Change of blog address

I’ve been reminded, preparing advisory material for churches in an election period, of the difference between an employee and an office holder.

I’ve also been informed of an occasion when someone tried (unsuccessfully) to use a blog of mine years in the past as evidence in a legal case for the views of the Diocese of Worcester, which of course it wasn’t.

I’ve therefore decided that the best way to stress that my blog is a personal blog is to use my name as the url. Accordingly, I am, from now on, going to consolidate my blogging at the url

I hope you still might want to read what I have to say, and if you do, please update your bookmarks accordingly.

Legal judgements and sexual confusions

I was listening to the BBC Question Time (#bbcqt) question on the story of the teacher who’d been given a suspended sentence for having sex with a 16 year old pupil, I was struck by the almost unanimous agreement of panel and audience with the commentariat that the judge had committed a heinous crime by imposing a suspended sentence.

Let me say first, I have no knowledge of this case other than the media stories of, largely, outrage at the sentence. I intend no comment on the facticity of the case.

Let me secondly say, I in no way condone the teacher for failing in his professional responsibility to a child who might have rightly expected his duty of care. Thirdly, I am amazed that he doesn’t seem to have reported issues relating to this child to colleagues, managers or headteacher, to help him deal with what appears (on the basis of reports) to have been difficult pupil behaviour.

All those qualifications made, I nonetheless want to ask one question, which seems to me is an important one our society needs to think about. This question is based entirely on the reactions of the media to the suspended sentence. It implies neither disagreement or agreement with the judge’s comments.

Why are we prepared as a society to accept that children (including 16 year olds for the purposes of this argument) are capable of murder, but unable or unwilling to accept that they can be sexual predators?

The tabloids lining up to condemn the judge in this case seem to me to include those who (for example) have happily continued to demonise the killers of Jamie Bulger. Those killers were considerably younger than the girl who was abused by her teacher. They – at the age of 10 – were held to be capable of being morally and legally guilty of being murderers. Why isn’t it possible that a girl of 16 could be held, by a judge who had heard all the evidence, of being a sexual predator?

That odd contradiction seems to me to be a question worth pondering.

So who’s a real Anglican, then?

canterburyA friend on Facebook drew my attention to this article on conservative evangelical site The Gospel Coalition. One of the few Anglican hobbies that people from catholic, evangelical and liberal traditions seem to share is arguing that their version of Anglicanism is, has been, and ever shall be “real Anglicanism”. Most famously, perhaps, Blessed John Henry Newman tried it with Tract 90.

You be Anglican in your way, and I’ll be Anglican in God’s way. It’s a form of polemics that owes more to the ingenuity of the writer than the awkward footprints of history which suggest a more complex development.

Michael Jensen’s version, written from a narrowly evangelical base for a narrowly evangelical audience, suffers as much as any from the same vice. It seems worth pointing out some of the problems.

1. Since the arrival of Christianity in Britain in the 3rd century, British Christianity has had a distinct flavor and independence of spirit, and was frequently in tension with Roman Catholicism.

There was no “Roman Catholicism” as commonly meant until the 16th century. But not only is this statement anachronistic, the tensions of 7th century British Christianity were real but limited, organisational rather than doctrinal. There is no simple picture here that makes British Christianity a unique case, as opposed to versions of Christianity adopted anywhere else.

2. The break with Rome in the 16th century had political causes, but also saw the emergence of an evangelical theology

I don’t think there’s any disagreement about the complex causes of the English Reformation. But the complex causes help explain why what follows develops the complex history that Jensen ignores.

3. Anglicanism is Reformed.

The progression of the prayer books from 1549 to 1552 show Cranmer moving in a strongly Calvinist direction. Historically Jensen is right about the formularies having a strong Reformed flavour. But it is never simply about formularies. There was a large party that argued it was insufficiently reformed, regarding bishops, the sign of the cross in baptism, and other catholic hangovers. There were others who in various ways, have always pushed back. Hooker in a more positive estimate of Aquinas, the high churchmen whose pushback caused the evangelicals to execute them and the king, and so on down to Newman’s Tractarians and later liberals. The nature of what a biblically reformed catholicism is, or should be, continued to be disputed, and in today’s Anglican world, the formularies have a very limited place in practice, however honoured as an historical witness..

4. Scripture is the supreme authority in Anglicanism.

Jensen uses this statement to downplay reason and tradition, but neglects to note what a difference there is between suprema scriptura, and sola scriptura. Many Anglicans would demur from Jensen’s statement that scripture alone is supreme as the “saving Word of God” since they believe that ascription belongs to Christ alone, and that to apply it to Scripture is bibliolatry. And Jensen would, I think, find it hard to accept the way in which the articles and lectionary, taken together, provide for the Apocryphal books to be read in church every year in the same way as the Hebrew Bible texts “for example of life and instruction of manners” (Article 6).

5. Justification by faith alone is at the heart of Anglican soteriology.

I’m persuaded this is true of the Prayer Book, not least by the arguments of Colin Buchanan in his study What did Cranmer think he was doing?. Buchanan argues that the whole structure of the 1552 Eucharist is intended to give liturgical expression to the doctrine. However, in today’s New Testament studies, one of the hotly contested areas is whether the Reformation doctrine is remotely plausible as an understanding of St Paul’s historical view. The Gospel Coalition are doughty defenders of the traditional Protestant view, but the weight of scholarship has moved away from it. An Anglican faith that is concerned to make scripture supreme might well be questioning the Lutheran view of justification, rather than setting evangelical tradition over scripture.

6. In Anglican thought, the sacraments are “effectual signs” received by faith.

While this view can certainly be supported from numerous places, the texts also lend support to other views. This is one reason evangelicals always struggled with lines such as that immediately after baptism and signing: “seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that these children be regenerate”. And the subtle additions made in 1571 to the Prayer Book, placing the title “Prayer of Consecration” in the service of Holy Communion, and putting an “Amen” at the end of it, subverted Cranmer’s intentions in a more realist direction. Cranmer’s own language (such is the power of well-written liturgical prose) also militated against a Zwinglian turn in the minds of most communicants: “grant us therefore (gracious Lord) so to eat the fleshe of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood” is powerfully realistic language. No wonder Anglicans have held a diversity of views on how the presence and gift of Christ is or is not related to the elements of bread and wine.

7. The Anglican liturgy—best encapsulated in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer—is designed to soak the congregation in the Scriptures, and to remind them of the priority of grace in the Christian life.

Absolutely. But it’s hardly an Anglican exclusive, and ironically you’re likely to get more scripture read in catholic Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in today’s society that you are in evangelical and charismatic churches. At least, that’s both my experience, and one I hear many others echo. I have been to more than one “new church” worship gathering where there wasn’t a single Bible reading.

8. Anglicanism is a missionary faith, and has sponsored global missions since the 18th century.

There has certainly been a major commitment to mission among Anglicans, often with entangled with uncomfortable colonial relationships. However, Jenson overstates his case. The 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books contain no Baptism service for adults, only for infants. Arguably, the only reason for the provision of an order of Baptism for those of “Riper Years” was the number of unbaptised people left over from the Commonwealth period. The hard truth for the churches of the Reformation is that by and large, they were national and not missionary. The only church interested in going into all the world was that giving allegiance to Rome.

9. Global Anglicanism is more African and Asian than it is English and American.

For Jensen, this is less a statement of numerical fact, and more a means of criticising what he calls “liberal theology”. It sits oddly with his earlier adherence to ancient European formularies. Either the faith grows, inculturates, develops, and descriptions of it have to take account of what Anglicans actually do and say (for good or ill), or it is about a fundamentalist holding on to 16th century formularies. It seems as if Jensen is saying, “Heads you lose, tails I win.”

There’s more to Anglicanism than Jensen’s description, and some of what he describes is less than Anglican. Some of what other Anglicans do and believe I agree with, and some I don’t, but just saying “my version’s Anglican, and yours isn’t” is a fairly sterile position to take, and one that just sits up and begs to be disqualified at the bar of history.

Whose communion is it anyway?


I still find it quite odd being a peripatetic priest on Sundays, presiding at some very different liturgical assemblies. All are sure that they just do things in the normal way, with only a hint of a suspicion that one man’s normal is another woman’s weird.

In this context, I try as best I can to fit in with local custom and practice. I am there to serve their worship of God, not impose mine, however baffling I find, for example, some churches’ strange attachment to Eucharistic Prayer H for all-age worship, when it requires a higher reading ability than any of the more traditional ones.

However, there’s one practice where I actively encourage change. In some churches, the presider administers Holy Communion to those who have gathered at the altar to assist with the distribution while the Agnus Dei is being sung. Then, when all the ministers have received and been given their vessels for the distribution, the invitation is issued: “Draw near with faith …” or whichever words are being used.

The problem with this is that the presider is speaking Christ’s invitation to Christ’s people to come to Christ’s table, and those who are administering the sacrament are equally recipients of the invitation as those to whom they are distributing it. They (we) too, are “not worthy to receive” him, but need to hear his word to be healed.

So, unless someone shows me a good reason (and saving a minute or two at this point doesn’t strike me as a particularly strong one) why this practice of pre-invitational communion for ministers is acceptable, I shall go on discouraging the practice in favour of administering to all, including self, after the invitation has been given.

Not the New Year resolutions post

Door to Cropthorne Church
A time for open doors – here the doors of Cropthorne Church

Making New Year resolutions is just a way of giving your future conscience a big stick to beat your past self with. I’m going to try to avoid that.

But looking forward is a time for aspirations, if not resolutions; plausible dreams perhaps, rather than presumptuous determinations. And so I offer myself a few glimpses into what I hope I might have done differently a year from now.


As you might be able to guess from the fact that this is the first post since the beginning of September, I would like to blog more frequently in the coming year. It’s a long time since I blogged with any frequency, but I used to find it a good mechanism for ironing my thoughts into some kind of shape. I may overestimate the value of those thoughts, but there’ve been several times recently when I’ve wanted to get some of them out there.


I’ve recently bought myself a Panasonic GX7 – light enough to carry round more frequently than some cameras. I would like to develop my photography more seriously with a view, probably not this year but maybe next, to trying for the LRPS distinction.


I would like to get my German up to a basic conversational and reading level. One incentive for this is a holiday in Munich in May, another is having some responsibility at work for our diocesan partnership with the Evangelische Kirche in Mitteldeutschland, and particularly the episcopal area of Stendal-Magdeburg.

Decision Time?

One of the big decisions I really ought to make this year, if I’m ever going to make it, is whether the time has come to try to get back to some further structured study. I’m not sure which of the attractions or obstacles outweigh the other. But at least if I do, and it is in the area of biblical studies as my MPhil was, then I have a further incentive for that German learning aspiration!

The other interesting (albeit less significant) decision might come towards the end of the year. I shall be due to replace some of my tech, both phone and laptop, around then. Will this be the year to break out of Apple’s walled garden? With Android looking better and better, Windows 10 on the horizon, and being aware that study might squeeze my wallet a bit, I could find myself with an interesting choice to make.


This is the one where I’m going to keep it vague, because  the potential for beating myself up is so much the greater. But quite simply, I’d like to pray a bit more, and a bit more diversely.

And finally, all the best with your New Year aspirations, resolutions, or whatevers.

The first century church and its varied meeting places

I was delighted to come across, and have enjoyed reading Edward Adams’ The Earliest Christian Meeting Places (London: Bloomsbury 2013). Mind you, I came to it predisposed to like it. Back in the 90s, when I was labouring on my M.Phil I concluded a discussion of the list of names in Romans 16 saying:

The proportion of houses to apartments in Rome was lower than in the rest of the Mediterranean world, and villas tended to be the preserve of the very wealthy, or the aristocracy. It is unlikely that there were many domestic meeting places in Rome that could have accommodated a large gathering. We may need to consider the possibility that these groups met in some kind of public premises.

There was very little discussion in the literature on which I could call to support my argument. While I think I made a strong enough case to justify the presumption (treating Prisca and Aquila’s house as an exception) I would have liked a stronger external undergirding.

Adams’ book now provides exactly what I would have liked at the time. He offers a thorough argument in two parts to overthrow the consensus that the earliest Christians met almost exclusively in houses. (He refers to this for convenience as the AEH hypothesis, and so shall I.) It is important to note that this is not a refutation of the view that the earliest Christians did sometimes, perhaps often, meet in houses; it is an argument that they also met in a variety of other situations.

The first, and longer, part of the book offers a re-examination of the biblical and extra biblical evidence for the earliest Christian meetings. He looks at the letters (ch 1) and the gospels and Acts (ch 2) before exploring some of the key literature of the second and their centuries (chapter 3). He largely stays in the pre-Constantinian church, but also looks back from some of the later buildings to their possible pre-history when he moves into the archaeological evidence (ch 4). Finally in this section he explores some possible comparisons of meeting places for associations, schools and synagogues (ch 5). He has little difficulty in showing how often the house meeting is an assumption read into (especially) the evidence rather than a conclusion read out of it.

In the second part, he explores the varied possibilities of meeting places in the ancient world. He looks at retail and industrial spaces (ch 6), the space provided commercially for leisure and hospitality (ch 7), and finally outdoor space, including burial spaces and funerary picnics (ch 8). Here he shows that the varied spaces which were possible for and available to early Christian meetings were much wider than the home.

Establishing the possibility, of course, is not the same as establishing what was probable. My own understanding of the diverse economic and social life of the earliest churches comfortably accommodates a variety of meeting space from home to rented (indoor or outdoor) triclinium, and with room for other spaces in-between. I find Adams provides a very well-argued case for seeing that kind of variety in preference to a simple house church model as the most realistic scenario, and I thank him for it.

On mistaking drivel for wisdom

Today’s Church Times (subscribers only) contains an excerpt puffing one of their own Canterbury Press authors and 2014 Greenbelt speaker Sara Miles.

There’s some interesting stuff in what she says, and I’m not dismissing the rest of her output out of hand, but what jumped off the page at me was this piece of bollocks:

“We could use copal for incense, and cense the four corners of the plaza at the beginning of the service,” I suggested. Copal, the yellowish resin used by Aztecs to bless the four directions of the world, still fills Mexican Roman Catholic churches with the smell of prayers more ancient than Jesus; it marks the opening of a sacred liturgy in both traditions.”

One obvious objection is that the Christian tradition grew within, and in reaction to, cultures that celebrated a pantheon of deities, and that any simple and uncritical appropriation of other polytheistic cultures is hardly congruous. When that culture is dead (even allowing for post-colonial guilt at having killed it off), then it’s even more incongruous.

Being attracted by the ancient-ness of prayers is not in itself any thing other than romanticism, without reflection on their content. I have no objection to either incense or mythologising the planet or universe as having four corners, even if it has none. But I do wonder at claiming spiritual value simply by romantic attachment to the rituals of a culture that practiced human sacrifice, as though being an “indigenous people” (a tricky concept anyway) somehow made everything all right.

And finally, I come to the elephant in the room – “prayers more ancient than Jesus”. That would be the Aztec civilisation which flourished in the first half of the second millennium, twice as long after Jesus as we are after the Aztecs. Oops!

Never mind, what’s an inconvenient fact amongst seekers after wisdom.

There are times, quite honestly, when I think Dickie Dawkins has a point.

Historical Jesus criteria and the words from the Cross

I started this train of thought while keeping my lips tight shut as many colleagues (with a theologically misplaced enthusiasm) were singing Stuart Townend’s lines “the Father turns his face away / as wounds which mar the Chosen One
 / bring many sons to glory”. The power of a good tune to make people sing things (i hope) they’d never say is quite astonishing.

But I went from pondering that and what biblical texts it could possibly have in mind, to the way in which (it seems to me) there’s a general privileging of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as the most important and (as I think they are implicitly portrayed) the most historically plausible of the words from the cross.

The theological privileging owes a great deal to Moltmann, and has at least these drivers: the human Jesus is more contemporary than the divine Christ, the problem of theodicy is more pressing than any theology of salvation, and divine impassibility has become part of a presumed Greek contamination of a supposedly “biblical” and Hebrew gospel. (The dismissal of impassibility is one of the key areas this outmoded and ahistorical contrast lives on.)

The historical privileging is no doubt related because it is so congenial to the theological account. However, and this is where I finally get to my point, it seems to me that this is one of those cases where the traditional criteria for the historical Jesus quest live on. It is plausible enough in context that a first-century Jew should quote a psalm, and sufficiently embarrassing on the lips of Jesus that the early church would not have invented it (but not embarrassing, it would seem to Mark or Matthew!). Indeed, Luke and John both get rid of it, and if it has left its mark anywhere else in the New Testament, it might be in the alternative (and in my view correct) reading of Hebrews 2:9, “apart from God – χωρὶς θεοῦ” which scribal orthodoxy (and embarrassment?) has made “by the grace of God ῏χἀριτι θεοῦ”.

On the other hand, in Luke’s gospel, it is just as possible that a pious Jewish martyr, not least one who seems to have expected if not embraced his death, could just as plausibly pray what became a model for many Christians: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Psalm 31:5)

Yes, it is congenial to Luke’s theology as far as most people read him, and is echoed in the story of Stephen, and is judged more acceptable for most modern reconstructions of the early church. On the other hand, Mark’s solitary and ambiguous cry is highly congenial to his gospel, and to his misunderstood Jesus being a lonely hero at very turn. Jesus’ cry in Mark is no less of a pattern with the author’s theological and literary concerns than that of his Lukan counterpart.

And so I ask: is there any good historical ground for the theological privileging of Mark’s solitary word from the cross over those narrated in Luke and John? Or is it just another case of a misapplication of dubious criteria from a past age of questing?

The strange absence of the empty tomb


The historian Philip Jenkins offers a very good summary of the odd imbalance about the resurrection in the New Testament. The empty tomb is central to the gospel narratives. There is no explicit evidence of it anywhere else.

The question he poses is expressed in two ways. First

All the New Testament writings believe in Christ’s survival beyond death, in some kind of Resurrection. To the best of my knowledge, though, other than the gospels, none refers to that empty tomb story. That does not necessarily mean that they do not know the story, or do not believe it, but they do not use it anything like a modern apologist would. Why not?

And in conclusion:

Suppose I face an atheist critic, who makes the following argument. Yes, he says, early Christians believed that they encountered the risen Jesus, that they had visions, but these visions had no objective reality. They just arose from the hopes and expectations of superstitious disciples. Even then, Christians saw that Resurrection in spiritual, pneumatic, terms. Only after a lengthy period, some forty years in fact, did the church invent stories to give a material, bodily basis to that phenomenon, and the empty tomb was the best known example.

That is, of course, a question that many have asked, although often without the nuance. Many quite liberal believers would also want to aver a vision-based experience eventually being superseded by literal (and fictional) narratives. The Jewish category of midrash is regularly abused in this context.

I’ve expressed my own view in the comments to Jenkins’ post, which is that I still think Paul was aware of an empty tomb tradition, though I must admit it is an argument by inference: first inference from his language of body, secondly inference from how belief in the resurrection of Jesus does and doesn’t modify his apocalyptic framework.

As I said there:

I think the nearest that Paul comes is in his convoluted discussion of bodies in 1 Cor 15. It is the body, which is transformed, no longer being animated by “soul” but by “spirit”. Clearly the language of body steers Paul away from any more obviously Platonic models of psyche / soul. Whether that language is sufficient to make a Pauline belief in an empty tomb probable is open to discussion, but I’m inclined to think that given the range of options open to him, it does.

I would be inclined to adduce one further general pattern in support of this. As far as we can tell, Jesus’ resurrection is interpreted in the earliest texts as a foretaste of a cosmic transformation of the material world. It may modify the Pharasaic and more general apocalyptic understanding of resurrection by applying that language to an individual rather than a universal and corporate aspect, but it doesn’t seem to modify the understanding of it as what we call a “physical” and “social” transformation. Again, to my mind that implies an understanding which seems more congruent with a belief in a change happening to Jesus’ material body.

It is, however, the case that the New Testament data raise the question more sharply than simple conservative apologetics ever admits. Jenkins makes a particularly effective statement of the problem.