An interim director of the Anglican Center in Rome is qualifying and expanding earlier statements that appear to question the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ after coming under criticism from clergy and lay leaders across the Anglican Communion.
The Very Rev. Dr. John Shepherd, a retired Australian clergyman, was last week named as temporary director of the permanent Anglican Communion presence in Rome.
“The Resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality,” Shepherd, then Dean of Perth, stated in a 2008 Easter video message recently shared by Australian clergyman and blogger David Ould. “It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the Resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’s earthly body.”
“The Gospel accounts are not historical records as we understand them,” Shepherd continued. “They are symbolic images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives.”
The director of the Anglican Center acts as an ambassador from the See of Canterbury to the Roman Catholic Church, participating in ecumenical efforts between the two Christian churches.
Tyler O’Neil of PJ Media quotes me on why this appointment has become such a controversy:
“It is not sensible to appoint a representative who does not share the core beliefs of the group he ostensibly represents,” Jeff Walton, Anglican program director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), told PJ Media in a statement Monday. “The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is a core belief of Anglican Christianity and is taken seriously by the vast majority of the 80 million plus Anglicans worldwide.”
Furthermore, doubting the Resurrection “ties directly to a key question: is the Bible trustworthy?” Walton added. “The Gospel writers and the creeds clearly state that Jesus died, was resurrected, and ascended into heaven. If we cannot trust scripture on this important claim, then our faith has nothing to stand upon.”
Jump forward to this week, and the Anglican Communion News Service is doing damage control:
“There has been speculation in the press and on social media about my views on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Part of this is based on a sermon I preached in 2008.”
“It is my faith that Jesus rose from the dead and I have never denied the reality of the empty tomb. The risen Christ was not a ghost – he ate and could be touched – but at the same time he appeared in a locked room (John 20. 26) and vanished from sight (Luke 24.31) and he was often not immediately recognised.”
While Shepherd acknowledges making the 2008 statement, he doesn’t refute the content of the message.
The resurrection was an extraordinary physical event, and the truth of it is not a negotiable addition that Christians may embrace or take issue with as they see fit.
Shepherd’s questioning of the literal bodily resurrection is characteristic of modernist thought commonplace among oldline Protestant clergy in the mid-20th century. As modernism and its corresponding skepticism of the supernatural receded, even younger progressive clergy now regularly affirm Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
I have called for Shepherd’s dismissal from the office, and suggested that he be quickly replaced with someone who can faithfully represent Anglican Christianity and spearhead ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church.
Read O’Neil’s full coverage of the controversy here.