Tag Archives: Jeffrey John

Theological Hoop Jumping

A few weeks ago I commented on the brewing row over the meaning of Easter caused by an upcoming talk by the controversial Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John. Subsequently John has responded to the criticism through the Church Times, and Bishop Tom Wright has produced an extensive article expressing why his original criticisms were valid.

Included in the prominent critics were Bishops Wallace Benn and Pete Broadbent who followed along from Bishop Tom Wright and released a statement from Spring Harvest condemning the talk – without having read it. However this takes on a more interesting twist with the news that the UCCF are withdrawing from Spring Harvest because of the involvement of Steve Chalke as a result of his beliefs first mentioned in his book The Lost Message of Jesus and which Chalke himself summarises online. Whilst the UCCF believe that Chalke has diverged from orthodox Christian teaching – the same accusation that has been levelled at Jeffrey John – Bishops Benn and Broadbent are happy to work with Chalke, but are releasing press statements criticising John.

Needless to say, this can lead pretty easily to the conclusion that John is being attacked because of who he is, rather than what he is saying – so Tom Wright talks about Chalke in the article too. However, having read the relevant passage:

Now, to be frank, I cannot tell, from this paragraph alone, which of two things Steve means. You could take the paragraph to mean (a) on the cross, as an expression of God’s love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son. In other words, there are many models of penal substitution, and the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one. Or you could take the paragraph to mean (b) because the cross is an expression of God’s love, there can be no idea of penal substitution at all, because if there were it would necessarily mean the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story, and that cannot be right.

where option (a) is the acceptable interpretation of the Chalke statements, whereas (b) is the interpretation that UCCF and most other people have taken. Tom Wright and I assume Bishops Benn and Broadbent take the view that Chalke meant (a).

From my point of view, looking at what Chalke himself says he says the following:

In my view however, the real problem with penal substitution (a theory rooted in violence and retributive notions of justice) is its incompatibility, at least as currently taught and understood, with any authentically Christian understanding of the character of God or genuinely Christocentric worldview…

which strikes me that Chalke is saying that he has the same issue with the traditional understanding of penal substitution as John, but that Tom Wright is doing some fairly subtle theological hoop jumping to argue why what Chalke says is acceptable and John isn’t.

Tom Wright doesn’t help with drawing conclusions that this is personal either. During the course of the nearly half the article where he picks the John talk apart, he at one point uses an example that focuses on Jeffrey John’s sexuality, and alludes to the title of his well known booklet on the subject. Jeffrey John’s letter to the Church Times mentions that much of the hate mail related to the talk focused on his sexuality – when Tom Wright mentions John’s letter he brushes it aside with a ‘we all get hate mail’ type comment, totally ignoring the sexuality aspect, before going on to make comments that could be considered in the same vein. When he starts talking about Chalke he notes that he knows him personally, indeed he got a pre-release copy of the book. He also highlights that the book may be unclear over what Chalke believes, but then says that he has had a chat with Chalke and is happy that he does believe in penal substitution but under another name. He finishes the section on Chalke with this statement:

And this leads to the key point: there are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others. What has happened since the initial flurry of debate about The Lost Message of Jesus has looked, frankly, like a witch-hunt, with people playing the guilt-by-association game: hands up anyone who likes Steve Chalke; right, now we know who the bad guys are.

Unfortunately, as with anything with such subtle differences for those of us without doctorates of Theology it really isn’t that clear what the difference is, between what Chalke believes and what John has said. In the book, Chalke states this:

If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil. The truth is, the cross is a symbol of love. It is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his son are prepared to go to prove that love.

He then uses Elie Wiesel as an example to make the point.

Jeffrey John says this in his talk:

Because he is Love, God does what Love does: He unites himself with the beloved. He enters his own creation and goes to the bottom line for us. Not sending a substitute to vent his punishment on, but going himself to the bitter end, sharing in the worst of suffering and grief that life can throw at us, and finally sharing our death, so that he can bring us through death to life in him.

As with Chalke, he then goes on to use Elie Wiesel as an example to make the point. Both Chalke and John are disagreeing with penal substitution and saying that it is about love, not vengeance, yes there are differences in what they are saying, and how they say it, but they are largely coming at it from the same direction. The difference between the two is that Chalke has a quote from a certain Tom Wright on the cover of his book commending the scholarship, whilst Jeffery John gets Tom Wright criticising him in the Sunday Telegraph, he then gets Wright producing an epic critique of the talk on Fulcrum.

Ultimately it stinks of being theological sleight of hand buried in pages and pages of exposition to try and avoid accusations of hypocrisy that can be levelled at those involved, Tom Wright especially. Finally, what about the UCCF and their Spring Harvest walkout? Much as I don’t agree with the beliefs of the UCCF, and probably would object to what they are teaching, at least they’re actually being consistent between what they believe and their behaviour, which is more than can be said for certain bishops.

(Thanks to Dave Walker for keeping track of the debate.)

Another Easter, Another Chance to Argue over it’s Meaning

So Easter is almost here, and the Sunday Telegraph is kicking off the seemingly annual row over the meaning of Easter. The source of the argument this time is a radio broadcast going out tomorrow given by Canon Jeffrey John, which according to the article “is set to ignite a row over one of the most fundamental tenets of Christian belief”.

The article then wheels out Bishop Tom Wright and Rev Rod Thomas in opposition, with Tom Wright criticising the BBC for allowing such a prominent slot to be given to a provocative argument.

The fact is that what Jeffrey John is questioning – the theory of Penal Substitution – seems to be something that Tom Wright and Rod Thomas would have people believe, incorrectly, is the only explanation for the meaning of Easter. Christians have been trying to understand the meaning of Easter for over 2000 years, and there have been a variety of attonement theories put forward with Penal Substitution being just one. If you need a summary of the various theories that have been put forward, in response to the article Father Jake has given a good introduction to the various theories on his site.

Indeed, Jeffrey John is not the first to speak out in recent years, nor will he be the last. Previous controversial arguments against the theory of Penal Substitution have been presented by Bishop John Spong, who mentions it in several places including his call for a new reformation. Only two years ago, Steve Chalke caused consternation amongst the Evangelical Alliance of which he was a prominent member, by describing Penal Substitution as “a theory rooted in violence and retributive notions of justice” and as incompatible “at least as currently taught and understood, with any authentically Christian understanding of the character of God.”

Igniting a row over one of the most fundamental tenets of Christian belief? The row has been ‘ignited’ for many years – it’s old news – 2000 years old…

Update: More press coverage. Firstly a couple of junior Bishops (Wallace Benn and Pete Broadbent) have followed on from Tom Wright and attacked a talk they had neither read nor heard – Evangelical Bishops Attack Jeffrey John Talk (Without Reading It) – a fact which becomes glaringly obvious when you compare their statement to what Jeffrey John actually said. Benn and Broadbent, like Wright earlier in the week really do neither themselves, or their positions as senior Churchmen any good at all by making such public and obviously inaccurate statements.

Secondly, Giles Fraser has also come in on the debate, backing Jeffrey John not surprisingly, with a somewhat more forceful spin on the same subject.

Going to Heaven

I’m currently reading a copy of “Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinsonâ€? by Elizabeth Adams, which as the title suggests tells the story of Bishop Gene Robinson, particularly with regards to his election as Bishop of New Hampshire. I’d wanted to read the book for a while, putting in an order almost immediately with Amazon, but found that the order kept being pushed back and back as they tried to import it from the States, so I jumped at an offer from Richard Nash, the publisher of the book in the US (who even gets a thank-you in the preface of the book from the author) who arranged a review copy for me direct from the UK distributor.

Before reading it I had been expecting the book to cover similar ground to “A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexualityâ€? by Stephen Bates, which although it included a picture of Gene Robinson on the cover, was primarily about the appointment and subsequent withdrawal of Canon Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. It is interesting to note that the massive furore that arose here over the appointment of Jeffrey John has died away, much as I expected it would once Gene Robinson had been elected across the pond. Indeed as I have commented, when Canon John was invested as Dean of St Albans, despite the best efforts of some groups to kick up a fuss, only a single protester showed up – a far cry from the increased security, armed police, bullet proof vests and bodyguards that were needed for the ceremony in New Hampshire. In fact the only mention of Jeffrey John in the Adams book so far is a somewhat misleading quote that the decision to appoint him was only made by Bishop Richard. For clarification, as with the appointment of a parish priest in the Church of England what happens currently is a much more consultative process, even if on paper it seems to be a one person decision. In the case of Jeffrey John, as with the current process for a successor to Bishop Richard in which we were involved, a committee that includes a lay element was appointed to oversee the process, and they took contributions from the wider Church. Jeffrey John was backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and also backed by the committee who interviewed the candidates. Ultimately it was one of the lay members of that committee, Philip Giddings who after agreeing to the appointment took the lead in the campaign to get Jeffrey John to stand down and became convenor of Anglican Mainstream. There is more detail on that whole process, including extensive interviews with Giddings himself in the Stephen Bates book.

Anyway, Going to Heaven is a very different book, in a large part I think because of the contribution of Gene Robinson himself, so there is a lot about his background, and also a lot of detail of his life in the Church prior to his election. There are also numerous contributions from people across the Episcopal Church including a number of people who on paper you would expect to be opposed to the appointment of a ‘gay bishop’, but supported Gene Robinson because of the work he had done for both his diocese and the Episcopal Church as a whole for many years before his election. In fact through these passages what comes through most clearly is that for many he wasn’t elected because he was gay, but he was elected because he was the best person for the job, in spite of the fact he was gay. Many of the people who backed him were willing to do so not because of some great ideal to bring the issue to the fore, but because they, and the majority of the people in the diocese believed that he was the right man for the job. This certainly contrasts with what happens in the UK where although we have involvement in the process for choosing a Bishop, ultimately we don’t see who the candidates were, and we are then told who has been appointed. In the Episcopal Church the process is much more open, with a shortlist of candidates being drawn up, and a long process of consultation where the candidates meet people from across the diocese, leading ultimately to an election with representatives from across the diocese.

Another element of the book is in drawing a comparison with the campaign for the ordination of Women, and the subsequent appointment of women Bishops, and of course as of November 1st, a woman as primate of the Episcopal Church as a whole. What struck me as interesting was the differences in the way the two issues were addressed. What I was unaware of was that it was that the first ordinations of Women in the US were conducted illegally, ahead of the approval from the General Convention. In comparison, New Hampshire were scrupulous in ensuring that the election was carried out properly, so there would be no question over his appointment. This of course has ultimately been what has caused much of the hand wringing and arguments across the Anglican Communion as a whole, as under the rules of the Church Gene Robinson has been appointed entirely properly.

One thing that is also clear is that it is apparent that nobody really expected the events that have happened since, and the worldwide element that his appointment took on. Looking again at the ordination of Women issue, there is disagreement across the Anglican Communion as a whole over the issue, but the communion has remained largely in tact. It certainly seems that many people in New Hampshire thought that whatever outcry there would be would die down, which of course it hasn’t. Bishop Gene Robinson has ended up being the trigger for a battle over what it means to be an Anglican itself.

As such, the book contains quite a few comments and anecdotes putting the liberal side of the argument. There are two points that I will repeat here. The first, is that whatever parts of the Anglican church may like to say, the Church is based on a combination of Scripture, Tradition and Reason – Richard Hooker often credited alongside Thomas Cranmer and Matthew Parker as being one of the founders of Anglican theological thought. Whilst some may have you believe that it is a recent idea, way back in the sixteenth century he was arguing that the scriptures should be read in their historical context, and be looked at in the light of the specific situations for which they were written. Elizabeth Adams book includes the application of this tenet to the various passages of scripture often raised by opponents that Gene Robinson himself used during and after the process that elected him as Bishop.

The second point is a bit different, and is an analogy:

There are four soldiers fighting in the war. One of their number is killed, and the other three find a Church and a priest, and ask the priest to bury their friend. This he does, but the cemetery in the churchyard is only for baptised Christians, so the priest enquires from the three as to their friends religious background. They do not know if he is baptised, so the priest says that he can only bury their friend outside the Church fence.

Later, as they are returning home from the war, the three remaining friends decide to go and visit the grave of the fourth friend, but when they get to the Church they find that there is no longer a grave outside the fence, so they go and seek out the priest. The priest remembers these soldiers, and explains. “After you left,â€? he says, “I thought about it, and what I had told you and felt that it was wrong. I couldn’t change where your friend was buried, but I did what I could, I moved the fence.â€?

The book is an excellent read, and certainly goes a long way towards providing a more rounded view of both Gene Robinson, and the events surrounding his election as Bishop, putting to rest a lot of the misinformation that came out through some of the UK tabloid press at the time. Fundamentally it provides a way to move from thinking of the man as a label, or a single issue, into understanding why the people of New Hampshire wanted him as their Bishop.

The Picture Everybody Wants?


It will be interesting to look at the press over the next few days. Today is the annual St Albans Festival Pilgrimage, marking the martyrdom of St Alban, the first Christian Martyr in Britain, so as in previous years there is a grand procession in the city, led as usual by the Dean of the abbey, currently the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John. What is notable this year is that the guest preacher at Evensong, and the president at the Eucharist this morning, is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who was instrumental in forcing Jeffrey John to withdraw as Bishop of Reading back in 2003. As such, with the current situation there is a good deal of speculation in some circles about what effect Williams appearing at St Albans will bring.

Having said that, there possibly won’t be too much to worry about. Quite apart from the fact that attention is now firmly focused on the other side of the pond, it seems many people don’t actually know what Jeffrey John looks like. One of the amusing comments in his recent interview in the Church Times was that after he was appointed to St Albans but before he took up the post, he attended a service at the cathedral, and was asked at the end to sign a petition against himself by one of the people outside who had come up to the abbey from a big evangelical Church in London. It is worth highlighting at this point that there was little opposition within St Albans to his appointment – certainly nobody from the congregation at the cathedral signed the petition, and on the day of his installation only a lone protester appeared. Subsequent to that, Philip Lovegrove, Chairman of the diocesan board of finance resigned his post, and two or three parishes in the diocese are withholding their parish share. In terms of his work at St Albans, under his leadership the congregations are growing, with regular worshipers numbering about 1400. But as I said, I think with the big events in the USA, I doubt anyone will notice.