole structure, including leadership decisions.  No questioning of leaders, decisions or structures can be tolerated.  That would undermine the fantasy of perfection and certainty which holds the whole structure together.  It is this promise of certainty available to the followers that gives the leaders much of their enormous power.’

What we see from these two sections is that, according to Parsons, in the world of ‘conservative Anglicanism’ the infallibility of the Bible extends to the infallibility of those who preach it. This infallibility of the preacher then extends to all other areas of their activity and this then opens the door to the sort of abuse perpetuated by Jonathan Fletcher in that what they chose to do is necessarily beyond question because it has the sanction of God himself.

In assessing the strength of Parsons’ argument it needs to be understood first of all that he is not in fact talking about conservative Anglicanism as such. A large number of conservative Anglicans are Anglo-Catholics, but these are not the people he has in mind, because if this was the case the argument would have to include not just authority to preach, but also the authority of the Priest to celebrate the Mass and to grant the remission of sins after confession.

What Parsons is actually talking about is conservative Evangelical Anglicanism, but even if this is what he is talking about then his argument is entirely misleading.

First, he is wrong to suggest that conservative Evangelical Anglicanism is exemplified either by Jonathan Fletcher, or by St Helen’s Bishopsgate, or by All Souls Langham Place. Conservative Evangelical Anglicanism is notoriously hard to define, but if we define it in terms of clergy, laity and churches that are in some way affiliated with the Church of England Evangelical Council and would agree with its statement of faith (which would be a generally acceptable definition) then what we are dealing with is thousands of people and churches, most of whom have no connection at all with Jonathan Fletcher (and may never even have heard of him), and most of which are nothing like St Helen’s, or All Souls.

Secondly, the idea that a preacher has divine authority to preach is not a peculiarity of conservative Evangelical Anglicanism. It is in fact a part of basic Anglican theology (and indeed of basic Christian theology). The point of ordination services, for example, is precisely to be the occasion at which such divine authority is given through the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, according to standard conservative Evangelical Anglicanism such divine authority does not convey infallibility on the preaching or teaching of those who are ordained or licensed to preach, nor does it mean that such people are regarded as infallible in anything else they say or do. According to Evangelical theology God is infallible, and so is the Bible as God’s inspired word (2 Timothy 3:16 ,2 Peter 1:21),  but nothing, and no one, else has inherent freedom from error (which is why Evangelicals reject the doctrine of Papal infalliblity). The reason why Evangelicals have regarded the teaching of certain Evangelical leaders as having authority and have also accepted the authority of certain statements of belief (such as the historic Anglican formularies), is not because these are regarded as infallible in principle, but because they are seen to in fact be in line with the infallible teaching of Scripture.

Fourthly, as anyone who has inhabited the Evangelical world for any length of time will testify, in the world of conservative Evangelical Anglicanism not only is the ‘questioning of leaders, decisions and structures’ tolerated, but it is something that happens all the time. Although there is a stable core of traditional Evangelical faith and practice, everything else is endlessly discussed, debated, and argued about. Furthermore, conservative Evangelicals hold as one of their fundamental doctrinal tenets that the continuing effects of the Fall mean that everyone, including baptised believers, and including the ordained, ‘is of his own nature inclined to evil’ (Article IX) and therefore we must all be on guard against the effects of this inclination, whether in ourselves or others.

What this means is that if a leader goes off the rails either doctrinally or morally then according to basic Evangelical belief to oppose such a leader is most certainly not to oppose God, but rather to do God’s work (just as Paul did God’s work when he rebuked Peter for going off the rails in Antioch as recorded in Galatians 2:11-21). There is tragically now no doubt that abuse has been allowed to take place in in conservative Evangelical Anglican circles, but this took place in spite of conservative Evangelical Anglican belief, and not because of it. 

Abuse of children, adults when they are vulnerable, or anyone else, whether this takes a physical, mental, or sexual form, is a sin for which there can be no excuse. It involves a grievous failure to love our neighbours and, as such, a grievous failure to love God. The only legitimate response to such behaviour is lament, repentance, the application of ecclesiastical and civil discipline, and the taking of steps to support the victims and to ensure as far as possible that such abuse will not take place in future.

What is neither helpful nor legitimate, however, is to take the horrific reality of abuse and use it as a weapon to attack others with whose theology and practice we disagree. It is particularly wrong to do this in a way that perpetuates falsehoods about the people in question. That is what the Victorian writers to whom I referred at the beginning of this piece did, and I think it is what Parsons has done as well. This is an abuse of abuse and should not happen.


[1] This research was eventually published as John Wolffe , The Protestant Crusade in Great Britain 1829-1860  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

[2] Stephen Parsons, ‘Towards humility? Anglican Conservatives after Jonathan Fletcher,’  Surviving Church, 11April 2021, at  http://survivingchurch.org/2021/04/ .

Receiving love: what the Catechism teaches about the sacraments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question. What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?

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

Question. How many parts are there in a Sacrament?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being dependent: what the Catechism teaches about prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question. What desirest thou of God in this Prayer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer. Ten.

Question. Which be they?

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

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

I. Thou shalt have none other gods but me.

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

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

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

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

VI. Thou shalt do no murder.

VII. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

VIII. Thou shalt not steal.

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

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

Question. What dost thou chiefly learn by these Commandments?

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

Question. What is thy duty towards God?

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

Question. What is thy duty towards thy Neighbour?

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Bauckham, p.208.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Catechist. Rehearse the Articles of thy Belief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The truth that God has redeemed us means:

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

The truth that God sanctifies us means:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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