Friday, 31 March 2017

The C of E's unsung success story

WHEN the 2014 Church of England attendance statistics were published a year ago (News, 15 January 2016), the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, said in the accom­panying press release: “We lose ap­proximately one per cent of our churchgoers to death each year. Given the age profile of the C of E, the next few years will continue to have downward pressure as people die or become housebound and un­­able to attend church.”
See the full article in the Church Times, 31 March 2017.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Evangelism: maybe talk less, but do more?

THE Franciscan epigram “Preach the gospel at all times; where necessary, use words” was dismissed as inauthentic and “wrong” by the Archbishop of Canterbury in March, a correction since repeated by national officers of the Church.
Talking Jesus is the order of the day, and the recently published research of that name (commissioned by the Church of England and others) is being presented as evidence of the need to talk “to more people, more often, and more relevantly” (News, 6 November). Conversely, many in the media have read the data as gloomy, noting that, on average, such talk seems to do more harm than good.
The research deserves more serious analysis, and none has yet been published. In comparison, the Church of England’s 2011-13 Church Growth Research Programme surveyed widely to determine factors that influence numerical growth. While the summary, published in 2014 in From Anecdote to Evidence, was tendentious, at least there were thoughtful technical reports (News, 17 April).
In contrast, in Talking Jesus we arrive with breakneck speed at “ten recommendations for church leaders”, which largely amount to different ways of saying: “Talk about Jesus more.”
The Talking Jesus survey is of interest because it asks new questions, but this makes validation difficult, since comparison is not possible. It is therefore necessary to look first at that part of the results for which we already have data: church attendance. These figures are found in the data tables, published only on the website of ComRes, the organisation that carried out the survey.
People were asked to specify their frequency of attendance at a religious service (daily, weekly, monthly, and so on), and their Christian denomination. From the results, combined with 2011 Census data, it may be calculated that the number of adults who attend a Church of England service in an average week is 1.9 million, if this survey is representative.
This is more than twice the adult average weekly attendance of 0.84 million published in the Church of England’s own 2013 Statistics for Mission. Using the figures from another piece of research in this area, a 2013 YouGov survey commissioned by the University of Lancaster, the same calculation gives 0.95 million.
Most extraordinary in the Talking Jesus data is that 175 out of 1520 “practising Christians” declared that they participate daily “in a religious service as a worshipper”, which translates to 155,000 Anglicans, ten in each church.

WHEN presenting the research at the General Synod last month, it was said that some of the findings were being met with disbelief: for example, that 53 per cent of “practising” Christians “are always looking for opportunities to talk about Jesus with others”. It was admitted that there is a “halo effect” with surveys, but here “the percentages are so large that they need to be taken seriously.”
Given the questions concerning attendance rates however, it is hard to be confident that there are not significant distortions in the fuzzier matter of conversations, and feelings about conversations.
Many Anglicans may have further cause for concern about the reliability of this research because the definition of a “practising Christian”, basic to the study, is more reflective of the theology of the partners (Barna Group, the Evangelical Alliance, and HOPE) than the breadth of the Church of England. “Practising” means regular prayer, attendance at a church service, and reading of the Bible, at least monthly in each case.
Unsurprisingly, the figures suggest that Bible-reading is the tightest category. So Jack, who occasionally dips into his Bible-reading app or attends an evening service, is “practising”, whereas Marjorie, a regular communicant for 50 years, who chairs a local charity, misses the mark — even though she hears more scripture in a month than Jack reads in a year.

IN THE act of communion, we leave talk behind. We recognise that we speak of a truth that cannot be contained within our language, of a reality before whom we kneel in contemplative silence. That this same reality is the deepest truth about every human being should caution us against interpreting the survey results as simply prescribing more talk. E. M. Forster’s phrase “poor little talkative Christianity” stings enough already.
God’s primary communication of himself is in a whole human life, not just in words. Similarly, the Church’s primary communication of Christ should be through the whole humanity of those who share his life — in both senses of “whole” — not just through its talk.
Openness to hear words follows from recognising the source as trustworthy, which means that the Church’s prior task is to be seen to be a people who lack self-interest, and have learnt to be genuinely attentive to others.

THE report’s recommendations pay little attention to the quality of talk about Jesus. We have the hard task of learning richer speech, responsive to the words and lives of those to whom we witness. That means careful analysis of the survey results, for a start, but it also questions top-down delivery of recommendations.
Historically, renewal has rarely been centrally planned — witness the monastic movement, and of course Jesus himself. It is rich speech, already present at the margins, that has evangelised the Church (and still seeks to do so) with respect to the ending of harmful discrimination according to race, gender, or sexuality.
Patient listening should also influence future survey questions, for instance, by not categorising people according to a narrow notion of “practising”. As St Francis also did not say: “Proclaim yourself Christian; use labels only where really necessary.”
The report was subtitled “Perceptions of Jesus, Christians and evangelism in England”. An interesting follow-up study would be “Perceptions of the Church”, at local or national level. Many individual witnessing Christians may be trusted by friends or family, but the barrier is often suspicion of the institution.
By wider listening, we need to give the message to all people that we are not merely a provider looking for more consumers; we are a body needing their presence to enrich and change us.
first published in the Church Times, 18 December 2015.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

What the Report from the House of Bishops Really Says

It’s fair to assume that many people have false impressions about the nature of the House of Bishops report Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (GS2055), for a variety of reasons: the limitations of press reports, cursory reading, the misinterpretations of some commentators, or the sometimes misleading or obscure language in the report and its press release. I here wish to dispel nine possible misconceptions.

1. Is it all about marriage?
Some have criticised the report for focusing on marriage when there was no realistic expectation of a move towards supporting same sex marriage. Marriage is certainly dominant in the report but in two places it is made clear that the maintenance of the Church’s teaching on all sexual relationships is envisaged (26, 63). That teaching includes: “Sexual relationships outside marriage, whether heterosexual or between people of the same sex, are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings [i.e. sinful]” (p. 18).

2. Does it gives more freedom pastorally?
The report talks about “maximum freedom”, never more freedom. It makes clear that there is no plan for any liturgy or services which recognise same sex relationships (43). Instead there will be guidance to help clergy navigate a course in offering informal prayer which can recognise some social virtue in a homosexual relationship (fidelity and mutuality) while always regarding its sexuality as morally questionable (63). By spelling this out in more detailed guidelines, “maximum freedom” may turn out to be less freedom.

3. Does it promise updated teaching?
It’s true that the new teaching document will have a later publication date than any previous teaching. The Bishop of Norwich hints at more though when he speaks of “a theology of relationships for our changed times”. However, by focusing on “community and relationships of all kinds”, “the role of single people and solitaries” and “covenanted friendships”, the report’s outline of the teaching document (34) makes one wonder whether the only voices of our changed times which have been heard are those of the minority who wish to promote these goods in the context of imposed celibacy for gay and lesbian people – or “people who experience same-sex attraction”, to use their term (offensive to many) which is repeated throughout this report.

4. Does it promise an end to intrusive and unfair questioning of gay ordinands and clergy?
The bishops are inclined to end the unfairness by questioning everyone and to end the peculiar focus on sexual conduct by introducing a “wider examination” (54, 55). That means potentially more intrusion. And it’s very hard to avoid the sense that the question the bishops have asked themselves is “How may we keep on questioning homosexual ordinands and clergy about their sexual conduct while making it appear fairer and less specific?”

5. Is it a call to repentance for homophobia?
The press release says the report “speaks of the need for the Church to repent of the homophobic attitudes it has sometimes failed to rebuke”. In fact, the report never mentions homophobia. The nearest it gets is in the section on the new teaching document (34): “There was some support for the view that the teaching document should include penitence for the treatment some lesbian and gay people have received at the hands of the Church.” It was clearly carried that the teaching document should speak of single people and friendship. By contrast, enough bishops were opposed that it was not clearly carried that the Church should be taught to be penitent for its homophobic behaviour.

6. Does it seek theological coherence?
While claiming that the bishops have reached a compromise, the report nevertheless stresses the importance of theological coherence. In particular, “Given the distinctive relationship between doctrine and public worship in the Church of England, that also requires that what happens in our services consistently reflects that teaching” (61). No public pastoral practice may therefore contradict the Church’s teaching. In other words, this is a reason why there can be no liturgy which recognises same sex relationships. Yet the Church allows the practice of marriage after divorce whilst teaching “that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman” (Canon B 30). One may therefore wonder whether theological coherence is a driver for the bishops’ position or a convenient tool to support it.

7. Does it represent where the Church is?
According to the press release, the report “attempts to sum up the Church's position after a two-year process of shared conversations on the subject of human sexuality, involving clergy and laity”. This is ambiguous, but it may lead one to think that the bishops are trying to reflect the balance and range of views in the Church, having engaged in the sharing process. The Bishop of Manchester appears to support this when he says that the degree of change proposed in the report is limited by whether synodical majorities may be expected. Yet there is no mention of this in the report itself, which rather speaks of a “centre of gravity” or “consensus” or “compromise” only in relation to the bishops (16, 17, 56).

8. Is it just the next step in a process?
So the bishops would have us believe, since they recognise that their responsibility is “to identify the next steps – not necessarily towards a ‘solution’ but towards greater clarity… we do not offer ‘resolution’… but seek to make steps together” (10, 11). But this is undermined by the proposal of a teaching document which by its nature will draw a line and establish a position for some time. Indeed, as the report says, the path laid out “inevitably means choosing not to give attention to other possibilities” (27). When outlining a consultation with General Synod, the limited influence of any process is emphasised when we are reminded “that it is for the bishops to formulate teaching on the doctrines of the Church” (67).

9. Is it a compromise?
“The Church of England's law and guidance on marriage should be interpreted to provide ‘maximum freedom’ for gay and lesbian people without changing the Church's doctrine of marriage itself, bishops are recommending.”
That’s the top line from the press release, which on its own may suggest a middle way. The report calls itself “a compromise between some bishops who would be inclined to seek more far-reaching changes in the direction of e.g. affirming married same-sex couples within the life of the Church, and some bishops who would like to see the sinfulness of any sexually active relationship outside heterosexual marriage more consistently upheld” (56).
In truth, as has been shown, the report does what the latter group of bishops wish to be done. There is no compromise in substance, only a little compromise in presentation.

In short…
Despite some attempt having been made to soften the report’s appearance, careful reading makes it difficult not to conclude that the bishops, with little reference to the views of the Church, and on a pretext of theological coherence, are determined to confirm for the foreseeable future an uncompromising conservative understanding of all sexual relationships, which offers no greater pastoral freedom, no new teaching, no less intrusive questioning, and a very uncertain call to penitence for homophobia.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas Sermon 2016

Midnight Communion, Christmas Eve 2016
St John the Baptist, Guilden Sutton
Isaiah 52.7-10   Hebrews 1.1-4   John 1.1-14

‘Silent night’ is regularly voted to be the nation’s favourite carol. The melody has a simple beauty and combined with the words a sense of stillness and rest is created. Or to put it another way, not a lot is happening. Light is shining and angels are singing, but at the centre is pure calm – the ideal baby, fast asleep.

Perhaps that is part of its appeal. In the middle of hectic lives it is a sign of those moments when we get some respite and relaxation before the baby awakes (whatever the baby may be for us) and the normal demands of life resume.

But is that really the sum total of the glad tidings of great joy this Christmas? Thank God we get a break in the middle of winter. A Christmas which doesn’t actually change anything but just provides a pause, like when the British and German forces ceased fire to play football together on 25th December 1914.

We heard Isaiah promise something different: ‘The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations’. That appears to be an image of action, a rolling up of the sleeves, a flexing of the muscles, then getting involved to sort out the mess in the world. If only God could intervene like that at Christmas wouldn’t it be more helpful than a static nativity scene?

We tend to like intervention and we wish we could do it better – more efficiently and more clinically. We’re at the end of a year when the report of the Iraq Inquiry has at last been published, alerting us to the danger of being too ready to intervene, too ill-informed, too unprepared. But it has also been a year of watching as thousands are killed in Syria and of wondering why no-one is able or willing to go in and stop it. 

If only we had comprehensive real-time intelligence, surgically precise instruments and supernatural foresight. Wouldn’t the perfect strategy then be possible? And isn’t that what the bare, holy arm of the Lord ought to be able to plan and execute? 

Sometimes the Christmas story is told in ways which sound a bit like this. God who up until now had been in heaven finally comes down to earth. He sets in motion his rescue plan. He breaks in and gets involved.

The limitation of this kind of language is the suggestion that before the incarnation God had been holding himself back. He had kept himself to himself. He hadn’t been as outgoing as he could have been.

John begins his Gospel by contradicting exactly this. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. God expresses himself, and when he speaks it just pours out. And what pours out is the whole infinite fullness which is God. It is God’s nature and life and being, as God, even before we think about the world, to give himself. He holds nothing back. He places his life into the hands of another, and as that other he gives back in return. He is the giver, the gift and the giving itself, all at once.

It’s heady stuff. And it’s no wonder, if that is what God is like, that it doesn’t all stop at God. He creates a world, a universe and more. It’s a world which is not God, and yet a world so infused with the poured out Word, so full of God, that you can’t draw a line where God ends and where the world begins.

The world has never had a shortage of God. What it has lacked is the will to give itself away in return. That’s why in carol services we speak of the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience. God has been patiently present, heard in many and various ways, as the writer to the Hebrews says, kindling faith, drawing a people out of themselves towards love of God and of neighbour.

So after many centuries, a young woman responds with the same kind of self-giving speech with which she is addressed, and says, ‘Let it be with me according to your word’. And because of this, the world opens up just enough to allow the birth of a child whose whole being and life is that same self-giving by which the world is made. The Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

God hasn’t intervened. He hasn’t interrupted any order or suspended any laws. Of course the incarnation is a miracle, but the world was always such that this was its potential. It is God’s world, and he is constantly given to it, so within the regularity and order we know there is always the possibility of the surprising and new. There is always a straining towards a freer order, towards a world which more fully responds with God’s life. 

The birth of the Son of God is not an alien or superhuman intrusion. It is a flowering of creation, an organic breakthrough. ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.’

This child is one of us, not more than human, and not less. This is a humanity held in being by God’s poured out speech, just as ours is. But at the same time, it is a humanity free to pour itself out in return, a humanity full of grace and truth.

So Jesus is not just one of us, he is one for us, as no-one else has ever been for us. This is God’s kind of life, a life which places itself into the hands of the other. John therefore goes on to say ‘from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace’. 

Grace opening up grace. That is both the life of God and the deep logic of this world. Mary’s grace opens her womb to the incarnation, and Jesus’ full and perfect sacrifice opens the world so that ‘all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God’. So that all who receive him are given power to become children of God, partakers of the divine nature, opened up to be a people who together grow in grace.

The world doesn’t lack God’s presence, it lacks ours. It doesn’t need divine intervention, it needs our human attention. Our government and others have to make decisions about whether to step into places like Syria but real lasting peace is only ever going to come through organic, grassroots engagement between communities and nations at all levels; people paying attention to each other and giving of themselves to each other.

After the birth at least, the nativity of our Lord can indeed be presented as a silent night where nothing is happening. The action being talked about in the region might rather have been the census, the counting of heads, the latest strategizing of the authorities. All that is now a non-event. 

Yes, such plans and strategies are part of life, even part of the Church, but the coming of the kingdom of God is not a plan overlaid on the world; it is the outworking of God’s constant presence to all things from the beginning – the Word, who gives the deepest truth and rationality to every element of creation.

Similarly, the points where eternally significant growth happens tonight are not likely to be even noticed, let alone make the news: someone stopped in their tracks and brought to their knees in prayer for the first time; a life risked by attending to the distressed in a war zone; a costly word of forgiveness after years of family division. People paying attention, right where they are.

Being attentive, present and still is where we begin, and it is the Church’s first task. The good news of that silent night is that for the first time a human being was fully present to the world. A baby, laid in a manger, going nowhere, settled down by the weight of the full glory of God. 

Thursday, 3 November 2016

If only the Church of England didn't believe in genocide

I recently read Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Jonathan Sacks and found it surprisingly relevant to the Church of England. It’s not that any of the church's members are in favour of the practice of genocide today, but many read certain Scripture passages as teaching that it has been divinely sanctioned in the past. That is a problem for today, because a way of reading the Bible which proves so wrong on these texts is capable of causing harm when applied to other texts.

Here is one clear example of the ‘ban’, an exterminatory form of warfare also found in the book of Joshua, and mandated in Deuteronomy:
Samuel said to Saul, ‘The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”’ 1 Samuel 15.1-3
To be fair, rarely will anyone blithely accept such a text as trouble free. Philip Jenson (an Anglican priest and lecturer in Old Testament at Ridley Hall, Cambridge) has written a booklet on the subject entitled The Problem of War in the Old Testament. It is published by Grove Books (‘evangelical and Anglican’) and recommended by Ian Paul (a member of the Archbishops’ Council).

Jenson recognises the ‘problem’, but the solution is to say the end justifies the means:
‘The ban appears to contradict the character of God revealed in the rest of the Bible as loving, just, and merciful to all (Gen 1-11, Jonah). Yet the key contextual issue is whether this extreme measure was the only realistic possibility of creating a society and culture that held fast to the true God. From a larger canonical perspective, what we have here is the tragic necessity to choose the lesser of two evils… if the larger purpose was the salvation of the world, then perhaps there was no alternative.’ (p.13f.)
This last point is later made more explicit:
‘[The ban] forces us to ask about the ends that could possibly justify such practices. From the larger Christian perspective this then becomes a question about the necessity of the coming of Jesus Christ in the fullness of time as a Jew, a member of the nation made possible by these wars.’ (p.18)
Amy Orr-Ewing is also Anglican, and European Director for the RZIM Zacharias Trust, Director of Programmes for the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, and Associate Tutor at Wycliffe Hall. A prominent speaker, especially among university students, she has a particular focus on ‘a rational defence of Christianity’ and has addressed the question ‘How can we justify the killing in the Old Testament?’ Her answer has similarities to that of Philip Jenson:
‘The reason for the God-sanctioned war and destruction of the inhabitants of Canaan was the likely corruption of the moral and spiritual standards of Israelite society: “Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16–18). This is important because God had chosen Israel to bear God’s self-revelation to the world — the task of making God known.’
New Wine have addressed this subject in conference talks and magazine articles by Simon Coupland, Vicar of St Paul’s Kingston Hill (see the New Wine magazine, each 2011 issue). He says, ‘The reason why God wanted the Canaanites destroyed was the utterly detestable nature of their religion in his eyes.’

On the appointment of Donald Allister as Bishop of Peterborough in 2009, the journalist Andrew Brown reported on a telephone interview about his views on various matters. He asked, ‘…surely there were moral objections to the idea that God would so gleefully facilitate the genocide described when the Israelites took possession of the promised land?’ Donald Allister replied, ‘There are lots of books written on that subject, and I am not an expert on it … I have nothing sensible to say on genocide.’ The bishop declined to comment, understandably sensing a trap, but that in itself suggests he found it difficult simply to say that God has never commanded nor condoned genocide, whether because of his own contrary view or because of his awareness of the extent of the contrary view in the church.

All this indicates that a significant part of the Church of England may believe there was a time when Israelites killed Canaanites on a large scale, at God’s command and with his approval, in order to cleanse the land.

How may this be squared with the understanding of God provided by the Bible as a whole? Try putting the following together: 1. God is fundamentally self-giving love and grace, showing infinite mercy and patience, making himself known in Jesus Christ, whose way is the cross, and through whom has come peace and salvation; 2. In order to prepare the ground for that salvation it was necessary to cleanse a land of some foreign men, women and children.

It can’t be done, and the attempt is made only because of a failure to realise the extent to which biblical texts need to be interpreted. We speak of the Bible as God’s word, and say ‘This is the word of the Lord’ after reading it in public worship, but that does not mean God’s truth lies on the surface of the text. This is not to pick and choose the texts we like, but to read all Scripture in the light of the whole Gospel, recognising that the word of God thereby communicated is known by discernment, through the Spirit, as the Church reads together, over time.

On the face of it, 1 Samuel 15.1-3 tells us that in times past God commanded genocide. We shouldn't read it like that. We recognise that it has been written that way, and we start asking why. We follow that question in the context of reading the whole book, and as we look deeper, a response is drawn from us as we engage with the players in the story and the authors of the story. Thereby it is no less God’s word.

As Jonathan Sacks puts it,
‘Living traditions constantly reinterpret their canonical texts. That is what makes fundamentalism – text without interpretation – an act of violence against tradition. In fact fundamentalists and today’s atheists share the same approach to texts. They read them directly and literally, ignoring the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that its meaning is not self-evident.’ (p.218f.)
Not that I wish to apply the label ‘fundamentalist’ to any of the Anglicans quoted above. Far from it, but on this point I believe they’ve got it wrong, and their desire to take seriously particular texts in isolation has resulted in unfaithfulness to Scripture as a whole.

By this approach evil may be called good, and defended by a kind of reverse theology and interpretation (accept the meaning in the surface text then construct a support): these were different times; God is very holy; the people were really sinful; actually not everyone was killed; it was all in a good cause…

No matter how extensive the mitigation, it doesn’t wash. No-one gets hurt though, because it’s not as if genocide is being advocated today.

The worry is if people (not necessarily the same people, though a strong correlation is likely) make the same mistake with another handful of texts, and a desire to take them seriously in isolation results in doing harm, not just to the tradition, but to real people today.

What if there are a few texts where on the surface that which is good is called evil? What if they are read that way and defended by reverse theology and interpretation? What if that good is maintained as being evil, even though it embodies the love, grace and faithfulness to which the whole of Scripture points? What if the blessing of that good is therefore denied?

Monday, 29 August 2016

Review and Review of Reviews: Three Books on Sexuality

Here are three books on sexuality, all published this year, all with a focus on the Church of England, and all making the case for acceptance of same sex relationships.

Amazing Love and Journeys were both published in time for the General Synod’s July session which included ‘Shared Conversations’ on sexuality. They were supplied to all the Synod’s members by their authors/publishers.

Amazing Love is written by Andrew Davison but ‘in collaboration with’ 8 other Anglicans. It is a brief, readable argument based on human experience, scientific study, reading of the Bible, the story of revelation and the Church’s mission today.

Journeys has contributions from 11 ‘leading Evangelicals within the Church of England’, who speak from their own experience of the development of their understanding of sexuality, or for some, the painful journey of coming to terms with their sexuality.

Thinking Again has chapters by 11 theologians and ‘aims to guide readers into the practice of thinking theologically about marriage’. It claims to reflect a broad theological spectrum, but the contributors share an understanding that ‘Scripture neither knows nor speaks of the relationships we understand as same-sex relationships today’, so it certainly doesn’t reflect the breadth of the Church of England. Not that all the authors are Anglican – in that sense it is broader than Amazing Love and Journeys, and it is not so overtly a political tract – but it is clearly stimulated by Church of England and House of Bishops statements, in particular their increasing reliance on a doctrine of the complementarity of men and women as fundamental to all thinking on sexuality.

The Reviews

Numerous reviews have been published already, so to avoid repetition, and because the response to these books is interesting in itself, I will review the reviews before making some brief remarks of my own.

Adrian Thatcher, a prominent academic in the field, wrote an uncritical joint review of Amazing Love and Journeys for the Church Times, which usefully summarises the content and ends briefly welcoming both books as contributions to the task of urging the Church of England to be inclusive.

Richard Peers, a priest and now Director of Education in Liverpool Diocese, has reviewed both Amazing Love and Journeys positively on his blog. Amazing Love has ‘not much new in it but would save the reader searching out many other publications’. The chapter on mission is of most interest since from Peers’ experience the church’s attitude to same sex relationships is widely considered ‘exclusive, prejudicial and simply wrong… In all my years of teaching I have never heard a pupil say anything else’. Journeys is moving testimony. ‘There is raw honesty and most of all deep faithfulness to Jesus and to Scripture’. Each book needs more passion, a sense of a cry for liberation, the fulfilment of the good news; and missing also is a more fully Catholic voice in relation to the sacrament of marriage for same sex relationships.

Peter Sanlon, Vicar of St Mark’s Tunbridge Wells, has written a 5000 word review of Amazing Love, in two parts, both of which are on the Church Society blog (pt1, pt2); the first part only is on Ian Paul’s blog. He claims the book has ‘an embarrassingly simplistic view of “science”’ and that there is evidence to question its claims that same sex attraction has a biological basis (amongst other factors) and that for the vast majority that attraction cannot be changed. There is a ‘lack of academic credibility’ in the chapter on the Bible, and ‘No alternative views… are noted at any point’. The chapter on mission receives the severest criticism as ‘deceptive and manipulative rhetoric’. Part 2 is an extraordinary diatribe elaborating on this last point. The book is ‘an instructive example of the rhetorical strategy being deployed by the homosexualist [sic] movement’. The authors are accused of ‘duplicity’ and of giving warning ‘of the kind of invective and threats which will be levelled at those who do not submit to the views promoted’.

Martin Davie is academic consultant to the Church of England Evangelical Council and the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life and formerly Secretary to the Faith and Order Commission, Theological Secretary to the Council for Christian Unity and the Theological Consultant to the House of Bishops of the Church of England. He has written a 13,000 word review of Amazing Love (itself only about 19,000 words), available on the Latimer Trust website. The review is comprised of an extensive summary of the book, a section on ‘What we can agree with’ (100 words in length) and a section on ‘What is problematic’ (9000 words). Like Sanlon, Davie questions the presentation of evidence. Amazing Love ‘almost entirely ignores the large amount of evidence that says that involvement in same-sex sexual activity is harmful both to people’s physical and mental well-being’ and ‘fails to take seriously that same-sex parenting is not good for the children and young people involved’. In response to the counter-argument that the Church might model healthy same-sex relationships, Davie argues that the more likely outcome would be that the Church would then accept promiscuity. Contrary to its claim to ‘pay attention to reality’, Amazing Love ignores the reality of the entire biblical picture, and doesn’t face the biological reality that for same-sex relations ‘the pieces simply do not fit’ and there is no ‘potential to be generative’, whereas even an infertile heterosexual couple still has that orientation, a point illustrated by a baseball team that never wins but still has an orientation towards winning.

Tom Creedy, a member of the Vineyard movement, has written a review of Journeys, published on Ian Paul’s blog and Anglican Ink. He finds ‘clever disingenuity’ in ‘the premise of the book that it is possible to be a “biblically rooted evangelical” and also to have a “positive view of same-sex relationships”’. Colin Fletcher is frustrating when he pleads for ‘an openness amongst evangelicals’ because evangelicals are open – ‘we’ve just found certain arguments wanting’. Paul Bayes calls for inclusion but ‘simply doesn’t make an argument’. Personal stories are not enough to change doctrine or practice. Finally, ‘it is telling that this particular book is self-published – it seems to add little genuinely new to the conversation’.

Ian Paul has written his own review of Journeys. He questions whether the authors are all ‘leading’ and ‘Evangelical’, and in the comments states that the editor is wrong to claim that the contributors are ‘affirming of same-sex marriage’. If evangelicals are unclear on sexuality, ‘could it be that people like Colin [Fletcher, Bishop of Dorking] have singularly failed, as evangelical leaders…?’ Paul Bayes (Bishop of Liverpool) uses a disingenuous argument to show how the Church may learn something new. Repeatedly, authors are criticised for not having engaged with scholarship. David Ison (Dean of St Paul’s) offers ‘not much evidence… of collaboration with “traditional” understandings’. Anthony Archer (lay General Synod member) uses the wrong scholarship. Gavin Collins (Archdeacon of the Meon) ‘offers no evidence that he has engaged with good evangelical material’. Furthermore, he contradicts Jesus and Paul by arguing that ‘the notion of celibacy outside marriage “is simply not a tenable position for the Church”’. None of the ‘views and positions expressed connect with anything that would be recognisably evangelical in terms of engaging with Scripture’.

The review of Journeys by Andrew Symes (Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream) summarises and critiques several of the chapters. Paul Bayes is in ‘serious error’ in his ‘conviction that the contemporary discovery of the “goodness” in LGBT relationships is a sign of God changing his mind’. David Ison is wrong to think that Jesus could have learned something new. Several authors ‘do not engage at all with the many conservative commentators’, nor with the liberal commentators who are clear that ‘in order to promote a progressive agenda while being honest with the text one must disregard the Bible’. ‘The views of the book’s authors including Jayne Ozanne on one hand, and those she criticises so offensively on the other – can they really coexist in the same church with “good disagreement”? It is surely time for separation.’ (The offence here, noted by Ian Paul also as superiority, is to regard those gay Christians wounded and scarred by the Church as bearing the ‘stigmata of Christ’.)

Martin Davie’s review of Journeys, entitled ‘Journeys into Darkness’, runs to 15,000 words. For each chapter there is both a summary and a presentation of the conservative position and scriptural interpretation in response. ‘The issue of homosexuality is a first order issue like the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of the person of Christ.’ ‘Acknowledging [those who argue for an acceptance of ‘homosexual practice’] as fellow Evangelicals would be wrong…’ Anthony Archer asks ‘What conceivable harm is done by two people of the same sex entering into a relationship which they hope and pray will be lasting, covenanted and monogamous…?’ Such a relationship may be beneficial ‘temporally speaking’, but ‘they face the danger of God eventually saying to them “thy will be done” with the result that they are cut off from him for ever’.

I could only find one review of Thinking Again, by Berenice Martin for the Church Times. It is a an appreciative summary, concluding that ‘All the chapters in the book repay reading, but the whole adds up to more than its parts and is a rich resource for current debates’.

Remarks on the Reviews

It is disappointing that some reviews of Amazing Love or Journeys use the following words: deceptive, manipulative, duplicitous and disingenuous. It would help conversation between Christians enormously if we recognised that, in relation to our opinions, words and actions, in this and other areas of difference, we are in no position to perceive our own motives and honesty with complete clarity. Much less are we free to pass judgement on the motives or honesty of others.

There are moments where I cringed. Words matter, and ‘homosexualist’ is awkward at best, offensive at worst. The use of a baseball team which never wins as an analogy for a marriage without children is appalling. To speak of pieces which don’t fit is a crude reduction.  

A number of errors in some reviews need to be noted. Contrary to Peter Sanlon, Amazing Love gives no warning that invective or threats will be levelled at those who disagree. Contrary to Tom Creedy, Journeys isn’t self-published. Contrary to Ian Paul, the editor of Journeys doesn’t claim that all the contributors are affirming of same-sex marriage; nor is it accurate not to note that Gavin Collins is speaking against forced celibacy. Contrary to Andrew Symes, Paul Bayes doesn’t speak of God ‘changing his mind’.

Several reviewers use a straw man argument by expecting a certain level of academic rigour or engagement with biblical scholarship and then finding Amazing Love or Journeys wanting. (Peter Sanlon even regards DLT as an academic publisher – it is not.) Amazing Love argues a case for the general reader. Journeys is a series of short, personal testimonies. It is unreasonable for each reader who holds a conservative position to expect the particular biblical arguments that weigh with them to be addressed.

On the evidence from science and human experience, it seems to me that Amazing Love fairly reflects the broad consensus in our society. Does it overstate the scientific evidence? Possibly a little, but not in a way which materially changes the conclusions (cf. the recent extensive survey of this controversy by Bailey et al).  If the reviewers above who challenge this think they can provide convincing evidence that the norm for homosexual orientation is that it is changeable or that the best evidence shows homosexual relationships and same-sex parenting to be intrinsically harmful, then they have a job on their hands.

Some Comments on the Books

Amazing Love is likely to become the most popular book making the case for revision in the Church, and rightly so. Several reviewers have commented that it offers nothing new, but that was not the point. However, I did feel that Andrew Davison’s appreciation of Aquinas showed signs of coming through as something new in the short section on ‘Paying attention to reality’, and this could have been developed further. ‘God’s commands are not arbitrary. They are all about helping us to live more fully, to be what we were made to be’ (p8). The conservative reviewers’ interpretation of Scripture appears to be independent of the data from human experience; it would be helpful to their case, but not necessary for knowing what is right, if same sex relationships were intrinsically harmful, for example. Martin Davie is explicit that such relationships may be beneficial temporally, but eternally damning. There are differences here at the level of the doctrine of God and creation.

The section on the ‘unfolding’ of revelation was useful in principle, though I wasn’t convinced by the idea that a progression is due to God only communicating what ‘we can assimilate’. Jesus spoke much that was not understood, and the communication of Christ himself could hardly have waited until people were ready to understand fully. Something of the interaction between faith and the Spirit and revelation is missing here.

The three-page chapter ‘Being in Love’ has come in for some criticism, and it has to be said it leaves itself open by making it all seem so simple: ‘…do we first also need some special theology of same-sex love? No – we don’t. Love is love… We can take this love – these relationships, these people – into the heart of the Church because that’s what we do with love…’ Unintentionally, I suspect, this is open to being read as something like ‘situation ethics’ – just do what looks and feels like the most loving thing – an attractive and dangerous shortcut, bypassing the Church’s discernment as a body. If this reflects some impatience, it is understandable, and on the question of the right balance between passion and cool rationality, it’s ‘no win’ for advocates such as these authors.

Journeys is best read as testimony, very much in keeping with the spirit of the ‘Shared Conversations’, and to be welcomed rather than criticised regarding the scholarship. I’d be just as ready to read a collection from ‘Leading Liberals’ who have come to a conservative position, if it were possible. No chapter alone, nor the book as a whole, is likely to convince many people, and it doesn’t make a sufficient case for me. But it does make the point, as does Amazing Love, that advocates for change include those of conservative theological persuasion. The authors include Gavin Collins, contemporary with me as an ordinand at Trinity College Bristol, and David Runcorn, a tutor there at the time. (The Principal from that era, Bishop David Gillett, is a surprising omission from the book.) All this is useful in exposing the false dilemma, often posed by some who hold a conservative position, which likes to identify advocacy for change with disregard for Scripture.

Journeys is the right word, because it shows that whatever position we now hold, it is not justified by a view from nowhere, as if a supposed dispassionate, objective, left brain assessment of the scholarship is the route to truth. That is no deficiency, simply a recognition that the whole of ourselves is involved in forming where we place our trust, especially including the relationships we find ourselves in. That the Church discerns truth as a body is the wider expression of this.

Thinking Again is a different animal, longer, more demanding, more theological jargon, but not scholarship for scholars either (it includes suggestions for further reading). If Synod members are as well read as they should be, then this is the book which would better have been circulated, to help their thinking go wider and deeper. Copies should certainly be sent to all members of the House of Bishops.

It is most helpful in setting a wider context for thinking about marriage. A common standpoint of the authors is that they are ‘circumspect about the idea that marriage is a “creation good”, something instituted by God at the beginning of creation and understood as basically unchanging’. Mike Higton and Charlotte Methuen demonstrate that marriage is something which people have had to think about through history, and think differently at different times, and our duty is to respond to the ‘call to discover together the possibilities of godly growth and transformation that our created natures give us’. Susannah Cornwall turns around the argument of Pope John Paul II, that the specific embodiment of males and females should not be disparaged, by saying that what matters is that ‘we are faithful to these sexed bodies, not to mythical or theoretical ones’, i.e. thinking more about specific embodiment, not less.

Ben Fulford steps back from the usual biblical texts to see ‘the Scriptures primarily as testimonies to the identities of God and creatures, and as patterns proposed to the people of God for discerning their lived response to God’. This doesn’t bring our thinking to an end but conditions our reasoning, giving priority to the story of Jesus. Some will find it frustrating that he never gets to the usual texts, and argues that he would need to do a lot more work beforehand.

There’s much more, which convinced or engaged me to varying degrees, and it’s all summed up very well by Rachel Muers in the final chapter: ‘…if we were to stop thinking about marriage in terms of an ideal to be “lived up to” (and thus, inevitably, “fallen short of”), and instead to see it more as a vocation to be lived in to, we might be able to recognize and celebrate more of the gifts that real marriages offer to theology’.

Friday, 5 August 2016

On the worship of a passionate God without passions

'On the worship of a passionate God without passions'


'How to sing In Christ alone without changing that line'


'Time to recover the doctrine of God's simplicity: without body, parts or passions'


'How to avoid building an idol out of words about God'


'How the Book of Common Prayer helps us not to domesticate God'

All this in my paper just published in Faith & Worship (no. 79, Trinity 2016).

The full journal is available from the Prayer Book Society website here.