‘Primates reaffirm teaching on marriage’ – encouragements and concerns.
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
In the immediate aftermath of the gathering of Anglican Primates last week, what are we to make of it all? In particular, how should orthodox, bible-believing Christians in this country, those in the Church of England and in other denominations, respond to the outcome? Some of the initial headlines suggested that all will be well for the Church, but a closer analysis shows that there are some real concerns going forward, as well as some encouragements.
Although deep divisions remain, the Anglican Communion has not split. The meeting at Canterbury did not see a walkout by GAFCON Archbishops as had been suggested beforehand. Everybody stayed except the Archbishop of Uganda, Stanley Ntagali, who was tasked by his own Synod before the meeting not to have fellowship with the representatives of the ultra- liberal American and Canadian churches – he politely waited two days before leaving quietly without announcement. Justin Welby and the office of Archbishop of Canterbury remains at the centre of the Communion. The Church of England remains very much in fellowship with global Anglicanism. There was clearly some very skilful facilitation, and gracious understanding on all sides.
But a large majority of Primates, representing the opinions and feelings of their Provinces, voted to censure The Episcopal Church (TEC) for their unilateral action in changing their doctrine of marriage to accommodate same sex couples. (See the final Communique here ). This sends a clear message that Anglicans believe marriage is between a man and a woman; it also appears to say that those who go down the route of official liturgical celebration of same sex relationships, or those who call for this, have put themselves outside the mainstream of Anglican polity. As one vicar said in response:
“I now don’t feel I will need to constantly justify my position as Anglican/C of E….God has come to the C of E’s defence and the orthodox in it. I feel that future departures in teaching, practice and attitude of those over me and around me will, if they continue, be opting out of the institution.”
All of this is good news for those who did not want to see a fragmentation of the Church, who want to see the structural status quo maintained but with the values and message of the organisation clearly reflecting historic, orthodox Christian faith. Before the meeting there were debates among Anglican evangelical observers on whether the hub of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the official “Instruments of Communion” are really essential for orthodox Anglicanism to continue – for example if Canterbury and the C of E went down the same route as TEC, could a new global authentic Anglicanism emerge which was not Canterbury-centric? In the end this question did not arise.
However, the question may well arise again the future, because of two things: weakness with regard to theology, and defensiveness with regard to culture. First, the meeting of Primates last week did not pronounce on issues of theological right and wrong, but on matters of fellowship and due process. It was this that TEC were censured for violating. While the final communiqué does say that TEC have departed “from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage”, and that in view of Scripture marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and the majority of Primates affirmed this, nevertheless there is no attempt in the Communiqué or in the subsequent press conference to explain why the church takes this position on marriage.
While the meeting in Canterbury was primarily about fellowship not establishing doctrine, this question of ‘what is marriage?’ will have to be faced by the C of E leadership. The C of E, unlike some of the more conservative Provinces, has an orthodox doctrine of sex and marriage in theory but a plural approach in practice, with many different views tolerated ‘on the ground’. The revisionist activists in TEC have shown that without a clear commitment to a confessional understanding of Scripture, a national church can be moved by lobbying and democratic vote to accept and celebrate things which would have been unthinkable a generation earlier, and change official doctrine accordingly. Is there any reason why a similar thing could not happen in the General Synod of the C of E?
Secondly, there is a strong focus, in both the Communique and in the responses of the Archbishop of Canterbury to press questioning, on apologising for ‘homophobia’ and hurt experienced by gay people from the Church. For many observers this gives the impression that the Church is constantly on the defensive, apologizing to those who have an understanding of sexuality that is very different to the biblical one and is instead aligned to a worldview rapidly taking hold in the secular culture. While part of the Church’s role is to encourage love of neighbour and pastoral care of all people, its Gospel witness is compromised if it suggests that it is saying sorry to people whose feelings have been hurt by the clear teaching of the Bible and basic principles of Christian discipleship.
More hopeful signs
While there is much continuing concern about the Church of England, the decision of GAFCON-aligned Primates to stay at the Canterbury conference has undoubtedly strengthened the Anglican Communion in setting a course on a clear orthodox direction. GAFCON is now increasingly accepted across the majority of the Anglican Communion not as a breakaway group but a renewal movement, committed to unite the church by enabling it to confidently proclaim biblical truth and trust in Christ’s direction, even in the face of opposition. As the majority of the world faces problems that most white Westerners are insulated from, it was good to see how the Primates did not focus on sexuality only, but spent much time discussing other life and death issues – violence, poverty, war, corruption, but also evangelism. So the Communique states that “The Primates were energised by the opportunity to share experiences of evangelism” (which must have been exciting to hear!), and concludes: “The Primates joyfully commit themselves and the Anglican Church, to proclaim throughout the world the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel”.