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My most recent publication is the Tyndale New Testament Commentary on the Book of Revelation. You can order it from Amazon and other online retailers (make sure you order mine, and not the previous edition by Leon Morris!), or directly from the publisher on the IVP website.

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What is going on in the Bishops’ comments on Civil Partnerships?

On Thursday last week, the House of Bishops issues a ‘pastoral statement’ on the status of Civil Partnerships, and it cause something of a stir. What was it about? Why was it needed? And why did it cause a commotion?

The background to this discussion begins in 2004. The Government passed the Civil Partnership Act, which created a form of relationship that looked very similar to marriage, but which the Labour Government of the time insisted was not marriage. It is worth asking why they did this; there is no really plausible answer other than that it was a way in introduce same-sex marriage without introducing something called same-sex marriage. This is confirmed by the inclusion of language of ‘prohibited relationships’ (consanguinity) based on marriage, so that (against campaigning) the Government refused to allow siblings to enter CPs. At the time the Conservative party was split on this, partly on the basis of personal convictions, and partly because, at the time, the notion of gay marriage was hardly a vote winner. How quickly times change!

The House of Bishops was now put in a difficult position. Would the Church’s teaching on marriage as the context for sexual relationships allow recognition of CPs? Since CPs were specifically designed, in two significant ways (lack of requirement of public vows, and no explicit reference to the relationship being conjugal) to not look like marriage, then there could be no identification and this is highlighted in their 2005 statement on the matter. In particular, since CPs could, in theory, involve a platonic relationship, then there was no reason in principle that two people of the same sex should not form a CP, including clergy. The bishops were here making a call as to whether they believed what the Government said, against all the evidence, or called their bluff and highlighted the deception. Andrew Goddard, in his Grove booklet Friends, Partners or Spouses?, summed up the problem:

The government could have made UK marriage law ‘gender-blind’ so that two people of the same sex could marry. Not only did they not follow this course, they have created a very few—but not insignificant—differences between civil partnership and marriage. In particular, there is no requirement that civil partners be in a sexual relationship although the presumption that a sexual relationship would exist between civil partners is probably the basis for applying the principles of consanguinity. There can be little doubt that most civil partnerships will be sexual and that civil partners will be generally viewed as in such a relationship.

 

The beginning of the gospel community in Matt 4

This Sunday’s lectionary reading for Year A, Epiphany 3,is Matt 4.12–23. It begins the account of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, which continues until Matt 16.20 (compare ‘from that time on’ in Matt 4.17 with Matt 16.21), and now Jesus takes centre stage as the main actor in the drama. But from the beginning, he does not act alone, but calls a community of disciples to himself, and in Matthew they are with him throughout—until he is deserted in Matt 26.56.

Mark’s account of the start of Jesus’ ministry is quite stark and factual—but Matthew makes it more specific and personal. His ministry begins, not merely ‘after John was arrested’ (Mark 1.14), but ‘when he [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested’. We know from John 3.22 and John 4.1–3 that Jesus had spent some time in the southern area, apparently involved in ministry in parallel with John; as part of the undesigned historical coincidences in the gospels, this fits well with Matthew’s depiction of Jesus as part of John’s renewal movement. The word translated ‘withdrew to Galilee’ (ἀναχωρέω, anachoreo) can in fact mean ‘return to’, but Matthew typically uses it to refer to an escape from danger (as in Matt 2.12, 2.14, 2.22, 14.13). The movement from the danger of Herod Antipas in the South back to Galilee echoes the journey he took with his family when they first came back from Egypt. 

Matthew gives us more geographic detail than Mark, though adapts it to suit his purposes. Nazareth was then a small village, whereas Capernaum was in a busy fishing area and on a trade route around the ‘sea’ of Galilee (which Luke corrects to being a ‘lake’), and at that time had a population of at least 10,000 according to archaeological excavations of the site. So it was a natural centre for a ministry which would have an impact on the whole area; it had its own centurion (Matt 8.9) who would have overseen a wide area, as Roman troops were spread comparatively thinly, as well as its own custom post (Matt 9.9) indicating its importance for trade.