A Tale of Two Levels: the Crisis in the Church of England.
Two news stories.
The crisis in the Church of England has been brought into the light by two stories that hit the news in the last month. At first, they may not appear to have much to do with each other. But on a deep level, they are closely connected, as we shall see.
The first was the publication on 11th December of the House of Bishops guidance on services for marking gender transition, (see here for the press release and a link to the guidance document- https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/guidance-gender-transition-services-published). The Church of England is here leaping onto a cultural bandwagon- but without checking to see who is steering it, or which direction it is racing in. Transgender people experience “gender dysphoria”, a perceived mismatch between their physical sex, and the gender with which they identify, which causes great discomfort and distress. So some may go through “gender transition”, which may mean legally adopting a new name, dressing and living as the gender with which they identify, taking hormones, and having surgery that changes their physical sex to match their perceived gender. This is a horrible situation for anyone to be in, and our hearts should go out to anyone who experiences this. Of course, churches should be doing all they can to love and welcome transgender people. But the House of Bishops guidance goes farther than this. It proposes that gender transition should be met with “unconditional affirmation”, and marked by services in church of a “celebratory” nature. Furthermore, it recommends the use of the Service for the Affirmation of Baptismal Vows or, if someone has not already been baptised, the Service of Baptism. This is very serious and completely wrong; the objections to it have already been stated by, amongst others, Lee Gatiss and Ian Paul (http://churchsociety.org/blog/entry/transitioning_a_liturgy/, https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality-2/wisdom-and-folly-the-bishops-guidance-on-transgender-welcome/ ).
The second news story was the announcement on 8th January 2019 of the appointment of an interim director for the Anglican Centre in Rome- the Anglican Communion’s embassy at the Vatican, (https://www.anglicancentreinrome.org/Articles/537582/Anglican_Centre_in/News/Appointment_of_an.aspx). The new director is the Very Revd Dr John Shepherd, formerly dean of St George’s Cathedral, Perth, Australia. Soon after the announcement it came to light that in his 2008 Easter message, Dr Shepherd had denied that Jesus rose from the dead bodily (https://davidould.net/new-head-of-anglican-centre-in-rome-is-denier-of-jesus-resurrection/ ). According to Dr Shepherd, “The Resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality. It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the Resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’ original earthly body… Jesus’ early followers felt His presence after His death as strongly as if it were a physical presence and incorporated this sense of a resurrection experience into their gospel accounts”. This is, if possible, an even more serious departure from the Gospel than the guidance on transgender services. Again Dr Lee Gatiss, the director of Church Soociety, has called on Dr Shepherd to resign, and said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, “If it is true that he does not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, then I don’t think he should have been ordained as a minister in the Anglican Communion in the first place…The Bible is absolutely clear, as are the Anglican formularies, that Jesus died and rose again — it is the whole point and centre of our good news for the world”, (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/01/12/archbishop-canterbury-urged-act-vatican-envoy-questioned-resurrection/ ). To be fair, Dr Shepherd has replied and said that he does believe that Jesus rose from the dead; but as David Ould points out, his response is an equivocal one, and does not affirm the physical resurrection of Christ (http://davidould.net/do-i-look-fat-in-this-why-theological-liberals-will-never-answer-the-question/).
Those in the know.
What do these two stories have in common? Many things, but I want to concentrate on just one, that these are two new manifestations of a very old error: Gnosticism. Gnosticism was one of the first heresies that the Christian church faced. It was probably beginning to emerge around the time the last books of the New Testament were written, and in the second century AD developed into very complex systems of ideas and rituals that were a serious challenge to the early church. Different gnostic groups believed different things, but behind them was one assumption very common in the Greek-speaking world at the time. This was that the physical, material world was somehow inferior, or inadequate, or even evil. Gnostics believed that it was a trap or prison for the immaterial soul or spirit, which had to escape from the world and be reunited with God. So many of them believed that the God of the Old Testament, who created the physical world, was at best misguided and at worst malevolent. On the other hand, many believed that Jesus wasn’t really human, but only appeared to be a man; he was really a heavenly being who had come down to show us how to escape from matter. So he didn’t really die on the cross or physically rise from the dead. Those who had learnt the secret knowledge of how to escape from the world were known as “gnostics”, “those in the know”.
Gnosticism died out eighteen centuries ago. But the theologian Nancy Pearcey, in her book Love Thy Body, shows how something very like it re-emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is growing in force today. Building on the work of Francis Schaeffer, she shows how the idea of truth split apart, and became divided into two levels. On the lower level are facts: the truths of science, which are held to be “true, public, objective and valid for everyone”. On the upper level are values, the truths of religion and morality, which are private, subjective, and relative. So for instance, climate change is held to be an undeniable, scientific fact, which everyone must believe. But whether we are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Wiccan is held to be a relative and a matter of personal choice; it is an upper level value.
As Pearcey goes on to show, this is a deeply-divided worldview, which cannot give an integrated, coherent approach to life. It is also a worldview that corresponds closely to ancient Gnosticism. The lower level is the realm of matter, brute, physical, purposeless, meaningless facts. The upper level is the realm of the spirit, of free choice, liberty, meaning, and purpose. Salvation consists in finding some way to escape from the lower level into the upper level, and the saviours will be the spiritual technocrats, those with the special knowledge of how to do this.
Two tips of the iceberg.
With that background in place, we can see how much our two stories have in common. Transgender ideology, which is being taught in schools, divides physical sex from perceived or experienced gender. The former corresponds to the lower level and the latter to the upper level. A transgender person may experience their body as a prison from which they need to escape; they may feel like a “woman trapped in a man’s body”, or vice versa. In this case, salvation is escape from the physical body into what they spiritually feel themselves to be. Nor can their identity be denied by others, because it is something that exists on the upper level of values, not on the lower level of facts. The saviours are the activists and surgeons with the special knowledge of how to escape. Apart from the individuals most personally affected, transgender ideology has great appeal to human pride, as did Gnosticism. It suggests that we can overcome our physical limitations and re-create ourselves in whatever image we want to be: that we can become like God.
Another tip of the same gnostic iceberg is Dr Shepherd’s denial of the bodily resurrection, a denial which sadly has a long history in the Church of England. Notice how he says that Jesus’ resurrection was not a “physical reality”, something that is true on the lower level, but a “spiritual reality”, something that is true on the upper level, and that Christians need to be “set free” from the idea that the resurrection was a “physical event”. This is the language of Gnosticism, even if he is not aware of it. I don’t know if Dr Shepherd would agree with, or has even thought about, all the consequences of this, but they are devastating. In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul says that if Christ did not rise bodily from the dead, faith is pointless, Christians are deluded, and “we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:12-18). Paul goes on to call Christ the “first fruits” of the dead, because the biblical Christian hope is that Christ’s resurrection was only a beginning; what happened to him will happen to all those who believe in him. Jesus’ body was saved and raised from death to a new, physical, and glorious eternal life, and therefore there is salvation for our bodies and for the whole physical universe. Our hope is not to escape from the material world into a grey, washed-out afterlife like that in the film Gladiator. It is that we will enjoy a new heavens and earth of colour, splendour, and beauty beyond our wildest dreams, and that we will have physical bodies fitted to that creation that enable us to fully enjoy it, bodies in perfect harmony with our spirits. Even better, we hope that with our physical eyes we will see the risen Lord Jesus Christ. But if Jesus did not rise bodily, then there is no salvation for physical bodies, or for the material world. The best that we can hope for is a disembodied spiritual experience; either that or the void.
The new Gnosticism then undermines the biblical worldview, denies the goodness of creation, and takes away the Christian hope; and the leadership of the Church of England is colluding with it.
Good News for Gnostics.
What should we then do? Any Christian response must begin with love, love for those who feel themselves torn between sex and gender, and love for all those whose lives have been divided in two by the modern Gnosticism. Vaughan Roberts has some very helpful things to say in his book Transgender about how we welcome Transgender people in churches.
Even more, out of love for people, we preach the Good News. First of all, that God is the one who, in his word the Bible, defines both facts and values, and so heals the division between the two levels. Second, the good news that God is the creator of the material, physical universe, including our bodies. The world is not a trap or a prison; it is a theatre of delights in which we see God’s wisdom, glory and beauty on display. God loves our bodies; they were his idea, including our sexual desires. So part of our salvation is to receive our bodies from him as good gifts of his grace, not something to be rejected or re-made. Part of this is to accept our limitations, and our physical sex as one of his gifts to us. Third, the good news that God became a physical man in Jesus Christ. Jesus did not just appear to be human; he really was human, with a body and soul as a perfect integrated whole, perfectly united to his eternal divine nature. Moreover, he is still human; after his resurrection and ascension he remains, and always will remain, a real man with a physical body. When he became human, God the Son did not become an androgynous, sexless human being. Christ became male, to show that God loves and values maleness; and Christ treated women with love and respect to show that God loves and values femaleness. Both are gracious gifts from God, to cherish and delight in, not limitations to deny or suppress. Finally, we preach the good news that Christ died bodily and rose bodily to heal the tear in creation caused by human sin. So there is hope for those who experience their maleness or femaleness as a burden. The hope is that one day God will wipe away the tears from every eye, including the tears of gender dysphoria, and in the resurrection body there will be perfect harmony between sex and gender.