Dean’s Atonement Talk Resulted in
Abuse and Obscenity
The Anglican Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, received many “abusive and obscene” letters from people who objected to his Holy Week talk saying that the cross of Christ was about God bearing suffering, not inflicting it – even though many had not heard or read the broadcast.
Dr John reveals the nature of the hate-filled messages he received in a letter to the Church Times this week. The situation arose when three bishops condemned him on the basis of what he described as “a scandalously false headline” in the Sunday Telegraph. They had not seen or heard the original either.
But the Dean points out that his opposition to vindictive substitutionary theories of the atonement is in line with mainstream Anglican teaching, including the last Church of England Doctrine Commission report, The Mystery of Salvation.
Dr John’s point is that the cross represents a sacrifice by God, not a sacrifice to God. It is an act of love to defeat evil and death, not the cruel infliction of punishment.
He adds: “I have now received another deluge of messages from people who actually heard the broadcast, overwhelmingly of thanks, including many from people who, like me, were held back from faith by crude presentations of the theory of penal substitution.”
The link between human justifications of violence and retributive Christian atonement theories is an issue addressed by a range of academic and practical contributors to the book Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, published by Darton, Longman and Todd in 2005 and edited by Ekklesia co-directors Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley.
Atonement became a controversial issue in UK evangelical circles in 2005 when leading Baptist preacher and social activist the Rev Steve Chalke likened some crude portrayals of the cross to “cosmic child abuse”.
The Evangelical Alliance subsequently reaffirmed its commitment to penal substitution. Critics say that the theory, derived from Feudal understandings of obligation, justice and debt, owes more to St Anselm’s successors than the Bible.
Traditionally, the main Christian creeds have not specified a particular definition of the efficacy of the cross, and the New Testament offers a number of different images.
Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow said: “Jeffrey John is to be congratulated on his determination to speak with courtesy and love on this subject. The hatred directed at him is appalling, and exemplifies precisely why it is necessary to highlight the consequences of an abusive misconstrual of a central Christian doctrine.”
He added: “It was entirely sensible of Dr John to explain that the cross of Christ is not an act of divine sadism, but an embodiment of God’s willingness to absorb and transform our human capacity for continually doing ourselves and other people in – “living unto death”, as one ancient source puts it.”
Jeffrey John’s letter to the Church Times newspaper reads as follows:
The most recent statement by the Church of England on the meaning of the Cross is the Doctrine Commission’s report The Mystery of Salvation (Church House Publishing, 1995). It restates the view of the 1938 Commission that “the notion of propitiation as the placating by man of an angry God is definitely unchristian” (p. 213).
It also observes that “the traditional vocabulary of atonement with its central themes of law, wrath, guilt, punishment and acquittal, leave many Christians cold and signally fail to move many people, young and old, who wish to take steps towards faith. These images do not correspond to the spiritual search of many people today and therefore hamper the Church’s mission.”
Instead, it recommends that the Cross should be presented “as revealing the heart of a fellow-suffering God” (p. 113).
On Wednesday of Holy Week, I broadcast a Radio 4 talk that was exactly in line with this guidance. The talk, however, was publicly condemned beforehand by the Bishops of Durham, Lewes, and Willesden — none of whom had heard or read the full text — on the basis of a partial and inflammatory preview supplied by The Sunday Telegraph, which published an article with the scandalously false headline: “Easter message: Christ did not die for our sins”.
As a result, before the talk was even broadcast, I received a deluge of hate-filled messages. Most of them referred to my sexuality, and many were abusive and obscene.
I have now received another deluge of messages from people who actually heard the broadcast, overwhelmingly of thanks, including many from people who, like me, were held back from faith by crude presentations of the theory of penal substitution.
These messages confirm the Doctrine Commission’s diagnosis. Ugly, illogical explanations of the Cross hamper mission, and need to be counteracted with explanations that concentrate on God’s identification with human suffering.
The crucifixion did not placate an angry God and change his mind. The Trinity is not divided. Of course Christ died for our sins; but the price is paid not to God, but by God. God in Christ took all the consequences of our fallenness on himself, and, in the supreme demonstration of his love for us, made the ultimate, once-for-all sacrifice of himself which unites us eternally to him.
That is the doctrine the Church has urged us to preach, and we must not be intimidated from preaching it.