The C of E: limits to diversity and the inevitability of separation?
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Is the Church of England basically orthodox in its beliefs, and if so, is this a good thing for the Church’s mission to the nation and in fact its very survival?
Many leaders of the C of E who personally hold to historic biblical teachings on key issues of doctrine and ethics would answer in the affirmative to both these questions. The C of E has a biblically sound foundation, they would argue; it is protected in this by its formularies and the majority of its Bishops, and by its relationship with the overwhelmingly conservative Anglican Communion. Yes some Anglican Provinces (eg TEC) and individual Bishops and clergy appear to have taken a revisionist direction, but this has happened many times in the past and the church has survived. In England the church is broad enough to graciously accommodate a minority of liberal opinion as a tolerable voice of ‘diversity’. ‘Good disagreement’, based on good personal relationships and polite theological discussion under an umbrella of a (for the most part) theologically sound institutional unity, is preferable to unilaterally taking a communion-breaking revisionist direction on one hand, or dominance by a conservative faction who ungraciously exclude those who deviate from a party line and cause division on the other.
Other increasingly influential voices would say “yes” to the first question, but “no” to the second. Default orthodoxy is not conducive for church survival in the 21st century. The majority of those who call themselves “C of E” in our country are not evangelical, the argument goes; they are embarrassed by enthusiastic religion, they do not believe many biblical theological dogmas or traditional teaching on sexuality. As a result of sticking to traditional Christian beliefs rather than adapting to where people really are in terms of their worldviews, emotions and felt spiritual needs, the Church has “lost” the majority of the nation; in order to win people back, the C of E needs to be light on religion and theology, strong on community, heritage and the latest social media memes.
The call for the Church to abandon Christian orthodoxy as a way of re-connecting with ordinary people was articulated by a Church Warden in a Church Times article last year (reported here), and has more recently been championed by Oxford College Principal Martyn Percy (in February, as reviewed here, and in August, here.) A much-publicised newly published book, ‘That was the Church that was’ by Linda Woodhead and Andrew Brown, continues and develops the argument that orthodox faith has turned the church into a tiny weird religious sect, alienated from society. This review supports the book’s thesis, saying that “it is impossible to be a conventional Christian in the 21st century…agnosticism in the only honest approach”.
So both views agree that the C of E is orthodox; one says these basic beliefs should be retained, the other that they should be abandoned. What to do? Can both views be accommodated in a generous Anglicanism, through ‘good disagreement’?
Concluding his own polite but critical review of “That was the Church that was”, theologian Andrew Goddard makes the following assessment:
“The key question the book raises for me is in what sense, if any, those committed to two such contrasting understandings of the church can genuinely walk together in the same institutional structure. Might it not be the case that, if either is to flourish, each needs to grant the other a distinct ecclesial space and identity to pursue two very different, probably irreconcilable, visions of…the church…”
This is significant, because Andrew Goddard has for many years been at the forefront of influential leaders within the C of E who hold to an orthodox evangelical understanding of Christian faith (particularly in regard to sexual ethics), but who support solutions to the problems of disagreements over doctrine and ethics based on institutional unity rather than confessional separation. So for example, Goddard was one of the leading advocates for an “Anglican Covenant” and always opposed GAFCON, saying that it was contributing to the divisions in the Anglican communion.
More recently, Goddard has been a supporter of Archbishop Welby’s “good disagreement” policy; he was one of the first to convene a day of discussions on sexuality between revisionists and conservatives before the official “Shared Conversations” began; and co-edited a book of essays exploring how “grace and truth” can be maintained together in a divided church.
Archbishop Justin Welby has said many times that the unity of the church is a given, and no-one has the right to “chuck out” those family members with whom one disagrees. Goddard’s article says clearly, contra Welby, that there must be limits to diversity – there comes a point when for contradictory views and values to exist in the same church is no longer a sign of generosity and peacemaking, but chaos and incoherence. The solution is not one side assuming power to “chuck out” the other, but a negotiated separation between those who want to continue to hold to the basic beliefs of the Church of England as spoken week by week in our worship, and those who want to let go of these beliefs and concentrate on other aspects of the church’s heritage, spirituality and community engagement.
But going back to the question with which we started, is the C of E basically orthodox? The words of the Prayer Book, the Scriptures, and the hymns and songs of our regular worship clearly teach historic Christian doctrine, but do the leaders of the institution believe it? Here are some recent examples which suggest that more and more of the controlling power within the C of E has already aligned with the values of the liberal culture:
A prominent post on the Church of England website invites people to “become a tourist on your own doorstep by going to church”, and portrays ‘church’ entirely in terms of heritage and art, with no mention of anything spiritual.
Gay pride marches are being openly welcomed and ‘blessed’ by significant church leaders. Very Revd June Osborne, Dean Of Salisbury Cathedral, enthusiastically declared God’s blessing on Salisbury Pride standing next to a man dressed in skimpy women’s clothes and a pink Stetson (report and video footage here). While this is not surprising given Ms Osborne’s track record, it has been more of a concern for evangelicals to hear that a large church aligned with Holy Trinity Brompton took part in the Brighton LGBT celebration event.
Before the July General Synod, some Bishops who identify as ‘evangelical’ were prepared to go into print arguing for a change in the church’s teaching on sex and marriage, and a month later 72 members of Synod were sufficiently concerned about the real possibility of the House of Bishops authorizing some kind of liberalization of pastoral practice that they wrote an open letter urging the Bishops not to consider such proposals.
Examples demonstrating that a revisionist version of Christianity is increasingly being accepted and promoted at the highest levels of the C of E are becoming more commonplace. Perhaps the most serious is the thinking behind the Shared Conversations and the way ‘good disagreement’ itself is interpreted in official documents and pronouncements. As many articles on this site over the past years have argued, the premise of the Shared Conversations is not compatible with Christian orthodoxy, because it assumes either that the truth of God’s view on sexuality cannot be known for sure, or that it doesn’t matter, or that this is really not about discovering truth at all, or even building relationships, but breaking down the convictions of the orthodox in order to bring about ‘reconciliation’. Because it is these convictions which are seen as standing in the way of a brave new church, embedded in the culture and sharing its values.
Many clergy and laity are now asking: If my theological views, nominally considered ‘orthodox’ by the church of which I am a member, are in reality seen as the problem by that institution, then how can the church be seen as ‘orthodox’, and what are the options for me and others like me who want to remain Anglican, but orthodox?