Why I Did Not Sign That Letter

Recently, 461 Catholic priests signed a letter to the Catholic Herald which ended with the following call: “We urge all those who will participate in the second Synod in October 2015 to make a clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, so that confusion may be removed, and faith confirmed.”

I was not one of them.

Like many other priests in England & Wales, I was offered the opportunity to put my name to this letter. I chose not to do so, because I felt that the letter lacked trust in what the Synod was trying to achieve.

Doctrine has always developed in the Catholic Church. Unlike a democratic Prime Minister or President, a Pope cannot reverse a policy of his predecessor once it has been clearly identified as doctrine. But there is often room to nuance things. I do not believe the Synod – an organ of our Church, guided by the Holy Spirit – is in danger of reversing that which is clearly established. It is clear Catholic teaching that a ratified and consummated sacramental marriage between a man and a woman cannot be dissolved except by death of one of the spouses. It is clear Catholic teaching that a person in mortal sin should not receive Holy Communion. The Synod will not change these teachings, because it cannot.

For the record, I believe that the only appropriate context for a sexual act is between a man and woman married to each other.

For the record, I believe that Jesus did teach us that we are called to a form of marriage which does not admit of divorce.

I have taught and will continue to teach these clear truths as a Catholic priest.

But… I also think there are legitimate questions which the Synod can explore.

We know that there are reasons why a relationship which apparently was a marriage might not have reached the kind of mutual consent required to forge an unbreakable bond. Perhaps there are other grounds, beyond those already accepted, which might prevent something becoming a true Christian marriage in the first place?

We know that while those in mortal sin should not approach Holy Communion, those struggling with venial sin should, because Communion is medicine for the soul. Might there be circumstances where a person in a relationship which is gravely sinful would lack the freedom or knowledge to make that grave sin a mortal sin?

There are no easy answers to these questions; but these and similar questions are precisely those which our bishops should be exploring in a Synod; perhaps there will be innovative answers which develop the Catholic tradition without contradicting it. There again, perhaps it will become clear that there is no room for any practical change on these matters. Whatever position the Magisterium takes, when the Synod process results in a final document with Papal approval, that is what I shall teach.

Meanwhile, I could not, in good conscience, sign a letter asking Synod participants to make a “clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching”. The implication of this would have been that nothing further can possibly change, making the Synod a pointless exercise. I would gladly say to the Synod participants: “Without wavering from those points which are firmly established as the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, please clarify those things which can usefully be clarified at this point in the Church’s development of doctrine.”

May God bless the forthcoming Synod and all who take part in it; and may God also grant grace to those who are called to live out the church’s teaching yet struggle to do so in practice.

Signed – Revd Gareth Leyshon


Disappointment, and Eternal Life!

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, With Scrutinies (Year A Readings).

The Seven Word Sermon: God and others let us down. Forgive!

Today, we celebrate the Final Scrutiny of those who are to become members of the church at Easter. To be baptised is to become a member of Christ’s family. So it is only fair that I come clean about what is on offer. I can only promise you two things if you become a faithful member of the Catholic Church: Disappointment, and Eternal Life!

Disappointment, and Eternal Life, are the two hallmarks of the story of Lazarus. We are told that Our Lord Jesus loved Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus – their household was for him a home from home where he was welcome ‘like family’. Even so, when Jesus receives news that Lazarus is dying, he does not rush to the bedside; he delays for two whole days.

Enter the redoubtable figure of St Martha, a strong woman, a woman of great faith! On the surface, she displays strength and faith in the midst of grief. Under the surface, she must have been a melting pot of conflicting thoughts.

  • Why didn’t Jesus come sooner?
  • But two days wouldn’t have made a difference anyway.
  • But why did he delay – doesn’t he really care?
  • Yet he is here now, and I am really glad he is here.
  • Couldn’t he have done something, even at a distance?

Martha is delighted to see Jesus, livid at the way he has treated her. Martha stands here for all of us who have been let down by a partner or friend whom we love deeply. She holds together deep affection and deep disappointment. She does not stop caring for Jesus, yet is filled with anguish for what could have happened.

Let’s not be distracted by the end of the story, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. He allows Mary and Martha, whom he loves deeply, to endure the death of their brother. He could have spoken a word of command at a distance – but he didn’t. And he delayed his journey so that there would be no doubt Lazarus had truly died before he could be raised. Soon, we will remember how his friends had to endure his own death on the Cross; two of them would trudge off sadly down the road to Emmaus uttering the forlorn words, “we had hoped he was the one…” before discovering that their hope had in fact caught up with them!

Jesus allows even the family he loves to be tested by disappointment. This, then, is the reason I warn you who will become members of the Church to expect disappointment. In the church we teach a wonderful message – that we are loved by God and we are called to be a community which shows love to one another. And this is true! Yet we will not always experience God’s love in the way we would hope; and as a parish community will not always succeed in bringing love to those most in need of love.

It may be that you feel let down by God because you have not experienced God’s love in the way you wished for. If so, can you forgive God for not being the kind of god you want God to be?

It may be that you feel let down by an individual in this parish, or by the church as an institution, for failing to communicate love to you at a time when you really needed it. If so, can you forgive the Church or the individual for failing to meet your needs?

If we ache to be loved, let’s remember that others are in the same situation. Others, in fact, may be wishing that they experienced more of our love. Perhaps there is more we can do to reach out to others. Or perhaps we are trying our best but failing to communicate love in the way the other person can best receive it. Can we adjust what we do, or the way we do it, that others may better know our love?

In marriage, especially, it is crucial for couples to take time for an honest conversation, where each person can say “I feel X when you do Y”. In other close relationships, too, it might be useful ask which of our actions succeed or fail in communicating love – the answers may not be the ones we expect!

And then there is our life as a parish family. We are all called to show love to one another; and as a small but important step, I remind us all today that I encourage you to offer the Sign of Peace by using each other’s name.

How many members of this parish do you know well enough that you could pay a visit or pick up the phone? Could you make an unexpected call to just one other member of your church family between now and Easter? If each of us did just one thing, this parish would be enriched by 300 acts of love!

In the story of Lazarus, a human drama and a divine drama come together. The human drama is one we all experience every day – the cycle of hope and disappointment, friendship and love, illness and death. The divine drama is the greater story of Jesus, who died so that we could all have eternal life. Lazarus was raised from the dead, to live out the rest of his earthly span, as a sign to us that Jesus truly has power over life and death. My second promise to you, rooted in the raising of Lazarus and Rising of Christ, is that if you live out the values of our church faithfully, when your mortal body dies, you will experience a life with Jesus which is unending happiness. Of this, I am as certain as that you will experience disappointment with God and with the Church before you enter into bliss. Today’s other Bible readings contain God’s promise of the opening of the grave and eternal life.

Lazarus emerges from the tombSo whether you are becoming Catholic this Easter or have been living the faith for many years, there are only two things I can promise you – times of disappointment during this life, and eternal happiness with God in the life to come. But cheer up – I cannot promise, but I hope, that you will have many experiences of being loved within the church family. And of one thing I am certain – that within our church family there will be precisely the number of acts of love which we choose to share with each other!

This homily is dedicated to my closest friends, those who regard me as “like family”, and with whom I am close enough to have shared disappointments. You know who you are, and I love you all.

I Don’t Want To Go!

Homily at Nazareth House on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Letting go is hard, but enables grace.

“I don’t want to go!”

David Tennant played the Tenth Doctor in “Doctor Who”. In his final episode, he was slowly dying from the effects of radiation. He knew that this was about to cause his body to regenerate into a new personality, but faced with what he was about to lose, he was frightened. It was one of the hardest lines for Tennant to play just right – the Doctor had to be truly afraid, yet not totally lacking in confidence. It took four takes to get the message just right – “I don’t want to go!”

Letting go of a life is not easy. This week, many of us bade farewell to Harri Pritchard-Jones. All of us have lost loved ones – parents, brothers and sisters, friends. Some of us have nursed them through their final months, living with that terrible tension of not wanting them to leave us, but not wanting their agony to be long, either. Sometimes, the most loving thing we can do is to make our peace with the person we love and give them permission, by a word or a sign, that they are free to leave us and go to God.

Today, Jesus senses that the time of His Passion is drawing near.  Is he to flee from it or embrace it? He knows that his death will be both meaningful and powerful. He is the wheat-grain which must die if the harvest is to be born. The letter to the Hebrews recognises that Jesus first feared his own death, then embraced it. If God’s own Son is not spared a painful death, then perhaps we can resist the temptation to blame God for the suffering we see in the world. Why doesn’t God do something about it? God has done the most important thing possible, opening the gates for us to an eternal life free of all pain, suffering and tears.

Jesus is the source of eternal life. In just two weeks, we will gather here to celebrate his own triumph over death. Before that, on Holy Thursday, we will remember the night he accepted death, and on Good Friday, the day on which he breathed his last. Our weekly celebration of Mass is our perpetual act of thanksgiving for what Jesus did. As Christians, we are secure in the knowledge that because we follow Jesus, our place in heaven is assured. But heaven is not guaranteed for everyone. Part of our duty as Christians is to spread the message that there is only one secure path to eternal life, following Jesus, forgiving our enemies, pouring out our lives in service of others.

The Tenth Doctor was afraid of losing his identity. Jesus promises that the only way we can secure our identity is to ‘lose our life’ by putting others first. Great saints have always understood that they can pass securely into God’s hands, from the elderly Simeon in the Jewish Temple to St Maximilian Kolbe, offering his life for a Jewish father in Auschwitz. Christ suffered great pain and humiliation before entering into eternal life; our loved ones too, might suffer not only pain but also the humiliations of incontinence, dementia and bodily decay. If it was necessary for God’s own Son to be made perfect through suffering, we must trust that these indignities in some way purify our loved ones and prepare them for heaven, too.

On Thursday night, Jesus Himself was tempted to cry, “I don’t want to go.” But by Friday afternoon, after walking the Way of the Cross, he had overcome his trial. No longer afraid of what he was to lose, confident of what he was to gain for himself and for those he loved, he cried out: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Let us pray for the grace that we, and our loved ones, will be able to do the same when our Father calls us home.

If you are still painfully aware of a bereavement, you may wish to find support from Cruse.

Only Connect

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Third Sunday of Lent, With Scrutinies (Year A Readings).

The Seven Word Sermon: We are spiritual and religious, following Christ.The woman, standing, hands a jar of water to Jesus, seated

Would you prefer to be religious, or just spiritual?

One ancient interpretation of the word “religion” is “reconnect”. Today’s Gospel begins with a connection between two people. Jesus, tired and thirsty, speaks to a woman with a bucket – an unaccompanied woman out in the noonday sun. The place and the time suggest that she is unwelcome in this village. But Jesus makes the first move – He makes a connection.

Simple moments like make a huge difference. I once had a conversation with an elderly Jehovah’s Witness, in which I asked her how she had come to join them. She explained she’d been brought up Church of England, but when her beloved dog died, her vicar was unconcerned; her neighbours, who were Witnesses, expressed a lot of sympathy – so she joined their community.

In every religion, we will find that there are many members whose main reason for being there is a sense of belonging, a familiarity and safety which brings a deep comfort through being with the people, or in the building. They flourish because of this sense of “connection”. This will even be true of some of us in this parish, because we are human beings too.

Jesus takes the conversation to the next level. He starts talking about ‘living water’, an inner experience which is clearly life-giving. Today we might call this ‘spirituality’, which is all about the inner life and our sense of connection with God. The woman is clearly interested – after all, who wouldn’t want this wonderful gift if it were freely on offer? So how is she to become connected to this water supply?

Jesus draws attention to the woman’s marital status, or lack of it. There is something shameful about her current state in life: that’s why she’s out, alone, in the noonday sun. There’s at least a hint that her current relationship is with a man married to someone else. The woman is all too aware of the guilt she feels. So as soon as Jesus begins to hint that receiving this living water depends on her integrity in relationships, she quickly changes the subject. So Jesus wants to be religious? She quickly brings up the obvious problem with religion: Different leaders propose different rules. Who’s to say which rules really matter?

Jesus doesn’t give the answer she expects. Rather than defend the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, he speaks of spirit and truth. ‘Spirit’ is about connection with God. ‘Truth’ means that there is a right answer and a wrong answer. But how is the woman to find the right answer? There is only one person she can trust to bring that, the long-promised Messiah. “Gotcha!” says Jesus (though not in those words!) Suddenly, she realizes that Truth Himself is sitting in front of her, speaking to her!

Annoyingly, this is where the woman’s story stops. We’re not told what she does about her current relationship. We’re not told how she experiences this gift of life-giving water. We only know that she does become a spring of hope for the village, by calling all the local people to come and hear Jesus.

Two weeks ago, I preached about marriage, and explained that it was God’s plan that a man and woman should make a public, lifelong commitment to come together before starting their shared life. Today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus came with an invitation for everyone, especially those who aren’t living by their religion’s rules. Jesus wants EVERYONE to taste the living water. But what Jesus offers is religion, not spirituality. It is an invitation to reconnect with God, and it comes with rules – God’s rules. The woman at the well recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, the one person with authority to tell her how to live her life.

Jiao, Russell, Dariella, not many weeks from now you are due to be baptised. If what you are really looking for is to belong to this community, think twice about Baptism. You are already welcome among us, and you are getting to know other members of the church community. You will always have a place among us. But Baptism is not simply about being a full member of this parish, about taking communion because the people around you are doing so. Baptism is your declaration that you want to connect with our religion, the religion which recognises Jesus as Messiah, Teacher and Lord.

And to all of us who were baptised on the say-so of our parents, today presents a challenge. Are we proud to be religious? Are we confident followers of Jesus? If we met Jesus in person today, what would he speak to us about? Is there anything in our lives He would challenge? Lent is the season when we challenge ourselves so Jesus doesn’t have to. Jesus has living water on offer, a gift which will refresh our inner spirit and give us new purpose in life.

To receive this living water we must first accept Jesus as Lord and deal with anything in our life which is not connected to his will. To help you with this, there is an examination of conscience from Pope Francis in today’s newsletter. To help you with this, The Light Is On For You in the confessional this Wednesday at 7 pm, and on the coming Wednesdays in March also.

We don’t like being challenged to change. We grumble – we say we like spirituality but not what our religion asks of us. Moses had the same problem in the wilderness. The Israelites liked being rescued from Egypt, but didn’t like the barren desert which God had brought them to. Even Moses doubted that God was going to provide water for their thirst, until it happened.

“It is by faith that we can receive God’s glory”, says St Paul. What does faith mean? It’s not only about the religious ideas in our heads. True faith is when we act believing that Jesus is Lord and his teaching is true. We must take a step of faith, before we can taste the living water.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, God is offering us something truly amazing – His own Spirit living in our hearts, guiding us daily, helping us hear God’s voice. But to receive this gift, we must deal with sin. We must live our life in all respects – in our caring for the needy, in our commitment to prayer, and in our sexual relationships – according to God’s law. We must be religious – followers of the Catholic religion – to make the connection which allows us to receive God’s Spirit in full. If only you knew the gift of God! Once tasted, who would settle for anything less?

Not the Second Commandment

Homily at Nazareth House on the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Icons are OK: Christ set the precedent.

What is the second of the Ten Commandments?

Divine Mercy, Tilma of Guadalupe, Miraculous Medal and Sacred Heart

Ask a Catholic, and they will tell you that it is, “Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.”

Ask a Protestant and they will say: “No, that is the third one. Before it comes, ‘Do not make an image of God.'”

But both agree that there are Ten Commandments, because we Catholics count “Do not covet your neighbour’s wife” as the ninth and “Do not covet his property” as number ten – the Protestants say they are both part of the Tenth Commandment.

It is very clear that the Old Testament required us not to make an image of anything in Heaven. Moses was horrified when he saw the people of Israel had made a golden calf. Jews and Muslims, to this day, take that commandment most seriously.

Yet from the earliest days of the Christian Church, we have felt free to make both statues and icons of our saints, and images of the crucified Christ.


Because we know what Jesus looks like.

In Jesus, God took the form of a man and walked among us. God himself chose a physical form to communicate to us the depths of His love. As St Paul says today, we preach Christ crucified.

Notable mystics have claimed that Jesus or Mary have appeared to them and commanded that images be made – St Margaret Mary Alacoque with Our Lord’s Sacred Heart, St Faustina painting Christ as the Divine Mercy, and St Catherine Labouré mass-producing the Miraculous Medal. In the case of Guadalupe, God himself provided St Juan Diego with a miraculous image of the Mother of God. Every time Heaven provides us with such an image, we are given another reminder that in Christ, God truly became man, born of a woman, and we beheld his glory.

We have evidence that images of Jesus were painted in Christian tombs in the Third Century, and one tradition says St Luke himself painted an icon of the Virgin Mary.

In the Eighth Century, this caused an almighty row among Christians. One side said the church had no authority to allow holy images, because Jesus had never said that was OK. The other side said God had given implicit permission by walking among us in human form. Christians turned violent. Images were smashed. Those who took action believed that, like Jesus cleansing the Temple, they were acting in a righteous cause to do God’s will.

Eventually, the world’s bishops met in a Council in the year 787 and agreed that images could be made and treated with honour – though the images themselves must not be worshipped as God should be worshipped.

800 years later, when the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe, the same thing happened. In Wales, as in many other places, statues were cast down and frescos were whitewashed over. The Reformers were acting in obedience to what they read in the Bible.

This issue shows us something profound about what it is to be a Catholic. We do not read the Bible alone. We trust that God also speaks through those traditions which go back to the time of the Apostles and through the bishops of our Church gathered in Council. If St Luke indeed painted an icon, that is reason enough to establish a tradition. If the Bishops in 787 decided that the implicit meaning of Christ becoming man was enough to overcome the explicit words of Moses, then the question is settled.

If friendly Protestants challenge us to justify our beliefs from the Bible, our answer must be that God also speaks apart from the Bible. For similar reasons we no longer keep the Sabbath on Saturday but gather to worship on the Lord’s Day, Sunday. In the Bible we read that the first Christians did this, but there is no explicit command to keep Sunday rather than Saturday, either. Yet even Protestants, except Seventh Day Adventists, observe Sundays!

The Bible does not number the Ten Commandments. How we count them is part of our tradition. Given our Catholic stance on images, it is quite understandable that we shy away from affirming that “Do not make an image” is one of the Ten Big Ones.The abridged version of today’s First Reading cuts out this instruction altogether! But it is there, in the Bible, within the text of the Ten Commandments, and in a world where we will meet other Christians who will ask questions, we need to know how to explain ourselves. There is no requirement for any Christian, Catholic or Protestant, to make use of holy images. We can agree to differ, and honour the sincerity (but not the request!) of those Protestants who urge us to clean out our Temple in obedience to the Second Commandment.

Meanwhile, as Lent continues, there are Ten Commandments to attend to, the Second of which asks us about our respect for God’s Holy Name. Perhaps something in our own personal Temple is in need of cleansing. So this week, let us take the Ten Commandments for our examination of conscience, and do so with all the zeal of Our Lord expelling the traders. On the need for this, I hope, all Christians can agree!