Thinking Anglicans

Opinion – 12 November 2016

Updated Tuesday to add the last two Percy/Hilton letters

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes Talking Jesus and the natural grammar of evangelism

Linda Woodhead ABC Religion and Ethics How the Church of England Lost the English People

David Walker ViaMedia.News “Monks & Nuns of the Marrying Kind…”

Martyn Percy and Adrian Hilton have been exchanging letters, and Hilton is publishing them on his Archbishop Cranmer blog. Here are the first four; there are two more to come all six.

Martyn Percy on Justin Welby: “there is a marked absence of salient and resonant ‘God-talk’, or any persuasive public theology”
Adrian Hilton on Justin Welby: “he is challenging the ‘principalities and powers’ of institutional existence”
Adrian Hilton: “Is Justin Welby not showing the world Jesus?”
Martyn Percy: the Church of England is being “reformed by bankers.. theology is ruthlessly excluded.. populism and narcissism are in the ascendancy”
Adrian Hilton: Would the appointment of Bishop Martyn Percy offer remedy against Justin Welby’s asserted theological ignorance?
Martyn Percy: Justin Welby “is preparing the ground for a complete volte-face on human sexuality”

The Church of England has published this open letter from William Nye to Martyn Percy in response to fourth of these letters.


  • Fr John E. Harris-White says:

    Thank God for Fr Martyn Percy, may his voice be heard loud and clear. Both in these columns, and the wider press,

    Assuring church members we still have true leaders who ‘do GOD’, and are not afraid to think theologically about ourselves, and our relationship to our Creator.

  • Kate says:

    Martyn Percy wishes an archbishop who engages in God talk. Intellectually that seems a meet desire; but is it theologically sound? Can we reveal God, or does God only reveal Himself working through us? Is any man’s God-talk more than a false idol if the revelation comes from man, not from God? Idols are traditionally seen as physical things, but might not a meme be an idol too?

    So, while intellectually everything Martyn Percy has to say seems utterly obvious, is it not at least possible that Archbishop Justin is better to remain silent on the topic of God until God Himself gives Justin something to say, rather than filling the silence with Justin’s own ramblings? That of course doesn’t excuse how much Justin says without talking about God, so Martyn’s essential criticisms remain apposite, but maybe Martyn is missing an essential subtlety.

  • A couple of comments on the Hilton/Percy dialogue.

    First, I’m always suspicious of the phrase ‘good theology’ (whether it comes out of the mouths of liberal or conservative or anywhere in between speakers). It has a rather unfortunate tendency to mean ‘theology I agree with’.

    Second, the reason that “‘evangelism’ is preferred to that much broader and richer term, ‘mission’” is that it’s the part of mission that usually gets neglected. Speaking for my (non-English) diocese, in which I wave the flag for evangelism, most churches are very enthusiastic about every part of mission – EXCEPT for evangelism. If we always say ‘mission’ and never ‘evangelism’, evangelism won’t happen. Period.

    Third, Dr. Percy is fond of terms like ‘recognized theologians’. Recognized by who? He and Linda Woodhead are also fond of emphasizing the Church of England’s responsibilities to ‘be the Church’ for ALL people, not just those who attend. So I think it’s fair to ask what impact those ‘recognized theologians’ have had on the vast majority of English people. Could any of those people name any of these theologians? Would their ideas be familiar to them? How successful, in fact, have they been at communicating the Christian faith to the vast majority of English people who never darken the doors of a church?

    By the way, I’m not particularly enamoured of what I’ve read about the Green Report or documents like it, so this is not a defence of it and shouldn’t be construed as such.

  • Adrian Judd says:

    I look forward to the day when the clergy Martyn trained at Cuddesdon start being consecrated as the next generation of leaders for the Church of England. I have a great deal of sympathy with his opinions every time I read them.

  • Pam says:

    When someone is called to the life of a religious order, and celibacy (amongst other things) is part of the deal, then the calling takes precedence. As it should. I think there may be some difficulties for married couples in the situation of a religious order. Having said that, though, marriage teaches us to love unconditionally. A good qualification for ministry.

  • Interested Observer says:

    I’ve met Martyn Percy a few times. He’s an incredibly impressive guy, and I would take anything he said, in both his religious and his academic roles (if you can separate them), extremely seriously.

    He has a cute dog, too.

  • re: Linda’s article

    What we urgently need is for a new paradigm to prevail.

    For as long as the Bible is regarded as an inerrant document by a core group in our Church – regarded as some kind of magical, elevated text from God – the divide between the nation and the Church will widen.

    What is needed is the primacy of a new way of reading and understanding the Bible, in line with the insights and intelligence of ordinary everyday people and their reasonable way of exploring truth and decency.

    We need to be able to say the Bible is not perfect. We need to be able to read the Bible in context, and to be critically intelligent about it. We need to admit that on some things the Bible may be just plain wrong, or set in different times, different cultures. And to recognise that the Bible itself may be written to different paradigms from the ones modern people have struggled and sacrificed to establish.

    Why does the Bible have to be so elevated and magically correct and authoritarian?

    Why do we need to have a submitted and infantilised relationship with it? Why is critical challenge of its pretexts wrong? Why should human conscience get anaesthetised if it contradicts ancient texts?

    Probably the dominant grouping in our Church for the past few decades has been that part of the Church that wants to perpetuate a way of ‘submitting to the Bible’ that is dated, and resistant to challenge and forward thinking; that wants to dig in and entrench around the Bible, while the world – full of decent young truth-seekers – moves on.

    Look at Christian Unions in universities up and down the country: for the most part, disastrous and culturally cut off and entrenched. Not only do they scare away some open-minded Christians, they repel the majority of decent young students through moral and cultural intransigence, and intellectual torpor.

    That is a microcosm of how the Church has lost touch with the nation, and people who have rightly moved on into a different way of thinking based on reasonable criticism of science, history, literature and religious texts.

    We need a new paradigm to prevail: one that engages people through service, presence, love and freedom of conscience to challenge textual authoritarianism and inerrancy. Otherwise our relevance disintegrates and many good people can’t take us seriously any more.

  • Michael Skliros says:

    Well said, Susannah, though the new paradigm you crave has long been set out by Brian Cox — namely that everything, but everything, is date/time stamped. The bible is a brilliant time capsule of the truth that was understood (revealed, if you will) at the time. The bitter pill that we must swallow is (i) that the various sciences have shown us even deeper truths about the human condition than our devout forebears ever knew, and (ii) that they are so-called secular truths. Tough, but it’s evidently the way God works.

  • FrDavidH says:

    In answer to Tim Chesterton, the late Bishop David Jenkins was a Professor of Theology before consecration, and his views were widely discussed in Churches, pubs and clubs, on TV and in the press when he was Bishop of Durham. His thought-provoking ministry was deeply appreciated by clergy and laity alike, but unfortunately we haven’t had anyone since who has been like him. He made theology accessible. Today, the simplistic guitar-playing ministers in the Church of England have reduced the Glory of God to a nice tune read from a Power Point screen.

  • Kate says:

    It seems to me that the number of worshippers is seen by many as the key validation of the Church. Falling numbers mean that the Church is doing X wrong; if numbers grew we could see ourselves as successful, validated. Wrong notions of evangelism then gestate from this need for validation: we are successful and validated as a church and as individuals if we grow the number of regular worshippers. Validation by force of numbers.

  • Savi Hensman says:

    While there are many problems with the Green Report and managerialism, which is often far removed from good managerial practice let alone theological depth, I think there is a risk of those for and against Renewal and Reform over-simplifying one another’s positions.

    For instance Justin Welby does tend to use media opportunities to talk about God, as indeed was the case with regard to the Bataclan massacre. Despite Matthew Parris’ attack on Welby, which seemed to bear little resemblance to what he actually said, he made the point that God was ‘in the middle of it’ and drew attention to ‘Psalm 56 – “He stores up our tears in a bottle,” none of our sufferings are lost’ ( Likewise in his talks and sermons, whether attacking economic inequality on Wall Street ( or gently encouraging those at New Wine towards an open, non-judgmental approach to faith (, God is very much central.

    Likewise it is important for those defending the programme of reform to recognise that critics are not always wedded to the status quo and are often aware there are serious problems to be tackled.

  • Kate, I’d suggest the validation of the Church may be seen in its impact on people’s lives. Unfortunately, it has a diminishing impact on people’s lives.

  • ” is it not at least possible that Archbishop Justin is better to remain silent on the topic of God until God Himself gives Justin something to say, rather than filling the silence with Justin’s own ramblings? ” – Kate –

    If this were truly the case, Kate; why do you bother to blog – with your own (varied) opinions about God and what God might require of us?

    There is a phrase known as “Gossipping the Gospel” – Telling the Good News of God Incarnate in Christ Jesus. Is that not worth talking about – for Archbishops and all of us?
    And then there is the public witness: “By their fruits you shall know them” – all very public evidence about the influence of God in our lives. Pax et Bonum!

  • @ Michael: well exactly – it’s the way God has worked through these previous centuries. The Enlightenment and development of science has revealed actual, real truths that are not only not dependent on Biblical revelation or mandate, but starkly challenge them.

    It’s possible to see divine purpose and promptings in the process. The repudiation of the creation events as events, or of Noah’s Ark, are not disasters: they are opportunities… ways in which God is prompting and encouraging us to read the Bible in a different way. A way which, in fact, gives greater dignity and credibility to the Bible.

    As you say, the various texts in the Bible are time-capsules: glimpses or ‘screenshots’ of people’s sincere convictions at moments in time. People’s real but fallible attempts to describe encounters with the divine, in their own days, in their own cultures, with all the time-frozen limitations of those cultures.

    The encounters themselves may have been real, without projecting their historical contexts on ours.

    Truth and encounter break through in each age, through the lens and filter of people’s lives, experiences, knowledge, and customs. The reported encounters may therefore lead people to different conclusions at different points in history. And that is not bad. It is good.

    God’s revelation is not a scriptural monolith for all time, as if it were texted to us complete by God, so we don’t need to explore conscience and truth for ourselves. It is a series of fallible snapshots, reported by fallible people, who themselves experienced the revealings of God, and God’s heart and longing to touch them and heal.

    But each generation needs to open their hearts and their minds for themselves. Conscience must not be anaesthetised by the authoritarian demands of a Bible set in aspic for all time. That way leads to the ossification of the Church. Rather, conscience and truth-seeking, religious and secular, should lead the way, and blaze the trail.

    God speaks to us… today… not thousands of years ago. And God’s methodology is being prompted to us by unfolding scientific knowledge, and involves a new way of valuing the Bible, a new paradigm, and an openness to the living Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

    The touch of God indeed, so it impacts on people’s lives, instead of alienating them in a false (or mistaken) paradigm that elevates ‘screenshot’ scriptures almost to an idolatry and an imprisonment.

  • David Emmott says:

    Not a considered response to Linda Woodhead’s piece (I need to re-read it), but this struck me: ‘The failure of nerve was apparent as early as 1968 when John Robinson’s Honest to God provoked national debate. It was a perfect opportunity for the Church to make the Christian case afresh. Archbishop Ramsay ducked the challenge on the grounds that it would disturb the simple faithful.’

    First, Honest to God was published in 1963 not 1968. There was no Archbishop Ramsay; she means Michael Ramsey. And though he initially seemed to panic over H to God, he soon in his wisdom came to take a more nuanced view and I doubt if he ever would have taken such a condescending view of ‘the simple faithful.’

    It’s crass inaccuracies like this that make me suspicious of her analysis.

  • ‘Today, the simplistic guitar-playing ministers in the Church of England have reduced the Glory of God to a nice tune read from a Power Point screen.’

    I’m a guitar player myself and actually a rather good one, so I’m told. I don’t quite see why this dismissive slur against guitarists was necessary.

  • Father David says:

    A fire at Christ Church Oxford! Heaven forefend! I recall some decades ago when there was a mighty conflagration at York Minster following the consecration of the great and godly David Jenkins – some suggested divine disapproval and intervention. Now that Dean Percy is regarded by some as “The Leader of the Opposition” mercifully, no similar connection has been suggested. Hopefully we have out grown such superstitious nonsense now that we live in the sophisticated 21st century. All power to the Dean’s elbow as he points out the theological deficiencies in the managerial “Renewal and Reform” programme.

  • JCF says:

    Is “ArchbishopCranmer” like YouTube—where you avoid the comment section as a matter of sanity? Personally, I found myself giving up on the site when (in the comments on the first letter), I found a poster repeatedly saying that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks “worships a false god”. A blog is known by the company it keeps…

    I’m thinking I might want to read Linda Woodhead’s book though.

  • The good thing about ‘Power Point’ projections onto an overhead screen is it frees up your hands. You don’t have to hold a book, so you can raise your hands to God.

    I love the shuddering thunder and processional feel of great organ music. Having said that, worship with guitars and other instruments can feel more intimate, which when expressing intimacy to God is a plus. Good worship leaders, responding to the Spirit in a service, not just following a ‘menu’ from a service sheet, can draw people into heart-touching worship and so I’m all for guitars, though I also love the beauty and sometimes grandeur of the organ, and always have.

    I don’t think it’s one or the other. You can have both styles of music integrated into a service, if the worship leaders get on well together, which of course can be a bit of a challenge, and source of tension.

    I always remember David Watson extolling worship and one of the Greek words meaning, in effect, ‘coming towards God with a kiss’. That level of intimacy – in relation to a God who can also be numinous and withdrawn – is something deeply precious.

    The wonderful thing about music, if we open our hearts, is that it can bypass the cerebral and analytical, and God can touch our hearts direct, and with that can come extraordinary healing.

    So I’m happy to root for Tim’s guitar! I can only play folksy Scottish ballads on the piano accordion, and astonishingly I have never been asked to bring it to a service 😉

  • Michael Skliros says:

    David Emmott is right about dates, as I ‘did’ Honest to God with the Lower VI at Denstone College in 1964 (having had John Robinson as my tutor at Clare 10 years earlier).
    Two things I remember about it all, rightly or wrongly: (i) JATR was very hurt by the abuse he received from fundamentalists and even more by the lack of support from fellow liberals who knew perfectly well he had struck a timely chord (John Spong’s supporters likewise remained in the shadows); (ii) the other was that the Denstone boys were interested but largely unmoved: received opinion was that either the bible is all literally true or else all God-talk is total nonsense. There are distressing signs that that attitude is alive and well today.

  • S Cooper says:

    Welby is from a certain background ….he’s used to guitars and lots of young people in church … surprise that he wants more churches with guitars and lots of young people …..

  • David Marshall says:

    Somewhere in this thread, as in the exchanges between Martyn Percy and Adrian Hilton, there may well be a solution to the problem Percy and Hilton are trying to address. Yet whenever it rises close enough to the surface to be almost identifiable, some undercurrent of personal interest shifts the focus with a minor distraction that avoids connecting the problem with a solution.

    I suspect an agreed meaning for God is one of the keys to finding a way round this. Without it, any reference to theology is pointless.

    Another is the nature and scope of authority. Who decides what God means, here or anywhere else. And if there is a difference, where does that leave God-talk in general.

    But perhaps most critically, what are we looking for when we engage in God-talk and public theology.

  • John Bunyan says:

    Some own goals scored too often :
    1.Obstacles deterring infant baptisms (1662 links it with Jesus welcoming and blessing children – surely the pattern to follow – Jesus trumps St Paul), and even weddings and funerals – e.g refusing the simple Masonic ceremony at funerals (I am not a Mason). 2. Providing no alternatives to very Conservative Evangelical or very Anglo-Catholic churches – most who identify as C.of E./Anglican (such as my non-churchgoing family or the many, many thousands I have encountered as a hospital chaplain) will never go to those churches. 3. Providing only Holy Communion on Sundays – Bishop Michael Marshall said losing Morning Prayer unchurched England, an exaggeration of course, but with Evensong rare, Morning Prayer could provide for some of the half-believers, fringe-dwellers, agnostics, doubters, etc – not least on days important in a “people’s calendar” if it were imaginative, reverent, relevant to issues of major concern today not least among thinking young people (the environment especially), with well chosen lessons and music, and without narrow, nagging, or negative sermons or unnecessary creeds. (Indeed, with fewer sermons and more silence.) Such a service might well take the place of the Ante Communion. Indeed in some places there might be a break for refreshments between it and the Communion proper, allowing people to attend either or both. Many more attended a morning service when they could leave before Communion. That pattern was attacked by “Parish and People” liturgists but it is worth re-considering – in the way I suggest – although of course there are no simple solutions. Alternatives to Sunday worship are many, not least shopping and sport, but those own goals are a factor. Certainly in a time of fear, uncertainty,and rapid change, there are large and growing radical, fundamentalist, evangelical Anglican churches – some increasingly intolerant – but it seems to me that sociologically and psychologically, they are little different from other sectarian religious bodies, deterring far more people than they attract.

  • Susannah, being a lover of traditional folk music, I am delighted to return the compliment by rooting for your folksy Scottish ballads played on an accordion! Way to go! The world needs more trad folk!

  • David Emmott says:

    John Bunyan: I don’t know which parts of the C of E you are implying as having nothing (or little) other than ‘very’ Con Evo or ‘very’ anglo-catholic churches.(which begs the question of what do you mean by ‘very’?) In my experience the vast majority of churches are somewhere in between. Even in this historically protestant diocese (Liverpool) there are very few really conservative evangelical parishes.
    As for the disappearance of Morning Prayer, surely one major reason for the Eucharist displacing it as the central act of worship (which indeed it should) is that it was so boring. It might have an attraction for retired colonels and Miss Marple lookalikes in Home Counties villages, but it’s never going to attract the urban masses. Highly labour- and resource-intensive multimedia presentations might, but while they might be a useful way in for searchers, they will not feed the core congregations. And the church will only grow if the people at the heart of it are being spiritually fed, and pray.

  • Kate says:

    Susannah, I think you are articulating the very reason why the Church is struggling because you are not alone in your views: the Genesis creation cannot be true because it unscientific; Noah’s Flood cannot be true because it contradicts history as science has revealed it.

    So why should anyone believe in the empty tomb because that is clearly unscientific? Why should people believe in that miracle if we are teaching that the Bible is not reliable when it talks about the miraculous? On Judgement Day, how can God redeem and transform earth if He didn’t create it? If God didn’t judge mankind with a flood, why should we believe the rumours that he will judge us all in the future…? After all, isn’t He a loving god who will forgive us all if we smile sweetly?

    Paul tells us that three things matter: faith, hope and love. If we abandon faith in the miraculous we will soon lose hope in the miraculous.

  • Froghole says:

    Linda Woodhead’s article: I find the comparison with the Church of Denmark unconvincing (not least because she herself admits that attendance in Denmark is very low). The reason why the Danish church has retained a higher level of residual participation may be attributable in large measure to the tax paid by church members (the quantum of which varies from local authority to local authority), that gives Danes a sense of proprietorship often lacking amongst those outside the shrinking body of regular attendees in England who sustain their churches via more voluntary contributions. In addition, Denmark remains relatively more collectivist and racially homogenous than England (although this has been changing rapidly in the last quarter century); as such, certain national and Christian narratives and practices have tended to erode more slowly than in the UK, but they are eroding, and the ostensibly more liberal response of Danish Christians to secularisation is most unlikely to halt or reverse that trend. Many western societies have undergone sudden and profound social and economic bouleversements within a short time: think of Quebec in the 1960s or Ireland in the 1990s; time and again the seemingly solid and impressive façade of institutional Christianity has disintegrated in response to economic change, increased choice and mobility, and immigration: indeed, what goes for western Christianity also held true for other authoritarian bureaucracies such as imperialism and communism (see, for instance, Sir D. Cannadine ‘Ornamentalism: How the British saw their Empire’ (2002) or A. Yurchak ‘Everything was Forever Until it was No More: The last Soviet Generation’ (2005)).

    I am struggling to understand the point of the Hilton-Percy correspondence. Whilst I have some sympathy for Dr Percy’s views, it is not clear (to me) what he wants. Yes, most of us agree that managerialism is a Bad Thing and will probably make little difference. Yes, there should be more references to God in the output of Church House. Then what? What is Dr Percy’s solution to the collapse of Christian observance in England? As he must know there are a great many churches close to Cuddesdon and to the House (or under its considerable patronage) where attendance is vanishingly small and attendees are mostly elderly. How does he intend to stop those churches from dying (assuming he thinks their demise an undesirable outcome)? It may be that Welby’s banker-led managerialism is the least worst option. What else has worked?

  • Froghole says:

    One good result of the Hilton-Percy exchange has been the admission by Mr Nye that the adjustments to the Darlow Formula should not prejudice rural dioceses with large concentrations of thinly attended churches. We shall see. I am not hugely reassured by Mr Nye’s soothing remarks; the sort of ad hoc funding to which he refers (for Exeter) presumably cannot act as a suitable substitute for consistent and guaranteed funding of the kind provided under the Darlow arrangements, and many dioceses will need financial certainty. Mr Nye does refer to Southwell and Nottingham (where attendance is mostly very low outside the major urban areas, and especially in much of the Trent valley). I had expressed my concern about this in the thread on 22 October.

    @John Bunyan. I completely agree; during the 1970s and 1980s a eucharistic monoculture spread across much of England. This was presumably a reaction against the infrequent communion that characterised much of Prayer Book England, and represented the seepage of an insipid version of Anglo-Catholic practice into the ‘soft’ middle of the Church. Having been unconvinced by Arnauld’s ‘De la fréquente Communion’ and Fénelon’s famous letter on the same subject, I came to the painful conclusion that one of the reasons for pushing regular communion was the belief that it would somehow underpin the central role of the clergy in parochial life – perhaps in order to compensate for their diminishing social and economic status. Although I am no longer quite so cynical, I do feel that a uniform liturgical diet of communion tended to devalue the experience for many attendees, and it was often very boring indeed (possibly as boring as the matins it was often intended to replace). However, a shortage of clergy in many places, and an increasing awareness in all but the most stolid of parishes that nothing-but-communion yields diminishing returns, has led to an increasing heterogeneity in worship over the last decade or so. This cannot be a bad thing. However, there is a fear of silence, and there is a risk that many services are denuded of almost all intellectual content. There is much to be said for having periods of quiet, and for preaching both to teach (there is often a real hunger for information) and to address contemporary issues in a serious, informed and stimulating manner (which is sometimes all too rare).

  • Susannah and Tim. ALL music that helps us to come into God’s Presence is a vital accessory to good and meaningful worship. The adage: ‘Prayer sung is prayed twice’ is a reality for those of us who rejoice in – for instance – a good Folk Mass.

    As a retired but practising liturgist, I believe that both organ and other soulful instrumental accompaniment, used prayerfully, can provide the perfect incentive for encountering God’s Presence.

    I was at a Funeral today that was uplifted by a recording of the late Leonard Cohen’s ‘Alleluia’ – sheer bliss anbd a help to the giref-stricken.

  • Jo says:

    @John Bunyan: I have seen the model you suggest in action, though strictly speaking it was CW communion with a break after the peace. It did allow for some to leave at the break, but it also encouraged the communicants to talk to each other, rather than rushing off straight after the service. It was made very clear that it was one service (and that if you were there for the second you ought to be there for the first part) but it was also clear you could leave if you wanted. The church did experience growth in that period, but obviously cause and effect are hard to tease out. It does occur to me that if regular communion and use of creeds were the major impediments, one might expect the Church of Scotland doing better than the Church of England.

  • Peter S says:

    I agree with Froghole: “I am struggling to understand the point of the Hilton-Percy correspondence.” But I find much sustenance for what we should be doing in Kate’s words: “Paul tells us that three things matter: faith, hope and love. If we abandon faith in the miraculous we will soon lose hope in the miraculous.” And I only wish to add, let us recognise that love is miraculous.

    Increasingly I find Evensong appealing, not only for the music, but for the disciplined reading of scripture – while scripture is at the heart of the eucharistic liturgy, the preparation for and impact of receiving holy communion requires a certain set of mind that for me does not allow of a wholehearted listening and response to the scriptures. It’s a both-and, not an either-or, but a both-and that needs careful reflection on how we invite others into this hope and joy.

  • Peter Owen says:

    The last two Hilton/Percy letters are now online and I have added links to them.

  • John Bunyan says:

    David Emmott : Though I have visited churches in the UK and US churches many times (recently both countries) I was writing about my Diocese of Sydney, very large in size and despite great losses in the financial crisis, still large in wealth, often disdainful of Anglican liturgy, and in so many ways out of touch with the world around it.

    In 1950, perhaps one third of its many parishes were moderate, and a few Anglo-Catholic. The great majority of its parishes today are fundamentalist and sectarian. Now only a few Anglo-Catholic and moderate churches remain, none within 30 miles of my own suburb, and the Diocese is increasingly intolerant. (One of its finest priests, formerly on the staff of Moore College and now a parole officer, has recently lost even his local licence to officiate because of his public support for “same sex marriage” seen as contrary to “Anglican teaching”.) Worse still, steadily other dioceses are being taken over by “Sydney”, most notably Canberra and Goulburn where the national capital is situated. And where that happens, I think the Church becomes more and more irrelevant in the wider community. (The Diocese of Melbourne, under an outstanding Primate of Australia, happily is very different.)

    My comments regarding services were based on 22 years in my last (working class) parish and on 18 years now of weekly hospital ministry with 100 or more patients on my lists on any one day (at the age of 80), the majority of those still identifying as C.of E., (most welcoming a chaplain, most no longer or never church-goers, usually about 30 seen on any one day), the others Protestants of various kinds, and middle Eastern Orthodox and Maronite – the latter the most devout of those I meet. (In the hospital as a whole, RCs are the largest group, Muslims the third largest). I remain also hon.chaplain to several ex-service organisations.

    I have seen something of the Church of Scotland, Jo, though mainly attending churches such as St Giles’ in Edinburgh and Paisley Abbey where there are regular Communions and where creeds are used! I don’t envisage great numbers coming back to church there or here, but the provision of a sensible alternative could remove obstacles that do deter a good number. Cathedral Evensongs – and Cathedral Matins where that fortunately survives – meet the need for some people, if there is intelligent rather than ignorant preaching, but most have no access to those.

    My comments I think did indicate what kind of Morning Prayer I was suggesting ; it was not Morning Prayer in its old, indeed sometimes boring form in place of the new Anglican, also sometimes boring forms of Ante Communion. My suggestion could restore something closer to “common prayer” in place of the utterly confusing diversity now in our Church. (Roman Catholic history is very different to ours – but it does retain common prayer – and usually more reverence and silence than our churches do.)

    I myself would certainly prefer traditional, beautiful Prayer Book language for a Morning Prayer. However, I think it cannot be a service narrowly, narrowly “Gospel” centred, but one that takes into account the great advances in our understanding not only of the Scriptures but far more important, of science in all its forms, and of the immense challenges ever-growing scientific understanding of the earth and life upon earth and of biodiversity present to the Churches and to Christianity and indeed to all people.

    (For years the moderate evangelical Grove Booklets have appeared on many, many aspects of worship in church but I cannot remember any on worship and Biblical criticism or worship and science, and it it is not only evangelicals who have paid no great attention to these matters.)

    Thanks to those who contribute fruitfully to these discussions in which I sometimes engage at too great a length!

  • David Emmott says:

    +Michael Ramsey noted that one disadvantage of the Parish Communion movement was trivialisation: people casually ‘tripping to the altar.’ That is indeed a danger, and one that I suspect has also affected the Roman Catholic church in recent years. The problem is not regular celebration of the Eucharist, but rather than Anglicans have never taken to the idea of non-communicating attendance. There is still an awareness of this in the RCC, and possibly among some Anglo-catholics; maybe it is something that ought to be rediscovered. But I’m ambivalent, because we also want to be an inclusive church and teach that all are welcome to receive, and because we believe that we don’t earn the right to God’s gifts.

    Just as I believe in bog-standard comprehensive schools and regard grammar schools as unacceptable elitism, I believe that the Eucharist is for all and an attempt to go back to ‘communion at 8am for the holy’ is also unacceptable elitism. And the compromise of alternating ‘main service’ Eucharist with other forms of worship downgrades the Mass to just another alternative.

    But if Woodhead’s theory is correct, churches with a varied pattern of services on Sundays would be doing better than those with invariable Parish Eucharist, and I doubt if there is any evidence of that. If certain eclectic evangelical shrines are drawing large numbers it is for other reasons.

  • Dear Kate,

    I have encountered similar arguments over the years: “How do we know ANY of the bible is true, if we concede that some of it isn’t?”

    In the end faith, which you cite, is the reason that we can accept anything at all. If we have encountered the grace of God, THAT is the reason we start to believe.

    With regard to the question you pose: “If you think science disproves the Creation narrative and Noah’s Ark, well, doesn’t it also disprove the empty tomb in that case?”

    The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a supernatural event. So yes, it overrides nature as we know it. It overrides science… without negating demonstrable truths and realities we see around us in the world as we know it today.

    And speaking personally, I have no problem with the belief in deeper reality and a supernatural level of existence, overriding the natural in certain circumstances and events.

    However… as a truth-seeker and great believer in scientific process in the physical world as we see it around us today… it is one thing to argue that God may have chosen to act supernaturally in a pivotal event…

    It is another thing, to propose events that – if they occurred – would leave demonstrable evidence in our world. If the world as we see it around us has demonstrably NOT been flooded… if all animals have demonstrably undergone a mass-extinction in human history… if the vast majority of scientists recognise and identify evidence for evolution of humans from previous species…

    Then to believe the bible accounts literally is to descend into never-never land and cut us adrift from intelligent and sane secular truth. It makes our religion look ridiculous.

    Believing in the resurrection event does not alter the parameters of the world we live in. It simply acknowledges there is deeper reality and a supernatural realm involving the sovereignty of God.

    It still involves faith, but I believe in God, not because the Bible is infallible or inerrant, but because God is God and shows us grace in all kinds of ways. The bible doesn’t have to be infallible to prove God’s love. Some parts may be true, others mistaken, or culturally influenced, and some parts utter hogwash.

    It is the LOVE that is miraculous in the end. That is the basis of faith, and the basis of any relationship really.

  • Susannah
    ‘Some parts may be true, others mistaken, or culturally influenced, and some parts utter hogwash’.
    The Bible asserts that God and Christ said many things. In your view, which of these statements that the Bible asserts they said – did they say? all, some, none? And if some, on what grounds do you decide which they did say and which they did not say?
    Phil Almond

  • Kate says:

    Susannah, I suggest you watch the first 5 or 6 minutes of Rupert Sheldrake’s banned TED talk on YouTube. He presents ten dogmas of science. The ones he picks relate to consciousness, which is his area of interest. There’s more inherent dogma relating to time and I suspect much more I have not encountered.

    What you see as scientific “truth” regarding creation, the flood etc is just a different belief system and when you start probing that belief system rests on some uncertain foundations.

  • Epistle to Phil Almond: Part the First

    Phil, you’re basically asking me a sweeping question: “Is the Bible true?” And then, supposing that I’d answer “No, not all true,” you want me to justify a ‘pick-and-mix’ approach to it, and the criteria I choose.

    But as Pontius Pilate allegedly asked: “What is truth?”

    My answer in fact is “God is true in the Bible.”

    But I don’t mean that all the words attributed to God are necessarily true.

    I mean that truth needs to be approached, not through text, but through encounter in the heart.

    So… turning to the bible… what I see there are a succession of attempts to describe and interpret… “encounters with God”… encounters that in many cases could have been truth in the sense that yes, God was actually engaging with people.

    And those encounters – a step back from the text itself – are what I regard as fundamentally true.

    Do I think they were reliably reported, explained and understood? Well, when we encounter the vast mystery of God, do WE understand it all? No. We are fallible. So were the authors of the Bible. Therefore their written reports are fallible too: limited by knowledge limitations, cultural limitations, prejudice limitations, agenda limitations.

    So is the bible literally true? By no means all of it, no. Does it speak of encounters with Truth. Yes.

  • Epistle to Phil Almond: Part the Second

    Dear Phil,
    “Then” you may ask, “how do you discern which parts are literally true and which parts are not?”

    Well, as I’ve explained, we are now talking about secondary truth… passed on truth… filtered through cultural lens… and fallible.

    Is it for me to have decisive insight into which snippet is literally valid, and which snippet isn’t? No. But the Church as a whole, and in groupings, can listen, reflect, use conscience, and critical methods (like any scientist or literary critic might) to hazard some guesses.

    We don’t have to know for certain.

    Because faith is about encounter, not demonstrable proof, sort of sent down from heaven in text messages and all literally true.

    Faith is encountering the loving God in our hearts and responding by opening our hearts to that love. So look to the love. It fulfils everything else (as Jesus allegedly said).

    Some narratives in the bible are shown to be demonstrably untrue by the evidence of the world around us. The Noah account is ludicrous… and yet the account still communicates encounter with God, and is a deep archetype – not to be read literally, but to be received as a kind of portal through which the archetype speaks to the way God still works (baptismally) in our own encounters.

    We are meant to find our own encounters with God, and exercise our consciences in our own living cultures and communities. And the Bible resonates with encounter too, and that encounter is the heart of what is true there, a kind of entrance point of the deeper Truth into human lives and texts.

    So I think the Bible texts on man-man sex are culturally filtered and frankly wrong in our times and our society. The fallible authors were just ‘trying to make sense’ of their experiential encounters. Constructing systems of belief around them, the authors’ limitations were going to render the literal text always subject to review in its implementation.

    But if we have love, and encounter the True and living God… then we can start talking about Truth.

  • Kate,

    My belief that no worldwide flood and accompanying mass extinction (except for pairs of animals on a boat) ever took place in human times… can be reasonably demonstrated by the evidence of the world around us that we live in. It’s demonstrable.

    Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘theories’ in no way imply or suggest that such a flood and animal rescue DID take place – the idea is palpably ludicrous – so I hardly see the point in citing him (except as the assertion of a principle… that science holds mysteries we don’t yet know).

    In your anxiety (?) and eagerness to defend the inerrancy of scripture, and therefore the need to argue that these events DID happen, you seem to be trending towards an escape clause based on something “relating to time”.

    So what exactly are you suggesting? Are you suggesting that we live in one universe along a particular time path, but another universe forked off after the flood ‘occurred’, proceeding along a different time path, or something? And I suppose all the evidence of this mythically remembered flood lies scattered like debris along the shores of that distant (and unprovable) universe?

    Or how exactly do you account for the overwhelming evidence that leads most people to believe evolution of humans from earlier species occurred? And the overwhelming lack of evidence for the actions and events of the Noah story?

    Just to say, well we don’t understand everything, seems a poor basis on which to build bridges, spaceships, boats, life support systems, etc etc. Science, to the extent we can demonstrably apply it, does have its uses, surely?

    And insisting Adam had no ancestors, and Noah did not collect the koalas, polar bears, and Amazonian tree frogs… can hardly be repudiated by a resort to “well the science we can’t see is better than the science we can see.” It’s no repudiation at all. It’s a resort to magic, and wishful thinking… to anything to protect the dogma that the bible is always right.

    I’d have thought, if you wanted to apply Sheldrake, you’d challenge established dogma like that, rather than accepting and defending it.

    I just think most things in our world are best understood with a load of commonsense. And I say that, in order to stay sane, and in touch with communities around us, and inhabit shared ground.

    I don’t, for example, follow David Icke. Pseudoscience is easy to promote on a vague unproven platform.

  • Susannah
    Thanks for your replies and thanks to Thinking Anglicans for putting up my post. Let me state in another way my question about what God and Christ are reported as having said and your view of those reports.
    Let me do this by taking a specific example.

    Matthew 5:43
    Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
    But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

    Do you try to obey these words? If your answer is ‘yes’ why do you try to obey them?

    Phil Almond

  • Phil,

    Well… they sound like good advice in various circumstances, though evil does sometimes need to be confronted, don’t you think? So loving your enemies may not mean always conceding to their evil, and may sometimes mean opposing them.

    If I try to follow those ideals, it is for the same reason one should do anything good. Because goodness is worth doing simply as an end in itself, because it’s decent and kind and right.

    And we have consciences that speak to us about that. Teachings attributed to Jesus may also help and inspire us, and certainly the example of his life.

    But what, Phil, has that question got to do with the inerrancy of the Bible?


  • Susannah
    Yes. I was trying to take our disagreement a step at a time. But perhaps I will try to cut to the chase.

    You posted, ‘Faith is encountering the loving God in our hearts and responding by opening our hearts to that love. So look to the love. It fulfils everything else (as Jesus allegedly said).’
    I agree that Christianity includes at its heart an encounter with God through Christ. We long to know God in Christ experientially, more and more. But don’t facts come into it as well? When you encounter God and Christ in your heart and open yourself to that love don’t you have some convictions expressed in words in your heart and mind of what they are like and what they have said and commanded you to do? The fact that God exists? The fact that Jesus of Nazareth exists? The fact that Jesus was crucified? The fact that he was raised from the dead? Some true information about why he died and was raised? The facts of the words of Jesus recorded in the New Testament and Christ’s repeated exhortations to hear, take to heart, to obey his words and his commands. Where do you get these from if not from the Bible? Surely it can’t all just be feelings? Surely the facts are important as we seek to persuade those we know who are not Christians to take Christianity seriously.
    Are you saying that you can manage without all of these facts?

    Phil Almond

  • Pam says:

    Susannah, our conscience is a gift from God, a wonderful gift. But very obviously Christians differ in what their conscience tells them. The way I interpret Matthew 5:44 is that Jesus physically died for his enemies. He loved his enemies enough to die for them. And that’s why Christians love and follow him. When I read those words I realise how much I need God’s love.

  • “Surely the facts are important as we seek to persuade those we know who are not Christians to take Christianity seriously.”

    Thank you for your reply, Phil. You talk about “the facts” as if they are incontestable. That is what fundamentalist Muslims do too. They take an ancient religious text, and idealise it into something incontestable.

    Well does that make non-Christians take Christianity seriously?

    If we take the condemnations of man-man sex as if they are FACT for all societies: does that make non-Christians take our faith seriously (or does it repel them)?

    If we take the Bible’s claim that Adam had no ancestors as FACT, does that make honest truth-seeking people take our faith seriously (or do they despair)?

    If we take God’s command to slaughter the Canaanite children in ethnic cleansing as FACT, does that make non-Christians take our faith seriously (or does it just disgust them)?

    If we take Noah’s Ark, and every single type of creature in a boat, and a worldwide flood as high as the mountain tops as FACT, does that make people take us seriously?


    Do we explain that FAITH is not about facts and proof, but about opening our hearts to God’s love? Do we take the precedents of the above as signs of needing to read the Bible in a different way.

    Do I think some things in the Bible are fact? Yes, I can’t be totally sure, and don’t need to be, but I do.

    Do I think some things in the Bible are ‘not fact’ and mistaken or wrong or made up? Yes I do, but if I rely on faith and relationship with God, why do I need it all to be true?

    If I take the accounts of encounter with God, as attempts (by fallible people) to ‘make sense’ of the mystery of those encounters… then I can explore my own encounters in the same way… tentatively… honestly trying to make sense… but fallibly, because God is far beyond knowing all about.

    The idea that ALL the Bible has to be true, is outdated and fundamentalist. It is putting the emphasis on Proof by Facts, instead of the ever-hesitant and tentative exploration of relationship, and opening up in trust, through encounter with grace and love.

    That’s what real relationships are like. I know my partner exists, but that fact is not belief in her.

  • Treating the Bible as tentative and exploratory – without it all having to be infallible – I’d argue, can be better understood, and taken more seriously, by non-Christians. I think it dignifies the Bible, which is diminished by fundamentalism and pinning everything down to fact.

    Why are we afraid of some of the Bible being wrong, or provisional, or culturally influenced, or limited in scientific knowledge? Why does it have to be elevated into some kind of magic, infallible book?

    Isn’t it more realistic and credible – worth taking seriously – if we recognise it as fallible (just as we are)? As Pam said (above) isn’t the reported death of Jesus for all people… enough of a report to tell us something huge about God?

    But to deny science… to condone murder of children… or vilify gay love… those things, argued as FACTS, create evangelistic disaster. The world passes by, shaking its head in understandable disdain, and it becomes an anathema to them, because exactly as you say, they cannot and should not take some of those ‘facts’ seriously.

    By literalising everything, in proposing inerrancy, we subvert the huge message of the Bible, the primacy of love, a love demonstrated in sacrifice of God, a love that teaches death to self, and service, day by day by day.

    Now THAT’s a message, and THAT’s a fact people may encounter for themselves, if the Church sets out to serve them. Then we are drawn into the tentative uncertainties and fragile loveliness of relationship… and God, I feel sure… is longing for us to engage in that way.

    Far from being based on certainties, it opens us to uncertainty and vulnerability, and yet these platforms are the real way the bible should be read, and we end up believing in God, not in the factual way the Devil is said to do…but belief in who God is, God’s nature, God’s story as told through Jesus.

    Faith is not a proof, faith is a relationship as tentative and uncertain as many of those in the Bible must have felt tentative and uncertain, yet strangely met, in their encounters with a vast and deep mystery, and with the trembling, shuddering impulses of love and grace and goodness, that somehow opened their hearts, and touched, and started to heal them.

    God be with you.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *