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.

The thing that matters most.

‘It’s the economy stupid’ is a well-known American political catchphrase that had its origins in the 1992 presidential campaign in which Bill Clinton was running against the incumbent president George W H Bush.

A man called James Carville , who was a political strategist on the Clinton campaign team, originally came up with the catchphrase. In order to keep those involved in the campaign on message, Carville hung up a sign in Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock that listed the three key messages that campaign workers needed  to get across to the voters. It read:

‘Change vs. more of the same.

The economy, stupid

Don’t forget health care.’

The second item on the list, in the form ‘It’s the economy stupid’ used by Carville in a television appearance, took on a life of its own and became the de facto campaign slogan for the whole of the successful Clinton campaign. In 1992 America was in recession and ‘It’s the economy stupid’ successfully communicated the message that the key issue in the election was the US economy, and that Clinton would do a better job of handling the economy than Bush.

What this piece of American political history reminds us is that any successful communications strategy has to have a clear focus. Those seeking to communicate need to decide what really matters in terms of the message they are trying to convey, and then work out how to get this across in the clearest and most memorable fashion possible.

What prompted me to think about this issue is the fact that in the past week the comments by Church leaders that have been reported in the media have been of a political nature. Earlier in the week the five British and Irish Anglican archbishops warned of the dangers, as they saw it, of the Government’s Internal Market Bill,[1] and yesterday there was an article in the Yorkshire Post by the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of Manchester and Leeds highlighting the disproportionate effect of Covd-19  restrictions on poor people in the North of England and calling for a ‘collective, nationwide response’ involving ‘further injections of money to support poorer communities.’[2]

Church leaders commenting on political issues is not a problem. Indeed, Church leaders have an obligation to do so. The temporal well-being of human beings, i.e. their well-being in this life, matters, and so Church leaders need to warn against political policies which seem likely to cause people temporal harm.

However, a problem occurs when the messages coming from Church leaders focus primarily or exclusively on temporal matters. This is because Christian theology tells us is that what matters most for human beings is not what happens in this life, but what will happen in the life to come.

In the final clause of the Apostles Creed, Christians affirm their belief in ‘the life everlasting.’  If we ask what this affirmation means, a very helpful explanation  is provided by the seventeen century Anglican theologian John Pearson in his commentary on the Creed. Person writes that the affirmation means:

‘I do fully and freely assent unto this as unto a most necessary and infallible truth, that the unjust after their resurrection and condemnation shall be tormented for their sins in hell, and shall so be continued in torments forever, so as neither the justice of God shall ever cease to inflict them, nor the persons of the wicked cease to subsist and suffer them; and that the  just after their resurrection and absolution shall as the blessed of the Father obtain the inheritance, and as the servants of God enter into their master’s joy, freed from all possibility of death, sin and sorrow, filled with all conceivable and inconceivable fullness of happiness, confirmed in absolute security of an eternal enjoyment and so they shall continue with God and with the Lamb for evermore.’ [3]

The converging witness of Scripture, tradition and reason testifies to the truth of this affirmation, [4]and if it is true then it radically relativises the importance of all temporal concerns.  Jesus makes this point in Matthew 16:26 when he asks: ‘For what will it profit a  man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?’  By the word ‘life’ Jesus means the life in relationship with God which will be enjoyed forever in the world to come, and the point he is making is that compared with the possession of this life even having the whole world as one’s possession is not a benefit.

 If we have to choose between possession of this world and everything in it and life with God forever, then life with God forever is the only rational choice to make. Our enjoyment of the things of this world will only ever be temporary and, as Pearson so starkly reminds us, if we do not have a right relationship with God then what awaits us in the world to come is an eternity of misery. As J I Packer further notes, such misery is not the result of an arbitrary infliction of pain. It is instead:

 ‘… a conscious growing into the state in which one has chosen to be. The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his choice.’ [5]

In his justice God gives the lost precisely what they have chosen for themselves.

What the Christian faith also tells us, however, is that this does not have to be our fate. We can instead choose to  put our faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died and rose for us that we might enjoy life with God forever. In the words of Jesus in John 3:16:  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.’

Because all this is so, it follows that the core message that the Church is called to proclaim is, to misquote Carville, ‘It’s eternity, stupid.’ In other words, what the Church really needs to tell people, because no one else will, is that this life is not all there is, that in the life to come they will experience either an eternity of unutterable misery or an eternity of unutterable joy, and that if they want to experience the latter then they need to put their trust in Jesus Christ and what he has done for them. 

To sum up, it is appropriate for Church leaders to comment on temporal matters as Anglican archbishops and bishops have done this week. However, it is even more important that they talk about eternity. When all is said and done, the Church’s core business is saving souls, and the only way that souls will be saved is if people come to realise that this life is not all there is, and that they need to put their trust in Jesus in order to avoid an eternity of damnation and enjoy an eternity of blessedness instead.  The Church’s calling is be God’s instrument to bring people to this realisation, and for this to happen the leaders of the Church need to switch the focus of their message to the thing that matters most, the life of the world to come.

It’s eternity, stupid.


[1] ‘Brexit, Anglican leaders issue Internal Market Bill warning,’ BBC News, 19 October 2020.

[2] ‘Exclusive: Bishops fear ‘unrest’ in North over virus unless Boris Johnson acts,’ Yorkshire Post, 24 October, 2020.

[3] John Pearson, An Exposition of the Creed (London: George Bell, 1902), pp.600-601. 

[4] See for example, E B Pusey , What is of faith as to Everlasting Punishment? (Oxford: James Parker 1881) and Jerry Walls, Hell – The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).

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

God’s relation to creation and ours.

A video and a clarification

Last week, the Bishop of Reading, Olivia Graham, posted a video on behalf of Oxford diocese in which she looked at the theological basis for Christian care for the environment. In the course of this video she suggested that a reason that Christians should care for the environment is that God is ‘incarnate,’ not only in the person of Jesus Christ, but in creation as a whole, and has been ever since the Big Bang.[1]

What she said provoked much criticism on the grounds that it undermined the basic Christian claim that God was, and is, uniquely present in the person of Christ. In the light of this criticism Bishop Graham posted a clarification on the Oxford Diocese website in which she conceded that her use of the term ’incarnation’  had been unhelpful, and explained that what she meant was that ‘the Divine pervades every part of the universe, while clearly being above, beyond and greater than the universe.’[2]

Bishop Graham’s original video and her subsequent clarification leave us with three questions that I shall consider in the remained of this post.

First, what does it mean to say that God ‘pervades every part of the universe’?

Secondly, what is the basis for our care for creation if it is not the case that the creation is the incarnation of God?

Thirdly, what form does our care for creation need to take?

God’s relation to creation.

Saying that God pervades every part of the universe is a way of expressing what Christian theology has mean when It has said that God is ‘omnipresent.’( i.e. simultaneously present in all places).

The reason that God is omnipresent is because as God he is infinite rather than finite. All things in creation are finite. This means that however big they are they have a limited and local existence. Thus, we can say of the biggest galaxy or the largest black hole that they are here and not there. However, as Matthew Barrett notes in his helpful book None Greater – The Undomesticated Attributes of God this limitation does not apply to God:

‘God, as the Creator, escapes this creaturely limitation, nor is it even possible  For him, as one who is infinite, to be limited in this way. As one who has an ‘infinite essence,’  so must he also have an ‘infinite presence.’ The latter follows from the former, for if God is infinite in his essence, then it’s impossible for him to be demarcated by or contained within a finite space. While finite creatures like you and me are bounded by space, the same cannot be said of an infinite being.’[3]

In the words of the Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock:

‘God, because infinite, fills all, yet so as not to be contained by them. He is from the height of the heavens to the bottom of the deeps, in every point of the world, and in the whole circle of it, yet not limited by it, but beyond it.’[4]

It is because this is the case that the Psalmist writes:

‘Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
    Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
    and thy right hand shall hold me. ‘ (Psalm 139:7-10)

It is also important to note that God’s simplicity, the fact that God is  simply, and solely, and entirely  God (‘I am who I am’ Exodus 3:14), means that God’s universal presence throughout creation does not mean that he is any way mixed with the created order. To quote Barrett again:

‘Yes, he is everywhere present, but we should not go so far as to think that he becomes everything in the process. Such a presence would spell disaster, dividing God’s being as if he were meshed by the creation, absorbed by the creature, dissolving the Creator-creature distinction. God may be present with the world, but he does not become one with the world. ‘The finite and infinite cannot be joined.’ Consider the way the sun produces light. The light illumines a room, but that does not mean the light becomes the air. The two remain distinct. Likewise with the Creator and his creation.’ [5]

This distinction between God and his creation remains in place even in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. As the Christological debates of the fifth century established, Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, one divine and one human. His humanity is truly human and does not possess the attributes of God, but the attributes of a first century, Jewish, male, human creature.  If this was not the case he could not be the ‘second Adam’ the progenitor of a renewed human race  (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:42-49). To be the second Adam he has to be human, and to be human he has to have a human nature, which means a nature distinct from the nature of God.

Our relation to creation

What all this means is that it would not be correct to say that we as human beings should care for the rest of creation because God is present in creation in a way that means that we could point to a tree, a rabbit, or a mollusc, and say ‘that is God.’ As we have seen, God and creation are distinct and they should never be identified (which is the reason for the prohibition in Exodus 1:4-5 of worshipping any idol made to represent ‘anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’).

The reason we should care for creation is instead laid out for us in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis, chapters which set the stage for the rest of the biblical account of what it means to live rightly before God.

These chapters tell us that our vocation as male and female human beings is to show what God is like (this is what it means by being God’s image bearers, Genesis 1:26-27) and fulfilling this vocation involves expressing our love for God by taking responsibility for the world that he has created. The created order as a whole, and not just the human part of it, has value in God’s sight[6] and human beings are called to share in God’s care for it. 

In Genesis 1:28 God tells the first human beings:

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

This command gives human beings authority over rest of the created order and it also involves the right to use the resources provided by the natural world. As God goes on to say in the next verse ‘I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’

In our day, many people have come to see this command in Genesis as lying at the root of the environmental problems that we face.[7] This is because it can be (and has been) viewed as giving human beings the right to treat the rest of creation in any way they see fit. However, to view our God-given calling to exercise ‘dominion’ over creation as giving us a right to engage in unlimited exploitation of it for our own benefit is fundamentally to misrepresent what Genesis is saying.

God’s rule over creation is for the benefit of creation as a whole. ‘The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all that he has made’ (Psalm 145:9). The same is meant to be true of the human vice-regency over creation exercised by human beings on his behalf. 

As the second creation account in Genesis 2:15 tells us, human beings have the vocation to ‘till and keep’, that is to say to ‘serve and preserve,’ the created order in the same way that someone might be given the task of taking care of a garden or a park and the animals living in it in order to enable them to flourish. This in turn means that while human beings have the right to make use of the rest of the created order in order to live, this should be done with appropriate restraint, in a way that recognises that the non-human creation has its own intrinsic value in the sight of God. That is why, for example, the Old Testament law sets limits to the way in which the people of Israel can use the natural order (see  Exodus 20:10, Leviticus 25:7, Deuteronomy 25:4).

Because human beings are part of creation, God’s mandate to care for creation also involves care for other human beings.  We are called to express the reality of our love for God not simply by caring for the non-human creation, but also by showing love to other people (see 1 John 4:20-21).

This is where the command to love our neighbour (Leviticus 19:18) comes into the picture. God gives himself to be loved by us in the shape of other people and, as Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) explains, our neighbour is that particular individual in whom God gives himself to be loved by us at any given moment. Furthermore, true love for our neighbour will be shaped by our awareness that our neighbour’s highest good will be served by helping them to live in a way that is in accordance with God’s will for them.

The twin commands to love God and love our neighbour (Mark 12:28-34) thus go together.  We express love for God as we show love to our neighbour and we show love for our neighbour as we act towards them in a way that enables them to fulfil God’s good purposes for them. Loving someone means wanting what is best for them and what is best for all human beings is that they should flourish in the manner for which God created them.

This in turn means that just as love of God and love of neighbour necessarily belong together, so also do love of God, love of neighbour and care for the rest of creation. This is so for two reasons.

First, as we are coming increasingly to realise, human beings are dependent on the natural world for their existence and so when the creation is not cared for human beings are unable to flourish in the way that God intends. For example, if we poison the seas or the air this necessarily does harm to our neighbours since the inter-connectedness of the created order means that their well-being is dependent on the cleanliness of the oceans and the air which they breathe.

Secondly as has already been noted, love for neighbour means acting in a way that enables them to fulfil God’s good purposes for them. Therefore, our dealings with them will need to reflect the fact that, like us, they too are people who are called by God to exercise responsible care for the whole of the world that God has created. We are called by God to remind our neighbours that they too have a God given responsibility for creation as a whole.

Being modest about our role.

We need to be modest about our responsibility to the rest of creation. Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, our job is not to ‘save the planet’ in any ultimate sense. The overall future of the planet is not our hands. It is the hands of God.

As the Christian faith has always acknowledged, the world in which we live is finite, riven by conflict even in the non-human creation (‘nature red in tooth and claw’) and ultimately heading towards death. Left to itself, and even without human intervention, all life in this world will come to an end and the world itself will cease to be.

However, the good news is that this world has not been left to itself. In accordance with God’s covenant commitment to the human race and the rest of life in this world recorded in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 9:8-17), God has kept both the planet and ourselves in existence and will continue to do so. Furthermore, as Paul tells us, the action that God took in Jesus to save the human race also saved the rest of creation as well (Romans 8:18-25). Because of what Jesus has done we can look forward to the day when the threat of death lying over all creation is lifted and we and the rest of creation will exist for ever in God’s peaceable kingdom in which, to quote Isaiah:

‘The wolf shall live with the lamb,

   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

   and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

   their young shall lie down together;

   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy

   on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

   as the waters cover the sea.  (Isaiah 11:6-9)’

Human beings now have the capacity to do very serious environmental damage to the planet and its capacity to sustain life. However, if we are Christians then we have no need to despair because we can trust that God will be faithful to his promises. In spite of human folly and wickedness, he will eventually enable creation to flourish perfectly in the life of his coming kingdom in the way that he has intended all along.

The guarantee of this future is the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which are the first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:23, Romans 8:23 ) that show that the renewal of creation as a whole will follow in due time. As St. Paul writes in Romans 8:22-23, the whole creation ‘groans’ in distress as it awaits the liberation from its bondage to futility and decay which God has promised, and Christians groan with it. However, this groaning is also like the groaning of childbirth, it is a sign that that a new birth is happening, that the new creation is coming in.

What this all means is that instead of being called to ‘save the planet’ human beings have the more modest task of so behaving in relation to the rest of the creation that we provide for our own legitimate needs while respecting the limits imposed upon us by the need to respect the rest of creation and to enable it to flourish. In this way we begin to manifest the values of God’s peaceable kingdom even in the midst of the world as it now exists.

Being realistic about what we are called to do.

Finally, we have to be realistic about the fact that we do have to provide for our own legitimate needs. As human beings we will inevitably have an impact upon the planet. There is no way in which we can exist as human beings and provide all those things needed for us to live rightly before God without having an impact upon the rest of creation, an impact that will necessarily in some ways be destructive. For example, using timber means cutting down a tree and providing clean water involves building dams that block rivers and drown valleys and their eco-systems.

The issue about the human relationship to the rest of creation therefore has to be one of balance How can we balance the need to provide for ourselves and our neighbours by using the resources of the planet, while having the minimum negative impact on the rest of creation?

Furthermore, how can this balance be sustained beyond the short term? We do not know how long it will be before God brings in the kingdom in all its fullness and we have a responsibility for future generations of human beings (who are also our neighbours in the sense of being those for whom God calls us to care) and for the future of the rest of creation. Therefore, we are challenged to think about how to act in the present in a way that does not simply create further problems for the future. As we have seen, according to Genesis 2, the human vocation is like looking after a park or a garden and that is a long-term business.

Caring for a park or garden involves having to think not just about what will happen this week, or this month, or even this year, but in the years ahead, years that the gardener or park keeper may never live to see. In a similar fashion in caring for God’s garden we have to learn to think long term, thinking not just about what is good for now, but for the whole future until Jesus comes in glory.


[1] The video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKTGeq99Lkk&feature=youtu.be

[2] The clarification can be found at https://www.oxford.anglican.org/care-for-creation-film-a-clarification/.

[3] Matthew Barrett, None Greater (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020), Kindle edition p. 165.

[4] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:368, in Barrett, p.162.

[5] Barrett, p.167.

[6] That is why Genesis 1:3-25 repeatedly tells us that the non-human creation is ‘good’ in God’s sight and why inGenesis 9:9-17 the covenant made by God after the flood is not just with Noah and his descendants but with all the other living creatures as well

[7] The key text in this regard is Lynne White, ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,’ Science. 155 (1967), pp 1203-1207. For a helpful response to the argument put forward by White see Richard Bauckham, ‘Human authority in creation’ in Richard Bauckham, God and the crisis of freedom (Louisville: Westminster John Knox  Press, 2002), pp. 128-177.

Justice and the need to speak about Jesus.

The argument over the summer about Ofqual’s ill-fated use of an algorithm to help determine this year’s A level results is interesting, among other reasons, because of what it tells about our society’s commitment to justice.

If we ask what the argument was about, the answer is that that the issue as stake was how best to ensure that those who had taken A levels got the grades they deserved for the effort they had put into their studies.

The reason that Ofqual decided to use an algorithm was to try to ensure that in, the absence of A level exams as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, reliance on the A level grades predicted by teachers did not result in higher than normal grades being awarded to pupils taking their A levels this year. This, it was argued, would be unjust because it would give these pupils an unfair advantage in relation to other pupils who took their A levels in the past, or who would take their A levels in the future. The algorithm  was designed to prevent this unjust outcome by adjusting pupils’ predicted grades so that the grades awarded to pupils from a particular school or college were in line with those achieved by pupils from that school or college in previous years.

By contrast, the reason why there were protests against the A level results was the conviction that the use of the algorithm meant that those pupils who had legitimately outperformed pupils from previous years were not being awarded the grades their efforts deserved. They were being given lower grades than they deserved because of  the historic performance of their school or college and this was regarded as unjust because in did not take the efforts of particular individuals into account.

Regardless of which side of the argument was correct, what is clear is that both sides were motivated by the belief that justice ought to be done. The argument was not about whether justice should be done, but about how justice might best be achieved in this particular case.

What this fact illustrates is that our society still believes that justice ought to be done and that it views justice in terms of ‘giving to each their due’ as the Roman writer Ulpian famously put it. Thus, A level pupils ought to be given the grades they deserve, workers ought to be given a just reward for the work they have put in, and criminals ought to be punished for the crimes they have committed.

What our society is much less clear about, however, is the justification for the belief that justice ought to be done. Most people take the correctness of this belief for granted, but its correctness is not in fact obvious. If it is the case, as the opinion formers in our society have increasingly argued for the last hundred and fifty years or so, that the material world (‘nature’) is all that there is then there is no adequate reason for thinking that we have an obligation to do justice. Nature, after all, is not in the slightest bit interested in whether we do justice or not.

The only rational basis for our belief that we should do what is just is if there is a perfectly wise and perfectly good power outside of nature who in his perfect wisdom and goodness intentionally created us to behave in a just way. Only if this is the case does our ineradicable belief that we ought to behave justly make sense. We have an obligation to behave justly because this is the way we were created to behave.

Over the centuries the Christian faith has consistently testified that this supernatural power (which it calls God) does exist. What it is has also said, however, is that God’s existence is something that should make us very afraid. The reason this is the case is because at the end of time God will ensure that justice is done to us by passing judgement on how we have behaved during the course of our lives.

The belief that God will pass final judgement on his human creatures necessarily follows once we grant that our sense of justice comes from God. If our sense that people should get what they deserve is correct, because God given, it follows that God also holds that people should get what they deserve and will therefore take action to ensure that they do. The Christian language about the last judgement simply says that God will take that action.

The reason why the prospect of the last judgement should make us very afraid is that what we all deserve to receive at the last judgement is condemnation. If God is perfectly wise he will see past the lies we tell others and ourselves and see us as we really are, and what he will see is that, in the words of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.’  As a result, if he is truly just, it appears that God must condemn us for our lack of justice. Our multiple failures to behave as we ought mean that we have not fulfilled our moral obligations either to other human beings, or to God, and if God’s final verdict on us is to be a just one it must surely reflect this fact.

In the words of C S Lewis:

‘…if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do . This is the terrible fix we are in . If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again . We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we must need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies.’[1]

The question that then arises is whether there is any way out of this ‘terrible fix.’ The answer that the Christian faith gives is that there is. In the words of the apostle Paul, it tells us that God ‘is a just God and that He justifies every Man who has faith in Jesus Christ’[2]  What Paul is saying is that God himself is just, and that he also declares that everyone who has faith in Jesus is likewise just (which is what the word ‘justifies’ means).

At first sight this statement by Paul seems to make no sense. How can God be just and yet also declare that those who have faith in Jesus are just, when in reality they, like everyone else, are necessarily unjust for the reasons we have noted above?  Isn’t Paul in fact saying that God acts unjustly?

However, God can in fact be just and also declare that those who are united to Jesus Christ are likewise just because, as Paul also wrote: ‘God caused Christ, Who himself knew nothing of sin, actually to be sin for our sakes, so that in Christ we might be made good with the goodness of God.’[3] In other words, an exchange has taken place in which Christ took upon himself the sinfulness which is the result of our injustice, and we obtained God’s own goodness in its place. Through faith we participate in this exchange.

As Martin Luther explains in his treatise The Freedom of a Christian, the reason why this is the case is because faith ‘unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom’ with the result that ‘everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil.’[4] It follows, writes Luther, that:

‘The believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and Salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his brides and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how should he not take all that is hers?’[5]

According to Luther, this understanding of the relationship between Christ and the believer gives us:  

‘…. a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s . As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life is stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of his faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.’ [6]

All this being the case, the believer can view the prospect of the final judgement in hope, not because of what they are like, or what they have done, but because of what Jesus Christ has done for them. They can be confident that because they possess through faith the eternal righteousness of Christ they need not feat that God will reject them on the last day. To quote Paul again:

‘If God is for who can be against us? He that did not hesitate to spare his own Son but gave Him up for us all – can we not trust such a God to give us, with Him, everything else we can need?

Who dares accuse us now? The Judge Himself has declared us free from sin. Who is in a position to condemn?’[7]

The challenge for the contemporary Church is to make the truth about the justice God has made available for us through the work of Jesus Christ better known in a society that has forgotten about it, or has never heard of it.  The Church today is strong when it comes to emphasising the need for social, economic, political and, particularly today, racial justice, and it is right that it should stress the importance of these matters. Where it less strong, however, is in warning people about where they stand before God, and their need to put their faith in Jesus Christ in order to share in his justice and so avoid condemnation by God at the last judgement.

What the Church needs to understand is that the greatest obligation anyone has towards others is the obligation to tell them about their need for Jesus and the salvation he offers. We need to speak up about matters of temporal justice, but we need to speak up about Jesus even more. The supreme justice we owe others is to enable them to attain the right relationship with God for which they were created and they can only attain this relationship if we tell them about Jesus.

M B Davie  14.9.2020


[1] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fontana, 1984), p.37.

[2] Romans 3:26 in J B Phillips, Letters to Young Churches (Glasgow: Fontana, 1968), p.27.

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:21 in Phillips, p.100.

[4] Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian in Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 286.

[5] Luther, p.286.

[6] Luther, pp.286-287.

[7] Romans 8:31-33 in Phillips, p. 38.

What do Anglicans Believe? – A review.

  1. What are the purpose and contents of  What do Anglicans Believe?

What do Anglicans believe? [1] is a study guide to Christian doctrine which has been produced by:

‘… members of the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) working in partnership with the Anglican Communion’s department of Theological Education in the Anglican Communion (TEAC)’ (p.5)

According to its Introduction, it is intended to provide:

‘… a concise and well-grounded introduction to Christian doctrine….for use in home groups, study programmes, seminaries and theological colleges across the Anglican Communion.’  (p.5)

The guide is based on the statements about doctrine which have been agreed between Anglican churches and churches of other traditions in recent years and which ‘create a broad and rich map of the Christian faith as it has been received and handed on by these churches.’ (p.5).

Following the Introduction, the guide consists of three chapters

Chapter one, ‘What is doctrine?’  ‘looks at the nature of doctrine in general, introducing its place within discipleship and mission as a whole’ (p.5)

Chapter two,  ‘What is the Doctrine of the Creeds?’  looks at the Nicene Creed ‘using a recent and widely welcomed ecumenical text that unpacks and applies its meaning for today.’ (p.5)

Finally, chapter three, ‘What is the Church?’  looks at the doctrine of the Church:

‘…drawing on a rich selection of Anglican and ecumenical ecclesiological statements, to approach this topical and important subject from a number of directions, also touching on the nature of the sacraments.’ (p.6)

To help its readers to not only understand the material in the guide, but also to think how it applies in their own contexts, the guide adopts what it calls a ‘See-Judge-Act’ (p.6)  approach to learning.

This three step approach begins by seeing ‘the situation in which we find ourselves’ (p.6) . In relation to doctrine this means asking about ‘the current role of doctrine (or specific doctrines) in the life of our church (whether local or regional), who is involved in that role, and what effects does it have.’ (p.6)

The second step (judging) involves:

 ‘… learning from authorities such as scripture, church teaching and scholarship, and comparing and contrasting what is currently the cases in our context with what could and should be he case.’ (p.6)  

In relation to doctrine this means:

‘… reading and learning from authoritative ecumenical and Anglican statements, on the meaning and place of doctrine and specific doctrines in the life of the Church, and then reflecting on how the situation uncovered by the first step is positively critiqued by this.’ (pp.6-7)

The third step (acting) is about ‘deciding how in practice we are going to bridge the gap between what is happening and what should be happening.’ (p.7) In relation to doctrine this means:

‘deciding how doctrine general, and specific doctrines, should play a more contextually authentic and inspiring role in our worship, mission and discipleship, and then resolving to make these changes.’ (p.7)

Chapter one of the guide locates doctrine in the context of Christian discipleship, declaring that doctrine enables Christians ‘to grow in understanding and ownership of their faith’ (p.10) so that they can ‘communicate it in inspiring ways to others.’ (p.10)

It goes on to argue that doctrine emerged from the theological differences that existed in the Early Church. These differences led to the calling of the ‘Ecumenical Councils’ and the ‘conclusions of the first four of these councils’ on matters such as the humanity and divinity of Christ and the Trinitarian nature of God ‘are held to be authoritative doctrine by most historic churches’ (p.11).

Doctrines came to be seen as authoritative through a ‘two way process of offering and receiving’ which eventually resulted in the existence of a corpus of ‘authoritative teaching’ (p.12)  

In recent years the ecumenical movement, and particularly the Faith and Order movement ‘has re-invigorated the process of churches exploring doctrine together ‘ (p.12). This has taken place through both bilateral and multilateral ecumenical dialogues. Such dialogue is helpful because it helps churches ‘to sharpen and clarify what they believe, and to find how best to express this, together learning and growing in the life to which God calls us.’ (p.14)

Ecumenical agreements about doctrine such as the Joint Declaration of Justification have been helpful in setting out the different approaches taken by different churches and in ‘overcoming misunderstandings and disagreements of the past’ by clarifying where churches ‘have used different language to express matters on which they agree in substance’ (p.15)

Finally, the chapter notes that different periods of history ‘require new ways of understanding and expressing the faith.’ (p.16)

In the chapter all the points noted above are supported by quotations from ecumenical documents. For example, the last point is supported by quotations from the Anglican-Reformed statement God’s reign and our unity  and the Roman Catholic-WCC joint report Notions of hierarchy of Truth – An Ecumenical Interpretation.

Each section of the chapter is followed by questions for group discussion. For example, the section on the importance of news ways of understanding and expressing the faith is followed by the questions   ‘In your experience have encounters with other churches made you change your understanding of certain doctrines? Has this been enriching? How could it be encouraged?’ (p.17)

Chapter two recommends studying the doctrines of the Christian faith by looking at the WCC text  Confessing the One Faith: An Ecumenical Explication of the Apostolic Faith as it is Confessed in the Nicene-Constantinoplian Creed (381). It suggests a ten session study of this text employing the seeing, judging, and acting approach set out in the introduction.

Chapter three looks in turn at the calling of the Church and at the four credal marks of the Church (its unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity). It then looks at the place of the sacraments on the life of the Church and at what is involved in communion between churches. Finally it commends sections 1.1 -1.2 of the Anglican Communion Covenant of 2009 and  the Porvoo Common Statement of 1993 as helpful summaries of what Anglican’s believe about the Church and of what it means to be a church ‘living in the light of the Gospel.’  (p.41)

As in chapter one, each of the points made in the chapter are supported by quotations from ecumenical documents and each section of the chapter is followed by questions for group discussion.

The guide ends with recommendations for  further reading on the topics of the Church and the nature of the Anglican Communion and a list of the ecumenical statements referred to by the guide.

  2.What are the strengths and weaknesses of What do Anglicans Believe?

There are three positive aspects of the approach taken by What do Anglicans Believe?

  • It is useful to try to get Anglicans to take doctrine more seriously.
  • It is useful to introduce Anglicans to the texts produced as a result of ecumenical dialogue since these texts contain much helpful material.
  • It is good to encourage people to not only understand doctrines better, but to think how this better understanding ought to lead to changes in both personal discipleship and in the Church’s worship and mission.

Unfortunately,  alongside these  three positive aspects of its approach the text also has a number of major weaknesses.

First, in spite of its title, this is not a guide that explains at all adequately what Anglicans believe

The guide only concentrates on one specific area of doctrine, namely ecclesiology, and says literally nothing about other key doctrinal topics such as the doctrines of God, creation, anthropology, salvation and eschatology. The reader will learn absolutely nothing about what Anglicans believe about these topics.  

Most of the material to which the guide refers is ecumenical rather than specifically Anglican in nature and the guide makes almost no attempt to expound the historic Anglican formularies (The Thirty Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal) and to show how these have been the basis for a specifically Anglican approach to Christian doctrine. No one who used this guide would be able to tell you about the historic Anglican approach to doctrine as a result of having read it.

It is true that most of the material in the guide is derived from ecumenical dialogues between Anglicans and Christians of other traditions. However, the statements produced by such dialogues and quoted in this guide are  consensus statements of what Anglicans and Christians of other traditions feel able to say together rather than explanations of what the Anglican tradition in particular stands for. If you want to produce a guide to what Anglicans believe then statements from ecumenical dialogues are not a good place to start.

Secondly, it is a guide that fails to explain adequately the basis of doctrine.  It never explains to its readers that in the words of the great American scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, Christian doctrine is ‘What the Church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the Word of God’ [2]

The starting point for doctrine is not, as the guide seems to suggest, ‘scripture, church teaching and scholarship’ as if these three carried equal weight. The starting point for doctrine is God’s own testimony to who he is and what he has done given to us in the words of the writers of the sixty six book of the Bible, words which God himself inspired through his Spirit and which together constitute his Word to us.

What this means is that doctrine is never self-referential. It has no authority of its own, but is only authoritative in so far as it bears faithful witness to what God has said in his word. The guide never explains this point.

Thirdly, in a related error, the guide gives a misleading explanation of the emergence of doctrine in the Early Church. It is true that the context in which doctrine developed was, partly, the doctrinal divisions within the Church. However, that was not the basis for the development of doctrine. The basis for the development of doctrine was the continuing attempts of the theologians of the Early Church to understand more deeply, and proclaim more faithfully, God’s self-revelation in Scripture. Thus the Trinitarian debates in the fourth century were debates about the best way to understand and bear witness to what the Bible has to say about who God is.

The reason why the decisions of the first four ecumenical councils have historically been regarded as doctrinally authoritative is because they have been seen as having understood the biblical witness correctly and to have borne faithful witness to it.   

Fourthly, the guide fails to note that the reason churches should engage in dialogue about doctrine should be to help each other to grow in their understanding of and witness to what the Bible teaches. It is true that churches should help each other to ‘sharpen and clarify what they believe,’  but this is only so what they believe can become ever more in line with the Biblical witness.

Fifthly, the guide similarly fails to acknowledge that ‘new ways of understanding and expressing the faith’ are only justified in so far as they enable people to make better sense of the unchanging biblical witness in a changed context. What the Bible says about who God is and what he has done remains ever the same, but new contexts demand fresh explanation of this unchanging truth in the light of the experiences and questions of every new generation in which the Bible is taught.

Sixthly, while what is said about the doctrine of the Church in chapter three is  for the most part unexceptionable and contains some helpful quotations, the material is too dense and lacks sufficient explanation. Those who have studied ecclesiology and the doctrine of the sacraments will understand the points that are being made, but students approaching this material as an introduction to ecclesiology are likely to need a lot of help  to make sense of it.

What would be better would be to have fewer quotations and more explanation of the ones that remain, showing how what they say is rooted in a particular way of understanding the biblical witness that has developed in the course of the history of the Church and challenging the reader to think whether or not this is a helpful way of expressing the biblical teaching today.  

Seventhly, the discussion of the sacraments fails to alert its readers to the historic debate about the number of the sacraments, to explain the specific nature of the grace given through the two sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, or to note the fact that the sacraments require a response of repentance and faith to be spiritually beneficial. The discussion also says nothing about the debates  concerning whether it is right to baptise infants or admit children to Communion.

Overall, therefore, while the study guide is to be commended for wanting to encourage Anglicans to engage with doctrine and with the  documents produced as a result of ecumenical dialogue the end result is not at all satisfactory.

[1] Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, What do Anglican Believe? available at https://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/417436/2020-08-what-do-anglicans-believe_en.pdf

[2] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago and London: The university of Chicago Press, 1971, p.1.