This week’s Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading is Mark 7:24-37, Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and the healing of a man deaf and mute. The Lectionary very helpfully pairs it with a passage from Isaiah 35 in which the restoration of hearing and speech (along with sight and movement) are connected with the return of the people from exile to Jerusalem and their restoration to Holiness and intimacy with God.

This passage with its report of Jesus making a stark and definitive distinction between the “children” (of Israel) and the (pagan) “dogs” and declaration that it is not good to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs is one many struggle with. They can’t reconcile their idea of Jesus with his calling (by implication) this suffering faithful woman and her afflicted daughter “dogs”. Of course the blow is softened by his response to her appeal to let the dogs eat crumbs by declaring her daughter released from the demon. This does not, though, mean that the designation “dog” is rejected. It is accepted by the woman in her answer and Jesus does not at any point object to it.

This passage falls in the middle of a longer unit formed by the two feeding miracles (of 5,000 and of 4,000) that many scholars believe enact the movement from a mission only to Israel to a mission that invites those outside Israel to participate in God’s kingdom. The 4,000 are the dogs who are fed with the crumbs from the feeding of the 5,000, on this reading.

This would make the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman a key moment in the move from one to the other and thus a crucial staging point in the journey to Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ messianic status after the healing miracle that follows the second feeding as this week’s follows the first.

All of this in turn echoes and draws on the crucial passage from Isaiah 35 that we are offered by the RCL and that many think stands behind this week’s Gospel. Isaiah 35 is a brief outburst of eschatological hope and exaltation in the transition from the first part to the second of that extraordinary book. Here the prophetic word suddenly breaks free from its moorings in the historical reality of Judah’s struggle for survival in the face of Assyrian hegemony to take a view of God’s faithful restoration of Israel after her humiliation and near destruction by Babylon.

By invoking this vision in the context of Jesus’ ministry the text reminds of a series of crucial claims:

  • the appearance of Jesus marks the moment of the final fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, the day of the Lord, when God will reign in Zion and all the peoples will recognise his sovereignty over the world, leading to universal peace and justice
  • the breaking in of God’s rule will be marked by the healing of people and by abundance of food and the flowering of the desert
  • the God that comes will be the God of Israel, finally revealed as the God of of all creation

We are confronted by these passages, with their national-historical and universal-cosmological roots and ambitions, at a time when the world is being tested by a crisis of enormous magnitude and great depth. The collapse of the Syrian state and the disintegration of that country into a dystopic nightmare of civil war and frenzied repression is the main driver of the current movement. Of Syria’s roughly 18 million people it is thought that nearly 10 million have had to leave their homes and that around 4 million have left the country. Most of these are in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

In Britain the response to the global flow of refugees is dominated by a general reluctance to admit migrants of any kind. (Ipsos Mori report on attitudes to migration). It is difficult to determine why the population of this country (including former migrants) are so keen to keep newcomers out but it should be remembered that we are not unique in this. Even the United States of America, where the current population is made up almost entirely of the descendants of relatively recent immigrants, has a consistent record of high levels of support for “nativist” politicians who want to close the country to new arrivals going back into the eighteenth century. This suggests that arguments about factors like jobs, housing and other public goods like health and education may be rationalisations of motivations that people are less willing to express (as I believe to be the case).

What do our Lectionary passages have to say to us Christians as we contemplate the appalling situation of those fleeing war and seeking to break into a Europe they believe offers them the chance to rebuild a life worth living?

First we should remember that as gentile Christians we should see ourselves as displaced persons, as “dogs” without a home. We have, in Christ, subjected ourselves to the God of a nation (Israel) that we have not joined. Stanley Hauerwas has suggested that we should regard ourselves as resident aliens in the nations we inhabit and in the current context there is great value in this argument. We should not see ourselves as native to the United Kingdom or to any other state or nation in this world. We are the dogs of Biblical Israel, those hoping that God will feed us with the crumbs from the children’s table. We have, from this point of view, no more right to be where we are than do those encamped at Calais or in Lebanon. We do not, or we should not, recognise national distinctions that we reject (whether we know it or not) when we try to enter the kingdom of God.

Second we should not expect our states, as states, to agree with us on this radical rejection of national boundaries. The other half of Hauerwas’ argument (with which I would not always agree but which I regard as wonderfully helpful in our present situation) is that we are aliens because our states are not Christian, are in fact anti-Christian. Hauerwas can sometimes seem to come close to advocating a complete withdrawal from political life and at the moment that seems a tempting course of action. At any rate if we engage in the argument about what should be done we must be aware that whatever outcome emerges it will be less than adequate to the horror that is unfolding. We should not be tempted to imagine that there is a “right” answer available in the political sphere, however strong we believe our duty to seek the better rather than the worse.

We have to stand up for the humanity of the displaced. The language of “swarm” and “horde”, the refusal to recognise ourselves in those fleeing war, persecution and poverty, must be resisted. The refugees are people like ourselves. Ultimately I can’t see any kind of closed border as compatible with Christian ethics BUT I am aware that the argument for open borders will not be won this side of the return of Christ and the final establishment of the direct rule of God. In the meantime it is necessary (if we are to engage in politics at all) to be realistic about what is possible and what the results of any particular course of action will be.

In the current European moment it is clear that the UK should, must, do more. It is less clear how much more and for whom. There is, in fact, some merit in the argument of the government that the additional people to whom it offers refuge should be taken from the camps in the countries neighbouring Syria rather than from among those already in Europe. Those left behind will inevitable include the most needy. On the other hand it is also clearly an attempt to avoid being drawn into comparison with Germany (or Sweden or indeed Austria) which are hosting, proportionately to their population, many times more of those who have got to Europe. This is a cynical manoeuvre and should be denounced as such but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t, perhaps, be better to take some tens of thousands from Lebanon or Jordan than it  would be to open the border.

At any rate the practical politics of the situation are much more complex than the very simple tasks that we cannot evade of insisting on the humanity of those in distress and demanding that they be viewed with compassion and care rather than hostility and rejection.


mark 8.35
I’m preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary again after a break when I used passages selected following other disciplines. This means that as I approach the second Sunday in Lent I’m looking at the first passion prediction in Mark (chapter 8:31-38), although having reflected on that Gospel reading I decided that I didn’t want to use the other RCL readings and took my own from Job and Galatians instead. As sometimes happens, when I looked at the Greek and studied the commentaries I became dissatisfied with the translations available to me, In particular the rendering of three words came to seem to me to radically dilute and even to distort the sense of what the author of Mark wrote.

The Greek words in question are:

first, “psychen” (usually translated either as “life” – as in the RSV – or as “soul” or worst of all – as in the NIV, ESV and NAS – first as one then as the other);

second, “apolesei” (almost always translated as “lose”);

third, “zemiothenai” (sometimes “forfeit” – as in the NIV, ESV and NAS, sometimes “lose” as in the KJV and RSV).

My problems with the  existing translations are:

1) the translation of psychen as soul encourages us to remain with a picture of the human being as composed of a mixture of separable body and soul that is quite alien, in my view, to the Biblical image. In particular it allows the pagan or gnostic idea of an eternal soul that is the real self and can subsist apart from the body (perhaps in a non-material “heaven”);

2) the translation of psychen sometimes as “life” (in verse 35) and sometimes as “soul” (in verse 36) accentuates this by hiding that the same word is being used in both cases, that the paradoxical claim is being made that the attempt to preserve the “psychen” is what dooms it and its destruction is what saves it, in any case it is the same “thing” that is at stake – the soul cannot be counter-posed to life;

3) the translation of apolesei as “lose” fails to do justice to the sense of destruction that word denotes – that which has been subject to apolosei hasn’t just been misplaced or hidden, it has been made ruin, furthermore this isn’t something that happens by accident, it is something that is done;

4) translating both apolosei and zemiothenai by the same word (“lose”) seriously distorts the relationship between the two verses, already disrupted if psychen is translated differently in the two cases – in verse 35 we have the counter-position of “save” and “destroy”, in verse 36 that of “gain” and “forfeit” – this matters because in verse 35 the focus is on the relationship between a person and his or her “self”, in 36 the shift to the language of exchange indicates the correct focus as on the relationship between a person and God with the self at stake.

This discussion of questions of translation is a preamble. The main point is that this critical passage on discipleship has a very serious and disturbing message for us, as sinners in need of salvation. The message is that our efforts at saving ourselves will always be not just useless but actually destructive, like the person in quicksand trying to find a way to stand we will simply intensify and accelerate our doom. Only by actively working against our established self-hood, our asserted independence of God, only by following and obeying rather than leading and deciding will we be saved.

This strikes to the heart of our sinfulness, which is basically our desire to be sovereigns of ourselves not subjects of the divine sovereign. Entering into the kingdom of God means we have to surrender our independence, destroy our selves.

PoppyRemembrance Day can be a strange and puzzling experience, at least to me. Brought up to be deeply suspicious of the British state and everything associated with it, steeped in a Trotskyist tradition that starts its thinking about war from the assumption that one’s main enemy is at home in the shape of the ruling class, I find it hard to shake off that instinctive distrust. I have come to see the premise that class struggle is the main truth of political and thus of national life as not just wrong but absurd. I have rejected completely the Marxism that dominated my youth. Yet I can’t accept a strong identification with “my” nation and its state.

The Christianity embraced in my thirties not much more compatible with nationalism than the Marxism of my teens and twenties. Our identity in Christ, if it is a genuine rebirth into a new creation, cannot be simply and straightforwardly grafted on to a natural national identity. Whatever else Jesus was and is he is not English, British or European. If we are adopted into the family of God our national identity becomes, at the least, problematic.

Remembrance Day is not necessarily an orgy of national self-congratulation and identity building, of course, but it can sometimes feel too close to that for my comfort. I don’t have a strong feeling of any kind about the recent installation at the Tower but the fact that it seemed natural to commemorate only “our” war dead is both quite understandable and in keeping with the nature of Remembrance Day and deeply troubling to me. That both these things are true is what makes this day difficult. I find myself able neither to embrace nor to reject it.

Equally I have difficulty with the “white poppy” response. I am not and have never been a pacifist. It seems obvious to me that sometimes it would be irresponsible to reject recourse to violence. One could legitimately say that one chose to submit oneself to the actions of evil men with resistance, in line with Jesus’ clear instruction. I find it more difficult to accept that one can make that choice for others. Those with the authority and the capability to protect the subjects of a sovereign power of which they are the agents must sometimes do so, it seems to me. Thus I accept the broad outline of a theory of “just war” as it has been developed in the Christian tradition.

I am also keenly aware of the injunction that we Christians are to “love our enemies”. Who “our” enemies are, in this case, is not completely straightforward. As I read Christ’s words they are those who are our enemies insofar as we are Christians who are primarily in view. In this respect it is not at all clear that the enemies of “my” country are my enemies. They may, perhaps, be my neighbours or they may be people to whom I have none of the relationships named in Jesus’ teaching, neighbour, enemy, brother, sister, friend. They may not fall into any of the categories named by him alongside these relational ones, poor, rich, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the blind, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the rich. If, however, their actions in war make them my enemies then I am instructed to love them.

Alongside my unease as the Church as the Church, which cannot really see itself as national, remembering the losses of one nation rather than another (an unease that recognises reasons why it might properly do so) comes another. What difference does it make it the wars in which people died were or were not, to whatever degree, “just”? Does it make a difference to our attitude to their deaths if we think they were in the interest of a good or of a bad cause? Does it make a difference if they were willing and enthusiastic participants or unwilling or even mutinous? Do we remember those shot for cowardice differently from the way we remember those killed doing heroic things for which they were awarded posthumous medals? If so, why?

At any rate our memorialising, as Christians, has to have at least a substantial element of repentance. All war is wrong, even just war, even war we cannot responsibly avoid. Jesus really does tell us not to resist the evil man and when we do we are quite clearly doing what we are told not to. It should come as no surprise to anybody with much acquaintance with the post-Reformation Christian tradition that we cannot keep ourselves pure of sin. Our lives are lived out in a fallen sinful world as fallen sinful people. This by no means absolves us of the struggle to align ourselves to God’s will as best we can but we should be under no illusion that this will leave us nothing to regret or confess, nothing to repent of.

Of course we can’t repent on somebody else’s behalf, when we remember the dead we do not remember or confess their sins. The primary modes of Christian memory in this case are thanksgiving and expectation. We give thanks for the gift of life, which is past, and we look forward to resurrection. Insofar, though, as we identify with the lost, in a moment of national solidarity, then there is repentance. The nation is responsible for these deaths and for the deaths of those killed on the other side of every war, and of this we should repent, even where we fought justly.

Balancing these various perspectives, us as Christians set aside and apart from our nation, as members of a national community mourning, in the Christian way of thanksgiving and expectation, those who have been lost, as members of a national community repenting of our sinful warring, is difficult, but it must surely be the task of the Church on these days of recollection.

In the UK United Reformed Church we are in the midst of a discussion about whether to pass an enabling resolution that would allow those of our churches that wish to register for same sex marriages to do so. The agreement of the denomination is required under the legislation in order for any church to proceed in this way. The Baptist Union has already expressed such agreement on the grounds that their understanding of church polity is such that this is exclusively a matter for decision by the local church. The URC has taken the view (almost certainly correctly) that our ordering by our manual means that a positive decision by the denomination that we are prepared to allow local churches the decision is required.

In brief I am uncomfortable with what we in the Church may seem to be saying about sexual difference and gender by accepting same sex marriage although I am quite comfortable with our affirming and blessing same sex relationships. This is chiefly because of the very bad arguments being presented by many of those in favour of this development. I thus find myself in favour of something while rejecting almost of the reasons put forward for it, indeed of finding those reasons harmfully misleading and thus in the difficult position of being able neither wholeheartedly to support nor to reject the suggestion that we enable same sex marriage in churches.

The core of my unease revolves around two problems that I have:

1) I think the arguments of those who reject same-sex marriage about the historical and traditional character of marriage are much closer to the truth than those of the people in favour. I further believe that the interpretation given of the relevant sections of the Bible offered by these opponents are more credible as statements of what those passages mean;

2) I think the arguments of those who favour same-sex marriage lead us in the direction of a way of thinking about the significance of sexual difference as dangerously misleading as that of their “complementarian” conservative opponents.

It is my considered opinion, after much reflection on this matter, that marriage has its origins in the ordering of the bearing and raising of children and in particular of making definitive patriarchal lines of descent. These origins are both historical and theological. In fact I would suggest that any attempt to distinguish sharply between history and theology is a profound mistake in the context of Christian faith. Our faith is in a God who is the creator and agent of history and whose decisive presence within Creation is one localisable in time and space and thus itself historical. To understand what marriage is, has been and will be we do indeed need to take the word of God in the Bible, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as our highest authority, but it cannot be interpreted outside of and against history.

One of the things this means is that we need to take seriously the variety of forms and expressions of marriage in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, and their treatment there seriously as guide to our reflection on the best contemporary accounts of the nature, development and variety of marriage through history and in the contemporary world. One thing that is clear from this is that forms of marriage dissociated from the legitimation of children and the making arrangements for their care and socialisation, from the transfer of property and other rights and the setting of their status are highly exceptional and unusual. Such forms may have existed in the past but rarely and in situations far removed from the historical experiences that have shaped the legal arrangements of the United Kingdom.

It is also clear that over the last 50 years there has been a very rapid development in the UK in the direction of this dissociation. The distinction between children legitimated by marriage between their mothers and their fathers and children not so legitimated was clear as recently as the 1960s and is now almost gone. If it is true that the core functions of marriage were, in the period before the 1960s, this legitimation and the enforcement of paternal responsibility for their support, and I believe this to be the case, then this collapse of the link between paternity and marriage is a matter of great import. Indeed I would suggest that it leaves marriage as a legal status with almost no real function, from the point of view of the state and of society. This is reflected in the ease with which marriage can now be dissolved. Where once the state acted as if it mattered that marriages endured and social pressures were brought to bear to reinforce this endurance divorce is now routine and without great stigma.

We can identify a great many contributing factors to this development but I can’t see how anyone could doubt that the achievement of a much higher degree of legal and economic autonomy by women is the key one. Women no longer necessarily need the support of a man to support and protect them. The Biblical texts. where they discuss the relationship between the sexes, assume the dependency of women on men, which has been a key feature of almost all known societies (again there are exception but exceptions are what they are) until very recently.

This is a change that we need to take into account when we read the Bible, even where we regard it as authoritative. One response, that of the “complementarians” is to reject these developments as inimical to the will of God. That the Bible assumes the dominance of men and dependency of women is taken as making this feature of past societies as being ordained by God. I will not take time here to argue against this view. I regard it as deeply and appallingly wrong.

Alternatively we have to develop an understanding of the authority of the Bible that can allow us to read and interpret it in ways that acknowledge that history did not end with the closing of the canon of scripture and that the texts we have are themselves historical documents through which God is revealed but which do not stand outside of time and cannot be taken directly to reveal eternal truth. The revelation is itself inside history and cannot be detached from it.

This means (to bring me to the second focus of my unease) we need, urgently, to understand how sexual difference is being transformed and what this means theologically and historically to the Christian church. The arguments of those in favour of the recognition of same sex marriages tend strongly towards accepting the default liberal position that individuals should be regarded as the abstract bearers of rights, understood essentially in terms of property rights. On this basis marriage is a private matter between two abstract individuals with all concrete characteristics of these individuals being irrelevant. Its significance is not a matter about which society or the state need have any view, since their primary interest has always been in children and this interest is now dealt with elsewhere (in the complex web of legislation and other forms of regulation of child support and care which no longer takes much interest in marital status).

Here there has been a strong tendency for those in the Church favouring same sex marriage to play a leading role in the generation of a new ideology of marriage in which an emotional-psychological celebration of a form of bonding between two individuals is celebrated as a wonderful gift from God and put at the centre of human life. This ideological work is not in itself hugely harmful. There is something true in it and it is anyway only a theological gloss on the common sense of our time (as any acquaintance with popular culture will make clear). What does cause me difficulty is that it distracts us from some, what seem to me, urgent tasks for theological reflection.

1) What is now the  significance for us of sexual difference? A choice between a reactionary attempt to return to a patriarchal order or a liberal denial that there is any significance in this difference is dismaying. The sexes remain different and the relationships between them remain problematic. This is not to deny the reality and importance of those people who transgress this difference. In fact it is to suggest that we (all of us) need to engage properly with this transgressive experience to understand the boundaries being transgressed.

2) How should we respond to the radically new forms of family structure that are emerging? We all know that family is now actually something very different from what it was 50 years ago. This should be a matter of primary importance as we discuss marriage but if one did not already know it it would often be impossible to gather it from our conversations and debates. Our retreat from reality in this regard is a profound failure. We need either to embrace or resist these changes, at any rate we have to have something coherent to say about them. To affirm the permanently voluntary psychologised and privatised  “marriage” that is emerging as if it were the same historical institution with a few welcome improvements simply won’t do.

rings and bible

We’re talking about marriage, or more particularly marriage between people of the same sex, again. The URC General Assembly met on the weekend just past and unsurprisingly found it was unable to agree by unanimous consent that permission to register for same sex marriage be given to those churches that wish so to do. As a result a process of consultation has begun to decide whether the denomination should take this step at some (as yet not fully defined) future date. Has I been at Assembly, and I’m by no means sorry I was not, I would have favoured the passing of the resolution, but I would have done so somewhat reluctantly. This is for reasons similar to the ones that would have made me unwilling to commend the reports of the Faith and Order committee.

I have no objection at all to churches conducting same sex marriages. If the churches in which I serve wished me to conduct such weddings I would do so. My reluctance arises from my strong feelings of unease about the arguments offered in favour of this step by those promoting it. That is to say that I agree with their conclusions but find their reasons deeply unsatisfying and even misleading. even more so than the arguments of their opponents. So I would have to support their resolutions while feeling that in doing so I was appearing to give support to a set of propositions with which I not only don’t fully agree but positively disagree.

For the purposes of clarifying my own mind and in hope of being able to enter into conversation with others who can enlighten and guide me to a clearer sense of what I believe on this matter I offer the following these:

  1. Marriage is a thoroughly historical and social institution and it makes no sense to try to construct from its history a single ahistorical essence, although study of the history will point one to certain transhistorical continuities that are useful in understanding it
  2. The Bible reflects this historical development, with a wide range of marital forms being described within it, from the polygamy and concubinage of the Genesis stories, through the patriarchal marriage forms of the historical books, to the harem arrangements of the kings of both Israel and other nations
  3. The New Testament assumes and accepts the (slightly different but in many ways similar) arrangements of the societies (Jewish, Greek and Roman) of its time as normative for most purposes (especially in the pastoral epistles)
  4. All of the forms of marriage described or assumed in the Old and New Testament rest on the subordination of women to men and focus strongly on provisions for the legitimacy of children, the inheritance of property rights and the cementing of kinship relationships which almost all historians of marriage agree have been its primary social functions through most of social-historical time
  5. For the early Church (up to the middle ages) marriage was primarily a legal arrangement defined by the civil power and recognised by the Church. Until the time of Constantine this recognition was of a legal relationship which was not defined first and foremost by the Church (hence the apparent lack of any wedding liturgies until the 4th Century
  6. The New Testament witness, while accepting the legitimacy and acceptability of marriage is suspicious and sometimes hostile to it, presenting celibacy as a real alternative, and I believe, mostly seeing celibacy as preferable but not possible for all
  7. The last 50 years have seen an unprecedented crisis of marriage as an institution, through which it is being redefined in a fundamental way. Legal marriage is now an optional part of a menu of quasi-marital elements including cohabitation, joint ownership of property and shared parenthood. The choice of whether to add the legal partnership to some combination of these elements is a matter of choice and in most social contexts makes little real difference. There are few remaining social sanctions against the legally unmarried who share some or all of the other elements of marriage, and all elements are known by all participants to be permanently voluntary and thus inherently temporary.
  8. This means that marriage is either a largely irrelevant appendix to the concrete social reality of sexual partnership (if one reserves “marriage” to mean the legal status) or else its legal aspect has become just one (relatively unimportant) part of it.
  9. It is this that makes same sex marriage possible for the state. All the other elements of marriage (cohabitation, shared property, common parenthood) are now possible and generally accepted for same sex couples (despite residual resistance in some quarters, especially in the case of parenthood) so that extending the legal status makes little or no difference to anything
  10. Some churches have a huge problem with this process since they hold marriage to be a sacrament (or in some cases an ordinance) eternally set (at some point) and unalterable, which means that the churches’ definition of marriage now has an increasingly tenuous connection to the actually existing social institution. This is something new, since previously the churches’ understanding of marriage largely aligned to that of society, indeed I would suggest it was largely based on that social understanding

My problem is that both sides of the current debate argue for ahistorical definitions of marriage, one that generalises that which existed before the crisis inaugurated in the 1960s, the other that generalises the idealised self-image of contemporary voluntary and thoroughly liberal arrangements. Neither, in my view, has a real claim to theological integrity, since neither is faithful to the Biblical witness that marriage as such is a passing institution that belongs to the current age and not to the Kingdom.


Last Sunday my preaching plan cause me a certain amount of unease and distress. I reached the week when I had to address the idea that we experience God directly when we pay attention to our “conscience”. This idea, much beloved by post-Kantian liberal theology

For the Kantian the most reliable guide in ethics (and hence in religion) is this autonomous conscience (however it is thought of). Structures of religious authority (churches and traditions) are secondary and even, perhaps, unhelpful in that they distract from this inner voice and represent “heteronomous” relations of power.  theology, suggests that we have a faculty or capacity (“conscience”) which enables us to know good from bad, right from wrong. This in turn allows us to access the nature of God (thought of primarily as an agent of morality) which means that the direct revelation of God’s will in history (recorded in the Bible) is not strictly necessary.

I have long been deeply suspicious of this way of thinking. It seems to me that we have no particular reason to believe that anybody’s inner voice of conscience will lead them to moral truth and thence to knowledge of God’s mind. To me it is equally (or even more) credible to see conscience as the voice of impulses derived from a range of sources, from one’s own desires and interests, through the shaping influence of the social and personal influences that have acted upon one, to ideologies that include moral ideas among others that are adopted as a package giving satisfaction to any number of non-moral needs.

Not only do people routinely ignore their consciences but there are plenty of cases where people seem to hold, entirely conscientiously, opposing views on questions like attitudes to suicide and especially assisted suicide, abortion and the legitimacy of warfare and of particular classes of weapon. Conscience cannot, given these cases, be a completely reliable universally available access to the (moral) mind of God.

However in working on my sermon, and especially in studying the relevant writings of the apostle Paul, it is apparent that the idea of “conscience”, of an individual sense of what is right and wrong, or an inner court of judgement, is important to the shape of Christian moral thought. I wrestled long and hard with Romans 2:12-16 as I worked on my sermon, but I was aware of other passages in the Pauline epistles that also dealt with the idea of conscience.

As well as several occurrences in Romans the term translated “conscience” appears in both first and second Corinthians and the pastoral epistles as well as in Hebrews and Acts. In looking carefully at Romans 2:15 and its context I was convinced that Paul envisaged a faculty or capacity for judgement located “inside” the self when he used the term “conscience”.

This was an unwelcome conclusion for me. I have long thought that moral judgement was simply too uncertain to be the basis for any definitive statement, but here was Paul arguing that it made sense for all to be judged according to their conduct of their lives because they have the law written on their hearts and the court of judgement inside them to show them whether they are doing what that law requires. If any act so as to be guilty when judged by God they have only themselves to blame because conscience will have told them that this is so.

Committed as I am to the authority of the Bible I can’t simply ignore this, little though I might like it.

The reasons I don’t like it are not altogether easy to disentangle but centre, I think, on the reality that I know that I am myself far from completely at ease with my conscience and find it difficult to believe that anybody else is either. If we are to be responsible for our selves and our salvation or condemnation in this way I am sceptical about the prospects of all of us.

The situation isn’t as simple as it might at first seem, however. Paul in several passages, most notably in 1 Cor 8, urges those with “strong” consciences (who have a more “liberal” approach in the matter of food sacrificed to idols) to respect the scruples of those with “weak” consciences (who hold to a more conservative and restrictive view). Even though we know them to be wrong we are to respect their view and not lead them to act against their consciences, which would cause them to fall and be destroyed. (1 Cor 8:9-13). Acting against conscience leads to destruction even where conscience is mistaken.

This passage is crucial, I think, in interpreting Romans 2:12-16 in its significance for Christian ethics. I would suggest the following propositions:

1) human beings do not have an innate internal knowledge of good and evil (it’s hard to reconcile this idea with the story of the fall)

2) since the coming of Christ and the establishment of his Kingdom we do have the law written on our hearts (by God) which is to say God has acted and is acting to make his intention for us intelligible to us (Jeremiah 31 and Romans 2)

3) Both this writing and our ability to read it depend on the ongoing work of the Spirit in joining us to Christ – this work is not complete and our ability to interpret the law thus partial

4) We thus remain in a state of ignorance only partially relieved by the eschatological inbreaking of the the rule of God

5) we are nonetheless called on to obey the dictates of God insofar as we understand them, our willingness to obey (an expression of faith) is the precondition of our salvation

6) we will make mistakes in our grasp of those dictates but these will be forgiven as long as we are both sincere in our attempts to do follow them and assiduous in our attempts to develop our understanding

At any rate I am coming round to a view that that ethical life, the attempt to live as God wishes, is more important than my previous opinions, which verged on a rejection of the role of this in salvation, had allowed.

So here we are again (or so it feels). Cameron and Obama are talking on the telephone. Military options are being reviewed. Parliament has been recalled. Once more the UK and the US seem to be on the brink of military action in the Middle East.

I remember the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when I felt unable either to join the demonstrations against (with their apparent indifference to the awfulness of the regime and their visceral hostility to those leading our own country and its allies) nor to support the proposed action (with its transparent lack of any real vision for what would be achieved). I was against the invasion but unable to lend my support to an opposition with which I could not identify.

Given the distance from those events I would probably now be more inclined to support the demonstrations but still uneasy about doing so. I subscribe to Just War Theory and would be willing to lend support to military action that meets its criteria. The invasion of Iraq seemed to me to fail on the grounds of probability of success and on last resort. Much was made of the competent authority argument in relation to the UN but I’m far from convinced by that. I’m not at all clear that the UN is an effective enough body to be regarded as a legal authority, valuable though it is.

At any rate we’re now facing many of the same arguments in regard to Syria, albeit nobody is seriously advocating or considering a ground invasion. Whatever military action might be taken is likely to be more demonstrative than really decisive. The arguments in favour seem to amount to “we can’t do nothing” more than “we should do this”. It’s even uncertain whether any state actor really wants Assad overthrown given the uncertainties and dangers attendant on this outcome.

So what, if anything, do Christians have to say that is distinctively Christian on all of this?

It seems to me that the moral and political questions are ones where we are unlikely to have much to add. We are likely to say “war is a bad thing” and to link this to the gospel, but we’re very far from being the only ones opposed in principle to violence. Where Jesus’ teaching is distinctive is in its radicality: “offer the wicked man no resistance”. This, though, would apply not only to intervention from outside but to the Syrian opposition and indeed to Assad. This teaching of Jesus would urge all involved to let the others do whatever they would.

While this accords with the gospel teaching I don’t hear many voices raised saying the the Syrian opposition “lay down your weapons and offer the wicked man Assad no resistance”.

We all understand, at some level, that this teaching is inappropriate. It may be that as individuals we are called to try to reach this level of self-surrender and Christ-likeness, but to choose it on behalf of others is not right. This kind of insight is part of what lies behind Luther’s two regiments approach to politics and to ethics. We have responsibilities towards others in this fallen world that mean that sometimes we are called to do and be things that sit uneasily with the kingdom teaching.

Often moral choice is more a matter of choosing between a set of wrongs rather than holding our for an unachievable right. This is what Just War says. War is always a bad thing but it may be the least bad of a set of bad options.

Again you don’t need to be a follower of Christ to recognise this. What you do need to be a follower of Christ for is to hope for something beyond the sets of compromises this world allows.

What Jesus announces is the coming near of the Kingdom of God, a direct and unchallengeable rule of the loving God. A state of affairs in which war and violence, injustice and abuse, even sickness and death are a thing of the past. In the redeemed and transformed creation into which we are to be resurrected all these consequences of sin will cease to be.

The Christian message is not “be nice” (although we should be nice) or even “be good” (although we should be good). It is that God is acting and will act to make sin and death things of the past. We are called to represent that kingdom in the here and now. We are called to live and act as if God’s rule has already been fully enacted (no possessions, complete non-violence and so on) but we’re also promised God’s gracious forgiveness for the ways in which we fall short.

This dual existence, in God’s kingdom and in the mess of our fallen world, is the core problem of Christian discipleship and is sustainable only through faith in that forgiveness, in the promised return of Christ to rule in glory and in resurrection to eternal life in him.

We shouldn’t try to short-circuit all this by looking for the perfect Christian answer to the pressing ethical and political problems of today. We have to live with the knowledge that there is no way to live in this world without sin, without really doing things that make us guilty, in our eyes and in the eyes of God.

Our only recourse is to throw ourselves on God’s mercy and pray for the guidance of the Spirit to lead us on the path Christ has laid.

It was a great privilege for me to preside at the wedding of Ben and Kathryn in May, combined in the same service with a blessing of the new family they were forming and the baptism of two of their children. Both the wedding and the baptisms were my first as a minister so this complex and weighty service felt like a great responsibility and a real challenge.

I was blessed that Ben and Kathryn were very clear about what they were doing and why and about the importance of the occasion and what it meant. We worked closely together in developing an order of service that would give proper attention to the unique significance of each of its three parts while maintaining its integrity as a single event. I learnt a lot from both the preparation and from the day and am grateful to the couple for allowing me to walk with them through it.

Family and marriage have changed a great deal in the last 50 years. Many of those who marry today have lived together before they do so and it is not at all unusual for them already to have children. Some in the churches are profoundly uncomfortable with these developments but his does not alter their reality. In my view we have to accept and adapt to the realities of modern life if we are not to become entirely irrelevant.

It might help if we remembered that for many hundreds of years almost all marriages were arrangement between individuals and their families that did not require the prior permission of or any ceremony organised by either the Church or the civil authorities. Those married could then appeal to these authorities if things went wrong. This is not unlike the contemporary situation where cohabiting couple are acquiring increasing rights and responsibilities towards one another, making their relationships more akin to marriage.

This makes the formal celebration of a marriage in church, at least potentially, a more rather than a less meaningful occasion, since it must be deliberately chosen. This was certainly so in this case. Its combination with a blessing of the family and of the baptisms of Oliver and Emma made it a beautiful celebration of the presence of God in our everyday lives and of the ways in which the love that binds families together is intimately bound up with the love of God.

homer marriesI have experienced again these last few days my unease and discomfort with the discussion of same sex marriage in and by the churches. These crystallised for me around the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby’s, speech in the House of Lords. This speech had much to commend it, in my view; it was clear that the discussion of what the civil authority does about the regulation of “marriage” (we’ll come back to my discomfort with that word) is not a faith matter, it recognised that it was right and proper for the law to give recognition and legitimacy to same-sex partnerships where the partners wished it to, it was clear that marriage as it has historically existed was primarily concerned with the getting and raising of children (although I suspect he and I might disagree about the details of that concern).

However, in what seems to me an astonishing non-sequitur, he concludes that it is vital that the recognition of same-sex relationships be called something other than marriage. I think I understand  how he gets to this position but I think it requires a willful blindness to social and historical realities that the whole Church (on both sides of this debate) seems absolutely determined to ignore.

Above all we have to recognise, if this debate is to move on, that “legal/ecclesial marriage” is in a state of dissolution as a social institution. As recently as 50 years ago marriage was more-or-less compulsory for those who wanted to share a life as a couple. There were some parts of society where this was not so but it was the case for most people. If a man and woman wanted to live together, share a bed, have sex and produce children then getting married was if not essential then nearly so, Marriage functioned as a key regulatory mechanism in people’s actual social lives. This is no longer the case.

In contemporary society, for most purposes, whether you are married or not makes no difference at all. It has become an optional additional property of relationships that are not fundamentally changed by it. Furthermore it makes little real difference to the permanence or otherwise of those relationships. In real terms “marriage” as a legal status, has come close to ceasing to exist.

This does not mean that the historically persistent status of “marriage” as a social category has ceased to exist, but that the boundaries between it and “non-marriage” are now indistinct and porous. We have couples who are only casually and temporarily bonded at one end of a spectrum with couples who regard themselves as indissolubly joined at the other with all sorts of intermediate points, marked by formal and informal transitions.

These seem to me to be indisputable facts about the world in which we live. Many of the marriages conducted in churches are in fact transitions of these kinds. We marry couples who are already, in fact, married, sharing property and children, because they feel the time has come for another marker of their commitment to one another.

Until we start to talk about this deep social change in the meaning and form of marriage, in particular about the loosening of the grip of regulation, by law or Church, on the really existing social institution.

We don’t need to be greatly alarmed by this, in my view. It is a return to the less formal arrangements that existed before the consolidation of modernity in the eighteenth century. What we do need to do is to think about how to respond. At the moment we try to talk and act as if “marriage” belonged to us; it doesn’t and it never has.

One particularly unsatisfactory aspect of all this is the bizarre revival of a sacramental view of marriage among “liberal” proponents of same-sex marriage. This has little or no basis in the Bible or in the Protestant tradition (indeed it was one of the aspects of medieval Catholicism that the Reformation was most explicitly opposed to). It is deeply unhelpful and misleading, which is why I sympathise with the Anglican thinkers who are determined to argue for marriage as a social good while rejecting both their arguments and their conclusions. At least they’re starting from the right place even if they’re going in a less than ideal direction. The “new sacramentalists” are on the wrong road completely and are in danger of completely losing touch with reality.

ga2013At the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly the debate about the ordination of homosexual people ended by rejection both the alternatives presented in the Theological Commission’s report which was good given how deeply flawed both sub-reports were (I’ve commented on the deeply flawed nature of both sub-reports here and here). The nature of the “compromise” that was presented remains very unclear however and offers an opportunity to think through the issues in a new and different way.

This compromise, essentially, asserts that the Kirk is and remains of the view that homosexual practice excludes any individual from the ordained ministry but explicitly empowers Kirk Sessions (the governing bodies of parish churches) to depart from that view. It further states that this implies that people who are in civil partnerships to be selected for training with a view to ordination on call to a church whose Session has decided to take advantage of the opt-out.

In effect it says that the Church of Scotland as a whole is opposed to such ordination but that it recognises the legitimacy of the opposite view and will support (through the denominational training structures) those acting on that dissenting opinion.

The most immediate reaction was that the issues this raises for the Kirk are ecclesiological and the Theological Forum was instructed to examine the “mixed economy” created from this angle. The granting of an explicit license to decide locally against the view of the denomination as a whole or of its Presbyteries has been seen as compromising the polity of the Kirk in a “congregationalist” direction. I would suggest, though, that another and better approach to thinking through the meaning of this decision is available.

This would involve (and I would argue is implicitly already at work in the act of General Assembly in passing the compromise position) deciding that this question is not one of fundamental principle at all. The decision about whether or not to call people in homosexual partnerships as ministers is one about which the denomination does not need to have a view. It is expressing a view only because some people (wrongly) think it should while making clear that this view is not one about which it cares deeply (by saying to those that disagree with the view expressed that they need not feel bound by it).

In that respect it is like the decision to publish a hymn book. When Church Hymnary 4 was produced there was no compulsion on anybody to accept it. Churches could buy and use it or not as they felt fit. It was something the Church did but not something it felt the need to enforce. I’m not a Church of Scotland minister and I don’t understand the place that Common Order (the book of service orders) plays in its life but I’m sure it isn’t a prescriptive in the way that Anglican service books are. It is available for use but not, on the whole, strictly enforced as rules.

The Kirk seems to me to have said, with its decision to reject the Theological Commission’s alternatives and to go for something that does not impose a uniform view or practice, to have put sexuality into this sort of category. The denomination as a whole has expressed a preference against homosexual practice among its ministers but also said that it doesn’t care all that much.

This is a position of which I more or less approve (except that I would, as it were, reverse things by saying I think that the Church should affirm the calls of homosexual people but that I understand some believe that the Biblical prohibitions on same-sex relationships prevent this and would allow them to act on that belief). This implies the Church (or more properly denomination) as a whole deciding that this particular matter of sexual ethics is one that is not a fundamental question.

The proper topic for further theological reflection is thus not so much the matter of polity (ecclesiology) but that of the status of sexual ethics in the Christian life. The progress the Kirk has made (and despite my general aversion to the word “progress” I feel moved to used it here) is in the direction of a more Biblical appreciation of the place of ethics in our theology, a decentring of ethical codes. This will only be a good thing, though, if this decentring leads to a new focus on the figure of Christ and through him on God. If, instead, it leads to a more typically “progressive” focus on another kind of ethics it will be an opportunity lost.