How Catholics form their Conscience

What do we know about how Catholics inform their consciences?

A relatively similar pattern of autonomy is evident, too, in regard to nonmarital and same-sex relationships, such that today two in three Catholics, for example, support same-sex marriage.

Pope Francis has refocused Catholic attention on the importance of conscience in decision-making through the two Synod of Bishops on the family he convened in 2014 and 2015 and Amoris Laetitia, his exhortation in response to the bishops’ deliberations.

He revisited this idea in January during his annual address to members of the Roman Rota, the tribunal that evaluates appeals in marriage annulment cases, by reiterating that a well-formed conscience has “a decisive role” in complicated marital situations. He called then for renewed pastoral efforts dedicated to helping people develop an enlightened and faith-infused conscience.

Despite the attention conscience has received since 1968 and the accumulation of more than 40 years of well-regarded survey data tracking Catholics’ attitudes on sexual morality and their construal of church authority, we know surprisingly little about how Catholics inform their conscience.

Moral decision-making

Newly available data from the Sixth National Survey of American Catholics (gathered in April 2017) illuminates Catholics’ moral decision-making process. The question asked: “When you have an important moral decision to make, which, if any, of the following activities or sources, do you use usually look to for guidance?”

Irrespective of what specific moral decisions respondents may have had in mind when answering the question, the overall pattern of responses underscores the significance of private prayer and friends and family rather than official church sources.

Forty per cent of Catholics say that they always pray or meditate in making an important moral decision, 37 per cent talk to close family members and 28 per cent talk to trusted friends. By contrast, only 6 per cent always talk to their local priest or read the catechism, and even fewer consult papal statements (3 per cent) or their diocesan or the U.S. bishops’ website (3 per cent). One in 20 say that in such situations they always use Catholic news media.

While additional numbers of Catholics use all of these sources sometimes, it is nonetheless striking that three in four rarely or never talk to their local priest on such matters or read the catechism. And over 80 per cent rarely or never turn to papal encyclicals for guidance, or to diocesan or U.S. bishops’ websites.

Weekly Mass-goers are twice as likely as others to consult with a priest (17 per cent) and read the catechism (15 per cent) and in general to turn to official Catholic sources. Yet even for such highly committed Catholics, these sources do not eclipse the significance of prayer and of family and friends (see Figure 2).

Prayer, in particular, stands out as the most routine way in which weekly Mass-goers reflect on their moral decisions, with the category “always” used by two-thirds (67 per cent) of them.

Gender differences

It’s well established that women are more conscientious than men and that they bring this greater conscientiousness to their religious engagement. Catholic women’s comparatively greater conscientiousness when it comes to making moral decisions is evident in the large proportions of them who always turn to prayer and family and friends.

However, they are not any more likely than men are to draw guidance from official church sources. As Figure 3 shows, there are essentially no gender differences in the small proportion who always consult a priest or who use the Catechism, papal encyclicals or diocesan/bishops’ websites.

Generational differences

There are few generational differences in the sources used for moral guidance. As Figure 4 shows, older Catholics, the pre-Vatican II generation who came of age prior to 1960 and who are currently in their 70s and 80s, are always or sometimesmore likely than others to pray, to talk with their local priest, to consult Catholic media and to read the catechism and papal statements.

It is also noteworthy that millennial Catholics (those born since 1979) show a comparatively greater tendency to turn to family and friends rather than prayer when making moral decisions. Not surprisingly, given this generation’s digital competence, they are also slightly more likely than older Catholics to look at diocesan/bishops’ website.

Catholics under age 40 (millennials) are composed of almost equal numbers of Hispanics and non-Hispanics. Despite their different socioeconomic and political characteristics, there is little variation in how they go about making moral decisions.

Though they are the most routine sources always used by both groups, a larger proportion of non-Hispanics than Hispanics turn to family (47 percent: 42 percent) and friends (41 percent: 31 percent) for moral guidance; and Hispanics (7 percent) are slightly more likely than their age peers (3 percent) to seek guidance from their local priest (7 percent: 3 percent) and consult Catholic media (6 percent: 3 percent).

The fact that Catholics typically turn to prayer and meditation in discerning important moral decisions points to the enduring relevance of faith in their negotiation of complex moral circumstances. Amid a societal decline in religious affiliation, a decline in the church and sacramental participation habits of those who remain Catholic, and against the backdrop of Catholics’ disagreement with various elements of official church teaching on sexual morality, it is important to recognize that faith engagement still matters.

With lived experience a well-recognized source of legitimate authority in Catholic moral theology, it also makes sense that Catholics would trust close family members and friends for guidance in their moral decision-making. Reflective conversation with others can help broaden the individual’s perspective on their particular situation and nudge them to consider courses of action they might not otherwise have entertained, or by the same token, modify or refrain from what they were initially planning to do.

The data for this article comes from a collaborative research project that has spanned 30 years. The survey beginning of this project was taken in 1987, the year that Pope (now St.) John Paul II made his second visit to the United States. The survey was repeated in 1992, in 1999, and again in 2005, each time documenting changes in the attitudes and behaviors of U.S. Catholics about their faith.

Our fifth survey of American Catholics, near the end of the papacy of Benedict XVI, led to our book American Catholics in Transition, published in 2013. Our sixth survey took place in May 2017, during the fourth year of the papacy of Francis.

The research team has changed over the years and the questions have evolved a bit, but a core set of questions has been repeated on each survey, allowing us to measure change in the attitudes and behaviors of American Catholic laity over time.

Each survey includes a nationally representative sample of about 1,500 U.S. Catholic adults, collected in the weeks following Easter, exactly six years apart. The first three surveys were conducted by the Gallup Organization using English-only telephone interviews. The last three surveys were conducted by the GfK Group (formerly Knowledge Networks) using their probability-based web panel, which is designed to be representative of the United States. These surveys were conducted in English or Spanish, at the discretion of the respondent.

As in all our previous studies, we are grateful for the support of many sponsors. This study was made possible through a generous grant from the Louisville Institute as well as support from these sponsors: the Anderson Foundation, the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, Alfred and Kathleen M. Rotondaro, Kevin J. Healy and the Kathleen Blank Riether Trust.

—William D’Antonio

[Michele Dillon is a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and the author most recently of Postsecular Catholicism: Relevance and Renewal.]


It will not surprise any of my readers (few as you are, and mainly Anglican) that most of our lay Roman Catholic sisters and brothers have decided to prefer the use of their own individual consciences on matters of Family Planning – especially on the vexed issue of ‘artificial contraception’. To quote this survey, it would appear that, in the USA:

” (66 per cent) of American Catholics say that individuals should rely on their own authority in making decisions about contraception. Almost nine in 10 say that one can be a good Catholic without adhering to church teaching on contraception.”

In other important values involving the use of private individual conscience where one’s sexuality is involved, it is by now obvious that most Christians in the Western world – not only Roman Catholics but also Anglicans and Protestant communities – are exercising their own private consciences to determine what is right and wrong in their own sexual responses. This has now led to a majority of Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants in the Western world to accept the fact of the presence of the LGBTI+ community in the Church and to accept the fact that Western countries have legislated for Equal Marriage for Same-Sex couples.

Whereas in the Jewish Tradition (and, one suspects, in the mediaeval Catholic Tradition) it seemed right and proper to reserve one’s sexual instincts for the purpose of procreation – thus coincidentally providing more ethnically religious Jews and more morally upright Catholics to boost the quotient of religious believers – the modern social understanding of a need to limit the burgeoning population growth in a world of strictly limited resources is better realised by today’s young people, as many of them also struggle to keep up with the demands of providing for the larger families formerly expected by the Church.

Also, it may be claimed that the gift of sexuality ought to be understood as not only the means of populating the world but also a preeminent means of expressing the love, support and devotion of two people whose lives are bound together by a shared covenant relationship to each other. This is why the new understanding of sexuality as being not only the means of a providing a binary, procreational activity for the majority of human beings but also a means of expressing, by an intimate relationship, the love with which all human beings are uniquely gifted in their specifically innate sexual orientation.

The individual human conscience – in terms of the ability to exercise one’s moral, social behaviour – is the premier arbiter by which one can be judged as a responsible member of human society. As a Christian, of course, one is bound to listen to the voice of that part Church, the Body of Christ to which one belongs – and to the conscientious interpretation of Holy Writ – but not without the exercise of the native intelligence with which God has equipped most human beings to evaluate and assess in the light of experience the difference between the intrinsic effects of good and evil upon oneself as a fellow member of society, and as a member of Kingdom of God, into which one believes one has been called by Jesus Christ.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch

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How to welcome back the schismatics

New Missioner in South Carolina


The Rev. William Coyne (CREDIT: TECSC)

From the Episcopal Church in South Carolina:

“Bishop Skip Adams has appointed the Rev. William Coyne as the new Missioner for Returning Congregations for The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, a new diocesan staff position created to assist parishes and missions that are returning to The Episcopal Church.

“This new ministry is a way for our diocese to manifest good care of God?s people, live out our Diocesan Vision,and always seek the goals of reconciliation and unity in Christ during this important time of transition,” Bishop Adams said.

“As Missioner, Fr. Coyne will report directly to the Bishop, while developing teams and support systems around the diocese for the successful return of churches to The Episcopal Church in South Carolina (TECSC), which is the diocese of The Episcopal Church in eastern South Carolina.

The full text of the release, including a message from the new missioner, can be read on the TECSC website.

This appointment follows on the Supreme Court’s declining to grant a certiorari to the breakaway diocese in the ongoing litigation surrounding church properties (the Cafe’s prior coverage may be found here).


Whatever one’s opinion of the mission capability of TEC – The Episcopal Church in the United States of America – one cannot but admire the latest move in the home Diocese of South Carolina (TECSC) to missionise possible returnees from the schismatic breakaway diocese, whose leader, the former TEC Bishop Mark Lawrence, is now marshalling his troops to consider what to do in the wake of the latest threat to his legal quest to alienate the churches and property of the remaining Episcopal Diocese.

Fr. William Coyne has been appointed ‘Missioner for Returning Congregations’ to the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina (TECSC) – an entirely new and innovative ministry calculated to help those in the alienated congregations of the diocese who wish to return to their original situation, but as newly-restored members of TEC.

This is an appropriate ministry which needed to be set up in the wake of the decision by the Federal Supreme Court not to interfere with the decision of the State Supreme Court (of S.C.) that required the schismatic diocese and its Bishop Mark Lawrence to return the property and churches they had considered belonged to them – back to their Episcopal owners in TEC. 

It is anticipated that, in view of the Federal Supreme Court’s decision, there will be those members of the congregations who want to remain in their local church buildings who may be ready and willing to return to the faith and constitution of the origin Espicopal Diocese in TEC. It is in the expectation of such an occurrence that Fr.Coyne has been appointed especially to deal with the proprieties of their Episcopal reception back into the fold of what has now become known as ‘TECSC’.

Thinking of our own church in Aotearoa/New Zealand, where some local clergy and their parishioners are currently attending the reactionary GAFCON Jerusalem Conference, with a view to their possible breakaway from ACANZP, 0ne cannot but wonder what is their expectation of retaining the church buildings they currently inhabit as members of the local Anglican parish structures? There are rumours of a similar strategy that GAFCON has already taken with partner breakaway churches in other Provinces of the Anglican Communion – such as the TEC Diocese of South Carolina in the USA; Canada; and, more recently, the U.K. – to alienate church properties – whether, in fact, this would be possible in New Zealand, were the intending schismatics to actually defect from ACANZP, is yet to be determined.

As has been said before on this website:

‘Schism is a Horrid Thing’ not to be undertaken lightly.


Here is a video of a sermon preached in TECSC at the Renewal of Clergy Vows in Holy week:  in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina –


Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


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Rob Bell – Evangelist Extraordinary

Heresy, holiness, and Oprah: Rob Bell interviewed


Having written a book that questioned eternal torment, Rob Bell was branded ‘the biggest heretic in America’. He tells Ed Thornton what took place next

ROB BELL was once the pastor of a megachurch in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was saluted by one newspaper as “the next Billy Graham”. Today, he is more likely to be found on stage at a stand-up comedy club in downtown Los Angeles than in a pulpit.

But he has not stopped preaching. “I get a screen and put up sections from the book of Ecclesiastes, and it somehow works,” he says of his shows at the Largo comedy club, where he has a residency. “People just realise, ‘Wait, was that a sermon? Did I just buy a ticket for a show and I just heard a sermon? And I’m not only OK with it, it was kind of great to be there.’”

Bell moved to LA in 2012, a year after the publication of Love Wins (Features, 5 August 2011), which cast doubt on the idea of hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment. To the US’s Evangelical gatekeepers, such as Franklin Graham and John Piper, this amounted to denial of the gospel itself, and a reason to warn their flocks off his work.

As a result of the book, Bell went from “being the coolest Christian in America” to “the biggest heretic in America”, Kent Dobson, his successor at Mars Hill Bible Church, says in The Heretic, a documentary about Bell released this year and directed by Andrew Morgan.

Bell notes that Love Wins contained nothing “which isn’t firmly within the historical Jesus tradition”, but the heretic label has stuck. It has even, perhaps, become a badge of honour, denoting a thinker unafraid to push theological boundaries and unsettle cherished assumptions.

Bell says that the move to California was not a direct result of Love Wins: the church, which he founded with his wife, Kirsten, in 1999, was “loving and supportive” and supported his decision “to follow the work where it takes you”.

“At some level, I’m telling a story, and, at some point, you say: ‘Where do people tell stories? And if I was in one of the capitals of storytelling would that do something new for the work? Would that do something new in me?’”

Bell had absolutely no intention to lead a church in LA. “I’m not ever in churches or overtly religious spaces. The whole thing is a temple. That drives what I do more than anything. As opposed to trying to build a temple, I come along and announce that the whole thing is a temple, the whole earth.”

AWAY from the demands of preaching weekly to a congregation of thousands, he has done more or less as he pleases: hosting a weekly podcast (“The RobCast”); the comedy-club residency; writing books and a play; going on speaking tours; and surfing. He even had a slot on the Oprah Winfrey Network, in which he mixed motivational life-coaching — “You have more power to create your life than you realise” — with exposition of the Hebrew scriptures.

Unshackled from the expectations of a congregation, he has also voiced support for same-sex marriage. “Whoever you are, gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural, and healthy to want someone to go through life with,” he told Oprah in one interview.

“The past few years have been. . . shall I use the word ‘fun’?” Bell says. “It’s just been absolutely amazing. . . The environment here in Los Angeles is . . . like being home.”

Bell’s job and location might have changed, but his fundamental sense of calling has not: he believes the sermon is “an art form” which needs reclaiming as “somewhere between guerrilla theatre and performance art”.

“I’ve been trying to reclaim the sermon for everybody, not for a group of religious people over here, but for everybody, about what it means to be human.”

This desire to open the sermon up to people outside Christian subcultures has always animated him, he says: it led to his starting Mars Hill, in a disused shopping mall; to his touring clubs and theatres with shows such as Everything is Spiritual and The Gods aren’t Angry, and his hugely popular Nooma DVDs; and, ultimately, to where he is today, talking about Ecclesiastes in a sweaty comedy club.

People outside the churches are hungry for depth, he says. Western culture is consumed by “treble notes”, the “of-the-moment, pressing concerns, what hit the internet 17 minutes ago”. People increasingly crave “the bass notes”, he says: the deeper matters that human beings have talked about for thousands of years.


Podcast: Rob Bell on life after Love Wins, preaching and comedy, Trump – and more

“And when somebody can tell you a story, can quote a text, they can help you see that the thing that you are facing, that you are struggling with, that you are confronted by — oh yeah, people have been wrestling with that for thousands of years. And here’s some of the truths, some of the insights, some of the wisdom in the shared human experience.

“It’s amazing how much we’re craving this. And especially as people leave what you think of as conventional religion — they’re desperate for bass notes.”

BELL played drums in an indie rock band as a student at Wheaton College, Illinois, and he clearly still enjoys the buzz of touring and the immediacy of live performance (although he is rarely away from his family for more than a couple of nights, and takes his wife and three children with him on longer tours). “The people in a room — I love that more than ever.”

Next month, he brings the “Holy Shift” tour, which has already been around the US, to the UK and Ireland. The organisers, Greenbelt, with whom Bell has often collaborated in recent years, say that the shows contain a “mix of philosophy, comedy, theology, and subversive insight”.

“I’m sort of reclaiming the word ‘holy’. Can you in 2018 talk about the word ‘holy’ for an hour and 45 minutes in such a way that takes people places they haven’t been before? In some ways it’s like a giant experiment — can you do this?”

The comedic side of Bell’s work has evolved in LA, where he has been “spending lots of time with comedians”. One of these is Pete Holmes, star of the HBO show Crashing, with whom Bell has developed a two-man stand-up show.

“When we became friends, he was doing stand-up, but he was going after big truths, trying to work out the big questions, and I’ve been doing the big questions but leaning into comedy. We both realised that we were leaning into the other person’s work.”

Bell insists that he does not employ comedy as a device to “get people to pay attention to the work. This is central to the work.” The comedian charges through “the polite boundaries of conversation”, and asks: “Why don’t we talk about that? What line just got crossed? The comedian goes and finds that line and marches right over it.”

For Bell, comedy can be redemptive.

“When a comedian is working redemptively, the comedian goes: ‘Hey, look: we can go into all of these forbidden, dark, frightening places, and we’re fine. Look, you’re even laughing about it: your own shadow, your own darkness. All of the things that you’re most mortified [about] are present within you, I’m going to talk about them, name them, I’m going to list them in excruciating detail, and you’re going to bend over, you’re going to be laughing so hard, you’re going to be doubled over.’

“Seeing that, it’s like a profound gift. It’s like the release valve for the soul, like everybody can just relax.”

BELL does not miss the Evangelical sub-culture in which he was once revered, perhaps because he never felt at home in it. “Even when I was a pastor in a local church, that seemed like a strange freak-show.”

Not surprisingly, he is scathing about President Trump and the white Evangelicals who helped to elect him. When he preached at Mars Hill against the Iraq War, some left the church, which prompted his realisation that “there is a religion way more sacred to people than anything involving God, Jesus, the Bible — and that is America.

” Even the gun, the gun is more sacred: it’s the untouchable that can’t be questioned for a lot of people.”

Trump’s election, he says, revealed what the gospel amounted to for many US Evangelicals. “It was never about the grace, compassion, solidarity, non-violence of the Jesus path. It was about protecting a particular 21st-century, free-market, capitalist vision for the world. And that thing had been masquerading as Jesus for a long time, and it revealed its corrupt, stained soul. . .

“One of the gifts of this presidency has been that that’s all now out in the open. It said morality, it said faith, it said trust in God, it used the word ‘Jesus’. But it wasn’t serious: it was all a giant charade, and now way more people see it than saw it before — and that’s important.”

Bell acknowledges that his views are radical, but he notes that radical in Latin, radix, means “root”; so “The radical isn’t the person who wandered off into the deep weeds, the radical is the person who went back to the source. It’s the tradition that wandered off.

“The Jesus movement was birthed as a counter to the empire, a subversive movement that was about caring for each other. Sacrificial love is how the world is made better, not coercive military violence. We need that more than ever.”


To sign or not: Nashville Statement on sexuality debate intensifies

THE Nashville statement on human sexuality released by Conservative Evangelicals in the United States last week has sparked intense debate between Christians in the United States and the UK.

Indeed, Bell maintains that he is “more compelled by the Bible than ever”. What is the Bible?, published last year, sought to present the Bible as “an ancient library of poems, letters and stories”, with the potential to transform its readers.

His next project is an audio book called Blood, Guts & Fire: The gospel according to Leviticus, in which he revisits the book from which he preached his first sermon series at Mars Hill. “I’m completely blown away with all of what I missed 20 years ago in Leviticus: how much of Leviticus is about justice, about equality, about living with intention, about conflict resolution, about proper relationship to the earth.”

THE public appetite for Bell’s work shows little sign of waning, and his output remains prolific. But he does not come across as hurried or busy, or anxious to meet the next deadline. (He was happy to extend the interview ten minutes over the allotted time.)

“All of life is organised around having a life, and then the work comes out of bumping into neighbours and going for a meal in the neighbourhood and meeting somebody out in the ocean surfing. . .

“I’m just thrilled with all the people I encounter who are waking up to the joy that’s possible, and who are rediscovering that the Jesus path does something to you and it does something to the world. You don’t have to live with hopeless despair. You can actually live with intention, and you can actually be shaped in profound ways. That’s endlessly interesting to me.”

The full interview can be heard on the Church Times Podcast

The Holy Shift Tour runs from 2 to 14 July. For details about the tour, and to buy tickets, visit: Tickets are only available in advance from the Greenbelt website, not from the venues or on the night of each show.


In this article from the U.K. ‘CHURCH TIMES’, the American Evangelist Rob Bell who left his ministry at the Mars Hill Church in Michigan –  “once the pastor of a megachurch in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was saluted by one newspaper as “the next Billy Graham”. Today, he is more likely to be found on stage at a stand-up comedy club in downtown Los Angeles than in a pulpit.”

After his publication of his book ‘LOVE WINS’ in which he questioned the idea of eternal punishment, Bell was condemned by his fellow Evangelicals in the U.S. as being guilty of heresy. He then made the decision in 2012 to leave for Los Angeles with his wife and family, to take up a peripatetic life as a ‘Standup Comedian’ who gossips the gospel.

Rob’s new ministry confounds his critics, who have accused him of quitting Christian ministry for the bright lights of the entertainment world. However, his ongoing inclusion of Biblical teaching in his stage career might well be considered to be a valid ministry to a world that may never enter a Church building, but which Bell recognises as worthy of evangelising in a medium most likely to engage attention – outside in the world itself.

The fact that this article is featured in the normally sedate pages of the Church  Times – together with an advertisement of Rob’s appearances at the upcoming GREENBELT FESTIVAL in the U.K. – is a testimony to the seriousness with which the Church of England regards the ministry of this remarkable preacher of the Love of God.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Life-Changing Testimony – Beyond Inclusion

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Beyond Inclusion

OneBodyOneFaith published this on 5 June:

We’re delighted that this film, funded by our supporters and members and featuring John Bell and Nick Bundock, has now been completed and can be viewed on our YouTube channel. As you’ll probably recall, the film arose out of John hearing about Nick’s church’s response to Lizzie Lowe’s death, and the films are a conversation between the two of them, with ideas for reflection by church groups.

Please share the films and encourage others to do so too; we want them to reach the widest possible audience because we believe they have the potential to help people move on in their journey of understanding, and to make real change. If you need more resources for study and reflection, check out some of the books in our online shop – or get in touch and we can help you identify people to talk to, speakers and other sources of support, reflecting your particular context.

Today is Lizzie’s 18th birthday. Her parents Kevin and Hilary appear briefly in the film. Notwithstanding the remarkable transformation of their church following her death, would still give anything to have their daughter back. Please remember them, and Lizzie’s siblings and many friends, today.

Part one of the film is here
Part two is here
. Do be sure to watch both parts.

And then consider this question: So – how’s the ‘radical Christian inclusion’ coming along then?


With the implicit permission of the U.K. organisation ‘One Body; One Faith’  I take the liberty of re-publishing directly this item on ‘Thinking Anglicans’, presented by one of its blog hosts, Simon Sarmiento.

The 2 video presentations offered for scrutiny here are a product of the aftermath in a local Evangelical Anglican Church community in the U.K., of the sadly lamented suicide of ‘Lizzie’ who, together with her parents were/are members of the Church that, later, had to radically question their understanding of diverse human sexuality and its direct relationship to active membership of the Christian Church.

Lizzie died because, as an adolescent, she discovered that she was intrinsically gay – a stark reality that she had found increasingly difficult to live with, in her situation as a member of a church congregation which she eventually felt – because such things were never talked about in church- would never be able to accept her sexual orientation.  

The direct result of her death was an opening up to others in the community who were aware of the Church’s inability to deal with any open revelation about their particular situation of life, which was in some way different from the ‘norm’ – whether that be a physical or mental ‘disability’, or any other ‘problem’ which could be seen as inimical to the acceptance or tolerance of the Christian community.

The second video, an interview by the Vicar of Lizzie’s parish, Nick Bundock, with the Revd. John Bell, a self-confessed gay Presbyterian Minister, who was moved by the story of Lizzie’s death to ‘out’ himself at the Green Belt Christian Festival in the U.K., also demonstrates the effect of a tragic outcome from the Church’s rejection of LGBTI+ people. If it had not been for Lizzie’s death, John Bell may have felt unable to reconcile his innate sexual orientation with the reality of his ministry in the Church. 

Watching these two videos, with their powerful message about the diversity of the human condition – and the need of the church to cope with this and the small minority of people involved who, through no fault of their own happen to be ‘different’ – I was reminded of my own personal struggle for self-acceptance as an intrinsically gay person with a lively faith in God together with the realisation that I was being called by God into the ministry of the Anglican Church. To learn to live with these apparently irreconcilable realities has been, for me, a life-long journey which has included marriage (for 35 years) to a widow with her two children. My own experience tells me that, unless God was in this process – of both my vocation and my marriage – they could never have taken place,  nor produced the fruits of a ministry and a relationship that still continues to this day.

What happened in Lizzie’s parish was both amazing and distinctly fruitful. It seems that her untimely death has produced a community that has grown in loving acceptance of all who are attracted into its orbit. Her own parents, who are still faithful members of the parish, can now see how their daughter’s life and death have brought into being a new and purposeful acceptance of people in the local community who might never have felt welcomed by the Church, but who now rejoice in their membership of the Body of Christ. This is a miracle of some worth – beyond that of mere evangelical fervour – born of a radical openness to the love of God in Christ for even the marginalised of our society.

May Lizzie rest in the Peace of Christ and rise with Him one day in Glory. Amen.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Who Speaks for Anglican Evangelicals in the C.of E.?

ViaMedia.News – Posted on by 

by the Revd Canon Anna Norman-Walker, Rector of Streatham and past Member of General Synod

Anna Norman-Walker

Last week I found my prejudices deeply challenged. I had been rather surprised to be invited to lead a session for first year Ordinands at St Mellitus College in central London.

Surprised, because I would have imagined I might not be ‘their’ type.  It was well over ten years since I had enjoyed the strumming of guitars and raising of arms in worship and am now leading an inclusive, liturgical church in South London, having spent 6 ½ years previously in a Cathedral. These days I am more likely to sing the Exultet at Easter than ‘See what a morning!’.

And so, it was with both a measure of curiosity and anxiety, that I hopped on the bus from Streatham on Monday afternoon and made my way to Kensington. I fully expected that I was about to be ‘thrown to the evangelicals’ and then (God forbid) prayed for, by the charismatics!

I, like many of us who inhabit different spaces within the Church of England, have been following with interest the church planting strategies of HTB and it has felt from a distance that the establishment of St Mellitus, as an alternative route to Ordination, was a further bid to conquer the Church of England once and for all.

What I discovered could not have been further from the truth. The student body was varied in age and experience, many were in placement churches which were Central, Liberal or Anglo-Catholic. The age demographic was refreshingly young and yet the quality of questions and openness to fresh learning surprisingly mature and there was a strong resistance to ‘labelling’.

Yes, there was a ‘broadly evangelical’ feel to the place, but it was open, generous and I can confirm that evening prayer was straight from Common Worship.

This experience led me to ponder who the Bishop of Maidstone imagined he was speaking on behalf of last week when he wrote to the Bishops of Lichfield Diocese on matters concerning the full inclusion of LGBTQI people in the life of their churches?

The media has swept up the ‘evangelical wing’ of the Church of England as those who are cheering the Bishop on, but I believe they are wrong to do so in such general terms. It is true that many LGBTQI Christians have been subjected to appalling treatment in some evangelical churches and yet there are others who have found a warm and inclusive welcome.

Evangelicalism is a spectrum, not a tribal identity and there are many who find themselves at home in churches that would describe themselves as evangelical, yet who despair at the approach to homosexuality that Bishop Rod and his supporters hold.

Moreover, some may conclude that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is not God’s ideal, but this would not necessarily lead them to a demand for repentance, a withholding of the sacraments or a withdrawal from leadership. There are also those who have found ways of being entirely comfortable with a difference of opinion within the churches that they worship because they have come to understand and practise grace. This would define them as ‘Anglican’ evangelicals in the truest sense of the word because Anglicans have always held a range of views in matters of faith and the ethic that flows from it.

I say these things because the evangelical stable was somewhere I once dwelt, and I know it well. I understand the language and the culture and many of my dearest friends remain firmly a part of it. In recent years I have drunk countless cups of coffee with those who wanted a safe space to explore reconciling their conscience, experience and developing theology with what they perceived to be the evangelical ‘party line’ but about which they were growing increasingly uncomfortable.

Almost all these conversations have been about the acceptance of homosexual people and their relationships, the subtext being ‘if I change my mind on this subject, then where will I belong?’  The answer is simply ‘in the Church of England!’

One of the many wonderful things about the Anglican tradition and of the Church of England within it is that we are all sitting on a ‘big old sofa’, where there is room to move about a bit if you wish.

I recall Guardian columnist Peter Ormerod summing us up brilliantly some time ago when he wrote:

‘The Church of England is between Catholic and Protestant, between organ and drum kit, between robes and T-shirts, between conservatism and liberalism, between certainty and doubt, between silence and noise. All of those things can be found within it, but as a whole, as an idea, as an entity, it is a celebration of nuance, an avowedly flawed body of avowedly flawed people. In a culture that is increasingly polarised and awash with labels and identity politics, the C of E is a beacon of murkiness and is all the more beautiful for it’.

Which is why Rod Thomas, the Bishop of Maidstone has behaved very unwisely in writing as he has to his brother Bishops in Lichfield. Not because he holds the views that he does (he is perfectly entitled to them), but the fact that in doing so he is demonstrating an overt unwillingness to be an Anglican evangelical.

Perhaps a term at St Mellitus would help?


I feature this up-to-date article on kiwianglo in order to help correct the assumption that the Evangelical wing of the Church of England is uniformly against the spiritual movement in that Church to include LGBTI+ people within their congregations.

Although the Theological College of St.Mellitus, in the C.of E. Diocese of  London, was established by Evangelicals in the Church of England, and has been thought by many – especially among some Anglo-Catholics, women clergy, and the LGBTI+ community in the Church – to be actively negative about the movement of the Church towards the inclusion of everyone in the life of the Church; this article, by The Revd. Anna Norman-Walker, now Rector of Streatham  (a former Evangelical turned Anglo-Catholic) proves something different.

Surprised at even being asked to address a first-year class of theological students at Saint Mellitus, Anna was even more surprised at the obvious openness of students and staff to the fact of a more broad vision of the future of the Church as welcoming both women and LGBTI+ persons into the full life and ministry of the Church of England.

This goes to show that labels as to what used to be called ‘churchmanship’ in the Mother Church of England no longer so clearly identifies the theological understanding of these components of Church life as either ‘narrow’ or ‘broad’ – at least in the area of a particular moral stance on matters of gender and human sexuality.

What had helped me to understand that this was, indeed, the case was the inclusion – on the Staff as Assistant Dean of St. Mellitus – of the wife of former Archbishop Rowan Williams (an Anglo-Catholic and well-known former advocate of faithful Same-Sex relationships in his seminal book on the subject of human sexuality: “The Body’s Grace”) – Dr. Jane Williams, as posted here in the St. Mellitus College prospectus:


Dr Jane Williams is Assistant Dean and Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College. She is also a Visiting Lecturer in Theology at King’s College London, having previously taught at Trinity College Bristol. She is the author of several books, including ‘Approaching Easter’ and ‘Approaching Christmas’, ‘Perfect Freedom’, ‘Who Do You Say That I Am?‘ and most recently, ‘Angels‘. She is an experienced editor, is regularly invited to teach and speak all over the world, and is involved in promoting theological education in other parts of the Anglican Communion. She is married to Rowan, and they have two children.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Transsexuality and The Church

In times to come it will be extraordinary to imagine that some Christians insisted on married transgender people divorcing if they wished to claim their full identity.  How scandalous a betrayal of God’s love and Christ’s teaching this is!   It has been a long journey to address this in secular law in Australia and, sadly, the battle is not over in some religious quarters as well as in many parts of the world.   Queensland, in which I now live, thankfully finally changed its law last night (with only four votes against, from the fringe Katter and One Nation parties).  Hitherto, married transgender people have had to divorce if they changed their birth certificate to their true gender. I rejoice for friends and others who will directly benefit from this.  For I know the pain this law has caused and have personally therefore lobbied hard for change.  It will also be an encouragement for other necessary steps forward and for more religious people to come to their senses and renew their understanding both of marriage and of people of gender diversity.

I write this with feeling, as well as after deep reflection on these subjects.  For the status of my own marriage is under question in some slowly moving and blinkered parts of the Church, even in Australia itself.  A leading member of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney for example has even gone so far as to challenge both my marriage and the ministry of my wife and I as ‘living contrary’ to the doctrine of Christ – see further transgender and the doctrine of marriage in Brisbane.  Of course, in that instance, the aim is a distinctly political one: to attack my archbishop, my diocese and the mainstream pastoral approach and unfolding theology of the Anglican Communion as a whole.  Yet such ‘stop the world, we want to get off’ thinking will not work.  The ground is shifting in religious spheres too, as the actual lived experience of transgender people and their loved ones is gradually being revealed.  Anglicans and other Christians across the world are responding, if sometimes hesitatingly, burdened as we are too much by our often exacting processes and the frenzied reactions of some.  The Church of England for example, the church of my birth, has declared that it fully welcomes me and other transgender people, at every level of its life.  As its leadership have expressed it (with my emphasis):

The House of Bishops welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people,equally with all people,within the Church, the body of Christ,and rejoices in the diversity of that one body, into which all Christians have been baptized by one Spirit.

My concern however is not with politics but with the love of God in people’s lives.  For, in some ways, in the face of such great odds, transgender people are still ‘living miracles’ even to exist at all – and some of us, tragically, do not make it.   Our relationships are also always challenged, and sometimes shattered, by becoming more fully the people God has created and called us to be.  The misery of rejection some of my gender diverse friends endure cuts me to the heart.  So why would we not seek to strengthen those relationships which have not only worked through demanding change but have emerged stronger? In my case, and in others I know, my marriage is so much deeper for the full truth we live together.  My wife could long see that we were suffering unnecessarily for years: ‘where has Josephine gone?’ she would say when I struggled to come to terms with myself.  She knew, better than I, what I, and we together, needed.  No marriage is 100% perfect, and I do not pretend to be a moral paragon in my relationships in the past or present, but it is insulting, as well as disappointing, when fellow Christians cannot recognise that my marriage, of 33 years to date, is not a rich example of God’s sacramental love to the world (nb. that is my wife and I above in case such a picture is needed).

In transitioning, I and others have not chosen (as has been alleged) ‘to challenge the Biblical view of marriage’ or to place my archbishop, or any one, ‘in a difficult position’.  Rather, we have simply sought to respond more fully, faithfully, with the whole of our being (as human beings, Christians, and priests), to the love of God for us.  Of course, this means that we need to renew some aspects of received understanding.  That however is the history of Christianity, as well as that of humanity as a whole, as we have developed our theology of marriage over 2000 years: working through inherited patriarchy and polygamy, rejecting women’s subordination (and, for most of Christian history, lack of legal rights), developing compassion and legal recourse for those trapped in violent or unhealthy marriages, and embracing what is good in companionate relationship.  Moving beyond the pressing past survival and scarcity preoccupations which informed obsessions with  procreation and cis and hetero-normativity, our liturgies today increasingly reflect the wisdom we have gained and the love to which we aspire.  There is a desperate resort of late to seeking proof-texts, such as Genesis 1.27 and Matthew 19.5, which may turn back the waters.  However, apart from the inability of such texts to be bear the strain (even when isolated from their context and the weight of scholarship), this only confirms such Christianity as a latter day Canute, fruitlessly resisting a sea-change of love and affirmation.

I therefore urge all people of faith similarly to affirm unconditionally the lives, marriages and loving relationships of transgender people.  Rather than be anxious, never mind put stumbling blocks in our lives (or worst still ‘conversion’ therapies), why not work with us at providing appropriate pastoral resources to strengthen our relationships?  We certainly need them.  Listen, educate, and above all hear and affirm the love and faith we have to share.  It is astonishing to me that Christians would not want to see healing and the renewal of such love for others.  Marriage, like the sabbath, as Jesus might have said, is not made to subjugate the wondrous diversity of human life into a constricting bed of pain.  Marriage, at least for Christians, is made for God’s renewing of humanity.

            Having welcomed into the Church community a couple sharing the distinctive and remarkable relationship of a married couple – one of whom has been able to openly celebrate his/her transition into the gender status she has always been aware of, but never before able to express, even to her espoused partner,  I can really understand  – better, perhaps, than most – the situation this Australian couple has had to experience – both as a couple and as members of a Christian congregation in Australia.
            The fact that there are couples in the Church who have found it necessary to adjust to the later discovery of the innate gender disposition of their relationship – that needs to find a new accommodation to the difference – should actually receive the support and encouragement of the Church community, rather than it’s instinctual disapproval.
            It occurred to me, some years ago, when I was in a situation of temporary care of a country parish in New Zealand, when confronted with an apparently same-sex couple – one of whom turned out to be a person who had transitioned from being  a male to become a female – that I should quietly introduce them into the community as a married couple gifted to us by God to nurture and respect in the relationship they had become used to as identifiably of the same gender.
            After a period of adjustment, the local parish community adapted to this new situation, inviting the couple into their own homes and accepting that they had become a part of the body of Christ in that particular place. The transitioned partner in this marriage eventually became a parish representative on the local diocesan synod and has been influential in helping other synod members to understand the complexity of human gender and sexuality realities.
            Despite even the Church of England’s seeming slow pace in its acceptance of gender and sexuality differences among its congregations – and out in the wider world – this issue of transsexuality has already been addressed by the Church of England’s House of Bishops, as identified in this quote from the above article: 
           “The House of Bishops welcomes and encourages unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people, within the Church, the body of Christ, and rejoices in the diversity of that one body, into which all Christians have been baptized by one Spirit”.  
            The time has come for the Church to acknowledge and welcome people whose gender and sexual identity is diagnosed as different from the binary norm. This has been recognised by the outside world, and it is time for the Church to acknowledge the reality of human complexity that this extraordinary situation demands of us all.
             Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand
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US Supreme Court refuse to overturn TEC property verdict.

Breaking: US Supreme Court declines to hear breakaway’s appeal in South Carolina case


From The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, the diocese loyal to The Episcopal Church:


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