Let Bartlet be Bartlet

In my opinion, one of the greatest television drama series produced in the last twenty years was the American series The West Wing, a series concerned with the two terms in the White House of the fictional Democratic President Jed Bartlet.

What is arguably the defining moment of the entire series comes in episode 19 of season one, the episode entitled ‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet.’ This episode is set just over a year into President Bartlet’s first term. He is frustrated, disillusioned and angry with his staff and his approval ratings are plummeting. The cause of these problems is that, instead of carrying out the bold programme of radical reform for which he was elected, he has become so fixated on getting re-elected that he has fled to the political middle ground and as a result he is making timid, anodyne and largely pointless political proposals that inspire nobody (not even himself). The situation changes (and his presidency is saved) when his Chief of Staff Leo McGarry challenges him to have the courage to try to carry out the programme on which he was elected (to ‘let Bartlet be Bartlet’) rather than worrying about re-election.

The point that Aaron Sorkin, who created The West Wing, makes in this episode is that political leaders should be governed by their principles rather than considerations of short term political expediency. They should focus on what they really want and need to achieve rather than going for political quick fixes.

I watched this episode of The West Wing again shortly after reading the paper issued on Monday by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York setting out the programme for the ‘reform and renewal’ of the Church of England represented in the documents for the February meeting of the General Synod. In their paper the Archbishops stress the urgency of the challenges facing the Church of England in terms of numerical decline, increased financial pressures and the forthcoming retirement of 40 % of the clergy. In response to these challenges what the Church of England is being offered is reports from four working groups on the selection and nurturing of the Church’s senior ordained leaders, on resourcing ministerial education, on how to manage and deploy the funds held by the Church nationally and how to simplify existing processes in relation to pastoral re-organisation and clergy deployment. In addition, there is a report on discipleship which gives a fine account of discipleship but ends not with a call to get on with it, but with a recommendation for yet more discussion about discipleship and the production of further resources.

Having read the paper and then watched The West Wing episode I was struck by how much the Church of England needs its own ‘let Bartlet be Bartlet’ moment. President Bartlet was a frightened man in the early months of his presidency and his fear led him to put the focus of his administration in the wrong place. In a similar way, I would argue, very many in the Church of England are gripped by fear that it may become locked into a cycle of inexorable decline and this leads them to propose inadequate solutions to the problems that the Church is facing. There is nothing wrong with making adjustments to the way that the Church of England selects and trains its senior leaders, or resources the training of its ministers, or deploys its national funds or engages in pastoral reorganisation of the deployment of the clergy. There is nothing wrong with holding further discussions about discipleship or producing additional resources on this subject. However, we must not kid ourselves that these will build the Church or lead to the radical re-conversion of the English nation.

Firstly, the teaching of Matthew 16:18 is clear and unmistakeable ‘I will build my church.’ To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a sermon on this verse from 1933:

‘…it is not we who build. He wills to build the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess – he builds. We must proclaim – he builds. We must pray to him – he builds. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of building. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down. It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church; you confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me.’

What this means is that we are relieved of the burden of thinking that the future of the Church is in our hands. It is not. Our job is simply to be faithful in the simple, but all-encompassing, task which he has given to us, which is to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ in word and deed so that lost sinners ‘having no hope and without God in the world’ (Ephesians 2:12) may receive the gift of eternal life.

Secondly, even in performing this task we are dependent upon God. If the result of our witness is that people repent, and believe, and receive eternal life, this is ultimately not our doing. It is the action of God the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit, drawing people to Himself (John 6:37, 44, 16:8-11). Our role is to make ourselves available to be the instruments that God can use. The greatest need of our nation at the moment, greater even than the resolution of its social, political or economic problems, is a mass return of people to God.

However, just as we cannot build the Church, so also we cannot by our own actions bring about such a revival. In the words of a new book by Michael Green, When God  Breaks In, the consistent witness of the Bible and the history of the Church is that that kind of revival takes place ‘when God breaks in.’

Because God is sovereign, we cannot determine when He will do this, but the evidence of Scripture and history suggests that He acts where his people are prayerful, concerned about holiness, submit to Scripture, are aware of the seriousness of the issue of people’s eternal destiny and are prepared to suffer for God.

To quote Michael Green:

‘There is no way in which human beings can orchestrate the sweeping power of divine interventions, such as the ones we have looked at. They are the work of the living God, with or without human agency, and they take different forms. They come at the times of his decision. But what we can say without fear of contradiction is that they never appear when all God’s people are apathetic, prayerless, unconcerned about holiness, flippant about the great issues of life, death and judgement, or disposed to reject the authority of Scripture. Scepticism in theology and hedonism in lifestyle never spawn significant spiritual revival. That in itself ought to be a significant pointer to the way in which the Church should be moving.’

To return to where I began with this blog, what the Church of England therefore needs is a ‘let Bartlet be Bartlet’ moment. What it needs is for the Archbishops to have the courage to set out a truly radical programme for the Church of England.

This needs to start from the acknowledgement that there is absolutely nothing that we can do to build the Church or bring about a spiritual transformation in our nation. That is God’s job, not ours. What we can and must do is play our part by being more diligent in reading Scripture, more serious about holiness, more fervent in prayer, more concerned about matters of eternal life, more courageous in witness and more willing to suffer for the Gospel.

None of this requires changes in the administration or funding of the Church. Nor does it require years of discussion and the production of yet more resources. This could start tomorrow if people in the Church of England were more serious about God and need of our nation. In The West Wing, what changes the presidency of Jed Bartlet is ultimately a change of attitude. He and his staff get serious about putting their political beliefs into practice. What the Church of England needs is the same kind of seriousness. ‘If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.’ (2 Chronicles 7:14)

A review of Alan Wilson ‘More Perfect Union’


The Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, has become known as the bishop who has broken ranks with the official policy of the Church of England by arguing that there should be complete acceptance by Christians of same-sex relationships and that ‘marriage’[1] between two people of the same sex should be viewed as a theologically valid form of Christian marriage.

This is not the first book written by a Church of England bishop in support of same-sex relationships. Back in 2000 the then Bishop of Swindon, Michael Doe, argued for a more accepting attitude towards such relationships in his book Seeking the Truth in Love. However, since 2000 the creation of Civil Partnerships and the legalisation of same-sex ‘marriages’ have increased the pressure on the Church of England to change its position on sexual ethics and its view of marriage and there is no doubt that Alan Wilson’s book will become widely seen as providing a manifesto for such a change in the same way that Bishop John Robinson’s book Honest to God became the manifesto for the ‘new theology’ back in the 1960s.

This being the case, it is incumbent on those who believe that it would be wrong for the Church of England to change its teaching about sexual-ethics and marriage to explain why they are not persuaded by the arguments put forward by Wilson and the purpose of this review is to provide such an explanation.

The argument that Wilson puts forward in More Perfect Union has a number of strands.

    1. (Chapter 2) Developments in biology mean that we can no longer view human beings in simple binary terms as either male or female and this in turn means that we can no longer see same-sex orientation as ‘unnatural’ or ‘intrinsically disordered.’  This means that we are free to judge same-sex relationships by exactly the same criteria as heterosexual ones. ‘Do they display virtues of permanence, stability, mutual love and fidelity? Relationships are better judged by their fruit than by their configuration’ (p.34)
    2. (Chapter 3) Equality is at the heart of the biblical story, ‘the ground bass of the Bible story from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem’ (p.53). The refusal to accept same-sex marriage is a refusal to accept equality in a way that is akin to the refusal of the South African state to accept non-white people as equal citizens during the apartheid era.
    3. Chapter 4) We need to read biblical verses in relation to their particular historical and literary contexts and in relation to the message of the Bible as whole. The history of Christian attitudes to slavery and corporal and capital punishment point us to two ways of approaching the Bible. There is the ‘narrow gauge’ approach that focuses on particular texts and there is the ‘broad gauge’ approach that approaches these texts, and where necessary qualifies them, in the light of the Bible’s overall teaching
    4. (Chapter 5) The ‘clobber texts’ that have shaped the way that Christians have viewed homosexual people (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) do not, on close examination, provide a clear condemnation of same-sex relationships today.  Furthermore, they have to be read in the light of Jesus’ teaching about a tree being known by the quality of its fruit (Matthew 7:16-18) and this means reading the Scriptures in the light of God’s love. ‘The Scriptures cannot bear bitter fruit. The discipline that enables Christians to hear the word of God according to the love of God is not woolly liberalism, but obedience to the New Testament injunction to discern the spirits and make love our aim’ (p.81)
    5. (Chapters 6 & 7) Both in the Bible and in our society the forms that marriage have taken and the understandings of the nature of marriage have changed and developed.  In the Bible marriage in its various forms is ‘an externally defined social institution that is drawn upon to illustrate God’s relationships with his people, about which regulations are made, but, more importantly, its spiritual and relational aspects developed beyond considerations of sex, gender or children’ (p.99).  The history of marriage in our society shows us that marriage ‘is not defined by Church or State, but by the lives of people who marry according to the social and personal mores of the time and place’ (p.121). The medieval idea of marriage as an ‘indissoluble sacrament’ has become an ‘empty shell’ and has been superseded by the Puritan concept of it as ‘personal partnership of equals’ (p.121)
    6. (Chapter 8) The global Church should adopt a Romans 14 approach to issues of sexuality by allowing different approaches to co-exist. This would enable the churches ‘to be agents of mutual understanding and reconciliation rather than creating hate and alienation between themselves’ (p.146)
    7. (Chapter 9) Same-sex marriages will enrich rather than diminish the institution of marriage. The distinctive thing that should mark out a Christian marriage is not the sex of the couple involved, or whether their relationship is open to the procreation of children, but ‘the quality of self-giving love between the parties’ (p.163), something that is equally possible in a same-sex ‘marriage.’

Strand 1 – the argument about biology.

If we now consider each of these strands in turn we find, firstly, that Wilson’s argument that we can no longer view human beings in simple binary terms for biological reasons is flawed both scientifically and theologically.


It is flawed scientifically for a number of reasons:

  • As the Pilling report notes ‘the great majority of human beings are unambiguously either male or female in terms of their chromosomes and the primary and secondary sexual characteristics that their bodies display.’ The variations in human brains to which Wilson refers (page 26 fn. 4) do not negate this truth. Estimates of the number of people with intersex conditions very between 0.018% of the population to 1.7% depending on the definition of intersex that is used. It is therefore illegitimate to appeal to intersex conditions, as Wilson does, to argue that we can no longer think of being either male or female as the human norm.
  • The existence of gender identity dysphoria (in which people feel they are trapped in a body of the wrong sex) and same-sex attraction does not disprove a binary male-female divide since the vast majority of people with gender dysphoria and same-sex attraction are biologically unambiguously either male or female and the vast majority of people with same-sex attraction view themselves as either male or female.
  • Biologically, human sexuality is oriented towards reproduction. The sex organs of the human body are designed in a way that leads towards the procreation of children and human sexual attraction works on the biological level to bring about procreation. When human beings become sexually aroused they become aroused in a way that is designed to bring about reproductive intercourse. Furthermore reproductive intercourse requires the activity of both sexes. That is why same-sex couples cannot have children of their own and have to rely on either adoption, egg donation or surrogate motherhood.
  • What Wilson dismisses as the ‘Janet and John’ view that human beings are either male or female is in fact, according to biology, the overwhelming human norm and the basis for human sexuality. An alien visitor encountering human beings for the first time would view them as a species that exists in two sexes and which requires two sexes to reproduce.
  • Wilson goes against the available evidence when he says that attempts to change people’s
  • sexual orientation have ‘almost universally failed’(p.28). There were a series of well documented reports from the 1940s to the 1970s of successful therapy to help people deal with unwanted sexual attraction. The controversy about such therapy means that there have been no controlled randomized trials in this area since then, but such evidence as there is suggests that such therapy can be successful in the case of some people, including people who are definitely homosexual rather than bisexual.


It is flawed theologically because it ignores the clear teaching of Genesis 1 and 2, echoed in Romans 5:1-2, and reiterated by Jesus in his teaching on marriage (Matthew 19:4, Mark 10:6) that God chose to create people as male and female. Wilson ignores these texts totally in spite of the fact that they are fundamental to biblical anthropology and have been fundamental to subsequent Christian anthropology. Wilson has to face the question. If he no longer thinks that we should view human beings in binary terms then what does he think we should do with these texts?

It is also flawed theologically because it takes no account of the Fall. The Bible and the Christian faith teaches us that we live in a world that is not as it should be and that this fact is reflected not just on the spiritual level, but on the biological level as well. That is why, although human beings were designed by God to see, hear and walk there are people who for congenital, medical or accidental reasons are blind, deaf or lame. The fact that Jesus came and healed the blind, the deaf and the lame indicates that how things are in a Fallen world is not necessarily how God intends them to be. Similarly, the fact that some people feel a disjunction between their bodies and who they truly are and the fact that some people are sexually attracted to those of the same sex does not mean that this is the result of the diversity of creation rather than a result of the Fall.

Strand 2 – the argument about equality.

Turning to the issue of equality, the cogency of Wilson’s argument depends on what is meant by equality.

In Scripture all human beings, regardless of their sex, race, or class are created by God in His image and likeness and they have the possibility of participating in God’s eternal kingdom through the work of Christ. It is this equality to which St Paul refers in Galatians 3:28 and which gives every human being an intrinsic dignity which demands respect. That is why the first Christians gradually came to do away with the markers that separated Jews from Gentiles (such as the Jewish food laws and the requirement for circumcision) and why Christians are (or should be) opposed to sexism, racism or class based oppression.

However, it does not follow from the intrinsic dignity of every human being on the basis of creation and redemption that all human desires (however strongly felt), or all forms of human sexual activity, are equally acceptable before God and therefore should equally be accepted by the Church. If this was the case it would be impossible to make sense of what Jesus says about the desires of the human heart that defile people in God’s sight (Matthew 15:19-20, Mark 7:21-23) and it would also be impossible to make sense of the numerous biblical commands and injunctions that say that certain forms of behaviour (including sexual behaviour) are unacceptable for God’s people.

Wilson’s argument that it is wrong to try to ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’ because it is a failure of love to fail to take ‘anyone’s self-identity seriously’ (p.47) is problematic because this is in fact exactly what God does. In the words of St Augustine, commenting on Romans 5:8:

…in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us when we were such as he had not made us, and yet because our iniquity had not destroyed his work in every respect, he knew in regard to each of us, to hate what we had made, and to love what he had made. (Tract in John 110)

What Wilson is doing is confusing love with acceptance and affirmation. According to classical Christian theology, love, whether God’s love for us, or our consequent love for other people, is not simply about acceptance and affirmation. It is instead desiring that someone should flourish as the person God made them to be and taking the appropriate action to achieve that end. It follows that if, as Christian theology has traditionally claimed, human beings were created by God to engage in sexual activity solely within a married relationship within someone of the opposite sex, it would be a failure of love to simply affirm or accept someone in a same-sex relationship. This would not encourage them to undertake the change necessary to become the person God made them to be.

Strand 3 –how to read the Bible.

On the issue of how we should read the Bible, Wilson is right to argue that we need to read particular texts in their literary and historical context and in the light of the Bible’s overall message. Unfortunately what he does not seem to have registered is that the overall message of the Bible is one that leaves no space for the affirmation of same-sex sexual relationships.

This is a point that is well made by the American writer Michael Brown in his book Can you be Gay and Christian? He asks the question why there are only a tiny number of biblical verses that directly address the issue of same-sex sexual relationships. His answer to this question is to draw an analogy with a book of recipes for sugar free puddings that has an introduction that explains why sugar should be avoided. The book would not need to constantly say ‘no sugar’ because this would be the point of the book. In a similar way, he says:

The Bible is a heterosexual book, and that is why it does not need to constantly speak against homosexual practice. It is heterosexual from beginning to end, and my heart truly goes out to ‘gay Christians’ trying to read the Bible as ‘their book.’ For them it cannot be read as it is; it must be adjusted, adapted, and changed to fit homosexual couples and their families. In short ‘gay Christians’ must read God-approved homosexuality into the biblical text since it simply isn’t there.

And this is the pattern throughout the entire Bible in book after book.

  • Every single reference to marriage in the entire Bible speaks of heterosexual unions without exception, to the point that a Hebrew idiom for marriage is for a man ‘to take a wife.’
  • Every warning to men about sexual purity presupposes heterosexuality, with the married man often warned not to lust after another woman.
  • Every discussion about family order and structure speaks explicitly in heterosexual terms, referring to husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.
  • Every law or instruction given to children presupposes heterosexuality, as children are urged to heed or obey or follow the counsel or example of their father and mother.
  • Every parable. Illustration or metaphor having to do with marriage is presented in exclusively heterosexual terms.
  • In the Old Testament God depicts His relationship with Israel as that of a groom and a bride; in the New Testament the image shifts to the marital union of husband and wife as a picture of Christ and the Church.
  • Since there was no such thing as in vitro fertilization and the like in biblical times, the only parents were heterosexual (it still takes a man and a woman to produce a child) and there is no hint of homosexual couples adopting children.

The Bible is a heterosexual book, and that is a simple, pervasive, undeniable fact that cannot be avoided, and, to repeat, this observation has nothing to do with a disputed passage, verse or word, it is a universal, all pervasive, completely transparent fact. (pp.88-89)

Because this is the case, whether you engage in a ‘narrow gauge’ study of the specific texts that speak about same-sex sexual activity, or a broad gauge study of the Bible as whole the message is the same. Because of the way that God created human beings as male and female there is no legitimate space for such activity, let alone for same-sex ‘marriage.’

Strand 4 – interpreting the key biblical texts.

Moving on to what Wilson says about the five specific biblical texts that he looks at, what we find is that he misinterprets each of the five texts.

Genesis 19

On Genesis 19 Wilson argues that:

The prime sin of Sodom arose from the intent of the rapists. This was a gang rape, not an orgy, which indicated a generally sinful way of life within the city. Its essence was moral recklessness and violence, than its sexual orientation. The gang rape of female strangers would have been as bad. (p.70)

However the idea that the men of Sodom were intent upon rape is something that Wilson (like many others) had read into the text. As Victor Hamilton has pointed out in his commentary on Genesis, Hebrew has a vocabulary to describe rape and it is not used in this text. All that Genesis 19:5 tells us is that the men of Sodom wanted to have sexual relations with (‘know’) Lot’s visitors.

The fact that the text leaves it at that and that it says nothing about the motivation of the crowd, or, about whether they were homosexual or bisexual, is theologically significant. In order to make it clear that Sodom was a gravely sinful place all the text has to say is that its inhabitants wanted to have sex with men. That in itself constitutes a wicked act (Genesis 19:6) which illustrates the more general wickedness for which Sodom, Gomorrah, and two neighboring cities are going to be destroyed.

In Genesis 19, and also in Judges 19, the desire for homosexual sex is in itself evidence of the wider sinfulness of a society that has turned from God. This is the same point that is made on an even wider canvas by Paul in Romans 1:26-27.

Wilson is also wrong to suggest that the author of Jude 7 thinks that the sin of Sodom has to do with sex with angels. This reading is not demanded by the vocabulary or grammar of Jude 7 and is a reading that pits Jude 7 against the fact that in Genesis the angels are thought to be men, that introduces a reading of Genesis 19 that is at odds with subsequent Jewish interpretations of the Sodom story both in the Bible and in other Jewish sources, and that contradicts the way that Jude is understood by Peter 2:7 -10 which talks about the ‘licentiousness’ and ‘lust of defiling passion’ which were characteristics of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, but says nothing about sex with angels.

The most likely readings of Jude 7 are either Peter Davids’ suggestion that ‘going after other flesh’ means ‘desiring homosexual sex’ or Robert Gagnon’s grammatically possible suggestion that it means that ‘in the course of committing sexual immorality they inadvertently lusted after angels.’ In both cases homosexual desire is seen as a reason for God’s judgment.

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

On Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 Wilson suggests that ‘the essence of the offence seems to be a man taking a female sexual position in bed with another man.’ In other words, what Leviticus is talking about is anal penetration and all other forms of gay sex (and all forms of lesbian sex) do not fall within the scope of this prohibition.

However, as Richard Davidson notes in his exhaustive study of the Old Testament material on sexuality, Flame of Yahweh, the vocabulary used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is in fact general in character. He writes that is has been suggested that the phrase that is used ‘the lying of a woman’ includes ‘only homosexual acts that approximate heterosexual coitus and include penile intromission, but the Hebrew is clearly a euphemism for sexual intercourse (cf the female equivalent of this passage in Judg 21:11-12). Thus this passage is a permanent prohibition of all sexual intercourse with another male (zākār). This would also prohibit pedophilia, since the term zākār refers to any male, not just a grown man’ (p.150).

On the question of whether the text only forbids gay rather than lesbian sex, Davidson may well be right in his suggestions that a prohibition of lesbianism may be implicit in the general prohibition against following the practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Leviticus 18:3) as the Rabbis thought, or that the prohibitions in the masculine singular may have been seen as applying generically to both men and women. Certainly St. Paul sees lesbianism as forbidden alongside male homosexuality, while would seem to indicate that he understood the Levitical prohibitions inclusively.

Wilson also fails to note that the presupposition underlying the various prohibitions of sexual activity in Leviticus 18 and 20 (as also what is said about sexual activity in the Torah as a whole) is marriage between one man and one woman in line with the way that God created the human race. Almost all the prohibited sexual offences are offences because in various ways they involve sex outside this context, sex before marriage, sex with someone other than your wife, sex with someone of the same sex, or sex with another species. The one exception is the offering of children to Moloch which is wrong use of sex because it is a misuse of God’s calling to reproduce (Genesis 1:28). The issue in Leviticus is therefore the way that God has created the world and the calling of human beings to behave in a way that corresponds to that.

Romans 1:26-27

On Romans 1:26-27 Wilson argues that the term ‘nature’ in these verses ‘denotes human convention, custom or expectation’ and ‘can only refer directly to people we would call ‘bisexual’ ‘(p.76). He also says that is ‘hard to see’ how what St. Paul says can apply to non-idolatrous Christians today, because what Paul see as the ‘crime’ is not homosexual conduct but idolatry (p.77).

In relation to the first point, Wilson’s argument contains internal contradictions. Firstly, the argument that Romans 1:26-27 only applies to bisexuals goes back to Derek Bailey’s contention that ‘nature’ means the personal orientation of the individuals concern. For Bailey this meant that only men and women who were naturally heterosexual could acts against nature in the way described by St. Paul. If Wilson is following Bailey then it would not be against the nature of bisexuals to engage in sex with members of the same sex because that would be natural for them. Secondly, if ‘nature’ means the orientation of the people concerned then it cannot mean ‘human, convention, custom or expectation.’ Wilson cannot have it both ways.

Moreover, the vast majority of commentators on Romans hold that neither of these meanings of ‘nature’ is the correct one. They would argue that both the focus in Romans 1 on the witness to God borne by the created order and the way that ‘nature’ was used by Jewish and Greco-Roman writers shows that ‘nature’ refers to the way things have been created by God.

As Ian Paul explains in his Grove booklet Same-sex Unions, when Paul talks about ‘nature’ he is not referring to the experiences of sexual attraction of particular individuals or their ‘innate preferences.’ Instead, what he is referring to is:

…the way the world was meant to be, as created by God; his categories are theological, not psychological and corporate rather than individual. It is ‘the order intended by the creator, the order that is manifest in God’s creation.’ In the same way that Ps 106 tells the corporate story of the failure of God’s people. Paul is telling here the cosmic story of the failure of humanity. And he is not simply referring to culture; he does appear to think (in 1 Corinthians 11:14) that women having long hair is the way that God intended it. Instead he is borrowing terms from existing ethical thinking (particularly in Stoicism) about what is ‘natural (kata phusin) and what is unnatural (para phusin), which therefore rejects God’s intention in creation (p.25).

In addition, contrary to Wilson’s second point, St. Paul is not suggesting that only idolaters engage in same-sex activity or that the real sin is not same-sex activity but idolatry. As Tom Wright puts it in his commentary on Romans in his Paul for Everyone series the point that St. Paul is making:

…is not simply ‘we Jews don’t approve of this,’ or, ‘relationships like this are always unequal or exploitative.’ His point is, ‘this not what males and females were made for.’ Nor is he suggesting that everyone who feels sexually attracted to members of their own sex, or everyone who engages in actual same-sex relations, has got to that point through committing specific acts of idolatry. Nor, again, does he suppose that all those who find themselves in that situation have arrived there by a specific choice to give up heterosexual possibilities. Reading the text like that reflects a modern individualism rather than Paul’s larger, all-embracing perspective. Rather, he is talking about the human race as a whole. His point is not that ‘there are some exceptionally wicked people out there who do these revolting things’ but ‘the fact that such clear distortions of the creator’s male-plus-female intention occur in the world indicates that the human race as a whole is guilty of a character twisting idolatry.’ He sees the practice of same-sex relations as a sign that the human world in general is out of joint. (pp.22-23)

This means that Wilson’s non-idolatrous Christian same-sex couple are still behaving wrongly if they engage in same-sex sexual activity because they are not living in the way for which God created them, but are rather giving expression by their sinful activity to the way in which the human race as a whole has turned away from its creator.

1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

On 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 Wilson argues that St. Paul is referring ‘to men who practise abusive or exploitative sex, perhaps some form of trafficking’ (p.79). This argument ignores two key facts. The first is that the two Greek terms that St. Paul uses, arsenokoitai and malakoi, are general terms for active and passive same-sex sexual activity. They carry no overtones of sexual exploitation. The second is that there is nothing in the context to suggest exploitation. The vice lists in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 are based on the second table of the Ten Commandments and the references to same-sex activity come under the scope of the prohibition of adultery in the seventh commandment. This means that such activity is wrong because it involves sexual immorality not because it involves some form of exploitation. The references to robbery and kidnapping which the proponents of the exploitation thesis appeal to (on the grounds that people were stolen to act as male prostitutes) come later in these vice lists and refer to separate and distinct offences that violate the eighth commandment against theft.

Wilson is stating the obvious when he says that the New Testament passages that refer to same-sex activity ‘can be understood in many different ways’ (p.79). All texts are open to multiple interpretations. The question is whether they should be interpreted along the lines Wilson suggests. For the reasons given above the answer to this question is ‘no’.

Furthermore, Wilson’s suggested interpretation is not in accordance with the principle of love to which he appeals. As love is about helping people to become the people God made them to be so a loving interpretation is a truthful one because only a truthful interpretation will help people to understand properly how God wants them to live.

Strand 5 – the way marriage has changed and developed.

  • In the Bible

Moving on to the way in which marriage has changed and developed, it is true that we do see a variety of different forms of relationships between men and women in Scripture. However it is important that we are precise about this. Wilson suggests that there ‘are at least seven different definitions of marriage’ (p.84) and there is a famous infographic on the internet (http://visual.ly/marriage-according-bible ) that goes one better and suggests that there are eight versions. However, whether we consider Wilson’s seven variations or the eight on the infographic, in both cases two points stand out. First, all of the relationships that are mentioned are heterosexual. Marriage in the Bible is exclusively male-female. Secondly, with the exclusion of polygamy, all the forms of relationship are variations of heterosexual monogamy. There are all variations of a marital relationship between one man and one woman with the differences being the circumstances in which the marriages are entered into and whether there is a concubine(s) alongside a wife (for this point see the helpful response to the marriage infographic at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JyjMMbB5KV4).

The big biblical picture is that in the creation narrative in Genesis 2:18-25 marriage is established as a permanent, heterosexual, monogamous relationship which is freely entered into. From the time of Lamech (Genesis 4:19) polygamy and concubinage are found, but they are seen as being a result of the Fall and the Old Testament ‘consistently condemns plural marriage either explicitly or implicitly’ (Davidson p.211). The Old Testament also allows for divorce, but this is because of ‘your hardness of heart’ (Matthew 19:8) rather than because it is what God desires. In the New Testament the standard for marriage is reset to the norm established in Eden and marriage is exclusively seen as permanent, monogamous, heterosexual relationship that people chose to enter into or not (see 1 Corinthians 7). Also, it is not true that in the Old Testament a wife ‘is defined as her husband’s property’ (Wilson p.86). Davidson examines this claim in detail and shows that it has no substance (pp.249-51, and chapters 8 and 12).

As Wilson correctly notes, Jesus and St. Paul teach that marriage is part of the temporal rather than the eternal order (Matthew 22:30, I Corinthians 7), that even the marital relationship has to take second place to a willingness to follow Jesus (Matthew 10:35-37) and that celibacy is a legitimate alternative to marriage for the Christian disciple (Matthew 19:10-12, 1 Corinthians 7). However, none of this means that either Jesus or St. Paul (or anyone else in the New Testament) allowed for any other form of marital relationship other than the one established at creation or that there is the slightest evidence that they relaxed the Old Testament prohibitions against sex outside the marital relationship. Indeed, Jesus went beyond the teaching of the Old Testament in warning against not only illegitimate sexual activity, but also illegitimate sexual desire (Matthew 5:27-30).

What all this means is that in the Bible marriage is not defined by the changing social mores of the ancient world, but by an understanding that God has created men and women to relate together sexually in monogamous marriage, that variations from this pattern are due to the Fall and that in the New Testament there are two clear alternatives, permanent, heterosexual, monogamous marriage or celibacy.

It is true, as Wilson says, that in a number of places in the Bible (e.g. Isaiah 54:4-8, Hosea 2:16-20, Ephesians 5:21-31, Revelation 21:2 and 22:17) marriage is seen as an analogue for the relationship between God and Israel and Christ and His Church. However, this does not mean, as Wilson suggests, that this points to a form of marriage that is not defined ‘by sex, gender and reproduction.’ The only form of marriage in Scripture that is seen as a proper symbol for God’s faithful, self-giving love for His people is sexually faithful, monogamous heterosexual marriage. Sex outside marriage is seen as an expression of the way in which God’s people have turned away from Him (see Hosea 1-9, Ezekiel 16) and same is true of same-sex activity in both its lesbian and gay forms (Romans 1:26-27).

  • In the history of our society

If we turn to the history of marriage in our society what we find that it is indeed the case that there has been change and development. Different aspects of marriage have been emphasised in different points in history, how marriage has been entered into has varied, who is allowed to be married has varied, the kind of behaviour permitted within the marital relationship has varied and there has been variation over whether divorce is allowed and under what circumstances.

However, it is simply untrue to say that marriage has not been defined by ‘Church or State.’ Both the Church and the state have laid down laws about what constitutes marriage and who may be married and in what circumstances. Furthermore, the definition of marriage since Saxon times has been that summarised in Canon B.30, ‘a union permanent and life-long, for better or worse, till death do them part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side.’ It has also been the expectation that, except in the case of elderly married couples, marriage would lead to having children. It is only in very recent years, with the growing pressure for the recognition of same-sex relationships, that this basic, biblically based, definition of marriage has been challenged. The study of history shows that same-sex ‘marriage’ is in fact an entirely novel idea. It is a revolution in the understanding of the fundamental nature of marriage, a revolution that involves a departure from the teaching of the Bible.

It is also worth noting that contrary to what Wilson says on page 121, UK law does not forbid ‘arranged marriage.’ An arranged marriage which has the free consent of the parties involved is perfectly legal. It is ‘forced marriage’ where the consent is lacking that is illegal (see https://www.gov.uk/forced-marriage).

Strand 6 – handling differences over same-sex relationships.

On the question of how to handle the difference between churches over same-sex relationships, there are two key points which Wilson has overlooked.

The first is that while the concept of ‘adiaphora’ – things indifferent – means that it can often be legitimate to simply agree to disagree in the way that St. Paul recommends in 1 Corinthians 14, nevertheless, as the Windsor Report of 2004 notes:

This does not mean, however, that either for Paul or in Anglican theology all things over which Christians in fact disagree are automatically to be placed into the category of ‘adiaphora’. It has never been enough to say that we must celebrate or at least respect ‘difference’ without further ado. Not all ‘differences’ can be tolerated. (We know this well enough in the cases of, say, racism or child abuse; we would not say “some of us are racists, some of us are not, so let’s celebrate our diversity”). This question is frequently begged in current discussions, as for instance when people suggest without further argument, in relation to a particular controversial issue, that it should not be allowed to impair the Church’s unity, in other words that the matter in question is not as serious as some suppose. In the letters already quoted, Paul is quite clear that there are several matters – obvious examples being incest (1 Corinthians 5) and lawsuits between Christians before non-Christian courts (1 Corinthians 6) – in which there is no question of saying “some Christians think this, other Christians think that, and you must learn to live with the difference”. On the contrary: Paul insists that some types of behaviour are incompatible with inheriting God’s coming kingdom, and must not therefore be tolerated within the Church. ‘Difference’ has become a concept within current postmodern discourse which can easily mislead the contemporary western church into forgetting the principles, enshrined in scripture and often re-articulated within Anglicanism, for distinguishing one type of difference from another. (Section B.90)

Secondly, as the Windsor Report goes on to say, in 1 Corinthians 8-10 St Paul lays down another principle that needs to be taken into account, that of not causing a stumbling block to our fellow believers

Even when the notion of ‘adiaphora’ applies, it does not mean that Christians are left free to pursue their own personal choices without restriction. Paul insists that those who take what he calls the “strong” position, claiming the right to eat and drink what others regard as off limits, must take care of the “weak”, those who still have scruples of conscience about the matters in question – since those who are lured into acting against conscience are thereby drawn into sin. Paul does not envisage this as a static situation. He clearly hopes that his own teaching, and mutual acceptance within the Christian family, will bring people to one mind. But he knows from pastoral experience that people do not change their minds overnight on matters deep within their culture and experience.

Whenever, therefore, a claim is made that a particular theological or ethical stance is something ‘indifferent’, and that people should be free to follow it without the Church being thereby split, there are two questions to be asked. First, is this in fact the kind of matter which can count as ‘inessential’, or does it touch on something vital? Second, if it is indeed ‘adiaphora’, is it something that, nevertheless, a sufficient number of other Christians will find scandalous and offensive, either in the sense that they will be led into acting against their own consciences or that they will be forced, for conscience’s sake, to break fellowship with those who go ahead? If the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’, the biblical guidelines insist that those who have no scruples about the proposed action should nevertheless refrain from going ahead. (Sections B 92-93)

Wilson’s proposal fails on both these counts.

There is no question that for millions of Christians the acceptance of same-sex relationships by the Church is indeed ‘scandalous and offensive’ and it follows that if, as Wilson argues, it is a matter that is adiaphora those that favour such a course of action should ‘refrain from going ahead.’

However, it is in fact impossible to argue that same-sex relationships are a matter that is adiaphora. According to the witness of the New Testament sexual immorality, of which same-sex sexual activity is one form, is something that is contrary to basic Christian teaching (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8), that defiles people before God (Mark 7:21-23), that is a barrier to inheriting God’s kingdom and that contradicts the new life of holiness that is God’s gift to believers, through Christ and the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Strand 7 –the impact of same-sex ‘marriage’ and what makes a Christian marriage distinctive.

The final strand of Wilson’s argument also overlooks some important issues.

First, his contention that same-sex ‘marriages’ will enrich rather than diminish the institution of marriage fails to take into account three serious concerns:

  • That rather than leading same-sex couples to adopt a less promiscuous and more conventional life style same-sex ‘marriage’ will over time lead to wider social acceptance of the more ‘open’ forms of sexual relationship that have typified large parts of the gay community.
  • That the establishment of same-sex families will have a detrimental effect on any children involved – an issue raised, for instance by the study on new family structures undertaken by the American sociologist Mark Regenerus.
  • That the acceptance of same-sex ‘marriages’ will inevitably lead to moves towards the acceptance of other forms of non-conventional marriages such as polygamous marriages, incestuous marriages and temporary marriages on the grounds that these can also be examples of loving relationships. Such moves are already beginning in other parts of the world.

Wilson fails to address, or even acknowledge, any of these concerns.[2]

Secondly, he does not address the issue of the greater public acceptance of homosexuality which will result from the legalisation of same-sex ‘marriage.’ The idea that the number of people involved in same-sex activity is a fixed quantity is a fallacy. The reality is that the greater the public acceptance the more likely it is that people who would not otherwise have done so will engage in same-sex activity. That is why historically in some societies same-sex activity has been widespread and in others it has been almost non-existent. The growth in the number of people involved in same-sex activity would not, of course, worry Wilson, but it is a legitimate concern for those who believe such activity to be morally wrong and harmful to the people involved.

Thirdly, his claim that the distinctive thing about Christian marriage is simply ‘the self-giving love between the parties’ fails to do justice to the fact that a Christian marriage, like any other form of Christian discipleship, will be a way of life that is lived in obedience to the will of God. As has been argued throughout this review, God’s will with on this matter is clear both from Scripture and from the witness of nature. God has created human beings as male and female and his will is that they should relate to each other sexually in an exclusive, life-long, heterosexual union that is open in principle to the procreation of children. A same-sex ‘marriage’ is by its very nature contrary to this and can never therefore constitute a genuinely Christian marriage.


Having looked critically at the seven strands of Wilson’s argument it has become clear that none of them stands up to scrutiny. His argument for the acceptance of same-sex ‘marriages’ is therefore completely unconvincing both in its parts and as a whole. His case simply does not add up.

M B Davie 13.11.14   (This review was originally produced for the Church of England Evangelical Council)


[1] Some readers of this review may find the quote marks round references to same-sex ‘marriages’ offensive. I apologise for the offence, but it is necessary to keep on marking out that from a traditional Christian view point these are not truly marriages (as the BCP marriage service puts it ‘so many as are coupled together otherwise than God’s word doth allow are not joined together by God; neither is their Matrimony lawful’) and the use of quote marks is one way of doing this.

[2] For more on these concerns see the helpful You Tube video ‘Making marriage meaningless’ at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1QNxVbE6Bvc

Why disagreement is not good

In the new edition of his biography of Archbishop Justin Welby, Andrew Atherstone draws the following contrast between the approaches of Archbishop Welby and his predecessor:

‘Rowan Williams spent most of his archepiscopate seeking areas of core theological agreement around which Anglicans could coalesce, most notably in the failed Anglican Covenant. Welby’s project is different: not the pursuit of theological agreement but learning to live with theological disagreement.’

In this quotation Atherstone has put his finger on the heart of Archbishop Welby’s approach to the challenges facing the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. Rather than trying to get everyone to agree on issues such as women bishops or same-sex relationships the Archbishop is concerned instead with getting people to disagree well with each other, what he has called ‘good disagreement.’

The phrase ‘good disagreement’ is one that the Archbishop has used on several occasions and it has also been used by the Church of England’s House of Bishops, most recently in a statement about the facilitated conversations on issues of human sexuality that are due to take place across the Church of England in the next couple of years. This statement said that one of the objectives of these conversations is ‘to clarify the implications of what it means for the Church of England to live with what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called ‘good disagreement’ on these issues.’

Unfortunately, neither the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor the House of Bishops, nor anyone else, has produced a clear definition of what is meant by ‘good disagreement’ and no understanding of the term has ever been agreed by the Church of England. This is a problem because you cannot begin to think about whether good disagreement is a sensible idea unless and until you know what this term means. In this blog post I want to suggest that whole idea of ‘good disagreement’ is radically misconceived and that what we should be talking about instead is how to handle disagreement, which is in itself necessarily a bad thing, in the best way possible as part of our calling as Christians to be a community of truth.

To begin to think about this topic the first thing we have to be clear about is that ‘disagreement’ is not the same as ‘diversity’. To disagree is to have different convictions about how things are or should be. Thus there is a disagreement between those who think that unaccompanied psalmody is the only permissible form of music in church and those who think that other forms of hymnody can be equally legitimate. Diversity, on the other hand, just means difference. Thus there could be a church that had total agreement that there should be a variety of different styles of music in use in its services. That would be diversity but not disagreement.

The second thing I think we need to be clear about is that disagreement is a result of our fallen condition. God knows the truth about all things. This is what is meant when Job 28:24 tells us that God ‘looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under heaven’ and Hebrews 4:13 declares ‘before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.’ As creatures made in God’s image human beings are also created to know the truth. We can see this in the account of creation in Genesis in which we are told that ‘the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name’ (Genesis 2:19). What is described here is an act of truthful discernment. Adam is not just arbitrarily assigning names to the birds and the animals, he is discerning truthfully what they are. Like God he knows the true nature, ‘the name,’ of things.

If all human beings engaged in this kind of truthful discernment all of the time then there would never be any disagreement between them. We would all know the truth and we would all agree about the truth. Tragically, however, the result of the big lie told by the devil and accepted by the first human beings (Genesis 3) is that we have lost the ability to always see things as they really are and to always be honest about what we do see. It is for that reason that human beings disagree.

Fortunately, God has provided a remedy for this situation. Jesus is truth incarnate (John 14:6 ‘I am the truth’) and he has come to restore our ability to know the truth. In John 8:31-32 Jesus declares ‘if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ This comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit who is sent by Jesus to ‘guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:13). Like the whole of our re-creation through Jesus, our ability to discern the truth is a work in progress. At the moment ‘our knowledge is imperfect’ (1 Corinthians 13:9) but in heaven we shall understand fully in the same way that we ourselves are fully understood by God (1 Corinthians 13:12). As C S Lewis puts it in his book The Great Divorce, human beings are created with an innate desire for truth and this desire will one day be satisfied. God will bring us to a place where we can taste truth ‘like honey and be embraced by it like a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched’

What all this means is that the term ‘good disagreement’ is an oxymoron like ‘virtuous sin’. Disagreement can never in itself be good. We disagree because in our fallen condition we either don’t know the truth, or are unwilling to accept it when it is presented to us. The vocation of the Church is therefore not to practice ‘good disagreement.’ The vocation of the Church is to be a community where as far as possible disagreement does not exist because truth is known, accepted and celebrated.

The saints in glory presumably already fully practice this vocation. However, as already noted, those of us who are still on earth remain imperfect in knowledge and therefore don’t have a full knowledge of the truth. We are also still sinful and therefore unwilling to accept the truth when it challenges what we want to believe, makes us look bad, or involves having to admit we were wrong. For these reasons the potential for disagreement will always be present in the Church and we have to think about how to handle it in the best way possible. This means that while we can never sensibly talk about ‘good disagreement’ it does make sense to talk about better and worse ways of handling disagreement.

We have to begin by recognizing that our own knowledge of the truth and willingness to accept is limited. We therefore always need to be willing to accept correction from those with whom we disagree and change what we think or do providing that we that our reason for change is a greater perception of truth and not just a desire to please someone else or achieve some advantage for ourselves.

We also have to recognize that those with whom we disagree are people. This means that the prohibitions in the sixth and ninth commandments (Exodus 20: 13 and 16) apply. As the paraphrase of the commandments in the Prayer Book Catechism tells us, these commandments tell us that we are ‘to hurt nobody by word nor deed’, ‘to bear no malice in my heart’ and to keep our tongue ‘from evil-speaking, lying and slandering.’ However strongly we disagree with people, and however much this may lead us to want to attack them in word or deed, the commandments still apply and so we may not do so. We may legitimately criticize their beliefs or actions, but we may not attack them as people, but should instead pray that God will deliver them from error.

Finally we need to understand that the command to ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18/Matthew 19:19) means that as far as we can we are called to lead people into truth and protect them from error. If we know that someone is in error, particularly when that error is about something serious, and especially when it has to do with their obedience to God, we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and say ‘Ok, go your own way then.’ That would be failure of love. Human beings are made not to live in error, but to live in the truth, and if we can help this to happen then we have an inescapable obligation to do so.

Equally, in so far as we able to do so we have an obligation to protect people from error. That is to say, when there are people who know the truth, but may potentially be tempted to depart from it we must do our best to prevent this happening. This is a particularly important part of the vocation of church leaders. That is what St Paul was getting at when he told the Ephesian elders at Miletus

‘Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.’ (Acts 20:28)

Caring for the flock means seeking to prevent the sheep being led astray.

In the light of all this I suggest that Archbishop Welby and the House of Bishops should expunge the term ‘good disagreement’ from their vocabulary. They should talk instead about the importance of the Church of England being a truthful community, a community which aims at agreement in the truth and in which those with leadership roles take seriously their responsibility to encourage this search for truth and, as far as possible, to protect the faithful from error.

Tweets on the Homilies II

Tweets on the Homilies II

Following my previous post on the First Book of Homilies, here are my tweets on the Second Book of Homilies. As before, the full texts of the homilies in question can be found in Ian Robinson (ed) The Homilies (Brynmill/Preservation Press, 2006).

My next set of tweets will be on the Book of Common Prayer

Of the right Use of the Church
Churches are holy places set aside for prayer, preaching and the sacraments. We should go there diligently and reverently.

Against Peril of Idolatry
Setting up images in churches or offering devotion to them is a form of idolatry and is contrary to Scripture and the Fathers.

For Repairing and Keeping Clean of Churches
We must honour God not only by behaving reverently in church, but by keeping our churches clean and in good repair.

Of Good Works and first of Fasting
Christians should fast in order to curb the flesh, become more fervent in prayer and witness to their sorrow for their sins.

Against Gluttony and Drunkenness

Excess in eating and drinking is hateful to God. We must learn sobriety and moderation and give ourselves to abstinence and fasting.

Against Excess of Apparel
Christians need to use the gifts that God has given to us in creation with moderation, avoiding vanity and caring for the poor.

Concerning Prayer
We must ask God for what we need in soul and body and for our neighbours’ needs. We shouldn’t pray to angels, saints or martyrs.

Of the Place and Time of Prayer
We must go to church each Sunday with faith in God and charity to our neighbours to hear the word and receive the sacrament.

Of Common Prayer and Sacraments in a Tongue Understood
Scripture and the Fathers teach us that in public worship and administering the sacraments no unknown language should be used.

For them which take Offence at certain Places of Holy Scripture
The whole of Scripture is God’s word. If we find bits of it difficult we must still accept that what God says has to be true.

Of Almsdeeds and Mercifulness
God counts our service to the poor & needy as service to Him & if we give generously to those in need God will take care of us.

Of the Nativity of our Saviour Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ, born of Mary, true God and true Man, came into the world to reveal God, defeat the devil and free us from sin.

For Good Friday: concerning the Death and Passion of our Saviour Jesus Christ

If we truly believe that Christ died for us then we will respond by giving all that we are and have in love for our neighbours.

The Second Homily concerning the Passion
Faith is the only instrument of salvation given to us. So when we sin we must put our trust solely in Christ’s death for us.

Of the Resurrection of our Saviour Jesus Christ; for Easter Day

Christ’s resurrection shows that he has defeated death, sin & the devil. We show our gratitude by striving to live a holy life.

Of the Worthy Receiving of the Sacrament
We must come to the Lord’s Supper with knowledge of what it means, faith in God, praise for him and love for our neighbour.

Of the Coming Down of the Holy Ghost: for Whitsunday

The Holy Spirit is the 3rd person of the Trinity. He regenerates and sanctifies us. His work is shown by his fruits and gifts.

For Rogation Week: that all Good Things cometh from God
Every good thing that we have, temporal and spiritual, comes from God. Our calling is to use them diligently in His service.

Perambulations in Rogation Week
Our life is transitory. We should spend it in love and charity not focussing on our rights or coveting what belongs to others.

Of the State of Matrimony
Marriage is intended by God to be a perpetually friendly fellowship. We must pray for protection against discord and division.

Against Idleness
It is God’s will that our life here on earth should not be spent in idleness, but in some honest and godly exercise and labour.

Of Repentance and True Reconciliation unto God
The Bible calls us to repentance. We must confess and turn from idolatry and wickedness and embrace, love and worship God alone.

Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion
God wills our obedience to those in political authority. We must pray for them and submit to them even when they do evil.

People are not hogs

People are not Hogs

The Prime Minister’s Church Times article ‘My Faith in the Church of England’ has sparked off a debate about the place of Christianity in the life of this country and about the establishment of the Church of England in particular. What has been notable about this debate is a lack of a proper theological explanation and defence of the establishment of the Church. This blog is an attempt to remedy this omission.

A good place to start thinking about the establishment of the Church is some words from the 16th century Church of England theologian Richard Hooker written in response to those in his day who thought that the Church of England should not be established:

‘A gross error it is, to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body, and not of the soul; for men’s temporal peace, and not for their eternal safety: as if God had ordained kings for no other end and purpose but only to fat up men like hogs, and to see that they have their mast. Indeed, to lead men unto salvation by the hand of secret, invisible and ghostly regiment, or by the external administration of things belonging unto priestly order, (such as the word and sacraments are,) this is denied unto Christian kings: no cause in the world to think them uncapable of supreme authority in the outward government which disposeth the affairs of religion so far as the same are disposable by human authority, and to think them uncapable thereof, only for that the said religion is everlastingly beneficial to them that faithfully continue in it.’

What Hooker is saying here is that while rulers may not preach the word or administer the sacraments it is part of their role to ensure that people’s souls are cared for as well as their bodies. This makes absolutely no sense if you are a secularist and believe that this life is all that there is. However, if, in the words of the Creed, you believe in ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’, if you believe that the final destiny intended by God for human beings is not the grave or the crematorium but ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God’ (Revelation 21:2) and if you believe, as the New Testament tells us, that participation in the life of the new Jerusalem is not automatic, but depends on our belief and behaviour in this life, then you will think that it is the proper business of rulers to care for the spiritual well-being of their subjects.

To unpack this point further we need to consider the traditional Christian view of the role of governments. This view starts from the conviction that the ultimate governmental power belongs to Jesus Christ. In Matthew 28:18 the risen Jesus tells his disciples ‘All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me’ and we are told in Revelation 1:5 that Jesus is ‘the ruler of kings on earth’ In Revelation as a whole the implications of this truth are set out in narrative form as we are told how the power of the seemingly invincible Roman Empire is subjected to the authority of Jesus crucified and risen and so gives way to the coming of God’s final kingdom.

As the New Testament scholar Charles Cranfield notes, the Church is that part of Jesus’ dominion ‘in which his authority is already in some measure known and acknowledged.’ In the Church Jesus rules through his word and his Spirit and through the ministry of those leaders that he has raised up to be the shepherds of his people. However, Jesus’ authority is not only exercised in the Church. To quote Cranfield again, because Jesus is the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ it follows that ‘whether consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, directly or indirectly, the governments of the nations serve his purposes.’

From this perspective, and on the basis of New Testament passages such as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, the Christian Church has consistently held that although governments can become oppressive, the existence of government as such is something that is positive and indeed God given. The role of government is not to do everything in society, since individuals, families and other social organizations (including the Church) each have their own proper role to play in enabling the well-being of society. Rather, as both the passages just mentioned emphasize, the role of government is to promote the well-being of human societies under God by performing acts of judgment in response to wrongdoing. The final coming of God’s kingdom will bring about a state of perfect justice through an act of judgment in which all wrongs are put right and the role of government is provisionally to anticipate that final state of justice by acts of judgment in the here and now.

These acts of judgment can be either reactive or proactive. They are reactive when they are a response to acts of wrongdoing that have already been committed: as when someone commits a crime and is punished by the state. They are proactive when they are intended to prevent forms of wrongdoing that are foreseen.

If we apply this view of governmental authority to the issue of religion we can say that there are three forms of wrong to which governments need to respond.

a) It would be wrong for a nation not to corporately acknowledge Christ and his Lordship.
b) It would be wrong for a nation not to frame its laws so as to reflect the values of God’s coming kingdom
c) It would be wrong for individuals not to have the opportunity to relate rightly to God now so that
they can subsequently enjoy life with him forever.

Bearing in mind the limited role of government noted earlier, we can further say the role of the government, guided by the Church speaking on the basis of the Scriptures (the ‘oracles of God’ referred to in the coronation service), is, while avoiding religious coercion, to seek as far as it can to ensure (a) and (b) and to support the Church, to call it to account and reform it where necessary, in order to ensure that (c) comes about through the Church’s mission to the nation in which it proclaims the gospel through word and sacrament.

For its part the Church needs to be willing to give guidance to the state about (a) and (b) and be willing to be accountable to the state in terms of (c), acknowledging that the government has a legitimate interest in the Church’s performance of its God given mission.

My former colleague Paul Avis sums up this way of thinking when he writes that:

‘As twin divinely ordained institutions – two channels through which God works for the well-being of God’s human creatures – church and state must necessarily relate to each other. They cannot ignore each other’s existence. This can be put more positively by saying that they have mutual obligations and must, therefore, reach an arrangement that respects the calling and integrity of the other. The Church should not attempt to usurp the role of the State, legislating for the temporal aspects of society. The State should not attempt to dominate or control the Church or to usurp its spiritual authority. But that cannot mean that there is no interaction between them. In cognisance of its moral and spiritual obligations, the state may give formal recognition, in law and in the constitution, to the Christian religion and to one or more particular churches. This acknowledgement provides the Church with pastoral and prophetic opportunities that it cannot renounce without betraying its mission. It is helped to bring its ministry to bear on the life of the nation in every level: in local communities; in the numerous institutions that make up civil society; and nationally, in terms of public doctrine. It will not always be heeded, but to speak and sometimes to be ignored is better than to be structurally marginalized and socially invisible.’

It is this framework of thinking that has traditionally shaped the relationship between the Church and the state since Saxon times and which continues to be reflected in the coronation service and the establishment of the Church of England.

In a better world the Church would not be divided and so it would not be the Church of England as one denomination among others, but simply the Church that was established. However, we are where we are, and as the Church of England is currently the only church that is either (i) willing to undertake the role of being the established Church and (ii) has the capacity to do so, it makes sense for it to continue in that role on the understanding that it is representing the Christian church as a whole.

Establishment is thus not predicated on the basis that the Church is ‘owned and directed by a modern secular state,’ as some have suggested. It is predicated on the basis that the state and the Church both acknowledge their complementary responsibilities before God for the welfare of the nation. The establishment of the Church of England thus has a theological basis in a distinctive vision of the proper roles and relationship of government and the Church and it is this theology that must be borne in mind when any discussion of establishment takes place.

The Thirty Nine Articles in Thirty Nine Tweets

The Thirty Nine Articles in Thirty Nine Tweets

The Thirty Nine Articles, which were completed in 1571, are the Church of England’s confessional statement. They were designed to set out the orthodox Christian faith as contained in the Bible and the Fathers over against the errors of Rome on the one hand and the radical Protestant sects on the other. Alongside the Book of Common Prayer and the 1662 Ordinal they are one of the three ‘historic formularies’ that help to determine the official doctrine of the Church of England.

What follows is my attempt to summarise the Articles in thirty nine tweets that were originally posted on my twitter feed, @MartinBDavie .

Art 1. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is eternal, incorporeal and all powerful, wise and good. He created and sustains everything.

Art 2. Jesus is both God and Man. He was born of a virgin, and was crucified, died and buried to sort out all that is wrong with us.

Art 3. After Jesus died for us and was buried he went to the place of the dead as a disembodied soul.

Art 4. Jesus rose from death with a normal human body with which he ascended into heaven where he sits at God’s right hand until he comes as judge.

Art 5. The Holy Spirit has his being (proceeds) from the Father and the Son and is as fully and eternally God as they are.

Art 6. Bible = 39 books in Old Testament and 27 in New. It tells you all you need to know to be saved. Apocrypha is good for morals.

Art 7. In both the OT and the NT eternal life is offered through Christ. The moral commandments in the OT are still binding for Christians today.

Art 8. The Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds should be received and believed because what they say can be proved from Scripture.

Art 9. Original sin is not imitating Adam, but is the corruption of our nature inclining us to evil and making us liable to God’s wrath.

Art 10. Only the grace of God in Jesus Christ can give us the ability to do those good works that are pleasant and acceptable to God.

Art 11. We are right with God because of Christ and not because of what we do or deserve. For more details see the Homily on Justification.

Art 12. Good works cannot save us, but they are pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ and are the sign and fruit of a living faith.

Art 13. The good works we do before we are justified do not make us deserve God’s grace because they are a form of sin.

Art 14. We can never claim credit with God for doing more than he requires of us.

Art 15. Christ is like us in all things except sin. The rest of us are still sinners even if we have been baptised and born again.

Art 16. Even serious and deliberate sins commited after baptism can be forgiven if we truly repent. Sin is a reality so is forgiveness.

Art 17. Predestination is true. Worrying about it is dangerous. We must receive God’s promises and follow his will as set out in the Bible.

Art 18. We cannot be saved by our religion or philosophy or living by natural law, but only by Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12).

Art 19. Faithful people + the pure Word preached + the sacraments = the visible Church. Like other ancient churches, Rome has erred.

Art 20. The Church may make decisions about worship and doctrine, but its authority to do this is limited by what is taught in Scripture.

Art 21. General Councils need Princely sanction. They can err so what they say about salvation needs to be checked out against Scripture.

Art 22. The teaching of the Church of Rome about pardons, relics and the cult of the saints is a human invention contrary to Scripture.

Art 23. Only those who are lawfully called and sent by those with authority to do so should preach the word and celebrate the sacraments.

Art 24. The Bible and the Early Church say don’t hold services in a language that people cannot understand.

Art 25. Jesus instituted 2 sacraments, Baptism + Lord’s Supper. They are effective means of grace to be used in the way Jesus intended.

Art 26. Evil ministers should be removed, but their wickedness does not prevent the grace of God being given to us via word and sacrament.

Art 27. Baptism is not only a sign of Christian belonging but an effective sign of our new birth. Child baptism is theologically ok.

Art 28. At the Lord’s Supper believers receive the body and blood of Christ in a ‘heavenly and spiritual manner’ and through faith.

Art 29. The wicked do not receive Christ at the Lord’s Supper, but simply eat bread and drink wine to their own condemnation.

Art 30. All Christians should receive both bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper because Jesus said so.

Art 31. Christ’s death on the cross is the only solution for all sin. This means it is wrong to offer the Mass as a sacrifice for sin.

Art 32. The Bible doesn’t say that clergy should either marry or not marry. They are therefore free to decide what God wants them to do.

Art 33. Excommunicated people ought to be excluded from the Church community until they publicly repent and are officially restored.

Art 34. All churches don’t have to be the same and can change what they do. Churches to be obeyed except if they act against the Bible.

Art 35. The First and Second Books of Homilies contain sound and useful material and so should be read out in a way people can understand.

Art 36. The 1552 Ordinal contains everything necessary to consecrate and ordain people and nothing that is superstitious or ungodly.

Art 37. The monarch has God given authority in this country but the Pope does not. Capital punishment and military service are both OK.

Art 38. Christians do not have to hold all their possessions in common, but those who can should give generously to those who are in need.

Art 39. Vain and rash swearing ‘no.’ Swearing responsibly in a legal context in order to uphold truth and justice ‘yes.’