A Christian perspective on mental health

Mental Health is the issue of the day, it seems. For example, the official charity of the 2017 London Marathon was Heads Together, a mental health charity started by Prince William, Catherine, and Prince Harry (you can see a video of the three of them discussing it on YouTube). Mental health is a big deal at the moment. The solution of Heads Together is to get people talking about mental health, which is fine as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes deep enough.

I believe that Christianity alone provides the deeper perspective on mental health which is lacking. But how?

Firstly, a quick caveat: this is, of course, not even close to everything that could be said when it comes to Christianity and mental health! There is far, far more to say and I just wanted to make clear from the outset: this is just the beginning. With that in mind…

1. What is mental health?

This is a pretty key question. The MentalHealth.gov website (a US government initiative) defines it this way:

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.

Emotional, psychological, and social well-being. That’s a pretty vague definition, isn’t it? It’s very difficult to pin down. What is well-being? Is it the same for everyone, or does it vary from person to person? This is the fundamental place where I believe the Christian faith makes a difference. Let’s think about the question: what is a human being ‘for’? Why are we here, what is our purpose? That makes a massive difference to the way we tackle and think about this issue.

Imagine a man from a remote tribe who has never seen modern technology before. Imagine this man picking up a smartphone and looking at it, trying to discern its function. It’s not heavy enough to be a good hammer, it’s not sharp enough to be a weapon, it doesn’t seem to be very useful! You can’t really assess its function without knowing what it is for. Once you know that it is for making phone calls and accessing the internet (etc), you can assess how good it is at those things and then if there are problems you can fix them.

Similarly with human beings. If you have no vision of what a healthy human being is, of what a healthy human mind is, then you will struggle to define mental health and struggle to fix it. Our view of what a human being is will determine both how we define mental health and how we go about healing it.

When I was at college, we studied pastoral counselling. We looked briefly at three different models of counselling:

  • Psychodynamic. This basically assumes that a human being is a product of their past experiences – if you can access the memories, access the past, you can identify what makes someone behave in the way that they do and then you can go about fixing it. For a while my wife had some counselling with a psychodynamic counsellor who kept trying to delve into her childhood and her past. I’m not sure that my wife found it particularly helpful!
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is the type of counselling which I believe has been adopted by the NHS. This is more of a ‘carrot on a stick’ approach – if you give someone the right carrot on the right stick, they’ll be able to change their behaviour – appeal to someone’s motivation.
  • Person Centred. This is the vaguest of the three I looked at – it seems to be about listening to and affirming someone until they feel better about themselves.

All of the above models of counselling explicitly assume a postmodern worldview, that is, they all assume that there is no ultimate truth. The only real arbiter of mental health is your own personal feelings about whether you think you are OK or not.

2. Who does the Bible say we are?

This is where the Bible comes in. It says that we are not products of random chance or blind evolution, or atoms floating around inside an uncaring universe. Psalm 24 begins:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.

Everything in the universe – including you and me – only exists because God created it. We do not belong to ourselves, we are not free agents – we belong to God. We exist by His will and for His purposes. If we get this wrong, we won’t get anything else right.

So what implications does that have for how we are supposed to live? Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment was. He said there are two greatest commandments:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
  2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

People often think of the second commandment while skipping over the first. Jesus said the commandment of first importance was to love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind – with everything that we have. In other words, part of our primary duty and joy as human beings is to love the God who made us. This is fundamental to who we are.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism has as its first question: “What is the chief end of man?” (i.e., ‘what are we ultimately here for?’) The answer is, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever”. Our primary purpose here is to glorify God and enjoy him. If we get that wrong, we will never even begin to get anything else right. As the author of Proverbs put it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7).

Someone once said, “everyone has a God-shaped hole”. I think that’s a bit simplistic but expresses something true about our experience: a life lived without God is a life lived without realising our true identity and purpose. We’ll never understand ourselves unless we grasp this basic truth.

But that’s not all there is to say.

3. What is wrong with us?

Mental health problems assume that there is something wrong with us – but what, exactly? And how do we solve it? As I’ve already said, there are various different ideas about human beings and various solutions on offer, but none of them get to the heart of the problem according to the Bible. As we just saw, Jesus said that what God has created us to do is love Him and love others. How exactly we do that is spelled out in the rest of the Bible – this is the purpose of the commandments, for example. But the problem is that none of us love God and love others as we should.

I’ve been reading through Calvin’s Institutes recently, and I came across a helpful quote just this morning:

… it is clear that keeping the commandments means not love of self but love of God and of our neighbour. Thus whoever lives as little as possible for himself, lives a good life. Conversely, no one leads a more disordered life than the man who lives for himself and who thinks only of his own gain.

This is a very helpful insight: the fundamental problem with each one of us is what the Bible calls sin. You could call it disordered self-love – we love ourselves more than we love God or other people. Call it selfishness, call it what you like, it’s a failure to live up to God’s standards of love.

Now, do you think a disordered life of self-love will be satisfying and lead to well-being? No, of course not. Without even trying I can think of many, many examples of people who have been ruined in this way – who have loved possessions, or money, or their career, or so on, too much. I see a lot of it in my work – people who have every material thing but are still desperately unhappy.

Now of course possessions, money, career etc. are bad things in themselves, but when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, it becomes destructive. A rampantly materialistic culture, for example, which encourages people to love things, will never be satisfied – you’ll never have enough to make you happy.

The Bible says that each one of us is a sinner, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God, and we all fail to live up to the life of love which God calls us to live. We are all guilty. However, there is a solution.

4. The solution: Jesus

Jesus was the one who lived a perfect life of love for us. He died the death that we deserve, the punishment we are due for turning away from God, and he offers us his life in exchange. Jesus can forgive us all our sin, can remake us, restore us, heal us.

Once we have accepted that God made us, once we have accepted that we are not as we should be, then we can fix our eyes on the solution that God has given us in Christ Jesus. All this makes it sound a bit clinical (Jesus is more than a ‘solution’), but I hope this starts to make some sense.

There’s more. Yesterday I was watching Mike Reeves on the reformation (part of this excellent series). He was talking about the puritan Richard Sibbes, and his work The Bruised Reed (that article is worth reading for a summary). One of his ideas is that all of our experiences, all of our ‘bruising’, should cause us to take our eyes off ourselves and onto Christ: because of God’s grace, demonstrated in Christ Jesus, we know that God’s love is shown towards us in everything that happens – even the difficult times.

I’ve really gone very quickly through all of this, and there is much more that could be said, but I want this to be a blog post rather than a book! So let me conclude by quoting just three hymns of the many which have struck me as I’ve been thinking about the issue of mental health from a Christian perspective.

Jesus! the Name high over all (Charles Wesley):

Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head;
Power into strengthless souls it speaks,
And life into the dead.

O that mankind might taste and see
The riches of His grace!
The arms of love that compass me
Would all the world embrace.

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (John Newton):

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
in a believer’s ear!
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds,
and drives away our fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
and calms the troubled breast;
’tis manna to the hungry soul,
and to the weary, rest.

How firm a foundation:

In every condition, in sickness, in health;
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of grief shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

The core of what the church sings about is how we are saved, rescued, healed, redeemed – the Father has “lavished” his love on us (1 John 3:1) in adopting us as children through Jesus Christ. He promises never to leave us or forsake us, that all things will work together for the good of those who love him. This is great news, truly great news, which is worth shouting about – not just in mental health but in everything.

Postscript: ‘But what about…’

At the beginning I said that this wasn’t all that could be said about mental health from a Christian perspective. Absolutely true. I appreciate there will be many who have questions about depression, or anorexia, or other issues and I simply don’t have time to explain here how those things relate.

Just a couple of quick observations:

  1. All this is the ‘beginning’ – the foundation stone. The gospel is the cornerstone, without which nothing else will be right. It’s important to remember that just because more may need to be said about other issues, if the gospel is missing then whatever the solution is will be incomplete.
  2. Richard Sibbes’ work ‘The Bruised Reed’ (which I mentioned above) is very helpful on thinking about how pain and suffering work in the Christian life. It’s important to remember that God gives us difficulties so that we might turn to Him and walk with Him through them – He doesn’t save us from all of our issues, but rather uses them for good.

I find the work of the Christian Counselling Education Foundation (CCEF) very helpful, and more can be found on their website – in particular, it would be worth reading the book ‘How People Change’ by Lane and Tripp which outlines their the core of what they’ve about.

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Thoughts on ‘The Strange Death of Europe’

I’ve just finished reading strangedeathofeuropeThe Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray. It’s not an easy read – it deals with an issue which we as a Western society do not want to talk about (immigration) – but I think it’s important to deal with these issues.

If you want to listen to him talking about the book and its main ideas, you can find a few interviews on YouTube such as this one.

I don’t want to review the book as such – please read it for yourself – but off the back of it I wanted to mention a couple of thoughts I had while reading it.

The main thing is: what gives a society a sense of identity? I think this is a hugely important question which is often overlooked in the UK. You have a group of people living together in a town. How can they get on with each other? You could list a few things: common language, jobs, values, etc. Values are important – we have to value certain things in order to get on with each other.

The government recognised this when it created “British Values” (which are, for the record: democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, and respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and those without faith). Those are all apparently British values which all children are being indoctrinated in – sorry – educated about at school.

The thing is, being taught about British Values at school doesn’t really give us a sense of identity, does it? It’s just “the way we do things round here” – without a coherent system of thought to back it up, they’re meaningless. This brings me to the question of religious identity.

In the past, this country has largely been held together by a broadly Christian worldview. It has permeated the monarchy, our government, our laws, our national institutions (such as the BBC), and of course an established church. Now this is all rapidly being demolished for a new secularist world where there is no place for religious belief. The best the government can come up with is some rather vague and not particularly convincing “British Values”.

Then Islam enters into the picture. The secular world simply has no idea how to respond to Islam. For most secularists, religious is an irrelevance. They seem to think most religions are more or less the same – they believe in a different ‘sky fairy’ but they’re pretty much the same (I talk about that more here). The problem is, religions are not all the same. British Values have nothing to say to someone who is a convinced Muslim.

Tom Holland did a documentary recently for Channel 4 called Isis: The Origins of Violence (at the time of writing you can still watch it on 4oD). In it he interviewed a Muslim (can’t remember who it was but it was someone important) who said that Western laws were not good because they did not come from God. He sincerely believed that Islamic laws were best because they were given by God and not man. (This is also the man who was somewhat evasive about condemning violence.)

How do you convince someone that our laws are good in those circumstances? 

It seems to me the only way is to actually demonstrate that our laws actually do come from God – from the Christian God, ‘the God who is there’ as Schaeffer put it. Secularism simply has no answer to orthodox Islam, it is impotent in the face of it.

What’s interesting about Douglas Murray’s book is that he identifies the problem (the decline of Christianity in the West) – but at the same time he believes that it is impossible to believe in Christianity now due to 19th century higher criticism (much of which has now been discredited).

I believe that the only ultimate solution to the problems we face – both personally and as a society – is the Christian faith. This is the social glue that helps to bind us together. This is the foundation of our society, the foundation of our morality and laws. This is the only way Western society can survive. My prayer is that God might send another revival as in the days of Wesley and Whitefield, or the Great Awakening in America. It has happened before, it can happened again. Lord, have mercy.

On not understanding Tim Farron

Tim Farron
Tim Farron (Source)

The latest thing which has prompted me to put pen to paper, so to speak, is Tim Farron. Specifically, his hounding by the media over whether he believes homosexuality is a sin. You can read some of the comments many media types have made in this Telegraph article, including Owen Jones labelling him an “absolute disgrace”.

The most interesting thing to me has been people’s reactions: some people have joined in with the shouting, but many have been more reticent. I think many people have been uncomfortable with the way that the media have gone after him for his personal views – why bring down a good man when his actions speak well of him? I’ve read two articles defending him, one by Jennie Rigg (chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems) and one – not surprisingly – by Brendan O’Neill. (I’m sure there have been others, I’ve seen similar sentiments expressed by various other people online).

The gist of their defense is: whatever Tim Farron’s personal views may be, in parliament he is a champion of LGBT rights – his voting record is excellent. In fact, according to the first article I mentioned: “He has said to me personally that when poly marriage is made legal he wants to be the first on the invite list to our wedding.”

So, Tim Farron is not a homophobic bigot. Right?

Hmmm.

I want to make a couple of points here.

Firstly, I don’t think Tim Farron should be labelled a ‘homophobic bigot’ or anything like that regardless of his voting on LGBT rights. These days the words are thrown around casually, but because someone disagrees with same-sex marriage does not make them a homophobic bigot. The traditional Christian teaching is that sex outside of marriage (that is, the lifelong union of a man and a woman) is wrong. This has been the understanding of our country for many hundreds of years. This is not homophobic or bigoted, it is simply believing what the majority of the world has always believed about marriage. If Tim Farron believes that, why should it not affect the way he votes?

It makes me uncomfortable that people seem to be saying “It’s OK – he’s one of us really. He may believes things in private, but at least he votes the right way.”

This brings me on to my second point. I simply don’t understand Tim Farron’s position here. If he does indeed believe the traditional Christian teaching about marriage and sex – why is he voting the way that he does? One article about Tim Farron says the following:

For Tim the liberal principles of tolerance and acceptance are essential. He never got in to politics to impose his morality on others but instead to be a witness and to carry out God’s call of loving our neighbour. (Source)

According to this article, Tim thinks that ‘loving our neighbour’ is what it’s about, not about ‘imposing [our] morality on others’. That sounds good, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: It is not kind or loving to our neighbours to allow them to enter into sin.

One of the realisations that I’ve come to about sin over the last few years is that sin is not defined simply arbitrarily (i.e. sin is a set of moral rules which God just made up out of thin air to stop us having fun.) Sin is not loving God and not loving our neighbour. It has a bad effect on us and other people – it’s always the worst path we can take. Think about the ten commandments – adultery, for example. Adultery is not a loving thing to do. It wrecks homes, it destroys marriages, it does untold harm to children. It’s pretty obvious why that’s in the ten commandments, isn’t it?

And so, as a Christian who believes in the ten commandments, I don’t want my neighbour to commit adultery. Not because I think that makes them a Christian, but because I love them and want the best for them.

My understanding is that politics is about the common good – what is best for us as a country, and the citizens of that country. As a Christian, I have a particular idea of what the common good looks like. I believe God made us, and God knows what is best for us. I believe Christians, if they are to be consistent, should seek to be shaping society according to that ideal. Of course that doesn’t bring anyone into the Kingdom of God, only the preaching of the gospel can do that, but it is part of our calling to love our neighbour.

Same-sex marriage is, of course, one of the major areas at the moment where Western society is out of step with the church. I don’t understand how any Christian can be pleased about same-sex marriage. I can understand there may be a case for things like civil partnerships, but marriage – no. (I’ve talked about marriage before several times, see for example What is Marriage part one and part two – for a look at the harm it causes see a book released in 2016, Jephthah’s Children: The innocent casualties of same-sex parenting).

The point is, it seems to me to be double-minded to have a ‘private’ morality and a ‘public’ morality. Either something is sinful / immoral for everyone, or else it is not. I cannot impose my morality on other people, but Christians believe that what is moral is up to God – and He most certainly can and does ‘impose’ morality on everyone. Christians cannot be moral relativists: there is one God, and one morality for everyone. I believe Christians have a duty not to be silent on matters like this – not to hold a view in private but say another thing in public. (How else could we be salt and light in the world?)

So that, in a nutshell, is why I cannot understand Tim Farron.

Mike Pence, the Billy Graham rule and the gospel

Billy Graham

[Jesus said:] ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

If you haven’t seen the news this week, the internet has been astir with the news that Vice President of the US Mike Pence follows the ‘Billy Graham rule’. Basically, to avoid temptation, he takes measures to avoid being alone with another woman, or being at a social function with alcohol involved where his wife is not present. The rule is named after Billy Graham, with which it originated. (See the link above for more information about the history of the rule).

It’s been interesting to look at the responses. Some people have ridiculed Mike Pence on a number of fronts – how, in this day and age, can a man not have a business lunch with a woman (for example)? On the other hand, some Christian folk have stood up to defend him and commended him for taking steps to protect his marriage. Marriage breakdown is a huge issue, and it’s right to be concerned about it.

Personally, I have mixed feelings. As a Christian, I believe we should be concerned with sexual purity – both within and without marriage. Hebrews 13:4 puts it starkly: “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” I’ve argued before that sexual sin is serious business – and I stand by what I said then. However (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I believe the Billy Graham rule is misguided.

Let’s start with Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount that I quoted to begin with. “You shall not commit adultery” – one of the Ten Commandments. You’d think that one would be a relatively straightforward one to keep, right? Either you’ve slept with someone you’re not married to, or you haven’t. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Jesus makes the commandment far beyond what we do with our bodies – he extends it to include our minds as well. Any man who has ever looked at another woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (And, of course, this applies for women too – lust is not an exclusively male problem).

Jesus was here was speaking against the Pharisees – those who believed that they were righteous because they were almost fanatical about obeying the law. Jesus said shortly before these verses, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v20). The message is striking: what God demands of us is moral perfection – a perfection that we cannot achieve by following the Law. The Pharisees made a big show of obeying the law, they probably had laws (way beyond the Ten Commandments) about what you were allowed to do and not do with women around. But Jesus says, no – the righteousness God requires is an internal righteousness – one which goes to the heart. The heart is where evil springs from – the heart is what must be changed. We cannot impose righteousness on ourselves by rules – only God can change our hearts.

I’ve recently been reading Colossians, and these verses sprang to mind:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Paul here says that there are rules in the world which people follow, rules that – although they have an appearance of wisdom, actually ‘lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence’. I think this is what’s going on with rules like the Billy Graham rule. Those who follow these rules appear to be doing something wise, appear to be taking appropriate precautions – but actually the rules themselves do not have any value in preventing sin. (I wonder how many people who followed the Billy Graham rule have fallen into sexual sin?) It would be perfectly possible, for example, to follow the Billy Graham rule and yet be addicted to pornography. The outward appearance looks very different from the inward reality.

So how should we live in the way that God wants us to? More than that – how can we? This is what Paul addresses in Galatians 5. I won’t quote all of it, but the summary is this: there are two ways of living – either according to ‘the flesh’, or according to the Spirit. The flesh means our natural desires, our sinful state where we desire what is contrary to God’s will. This, of course, includes sensual indulgence. But Paul’s genius is that he extends this to include legalism as well – that is, living by a set of rules. If we live by a set of rules, we may appear to be godly – but we are simply fooling ourselves. The only way to live a godly life is to live by the Spirit of God, to live a life of love as we are transformed by the Spirit, as we walk in step with Him.

The problem with laws – legalism – is that it only focusses on the ‘Thou shalt not’. How can I, as a man, love my female neighbour if I have a law which prevents me from getting to know her?

In fact, as I hinted at above, legalism may in fact exacerbate the problem. If a man believes he’s doing OK because he’s keeping the Billy Graham rule, and yet spends a lot of time fantasising about women he’s not married to, then he’s simply fooling himself.

A personal anecdote…

I’d like to put some flesh on what I’ve written above by sharing a little of my life story. I wanted to share how this has worked out in my own life, and how I believe my experience shows that the Billy Graham rule is not correct.

I spent a lot of my time at theological college was spent worrying about adultery. I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t strong enough. We often heard and talked about stories of pastors who had failed in this way, and how it wrecked their ministries and personal lives. I spent quite a bit of time in prayer asking God to help me!

I also tried to steer clear of getting ‘too close’ to a woman – especially any woman I found attractive. Although I didn’t consciously live by the Billy Graham rule, I think subconsciously I followed something like it: it was very rare that I would ever have a one-on-one private conversation with a woman. However, I still didn’t feel ‘safe’ – I still didn’t feel like the laws I lived by would help me.

Fast forward to today: God has indeed answered my prayers and changed my heart. I feel like I have a whole new perspective on the world. It’s too long to go into here (maybe another blog post… or a book…) but I have come to believe that God has designed men and women for each other – not just within marriage – and intends men and women to be friends. This is exactly what Joshua Jones argues in Forbidden Friendships: Retaking the Biblical gift of male-female friendship.

As I said above, the problem with the law is that it stops with ‘Thou shalt not’. Christians, on the other hand, are called to do more than that: Christians are called to love one another. Peter says “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22), and I believe that includes love across the gender divide. Sexual sin is a horrible thing – but I have come to believe that one of the best antidotes we have to sexual sin is healthy relationships with those of the opposite sex.

Clearly, more needs to be said on this – and the Forbidden Friendships book is a good start – but this is a blog post and I don’t want to go on forever. The ‘in a nutshell’ of all this is that I am much more open to forming good friendships with women and believe that this actually (1) fulfils better the great commandment (to love God and our neighbour) (2) better equips me to combat sexual sin.

Conclusion

I applaud anyone who takes sexual purity seriously. Our culture seems to value fidelity a lot less than in days gone by. Mike Pence is honestly trying to protect his marriage, I believe he is sincere, and should be commended. I also think it’s not right to jump to conclusions about what someone does and does not believe – I don’t want to critique the man, only the rule itself at face value.

However, I believe that the gospel calls us to a more radical heart transformation. The gospel calls us to love, not simply to avoid 50% of the population of the world because we might be tempted to sin. The Pharisees were using their laws to get out of their obligations to love their neighbour. We may laugh at them, but our human hearts are tempted to use the law in the same way.

I’ll leave the last word to the apostle Paul:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

… Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:13-14, 24-25)

Philip North and the sham of good disagreement

It seems that there are some within the Church of England who like to make a big noise about ‘good disagreement’ when it suits them, but aren’t really committed to it. The sad case of Philip North over the last few weeks has exposed that. (If you don’t know any of the background, you can read about it on the BBC).

Many articles and analyses have been written about this subject, so I won’t waste my words here but get to the point. Good disagreement means more than simply ‘I will tolerate your presence so long as I never have to put up with you and I get my way all the time’. Most of the concerns around Philip North’s consecration as bishop were to do with ‘equality’ – ‘how, given the church’s march towards equality, can we have a bishop who doesn’t ordain women?’

The problem is, this does not take into account the views of Philip North (and others like him) on equality. Although he is coming from an Anglo-Catholic perspective – and I would differ substantially from him on many points – his objections to women priests and bishops would be based on similar ground to mine (as a complementarian): a Biblical anthropology of male and female, founded on Genesis 1-3 (which I talk a little about here) and explained further in the rest of the Scriptures. The point is not that we do not believe in equality – the point is that fundamentally our views of equality must be in submission to what God thinks equality is.

And herein lies the problem. Martyn Percy, and others, have a particular view of equality. Philip North, and myself, and others from our respective constituencies, have a different view of equality. That’s the thing. We disagree. Good disagreement requires disagreement, right? You can’t then go and say “well, seeing as my view is the correct one, we should ban anybody who has the opposite view…” That’s not what good disagreement is supposed to mean!

When the women bishops legislation was introduced in 2014, it was passed by synod with five guiding principles. All clergy in the CofE should agree with these principles. The basic idea is that the CofE has reached a “clear decision” that women can be ordained priest and bishop, and that all clergy should accept that decision – women ordained as such are lawful office holders – but the last two points say this:

  • Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures; and
  • Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.

The language of ‘mutual flourishing’ is important: as I understand it, this means “we disagree, but we don’t want to stifle the minority and give it every opportunity to flourish.” I don’t see how that fits with the hounding of Philip North. By all accounts he is committed to mutual flourishing and working with people who he had disagreements with – those who have worked with him in Burnley say that he is committed to women’s ministry. Philip North seems to understand good disagreement. I’m not sure his vocal critics do.

It seems to me that ‘good disagreement’ is a phrase which a lot of people like to use, but don’t really want to live with its consequences. Good disagreement means appreciating that other people might disagree with us quite fundamentally on some issues. When the CofE has formally gone down a road of good disagreement on this issue, what hope do we have when many clergy reject it?

Preaching and communication: Lessons from the Sermon on the Mount

Over the last few weeks I’ve been spending a bit of time in Matthew 5 preparing for various sermons. As well as being struck by how rich the Sermon on the Mount is – you could easily do a sermon series on the Beatitudes, for example – I’ve been struck by how profound Jesus is as a communicator. Jesus is a wise, learned and skillful communicator – he communicates deep truths in a way which we can understand.

I think there are lessons to be learned here for preachers – not least myself! Here are a just two of the things I’ve found to learn from with Jesus’ preaching, I’m sure there are many other things you could say.

Use positive and negative examples

Several times Jesus uses this technique. We are to be salt and light – salt, in the sense of being distinctive and preserving and preventing decay, and light, in the sense of doing good deeds. We are to avoid taking revenge but positively love our enemies. The negative – what we are to avoid doing – coupled with the positive – what we should do.

How often in my sermons do I only focus on one or other of those? I think it’s very helpful to have both together. What bearing does this particular passage have on my life? What should I not be doing? And what should I be doing instead? Christians sometimes have a (not totally undeserved) reputation for being ‘Thou Shalt Not’ people. But we need to hear both the negative and positive side: our vision needs to be transformed.

How do we turn away from our sins, and what do we turn to instead? I think this is helpful to think about as a general rule in sermon preparation.

Use (several) everyday examples

Jesus used salt and light as an example. Everybody knows what salt and light are – it makes it easy to understand his point. Jesus illustrated complex, abstract points with simple, concrete things. I think this is a big challenge for me: I like to deal in fairly abstract ideas, it’s a lot harder to ground them in reality. This is one of the things Chip and Dan Heath say in Made to Stick. George Orwell wrote about this as far back as 1946 in “Politics and the English Language”. People can latch on to things which are concrete and specific, ideas and concepts can be harder to grasp.

The other thing is, Jesus often illustrates with several practical examples. In the passage I’m preaching on Sunday morning (Matthew 5:38-48), Jesus says: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – before giving no less than four practical examples of what that might look like.

One fairly short principle, followed by lots of very practical application. Quite a difference from my sermons.

Although we often focus on the content of Jesus’ teaching – rightly, of course – I think it’s good sometimes to take a step back and look at how Jesus taught. It’s something I know I need to bear in mind each time I preach. Am I showing people what obedience to God would look like – positively and negatively? And do I help ground what I’m saying in regular, everyday experience?

The CofE: A house divided against itself?

cofeThe Church of England has got itself into a complete muddle. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention over the past few years. The latest fiasco is ‘GS 2055’, the document which sums up what the Bishops have come up with after 2-3 years of ‘shared conversations’. Unsurprisingly, the document has pleased nobody. Although it does uphold Canon B30 – that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman – it is somewhat ambiguous about pastoral practice. You can read a good analysis of the document from Martin Davie on his blog. He is one of many commentators who have written about the report, so I’m not going to talk about it here.

What I do want to do is take a step back and question whether the whole idea of trying to please everybody is possible. It reminds me of this episode from the gospel of Mark:

22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’

23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.

Mark 3:22-27

People were accusing Jesus of driving out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus answers them by giving them a logical objection: how can Satan drive out Satan? If Satan’s kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand. This is, of course, obvious: any nation, organisation – any group whatsoever – divided against itself is doomed to fail.

Although Jesus’ remarks were in a different context, I think it still applies in the context of the CofE today.

Let’s consider the two ‘sides’. Some believe that opposition to ‘equal marriage’ is wrong, even evil. In fact, you could say that some believe that opposition to ‘equal marriage’ is the work of Satan. The only reason people would oppose it is sheer bigotry and prejudice – evil.

On the other hand, some – including myself – believe that the Bible clearly teaches marriage is between a man and a woman, and anything else is false teaching. False teaching which comes from Satan (see 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, for example).

So: in the red corner, we have people who believe that marriage should be offered to same-sex couples equally, and withholding it is evil. In the blue corner, we have people who believe that the definition of marriage should not be changed, and that any attempt to change it is evil.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The church has to choose what it regards as evil. Christians should hate what is evil (Romans 12:9). It is simply impossible to have two groups within the church who think the other side are actually evil and agents of Satan. It is not possible to walk together. The GS 2055 document is trying its hardest to maintain a traditional line on marriage while being as accepting as possible of those with the other view. But that’s just not possible. The document hasn’t satisfied anyone, because what it is trying to do is a logical impossibility.

How has the church managed to get itself into this position? The CofE seems to have lost its concept of holiness and righteousness. The attitude seems to be that God doesn’t really care about sin. “God’s all about love, he’s basically a nice sort of chap. He’ll probably let you into heaven.”

This is not the gospel, and this is the crux of the issue. At our chapter meeting the other day we were talking about the Church Growth Research report. One of the interesting things about that report is that there is a deafening silence when it comes to theology. It talks about everything else, but nowhere does it actually say what the gospel we should preach actually is.

Rather than spending time trying to do the impossible and reconcile two logically opposed groups, Synod would do far better to spend some time contemplating what the gospel actually is. It might help to spend some time thinking about some of Jesus’ words from the Mark’s gospel:

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell 

Mark 9:44-47

Jesus tells us that sin is such serious business that it is even better to enter life maimed than be thrown into hell. Jesus came to save us from our sins (Matthew 1:21). Perhaps if the CofE really took this teaching to heart, it would be in a better position to evaluate what God considers to be evil.