Published by the Sunday Telegraph.
A row has erupted within the Church of England as senior Anglicans are calling on the Archbishop of Canterbury to force his ambassador to the Vatican to resign because he does not believe Jesus rose from the dead.
It has emerged that Dr John Shepherd, an Australian cleric appointed last week as the new representative to Rome, had delivered a sermon in which he said Christians should be “set free” from the traditional view of the resurrection.
The controversial comments, delivered while he was Dean of Perth Cathedral, have been criticised for flying in the face of the most fundamental Christian doctrines.
In a 2008 Easter sermon, 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”.
Senior Anglicans have rounded on his unorthodox views claiming they are inappropriate for someone who, as interim director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, will act as the de facto ambassador for Justin Welby, the Church of England, and other Anglican churches around the world. He will be central to discussions and meetings with Pope Francis.
The Bishop of Maidstone, Reverend Rod Thomas, said believing in the literal resurrection of Jesus was a fundamental Christian belief.
“The physical resurrection of Christ is part of Church of England doctrine and I joyfully proclaim it at every opportunity I can get,” he said.
Reverend Dr Lee Gatiss, director of the church’s biggest evangelical group, said the situation was “utterly bizarre and absolutely inappropriate” and Dr Shepherd should resign.
“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 said.
“The Bible is absolutely clear, as are the Anglican formularies, that Jesus died and rose again — it is the whole point and centre of our good news for the world.”
He added that having a senior Anglican figure who does not believe in Jesus’s resurrection was akin to asking Nigel Farage to lead the Remain campaign.
“He should stand down immediately or be replaced, for the honour and integrity of the Church of England,” he continued.
Reverend Dr Ian Paul, a theologian and member of the General Synod, said Dr Shepherd’s view contradicted the Apostle’s Creed, an ancient statement of faith which unites all Christian denominations.
“Is this really a good moment to appoint as Justin Welby’s envoy to Rome someone who doesn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus?” he asked.
Dr Shepherd’s appointment came after the previous ambassador, Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, stood down following accusations of sexual misconduct.
Even though Dr Shepherd, who retired several years ago, is only a stop-gap his appointment is said to have been signed off personally by Archbishop Welby.
Dr Stephen Platten, head of the governors of the Anglican Centre in Rome, told The Telegraph that Dr Shepherd, “an extremely good theologian”, had been in conversation with the Archbishop by phone before his appointment was agreed.
He added: “He emphatically believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s [just] a matter of how one understands that.”
A spokesperson for the Archbishop said interim appointments were made by the Centre in Rome and was unable to say whether the Archbishop approved the appointment or telephoned Dr Shepherd, adding that he was a priest of “good standing” and “due diligence” was used when appointing him to the temporary role.
When asked if the Archbishop was comfortable with Dr Shepherd’s 2008 sermon, the spokesperson declined to comment.
In a 2017 sermon, Archbishop Welby criticised those who “presumed to know better” than the disciples what happened after Jesus’s execution.
Dr Shepherd did not respond to repeated requests for comment. His views about the resurrection are shared by a number of other Anglicans.