The Holy and Great Council: or Have the Orthodox blown it?

After about a century of off and on preparations and discussions the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church opened yesterday in Crete with an impressive concelebration of the Divine Liturgy. The Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne, who seems to be the English Language press officer, gave a very upbeat assessment of everything it is going to achieve. But we all know that the facts are rather different.

I wanted this to work. I really did. I think Orthodoxy has a great deal to give to wider Christianity. The idea that all theology is mystical theology – that one cannot divorce the study of God from prayer, that it belongs in the liturgy not just (or even at all) in the lecture room – is a vital idea. In the west, since scholasticism, we have obsessed too much with angels and pinheads.

But Orthodoxy seems to prefer its own internal squabbles and power struggles.

I am no authority (thank God) on Orthodox Church politics. I know that the Patriarchate of Antioch threw a strop because the Patriarchate of Jerusalem erected a bishopric in what it considered to be its territory (at the same time that the said Patriarchate of Antioch was erecting a bishopric in the United Kingdom for a group composed mostly of ex-Anglicans …). For some reason this gave Moscow the pretext it doubtless wanted to stay away too. Now the Church of Russia represents about three quarters of world Orthodox. So this is a major blow.

At least when Anglicans have public spats it is about doctrine. About something which actually matters.

Orthodox unity, even in faith, is actually a smoke and mirrors business. They are deeply disunited. OK, I know Anglicanism is too, and the RCs, and everyone else. But this was Orthodoxy’s big moment. A chance to act like grown ups, rather than squabble like children.

But it seems to me (correct me if I am wrong) that they have blown it.

Our Lady’s Immaculate Vagina

Today, in the Kalendar of the Roman Catholic Church, is the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I only have a dim idea of what this is about. I suppose it has something to do with Mary’s sinlessness. Fair enough. But in truth it is not her heart, immaculate or otherwise, which really concerns the RC Church. It is her vagina.

I recall an antiphone from the Roman liturgy: “After the birth of your child, Mary you remained a virgin”. This is a dubious proposal at best; but the real question is, ‘why does it matter?’ Why should anyone care if Mary had sex after the birth of Jesus? The Gospels, of course, speak of Christ’s brothers and sisters. The RC Church explains it away as a reference to cousins or somesuch. Maybe that is so, but why bother? Why does it matter?

Mary was married to Joseph. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage the physical intimacy of spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion.” [para 2360]. Why, after the birth of Jesus should Mary and Joseph have abstained from this “sign and pledge of spiritual communion”? Quoting the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Gaudium et spes the Catechism asserts  that “the acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable.” and further that “sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure.” It quotes Pope Pius XII saying “the Creator himself … established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them.” [CCC para 2362].

So according to the official teaching of the RC Church, sex in marriage is not just permissible, but good, God’s will, a spiritual communion. So why is Mary’s perpetual virginity necessary? Or even right? Should she and Joseph not have “accept[ed] what the Creator … intended for them”?

In truth, of course, the dogma of mary’s perpetual virginity points to the reality of the RC Church’s teaching and praxis. Whatever Pius XII and Vatican II and the Catechism may say, sex is dirty. It is tolerated because, well, if married Catholics didn’t have sex, where would the next generation of priests come from, to say nothing of the laity to pay for them? But we all know that that is a concession to human weakness. Denying your sexuality is the higher good.

Thus Mary is the greatest human being ever, the closest to God, because she was Virgin and Mother, yes, but because she also remained a virgin. This is the example the Roman Catholic Church holds up to the faithful.

God became human. In Jesus he took on our humanity. But he did so, we are told, in the womb of a woman who denied a vital part of that humanity, and a part which is “noble and honorable”.

Of course it won’t wash. In stripping Mary of her humanity, the Catholic Church diminishes her. Far from becoming ‘most blessed amongst women’ she becomes a plaster statue in church, a focus for sexual neuroticism and heaven knows what else.

The Catholic Church has backed itself into a corner over human sexuality. And it’s approach to the Immaculate Vagina of Mary is a large part of that. So on this Feast of Our Lady, virgin mother, yes, I accept that; But true woman, true human being too; I ask her prayers that we may find and accept our true humanity, the humanity which God created and gave us, and which includes our sexuality, and rejoice in the good things God has given us.

Holy Mary, Theotokos, Woman of Flesh in which God delighted to dwell, Pray for us.

A blog for closeted LGBT Christians

This seems like a very worthwhile venture.

The Secret Vicar


There’s little more damaging than being forced to hide – your identity, your relationships, your faith.

God calls us to worship in spirit and in truth, yet the Church so often makes it impossible for its clergy and members to be truly honest while they worship and serve.

Here are the voices of LGBT Christians (both ordained and lay, single and partnered) speaking our truth. We’re anonymous for as long as we have to be – as long as the Church demands it.

If you’ve got a story to tell, we’d love to share it. Get in touch using the Contact page, or email

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A meditation at the tenth station

SOC10 Jesus is stripped of his clothes

Do manners make a man, as they tell boys as Winchester, or do clothes make him? I present myself to the world in a certain way. How I dress is part of that. I don’t just fling on clothes, I try to dress in a way which presents an image of myself.

But what is the reality?

Before his crucifixion, before the final ordeal, Jesus was stripped of all his clothes. He was nailed to the cross naked. Stark bollock naked, that is, not in the loincloth of modesty with which he is depicted on the crucifix in church.

He stood before his father, who is our father too, completely naked. And not just before God his father, but before a mocking world. Not only all false modesty, but all modesty of any sort, was gone; stripped from him by a brutal authority.

Exposure is not agreeable. I want to present a certain image of myself, not just to the world, but to God too. Even if I know it is pointless, still I try.

The stripping Jesus underwent was physical. I need a deeper stripping. Of all my layers of pretence – to God, to the world, to myself. Of performance. For identity, we are told, is performative and situational. And so by removing the performance I can find my true identity. Only if I stand naked in front of God, and the mirror, can I see who I really am. For my true identity is my identity before God. And I have to be honest with him, and with myself.

No one ever said this was going to be pleasant.

God is his own revelation

Christ is God’s revelation; his self-revelation. It would have been easier if God had simply given us a book of rules – here, do this, and I will do that. A certain sort of Protestant Christian thinks the Bible is just that. Or maybe if he had given us a juridical authority – here, just do what this man says. A certain sort of Catholic Christian thinks that the Church is just that.

But God didn’t do that. He chose rather to give us himself.

It is all much more messy. Because human life is messy. It is all much more ambiguous. Because every human being is ambiguous. It requires, furthermore, probably the most messy and ambiguous thing that human existence affords – a relationship with another. It would have been so much simpler if God had just said ‘here, do what this book says’, or ‘do what this man says’. But God isn’t like that.

Thank God!

Disagreeing well: Women priests and flying bishops

Recently we have heard a lot about ‘disagreeing well’. This is in relation to the shared conversations, and the debate in general, about sexuality. It is important to disagree well. It is important, not just because we shouldn’t be trying to hurt our fellow Christians (or our fellow humans, for that matter) who disagree with us; or because we need to preserve unity at all costs (which maybe we do, maybe we don’t); but also because we may just be wrong. Humility demands that we recognise that. Even in my most dearly held beliefs, I may be wrong. Totally, completely 180 degrees facing the wrong way wrong.

How do I know this? Well, I have been wrong in the past. I have misinterpreted situations. I have told myself that I have thought things through rationally, without emotion, and reached a position based on the facts.

And then my views have changed. I have seen through myself.

That doesn’t worry me. As Roger Scruton has said, changing your mind is proof that you’ve got one. And I may be wrong now. No doubt I will change my mind again on some things.

And I don’t think I am unique here. Or even unusual.

So let’s look at a situation in the past where the Church of England has attempted to disagree well: the ordination of Women to the Priesthood.

In 1993, after the November 1992 General Synod vote on the Ordination of Women, I went to a meeting at which the then Bishop of London, Dr David Hope, spoke. He outlined what became the London Plan, with the Bishop of Fulham providing Episcopal Oversight of parishes who could not accept women priests. This was taken up nationally, with the Act of Synod that established Provincial Episcopal Visitors, or ‘Flying Bishops’, as they came to be known. Dr Hope’s point was that the General Synod decision to proceed with the ordination of women to the priesthood could only be provisional for as long as it was contested. Thus both the pro-women priest people and the anti-women priest positions had equal integrity. There where, as he suggested, two integrities in the Church of England. At some point the ordination of women would either be received by the Church at large, or rejected. At that point, the matter could be said to be settled.

Now this caused, and continued to cause, a lot of hurt. It is hurtful to women who are priests to have their ministry rejected in some places. It is hurtful to those who hold to what they believe in all sincerity to be the Apostolic faith to have their church taken from them (as they see it). We should not minimise the sense of hurt on either side. And that pain continues, a quarter of a decade later.

But what causes that pain? I would suggest that, to a great extent, it is the lack of charity on either side. When and if charity does exist, the pain is minimised. It is not the disagreement itself which causes the pain, but the lack of charity. It is when disagreeing well breaks down.

I hope the ministry of women who are priests and bishops will be universally received before too long. I think we are on the way there. But it may take a long time, maybe a century, before it is fully received.

And so it is with human sexuality. Much of the pain can be avoided if we accept that those with whom we disagree don’t wish us ill. Their motives are not wicked. They may even be right, and we may be wrong (it is not impossible). We need to disagree well. Righteous anger is all very well, but self-righteous anger is never necessary. In my humble opinion.

Mr Murdoch, Miss Hall and the evolution of marriage

This weekend gone Rupert Murdoch, the Australian press baron and Knight of the Papal Order of St Gregory the Great, married his fourth wife. Jerry Hall, his new wife, has been married before, though the marriage was declared invalid by the British Courts. All ten children from the happy couple’s previous marriages attended the subsequent blessing of this civil marriage, which was performed by a Priest of the Church of England in the Church of St Bride, Fleet Street, London.

Marriage is a universal institution. It is not specific to the Christian faith. It is also, clearly, and evolving institution. In the Roman Republic kinship ties were easily created (by adoption) and easily dissolved (by divorce). Like many Roman institutions, marriage (and the family) was profoundly changed by Christianity. Adoption and divorce became practically unknown until the modern period. By the Sixth century, the Church was blessing marriages in the context of the Eucharist. A whole theology of marriage, which saw it as a representation between Christ and the Church, was developed.

In England the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act was finally passed in 1907, and the Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act in 1921. These followed almost a century of opposition from the Church of England over what the Table of Kindred and Affinity in the Book of Common Prayer regarded as marriage within the prohibited degrees.

So the question may reasonably, I think, be asked: Given that no one, seemingly, within the Church of England, regards marriage as a static institution, and given that the Church of England is willing to bless a union such as that of the new Mr and Mrs Murdoch, why should a monogamous life-long union between two people of the same sex be beyond the Church’s blessing?

Living with ambiguity in the Anglican Communion: Archbishop Welby’s Address to the Synod

These are some initial observations on Archbishop Justin Welby’s Presidential Address to the General Synod of the Church of England. He spoke to the synod about the recent Primates’ Meeting in canterbury

Firstly, I was very impressed by his openness. He spoke of the difficulties the Anglican Communion faces, the divisions over issues of sexuality and the nature of marriage. It is hard to imagine such honesty from, say, a pope – even Pope Francis in all his spontaneity. I am impressed by the maturity which seems to exist in Anglicanism. He did not seek to downplay the difficulties, to paper over uncomfortable truths. The Archbishop’s description of the way the Primates washed each others’ feet was also moving. This was a group of men (sadly no women) who met together as Christ’s disciples, seeking to do His will. And they decided to walk together, not to walk apart, despite the cost. The Archbishop spoke of the personal commitment of each Primate to walk together, again a sign of maturity.

That maturity is required in Anglicanism because, as the Archbishop pointed out, the Provinces are bound together in charity, not by legal bonds, not be authority structures. And should that not be how we should be as God’s people?

The Archbishop also spoke of ‘reception’. I think this is an important concept. It was much discussed at the time of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the early 1990s. It is only in retrospect that we can see, not by some legal process but by a developing consensus of the Church, that an innovation is of God. The ordination of women has been received (though it will probably be some time before it is fully accepted), that of lay presidency at the Eucharist has not. We have to live with ambiguity, painful as that sometimes is, in the meantime.

And that is where I want to leave these initial observations. The Archbishop said much else that was good. But to me the living with necessary ambiguity, which is part of the human condition and the Christian life, is a sign of our maturity. Children want certainty. Adults accept ambiguity. Anglicanism chooses adulthood over childhood.

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: But when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Cor. 13:11)

Prayers for the dead

I am at an age when I have not had to attend too many funerals. A few contemporaries of mine died in the early 1990s, when people did not infrequently die quite young. And relatives have died after a full life. Most funerals I have attended have been Roman Catholic of High Anglican, with a Requiem Mass and prayers for the dead. This seems natural to me. But I know that many funerals are not like that. I think it is true that they often tend to be either a ‘celebration’ of the person’s life, devoid of Christian content (even if in a church), or rather sentimental affairs. I recall seeing a memorial on a roadside to a young man who had been killed there on his motorbike. He said that this was the place where X ‘ascended into heaven’, which seemed presumptuous. Such sentimental certainly would make any thought of praying for the dead unnecessary, I suppose.

The fact is we do not know the state of the dead, either collectively or individually. Even the Roman Catholic Church, with all its presumptions of certainty, is cautious about what it dogmatically proclaims. The Orthodox Church is even more cautious, though it is open to the idea that hell need not be a permanent state in all cases. On balance, however, I think I find the RC notion of purgatory more comforting than the Orthodox idea of heavenly Toll Houses, which one must pass through, being confronted with a category of sins in each one.

But we do not need to know about the state of dead friends, relatives or strangers to care about them. And to care is to want to pray. The 16th century reformers were uneasy about prayer for the dead, and the whole doctrine of the communion of the saints of which it is a part, because of obvious abuses. But they clearly (to my mind) threw out the baby with the bathwater here. In the Church of England the Guild of All Souls has existed since the 1870s to promote prayer for the dead. It has a Chantry Chapel at Walsingham, employing what must be the only Chantry Priest in the Church of England. I was a member in my younger days, but resigned when I became a Roman Catholic. I will probably rejoin. In any event, it must have been deeply controversial when it was founded. But the 1st World War, with the huge loss of life, transformed English attitudes towards praying for the dead (and such things as spiritualism, too). You do not cease to love someone just because they have died. And prayer for the dead is, as I said earlier natural.

So I commend praying for the dead. And asking them to pray for us, too. Though that is a different issue!

Evangelicals, affirming or otherwise

As a Recovering Anglican, I have a lot of catching up to do on debates, publications, all that sort of things. I will make brief comments on some things which may seem rather dated.

The first is a press release dated 19th November 2014 (so just over a year old) from the Westminster faith Debates. Headed ‘Why unity eludes the Church of England’ it reports an opinion poll of attitudes of Church of England clergy. The bottom line is that about one third of the clergy polled identify as evangelical, and these clergy, especially if they are men, hold not only far less progressive views on matters like LGBT issues, but they are far less willing to compromise, or ‘disagree well’. Professor Linda Woodhead comments:

These findings are both good and bad news for the Archbishop [of Canterbury] – good in that his battle is won with most of the clergy and almost certainly an overwhelming majority of lay Anglicans. Bad, in that there is a significant group of male clergy who do not share his vision for the CofE and the Anglican Communion.

Now Evangelical Anglicanism is a bit of a mystery to me. But I understand it divides between the Conservative Low Church sort of people and the more charismatic Holy Trinity Brompton sort of people. The latter may be more affirming of LGBT people, but anecdotal evidence suggests that stunning homophobia can also be present in such circles too.

Evangelicalism seems to be in the ascendency. This may be just one of the regular pendulum swings. It may be because the Anglo-Catholics were badly divided and beaten by the Ordination of Women. But other factors may be at play here.

Professor Woodhead has done much good work elsewhere in addressing the changes to British society in terms of attitude to religion, and the way it is becoming ‘spiritual not religious’; that is, not hostile to spiritual things, not atheistic, but hostile to structures and institutions.

I would suggest that Evangelicalism has been very good at being countercultural, meeting people where they are, and bringing them to faith. Anglo-Catholics, on the other hand, have been preoccupied with navel gazing and internal battles, which seem meaningless to the unchurched. A true Evangelical Catholicism would address this. How? I am not quite sure! Something for further reflection.