Receiving love: what the Catechism teaches about the sacraments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question. What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?

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

Question. How many parts are there in a Sacrament?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being dependent: what the Catechism teaches about prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question. What desirest thou of God in this Prayer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer. Ten.

Question. Which be they?

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

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

I. Thou shalt have none other gods but me.

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

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

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

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

VI. Thou shalt do no murder.

VII. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

VIII. Thou shalt not steal.

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

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

Question. What dost thou chiefly learn by these Commandments?

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

Question. What is thy duty towards God?

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

Question. What is thy duty towards thy Neighbour?

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Bauckham, p.208.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Catechist. Rehearse the Articles of thy Belief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The truth that God has redeemed us means:

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

The truth that God sanctifies us means:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What did your Godfathers and Godmothers then for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Question. What is your Name?

Answer. N. or M.

Question. Who gave you this Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning from J I Packer about principles for Christian unity.

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

Unity as a present gift and a future goal.

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

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

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

Unity as bounded by revealed truth.

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

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

Unity as involving a principled practice of Christian love.  

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

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

What these principles mean for us today.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Details can be found on the Church in Wales website at https://www.churchinwales.org.uk/en/about- us/governing-body/meetings/

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

[3] See Davidson pp.191-193.

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

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

Western culture and the sexual self – the contemporary challenge to the Christian view of human identity and sexual behaviour.

Introduction

The St Andrew’s Day Statement, published twenty five years ago this month by the Church of England Evangelical Council, was an attempt by a collection of British Evangelical theologians to try to sketch out what a constructive Christian engagement with the issue of same-sex relationships should look like at a time when, like today, the Church was deeply divided about the topic, following the publication of Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 and in the run up to the Lambeth Conference of 1998. It was intended to; ‘provide some definition of the theological ground upon which the issue should be addressed and from which any fruitful discussion between those who disagree may proceed.’ [1]

The statement was welcomed by many at the time of its publication as an important statement of the Evangelical position, and it has been read, re-read and referenced constantly in the quarter century since. It has also been the foundation for a series of subsequent statements by the CEEC on the issue of same-sex relationships, the St Matthias Day Statement in 2011, Guarding the Deposit in 2017, and Gospel Church and Marriage in 2018 and for the CEEC’s contribution to the Living in Love and Faith project, Glorify God in your Body, which was also published in 2018.

The Statement is in three parts. First, there is an introduction setting out what the statement is intended to achieve. Secondly, there is an affirmation of three basic ‘credal principles’[2] concerning Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and God the Father. Thirdly, there is a threefold ‘application of these principles to the question of homosexuality as it presents itself to the church today.’ [3]

In this paper I shall explore what is said in the first paragraph of the first application about how human beings find their true identity in Christ, and then look at how developments in Western culture mean that this view of human identity is now widely seen as immoral. Lastly, I shall look at how orthodox Christians need to respond to this situation.

How Christ determines who we are.

The paragraph says concerning Jesus Christ:

‘In him’ — and in him alone — ‘we know both God and human nature as they truly are’; and so in him alone we know ourselves as we truly are. There can be no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ. We must be on guard, therefore, against constructing any other ground for our identities than the redeemed humanity given us in him. Those who understand themselves as homosexuals, no more and no less than those who do not, are liable to false understandings based on personal or family histories, emotional dispositions, social settings, and solidarities formed by common experiences or ambitions. Our sexual affections can no more define who we are than can our class, race or nationality. At the deepest ontological level, therefore, there is no such thing as ‘a’ homosexual or ‘a’ heterosexual; there are human beings, male and female, called to redeemed humanity in Christ, endowed with a complex variety of emotional potentialities and threatened by a complex variety of forms of alienation.[4]

The first point to note is that the ‘we’ mentioned in the first sentence is not just Christians, but all human beings. The reason that this is the case, says the second sentence, is because there can be ‘no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ.’

This claim leads to the obvious question, in what way is a first century male, Jewish, human being, determinative for the existence of all other human beings?

The answer is twofold. First of all, Jesus Christ was, and is, not just a human being, but rather God incarnate. This means that he was, and is, both fully human and fully divine, and that the person who united the human and divine natures was God the Son, the second person of the Trinity who, possessing the divine nature from all eternity, assumed human nature at the incarnation, thereby taking humanity into the life of God. In the words of the prologue to John’s Gospel, it was the word who was ‘with God’ and ‘was God’ who ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:1 & 14).

As the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, together with the Father and Holy Spirit, created the world and humanity within it.

In the words of John: ‘He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.’ (John 1:2-3)

In the words of Paul:  ‘….in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.’ (Colossians 1:17)

In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, God the Son was the one through whom God the Father: ‘created the world’ (Hebrews 1:2)

To put it in systematic terms, what the Bible teaches is that all things have their existence from God the Father, through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit.

It follows from this that our existence as human beings rests on the fact that we, along with everything else, were created in this way. Furthermore when all things were created through God the Son we are told that God looked at what he had made ‘and it was very good’ and that God then blessed it and ‘rested from all his work which he had done in creation’ (Genesis 1:13 and 2:4). God preserves what he has made and acts to bring it to the goal he intends for it, but he does not change it or create it afresh. As Karl Barth writes: ‘It is part of the history of creation that God completed his work and confronted it as a completed totality.’ This means that there is a created order ‘which neither the terrors of chance nor the ingenuity of art can overthrow.’ [5]

What this means for our existence as human beings is that ‘the order of things is there, it is objective and mankind has a place within it.’[6] The nature of existence of human beings is therefore given. It is something that we can discover, but not something which we can create.

God has created us through Christ. We are not our own creators and are therefore unable to determine the conditions of our existence. Nor should we wish to do so. Our existence as those created by God is just as it should be. As we have seen, God has ‘blessed’ our existence and declared it to be ‘very good.’  

It is true that, since the human race was originally created, sin and death have spoiled the goodness of what God has made. We have become, in ourselves, corrupted creatures heading towards death. However, God has not abandoned us. The second reason that our existence is determined by Christ is that God became incarnate in Christ to redeem us (that is, set us free) from our corruption and the death that flows from it.

On the first Good Friday Christ died on the cross in an act of divine judgement that put to death our old corrupted natures and this took place in order that we might receive instead a wholly new life through his resurrection (Romans 6:6-11).  As John Calvin puts it:

‘…. our old man is destroyed by the death of Christ, so that His resurrection may restore our righteousness, and make us new creatures. And since Christ has been given to us for life, why should we die with Him, if not to rise to a better life? Christ, therefore, puts to death what is mortal in us in order that He may truly restore us to life.’[7]

Oliver O’ Donovan develops this point further when he writes:

‘The resurrection carries with it the promise that ‘all shall be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:22). The raising of Christ is representative, not in the way that a symbol is representative, expressing a reality which has an independent and prior standing, but in the way that a national leader is representative when he brings about for the whole of his people whatever it is, peace or war, that he effects on their behalf. And so this central proclamation directs us back also to the message of the incarnation, by which we learn how, through the unique presence of God to his creation, the whole created order is taken up into the fate of this particular representative man at this particular moment in history, on whose one fate turns the redemption of all. And it directs us forward to the end of history when that particular and representative fate is universalized in the resurrection of mankind from the dead. Each in his  own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ’ (15:23). The sign that God has stood by his created order implies that this created order, with mankind in its proper place within it, is to be totally restored at last.’[8]

At the end of time there will be a renewed creation (‘a new heaven and a new earth’ Revelation 21:1), and within it resurrected human beings will live as the people God created them to be. We do not yet fully experience the life we will have in this new creation, but the presence of the Spirit given to us by the risen Christ is the ‘first fruits’ (Romans 8:25) of the new life that is coming and enables us to begin to live now in a way that anticipates how we shall live  then.

It is true that the conditions of our life in the new world that is coming will not be entirely the same as our existence now. We will have bodies fully empowered by the Spirit and no longer subject to decay or death (1 Corinthians 15:42-44) and if we are married in this world it will no longer be true in the same way in the world to come (Matthew 22:22-33) because our marital relationship will be caught up and transcended in the universal ‘marriage’ or eternal communion of love between God and all of his redeemed people.

However, this does not mean that we will cease to be the people we are now. We will always be that particular human being God made us to be. To quote C S Lewis:

‘… it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you—you, the individual reader, John Stubbs or Janet Smith. Blessed and fortunate creature, your eyes shall behold Him and not another’s. All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction.’ [9]

As the St Andrew’s Day Statement notes, because all this is potentially true of all human beings (‘potentially’ because human beings have the capacity to reject life in God’s new creation) it is true just as much for those who identify as homosexual as for those who identify as heterosexual. How someone chooses to identify themselves does not affect the issue. However they see themselves, in reality they are those who are  ‘called to redeemed humanity in Christ’, that is they are those people who have been created by God in Christ, and redeemed by God in Christ, and are summoned to live now in the light of this truth.

The shape of our created existence.

If we ask about the specific shape of our existence as those created and redeemed by Christ, the first answer is that God has created his human creatures to be either male or female.

Observation of human beings shows us that they have many things in common. All human beings have bodies and souls, and human bodies have common features such as heads, feet, hearts, and fingernails. However, alongside the things humans have in common, there are also differences which allow us to tell one human being from another.

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

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

Scripture agrees what our observation of the world tells us. It teaches us that God created humanity to exist in two sexes, male and female. ‘God created men in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:27)  It is because they are male and female that human beings can fulfil the command God gives them to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ through sexual intercourse (see Genesis 4:1 where ‘Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain’). Furthermore, God has also created marriage as a life-long exclusive relationship between one man and woman to be the proper setting for sexual intercourse and the begetting and raising of children (Genesis 2:18-25).

However, as we have already indicated, sex and marriage as we know them now will not continue to exist in the world that is to come. While those who are men and women in this world will continue to be men and women in the world to come, they will exist in a state of perfect, intimate, communion with God and all God’s people. This state of communion is the ultimate fulfilment of our human need for relational intimacy and, as such, it is the transcendent reality which sex and marriage in this world foreshadow.

Because all this is so, it follows that sex and marriage are not the ultimate goals of human existence. Those who are not married and do not enjoy sexual intercourse in this life will not lose out because they, just like those who are married, will be able to enjoy the reality of perfect intimacy with God and all God’s people in the world to come. In this way, they, too, will be able to experience the perfect fulfilment of their creation as male or female human beings.

Since it is not necessary for human beings to be married and have sex in order to achieve the goal for which they were created, it follows that it is not necessary for people to be married or have sex in this life. We can see this most clearly in the case of Jesus Christ. He lived a perfect human life as a male human being with the capacity for sexual desire and sexual activity, and yet he remained for the whole of his earthly life unmarried and sexually abstinent.

Both Jesus and Paul teach that God also calls other people in addition to Jesus to live as sexually abstinent single people for the whole of their lives (see Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:25–35). Those who are called to live in this way are free to give themselves to the service of God in a radically wholehearted way, free of the responsibilities which marriage and family life bring with them. Their singleness also points forward to the life of the world to come in which, as we have said, no one will be married.

In addition to calling some people to be single for the whole of their lives, God also calls most people to be single for part of their lives. This is true for people before they marry, and it is also true for people whose marriage has come to an end and who have not re-married.

What all this means is that the second part of the Christian answer about the nature of our created existence is that from a Christian perspective, there are two ways in which God calls women and men  to live for either the whole or part of their lives – marriage and singleness. Because these are both states in which God calls his human creatures to live, neither of them is morally superior to the other. Marriage is not better than singleness, and singleness is not better than marriage. They are just different.

What is not equally good, and what is never acceptable, is to confuse the married and single states by having sexual activity outside marriage, whether this takes the form of sex between two people of the opposite sex, or two people of the same sex (who cannot be married because marriage is between a man and a woman). 

The issues we now face as a result of the development of Western culture.

The Christian understanding of human identity and the Christian sexual ethic which I have just outlined have been dominant in Western culture for most of the past two millennia. Obviously, people have not always lived in accordance with the Christian ethic, but this ethic, and the view of human identity that underlies it, have shaped the way most people in the West have viewed the world and have found expression in Western religion, law, education and art, as well as people’s day to day lives.

However, they are widely regarded today as both irrational and immoral. This can be seen in the way that Christian opposition to same-sex sexual relationships and same-sex marriage is regularly labelled as ‘homophobia’ and Christian opposition to people choosing to define their own sexual identity is regularly labelled as ‘transphobia,’ both terms carrying the implication that this opposition  is (a) irrational and (b) harmfully prejudicial to the LGBTQI+ people concerned.

If we ask how this seismic shift in attitudes took place, a persuasive account is now given in Carl Trueman’s new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self [10]in which he draws heavily on the workof three seminal modern thinkers, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the American sociologist and social critic Philip Rieff, and the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.

As Trueman explains in his Introduction:

‘The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’ My grandfather died in 1994, less than thirty  years ago, and yet, had he ever heard that sentence uttered in his presence, I have little doubt that he would have burst out laughing and considered it a piece of incoherent gibberish. And yet today it is a sentence that many in our society regard as not only meaningful but so significant that to deny it or question it in some way is to reveal oneself as stupid, immoral, or subject to yet another irrational phobia.’[11]

What Trueman shows in his book is that the reason that it has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful to say ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,’ and unacceptable to deny or question this statement, is because of a number of interrelated developments that have taken place in Western society since the eighteenth century. Taken together, these developments mean that what Trueman calls the ‘social imaginary,’ the way most people understand the world and how they should behave within it,[12] has shifted radically and the acceptance of the claims about their existence made by transgender people is a result of this shift.

The developments in question are as follows:

First, the secularisation of Western society and the consequent loss of the sense of the world as God’s creation means that there has been a shift from a ‘mimetic’ to a ‘poietic’ view of the world. As Trueman explains:

‘A mimetic view regards the world as having a given order and a given meaning and thus sees human beings as required to discover that meaning and conform themselves to it. Poiesis, by way of contrast, sees the world as so much raw material out of which meaning and purpose can be created by the individual.’ [13]

Secondly, there has been the related loss of  the idea of  ‘sacred order.’  In Western culture  today most people no longer believe that there is fixed moral order which has been established by God and which all human beings need to respect in consequence.

Thirdly, as a result Western culture lacks an agreed basis for ethics, and so as MacIntyre has argued, the basis of ethical decision making has become, by default, emotivism, ethics based on personal feeling and preference.[14]

Fourthly, there has been a change in the way in which most people view the purpose of human existence, the good to which human beings should aspire. What has emerged is what Taylor calls a ‘culture of authenticity’ which he defines as follows:

‘The understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late eighteenth century, that each of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or by the previous generation, or religious or political authority.’ [15]

Fifthly, there has been the development of what Rieff calls the ‘therapeutic society,’ a society in which the role of social institutions is viewed as being to foster the individual’s sense of psychological well-being as they live out their authentic existence. [16]

 Sixthly, since the work of Sigmund Freud, it has come to be widely believed that ‘humans, from infancy onward, are at core sexual beings. It is our sexual desires that are ultimately decisive for who we are.’ [17] The acceptance of Freud’s ideas has been facilitated by the huge growth in pornography and developments in modern medicine which make the results of sexual activity less serious through separating sex from childbirth and providing more effective treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

Seventhly, the work of Neo-Marxist scholars such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse has led to the idea that the traditional view of the family as consisting of a married couple and their children, and the traditional sexual morality linked to this, are inherently oppressive and need to be overthrown

As Trueman argues, the result of these seven developments has been to create a social imaginary that is based on poiesis rather than mimesis, and in which the idea of being a woman trapped in a man’s body makes perfect sense. Negatively, there is no fixed order of things, and no fixed pattern for human existence or behaviour, and so no yardstick against which one can say the idea is wrong. Positively, the purpose of my existence is to live as authentically as possible in accordance with what I perceive to be my true self, and if this involves seeing myself as a woman, even though I have a man’s body, then that is what I should do.

Furthermore, society should support me in so doing because it is in this way that I will achieve psychological well-being. Conversely, thinking otherwise is immoral because it involves damaging my psychological well-being through a refusal to give recognition to who I know myself to be.

The same factors likewise create a social imaginary in which the acceptance of same-sex relationships and the claim to a gay or lesbian identity also makes sense. As before, there is no fixed order of things and no fixed pattern for human behaviour, and so no yardstick against which one can say same-sex relationships are intrinsically wrong. Positively, the purpose of my existence is to live as authentically as possible in accordance with what I perceive to be my true self, and if this involves having sex with someone of my own sex then that is what I should do. In addition, because, as Freud has taught us, sexual desire is at the core of human identity, my desire for sex with someone of my own sex defines who I am. I am gay or lesbian.

As Trueman goes on to say, within this world view:

‘…mere tolerance of homosexuality is bound to become unacceptable. The issue is not one of simply decriminalizing  behavior; that would certainly mean that homosexual acts were tolerated by society, but the acts are only part of the overall problem. The real issue is one of recognition, or recognizing the legitimacy of who the person thinks he actually is. This requires more than mere tolerance, it requires equality before the law and recognition by the law and in society. And that means that those who refuse to grant such recognition will be the ones who find themselves on the wrong side of both the law and emerging social attitudes.

The person who objects to homosexual practice is, in contemporary society, actually objecting to homosexual identity. And the refusal by any individual to recognize an identity that society at large recognizes as legitimate is a moral offense, not simply a matter of indifference.’ [18]

The point made by Trueman in this quotation means that in the eyes of contemporary culture the Christian anthropology contained in the Saint Andrew’s Day Statement and expounded at the start of this paper could well be seen as a form of ‘hate speech.’  This is because the claim that there is ‘no such thing as ‘a’ homosexual’ is an attack on the very identity of the people concerned and as such, as Trueman says, ‘a moral offense, not simply a matter of indifference.’  From this perspective, the theological approach expressed in the St Andrew’s Day Statement is as offensive as the theological arguments that were used to support slavery and apartheid.

This is also why LGBTQI+ campaigners object so strongly to the idea that those Christians who object to same-sex sexual relationships can ‘hate the sin but love the sinner.’  In a Post-Freudian world view sexual identity and sexual behaviour cannot be separated. Hence to hate the sin is necessarily also  to hate the sinner.

Lastly, this is why LGBTQI+ campaigners will not be content with anything less than the transformation of the Church of England into a body that fully and unreservedly affirms lesbian and gay relationships and all forms of transgender activity. Anything less is an attack on the fundamental identity of the people concerned and as such morally unacceptable. Viewed from this perspective, the hope of the powers that be in the Church of England that we can simply learn to live with difference is naïve.

What all this means for orthodox Christians in the Church of England.

For orthodox Christians in the Church of England, that is, those Christians who still hold to the anthropology and sexual ethics taught in the Bible and by the subsequent mainstream tradition of the Christian Church, the first thing this all means is that they need to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’

More specifically, it means that they need to accept that the opposition to traditional Christian anthropology and ethics is not going away any time soon. Even if the orthodox hold the line in the Church of England in the immediate aftermath of Living in Love and Faith, the campaign to change the theology and practice of the Church of England will simply continue for the reasons set out above.   

In addition, orthodox Christians need to realise that being faithful to their beliefs will mean being willing to live as a member of morally suspect minority in our society. Fortunately, protections to religious liberty are sufficiently well entrenched in our society that Christians do not need to fear the sort of persecution for their beliefs that Christians face in other parts of the world.  However, they will face what Rod Dreher has called assaults from ‘soft totalitarianism’[19] in that they may well face moral opprobrium from their friends, colleagues and family because of what they believe, they may face harassment from official institutions, they may find it difficult to find employment or to advance in their careers, and they may be denied access to the either the mainstream or to social media. All these things are already happening, and they are likely to get worse.

The second thing orthodox Christians need to do is to develop a strategy to survive this particular time of trial.

This strategy, based on the experience of Christians in other times of persecution, will need to involve four elements

1.Christians will need to understand the issues at stake. The immediate issues of sexual behaviour and identity facing the Church are, as we have seen, merely the expression of a clash between a mimetic and poietic world view, and hence between a world view based on the Christian revelation, and a world view based on its rejection. This in turn means that no compromise is possible.

2. Christians will need to be active in teaching and in catechesis. If Christians are to be faithful to the Christian world view, they will need first to understand it. Hence teaching about the Christian world view and the anthropology and sexual ethics that flow from it need to be central to the Church’s life. In addition, priority will need to be given to the instruction of children and young people in these matters since they are the ones who are most exposed to the culture’s rejection of traditional Christian belief through the media and through education. 

3. Christians will need to be active in apologetics. They need to be active in explaining to those outside the Church why the Christian world view makes better sense than the world view that has developed in the West since the Enlightenment. In particular they need to understand and highlight the shortcomings of the arguments in favour of the modern Western world view and the known damage that the sexual revolution stemming from has caused in Western society, particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society.

4. Finally, the Church needs to be a community that, in Lesslie Newbigin’s words, acts as the ‘hermeneutic of the Gospel.’[20] In a society in which, for better or worse, lived experience is viewed as the guide to truth, then it is only as people experience the transforming love of God embodied in a loving and supportive Christian community that they will become open to explore the truth of that Church’s teaching and to accepting that Church’s ethics. That is why Ed Shaw was right to give his book on ‘the church and same-sex attraction’ the title The Plausiblity Problem.[21]  The problem orthodox Christians have to address is how can our community life make our worldview plausible?

M B Davie  26.11.2020


[1] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Timothy Bradshaw (ed), The Way Forward? 2ed (London: SCM Press, 2003), p.5.

[2] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Bradshaw, p.6. 

[3] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Bradshaw, p.6. 

[4] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Bradshaw, p.7.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (London & New York: T&T Clark, 204), p.222.

[6] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (Leicester: Apollos, 1984), p. 61.

[7] John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press: 1961), pp.122-123.

[8] O’Donovan, p.15.

[9] C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (Glasgow: Fount, 1978), p. 135.

[10] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020).

[11] Trueman p.19.

[12] Trueman pp.36-37.

[13] Trueman p.39.

[14] This is the argument put forward by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1983).

[15] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age ( Cambridge Ma and London: Belknapp Press, 2007), p.475.

[16] See Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966).

[17] Trueman, p.27.

[18] Trueman, pp.68-69.

[19] See Rod Dreher, Live not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (New York: Random House, 2020).

[20] Lesslie Newbiggin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989), Ch.18.

[21] Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem (Nottingham: IVP, 2015). 

David Runcorn, Love Means Love, a review.

Introduction

David Runcorn is an ordained priest in the Church of England, he is a writer and a theologian, and in recent years he has been a prominent voice among those arguing for the Church of England to accept same-sex relationships as a legitimate form of Christian discipleship. He describes his new book Love Means Love – Same-sex relationships and the Bible[1] as ‘the fruit of a personal journey with the Bible offered to all who are seeking to explore our often conflicted understanding of human being and becoming.’ (p.9

I. The argument of Runcorn’s book.

His book consists of fifteen chapters. Chapter 1 is entitled ‘On opening doors: introducing the discussion.’ In this chapter Runcorn describes the challenges facing members of the Church of England as they discuss the issue of same-sex relationships. He argues that in the face of these challenges:

‘We need to open up this discussion without anxiety. We need to learn how to love without fear as we explore new patterns of relating and belonging. We have not been here before. There are still too few open, exploratory places where Bibles can be studied, difficult questions asked, understanding tested out, wounds healed and differences faced respectfully’ (p.13).

He further argues that supporting same-sex relationships does not means ‘abandoning the Bible’ because ‘supporting same-sex relationships does not involve any contradiction or denial of what the Bible teaches’ and that it does not mean ‘condoning promiscuity’ (p.14). On the latter point he comments ‘sexual infidelity and relational fragility are endemic within heterosexual communities, but no one claims that supporting heterosexual relationships means condoning promiscuity’ (p.14).

Chapter 2 is entitled ‘’That my house may be filled’: Jesus and the new community.’ In this chapter Runcorn argues that the way that Jesus welcomed ‘the poor, disabled, victimized and sick, and penitent outsiders,’ Paul’s teaching about mutual tolerance between those with different views, and the way the early Church was led to accept both Jewish and Gentile believers on the same basis, point to the need for Church to be a welcoming community and one in which those with different views of sexuality move ‘to a place that neither has been before’ (p.21).

Chapter 3 is entitled ‘The Surprise of God?  Dialogue with and beyond the word.’  In this chapter Runcorn argues that we need what he calls a ‘dialogical’ approach to Scripture in relation to issues which it ‘(1) originally addressed in more than one way and in very different contexts; (2) does not address at all; or (3) would not even recognise or understand within its own world – the issue we are faced with today’ (pp.26-27).  Runcorn holds that a dialogical approach involves the ‘unsettling process of reading, re-examining, repenting, reinterpreting and revising even long unquestioned biblical convictions under the compelling of the Spirit, and in the light of contemporary questions’ (p.26)

Chapter 4 is entitled ‘The Bible in an age of anxiety: worry, reality and trust.’  In this chapter Runcorn argues that the Church should not be anxious about the current debate about same-sex relationships. It needs instead to develop ‘ways of being present to one another and to the challenges of life and faith in non-anxious ways’ and should approach differences about same-sex relationships in a ‘non-judgemental way’(p.35).

Chapter 5 is entitled ‘Reading the Bible with Jesus: Midrash, jazz and the continued conversation.’ In this chapter Runcorn argues that Jesus’ uses of parables and the importance of the narrative elements in the Bible mean that we should adopt the sort of approach to Scripture that the Jewish tradition calls Midrash. ‘Rather than seeking certainties and unchanging truths, Midrash keeps the questions open and is not threatened by disagreements. Above all it offers a creative and imaginative way of connecting ancient Scriptures with the challenges of life and faith today. All voices are welcome. So in the process of meeting round the text we may grow in empathy  and understanding and in our relationships with one another’ (p.42). For Runcorn biblical interpretation needs to be like jazz music, a form of creative improvisation that allows ‘many possibilities’ (p.42) 

Chapter 6  is entitled ‘’Lie the lyings of a woman’ seeking the meaning of Leviticus 18:22’ In this chapter Runcorn notes that Leviticus 18:22 has been interpreted in a variety of different ways  and declares that ‘There are clear grounds for saying that we do not have enough background yet to understand this verse: ‘The social and cultural significance of this verse within its ancient context is still waiting to be uncovered’ My own view is that a reverent agnosticism rightly surrounds the interpretation of this text’ (p.50). Furthermore, ‘given this lack of certainty, there are surely no grounds for imposing the traditional view’ (p.50).

Chapter 7  is entitled ‘Romans and the wrath of God: who was Paul writing about?’ In this chapter Runcorn examines the teaching of Paul in Romans 1:18-2:1. He argues that the people Paul describes in Romans 1:26-27 are not what we would today call ‘homosexual people’ but rather ‘heterosexual people indulging in anal sex (and much else besides in that context of rampant and unrestrained promiscuity’ (p.53). It is difficult to know why Paul saw such behaviour as ‘against nature’ and in any event ‘There are huge and complex areas of insight into human development and identity in the natural world that Paul would have had no knowledge of in his time.’ (p.54). Finally, because there are godly Christians in the Church today Paul’s argument that same-sex sexual activity involves a ‘deliberate rejection of God’ is one that ‘simply does not transfer to our own church’ (p.57).

Chapter 8 is entitled ‘On giving it a name: the origin of the word ‘homosexual.’’  In this chapter Runcorn observes that the word ‘homosexual’ was invented in the nineteenth century and only used in the translation of the Bible in the twentieth. This means, he argues, that we need to exercise care when arguing that the Bible ‘teaches against homosexuality’ (p.61). ‘The word itself does not appear in the Bible at all. The texts that are assumed to teach that homosexual relationships are wrong, in every case, describe forms of sexual subjugation through rape or violence, excessive lustful behaviour, patterns of coercive male dominance, or a disregarding of acceptable norms of social and religious behaviour’ (p.61).

Chapter 9 is entitled ‘The sin of Sodom: when names become labels.’ In this chapter Runcorn argues that the sin of Sodom was not, as has commonly been held, same same-sex relationships, but rather  a failure to show hospitality to strangers. ’The message of the ancient story of Abraham and Sodom is clear. Hospitality offered leads to blessing. Hospitality rejected leads to destruction. The irony is that this message poses a very direct challenge to the historic treatment of gay communities by the Church and society’ (p.65).

Chapter 10 is entitled ‘Male and female he created them:’ gender, partnership and becoming.’ In this chapter Runcorn notes that Christian arguments against same-sex relationdhips are increasingly rooted in God’s creation of human beings as male and female as described in Genesis 1 and 2. For Runcorn: ‘The key question at this point is whether anatomical and procreative complementarity is what the Bible writers had in mind when they appear to condemn same-sex relationships elsewhere. There is no evidence for this view’ (p.71). Paul’s apparent blanket condemnation of same-sex relationships in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is ‘aimed specifically at coercive and abusive behaviour of various kinds’ (p.73).

According to Runcorn we may not even ‘fully know’ what it is to be a man or a woman:

‘To be a man or a woman is no one thing. There has always been a spectrum of self-understanding and expression. What we have in common is the call to authentic love, living, giving and belonging. Each of us must travel our own path and accept particular gifts and challenges on the way. The stories we hear of gender transition warn us of the danger of assuming that someone’s identity is defined solely by the physical body’ (p.74)

Chapter 11 is entitled ‘One flesh: Genesis: kinship and marriage.’ In this chapter Runcorn concedes ‘that there are no examples of same-sex marriage in the Bible. Nor is there a hint of a trajectory in that direction’ (p.81). However, he says:

‘….what we are living with in our times is so significantly new that there are limits to how much we will be helped by looking back. Rather than focussed on supposed origins, we should recognise that Christian marriage, like all discipleship, is significant for what it points towards. We have in our midst an important company of fellow Christians who simply do not recognise themselves, or their vocation to love and partnership, in those ancient texts. What, then, is the objection to opening marriage to couples of the same sex whose union will not conceive children but who have recognised each other in love and so would leave, cling and become one flesh?’ (p.81)

Chapter 12 is entitled ‘Call nothing unclean: the vision beyond the text.’ In this chapter Runcorn considers the vision for Gentile inclusion into the Church that was originally given to Peter and then endorsed by the Council of Jerusalem.  Runcorn comments:

‘This was a vision that the New Testament Church initially received as disturbing and contradictory through the converting work of the Spirit. It was a vision of a new community, based on a radically new belonging and identity in Christ. It was yet to be fully revealed and was based on no familiar divisions of race, gender or social class: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28)’ (p.87).

He further explains :

‘This story is not included here because it says anything about sexuality. It doesn’t, but it is an example, from the first Christian churches, of a vulnerable stepping out in faith, into something very new, shocking, even unthinkable. It presents the challenge of responding obediently to what feels to be the inspiration of the Spirit even though it appears to contradict the plainest traditional understandings of the given texts. For me, that illustrates something of the challenge facing the church today in relations to issues of sexuality and gay relationships’ (pp.87-88).

Chapter 13 is entitled ‘Good fruit: patience, trust and the test of time.’ In this chapter Runcorn quotes the words of Jesus about the nature of a tree being known by the quality of its fruit (Matthew 7:16-18) and argues that these words can be applied to the issue of same-sex relationships. This is because the lives of faithful gay Christians can be seen to be producing good fruit and thus show that they are good trees. As Runcorn puts It:

‘Faithful following of Christ bears good fruit. it is the fruit of faithful consecrated lives . It is marked by a quality of life and spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things’ (Galatians 5:22-23). This is not fruit a bad tree can produce (p.95).’

Chapter 14 is entitled ‘To whom it is given: sexual abstinence and celibacy.’ In this chapter Runcorn  argues on the basis of Paul’s teaching about marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7 that it is not legitimate to argue that gay men and women should automatically be expected to be celibate. In Runcorn’s words:

‘When God says, it is not good that the man should be alone (Genesis 2:18) this is said of all human beings not just heterosexual ones. So much of Pauls pastoral advice on choice, abstinence and not burning speaks directly to the lives of gay men and women today. Some, like others in the Christian community, may choose singleness as a way of consecrated service in the Kingdom, but for others, including faithful but harrowed Bible believers, might Paul not say ‘if his/her passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him/her marry…it is no sin? (p.100).’ 

Finally, Chapter 15 is entitled ‘Sexuality and the sacred: joy, delight and sacrament.’ In this chapter Runcorn notes how the Song of Songs testifies to the importance of human sexuality and how sexuality and spirituality cannot be properly separated. He then goes on to comment that Christians today:

‘… are seeking a Christian vision for humanity in the midst of a society that reflects deep confusion in the area of sexuality and relationships and that has abandoned Christian moral teaching and lifestyle. Exploited carelessly for pleasure, fearfully held at a distance, or burdened with impossible expectations of fulfilment in relationships, human sexuality is the place where some of the deepest wounding and confusion in our culture are found.’ (p.104)

‘The good news’ he writes:

‘…In the midst of a society characterised by such casual, broken, misguided and destructive approaches to relationships, is that there are Christian couples who wish to make a public consecration of their love and commitment to one another before God and the world. Is this not something to celebrate? But this is precisely where the church is most deadlocked and, perversely, where it withholds the blessing of God’ (p.106).

The couples he is referring to are, of course, same-sex couples who are seeking to be married.

II. What are we to make of Runcorn’s argument?

1. Contrary to what Runcorn argues in chapters 1 and 4, the current discussions about same-sex  relationships are something about which we should be anxious. Just as Paul was anxious that the Christians in Galatians would be misled by those ‘who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ’ (Galatians 1:8), so also we should be anxious about individuals, and the Church of England as a whole, being misled by those who wrongly teach that same-sex relationships, and even same-sex marriages, are in accordance with the will of God.

2. Runcorn is correct to say in chapter 4 that differences over the issue of same-sex  relationships should handled in a ‘non-judgemental way’ if he means by this that people who do not approve of same-sex relationships should not regard themselves as somehow being better people than those who do. This is because none of us should ever regard ourselves as better than anyone else, but should simply say ‘God, be  merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). However, this does not mean that we should not make a moral judgement that same-sex relationships are a form of behaviour that is contrary to God’s will. The one does not follow from the other.

3. Runcorn is right to say in chapter 1 that ‘There are still too few open, exploratory places where Bibles can be studied, difficult questions asked, understandings tested out, wounds healed and differences faced respectfully.’  There does need to be more open discussion in the Church about the issue of same-sex relationships. However, the starting point for this discussion needs to be the clear and unequivocal teaching of the Bible and the Christian tradition that sexual intercourse should only take place between one man and one woman in the context of marriage.

A good analogy would be the way in which in our cultural context there needs to be opportunity for open discussion about who Jesus was and is, but the starting point for this discussion should not be agnosticism about Jesus’s true identity, but the teaching of the Bible and the Christian tradition that Jesus is one person who is both human and divine.

4. Runcorn is also right to say in chapter 1 that supporting same-sex relationships does not in itself mean ‘condoning promiscuity.’ There are indeed people who support same-sex relationships and who do not condone promiscuity. However, supporting same-sex relationships does mean condoning what the New Testament calls porneia, that is, a form of sexual activity that is contrary to God’s will and that renders those who engage in it unclean in God’s sight (Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21). 

5. Runcorn is again right to say in chapter 2 that Jesus and the early Church welcomed everyone regardless of their race, sex, social standing, or previous conduct. However, what he fails to note is that Jesus and the early Church also insisted that those who became part of God’s new covenant community had to turn from their sins and seek to live God’s way hereafter. Because this is the case it makes perfect sense to say that the Church must welcome those with same-sex attraction and those in same-sex relationships, but that it must also make clear that they should not engage in same-sex sexual activity.

6. Runcorn is mistaken when he says in chapter 3 that we need to engage in a ‘dialogical’ approach to Scripture in relation to the issue of same-sex relationships because this is an issue which the Bible does not ‘recognize or understand.’ The Bible does recognise the existence of both gay and lesbian same-sex relationships,  and in the first century context this would have involved recognizing the existence of long-term committed same-sex relationships. The Bible also understands same-sex relationships theologically, consistently viewing  them as contrary to God’s will and so off limits for God’s people.

7. Runcorn is right to suggest in chapter 5 that applying Scripture to our lives today involves a degree of ‘creative improvisation.’ This is what the Christian tradition has called ‘casuistry’ the exercise of applying biblical teaching to particular circumstances which the Bible may not specifically address. However, this does not mean adopting an approach to the Bible which permanently ‘keeps the questions open’. The purpose of asking questions is to find answers and once the answers are known the questions should cease and appropriate action should be taken. In the case of same-sex relationships the question is ‘Are these relationships acceptable to God?’ The answer is ‘No’ and the appropriate action is for people not to engage in them.

8. Runcorn is mistaken when he suggests in chapter 6 that we do not yet understand the prohibition of same-sex activity in Leviticus 18:22. The background to the prohibition of same-sex sexual relationships both in this verse and in Leviticus 20:13  is the existence of such relationships among the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Leviticus 18:3), these verses contain a general prohibition of same-sex relationships per se without any qualifications (and cover lesbian relationships as well), and the rationale behind this prohibition is a wider prohibition of all forms of sexual activity outside marriage as being contrary to the order laid down by God in creation. [2]  

9. Contrary to what Runcorn argues, it is clear what Paul means in Romans 1;26-27 when he says that gay and lesbian relationships are ‘against nature.’ Paul’s argument in Romans 1 that just as idolatry involves the rejection of the witness to God borne by the created order, so also both gay and lesbian same-sex relationships involve a rejection of God’s intention that human beings should engage in heterosexual sex, an intention to which the complementary sexual biology of men and women (‘nature’) bears witness. In the words of Richard Hays, according to Paul: ‘When human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design.’[3]

Furthermore, contrary to what Runcorn also writes in chapter 7, there are no ‘huge and complex areas of insight into human development and identity in the natural world’ that have emerged since Paul’s time and which negate his argument, and the existence of Christians in same-sex relationships does not negate his argument either. The continuing presence and power of sin in the lives of believers means that all Christians engage in various forms of sin (see the General Confession in The Book of Common Prayer) and these forms of sin remain sin even though devout Christians engage in them. Saying that same-sex relationships should not be regarded as sinful because Christians engage in them is thus simply foolish. The Christians involved may not subjectively think that they are rejecting the creator’s design, but nevertheless, objectively, that is precisely what they are doing. 

10. Runcorn is right to say in chapter 8 that the term ‘homosexual’ is a comparatively recent invention. However, this does not mean that the biblical writers did not know of the reality to which the word refers, namely men and women who desire, or engage in, same-sex sexual activity. Furthermore, contrary to what Runcorn claims, the biblical writers do not simply reject certain specific forms of same-sex relationships. They reject all forms of same-sex sexual activity as contrary to the creator’s design.

11. Contrary to what Runcorn maintains in chapter 9, the story of God’s judgment on Sodom in Genesis 19 is about sexual sin rather than inhospitality. That this is so is indicated by the following factors:

  • The juxtaposition of the use of the Hebrew verb yada (‘know’) in verses 5 and 8 indicates that the verb has the same meaning in both cases and since the meaning in verse 8 is clearly sexual, ‘Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man,’ it follows that the meaning in the request in verse 5 ‘that we may know them’ must be the same. The men of Sodom want to have sex with Lot’s visitors.
  • This reading of the text is reinforced by the fact that in Judges 19:22-26, a text which scholars generally agree is based on the Sodom story (and which is thus the first commentary on it), the verb yada is also used with a consistently sexual meaning.
  • This reading of the text is further supported by the nature of Lot’s counter offer to the men of Sodom, have sex with my two daughters instead of my two visitors, and by the double use of the specific term ‘male’ (anse) in 19:4 (itself an intertextual echo of the use of the term ‘male’ in the reference to the wickedness of Sodom in Genesis 13:13). Those who are proposing to act wickedly in Sodom are the male inhabitants of the city and the nature of their proposed wickedness is sex with Lot’s (supposedly) male visitors.
  • Finally, this reading of the text is supported by the fact noted by James De Young that in the literary structure of Genesis the story of Sodom forms part of a trio of stories that sit between the promise of the birth of Isaac in Genesis 18:9-15 and its fulfilment in Genesis 21:1-7, the other two being the story of the incest of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:30-38) and the story of Abraham, Sarah and Abimelech (Genesis 20:1-18). As De Young explains ‘each episode relates sexual sin and its punishment…The literary structure of the text demands a homosexual meaning for the sin of Sodom. Illicit sexual enjoyment or opportunism links all three episodes.’[4]
  • Ezekiel 16:49-50 in the Old Testament and Jude7 and 2 Peter 1:6-8 in the New Testament understand the sin of Sodom as being sexual in nature.

12. Contrary to what Runcorn writes in chapter 10,  the ‘anatomical and procreative complementarity’ of human beings is what is in the background of all the biblical texts that condemn same-sex relationships.  The basis for such  condemnation is God’s creation of human beings as male and female creatures who are anatomically  complementary and therefore capable of fulfilling God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ From a biblical perspective the basic problem with same-sex relationships is they do not respect the fact that God has created human beings in this way and has also ordained marriage between a man and a woman as the proper context for sexual activity and procreation.

Runcorn is also wrong when he writes in the same chapter that Paul’s condemnation of same-sex relationships in Corinthians 6:9-10 is ‘‘aimed specifically at coercive and abusive behaviour of various kinds.’  The Greek words arsenokoitai and malakoi  used in these verses are terms which describe the active and passive partners in male same-sex activity respectively. They carry no connotation of coercive or abusive behaviour, nor is this suggested anywhere else in the verses concerned. [5]

13. Runcorn is right when he declares ‘we may not even ‘fully know’ what it is to be a man or a woman.’ None of us will ‘fully know’ who we are until the life of the world to come when we shall know ourselves as we are now known by God (1 Corinthians 13:12). However, we can and do know on the basis of our biology that we are male or female.[6]

It is also true that there is a spectrum of what it means to be male or female. That is why men are different from other men and women are different from other women. Nevertheless we can say that woman are different from, and physically and psychologically complementary to, men and vice versa. Furthermore, while it is true, as Runcorn says, that we are not defined solely by our bodies, since we are a compound of a material body and a immaterial soul,[7] nevertheless our bodies are integral to who we are and we are male if we have male bodies and female if we have female ones. Gender transition cannot alter this fact. Through hormones or surgery some of the physical characteristics of a body can be altered, but that body will remain fundamentally male or female right down to the cellular level and the person whose body it is will therefore remain either male or female. Our basic, God given, sex is immutable.

14. Runcorn is correct when he notes in chapter 11 ‘that there are no examples of same-sex marriage in the Bible. Nor is there a hint of a trajectory in that direction’  Where he is incorrect is saying that the situation we now face with regard to marriage is ‘significantly new.’ Nothing significant has in fact changed. The fact that same-sex marriages have been introduced in this country does not change the fact that God ordained marriage to be a relationship  between two people of the opposite sex (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5).  Nothing the government has done, or can do, will alter this fact.

This being the case, the answer to Runcorn’s question: ‘What, then, is the objection to opening marriage to couples of the same sex whose union will not conceive children but who have recognised each other in love and so would leave, cling and become one flesh?’ is straightforward. We do not have the authority to change the character of marriage established by God at creation and the government was guilty of a massive act of hubris when it thought otherwise. Two people of the same sex can enter into a permanent, exclusive, sexual relationship with each other if they wish, but this will not be a marriage and will not be approved of  by God.

15. Contrary to what Runcorn claims in chapter 12, the story of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church in Acts 10-15 is not an example of Christians being led by the Spirit to act in way that went beyond the teaching of Scripture. The words of James in Acts 15:15 explicitly declare that the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church was in line with what God had declared would happen in Amos 9:11-12 and Jeremiah 12:15 and the instructions given to Gentile believers in Acts 15:20 correspond to the laws laid down for resident aliens in Israel in Leviticus 17-18. [8]

Furthermore, these instructions include abstaining from porneia (which would include same-sex relationships), which makes it even more inappropriate to cite the inclusion of the Gentiles as a model for the acceptance of same-sex relationships by the Church.

16. It is true, as Runcorn notes in chapter 13, that Christians who are in same-sex relationships do exhibit the qualities of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ that Paul lists as the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). However, from a biblical perspective their same-sex relationships are examples of the sexual immorality which Paul identifies as the ‘works of the flesh’ (in Galatians 5:18) and according to Paul ‘those who do those things shall not inherit the kingdom of God’ (Galatians 5:21). Runcorn cannot have it both ways. Either he accepts the authority of Paul’s teaching in Galatians 5, in which case he has to accept that same-sex relationships have the capacity to bar people from God’s kingdom, or he rejects it, in which case his own appeal to Galatians 5:22-23 ceases to carry weight.

17. It is illegitimate for Runcorn to appeal in chapter 14 to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 to support Christians entering into same-sex relationships. The reason that Paul thinks that Christians who have not been received a call to celibacy may marry is because he knows that marriage is a legitimate form of life for God’s people and consequently ‘it is no sin’ to marry (1 Corinthians 7:26). However, we know from elsewhere in his writings that Paul does believe that same-sex relationships are sinful and so the same argument would not apply to Christians who are thinking of entering same-sex relationships. To them he would say what he says to Christians who think it is OK to have sex with prostitutes – ‘shun immorality’ (1 Corinthians 6:18). [9]

18. While Runcorn is right to note the current sexual brokenness and confusion of our society in chapter 15, he is wrong to suggest that in this context a Christian’s desire to enter into a same-sex marriage is something to celebrate. How can we celebrate a Christian wanting to reject the nature of marriage established by God himself at creation and proposing to adopt a way of life which, unless repented of, has the capacity to exclude them from God’s kingdom?

For these eighteen reasons, while  Runcorn’s book is worth reading as a clear introduction to the arguments for the acceptance of same-sex relationships, it fails to make out a persuasive case for the Church of England abandoning its traditional view of sex and marriage.

M B Davie 27.10.2020


[1] David Runcorn, Love Means Love -Same-sex relationships and the Bible (London: SPCK, 2020).

[2] For these points see the detailed discussion in Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), pp. 149-159. 

[3] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), p. 386.

[4] James De Young, Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined in Light of the Bible and Other Ancient  Literature and Law (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), pp.39-40.

[5] For this point see Eugene Rice, ‘Paul, St.’, GLBTQ Encyclopedia, 2015 at http://www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/paul_S.pdf.

[6] The only exception to this rule is the tiny number of genuinely intersex people who possess both male and female elements in their biology. 

[7] See J P Moreland, The Soul -How we know it’s real and why it matters (Chicago: Moody, 2014).

[8] See Richard Bauckham, ‘James and the Gentiles (Acts 15: 13-21) in Ben Witherington III (ed.) History, Literature and Society in the Book of Acts (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), pp.154-184.   

[9] ‘Immorality’ here is a translation of porneia, a term which, as we have seen,  includes same-sex relationships.