Thinking Anglicans

Reactions to the House of Bishops statement – episode 7

Continuing from here

Mike Higton has written two long articles discussing what’s going on in this debate about the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance. They should both be read in full, but here are some excerpts to give you the flavour:

Disagreeing about Marriage

…look back again at the Church’s ‘Response to the Government Equalities Office Consultation’ – which I assume can be taken to represent the views of at least some of those responsible for the current Pastoral Guidance. The section on ‘The Church’s understanding of marriage’ is the heart of the report, and before it gets to the two brief paragraphs on civil and religious marriage and their possible divergence, it has thirteen paragraphs that make a rather different point. The centre-piece of this part of the Response is the other paragraph that is put in bold, paragraph 13:

We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.

My suggestion – which I can only make very sketchily here, but will fill out in a subsequent post – is that, for at least some of those who have rejected Linda’s criticism, this is the central issue, and its centrality is so obvious, so luminously blatant, that to pretend that other aspects of the Church’s definition of marriage might be as central – especially issues about which there has been all sorts of complex and detailed disagreement for as long as we’ve been a church – can only be deliberate obfuscation, akin to the claim that the whole structure of the Bishops’ argument should be called into doubt because there is a misplaced semicolon in a footnote somewhere.

In other words, I think I can see that, for someone who inhabits the views set out in that Response to the government consultation, the criticism that Linda and her colleagues made, and that I like them would like to see taken seriously, must look like such a stark case of missing the point that it can only be a deliberate missing of the point…

Disagreeing about Marriage – and Gender

… I assume that it is not unfair to think that something like this thinking is being expressed both in the House of Bishops’ promulgation of their Pastoral Guidance, and in its defenders’ reaction to the question posed by Linda Woodhead. And, as I suggested in my previous post, I think grasping this point helps to make sense of their reaction.

We are, such a person might think, dealing in this debate with a fundamental structure of creation, and of society – and of our law’s relation to that. We might all agree that questions about fidelity and mutuality go as deep as this question of gender complementarity, but nothing else comes close. In particular, questions about remarriage after divorce and questions about the precise circle of people you can’t marry are clearly not even in the same league as this question. We are dealing with a fundamental structure of creation, and therefore with the very possibility of flourishing in a society that has to live in harmony with creation. That’s clearly what was really being said when the bishops talked about there having been no fundamental divergence between civil and religious understandings of marriage until now – and all this fuss over secondary details is a mischievous smokescreen. It’s all about gender – and this criticism from the likes of Woodhead, her colleagues, and now Higton – well, it dramatically misses that point.

Have I got that right? Is that a fair representation of the source of the impatience with Linda’s question that I’ve been hearing? I realise I’m putting words into mouths here, but I hope I haven’t slipped into caricature?

Phil Groom has written Heaven is Weeping: An Open Letter to the House of Bishops @C_of_E @JustinWelby @JohnSentamu which is also very long, and worth a read.

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JCF
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JCF

I found Phil Groom’s piece very concise, and wonderful (inSpired!).

Father Ron Smith
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“As so often happens in theological disputes, your Lordships, you are right in what you affirm, but wrong in what you deny. You affirm the sanctity of marriage, but deny it to gay people. You affirm God’s love for gay people but deny them full inclusion as God’s people. You open the door to the sacraments of baptism and communion, but close it to marriage: you weigh the sacraments and say, “Thus far and no further!” – Phil Groom – Thank you, Phil for this articulate rendering of the real problem at the heart of the recent HoB statement give… Read more »

rjb
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rjb

Mike Higton places his finger exactly on the most crucial issue here. At the heart of the issue of same-sex marriage there is (on both sides) a set of unacknowledged and perhaps unexamined assumptions about the nature of gender difference. On the conservative side there is a bold dualism and gender essentialism that claims to take its authority from the Biblical text. On the liberal side, there is a sweeping response to half a century of sociological thinking about gender that has tended to undermine confident suppositions about the naturalness and universality of the binary gender paradigm and the identity… Read more »

Simon Dawson
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Simon Dawson

Mike Higton says “it is all about Gender”. We all have different views about the essential importance of gender to the definition of marriage. All other debate, such as “questions about remarriage after divorce and questions about the precise circle of people you can’t marry are clearly not even in the same league as this”. But surely we have been told again, and again, and again, that it is all about Scripture. Everything boils down to what is said in the texts. And in Leviticus 18. 18 we have blatant case of the Church taking a clear and unambiguous instruction… Read more »

Interested Observer
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Interested Observer

The interesting question was raised by someone in one of the previous episodes of this thread: who, outside the church, is convinced by the “change of definition” argument? It’s a classic example of preaching to the choir: so long as no-one outside the conservative end of the CofE is in the discussion, talk about “fundamental change” convinces everyone, and the argument is won. Except, as witnessed by the debate and the voting over same sex marriage in both houses of parliament, it convinces almost no-one else. Faithfulness, love and mutality form marriage, not a penis and a vagina, and society… Read more »

cryptogram
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cryptogram

One might add to Fr Ron’s comments that whereas in the 1662 book “mutual society, help and comfort” came third in the pecking order of purposes for marriage, since 1980 in England it has been the first reason. I have often drawn attention to this in marriage preparation sessions – purposes and expectations have changed over 450 years, since the first BCP. Even the liturgy admits it!

badman
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badman

Phil Groom’s outstanding letter has the qualities of Martin Luther King – and for the same reason – both come from men soaked in biblical streams of thought and speech.

Passion, compassion, eloquence, wisdom, love – inspired by the Bible, hungry for justice, speaking truly the language of Jesus Christ.

Phil Groom
Guest

Thanks for including my letter in this roundup, Simon: much appreciated, though would that it had never been necessary! It’s vital that as a Church we get to grip with Mike Higton’s point about gender: did not Jesus himself, when challenged on one of the complex issues around marriage under Jewish law, declare that in the world to come, no one would marry or be given in marriage? Marriage, then, according to Jesus, is a temporary estate, part of the present world order; but in Christ, we are all one and the gender differences that we tend to be so… Read more »

FD Blanchard
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FD Blanchard

“All about gender…” How much do appeals to “natural order” mean in a world where female spiders devour their male mates after mating, and male anglerfish become absorbed into their female mates? There are species where the young devour each other, parents devour their young, and the young devour their parents. There are all kinds of species where couples of the same sex pair up. There are others where incest is commonplace. It seems to me that in nature, everything goes and whatever order there is has nothing to do with human morality. As for survival and continuity of the… Read more »

Savi Hensman
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Savi Hensman

A fine letter by Phil Groom, and Mike Higton makes an important point. I wonder whether part of the current problem is that the Church of England leadership is not paying enough attention to the issue of accuracy. When ‘Men and women in marriage’ was published, Charlotte Methuen among others questioned its historical accuracy (http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/charlotte-methuen/marriage-one-man-and-one-woman), while I pointed out a number of inaccuracies of other kinds (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19730). I am not sure whether any attention was paid to these or other factual concerns raised, let alone wider theological issues around the simplistic approach to marriage in that document. I suspect that,… Read more »

Flora Alexander
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Flora Alexander

There is a major problem in what seems to be the uncritical reliance by the bishops on the idea of the ‘fundamental complementarity of men and women’. Work on sexual difference, gender, and sexual orientation has made clear that the binary gender paradigm is not an adequate representation of the pattern given by God in creation. We have moved on from thinking that God created the world in six days, and it is time to move on, similarly, from a literal-minded interpretation of what the Bible says about sex and gender.

John
Guest
John

I find all this almost infinitely depressing. The chances of ‘reaching agreement’ by ‘thinking’ are absolutely nil. The church hierarchy is behaving as if the horse hasn’t already bolted. The only hope is agreement on difference of practice with those who want to be blessing/celebrating same-sex marriages, those who do not want to not being coerced. Seems like a very slim hope – just that it is more hopeful than any other hope – like reaching agreement either way or stifling dissent against the status quo. The hope is strengthened by the fact that ‘facts on the ground’ will progressively… Read more »

Christina Beardsley
Guest

Wonderful letter from Phil. An important post from Mike. I agree with Mike’s assessment about the underlying significance of gender in relation to the Church of England’s stance on equal marriage. This is is why transgender and intersex people were effectively excluded from the remit of the Pilling Report (though the working group did meet some Christian trans folk) because their lives and experience would require a total review of current assumptions about gender. By the way, I think they tend to be society’s default position on gender as well judging by the problems trans people have had even when… Read more »

Martin Reynolds
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Martin Reynolds

Hmmmmmm ……….
The Church of England reminds me of Enid Blyton ……….

FD Blanchard
Guest
FD Blanchard

Thank you Phil Groom for your splendid letter.

Jeremy Pemberton
Guest
Jeremy Pemberton

Dear John,

Thank you for your solidarity. Small stands like yours count for a very great deal indeed. I hope that you will help redress the balance of the bishop of Durham’s postbag by sending him a letter or an email. I think bishops do take note of these things, and if they are bombarded by the green ink brigade and others on this matter they can be fooled into thinking that that is where opinion lies in the Church of England.

By the way, I read it as you “walked into the light”.

Interested Observer
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Interested Observer

“they had both written to the new bishop of Durham in protest at the excessive liberalism of the bishops’ letter”

That’s the problem with trying to satisfy everyone: you end up satisfying no-one.

Susannah Clark
Guest
Susannah Clark

For a transsexual woman like myself, gender is not a ‘theory’ or a ‘theological concept’: it is the actual life I live, and the desire to serve, and love, and fully participate in community and in relationships like any other human being. What is the biblical basis for accepting my cross-gender life and relationships? How about the primacy of *love* as prioritised both my Jesus and the apostle Paul? The reality that gender is not analogous with physical sex… the reality that some people have a fluidity of gender… the reality that others are gender queer… or have some male… Read more »

Iain mclean
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Iain mclean

I hope/fear that Mike Higton is right. Hope because he explains the vitriol that was poured on our heads in a way that makes it easier to understand that there is “that of God” in the pourers. Fear because if some people believe, in a gut way, that it is all about complementarity, they may have a severe reality check to face some time. Like many other analysts, Scot and I examined the complementarity arguments in “Legally Married”. We find them circular and unpersuasive, as have US courts and the UK Parliament.

dr.primrose
Guest
dr.primrose

Ultimately, I really don’t understand what “fundamental complementarity of men and women” is suppose to mean. Does mean something biological, that is, (with apologies for being graphic) a penis and a vagina? Nothing else we think of connected with marriage — faithfulness, mutuality, support, love — has any importance without a penis and a vagina? What in Scripture supports a theology of the sine qua non of marriage is a penis and a vagina? Does it mean something social, that is, complimentary social roles? The man goes out to work and the wife takes care of the home and children?… Read more »

Tobias Haller
Guest

I think Mike Highton is correct in thinking that the “gender difference” lies at the heart of the Bishops’ difficulties; but the notion that “only men and women can marry because only the sex difference makes marriage possible” represents no more than a neat piece of circular reasoning, unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already accept it. As others have noted here, the argument stumbles when one gets into answering just what it is about the sex-difference creates this limitation. Procreation won’t work, given contraception and the marriage of the elderly (the former accepted for several generations, the latter explicit… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

“Unless, of course, the sole objective is keeping GAFCON on-side. In which case, even the small concessions made so far are too much to tolerate. It’s hard to see the CofE’s strategy as anything other than doomed” – Interested Observer – After all the conversation, I think that I.O.’s comment here is quite important. How much does the Church of England hierarchy kowtow to the expressed opinion of the Global South and the Gafcon Primates, whose understanding of the whole gender and sexuality debate is dependent on a sola-scriptura limited view? As has already been said here, one-on-one marriage relationships… Read more »

Father David
Guest
Father David

Just as the current tense situation in the Ukraine has removed our attention away from the horror of what is happening in Syria. So too, to a much lesser degree, the Bishops Pastoral Letter seems to have completely sidelined the issue of women in the episcopate. An enormous amount of interest and space is being devoted to discussing this now infamous letter (Episode Seven makes it all sound like a Soap Opera) but aren’t there other pressing issues we ought to be discussing and commenting upon as well? Martin, I can’t for the life of me think of how the… Read more »

John
Guest
John

Jeremy,

Thank you. I will write and try to get others to do so too. (Father David, would you like to join us?)

Susanna,

I entirely agree with everything you say.

John.

Laurence Cunnington
Guest
Laurence Cunnington

“Martin, I can’t for the life of me think of how the Church of England brings to mind that considerable children’s author – Enid Blyton?” Father David

Sugary-sweet on the surface but nasty at its core?

Phil Groom
Guest

My thanks to everyone who has commented (here or elsewhere) and/or shared my letter via twitter/fb – I am humbled and gratified in equal measure by the support shown. For those who are interested in such things, the current stats are 70 tweets and over 500 fb shares, whilst yesterday alone my blog received over 2,000 visits (that’s actual visits, not pageviews) compared to the much more sedate typical traffic of less than 20 visits per day. It was a difficult piece to write with so many different thoughts going around and around in my head, but eventually they had… Read more »

Bernard Randall
Guest
Bernard Randall

Mike Higton is correct, I think, to say that the problem in the recent spat is that Woodhead et al. were working on a quite different level than the Bishops – what they see as definitional, the Bishops see as details (don’t get me started again on the rights and wrongs of that debate!). This is why ultimately the discussion could get no further, and why it looked to William Fittall etc. that Linda Woodhead was wilfully misunderstanding what had been said. Mike is also absolutely right that what we lack is a really good, clear, worked-out theology of sex/gender.… Read more »

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Bernard,
but God did not create them as male and female. He also created them as intersex and some as transsexuals.

And while it is undoubtedly true that I have been created female, so has my wife. Our biological sex says nothing at all about our sexuality.

It is really not helpful to ignore science and just continue to circle around the same few verses in the bible.

We were given a brain. Shall we start using it?

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

“None of this will be quick to do, but it needs doing if we’re ever to get agreement.”

How much credibility do you think the CofE will have if come, say, 2020 it is still hemming and hawing on the topic of same-sex marriage? How many NGOs will put the CofE in the same box as Uganda and deem it beyond redemption?

badman
Guest
badman

The Bishop of Dorking (commissary bishop for Guildford, since there is no bishop of Guildford at present), read out a statement to the Diocesan Synod on Saturday (1 March).

The statement is online here: http://www.cofeguildford.org.uk/assets/downloads/lifeandfaith/Bishop's%20Sermons/01%2003%2014%20Diocesan%20Synod%20Same%20Sex%20Marriage.pdf

It lifts a lot of language, and structure, from the well-received letter to clergy from the Bishop of Oxford, here: http://www.oxford.anglican.org/bishop-john-writes-clergy-sex-marriage/

Murdoch
Guest
Murdoch

Sexuality is absent from the tradition. It’s been treated as an extra — an unfortunate urge to be alleviated by marriage, a sin, a habit. This worked as long as homosexual people could be kept isolated, their difficulties seen as individual. The church is now being required to deal with an aspect of the actual world we live in — a population of unashamed individuals relating to one another — with a theology based on other assumptions. As for “deep theological questions” — what is theology? Meditation on, explication of, traditions whose origins are obscure. It’s arm-chair reasoning over the… Read more »

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Murdoch,
“When people talk about conscientious objections to obeying the law, it is always quite impossible to distinguish between their prejudice and their conscience; there is no standard by which to determine.”

But in our debate there is a standard. It’s called reason. There is no single reason why homosexuality should be sinful. And so we know that it isn’t, regardless of the possibility of interpreting 7 verses in the bible differently.

It is actually incredibly simple.

Bernard Randall
Guest
Bernard Randall

Erika, my point is that Genesis does not say “male and female and intersex and tanssexual created he them.” So if you want to assert that God did in fact do so (from the beginning), you need to do some extra work. It’s that extra work that is needed to persuade, for example, conservative evangelicals. And whilst in this postlapsarian world biological sex may say nothing about sexuality, it is not obviously the case that the two would have been unconnected in the prelapsarian world (please note the key word “obviously”). Whether the Church now should try to apply prelapsarian… Read more »

Susannah Clark
Guest
Susannah Clark

That’s so true, Erika. Lesbian sexuality is quite simply – beautiful. It is expressive. It is harmless. It is full of intimate capacity for caring. It is tender. It is decent. It is good. It is every bit as decent, lovely, devoted and expressive as having sex with a man. That’s the reality. It’s a treasure. How some people live and love and serve and care for. Like you say, “It is actually incredibly simple.” It seems like it’s people who have sexual hang ups, who see sex as somehow and sometimes ‘dirty’, who want to regulate how other people… Read more »

James Byron
Guest
James Byron

Erika, when you believe in biblical authority, “because the Bible says so” is all the reason you need.

The church’s response to gay people heaves under the dead-weight of authority and tradition. Even Linda Woodhead has refused, when asked the other day on Twitter, to say whether or not she believes that gay sex is a sin. Outside the church, a simple and unequivocal “No” would have been delivered. Inside, equivocation rules.

Tobias Haller
Guest

Bernard, one solution to the dilemma of your reading of Genesis lies in the fact that in Hebrew the words are nouns, not adjectives. “A male and a female he created them.” It is true that the Greek version transforms into adjectival form, and most English versions have perpetuated this inaccuracy. The Hebrew original underlies early Jewish arguments in favor of monogamy, including Jesus’ teaching that “the two” become “one.” The issue of intersexuality does actually come up in the Rabbinic literature, and presents no difficulty with “the created order” as Jewish authors (knowing the Hebrew) never understood Genesis 1… Read more »

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

I’m sorry, Bernard, but back in the real world intersex people exist, gay people live moral lives and only a very small percentage of Christians reads the bible as unintelligently as you suggest.

We cannot sacrifice the wellbeing of real people on the altar of a mindnumbingly stupid reading of Genesis as a factual history and biology text.

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Beautifully put, Susannah, thank you again

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

James, I still think that we only hear from those who equate believing in biblical authority with being anti gay. Those who believe that biblical authority means living a truly Christian life, loving everyone, not discriminating against anyone do not loudly engage in this conversation here. That does not mean they don’t exist. I meet them in real life. Some join groups like Accepting Evangelicals, I meet them in Changing Attitude. Some are themselves gay and know exactly that the anti gay rhetoric is intellectual rubbish and not Christian. I personally do not go along with the concept of biblical… Read more »

Interested Observer
Guest
Interested Observer

“I don’t think credibility in the eyes of the world can be our only or main criterion for deciding such complicated matters.” If you’re running a private cult, that’s true. But the CofE is an established church which has extensive exemptions from and special provisions in legislation, designated seats in our legislature, an assumption that archbishops will at least have their phone calls answered by politicians. If it wants to be like those churches that meet in rented school halls, which are private members’ clubs with no public presence at all, that’s fine. But I suspect the Justin Welby will… Read more »

David Runcorn
Guest
David Runcorn

Susannah This is a quite beautiful piece – thank you for it.
My only query is your statement ‘it is harmless’. And though I think I understand the perspective from which this is said (and needs saying) I am still reticent. It is simply too important to be ‘harmless’. This gift is part of a vocation that comes at cost and with profound consequence and can only be embraced with vulnerable responsibility.
But thank you again.

John
Guest
John

‘Inside, equivocation rules.’

No, it doesn’t. There are plenty of heterosexual people within the church who are unequivocally prepared to say that gay sex is not a sin. They constitute at worst a very substantial minority. Even at worst, they will soon be a majority, and this majority will rapidly expand. We’re winning here. ‘Stand firm!’ (as someone said).

Susannah Clark
Guest
Susannah Clark

I see 3 motivations at work in the condemnation of gay sex. 1. Homophobic societal conventions. 2. Homophobia that arises from personal insecurities about sexual identity. 3. The concept that holy texts are inerrant, and to be applied to all societies for all time, without the possibility that the cultural context may have made some of their assertions provisional. Of course, these 3 motivations can converge and support each other. For someone psychologically insecure in their manhood, for example, a biblical mandate offers succour and justification for integral homophobia. That person, insecure in his own sexuality, may feel more secure… Read more »

jnwall
Guest
jnwall

Genesis . . . where, we are told, that God created “man in his own image; male and female created he them.” Fair enough, as far as this goes, but what we have here is an account of creation that is at least 2000 years old, a document that inevitably uses the cognitive resources available to its author. But it is also limited by the fact that the cognitive framework it assumes is 2000 years old and has been superseded numerous times by other cognitive frameworks, leading to the frameworks we now use and on which our understanding of the… Read more »

Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente
Guest
Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente

Mr Randall: science can now describe the world quite far back. When was the beginning you claim the Bible describes? when did things go wrong? When was this perfect world of binary sexual differentiation? The further back we go, the further from mammalian reproduction we find ourselves. The idea that the author of the book of Genesis revealed something of the pre-lapsarian world is quite honestly laughable. He (almost certainly) knew nothing of a Fall for starters.

JCF
Guest
JCF

Bernard: Prelapsarian vs Postlapsarian? So much fiddling while f@ggots (& dykes) burn. No—I utterly reject that the “onus” is on LGBTs to prove that we shouldn’t be oppressed. *** “Even Linda Woodhead has refused, when asked the other day on Twitter, to say whether or not she believes that gay sex is a sin.” In a Christian context, I don’t think the appropriate topic is “gay sex”—and more than it is “het sex”. If I may build upon Phil Grooms, I think that what the Church blesses is *intimacy*—in EVERY sense of the word—between two loving, covenanted spouses. That’s my… Read more »

Gary Paul Gilbert
Guest
Gary Paul Gilbert

I get a sense of déjà vu (or rather déjà lu or not even read) in this sort of discussion over whether tradition, even scriptural, ever justifies bigotry. Murdoch, my husband, posted a fuller quote from William Temple on Thinking Anglicans in March 2011. . . . But in most moral questions the authority to which we appeal is not that of the good and wise individual, but that of the moral sense of our civilization. We can very seldom give an adequate reason for those points on which we have the strongest moral convictions. For example, in argument I… Read more »

MarkBrunson
Guest

This is the whole root of the problem with this devolution of Christianity. At one time, it was the rage to try to show how miracles could have happened, to give them some real world credence. Now, we’ve backslid to medieval superstition and idolatry, by saying, “Yeah, but experiential reality has to prove that the Bible is wrong.” This is what I’m reading in Bernard’s comments. As Erika points out, intersex being *is* experiential reality. The moral neutrality of that being *is* experiential reality. However, we are being told that experiential reality must somehow disprove a mythology that holds, among… Read more »

Bernard Randall
Guest
Bernard Randall

Tobias, I don’t understand how the words in Genesis 1 being nouns not adjectives makes any difference. My Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translates “male and female” – which suggests they don’t see a significant difference. It’s the fact that this passage is used to support monogamy which means we can’t ignore it in thinking about how we should understand marriage. Although I’d be interested in getting the reference to the Rabbinic literature on intersexuality, we’re needing to do Christian theology here, so it would be necessary to show that their reading is consonant with Christian Tradition. Erika, I’m not for… Read more »

Bernard Randall
Guest
Bernard Randall

Interested Observer, you make a distinction between private cult and established Church – fair enough. But I think that only shows that credibility in the eyes of the world should be part of the thinking, rather than an “only or main criterion.” By way of comparison, the prophets of ancient Israel were effectively part of the established religion, and yet the ones we hear from didn’t spend their time wondering about credibility. There is fierce criticism in the OT of prophets who only say what the people wanted to hear – but their voices aren’t preserved, because what they said… Read more »