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.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Living Out the Trinity in the Church of England

Living Out is co-ordinated by "three Christian leaders who experience same sex attraction", namely Sam Allberry, Sean Doherty and Ed Shaw, who were all elected to the General Synod of the Church of England in 2015, for the first time. Their website exists "to help Christian brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction", while teaching that "sex must be between a man and a woman".

Here I wish to consider one of the arguments on the website in support of this teaching, which is drawn from "the relationship between the persons of the Trinity":
"The difference between women and men is the way humanity reflects or represents God. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are all fundamentally different to one another, and yet fundamentally united to one another. God is not a solitary individual, but a relational, interdependent being. And at our most fundamental level, we reflect that." 
Sam Allberry makes the same point in his book Is God anti-gay?:
"Marriage is a wonderful God-given way for humanity to reflect the unity and diversity that is seen in the Trinity. God’s oneness is not sameness, as though the three persons of the Trinity were identical to one another. It is unity in difference, not uniformity. And the same is true of the union of a man and a woman." (Kindle Locations 171-172)
Sean Doherty (Lecturer in Ethics at St Mellitus College) develops the argument more fully in his book The Only Way is Ethics - QUILTBAG: Jesus and Sexuality:
"What is the most important thing about God? When I teach on sexuality, I usually start with this question… Sooner or later, we hit the answer. Here it is. The most important thing about God is: God is ‘Triune’." (Kindle Locations 114-117)
"So, being male and female, being sexual, is how we are like God, because God is fundamentally different persons in fundamental unity. Similarly, women and men are fundamentally different, yet fundamentally the same." (Kindle Locations 126-128)
"But in the Trinity, and in Genesis, difference does not hinder union, but enables it. It is precisely the difference between Father and Son which makes their relationship one of perfect fatherhood and sonship. And it is precisely the difference between women and men, including the physical genital difference, that enables them to be truly physically united into ‘one flesh’ through sexual intercourse (Genesis 2:18)." (Kindle Locations 135-137)
"If sexual difference is not relevant for sexual union, even our account of God as Trinity, real difference within perfect union, is affected. If we keep pulling the thread, we may be shocked at how long it is, and how much of the jumper ends up coming out with it." (Kindle Locations 309-310)
How does this measure against classical Trinitarian theology?

The central point made above is that "God is fundamentally different persons". It is true that the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Spirit, and the Father is not the Spirit. It may also be said that this distinction is fundamental to God, simply because there is nothing that is true of God’s nature that is not fundamental to God. Everything that God is, he essentially is.

However, it is also true that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. As the Nicene Creed says of the Son, "God of God... Being of one substance with the Father". When this homoousios (of one substance) is considered, a proscription against homosexual relations hardly follows. While expounding Aquinas, Herbert McCabe made it especially clear: "The only thing that distinguishes them [Father and Son] is that they are at opposite ends of a relationship" (Silence and the Word, p. 89).

A case for same sex relationships cannot be read directly from the Trinity either. The deeper problem here is at the level of method. Social Trinitarianism, which seeks to draw parallels between the life of the Trinity and the ideal shape of human community, was developed in the 20th century and became popular, but there is now increasing awareness of its problems (Sarah Coakley, Karen Kilby and Rowan Williams have all expressed concerns. to name a few).

As illustrated above, it is possible to derive contradictory conclusions from Trinitarian doctrine, depending on where you start (and end). It is a feature of this approach that there is remarkable agreement between the predisposition of the theologian and the social model observed.

It is necessary to be clear about the purpose of Trinitarian formulae. Karen Kilby helpfully says that the doctrine serves not to diminish our incomprehension, but to intensify it. The doctrine is not an analysis of God. It is a way of holding certain beliefs together, yet through their apparent contradictions, the inadequacy of all our language and categories of thought is manifested.

God cannot be an item for our inspection, not because he is too distant, but because he is too close. The Holy Trinity is the context and ground of our being, the life in which we are immersed and with which we are filled. "His everlasting act is as little capable of being a determinate object to our minds as the wind in our faces and lungs can be held still and distant in front of our eyes" (Rowan Williams, Arius, p. 242).

Gradually the early Church found that Trinitarian language was necessary to do justice to God’s action which had been experienced in Jesus Christ. The priority of that experience is significant. Through the Spirit, they found themselves living as a new community, with a radical social order. The new life led to the embryonic language of the New Testament (and later the more developed language of the Creeds), not vice versa.

The Spirit draws us first to contemplation of God (rather different from study of a doctrine about God) and attentiveness to each other. Rowan Williams explains in some recently published lectures how Paul, in relation to both prayer and ethics, is "a ‘Trinitarian’ thinker, even though he does not use this vocabulary". Paul’s approach is a challenge to the self-centred ways of "careful rigorism" or "adventurous liberalism". His ethics starts from "the vision of Spirit-led mutuality, working out how the body is built up and the life of God made manifest". (Meeting God in Paul, pp. 69,74-76).

That is Trinitarian ethics - not using a doctrine of God (or a written law, or an individual experience) to make a shortcut, but discerning together, in the Spirit, as a body, what serves the common life.

How does this help with the question addressed by Living Out? In an interview on ethics in 2013, Rowan Williams outlined the same reading of Paul and applied it to sexuality:
"I think the real argument, the really interesting and important argument, is about whether it’s possible for people with same sex attraction to lead lives that show the same kind of selfless valuing of the other, the same kind of costly fidelity, as heterosexual relationships do. That’s the really interesting question."*
Just three months earlier, in a BBC interview made immediately prior to his enthronement at Canterbury, Justin Welby contributed towards an answer:
"You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship."
*Interview by Anthony D Baker and Scott Bader-Saye for the Theology Studio website, 24 June 2013, at one time available here.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Capital Growth or Northern Powerhouse?

For over a decade London Diocese has been perceived as bucking the downward trend in attendance of the Church of England as a whole, as claimed most recently by The Economist (9 Jan 2016) in one of their regular reminders of the growth of evangelical Anglican churches in the capital (10 May 2012, 17 Jan 2015).

The 2014 Statistics for Mission have just been published (12 Jan 2016), so it is a good time to ask if the story is still ‘Capital Growth’.

It is puzzling that The Economist couldn’t wait three days before writing their article, entitled Resurrection. They knew the 2014 statistics were due soon and should have known that the story may change. Here is their selection and presentation of the data:

The measure of growth was chosen as the attendance change since 2003. The difference made to London by comparing with 2014 (attendance 62,000) instead of 2013 (attendance 66,000) is stark:

2003-2013            8% growth                          2003-2014            1% growth

The bigger mistake was not the impatience but the crude measure of growth. Because of the uncertainty in each data point (typically ±5% according to the 2013 statistics), the overall trend is a far more reliable indicator than the difference between the end points. Statistics for Mission now provides helpful visualisations of the trends for each diocese:

From the top, these lines are:
Christmas attendance
Easter attendance
Average weekly attendance (all age)
Usual Sunday attendance (all age)

The trend over the 10 year period is flat for both uSa and AWA.

The plateau in recent years is acknowledged on the Diocese of London website and in the report Another Capital Idea by Bob Jackson and Alan Piggot. However, the diocese’s claim that Electoral Roll membership is growing by 2.5% per annum is out of date. Comparing the 2014 figure with the previous equivalent on the 6 year cycle (2008), as recommended by the statisticians, gives an annual growth rate of just 0.2%.

London’s reputation for growth comes from the impressive decade 1995-2005, as shown in this figure from Another Capital Idea:

This growth followed a period of significant decline. The decline and growth are shown together in another figure from Another Capital Idea:

Note that in 2014 the Electoral Roll membership stood at 69,500.

It is instructive to compare this with the large decline and increase in the population over the same period:

The population continues to grow, passing the previous peak of 8.5 million for Greater London just about now, while the diocesan attendance figures are level. The population of London Diocese has grown by 17% in the period 2004-14 (according to the C of E statistics).

Church attendance as a whole in London grew ‘from just over 620,000 in 2005 to just over 720,000 in the 7 years to 2012, a 16% increase’ according to The London Church Census (Peter Brierley, 2013). Grace Davie concludes that ‘the increase in attendance is almost entirely due to relatively high levels of immigration in the capital’ (Religion in Britain, 2015, p. 107).

The benefit of population growth to the Church is enhanced by the higher proportion of Christians among the immigrants compared with the general population. It is true that the Pentecostal churches have gained far more than the Anglican Church, and we cannot tell how much lower the diocesan figures would be without the Christian immigration factor.

London’s advantages don’t end there. In 2014 the Sutton Trust published the report Parent Power? Using money and information to boost children’s chances of educational success, research based on a YouGov survey of parents, which showed that ‘London respondents with a child at state school were significantly more likely to report that they had attended church in order that their child could enter a church school (11% v 6% of those outside London)’.

It would be interesting to know how much this factor has changed over the last decade or more. It is certainly true that parents have become more engaged in their children’s education.

Finally, there is the relative ease and speed of filling clergy vacancies in the south-east compared with the north, and north-east in particular, as surveyed and reported by the Church Times (7 Feb 2014).

With all that in mind, compare and consider the graph of attendance trends for Durham Diocese, from the 2014 Statistics for Mission:

It is a mixed picture: an upwards trend for AWA, a downwards trend for uSa. Say that on average attendance is stable, then note that the rate of population growth in Durham Diocese is the third lowest in England, just 2.8% for the period 2004-14 (only Carlisle and Hereford are lower).

Should we be impressed by London, to whom pertaineth the population growth, and the Christian immigration, and the oversubscribed church schools, and the attractiveness to clergy? Or should we be impressed by Durham, and perhaps several other dioceses, if only we knew all their individual circumstances?

Should we be talking about ‘Capital Growth’ or a ‘Northern Powerhouse’? Neither at this stage, on this evidence.

Attendance in the Church of England overall dropped by about 2% from 2013 to 2014, higher than the average yearly drop over the last decade. As noted above, little can be read into one year, but it is clear that there is still no sign that the rate of decline is reducing.

This is only discouraging if we look to attendance figures for our encouragement. We need to be free from anxiety about growth without slipping into complacency. We need to work, pray, plan and adapt for growth without our joy or confidence depending on the results.

There seems to be little evidence that the kind of growth which The Economist likes to highlight has proved itself to be the big answer for London, let alone the big answer to be translated across the whole of England.

Of course, there are many spectacular initiatives in London which have been well publicised and from which the wider Church can learn. But if this analysis has any value, it is to demonstrate the age old lesson of not judging by the outward appearance. Persistent and growing faith, against the odds, in the most difficult of circumstances, is often not eye-catching, but equally impressive. We know that at an individual level. It can be true for parishes and dioceses also.