Charles Raven: England, the Final Frontier?

Mar 5, 2009 by

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To many, the idea that overseas Primates should sponsor alternative episcopal oversight in the England is both shocking and unnecessary. After all, it is hardly likely to be welcomed and is not being in communion with Canterbury constitutive of what it means to be Anglican? And surely the Church of England is not to be compared with TEC or the Anglican Church of Canada?

One of the great achievements of GAFCON was that by returning the Communion to its confessional roots, it gave orthodox Anglicans worldwide the confidence to challenge unexamined assumptions. The Jerusalem Statement and Declaration cut institutional claims based on history down to size and stated that ‘we do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury’.

And in answer to the second question, while it is clear that the Church of England is not in the same place as the officially recognised Anglican provinces of North America, there are many signs that it is on the same trajectory and some twenty five Anglican congregations in England now find themselves either in impaired communion with a diocesan bishop or having to function entirely outside the official structures of the Church of England as ‘extra mural’ Anglicans.

For some, this is a matter of conscience, finding that they can no longer receive the ministry of a bishop who denies biblical teaching – usually on the issue of homosexuality – while for others this is a matter of mission, where institutional obstacles have blocked the planting of new churches. Almost by definition, they represent some of the most faithful and committed Anglican congregations in England and should surely qualify for the protection and encouragement that godly oversight can bring.

However, there is a deeper and even more pressing reason for intervention in England. The greatest threat to the gospel in the Anglican Communion is not the new religion which is emerging in North America behind the façade of Anglicanism, but the systematic blurring of truth for church political ends.

While he is by no means the only practitioner of the art, a typical and significant example comes from Rowan Williams’ Lambeth Concluding Presidential Address “Our unity” he claimed “is not mutual forbearance but being summoned and drawn into the same place before the Father’s throne… that’s the unity which is inseparable from truth. It’s broken not when we simply disagree but when we stop being able to see in each other the same kind of conviction of being called by an authoritative voice into a place where none of us has an automatic right to stand.”
Within the context of a local church with clear convictions about the authority of Scripture, this might offer some helpful insights. But at the Lambeth Conference, with bishops present from Provinces who have persistently rejected or marginalised the clear teaching of Scripture on core Christian doctrine and ethics, what this statement actually does is to substitute a subjective and mystical concept of truth for that which is objectively revealed, robbing the ‘authoritative voice’ of Scripture of any effective authority in the Church. It provides the basis for endless conversation while continuing to drift with the surrounding culture.
The fact that the Archbishop’s commitment to unity does not stretch to the doctrinally orthodox ‘extra mural’ Anglican congregations of England, who find themselves on the outside for reasons of church procedure while underlying doctrinal issues have been ignored or minimised, inevitably reinforces the sense that words are being pressed into service for political ends.
Perhaps one of the most powerful lessons of George Orwell’s classic exploration of totalitarianism in his novel ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’ is that language controls thought, a principle practiced systematically and with great precision by the Party as it redefines words and disconnects them from objective reality. While in Orwell’s nightmare scenario the discipline of subverted language is enforced through the thought police, open societies and organisations within them are not immune to a more informal but nonetheless insidious process.
As Dr Lisa Nolland shows in a current series of articles ‘What is happening in the evangelical world today?’, a growing number of evangelicals in the UK are moving to acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships because of the way that their understanding of the meaning of ‘love’ and ‘grace’ has changed. And the agenda moves on; referring to a post by the UK based Anglican gay /lesbian pressure group ‘Changing Attitude’ (which includes a number of Church of England bishops among its patrons) she writes “It challenges the whole concept of sexual exclusivity and affirms that ‘brief and loving sexual engagement’ with other people can be ‘occasions of grace’.”; the latter phrase of course echoes Rowan Williams’ theological justification of same sex relationships in his essay ‘The Body’s Grace’.
So the case for intervention in England is not just to support particular orphan congregations, but also to make a stand for the reform of the whole Anglican Communion in accordance with the gospel by demonstrating the clarity of biblical truth though principled action.
If the Church of England is recovering its confidence in orthodox Christianity as some have claimed after the affirmation of the uniqueness of Christ in last month’s General Synod, then the presence of local churches under godly Anglican oversight from those grounded firmly in shared historic formularies should be a great encouragement to the orthodox, and overseas intervention will prove temporary.
If the Church continues its spiritual decline, then a group of churches aligned with the globally orthodox could form the nucleus of a revitalised Anglican Church in England.
Either way, there is a need for godly Primates to boldly go where no Primate has gone before – and for leaders in England to be bold enough to invite them.
Charles Raven  SPREAD
5th March 2009

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