bishop of reading olivia graham heresy god evolution

Bishop of Reading: ‘Evolution is God incarnate; the whole earth is God’s body’

The Rt Rev’d Olivia Graham, Bishop of Reading, has been reading a book. Perhaps she has been reading two or three. Her subject is Creation and Incarnation; her passion is global warming and biodiversity; her theological exposition is… interesting. Perhaps she needs to read another book. A different book. Or two.

The video of her teaching is a mere six minutes long, so you may wish to hear her words for yourself, because they are at best theologically confusing; at worst they are heresy. But we don’t like to talk of ‘heresy’ any more, because it isn’t very loving; it’s just not tolerant or inclusive. So let’s go with confusing. She does exhort reflection on the questions arising from her talk – “either alone or with other people” – so let’s view this analysis as part of that process, which you can do alone or in the chat thread beneath.

Bishop Olivia is absolutely right to say that “environmental concern isn’t simply a fringe interest for the usual suspects” (who are they?), and that it has an important place in Christian discipleship because we are called to be good stewards. And she pivots from the ‘Logos’ of St John to the ‘dominion’ of Genesis, alluding to the tensions between exploitation and stewardship and exhorting the papal encyclical Laudato Si, which “contains some rich theology”.

Incarnation, she says, began 14 billion years ago with the ‘Big Bang’, when “God poured God’s self into the emerging universe”. From this she posits that “the whole earth is God’s body”, and “everything, every person, all that happens is created, sustained and sanctified: every act of evolving nature is the self-expression of God”. She concludes: “Evolution is not only of God, but is God incarnate.”

“So we might want to ponder…”

We might indeed.

“If God is incarnate in the whole of creation, can there be any separation between sacred and profane?” she muses.

It depends, of course, on whether one entertains the existence of profanity, and whether light can happily fellowship with darkness because God is, in fact, in the darkness. Setting aside Bishop Olivia’s stretch of ‘incarnation’ beyond its root meaning, which is embodiment in the flesh, what she teaches is that God is in everything because God created everything. ‘Incarnation’, she believes, puts God into every mountain, tree, ant and virus, which sounds a little like pan(en)theism, which inclines toward worshipping creation instead of the Creator. If everything is an expression of God because God is in everything, where is the evil? Perhaps it doesn’t exist. If evolution is God incarnate, then all creation must be God. If “all that happens is.. sanctified”, was the Holocaust holy?

So many questions.

The Diocese of Oxford has issued a ‘helpful clarification‘:

For ‘salvic’ read ‘salvific’: a ‘salve’ is a soothing medical ointment which may be used to treat small boils; ‘salvific’ is concerned with the consequences of sin and the path to eternal salvation. Magnesium sulphate is salvic; the sacrifice of Christ is salvific.

Bishop Olivia is a bishop in the Church of England. Her words carry weight because she is called to teach, preach and exercise authority. She is also called to be a focus of unity. Being a mature, experienced Christian leader, she knows what words she uses, and she knows the meaning they convey. The problem with the Diocese of Oxford’s ‘helpful clarification’ is that for every soul who reads it, a hundred will have watched the video and heard the words, and because Bishop Olivia’s words emanate from creation, they are of God: God is in them; “all that happens is.. sanctified”; there is no profanity or heresy.

But a bishop’s teaching should not require ‘clarification’: the error circles the world while the correction (was it the Bishop of Oxford’s rebuke?) barely registers. The Oxford Diocese website includes this:

Debate is indeed good, and it ought to take place without petty insults, misogyny or harsh words (not least because they detract from the argument). The Bishop of Reading has a particular view of creation and incarnation which you may not share, but she is permitted to hold it and express it. Whether she should do so in formal Oxford Diocese teaching videos, however, is highly questionable. Scripture is clear about the importance of sound doctrine (2Tim 4:3), as it is about the consequences of leading astray those who are weak of faith (Mt 18:6, 24:4; Rom 16:17f; Heb 13:9; Eph 4:14). And Bishop Olivia’s teaching is indeed in danger of leading people astray: the public pulpit is not the place for ‘speculative’ or ‘creative’ theology. That can be explored in the seminary, where heresy may be gently corrected: priestly formation is when you can think outside the box; the theological tutorial will rebuke and guide you back toward the Patristics. The public pulpit is for proclaiming the Good News with clarity and certainty: ‘For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound…’

The problem with ‘heresy’ is that some glory in it, and it is obvious, while some deny the very concept, and their soothing words are inculcated and incubated. A bishop steers and guides the priestly flock, who in turn watch over their own faithful flocks, and when a bishop has ideas which some might term unorthodox, then priests may be encouraged to throw around other speculative ideas and play around with ‘creative’ doctrine from the pulpit, which may lead the faithful astray – especially those who prefer milk to meat, or who are only capable of drinking milk because they choke on solids.

The other problem with ‘heresy’ is that those who are accused of it tend to prefer the company of those who agree with them, and this leads to factions and then schisms. The whole history of the Church is littered with heretical elites who refute those who dare to oppose them and denounce the church to which they belong as somehow false or in error, and so the Church is perpetually divided by mutual suspicion and acrimony.

Especially on Twitter.

The Bishop of Reading seeks the hidden God; the God in the universe of all creation, and she adduces Psalm 19 as evidence that the universe is God and the earth is God’s body. She may view (and probably does) any attempt to challenge this as tediously ignorant, narrow-minded, dogmatic, ‘fundamentalist evangelical’, intolerant and unloving. It simply isn’t nuanced enough: her theology is ‘higher’ because she knows more about the mystery of God and cares more about the mastery of God in creation.

There is a place for finding God in nature: creation is a cathedral of wonder. But those who seek God earnestly with all their heart, soul and mind, through the beauty of the world and the paragon of animals, eventually find spiritual truth and divine light in the Creator: they don’t find His material being in evolution, or his healing and reconciling grace in the clay of the earth.

The creeds of the Early Church guard us from error: they were written during times of disagreement, division and schism when it was important to define the fundamental truths of the Faith in order to make better understood the doctrine of God and the nature of Christ. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed talk of God the Creator, “Maker of all things visible and invisible”. They do not say that God is in all things visible and invisible: the ‘incarnation’ is expounded in subsequent clauses, and that is Jesus, not evolution. The Body of Christ is God incarnate: the earth is not God’s body.

Bishop Olivia’s contemporary context is not, of course, concerned with the controversies of the Early Church: for the most part we have settled the doctrine of God, and we have settled the nature of Christ. Today’s controversy is the meaning of humanity: we have moved from God to Jesus to Man. And so the divine life is now viewed through the lens of sex and sexuality, race and ethnicity, creation and climate change. The unity of God in Jesus Christ must now be understood alongside the unity and reconciliation of all humankind with the environment, and when we understand that, we are changed in our horizons of perception, and transformed to be more like Jesus.

More like the Bishop of Reading.

If you say she does not teach truth with the spirit of God, your horizon is narrow; your disposition un-Christian and unloving. If you seek to rebuke or correct her, your ‘right belief’ is arrogant, fundamentalist, harsh. She is simply attempting to open your myopic eyes and enrich your mechanical language. The God of the universe is bigger than the Bible and certainly transcends the XXXIX Articles. Your simplistic faith of ‘sin, repentance and salvation’ needs to be enlightened with revelations of human complexity and all that is extraordinary in the world.

‘Heresy’ is an aggressive word; ‘heretic’ is just angry. But the doctrine of God matters, and the nature of Christ matters, and orthodoxy that is distorted is no longer orthodoxy. Perhaps it would be better if we consigned the word to history. What, then, do we do with wrong-headed teaching by bishops? How do we correct unfaithfulness and error? What do we do with a “helpful clarification” which itself needs clarifying?

We should, of course, be tolerant of unfortunate episcopal lapses in judgement: these are not heresy, and a moment of heresy does not make a heretic.

That word again.

What do we call people who teach speculative theology rather than sound doctrine? If we prefer our environmental obsessions over the salvation of souls, is that heresy? If we project onto God our own political priorities and subjective morality, is that not heresy? If we create God in the image of our own fashions and social prescriptions, is that not heresy?

That word again.

Shall we just say, lovingly, that it is ‘unacceptable’, and bless her for the vigorous debate and the opportunity to show that we care?