Sunday, February 16, 2020

Proving the Rule

Sermon for Sexagesima

Is it ever acceptable to run a red light? Punch someone on the nose? Steal a loaf of bread? Commit adultery?

They say that exceptions prove the rule, but what exactly does that mean?

[PAUSE]

We have the idea that “prove” means showing something to be right, but that is not quite what it means. It’s related to the word “probe” meaning to examine, test or try something out. To prove a rule means to see just how far it works before it breaks down.

The law says we must stop at a red light, and yet there are exceptions. The reasons for not stopping at a red light must outweigh the reasons to stop at a red light. Likewise, punching someone on the nose is acceptable in some situations, like boxing. But what about stealing or committing adultery?

Again we can think of situations where stealing might be very easily forgivable, but adultery is difficult to be so tolerant. You can steal out of dire necessity, in which case the sin of stealing is of much less weight than those who have caused the dire necessity. But is there a dire necessity for adultery?

Stealing and adultery are contrary to God’s commandments and therefore sinful, but the degree of sin depends very much on circumstances. The same is true for all sin: not all sin is sin unto death, as St John reminds us but it does not stop the sin from being sinful. All sin drives a wedge between us and God.

[PAUSE]

Consider our Lenten fasting. We break the fast whether we have a three-course meal or a surreptitious smartie. Indeed, there is no legal compulsion for us to fast at all during Lent. The only reason that we should do so should be our desire to get closer to God. Yet, there is no point in fasting if we’re not going to do anything about the sins that separate us from God. Fasting might help us to control ourselves and help our spirits wage a better war against our lusts of the flesh but we do need to take stock of how we separate ourselves from God.

St Paul warns the Corinthians that we can drink the same spiritual drink from the Rock that is Christ but if we’re going to make exceptions from living the Christian life, then we will perish in the wilderness just as the Hebrews did in their Exodus from Egypt.

If we think that we’re okay, then we need to take heed lest we fall.

[PAUSE]

One of the great temptations we face from the Devil is “it’s only a little thing, God won’t mind this little exception.” We can pinch one of someone else’s biscuits or cast a lascivious eye over some scantily clad woman in a magazine but these can never be rewards for doing something good. The trivialisation of sin has been our problem from the very Fall itself – “it’s only one little apple, Eve!”

This is why we must pray that we do not allow ourselves to think that we are bigger than temptation. We should know that we cannot stand when we are tempted unless given the grace of God to withstand that temptation. But God wouldn’t lead us into temptation, would he?

Oh yes, He would!

[PAUSE]

He would do so if we were so arrogant as to believe that we have no sin. He would force us to look at the exceptions that we make to His rule by suffering their natural consequences so that we might turn and repent. We see that time and time again in the Bible, and time and time again in our lives.

If we are serious in praying to God, “lead us not into temptation” then we need to play our part by noting how vulnerable we are to being tempted and relying on God to find the way out. We will fall into sin again and again but this does not stop God from being willing to forgive us. It just means we have to repent again and again and try and do something about our tendency to sin.

[PAUSE]

It is not God’s Rule that needs to be proved by exceptions, it’s the exceptions that we make that need to be proved by God’s Rule. We have to remember that God’s Law is good for us, especially in an age in which we are being tempted to see it as restrictive, soul-destroying and even inhumane. God’s Law is restrictive: it binds sin away from us. God’s Law is not soul-destroying: it reinforces the soul against the lusts of the body. God’s Law is not inhumane: it is for our growth to become the human beings He created us to be, reunited with Him in Eternity.

It is our love of God which needs to be proved: we already have proof of God’s love for us.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Jobs on the fridge

Sermon for Septuagesima

What is the point of a newborn baby?

[PAUSE]

It’s terrifying to think that there are people who don’t even recognise babies as being real people, but something biological which bears human DNA. Once you have returned the confused gaze given by someone just a few minutes old, you should not be in any doubt that you are in the presence of a very new person who shares personhood with you, who shares life with you, and shares the need to be loved with you. Just as Our Lord suffers you to come to Him, so must we suffer the little children to come to Him, too, because there can be no distinction.

But what is the point of a newborn baby?

[PAUSE]

To ask that question is to ask that age-old question, “what is the meaning of life?”

We find the answer to that question in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis.

“[T]he Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul… And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.”

Is that all we are? God’s gardeners?

[PAUSE]

Well, yes, in a way. We exist in order to serve God, to love Him and to love our neighbour, to live in a world created by God, and to take pleasure in that work.

The trouble is that we human beings have a tendency to look down on labouring. We see some jobs as being beneath our dignity, jobs for somebody else to do. We have a tendency to say, “I’m to clever and important to clean toilets.” And what we miss is the dignity that God gave us to be workers for Him.

For He is not just an employer, He is our Father. He longs to reward us and give us good things. He takes great pleasure in what we do. He is someone who profits by it. There is nothing that we can do or make that is already His. He is the loving parent who sees the child pick up a crayon and draw a wobbly picture of Mummy and Daddy and Spot the Dog and is thrilled to bits and pins it up on the fridge. We have a greater dignity being labourers for God than we give to those who work for us. If we want to rejoice in what we do, then we must give others an opportunity for them to rejoice, too.

Of course, we’re not all created to perform the same tasks. St Paul reminds us that there are apostles, evangelists, prophets, teachers, pastors, workers of miracles, healers, assistants, politicians and interpreters. There are tent-makers, soldiers, fishermen, carpenters… the list goes on. We are all created to serve God in being the person that we are with all our strengths and weaknesses.

The trouble is that the presence of Sin and Evil often obscures who we are.

[PAUSE]

As we approach Lent, we are faced with the opportunity to fast and pray for a release from our sins and to recover our mission in life, the reason God made us. No, that doesn’t necessarily have a simple answer and it may be only when we have passed from this life that we find out. That’s okay. The point is that we use whatever means we have at our disposal to work for God. Prayer and fasting help us to see more clearly what God wants us to do.

[PAUSE]

This Lent, let us direct our prayers and fasting to discover God’s mission for us as individuals and as a Church. Perhaps, then, God will pin our work up on His fridge.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Purifying Ecclesiastical Decrepitude

Sermon for the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The church building is showing its age. The white plaster is greying and cracking in places. The woodwork is riddled with woodworm. The brasswork is dull and without lustre. The altar frontals are fading and getting a bit tatty. The ornaments are covered in dust. The corners of the ceiling are a bit mouldy. The floor needs a good sweep. It all looks tired and faded and a bit miserable.

This would seem an accurate picture for many, especially in those places where the congregation has dwindled and aged to the point where the regular upkeep of the building is becoming progressively more and more difficult. It’s all rather sad and discouraging. But what can you do?

[PAUSE]

The aged Simeon probably feels the same way. His body has aged. His legs hurt. His eyes are not as keen as they once were. Here he is, about to perform a ritual that he has performed hundreds of times before, for people who are probably just going through the motions. Jerusalem is controlled by the Romans who care nothing for God. The Jewish Religion is controlled by a ruling elite of Scribes and Pharisees who are more interested in the tassels on their fine robes than worshipping God in their hearts. Everything seems a bit worn out, baggy and a bit loose at the seams.

And yet despite all this, with his customary professionalism and kindness, aged Simeon spies the young couple entering into the temple with their little boy and prepares the rite of purification for this young mother.

And the house is suddenly filled with glory. Why?

[PAUSE]

There are many remarkable things about Mary and Jesus which we should love to think upon. That’s what the church year is for so that we can pay close attention to all those little things Our Lord does for us and what Our Lady points out to us. The purification of Mary is very closely associated with the events of the Epiphany of the Lord in one particular aspect.

Our Lord goes through rituals that are unnecessary for Him. He is circumcised, but He is already a child of God. He is given presents by Magi but doesn’t need them. He is baptised by St John but has not sinned. He attends a wedding and, even though His time has not yet come, turns water into wine. Our Lady comes forward for purification and yet is already pure. If these are all unnecessary, why do Our Lord and Lady go through with them?

You might say that these are acts of humility and obedience, and you would be right. You might say that these allow Our Divine Lord Jesus Christ to identify with us fallen human beings, and you would be right. There is one more thing – purification.

[PAUSE]

In His Circumcision, Our Lord takes the whole Law of God upon Himself and liberates us from its letter. He prefers us to circumcise our hearts. The Law is purified by Christ’s obedience so that we can be justified by Faith.

In His visitation by the Magi. Our Lord receives gifts of gold for His Kingship, frankincense for His priesthood and myrrh for His burial. In so doing, He purifies our understanding of kingship, of priesthood and even Death itself.

In His Baptism, Our Lord purifies the waters of repentance into waters of incorporation into the Church and membership with Him. He purifies Baptism so that the outward sign receives its inward grace.

In turning water into wine, Our Lord purifies marriage so that a man and a woman may receive grace to live a married life as God intended it as the necessity of water to live is transformed into the richness of God’s love in good wine.

In presenting herself for purification, Our Lady is shown that through her purification, God purifies the Church, giving Light to lighten the Gentiles and the Glory of God’s people, Israel. For God has promised, “I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.”

For Simeon, the general decay of his body is transformed by the truth of God’s promise. He can die in peace but he realises the glory of resurrection and the restoration of that which is falling to bits. All he has done is kept faithful to God as the light fades and things go stale, and his faith is rewarded by this vision of glory in the face of the little tiny Messiah.

[PAUSE]

And so it is with us. Things look as if they are falling to bits. Institutions are crumbling; church buildings are falling into disrepair; Society is losing sight of what is right and wrong. We need just to let it happen – hard to do, but this is how we make our sacrifice. God will shake, God will judge and God will purify

Our job is simple: we continue. We continue to hold the faith. We continue to say the old prayers. We continue to proclaim the same Gospel as was first proclaimed in the Resurrection of Our Lord. We continue to believe the old faith as the Ancient Creeds express. We continue to fight for God’s eternal law of love for all human beings. We continue to hold the same hope that the first martyrs held. We continue to do what we can for the love of God. Like Simeon, we shall see our lives, our homes, our churches and our societies purified and glorified in the Light of Lights.

And we, too, will depart in peace and then see the Glory of God Himself eternally.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The lips that speak the word

Sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany

One big criticism that we get from other criticism is that all of our public prayers are read from a book. They will say that, if we were praying from the heart, we would not need books at all! These Christians will use St Paul's words that the letter kills but the spirit gives life.

Are we right to defend our worship against this sort of accusation?

[PAUSE]

Well, first, let’s remember that when St Paul talks about the letter killing but the spirit giving life, he is talking about the Law and how we apply it. It is the spirit of the Law that makes it worth following otherwise all kinds of injustice follows if we just apply the letter of the law without due consideration. This is why the Lord says that the Sabbath is made for Man not Man for the Sabbath. Indeed, this is the point, the Sabbath, the Law and the Liturgy are made for Man, not the other way around.

But the words of our liturgy are very, very important.

Through the prophet Hosea, God calls people back from the worship of idols,

“O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. Take with you words, and turn to the Lord: say unto him, ‘Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips. Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses: neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods: for in thee the fatherless findeth mercy.’”

We are to approach God with words and render the sacrifice of the “calves of our lips”. We are to approach God with words from the heart. It is through words that our covenant with God is made. It is through words that, when the priest says, “this is my Body”, the Lord Jesus Christ utters them and makes the sacrament happen. The words we say today join with the words that Christians have always said and these words join us with Christ.

We use words because we can do nothing else. No sacrifice will do to absolve us from our sins except the one perfect sacrifice of Our Lord upon the Cross. The words of our liturgy bring us to that sacrifice and make us part of it.

[PAUSE]

We say the words in common with our fellow Christians who stand around us and we find solidarity with them. We pray together; we worship together; we glorify God together. At least, we appear to do so. What if we’re just saying the words but our mind is elsewhere?

This is very common and it takes a disciplined mind to focus on what we are saying all the time and to mean every word. We should strive for that. What fixed liturgical prayer does for us is to form a scaffold on which our spirituality can develop and grow provided that we put the effort in. Our mind may wander off but it has something to come back to.

We must remember that we are trying to talk with God which is very difficult when the physical world around us distracts us from His presence. He forgives our distraction readily, but we do need to try and focus on what we are saying so that it comes from the heart as well as the lips.

[PAUSE]

We know that words are very powerful and we must use them with care. With our words we can affirm God or deny Him. With words we can build up our neighbour or destroy him. With words we can enter into a covenant with the Great Creator Who will give us His very self for our food.

Look at what happens when God the Father utters a Word.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Tweeting the Gospel?

Sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany

That’s a very strange response to an introduction.

St Philip comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, Andrew says there are some Greeks outside who would like to see you.”

And Jesus does not say, “bring them in, please Philip.” He does not say, “do you know what they want?” Nor does He say, “tell them to go away.” Rather He starts talking about His impending crucifixion. It all seems a bit like answering the doorbell by saying, “I’m going to die, shortly!”

How might the Greeks react?

[PAUSE]

In order to understand why Our Lord responds in such a peculiar fashion, we have to look at who these Greeks are. Jerusalem is a very cosmopolitan place in which many people from all over the Roman Empire come for various reasons. We have already witnessed Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey which has clearly raised up interest among the crowds gathering for the Passover. It is very probable that these Greeks are either converts to Judaism or that they are considering the possibility of becoming Jews. In seeing Jesus arrive into Jerusalem in such a fashion, they clearly want to know Who He is and why this has happened.

And they are Greeks. This means that they are not just Gentiles by birth but they are people renowned for their thinking. They are interested in what Jesus has to say and intend to weigh Him up by His words and teaching.

That should make a lot of sense to us. In a General Election, we are faced with a number of candidates to choose from. Surely, it makes sense to make an informed choice based on what the candidates produce in their speeches and in their campaign literature. It becomes a matter, then, of choosing the candidate whose policies we like the best or, in most cases, the policies we dislike the least.

This is how people approach their religion, too. They try to find the religion that best suits them and go for that. We see many people today taking little bits from one religion and little bits from another. Why? Because they choose the bits that suit their own spirituality as they understand it.

 [PAUSE]

There are fewer and fewer practising Christians in the West and, yet, still Christmas, Easter, St Valentine’s Day and Halloween are still popular festivals. Non-Christians still enjoy Nativity plays, Easter Egg hunts, and nice cosy messages of love. Many reject the Christian Faith and they do so because it does not meet with their spirituality or their worldview. They have their own spirituality and their mind is made up.

In making up their minds, they have begun a process that hardens their hearts. Our Lord quotes the prophet Isaiah and tells those around him that God “hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.”

Just as God has ordained that things fall when we drop them, and that electricity flows when we switch on the plug, so this hardening of the heart is a consequence of the unbeliever’s choice which follows the pattern that God has set. Once the heart is hardened, then the voice of God will sound only like a rumble of thunder.

[PAUSE]

The Greeks think that Jesus will give them words of wisdom which they can take away with them to do with what they will. They want a soundbite – a tweet! Something to make them feel warm and fuzzy. The only thing that He will give them is the Cross and the sign of Jonah. The Greeks want wisdom and Jesus will only show them His agony, dangling on an instrument of torture.

Our Lord’s teaching is bound up in His actions and cannot be separated. Christmas Day, Easter Day, St Valentine’s Day, Halloween, all have any meaning because of the Cross. The Cross is the centre of Christian teaching and, if we diminish its importance, then we diminish Our Lord, and we diminish His Resurrection.

And yet, if we embrace the Cross fully, truly and humbly in full recognition of Our Lord’s love for us, then we will hear the voice of God speaking to us and His Word will be of infinitely greater worth and comfort than any warm, fuzzy, inspirational message found in a tweet.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Haunted Churches?

Sermon for the first Sunday after Epiphany

It has been said that the British Isles are the most haunted place on Earth. Whether or not that’s true, people find that some of the creepiest places are ancient churches and the ruins of abbeys. There’s almost an expectation to see some apparition wandering about through the ancient stones. Why are churches so creepy, especially at night? Surely a church is supposed to be a holy place?

[PAUSE]

Christians are required to believe in ghosts – no, not the sheet-waving, chain-clanking spectres of classic fiction. We believe in the Holy Ghost which means that we are meant to believe in at least one spirit. What does this mean?

Our Lord says, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” The image that we have to dispel is that God is like the ghosts that appear in stories. God is a spirit. He does not have a body; He cannot be seen; He is like the wind which blows and we feel its effects. Clearly, Jesus is talking of the Holy Ghost here, after all, Jesus is not a spirit. He has a body; He can be seen and we can touch Him.

In saying this, Jesus is challenging an error that has persisted throughout human history: that God has a place on earth in which He dwells. The Jews and Samaritans have been arguing about where to worship God for a long time and the question has divided the people of God. In calling God a spirit, Jesus is saying that God is like the air we breathe which is always here but noticeable when it moves. You can’t say that the air is over here but not over there.

Jesus is also saying that there is more to our life than just physical matter and this is where we are now. So many people say that there is nothing beyond what we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. They will say that when you’re dead, you’re dead and that’s it. They don’t believe in ghosts. Others believe that their gods are physical objects. This is why some people worship idols: they are the gods that can be seen. Yet, we are not to worship a god made of matter. We are to worship God in spirit and we are to worship Him in truth. Spirits truly exist.

But Jesus is saying something more.

[PAUSE]

Jesus always refers to God as His Father and that He is to be worshipped, so we worship God the Father. Jesus says that we must worship God in spirit, so the Holy Spirit is indeed God. Jesus says that we must worship God in truth, and Jesus calls Himself the Truth, so Jesus must also be God. Here, in this time of Epiphany, the Holy Trinity is seen again in the words of the Lord Jesus Christ even as the Holy Trinity was revealed at His Baptism in the river Jordan. There are three Persons but One God. This cannot happen with things that are made of matter. God is a spirit and we must worship Him in spirit and in truth.

Does this mean we have to worship Him in His spirit or with our spirits?

[PAUSE]

The answer is both. We are beings with a spirit, too, because we live and breathe, and we are conscious. We are not mere matter, but an inseparable mix of body and spirit. Take one away and we cease to be human. We are not to see ourselves as biological machines but as beings that reflect God Himself in our spirit and in our body, just as Our Lord Jesus Christ is both human and divine. Because we have a spirit, we must respect our bodies and keep them fit for the service of God. Because we have a body, we must curb its appetites so that we take care of our spirits.

[PAUSE]

Why are churches so creepy? Are they haunted? It is more likely that in an old church building, we become aware of the presence of the spirit of God moving just as the cold draughts move around the building. God is everywhere, but we feel His presence more keenly in holy places, none more so than in the Sacrament of the altar. In a holy church, we have nothing to fear for it is the presence of the spirit of God who challenges our pre-occupation with being physical things. It is when we are unnerved by things beyond our understanding that we remember our duty and kneel before the Spirit of God in worship.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Thinking about “Thinking about conservative Christianity and divisions”

I came across this article by the retired CofE priest Stephen Parsons whom I have mentioned before here. Mr Parsons has been a voice for those who have suffered much abuse at the hands of disgraced ministers such as John Smythe and Peter Ball from the Evangelical and Catholic wings of the CofE respectively, and the institutional covers-up that these two abusers have relied upon to continue their work. I am conscious that when he writes, he does so with much compassion for those who have suffered much. In this piece, however, he does display a deeply unfortunate passion for the Liberal Agenda and thus, in my mind at least, undermines his compassion for those who are abused.

I have said very clearly that I believe that the Liberal Agenda is not properly Christian and I have given my reasons. This is something that I have to argue with my friends and family. I do think that the more I see of the Liberal Agenda eating its way through the Established Church and consuming good ministers and worshippers, the more I am convinced that this is a pernicious evil perpetrated to tear people from the loving arms of their Creator. I may be wrong, I must accept that, but this conviction has been growing faster and faster the more I see posts such as Mr Parsons’.

Mr Parsons’ main focus in this article is against conservative Christians, and it seems that, by this, he is concentrating on the conservative Evangelicals. The trouble is that there are conservative Catholics too and it is speaking against us that his arguments do unravel.

We do share many points of agreement. It is true to say that some conservative Christians reject “many of the achievements of two hundred years of scientific research.” There are many who, like the Westborough Baptist Church, scream out their hatred of homosexuals and proclaim God’s approval of their hatred despite this being so very much against the commandments of God. 
As a conservative Anglican Catholic, I accept very many of the findings of Science but I put them in their proper place as discoveries about Creation in itself. Yet, I do not believe that Science is a source of theological authority. Human beings may indeed be compared with the beasts that perish and that is how Science treats us. Scientific studies of the brain produce insights into the biological mechanism that is our body and gives ways of treating disorders, but it still misses out on the existence of the mind, of subjective consciousness and even something as simple as conservation of existence, i.e. why we should continue to be at any given moment. In that Science can be done by the complete rejection of God, we must question its role as being able to contribute anything theologically meaningful. We need God’s self-revelation in order to do anything theological. This means, if we want to believe in God, we have to have something definitive that tells us Who He Is.

And we have just that. Aside from the philosophical “proofs” of the Existence of God, we have the existence of Jesus Christ as a Historical Fact. We have the writings of the Evangelists in which modern scholarship is in agreement with the scholarship of the past that these Gospels are eye-witness testimony to the Life, Death, Resurrection and Teaching of Our Lord which have been passed down through the centuries in a myriad manuscripts copied faithfully from the First Century. That only tiny, non-doctrinal differences occur in these many, many manuscripts shows not only their reliability but, also, the importance that each scribe placed upon these words in order to get them right. So we have the Gospels. And we have the writings that came out of these from St Paul, St John, St Peter, St James and St Jude. We have Jesus, the good Jew, quoting the Hebrew Canon thus giving Christian weight to the Hebrew Scriptures. We have that writings of those who knew Jesus, who knew the apostles and those who read them and listened and wrote about them. We have those great arguments, the Councils in which those arguments were framed and settled. And we have the first millennium in which the Church, though always teetering on the edge of schism was largely in agreement about the Doctrine of Christ that it received.

In short, Conservative Christianity has already thought about, mulled over, and reached clear decisions about things and any of us can read these deliberations to this day. We simply do not need to re-invent the wheel. It is also why Conservative Catholics are in closer agreement to each other than many Evangelicals who do indeed seem to want to re-invent the wheel every time they split.

Thus, Mr Parsons is deeply wrong when he says, “The idea that even the words of Scripture do not give us certainties is very threatening to many conservative Christians.” The idea does not threaten us: it does not make sense to us. I really do not think Mr Parsons has actually thought about Conservative Christians at all. Perhaps he cannot: perhaps he and I have no real language in common with which to come to any theological agreement.

My real issue with Mr Parsons is his lack of Faith and how he is willing to put forward a fear-mongering of his own through a tyranny of whim and emotion whilst trying to undermine the very thing by which Christians know they are saved. Faith is about cultivating something as a certainty even in the face of doubt. We conservatives believe that God exists and cling to that based on the evidence that we have which must be the theological evidence that we have received. For conservative Anglican Catholics, this evidence is Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition, Holy Reason, each being the foundation of the next. This is faith, and it is faith in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks and, clearly threatening to the liberals.
Yes. Salvation is indeed a work in progress, but the immutability of Christian Doctrine provides the rod by which my progress in holiness can be measured. We are not “once-saved, always saved,” there is no single moment of conversion. But while we rehearse our formulae, we move along the groove in a record towards the centre that is Christ, not around and around in circles as perhaps Mr Parsons thinks we live.

The truths of Science are horizontal and limited to the 11 dimensions (or whatever it is now) of physical reality and they do not touch upon the real issues of life and death. Science does not give us our morality: it tells us how different patterns of behaviour work through various Game Theoretic methods. Where then does Mr Parsons get the belief that the Church should be “liberal, inclusive and open to the findings of scientific research” especially when “liberal” seems to mean “willing to reject what God commands”, “inclusive” seems to mean “rejecting the notion of sin”, and “open to the findings of scientific research” seems to mean “accepting an authority which cannot make any theological or moral statement”? If the liberal believes that the Bible is not authoritative then why bother with the commandment to love one’s neighbour? Or why not reinterpret “love” to mean whatever you want. Actually, that is indeed what seems to be happening given ECUSA Bishop Michael Curry’s equivocating sermon at the recent Royal Wedding.

In praising the integrity of human nature to be spiritual and creative, Mr Parsons seems not to see that there is this business of sin infecting human nature and both common sense and basic psychology are just as infected aspects of our humanity as anything else. Of all people, he should know how sin destroys lives as he bears witness to it often enough. The reason that Smythe and Ball are exposed is because there is a firm, immutable standard against which they fall short and are seen to fall short. The same is true for the Westborough Baptist Church: they are seen to promote evil because they disobey one of the Lord’s Commandments very obviously. The fact of the matter is that human beings have fallen; they sin; they are sinned against; they sin because they are sinned against and they are sinned against because they sin. If there is no fixed moral compass then sin goes away and all this suffering is irrelevant.

If we try to save ourselves then we fall into the Pelagianism that was condemned by the Early Church. For Mr Parsons, that Pelagianism is expressed when he says, “Does what you believe enrich your life, enable you to flourish as a human being and bring you into touch with a God who gives you hope, love and joy?” whereby we become responsible in telling God how we want to flourish. I see little flourishing of the children slaughtered by Herod. I see little flourishing of St Paul languishing in prison. I see little flourishing of people dying in dark prisons for their faith, for the very certainty, the very conviction of the Faith that Mr Parsons believes “allows absolutely no scope for disagreement or doubt”. In fact, I see in what Mr Parsons says nothing that values the witness of the countless millions who have suffered for the Faith that the Liberal Agenda wants us to hold back on the grounds that we have more to learn about God from sources that are fundamentally opposed to God, such as Scientific Materialism, Freudian Psychology and Cultural Marxism. The Liberal Agenda robs the martyrs of their dignity and robs us of the possibility of being martyrs in our own way.

I am sure that Mr Parsons would agree that the one common theme that characterises the human condition is struggle. We have to struggle with God in order to realise that we should not want to be the people that we want to be, but rather the person that God wants us to be. That means a denial of worldly thinking. It means a denial of the social expectations of political correctness, of the language of entitlement and diversity, of sexual freedom. Sex may be a gift from God but it is not a right, nor is it always a gift that can be exercised. Our Lord suffers because we have to suffer. He did not have to suffer given His omnipotence, but He clearly feels that it is necessary to suffer because of the reality of our own pains. We have to do things God’s way and this means our life becomes that of service to the Gospel in order to proclaim the freedom that is coming in the morning. For the conservative Christian, nothing is more apparent than the fact that we are passing through this life. Mr Parsons would want us to settle down and be comfortable in this life on the grounds that it is psychologically better for us.

If conservative Christianity presents a “take it or leave it” approach to doctrine then this is because we believe firmly in in One God to which the three Creeds bear witness. Yes, God has made us free to choose whatever we want to believe. This doesn’t change the fact that there is One Church, One Faith, One Lord, et c. It means that one’s personal experience cannot be as authoritative as Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Experience is a means of hypothesis to test against the revealed truth. It is valuable but not one single experience is automatically authoritative. It means that we do wander in doubt and difficulty and that we can only ever build on what is already there. If God says that Fornication is a sin, then it is a sin no matter how liberating it feels. If only a heterosexual couple can marry in the eyes of God, then it cannot be changed no matter how badly we feel. If Society expects us to sin, then it is Society that will be judged harshly when God comes again in glory.

Where I am in agreement with Mr Parsons is that the legalism of certain expressions of conservative Christianity needs to stop. The monk obeys the Benedictine Rule because he knows it will keep his community together as they follow the Catholic Faith to God. He submits himself to its discipline, even to its sanctions and stripes, because he knows that his earthly body must be kept in submission to his spirit. Both body and spirit are God's, but both need to be brought into line for the good of the self and of the community in a more perfect love for God. It isn't a question of whether He loves me: I exist therefore I am loved. It's whether I love Him that matters more, and this involves a denial of myself and a conformity to Him. The self that I deny is the one defined by myself, by my experiences and by my society. I am of God's creation, corrupted by the sin of my species, and saved from the Hell of living in these sins by my Creator. If I follow Mr Parsons' programme of progress, I shall find myself drowning in the saccharin senses of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction at actuating my own identity in the very Hell that I long to leave. 

Give me my cross now so that I might stand a chance of resurrection in Christ when the time comes.