Imagine: future conversations about differentiation
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
[This work of fiction was composed and published before the Church of England Evangelical Council meeting of January 11-12 2017, so it cannot reflect anything which occurs or has occurred at that meeting.]
It’s January 2019 and a group of Anglican clergy and laity from Britain are meeting to reflect on recent events, and share plans for the way forward. The majority of those present are conservative evangelicals, but there are a smattering of charismatics, clearly uncomfortable at the prospect of being part of a ‘political’ meeting, and also some who describe themselves as ‘anglo-catholic’ or ‘centrist’. On seeing the black clerical shirts at what is an informal gathering, some of the reformed men fidget nervously, looking around to see if any hidden candles will be brought out; the traditionalists, for their part, take deep breaths to quell the rising panic at the sight of a guitar in the corner of the room.
After introductions, reading of Scripture and prayer, the Chair refers to a paper, previously circulated, which summarises the key events of the past three years. The Canterbury meeting of Primates in January 2016 had given new hope to ‘orthodox’ Anglicans across the world, ie those who hold to the historic teachings of the Church, based on the Bible, about God, humanity, Christ and salvation, and in particular the biblical understanding of sex and marriage, under attack for several years in Western culture, and increasingly accepted in the church. Canterbury appeared to state a clear commitment of the Anglican Communion to these teachings, and to exclude revisionist understandings, but it soon became clear that the senior leadership of the Western churches would ignore this commitment, and emphasise instead the maintaining of relationships across difference of theological opinion in an institution with centralized power.
In the USA and Canada, TEC and ACoC continued their liberal trajectory at home and aiming to influence Communion affairs across the world. The Episcopal Church of Scotland began 2017 with Islamic prayers in Glasgow Cathedral, and performed their first same sex marriages before the end of the year. The leadership of the Church of England ensured that Synod was not given a chance to vote on such measures. They preferred to follow the strategy of the Welsh: declaring that there would be no change in doctrine, but then quietly dropping the requirement of ordinands and clergy not in heterosexual marriages to give assurances of celibacy, taking no action against those in same sex marriages, and allowing a very generous interpretation of ‘pastoral prayers’ for same sex couples.
Church services using such prayers, often visually almost indistinguishable from weddings, became increasingly commonplace during 2017 and 2018. Anecdotal evidence suggested (although of course officially denied) that articulating clear conservative teaching on sex and marriage was counting against people in selection for ordination, and in preferment for Diocesan posts. There were increasing cases in the media of lay Christians, some of them Anglican, subject to harassment and discipline in the workplace because of traditional views on sex; meanwhile the relentless propaganda on LGBT issues continued in schools, media and government. Those who raised their voices in public protest continued to be accused of ungraciousness and divisiveness, not just by liberal Bishops and the increasingly well-staffed Lambeth media machine, but by fellow evangelicals who still believed that avoiding public statements about controversial issues, and associating with those who do, was the best way to avoid conflict in their own Dioceses and parishes.
However GAFCON had not gone away: the June 2018 conference in Jerusalem had been successful, closer links with the ‘Global South’ movement had been formed, uniting the majority of Anglicans across the world around orthodoxy, and distancing them from the Anglican Communion Office. There were closer relationships with the orthodox in England. More AMiE congregations had been planted, and the Free Church of England had grown, boosted by an influx of a small but growing number of former C of E congregations. A new body had been formed, SoSWaS-Europe (Society of Spirit, Word and Sacrament) a theologically orthodox network operating within the official Anglican churches, with its own Bishops operating under delegated authority. This had come into existence as part of a negotiation which also resulted in the consecration of the first openly gay, partnered Bishop in the C of E in September 2018, and the first moves towards a debate on same sex marriage in General Synod. Although SoSWaS did not have formal connections with GAFCON, many of its members did affiliate to the global body, which continued to cause tensions in the leadership.
“Well”, said the Chairman, “You’ve all read the paper and in fact we have all lived the history. How have the events of the past couple of years affected us?”
“I don’t think we should be discouraged”, said David, an Archdeacon from the midlands. “There was a lot of doom and gloom around two years ago – people were saying we would have to choose between a totally liberal C of E and leaving to join something related to GAFCON. It hasn’t happened. There are still lots of opportunities for evangelical ministry in the C of E as long as we are loving and not confrontational. It has been a real answer to prayer that we’ve managed to avoid bitter divisions in Synods, and yet the doctrine of marriage hasn’t changed. The orthodox have faced similar challenges in the past, you know, but they’ve stood firm on the teaching of the formularies, and the C of E has pulled through. I haven’t joined SoSWaS because I’ve felt it’s important to be seen as there for everyone in the church, not a partisan evangelical. It gives me a voice in the Diocese.”
“I’ve taken a different view”, said Kelvin. I’ve been increasingly frustrated over a number of years about the trajectory of the C of E and my Diocese’s leadership. Taking part in the Shared Conversations of 2016 made me realize that I was in a small minority as far as believing and articulating what the Bible teaches on sex and marriage – and in fact on other things as well, like the reality of judgement and the uniqueness of Christ. In early 2017 I gave a series of four sermons in our church – I tried to be careful and winsome but also clear. I knew that some people in my parish wouldn’t agree but I wasn’t prepared for the hostility I received. Some people wrote to the Bishop and said they wanted me removed because of the talks and because I’d been the only vicar in the Deanery to say I wouldn’t do the ‘pastoral prayers’, aka blessings of same sex couples. But a number of folk were really supportive and eventually backed the formation of a new church. In our case we did it by joining some Baptists and Free Evangelicals looking to plant on the new housing estate – because a number of Anglicans came across with me, the new church has kept things like some liturgy and even Episcopal oversight – the non Anglicans have loved it when our Ugandan link Bishop has visited. I know there are others here who have also gone the unofficial GAFCON route, with different models, in Scotland and Wales as well as England.”
“How did you, er, manage in terms of housing and stipend?” asked Jane, a lay person who described herself as a ‘non-aligned evangelical’.
“Well it was a struggle”, Kelvin replied. My wife has a good job, and I was able to get some part time work. That plus the rental income we get from our own house meant we were able to supplement the small stipend the new church gave me, and we could rent somewhere, and put something away for a pension. But perhaps we’ve assumed for too long in the C of E that ministry can’t happen unless housing and full time stipends are provided. I’m actually excited by the way this has enabled us to be creative and flexible, remaining Anglican but working hand in hand with others who have the same clear Kingdom priorities and biblical non-negotiables”.
The discussion continued, with a number of different perspectives being shared. Most had stayed in their official national Anglican church, but all, apart from The Ven. David, expressed varying levels of concern about the liberal drift of the C of E in general and of difficult personal experiences as orthodox believers, either in the church, the secular workplace or the children’s school. Many were predicting that things would only get more difficult, and that even membership of the Society would only provide temporary respite from the pressure to conform to the revisionist agenda.
Before a break for tea, the Chairman gave the final word to Herbert, a retired clergyman who had said very little during the conversation.
“For many years”, he said thoughtfully, “most of us have been going through a process in our hearts. It’s simply not the case that this is a choice between ‘in’ or ‘out’ like Brexit. As orthodox believers in a denomination that prides itself on being ‘diverse’ we are always going to feel tension. The first stage is psychological distancing. We are in the organization but increasingly don’t feel part of it. Then we go on to spiritual detachment. We no longer trust the official channels – Diocese, Cathedral – to provide the guidance and spiritual care we need, so we go elsewhere. Fellowships like New Wine and Renew work for a while; there may be older mentors who act as spiritual Bishops while we still recognize the administrative authority of our Diocesan. But from what I’ve been observing, more and more people are feeling the need for visible differentiation.”
“Yes that’s right”, broke in Jane. “If there’s nothing wrong with theological diversity, and the important thing is good relationships within the church and between the church and the culture, then my evangelical faith is no more valid than someone with a liberal view. I don’t need to be at this meeting! But if the official structures have moved away from authentic Christianity, then to stay in them is not being faithful to what’s been handed on to us. It sounds like most people here are already psychologically distanced and spiritually detached, and have opted for visible differentiation, whether now or in the future. We might do it at different times and in different ways, in the Society or not, aligned to GAFCON now or perhaps later, but we should stay together”.
A small number, including David, made their apologies and left at that point, but the rest stayed, and that evening enjoyed some wonderful worship together, led by the guitar with prophetic open prayer and laying on of hands, a eucharist with candles, and a powerful bible exposition.
See also: Ten prophecies re. the church in 2017, by David Robertson, theweeflea