Bishops’ Letters and the Case for the Defence – “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord”

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia and Director of the Ozanne Foundation

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As a young keen evangelical I was frequently taught to present the case for Christ’s divinity by following in the footsteps of CS Lewis (and several others) by making the “Lunatic, Liar or Lord” argument.  It was a logical argument based on the fact that Christ claimed himself that He was the Son of God who could forgive sins and so could never be accepted as “just” a good moral leader.  The argument went that he was too wise to be mad, too good to be bad and therefore had to be telling the truth.

I liked the logic, and still do – it has a courtroom simplicity to it.

It strikes me that the same type of argument – but obviously with different alternatives – ought to be applied to our evangelical friends who are determined to keep stating that they are the only ones who take Scripture seriously, and who believe the rest of us are “giving in to the culture of the day” (whilst they themselves ironically hold on to a cultural view of scripture and sexuality which is from about a hundred years ago!).

We saw it stated once again in the letter from 11 evangelical bishops last week, penned by Bishop Julian Henderson.  He was interviewed about his reasons for writing it by Edward Stourton on BBC R4 Sunday programme, who started by putting to him that the letter had “nothing new” about it.

Indeed, on the surface of it, the letter appears to reiterate the traditional position of the fact that “sex is for marriage and marriage is for straights”.  Never mind the serious mental health problems and desperate loneliness this causes LGBTI+ Christians – evidently we are all called to make sacrifices and follow the path of the Cross, and this is just our “bad luck”. (As an aside, this is precisely what pushes so many young vulnerable LGBTI teenagers into conversion therapy – they have to find a way out).  Of course, there is also the argument that “this is what the Church has taught for 2000 years” so it must be right!

Interestingly a closer look at the final paragraphs of the letter reveals some relatively new points – that new structures need discussing in order to enable people to live together in “unity and faith”. A hint of a new form of semi-schism, just enough to mark people’s cards and sound a warning.

I wonder if I am the only one who is getting tired of their stubborn refusal to admit that there are others who hold Scripture just as dear as they do, but have come to a different reading of it?  Likewise their constant rendition that “the Church is capitulating to culture” rather than the admission that people are rightly concerned about the harm and damage this teaching does. What is more, their understanding of ‘radical Christian inclusion” is to just ‘stand firm’ – which is directly at odds with what the Archbishops have called for.

It seems we are doomed to be in this Ground Hog Day of hearing small groups of mostly men of a certain age claim they speak for “most Christians”, despite all the statistical research to the contrary.

So I have found myself asking “why do they constantly keep to this line?”

There seem to be only three logical possibilities:

(i)   that they have either not heard or understood the fact that there are others who in all conscience believe that Holy Scripture can be read differently, and that their teaching is doing immeasurable harm.

(ii)   that they do not respect those who have a different understanding of Scripture, and therefore feel able to blank their differing views because they do not believe they are Christian views, and that those who suffer do so because of their sinful desires


(iii)   that they are stubbornly sticking to their point of view because to do otherwise would mean having to admit that they are wrong and they would then need to recognise the immense damage they have inflicted on so many under their care.

I am open to other interpretations – which hopefully people will make in the comments below.

Let’s be honest, though.  I cannot believe that they have not heard or understood the arguments being made.  Even Bishop Julian himself admitted that he had written the letter because he was concerned “how strong the voice for change” had become.

I also find it hard to believe that they cannot care about the pastoral carnage they are creating, and the many lives that have been severely traumatised – like my own – because of their teaching.  These are sincere pastorally astute Christians, who I know want to serve the Lord with all their hearts and minds.  They normally show great respect to people in one-on-one conversations, and so I find it hard that they have written off their evangelical colleagues with whom they disagree as ‘non-Christian’.

That leaves my third option – which may sound harsh, but is it true?

It is a question that only they know the answer to….but it is worth reflecting on.


This follows on from a three-part series by other Affirming Evangelicals.

Part 1 is by Rt Revd David Gillett, former Principal of Trinity College, Bristol (1989-99) and former Bishop of Bolton

Part 2 is by Rt Revd David Atkinson, former lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and former Bishop of Thetford 

Part 3 is by the Revd David Runcorn, former lecturer at Trinity College, Bristol

CEEC (Church of England Evangelical Council) responded to all these articles with a blog entitled “Why Conservatives Remain Conservative” on November 23rd 2018.

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45 Responses to Bishops’ Letters and the Case for the Defence – “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord”

  1. John says:

    Jayne, I am beginning to think that they cannot accept the idea that they were wrong.

    I am disappointed that they have chosen to publicise this letter, when the consultation has been initiated, but since they have, as much I appreciate the letters from Wilson, Atkinson and Runcorn, I think those who are in the House of Bishops who disagree with the letter, v should write their own letter.

  2. ckatsarelis says:

    Terrific piece! I vote no. 3. It would be pretty hard for them to look in the mirror and admit that their teaching has been brutal to many, especially vulnerable teens and young adults. Brutal to the point of suicide. Brutal to the point of homelessness – thrown out of “religious” homes where the teachings of these bishops rule. Brutal to the point of exposing these homeless kids to human trafficking where they suffer sexual abuse. It would take immense character for any of them to turn back to God and an understanding of the abyss of hell created by their teaching. How could they face the survivors? No, it’s much safer to stay in their ivory towers and enclaves of the like-minded. Much safer.

  3. Peter Jermey says:

    2.You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

    4 Such confidence we have through Christ before God. 5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

    2 Corinthians 3

  4. Trevor Thurston-Smith says:

    Thank you, Jayne, for yet another thought-provoking blog. Over the years – too many years – I have argued that those Christians who take a ‘conservative’ line on homosexuality shouldn’t be called homophobic, because their reasoning is rooted in scripture and the traditional teachings of the church and isn’t merely an articulation of innate prejudice. More recently, however, I have changed this view. The unwillingness to take seriously that there might be an alternative way of reading scripture, the reluctance to engage ‘reason’ in a classically Anglican way, and the inability to engage in a genuinely pastoral way with the enormous harm that their attitudes have inflicted – and continue to inflict – upon so many people betrays I believe at best a personal distaste for the subject and at worst overt bigotry. This is something quite different from the rather cowardly fence-sitting line of many other bishops who seem to be motivated principally by political expediency. This isn’t diffident leadership; it’s homophobia plain and simple. Attempts to supress honest debate and truthfulness are failing fast, and people are now showing themselves in their true colours. I for one rejoice in this because I believe that the Truth does indeed set us free and it is now time for the Church of England to be set free from the fetters of institutionalised homophobia and the paralysing fear that has previously undermined so much of this debate and which the recent letter from the eleven so desperately attempts to re-ignite.

  5. Annie M says:

    There is a lot at stake here isn’t there? – the whole unity of the Anglican Communion as i understand it? Because it i think can say is strongly structurally and politically based on this old way of teaching. It would take great bravery and humility to dismantel this structure from top, from the inside – and apologise for all harm caused and any wrongs. What do i know – who knows what will happen? but i cant see it somehow – unless the upper hierarchies of the Anglican church are sadly left with no body of church people to support them? No clergy, even? The modern Catholic Church is currently bringing humility in the need to apologise for many years of many wrongs – possibly partly encouraged by the number of people leaving in their droves? I think it’s this humility which God is after, or aiming for us to have? perhaps by being part of smaller but more meaningful helpfully active communities? It is a holy humility which only God can give – has already provided in the person of Christ who looked people in the eyes, could see their mistakes and failings and yet still love them enough to offer a way forward – How do we follow that? ? So many people and their whole families having now been adversely affected and confused by this old hurtful inflexible teaching – which brings nothing but institutionally endorsed hurt and shame – and exclusion, which in turn not many priests can really believe in anymore, surely? – Isn’t it time to move beyond what people dare to hope for, towards wholeness and Life in its fullness – towards what seems impossible now, through prayer for change? For less structural certainty and rigidity, for more open wonder, mystery, doubt and awe?
    Thank you for framing these questions in the logic of old – and hinting the mystery of God’s love is much, much older and deeper yet than we may ever know….

  6. Amos says:

    I believe one must always endevour to think the best of other, even, perhaps especially, one’s enemies. And so I wonder if the reason for the lack of movement on issues such as sexuality is due to an immature faith.

    Books on “levels of faith” often speak of seven levels of faith: level one being the faith of the small child and that sometimes people get “stuck” a a level that is too immature. One of the features of an immature faith is being very concrete in understandings and unwilling to move/be moved by the Spirit.

    In my opinion, it is almost impossible to live as a gay Christian and stay at an immature level of faith: the challenges that we face mean that either one would give up on God or that one must grow to have a more mature faith. This is, perhaps, one of the gifts that gay Christians such as Jayne have to offer the church.

    This is not intended to sound arrogant. It is intended to help us understand, an sympathize with those who, lets be frank, are our enemies: i.e. those we are instructed to pray for by Jesus.

    “He hath put down the mighty from their seat. And hath exalted the humble and meek”

  7. David Shepherd says:

    “(i) that they have either not heard or understood the fact that there are others who in all conscience believe that Holy Scripture can be read differently, and that their teaching is doing immeasurable harm.”

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m inclined to agree with scholars, like, Diarmud MacCulloch, who is gay, and wrote: “Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity . . .”

    So, we would ask whether:
    “(i) he has either not heard or understood the fact that there are others who in all conscience believe that Holy Scripture can be read differently, and that their teaching is doing immeasurable harm.
    (ii) he respects those who have a different understanding of Scripture, and therefore feel able to blank their differing views because they do not believe they are Christian views, and that those who suffer do so because of their sinful desires
    (iii) he is stubbornly sticking to their point of view because to do otherwise would mean having to admit that they are wrong and they would then need to recognise the immense damage they have inflicted on so many under their care.”

    Why shouldn’t these reductive alternatives apply to him also?

    • David says:

      In my via piece I made this point with regard to MacCulloch’s words – “‘Homosexual’ is not a biblical word. The word first appears in any English bible translation in the first edition of the new RSV in 1946. Those texts traditionally presumed to be teaching against homosexual relationships in every case describe subjugation, rape or violence, excessive lustful activity, patterns of coercive male dominance and a total disregard of acceptable norms of social, religious and sexual behaviour. So it is more accurate to say that these Bible texts condemn abusive sexual behaviour of any kind. They are not for applying to what is loving, faithful and committed).”

      • David Shepherd says:

        Hi David,

        Your explanation doesn’t really answer my question.

        My point isn’t about whether MacCulloch is mistaken or not. It’s that, despite his insistence that scripture expresses disapproval of homosexual activity, few would dare to pigeon-hole him into one of the three pejorative alternatives described above.

        MacCulloch also insists that a stark choice needs to be made: “The only alternatives are either to try to cleave to patterns of life and assumptions set out in the Bible, or to say that in this, as in much else, the Bible is simply wrong.”

        But he’s generally an ally of the LGBT cause (and how could he be otherwise?), so that’s okay.

        But, when, in following MacCulloch’s logic, supporters of marriage orthodoxy “try to cleave to patterns of life and assumptions set out in the Bible” (instead of saying that “in this, as in much else, the Bible is simply wrong”), they are then vilified for it.

    • Peter Jermey says:

      One quote from ten years ago (?) before the latest round of conversations in which he was not involved.

      • David says:

        David Shepherd I don’t agree with MacCulloch’s quote. But that is very clear, and why, from what I have written here and elsewhere.
        I do not vilify those I disagree with. I know it goes on – and by both sides. I am glad it is not happening here.

  8. Let each local church and their PCC and priest/minister decide for themselves what their consciences speak to them, and how they believe in good conscience they can best meet the needs of the wider community around them.

    This already operates unofficially, but it is really past time for paternalistic top-down authoritarians to stop trying to dominate the consciences of sincere and decent Christians, and accept that there is diversity in the Church of England.

    This involves respect both ways for other people’s consciences, but would liberate and set free so many local churches. I have argued before, and continue to argue, for a network of local Anglican churches to organise themselves and agree a date from which they *will* bless the unions of LGBT couples, openly, and without shame or apology…

    …this would find support in the media, with the public, in Parliament, in the local communities themselves – because society has moved on, and accepts LGBT lives, and would be behind a conscientious insistence that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans lives *will* be affirmed in our land and our communities.

  9. wiseegg says:

    I spent years believing in an angry, cruel God for whom I could never be good enough and I was really scared of this God and of stepping out of line. I sometimes wonder if the bishops and others who think the same are scared of this God too.

  10. chris russell says:

    What the Church has taught for 2000 years is not the point. The point is that advocates of an alternative teaching are not claiming that a new revelation from God has been received, which now gives His correct position i.e in line with ascendant values in modern Western liberal democratic societies. Or are they?

    • Peter Jermey says:

      I can’t speak for everyone who wants change, but I would say that the current teaching and practice is not wrong theology per se, but is being applied against the wrong offenders. When this theology was concocted the modern category of “gay” was unknown.

      Nowadays most people accept that a minority of people spend their whole lives attracted to the same sex, not choice, rebellion, hedonism or perversion and the application of the law needs to be revisited in light of this.

      An analogy is its like trying to apply Newtonian physics to quantum particles.

    • David says:

      Hi Chris Not sure I understand your question. All three responses on Via to the Bishop letter gave their basis for coming to a including reading of scripture on this issue.

      • chris russell says:

        David, the fact that it is now common to read Scripture in a different way than it has been read in the past is not sufficient for professing Christians who base their thought and conduct on what they believe has been revealed by God. What needs to be addressed is the question concerning whether the novel reading of Scripture consonant with values that were first advocated by secularists, in the second half of the twentieth century, is evidence in fact of a special revelation of God in our time. EDITED

  11. John Sandeman says:

    “that they have either not heard or understood the fact that there are others who in all conscience believe that Holy Scripture can be read differently”

    I wonder if this option could be divided into part a and part b. two sub-options perhaps?

    a) people who “read scripture differently” because they have a different view of scripture, which could range from a minor difference to something quite significant.

    b) people who “read scripture differently” while sharing a similar view of scripture but have worked through to a different exegesis.

    Does that make sense? my our view is that there is more of a) than b) but you may have a different view

  12. John Bunyan says:

    Just re the argument – “Jesus : lunatic, liar”, Lord (often put forward, and I think found in the writings of C.S.Lewis), usually referring to the words ascribed to Jesus in S.John’s Gospel, especially the “I am sayings” – there is a fourth alternative. Jesus did not say these words which are absent from the much earlier Synoptic Gospels – and this is the view I think of the majority of New Testament scholars.

    • David says:

      John Bunyan Well, yes, I agree with you. And the Sermon on the Mount is not the original verbatim script either. But what point are you making? For some that means that what is claimed in those words ascribed to him are therefore not ‘true’ – but someone else’s opinion or agenda. Part of the core question as we read the bible – what kind of revelation are we engaging with and therefore how to read them. This is why I find the old ‘follow the maker’s instructions’ approach to the bible so unhelpful. It is not like a practical car maintenance manual. It is not a transcript. It is not actually a ‘factual record’ (though it clearly is rooted in history).

  13. Brian Semple says:

    Your option 3 is an example of the rule of bureaucracies – and those bishops represent a particular bureaucracy – that it is more important to be consistent than to be right. And this for all the reasons you have suggested.

  14. Kate says:

    Jesus was clear: a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. The harm done to LGBTI people is clearly bad fruit. Maybe what liberals is proposing isn’t right but we know from Scripture that the traditional interpretation MUST be wrong because of the harm it does – a good tree cannot bear bad fruit.

    Primum non nocere is a bedrock of medical ethics. Surely it should be foundational for Christians too? In fact, Jesus’s ministry seems to be a study in trying first of all to do no harm then layering more complex stuff on top of that. How can we claim to be loving our neighbours if we harm them?

    So it is easy to refuse to accept the harm done to LGBTI people because once the actuality of harm is accepted, the traditional view of Scripture inevitably is seen to he wrong.

  15. kiwianglo says:

    ‘Bishop’ Lines is waiting in the wings, ready to receive these Bishops into his GAFCON -affiliate church community – which the Archbishops have yet to discredit in the U.K.

    • David says:

      kiwianglo Your point being? Do you not find it significant that the letter from the Bishops to GAFCON expresses concerns about Andy Lines (already expressed to him directly) and the appropriateness of the role GAFCON have given him in as their representative the UK?

      • kiwianglo says:

        Yes, David. BUT, it is the inappropriateness of the continuing divisive action of GAFCO/FOCA/AMIE that I would be worried about is I were swtill a member of the Church of England. Blesuings!

  16. Zac says:

    Hi Jane, do you mind if I offer a 4th option, which I personally hold?

    iv) that they have heard and understood others who in all conscience believe that Holy Scripture can be read differently, but they respectfully disagree with their reading. They also don’t believe that LGBTQ people suffer because of their sinful desires, because present suffering that is directly related to certain sins is not a concrete Biblical principle (e.g. first half of John 9).



    • Jayne Ozanne says:

      No, I do not believe that is a different option to that of (ii) at all.

      The key issue is that they have not shown any indication at all that they have “heard and understood others”, it would be very good (and a major break through) if they did! Naturally there will always be disagreements on interpretation, but their constant refusal to even recognise people HAVE a different interpretation is what is causing the issue here. They also completely ignore the evidence of the harm that they do, even if they disagree about the cause of that suffering, and show no concern for the people whose lives are being ruined or worse, lost.

      • Zac says:

        Thanks for replying Jane,

        Ok, thanks for the clarification. May I add then that I do recognise people who come to a pro lgbt stance on scriptural grounds as Christians, and whilst I disagree with them, I respect their view. Let’s not confuse disagreement with disrespect.

        Secondly to your point about harm, Your blog has made me aware of the harm that many have to go through, and gosh I agree with you it’s often horrendous. That said, I don’t think that the solution to that harm is by changing the teaching. I’m sure you’re aware of the organisation ‘living out’. The resources that they have provided have certainly helped the lives of not only same-sex-attracted Christians but also lgbt one to avoid this often tragic hurt, and I’m sure that many of the bishops that signed the letter will be supporting this organisation.

        On a lighter note, I think you’re spot on about the fallacy of the ‘position of the church for 2000 years argument’. Please let’s never use that argument for anything in church matters.


      • Jayne Ozanne says:

        Yep, tried to ‘live out’ as a celibate with no hope of any intimacy or relationship – ended up fighting for my life in hospital as a result (you should read my book). In my opinion it’s just as dangerous for the vast majority of us…only possibly works for those who are given gift of celibacy (as per Jesus’ own words).

      • chris russell says:

        Jayne, my suggestion is that the issue does not concern “interpretation” or “harm” at all. Many people have left the Christian Church because its teaching on sexual ethics is well known, and has been widely rejected. It is a trend now to revisit the Church and change its teaching, but that appears intellectually dishonest if not without precedent. Certainly it has little currency with mature unbelievers who accept that the good life is understood differently by Christians, on the basis of their faith in the revelation of the Creator God.

    • Peter Jermey says:

      Chris you say that changing teaching (based on societal change) is unprecedented, but what about the role of women, slavery, contraception and even (already) gay people?

      Until relatively recently churches taught that gay people did not exist and those caught in homosexual liasons were perverts who should be put to death. Most British churches now acknowledge the existence of gay people and are moving towards a tolerance of celibate gay people.

      This is simply due to better understanding. Its not abandoning scripture.

  17. David says:

    chris ‘Many people have left the Christian Church because its teaching on sexual ethics is well known’. What actual evidence do you have for this claim?

  18. chris russell says:

    David, most people who believe that fornication should be avoided, on Scriptural grounds, have not left the Christian Church regardless of secularisation. Thus the evidence is the same evidence that there is for the wide rejection of Christian teaching on sexual ethics. What is more important to note is that those who may suffer from the ban on illicit sex would probably find happiness in a way of life that does not seek, or does not purport, to be Christian. This is no criticism of the church, or its teaching.

    • Peter Jermey says:

      That’s quite a damning indictment of the gospel! My faith in Jesus tells me that the church has got it wrong rather than the gospel is unable to save!

    • David says:

      Chris You have’t actually answered my question. What actual evidence are you referring to?

      • chris russell says:


      • David says:

        Chris No it doesn’t. You wrote, ‘Many people have left the Christian Church because its teaching on sexual ethics is well known, and has been widely rejected.’ I asked you what actual evidence or research you are basing that assertion claim. How do you know? Phrases like ‘most people’ or ‘the evidence is’ need backing up with facts. I think you would expect the same of me.

      • chris russell says:


  19. chris russell says:


    • David says:

      Chris ‘Many people have left the Christian Church because ….’ is a factual claim not a theological argument. You continue to make very generalised claims here.

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