The Archbishop of Canterbury is being asked to replace a new ambassador to the Vatican after reports surfaced that he doesn't believe Jesus physically resurrected from death.
After Dr. John Shepherd was appointed as the new representative to Rome last week, a 2008 Easter sermon resurfaced in which he said: “It’s important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the resurrection was an extraordinary physical event, which restored to life Jesus’s original earthly body. The resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality.”
He added how the disciples merely “felt his presence after his death” and the Gospel accounts in the Bible were not “historical records as we would write history today,” The Telegraph reports.
In his sermon, Shepherd claimed that the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb, Jesus’ appearance behind locked doors and His vanishing from sight, His appearance as a gardener, inviting Thomas to place his hand into His pierced side, and the recognition of Jesus by disciples during a meal as documented in the Gospel accounts were simply “images of the triumph of the Spirit of God over all that physical thwarts and damages us in this life.”
“However, if some find it helpful to attach a physical dimension to the image of the resurrection, so be it,” he said. “It would be wrong to place limits on the extent to which the New Testament images can be helpful. But faith in the resurrection of Jesus need not require us to believe in the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ earthly body. People who find that concept difficult are by no means excluded from the Christian faith and the celebration of Easter.”
Shepherd’s comments were met with disapproval by leaders of Anglican churches around the world, including Rev. Lee Gatiss, who heads the Church of England’s largest evangelical group. He told The Telegraph the situation was “utterly bizarre and absolutely inappropriate.”
“If it is true that he does not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, then I don’t think he should have been ordained as a minister in the Anglican Communion in the first place,” he told the paper.
“The Bible is absolutely clear, as are the Anglican formularies, that Jesus died and rose again — it is the whole point and center of our good news for the world," he continued. "He should stand down immediately or be replaced, for the honor and integrity of the Church of England.”
The Rev. Dr. Ian Paul, a member of the General Synod, questioned whether it was wise to “appoint someone as the Archbishop's envoy to Rome someone who doesn't believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.”
The Bishop of Maidstone, Reverend Rod Thomas, said believing in the literal resurrection of Jesus was a fundamental Christian belief, adding: “The physical resurrection of Christ is part of Church of England doctrine and I joyfully proclaim it at every opportunity I can get."
Others, however, backed Shepherd: Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Kay Goldsworthy, criticized people for making “statements of concern” about a sermon from 11 years ago, the West Australian reports.
“If that happened to every preacher in the Church we would all be in trouble, frankly,” she said. “There is a statement that people have picked out, whoever the people are, and have sort of wanted to make some example of. I am not sure what they wanted to achieve.”
The former Anglican Dean of Perth, Richard Pengelley, said that despite Shepherd's denial of Christ’s resurrection, he is a “deep believer in the fundamental tenets of Christianity.”
Shepherd, who was Dean of Perth from 1990 to 2014, will be central to discussions with the Pope and will act as the de facto ambassador for the Archbishop, the Church of England, and other Anglican churches around the world. Shepherd was appointed after the previous ambassador, Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, resigned following accusations of sexual misconduct.
A 2017 survey commissioned by the BBC found that a quarter of people who describe themselves as Christians in Great Britain do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and just 31 percent of Christians believe the word-for-word Easter story as written in the Bible.
Meanwhile, various surveys and reports have documented the decline in church attendance and in those identifying as Anglicans in the U.K. NatCen's British Social Attitudes survey in September 2017 found that just 15 percent of Britons describe themselves as Anglicans.
But the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt. Rev. Paul Bayes, said in Sept. 2017 comments sent to The Christian Post that "God remains relevant."
"The Church remains relevant. We in the Church, and all who love the Church, need to keep finding ways to show and tell those who say they have 'no religion' that faith — faith in the God who loves them still — can make that life-transforming difference for them and for the world," Bayes said.