Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

The preacher to the Pope, the Church of England and the discernment of spirits

“For those who pray, for those who like Ignatius and Pope Francis do what Christians have always been urged to do, ‘discern the spirits’ then it is clear that those who are at the helm of the Church of England seem to be in danger of doing the work of the father of lies for him.”

It was an adventurous invitation.

Fr Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan Capuchin who was appointed as preacher to the Pope by John Paul 2 in 1980.

He preached a sermon on prophesy to the Church of England’s General Synod in November 2015. The service took place in Westminster Abbey. What lies before this new General Synod? Commentators have already been commenting that having ‘sorted out’ the issue of women bishops, the next five years will involve sorting out the Church of England’s accommodation to gay marriage.

So we can assume there was nothing accidental in his choice as preacher and nothing accidental in the message he delivered.

He preached about the prophetic witness of Haggai who called for the rebuilding of God’s house, invoking the presence of the Spirit of God.

He offered an imaginative update on the dispute about salvation by faith or works. He suggested that our secular society is busy trying to save itself by relying on technology, ingenuity and self-justification. It is up to the Church to witness that we need a redeemer. So far so good.

But then he slipped in the mandate that he was no doubt invited for. There can be no coincidence that given the inexorable progressive and secularised agenda of the C of E, he was invited to offer some encouragement, as if from Rome. He is after all, a preacher to the Pope.

When talking about the need for Christian unity, and noting that our neighbours know next to nothing about Jesus, he said

“How can we be unconcerned, and each remain ‘in the comfort of our own panelled houses’? We should never allow a moral issue like that of sexuality to divide us more than love for Jesus Christ unites us.”

This is a beautiful phrase, but a misuse of the concepts it contains. How should we be united? It is exactly the love of Jesus that ought to make us love what he taught and stand in mutual obedience to him together.

Jesus was very clear about ‘moral issues like sexuality’. There was to be no sex outside marriage and a man and woman were to leave their parents, cleave together and become one flesh. The love of Jesus unites us in obedience. It does not provide a mandate for uniting us to that which stands against Jesus and against obedience to the templates of creation and co-creation that Father has laid down for us.

Inconsistently Fr Raniero he invites us back to the apostles. “We need to go back to the time of the Apostles: they faced a pre-Christian world, and we are facing a largely post-Christian world.” But if we accept his invitation to go back to the Apostles we find nothing of the veneer of pseudo-unity that sidesteps sexual morality that he called for earlier.

Instead we find St Paul teaching

“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

It is St Paul who makes this metaphysical link between idolatry and disordered sexual desire in Romans 1.24.ff. There he warns us that there is a direct correlation between the idolatry practised by a society and the fracturing of God’s intended patterns of desire and behaviour.

So let’s indeed stick with the Apostles. The first Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 placed moral issues of sexuality at the heart of the identity of the Church. Peter, the first Pope says,

“19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”

Fr Raniero demoted the issues of sexual morality, suggesting they would not get in the way of the unity of the Church. No doubt those who invited Fr Raniero, hoped that his progressive affirmation of the abandonment of faithfulness to Scripture and tradition might give the impression he was speaking on the current Pope’s behalf. But he wasn’t. In fact he was speaking against the Pope.

The media doesn’t yet know what to make of Pope Francis. It’s own very limited grasp of narrative requires people to occupy one stereotypical end of the spectrum of public opinion or another. Faced with a the dilemma of what policy to adopt in baptising the children of prostitutes, as Jorje Bergoglio, Francis urged priest to offer baptism these children in Buenos Aires. He insisted the irregularity of their conception must not stand between them and the love of God or the Church. He was deeply sensitive pastorally to those people who struggled with disordered and destructive sexualities. When he famously answered questions on the plane journeying to Rio de Janeiro for an hour in 2013, he was asked about a gay lobby in the Vatican. He replied:

“”When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”

No one quotes the preamble “if they accept the Lord and have goodwill” and his words “who am I to judge them” are spun in different contexts.

His attitude to the wounded, confused and hurt has always been one of the most powerful aspects of his pastoral ministry. But his nuanced theological position has always set out to avoid being polarised, and captured or rejected by different wings.

Caught up between Peronists and anti-Peronists on one hand, or Marxist Liberation Theologians and reactionary conservatism on the other, he has always pursued the priorities that a certain mystical intimacy with Holy Trinity has fuelled. But when it comes to being faithful to Scripture and Tradition, he is unmovable.

When gay marriage arrived on the political horizon in Argentina, Austin Ivereigh, in his biography of Francis, describes how he to some nuns he asked to pray:

“The cardinal told the Carmelites what he discerned at stake in the same-sex marriage legislation: a serious threat to the family that would lead to children being deprived of a father and a mother. It was “a frontal attack on God’s law”: not simply a political battle but “a bid by the father of lies seeking to confuse and deceive the children of God.” He went on to ask for the nuns’ prayers for the assistance of the Holy Spirit “to protect us from the spell of so much sophistry of those who favour this law, which has confused and deceived even those of goodwill.” He had spotted the serpent’s tail, with all its usual tell-tale signs: hysteria, division, confusion, envy. This was “God’s war,” as he put it later in his letter.”

So the reality of the Pope’s position on gay marriage is that it is a frontal assault by the ‘father of lies’. This provides a very different prospect for Christian unity than the one that Fr Raniero put before the General Synod of the Church of England. Not only is Raniero mistaken theologically and spiritually, but he seriously misrepresents the position of the Pope and therefore, of the Roman Catholic Church.

Many faithful Anglicans share Pope Francis’ spiritual alertness to the discernment of spirits that lie behind the struggle of sexuality that has been launched in our culture.

Of course, if you don’t believe in the struggle that St Paul described in Ephesian 6; if you don’t believe Jesus when he finds himself confronting Satan as ‘Prince of this world’ then you may be more comfortable accommodating the diluting and confusing of sexual category and identity that has been promoted by secularism, and now liberal revisionist Anglicans.

But for those who pray, for those who like Ignatius and Pope Francis do what Christians have always been urged to do, ‘discern the spirits’ then it is clear that those who are at the helm of the Church of England seem to be in danger of doing the work of the father of lies for him. And that is a most serious matter.

The current assisted conversations, backed so heavily by Lambeth, are a political ploy to marginalise the orthodox and present a final result to the Church that says “look we consulted and listened…we confronted bigotry and phobia with our stories of longing for homosexual identity and intimacy and the open minded, the compassionate have come round to our point of view.”

The Archbishop has stood up in the House of Lords and commended the gay lifestyle to the peers of the realm. It’s true, the pressure to do so is immense. As Francis warned, we can expect for some of the children of God to have become confused; but we might have expected a deeper capacity for spiritual discernment and leadership from our Archbishops. We must continue to pray with Francis and those he looks to in prayer, that people are protected “from the spell of so much sophistry of those who favour this law, which has confused and deceived even those of goodwill.” We must hope that bland and blind goodwill does not deafen the ears of the Archbishops and bishops, priests and laity of the Church of England to the Holy Spirit in the next quinqennium.

Sadly, the signs are not good. They have in the ordination of women, already swallowed the bait of soft Marxist egalitarianism. Once you decide to re-order the mystical body of Christ on the lines of Marxist secular priorities, making ‘equality’ your highest priority, you enter a different spiritual dynamic. Those who carry Scripture in the heads hesitate over the theological antecedents of equality.

It might have pleased Marx, but it worried Isaiah.

In Isaiah 14.14 ‘equality’ is what Lucifer aspires to when he sets out to “make myself like the Most High”. Equality is what Jesus rejects when in Philippians 2.6 we find “Who being in the nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.” But the Church of England has swallowed equality and is reordering not only the framework of the apostolic Church in its image, but is moving inexorably (in the steps of The Episcopal Church) to remodel sexual morality as well.

Fr Raniero ended his sermon by stirringly calling on the Church of England to take courage:

“Take courage, Your Majesty, Sovereign of this nation, courage, Justin, Archbishop of Canterbury, courage Sentamu, Archbishop of York, courage, you bishops, clergy and laity of the Church of England! To work, ….my Spirit is present among you. Do not be afraid!” (Hg 2, 4-5).”

Really? But may we ‘what is this spirit that has come on the Church of England’? Because at first sight the signs are not good.

It is a spirit that denies Scripture. It is a spirit that breaks the unity of the body of Christ, and has driven an irreparable wedge between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. It is a spirit that is very much ‘a spirit of the age.’ It is a spirit that is being used to persecute the Church wherever it stands up against the normalisation of homosexual relations. It is a spirit that demands the Bible be taken out of the public space. It is a spirit that results in the imprisonment of those Christians who quote the Bible in the public space.

St John (4.1-6) warns ‘Test the spirits’. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

It is a false spirit.

We might respond, “Fr Raniero, go back to Rome, and instead of preaching to the Pope, consult him. He will send you back with a different message for the Church of England, with the invitation to conform the patterns of the Church not to Marx but to Jesus and His Apostles; not to the spirit of the age, that of the father of lies, but to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.”

No doubt those who order the affairs of the General Synod and who invited Fr Raniero are very pleased with his message. It was perhaps intended to reassure the General Synod that accommodating gay marriage will carry us closer to the Roman Catholic Church. But Fr Raniero may not have discerned the truth, and he certainly misrepresented the Pope.

If he was wrong, the Church of England, built upon the sand of the spirit of the Age instead of the rock which is Christ and obedience to him, risks being washed away by the coming flood. It has little more than seven years of solvency and stability left to it. Demographics as well as disobedience will undermine its survival. This dissolution will be accelerated and exacerbated by those who are determined to be obedient to the Holy Spirit. Many will reconsider their allegiance to this altered church. Some will become Roman Catholic. Some will become Orthodox. Some will seek the shelter of a different more faithful Anglican jurisdiction. Time will tell, and perhaps sooner than we expect.

“Beloved let us test the spirits.”

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