David Dale finds that the new modishness is just the old heresy writ large

IT MIGHT BE THOUGHT to be as fantastic to suggest that there are Gnostics at the bottom of the Church of England’s garden as to suggest that I have just seen a dinosaur crossing the Solent – but they are there. There are not only Gnostics at the bottom of the garden. They are in the seat of the government of the Church too.

I have been concerned about the ordination of women to the priesthood ever since I prepared an essay in favour of the innovation 21 years ago and finished up writing against it. I did not then understand, as John Saward did, that it sprang from a docetic christology.

Since then there have been other, apparently related, innovations but it has not been easy to discern a common sense of our troubles. We have come to think of it all, loosely, as the Liberal Agenda – a difficult title for those of us, like me, who have always considered themselves to be liberals. What has been missing has been a discernment of the ideological basis of it all.

It was not until I was asked to read a paper on Gnostic dualism to a John Keble Conference that the underlying ideology of the Liberal Agenda became clear to me – and it is Gnostic. Two thirds of the way through preparing that paper Philip Lee’s “Against the Protestant Gnostics” was recommended to me. If this article should fail to persuade you of the correctness of its basic thesis then Lee’s book will. It is, in some senses, a terrifying book. It describes with amazing accuracy the condition of a church afflicted by Gnosticism. Anglicans will recognise that church as theirs; although we are not alone.

Gnostics, Gnostics – who on earth were they? How can the weird ramblings of 1st and 2nd century heretics be affecting us now? As Fr. Georges Florovsky said 46 years ago “It is an illusion that Christological disputes of the past are irrelevant to the contemporary situation (1) and to that add Trinitarian disputes.

The characteristics of Gnostic belief are fairly simply set out. The historical origins of Gnostic belief are not relevant to a discernment of its effects in the contemporary church.

Gnostics believe in salvation by knowledge received by a special revelation from God and by technique rather than by repentance and faith in the sacrifice of Christ. The language of early gnosticism mirrored that of orthodox belief and for that reason it easily intrudes itself into the belief of the Church. Their belief leads, among other things, to a sort of pelagianism, self salvation.

“The task of the Gnostic Saviour is that of Forerunner and Example for the self salvation of the human spirit….”Through its own instrumentality’ the soul ascends to the heavenly world.” (2) Those not destined for this ascent cannot be saved.

What is saved is the soul rather than the psych-somatic unity of orthodox belief; gnosticism is dualistic. The material is evil and created order is the product of an inferior god.

The world, for Gnostics, is in the grip of sin but the sin is not the result of our fall but of our materiality. It is a short step from this to attribute sin not to human rebellion against God but to external conditions. This, in turn, means that we are not responsible for what we do wrong and cannot come to salvation by repentance and faith in Christ. Reflect on how stiff with ‘-isms’ (sexism, exclusivism, etc.) are the modern penitential systems and how external conditions are often blamed for human sinfulness.

The concern with moral issues rather than moral questions grows from this separation of the moral condition of man from his own responsible decisions and, therefore, at the same time from the possibility of salvation. If we are not responsible for our sins then we cannot repent and come to forgiveness and salvation. The expert has the solution to human sin – not the Crucified Lord.

The dualism of gnosticism leads to a docetic Christ who is not really human and who leaves the body of Jesus before the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion is neither necessary nor of any particular importance or effect.

Finally, in gnosticism, men are divided into spiritual people, psychic people and the hopeless. Only the spiritual are sure of salvation. The psychic may be saved – the hopeless are hopeless!

From these characteristics we can see that the god of gnosticism is not the Blessed Trinity and the Christ of Gnostics is docetic, not truly a union of God and man.

We become what we worship and by observing what we have become we can discern what we have worshipped – and it is clear from what we have become that we have worshipped a Gnostic god.

Heresy works itself out in the life of the society in which the Church worships heretically.

Tom Smail’s observations about the abdication of fatherhood and the collapse of the structures of authority(3) were relevant when they were written in 1980. They shout at us from every quarter now. But that is not surprising. A church which has abandoned worship of the Blessed Trinity ceases to reveal the truth of the Trinity in its life and that has its effect on the society in which it lives.

If we observe a society;

a) which has lost the balance of pluralism and organicism which makes for a healthy society,

b) in which the only authority is democratic, c) which is a society of dominance and subordination,

d) in which an individual’s rights and self-fulfilment are of central concern,

e) in which people are interchangeable economic units valued in economic terms – and valuing themselves in this way,

f) in which people are depersonalised and exist to be used, and

g) in which we are thought to be fully ourselves when alone then I think we have a society in which we do not worship the Blessed Trinity. I think that there are very many of these elements in our present society. It has become a non-Trinitarian society.

If we look for the marks of Gnostic belief in the Church and society we can see them everywhere. Gnostic belief leads to:

a) humanity not at home in a good creation; b) loss of a biblical mind e.g. the biblical doctrines of God, creation and redemption(4) c) a private way to salvation rather than by participation in the saving work of Christ through the sacraments

d) alienation and a desire to escape rather than transfigure life in the power of the living Christ;

e) escape from an effective social ethic;

f) worship of the god within, i.e. the self; g) syncretism instead of revealed truth.

Here are some examples of the effect of Gnostic influence in the thinking and worship of the Church. It is not a comprehensive or systematic list but simply a series of examples which have crossed my desk and which show that the influence is very widespread and in some cases blatant.

The following comes from a diocesan newsletter: ‘God’s freedom is a principle (sic) theme running through the whole of the Bible. God calls, creation has the option to respond or not. If we do so, we are freed to travel the exciting road to self discovery, enjoining others to journey with us, playing our small part in the vast scene of the universe.’ (5) Compare this with the Aprocryphon of James, a Gnostic text; ‘What liberates is the knowledge of who we were, what we became, where we were.’ (6)

The Bishop of Manchester sat through a celebration of the Ecumenical Decade of Solidarity with Women in his cathedral at which the image of Christa was paraded. It was the same bishop who spoke in favour of the motion ‘That this house disputes that Christ is the only way to eternal life’ in the Durham University Union. Compare this with the teacher at an Episcopalian seminary who hopes ‘that we get rid of Christ and replace him with Christa who symbolises the erotic as power in erotically powered women;’ or this from Dolores Williams, another American theologian, who says ‘I don’t think we need a theory of the atonement at all. I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses with blood dripping and all that weird stuff…. we just need to listen to the god within’ (7) which god, G.K. Chesterton correctly discerned to be oneself. (8)

The dismissal of the significance and necessity of the sacrifice of Christ emerges in many ways which demonstrate the inherent pelagianism of the Gnostics. If we find a person suggesting that Christ came for some other purpose than to save us (e.g. to challenge to live in a responsible way), or if we find the observation that a new and better world can be achieved by human co-operation, then this is a sign of the influence of gnosticism.

It is significant that the mission statement of the Diocese of Bath & Wells mentions ‘church’ five times, ‘God’ twice and ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ and ‘worship’ once each. The words Holy Spirit, prayer, grace, the sacraments, sin, repentance, confession, forgiveness, judgement, the Kingdom of God, atonement, revelation, the Bible, holiness etc. are not mentioned. The statement is principally concerned to urge Christians to social action which is not based on grace and therefore doomed to frustration.

The growth of non-liturgical worship e.g. the Nine O’clock service, Family Services, Songs of Praise, religious TV, which Dr Carey says should count as worship, are signs of: a) the worship of the congregation, of the worshipper – for the criterion of value for such events is the pleasure and enlightenment of the worshipper; and b) the flight from the sacraments and the understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ offered with the Head.

This incapacity to discern the Body of Christ, to give life by grace to its reality, naturally follows from belief in a docetic Christ. The Nine O’clock Service was the natural and expect result of what Nygren calls the Eros principle(9).

The decision of the Bishop of Jarrow to read the Koran during Lent – ‘for spiritual enlightenment’ – points to several odd beliefs. First that the Bible is there for our spiritual enlightenment (10), second that the Koran can provide a similar enlightenment and thirdly that enlightenment is a desired blessing in Lent or any other season. The loss of the Biblical mind can hardly be more dramatically demonstrated.

Syncretism has been alive and well for a long time with readings from Kahlil Gabran at weddings and the use of other sources of spiritual enlightenment including prayers and readings from Gnostic texts – all very soothing. Syncretism was, perhaps, taken a shade too far in the Cathedral of St John the Divine where the offertory chant at the Ecumenical Decade of Solidarity with Women was ‘Praises to Obtala, ruler of the heavens. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters. Praises to Ra and Ausar, rulers of the light and resurrected soul.’

The Minneapolis Assembly Conference of the same celebration was more ecumenical that one might have dreamed. It included worship of the 722 gods and goddesses of Chinese religion and Sophia – not the Holy Wisdom of the Bible, but the god you see in your mirror. (11)

With lovely, soft edged phrases used to sum up the Gospel, such as ‘It is all about peace and hope’, the centrality of tolerance, compassion and inclusiveness, the blurring of boundaries – and a conference on ‘Blurring the Boundaries: Sex and Marriage’, was held recently at Chelmsford Cathedral – we have drifted into that undemanding syncretism which Lee calls Reader’s Digest Religion – the journal, you will recall, in which Dr Carey denounced 3/4 of Christendom as guilty of grave heresy for not believing that Christ could be represented by a woman at the altar.

The docetic Christ, which is the inevitable result of Gnostic dualism, has led to a failure to incarnate doctrine and morals in the life and structure of the Church; the Word having become flesh we have turned Him into words. We have lost a true and orthodox vision of the end of man and the way of salvation. Since there is no real embodied Christ we have defective doctrines of the Body of Christ in the Church and in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Our flesh is not and cannot be redeemed and so sexual morals go out of the window. The Son is no longer the way to the Father and so we seek to come to the Image of God without attaining the Image of the Son, or in other words the Son is not necessary for us to come to the Father – which is precisely the point argues by the Bishop of Manchester in the Durham University Union debate.

The roots of gnosticism have gone deep into the Church and in some places have become the normative belief replacing orthodox belief. Belief and practice with its roots in Gnosticism are now thought to be normal and orthodox belief and practice abnormal. The acceptance that my enlightenment, my spiritual comfort and pleasure are the most important aim of the Christian life and worship rather than my holiness and participation in the sacrifice of Christ; the replacement of the hard moral question by the soft moral issue; the belief that the 10 Commandments are no longer relevant to the spiritual condition of man; the distortion of evangelism into a sort of enticement of people into a pleasurable spiritual experience; the replacement of conviction of sin, repentance and faith in Christ by spiritual experience in some evangelical and charismatic groups, where conversion to Christ is preached but the purpose of Christ in the world is a mystery only revealed to those whom have been born again, (12) in a particular way. All these things and many more characteristics of life in the contemporary Church, are signs that we have in some places and to some degree abandoned the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ for Gnosticism.

It is this which has led to the numerical collapse of the Church of England – we lost a number of worshippers equal to the number of worshippers in the diocese of Truro, Hereford and Portsmouth in the last year for which figures are available. We are under the judgement of God. Our management response to the loss is predicted by Lee and the results he predicts will follow. There seems to be no understanding that if the solution to our problems lies in the area of management and social action then we were originally the product of management and social action. The people of God are restored by the act of God as they are punished by the act of God.

The solution is repentance and forgiveness.

Space makes a complete exposition of my thesis impossible. I may not have convinced you. I cannot know. As I suggested earlier, read Lee’s book. It is shocking and salutary – but it does show us the way back if we are to live in the blessing and mercy of God the Blessed Trinity again. Certainly the issues are of central importance to the Church of England and the country we are charged with bringing to a knowledge of God in Christ.


1. Florovsky. Bible, Church and Tradition. 1972. p.14.

2. Nygren. Agape and Eros. 1982. p.301.f.

3. Smail. The Forgotten Father. p.183.

4. Florovsky. op.cit. p.9.ff.

5. Portsmouth Diocesan Leaflet – The Link.

6. Lee. Against the Protestant Gnostics. 1987. p.4.

7. Austin. Reported in art. Directions.

8. Chesterton. Orthodoxy. 1919

9. Nygren. Op.cit. p.xvi

10. Lee. op.cit. Chapter 11.

11. See n.7

12. Lee. op.cit. p.192

David Dale is Parish Priest of All Saints, Ryde, I.O.W., in the diocese of Portsmouth.