Report heads off immediate split, but entrenches ‘mixed economy’ theology
Commentary by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:
The Bishops’ Report does not attempt to resolve the ethical question of whether same sex relationships are right or wrong, whether they can be celebrated as part of Christian discipleship or censured as an expression of rebellion against the Creator. While the document does rule out any change in the near future to the Church’s teaching on marriage, or the provision of authorized or commended liturgies for the blessing of same sex relationships, it focuses on the legal reasons for this and is diffident about theological explanation. In fact the document emphasizes from the outset that since the church is divided with irreconcileable differences in theology, the focus going forward must be on reconciliation, ‘walking together’, and on pastoral care for those most personally affected by the issue being discussed. It assumes the Church’s relationship with the culture as benign, spoiled only by perceive lack of love on the Church’s part; it appears not to recognize the power and threat the ideologies of the sexual revolution, now embedded in the nation’s establishment, pose to orthodox Christian belief and behaviour.
The headlines of the Report are the same as was expected: no same sex marriage in church; no blessings for same sex couples. In one sense, the Bishops have opted for the status quo, which is frustrating and disappointing for those who believe that homosexuality and its sexual expression is a good aspect of God’s diverse creation, and that the current teaching of the church in this area is personally insulting and excluding to those who identify as ‘gay’. Inevitably there have been bitter complaints from those arguing for change, The anger and outrage from LGBT campaigners is not surprising, especially since some Bishops have encouraged this as part of a strategy for keeping up the pressure for eventual changes in church teaching and practice.
Meanwhile there is relief to all who were very concerned about their continued future in a church which by making the change would have officially celebrated sinful behaviour and wrong ideology. The Report recognizes this profound division between conservatives and liberals within the church as a whole, and the inevitable sense of win-lose that would result from whichever line they took, and so goes out of its way to affirm gay Anglicans and those who hold to a revisionist theology that they are and equal and valued members of the family of God.
Meanwhile among conservatives there is a robust debate now going on between those who unconditionally welcome the Bishops’ Report as a victory for orthodoxy, who are committed to engaging positively with the church institutions, for example here, and others who have sounded notes of warning about the underlying theology of the Report and the likely outcome in terms of the continued trajectory of the Church.
Why are orthodox evangelicals not united in their response to the report?
Every person’s gut response to this document depends not just on their theological understanding, but on their personal experience, their personality (eg whether one’s first instinct is to analyse an idea or to care for a person; whether to be loyal to authority or rebel against it, whether to take sides in an argument or to mediate, optimism and always looking for a win or caution and suspicion), the thinking of the folk in their local church and network, etc. For many decades, perhaps for centuries, evangelicals in the C of E have wrestled with their consciences as unbiblical practices have taken hold in the culture of parish churches and Diocesan administrations up and down the land, and Bishops have spoken in support of heretical ideas. But the solid basis of the historic formularies, the platform given to an incumbent for freedom to carry out a biblical ministry in designated geographical areas not just congregations, and the opportunities for influence through networking in the wider church have ensured up until now that large numbers have ‘stayed in’ a mixed and imperfect institution rather than opt for the purer, but more uncertain and perhaps restricted option of another denomination.
For some, no doubt, this Bishops’ Report is just about the headlines: “no gay marriage, no blessings – that’s all I need to know – we can celebrate”. For others, there might be misgivings about some of the underlying ideas, but “what’s new for an evangelical in the C of E?” However, for an increasing number, this document further institutionalizes wrong theology: the idea that truth cannot be known for sure, and is subservient to unity. Paragraph 7 states that we cannot know the answers to problems the issue of sexuality throws up; that the church’s mission is to “find tentative ways forward which continue to point toward a better way of living and loving as persons in community”. Apparently, deep insights into the Kingdom of God are found in the mutual listening of incompatible ‘truth’ (a) and ‘truth’ (b), or as orthodox Christians have said historically, truth and error (para 8).
Para 32 makes clear that the Church sees its role not as offering a clear ethical and moral guide even if it challenges the power hegomonies of the culture, but as “encompassing those who hold to sharply differing judgments”. This sees the church not as a guardian and herald of a single Person/message and a space where those who have discovered that can flourish, but a permanently contested space with different tribes and values like a conflict-ridden nation, or a ground requiring a referee in a game with opposing teams. This of course is not new, but following a well-worn path from ECUSA in the 1990’s, through the Continuing Indaba processes of the 2000’s, to the Shared Conversations that ended last year.
There will be no change to doctrines and liturgies, not because it is theologically right, but because it would be too difficult at the moment. In fact, there is no attempt by the Bishops to explain why marriage is between a man and a woman. A new teaching resource will be provided (para 34), but the summary of this document makes clear that affirmation and welcome of gay people, and the importance of relationships and community, will come before “exploring the meaning of marriage within society, the family and the church” (note: not Scripture). There is plenty of detail on the legal position with regard to the Canons referring to marriage, the complexities involved in changing liturgy, and the questioning of ordinands and clergy about their private lives, but an avoidance of any attempt to ground the current teaching of the church in the teaching of the Bible, and more than one suggestion that the teaching needs to be reinterpreted by “fresh insights” from interaction with culture (62, see also 2 and 63).
So another reason given for ‘no change’ is in fact the commitment to unity as a ‘unifying theological theme’ (59). The primary value given to unity has proved a double edged sword: it has led to endorsement of pluralism and loss of confidence in affirming biblical truth, but it has also, for the moment, prevented rank departure from apostolicity. Much to the continued chagrin of many revisionists, the Bishops have taken seriously the real possibility of rupture with the global church were they to advocate change. In this they have so far not followed TEC, Canada or Scotland. This should serve as a motivation to those holding to the historic position to strengthen links as much as possible with GAFCON and Global South churches, to support them as they continue to stand firm for orthodoxy, to continue sharing of resources, and to gain wisdom from the spiritual vitality and growth in many other Provinces.
The Bishops believe that as a result of this report, there is no longer any need to plan for division (59). While the headline recommendations mean that there is no emergency requiring an immediate alternative Anglicanism as in Scotland, the underlying theology reflects and describes a church from which more and more potential ordinands and faithful lay people are already drifting away to other spiritual homes. The preservation of orthodox Anglicanism in England requires something different to trusting in the outcome of this document.
Revd Andrew Symes