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The British Humanist Society has been actively engaged in promoting its wedding services and campaigning to make them legal in England, as indeed they are already in Scotland. I see this as a positive move; the Civil Marriage Ceremony in England is rather limited, since nothing even hinting at religion is allowed – no Ave Verums, Pie Jesus, Panis Angelicuses, or biblical readings/allusions. Waiting to bless a couple after a Civil Marriage ceremony, I have been asked to leave, simply for wearing a clerical dog collar. The Humanists are also keen to draw our attention to the personalised help and support they give in preparing a couple for the service and marriage itself.

Personally I would like to see Britain adopt a system similar to that in France, where all couples complete a civil ceremony and can then choose to move on to a service of blessing or thanksgiving with any religious denomination or non-religious group.

If I have one criticism of the recent publicity, it is the claim that Scottish couples who chose a humanist wedding are less likely to divorce than those who engaged in other forms of marriage ceremony. According to the published statistics, since the instigation of Humanist ceremonies, couples married in this way are;

Three times less likely to divorce than Roman Catholics over the same period.
Half as likely to divorce than those in the Church of Scotland.
Almost four times less likely to divorce than those entering civil partnerships.

In fact according to their figures, the divorce rate for that period for those married in a Humanist ceremony are 0.17% as compared to 0.84 % for non-humanist. Less than 1% is hardly a large proportion and the difference between the two groups even smaller.. Also we aren’t told anything about those asking for a Humanist ceremony? What proportion of them are being married for the second time? How does their age profile compare with the other couples in the study?

I was once a Humanist celebrant and conducted quite a number of funeral services until it was discovered I was a Church of England priest! I was then thought to be an unsuitable person to carry out these ceremonies. Many of the families I took services for wanted to sing a hymn, or have a prayer said, or have music from a Bach Cantata played during the ceremony.

Today we live in communities where people hold all kinds of belief, attending services and ceremonies across a wide spectrum, even within families and couples. Anyone leading a service or ceremony, whatever their own personal stance, will want to make everyone feel welcome and able to participate. If we can’t celebrate milestones on the journey of life together, what hope of building a sense of community in our richly diverse world?


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In the Book of Isaiah we find the prophet making reference to a particular order of angels possessing six wings.

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne …. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings…”

Not all the wings were used for flying –

“With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.”

Some scholars argue that, as elsewhere in the Old Testament, “feet” is a euphemism for the genitals. (It’s hard to believe that scholarly articles have been written on the subject of angelic genitalia and why would angels need any anyway? !)

Traditionally the pairs of wings have been seen as symbols of reverence, humility and service. When people are surprised and amazed, they cover their faces with their hands. So in the presence of God, the body language of Isaiah’s angels express their sense of reverence and awe. They reveal their humility and vulnerability in using their wings as fig leaves. From their position of reverence and humility they fly off in God’s service.

If any of us feel moved to be of service to our fellow human beings, we should display the same sense of reverence towards them and an awareness of our own vulnerability. Thinking we know exactly what is needed or wanted and belittling those in need is no way to help others feel more empowered.


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Beyond gender is a phrase often used in discussions about sexual identity, being the name associated with several movements and projects supporting transgender people and their relatives. Others use the phrase to move us forward from identity politics; In her book, Beyond Gender, Betty Friedan writes

“A basic restructuring of our economy is needed now. And this restructuring can’t be accomplished in terms of women versus men, black versus white, old versus young, conservative versus liberal. . .We need a new political movement that puts the lives and interests of people first . . . with a new vision of community . . . that opens the doors again to real equality of opportunity.”

The church should be supporting this philosophy, and it has a history which may throw further light on the debate. The phrase “beyond gender” is one that is familiar to theologians in their discussions about God.

At the end of 2017, the Church of Sweden decided that its clergy should stop describing God in masculine terms, such as He/Lord/Father and use instead more gender-neutral language. The change caused considerable controversy but many other churches and faith communities have adopted similar policies and stopped using personal pronouns when referring to God. Although writers as far back as Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century ridiculed those who would assign a direct sexuality to God through linguistic gender designation, it cannot be denied that too much patriarchy has existed and still endures within the church to this day.

To counteract this, many in the English speaking world use “she” to refer to God and while this does draw attention to the long history of exclusion within the church, it does not take us beyond gender. Some have suggested using “it”, but for Christians this denies the the personal and intimate nature of God.

Language does matter, and it is appropriate to talk of a chairperson, flight attendant, or police officer. So it follows that that the church, if it wishes to remain relevant to the community it serves, must do likewise and move beyond gender. After all, Christians say they are made in the image of God – God who is neither masculine nor feminine. If we are not only to embrace humanity but also the animal world and all forms of life on the planet, we need to see God as life itself, beyond gender and beyond human.



 During this Christmas season, tales of  stars and donkeys, shepherds and kings will be told by Christians around the world. Most are fully aware that the three kings are in fact an unspecified number of wise men and only appear in Matthew’s Gospel. The shepherds are only found in Luke’s gospel and as for innkeepers and publicans, they arise from a mistranslation of guestroom. There was no room in the house so Mary and Joseph were invited downstairs to sleep with the animals. (See No Room at the Inn ) The controversy of the Virgin Birth can also be understood within the context of differing interpretations of the description of Mary as a “young woman”.

The evangelists John and Mark don’t contain descriptions of the birth at all and furthermore, many church-goers accept the whole narrative canvas of Christmas stories as fictional. This does nothing to diminish power of those stories; on the contrary, it renders them ever more powerful, enduring and inspiring.

This Christmas,  besides seeking to offer hospitality, to be generous in our giving, to recognise the divinity in each other, to be humble in giving birth to the things of God, let us celebrate the work of biblical scholars who over the last two hundred years and more have unpicked different sources within the Old Testament books, brought to light the relationships between the gospels, highlighted the creativity and characters of the biblical writers and their communities, and freed us to interpret their stories in ways that are relevant to us and our times.

Above all, let us seek not to belittle the intelligence of our congregations young and old by pretending we know nothing of this rich history.



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As long ago as 2002, it was reported that a quarter of Church of England members did not believe in the Virgin Birth. (see here)

In 2017, a survey revealed that 31% of Christians did not believe in life after death. (here)

Four years later The Clergy Project was launched to support clergy who no longer held supernatural beliefs.

In the light of these statistics, an assumption might be made that the church is in decline and no doubt the 57% of Christians who believe the bible word for word will claim that these doubters are not true believers and should be expelled from the church. From my standpoint, these figures are in fact a sign of hope that the church is evolving and changing.

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer we find prayers for rain and protection against the plague, yet I have never heard these prayers used, since only a tiny minority believes this is how the world operates. In forty of years of ministry I have never heard anyone preach a sermon on the threat of hell.

It vexes me whenever I encounter individuals holding forth on the subject of Christianity who haven’t set foot in a church for years and who imagine its members still believe what was taught fifty years ago in Sunday School. Most Christians are intelligent and well-read; it’s naive and patronising to afford them ideas and beliefs that cannot be considered and articulated in a meaningful way.

Why must a belief in prescribed fundamental principles be a prerequisite for belonging to a Christian community at all? In 2000 years we have seen an astonishing diversity within Christian thinking and practice and during that time the way we understand the world, the way we make meaning and interpret texts has changed, so it is hardly surprising our understanding of faith has changed accordingly.

As for the clergy who say God does not exist, Thomas Aquinus, one of the founding theologians of the church himself asserted that God is not a being that exists but existence itself; does that belittle his faith in any way? What does that say about his belief that God exists?

If the church is to thrive today, its clergy and people must continue to be honest about the things they believe (or not!) and indeed about the very nature of faith. Is it really, for example, a matter of giving assent to supernatural (whatever the word supernatural might mean today) propositions, or about living according to certain principles? At the same time, those outside the church should allow that church to change and furthermore acknowledge when it does.


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When I was a youngster, Remembrance Sunday seemed to be dominated by “the men with the medals”. I would watch from the choir stalls while these men processed to the chancel steps and lowered their flags in solemn remembrance of fallen comrades.

It was very moving. We looked on in awe and wondered what acts of daring and bravery the soldiers had performed to earn those medals. All we had to rely on were the films we’d seen. Were these the men who had blown up bridges, shot down enemy aircraft and survived prisoner of war camps?

As the men with the medals have dwindled in number, we’ve started to acknowledge and marvel at others who contributed to the war effort alongside them: the women who worked on the land and in the factories, those who nursed the wounded on the front line overseas, or in hospitals at home; the animals – war horses shipped out to carry ammunition, – donkeys and mules to carry food and water, canaries to detect poisonous gas, and cats and dogs to hunt trench rats.

We’ve learnt to remember not only the men but the boys,our boys, caught up in more recent conflicts. Young lads and lasses on active service in Korea, Bosnia, Kosova, Afghanistan, Iraq. And we’ve leant to remember the wounded and the traumatised.

The men with the medals didn’t talk much about their experiences. Only in the past few years have we heard their stories, perhaps encouraged by more recent generations of service people publishing their accounts and campaigning for better treatment and care. We also now remember their families, the military wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends and children.

Returning from combat and surviving the trauma of war is as old as war itself. Part of Homer’s Odyssey, the oldest extant piece of western literature, written possibly as early as the 8th century BC, describes the ten year homecoming of the eponymous Greek warrior famous for his exploits in the Trojan War.

Odysseus encounters innumerable obstacles and traumas en route for home; he is blown off course in severe storms, is repeatedly haunted by visions of fallen comrades and returns to a wife who thinks him dead. Worse still, she doesn’t even recognise him since he is a changed man, a man in a new guise, who has to win his way back into the household and into her affections. Furthermore, there is no happy ending to the tale, as Odysseus fights with his son to the very end of his life.

There is much anecdotal evidence to draw on with regard to the problems returning soldiers have experienced in adjusting to “normal” family life; to wives who’ve had to learn to survive independently in their absence, and in redefining themselves both as husband and father who may have missed out on the birth and early years of their children.

We probably all know of soldiers who have returned from war as changed people, unrecognised, traumatised, angry and depressed, and once the initial euphoria of the homecoming has subsided, the consequences of their internal struggles have then gone on to threaten the fortunes of their families for generations.

In 2009 eight and half thousand veterans were serving sentences in UK prisons and a further eleven and half thousand were on probation or parole.

In 2012 in Britain, more soldiers and veterans killed themselves than died in combat in Afghanistan.

An average of six veterans a day over the last few years have requested treatment and are said to be suffering from PTSD Disorder.

The return from the conflict brings no immediate peace for countless veterans, who along with their loved ones have to weather the fallout of mental illness on a daily basis..

Likewise, there is little peace for us. Learn the lesson: life’s battles against injustice, evil, inequality and prejudice affect us all. Like Odysseus and returning veterans, we are all trying to find a way home to ourselves; our way home to God.

We should honour and take as our models not only those who have survived both the physical and mental scars of war in direct combat, but also the many partners, siblings and parents who have helped to nurse their traumatised loved ones back to health

They too deserve to stand alongside “the men with the medals”


It’s the question parents are supposed to dread. “Where did I come from?” Nowadays I suspect most parents are well-prepared. They also know that very young children are not expecting a biology lesson. A lecture on the facts of life wouldn’t quite answer the question.

The child in front of us is not just a bundle of bones, or a brain, or a whirlwind of arms and legs. Children are people and a person isn’t made by sticking cells together. People are created from so many different elements; language, culture, experience, human life and love.

“Where did I come from?” may represent a search for some kind of intention behind a child’s existence. They weren’t an accident but conceived in love. They are wanted and they belong.

When I was training to be a priest, I spent some time working alongside a hospital chaplain. One day we were taken to the morgue. As the mortician was preparing a body for a post-mortem, he produced a little electric saw. “I need to open up the skull” he said. “Where is he?” he asked, “Come on, you’re the experts!”. Again it’s not a geographical question. People are not simply physical objects. To ask the question “Where is he?” is to ask for re-assurance that the person who was part of our lives will remain in our family conversation and in the history of our community. That is what makes them a person and continues to make them a person after death.

Parallels can be drawn with the question “Where is God?” We are not looking for a biology or a geopgraphy lesson, since the notion of a physical “coming together” is not appropriate. God is not made by anything at all but is that which creates love, joy, peace and the fruits of God’s spirit. The question “Where is God?” looks for some kind of assurance that all is well; that there is hope and purpose in our lives.

That’s why the Christian answer to the question “Where is God?” should be “God is with us”. The equally important question is “Where are we?”. That’s not a geographical or biological question either ; Are we with God? Are we where there is hope, courage, humanity, dignity and love?


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The Australian Catholic Bishops recently decided not to adopt all the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and rejected a recommendation that reports of abuse disclosed to priests during confession be reported to police.

Three Australian states have already adopted laws making it an offence for priests to fail to report the confessions of child sex abuse. However some priests in these states have said that they are “willing to go to jail” rather than break the seal of confessional.

It seems extraordinary that the highest standards of safeguarding within most secular institutions should not be adopted by the church.

There is on old puzzle that is still presented to theology students: Are God’s commands good because he commands them, or does he command them because they are good? The thinking behind it is that as God cannot be subjected to anything, to say that he commands things because they are good would suggest that God was being subject to standards of goodness.

The crucial and most telling point is this. Anything that we consider to be less than the highest level of morality cannot be of God. Consequently we should have no hesitation in adopting what after careful consideration we think best for our children. The search for goodness is surely by definition a seeking after God. We should begin not by asking what God wants (which makes the extraordinary claim of knowing what God is thinking) but what is the best we can do.







I’m very excited that this week sees the publication of my new book “Past Perfect: freedom from perfection in life and faith”. It’s available on Amazon and Kindle and other outlets! I’d be grateful if you felt able to share this blog, not only to publicise the book but because we need to free ourselves from ideas of perfection and imperfection.
We seem to be obsessed with perfection. It’s everywhere, permeating our conversations, our language, our advertising, our films and our religion. It’s not only widespread across our culture; it has roots deep in the beginning of civilization.
Generally when we describe something as perfect, it’s simply an expression of delight, but as soon as we try to impose standards of perfection upon ourselves or others it can become debilitating, undermining our confidence and linked to feelings of hopelessness, eating disorders (especially amongst young people) and in extreme circumstances, attempted suicide.
Due to a huge shift in our thinking, the terms perfect and imperfect have become largely redundant and that demands a radical revision of our theology. God is often described as perfect in hymns and services – “Perfect in power, in love and purity” according to the hymn Holy, holy holy. If these terms have little meaning in our everyday language, they  must be regarded as no more than poetic alliteration.
I’ve enjoyed looking at the uses and contradictory notions of the terms perfection and imperfection. “Just a perfect day” sang Lou Read… “Drink Sangria in the park / And then later / When it gets dark we go home.” What made the day perfect? Probably nothing exceptional at all. Imagine a wedding in which  everything went wrong – it rained, the bride was late and the groom fluffed his vows. Yet everyone said it was the perfect wedding! It’s been fun unravelling ideas of perfection in concepts of beauty, human life, love and goodness, society and even death – “Grant us, O Lord, a perfect end” and shaping an understanding of God free of this notion.


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We are all acutely aware of the vulnerability of our personal data, since Cambridge Analytica was accused of harvesting thousands of Facebook profiles. Many companies keep an eye on our internet searches and online/ offline shopping, and their algorithms deduce our likely profile and preferences, so as to tailor their advertisements and target their propaganda.

For many Christians this has an unnerving resonance in the prayer that opens some Communion Services: “O God from who all hearts are open, all desires known…..” Their all-knowing God is even more informed than the internet giants, and disciples are called to act beneath the gaze of an all-seeing God.

Of course we should all aspire to live with a clear conscience, unafraid of how our actions might be judged by our partners, friends and colleagues. Those working for public institutions will always be mindful of the scrutiny of trustees, stakeholders and the watchful eye of the press, and must be prepared to defend their decisions. Good communication and trust is built on the sharing of personal knowledge.

Yet we would be reckless not to consider carefully in whom we place our trust. The dangers of identity theft are very real and can have serious financial, medical and legal consequences. It isn’t a new phenomena, however; the Genesis 27 tale in which Jacob steals Esau’s birthright is probably one of the earliest recorded examples of self-seeking and calculated identity theft.

Preserving our personal identity offline is probably as hard as online. It isn’t only unhealthy relationships and abusive communities that can rob us of our identity. “Make of our hearts one heart” sing Maria and Tony in West Side Story; something to which most lovers aspire. Yet alongside this idealisation of an intimate relationship, is the need to balance mutual dependence and the freedom of an individual’s emotional autonomy. As the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran writes:

Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

The same holds for the intimacy of faith. St Augustine wrote in his Soliliques “If I know myself I shall know thee, O God.”. To lose our identity is not only to lose ourselves but to lose the way to God.