True Anglicanism: Gospel proclamation, compassionate care, cultural leadership
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Here is the main argument put forward by revisionists for the Church of England to change the historic doctrine of sexuality and marriage: “the majority of people believe this, so the church leadership should follow”. Leaving aside the interpretation of statistics, and the question of whether this societal change has happened by chance or as a result of sustained cultural re-education by a secular elite, we need to ask: should the Church accommodate itself to the culture as the revisionists demand, or should it be providing a lead in developing a counter-culture which influences and transforms the values of society?
Or perhaps the church should ignore the surrounding culture and be concerned only with the beliefs and actions of its own members and the small fringe of contacts which it hopes to draw in? This approach may have the strength of an authentically biblical foundation, but is it Anglican? A key element of Anglicanism is the idea of the church being responsible not just for itself but for the society in which it is set. The local church has cure of souls in the whole parish, not just the members of the congregation. The national church has responsibility for the spiritual and moral health of the nation not just those who profess faith. If it opts out of this responsibility can it still be Anglican? On the other hand, if it merely follows majority opinion rather than giving a lead to it, can it still be Christian?
A biblical model for the people of God in the world has three main components: proclaiming a message about salvation, offering care for those in need, and being a powerful influence for the betterment of society. The book of Deuteronomy for example emphasizes the first two of these components. Israel is repeatedly exhorted not to forget God, to be faithful to his commandments, to pass down the stories about his character and his saving power to future generations (eg Deut 4, 6, 8). Many of the laws emphasize caring for the needy, making sure power and wealth was not concentrated in the hands of the few (eg Deut. 15). At this stage in Israel’s history the nation was warned not to compromise with surrounding cultures. Later, the prophets looked forward to a time when other nations would be influenced by Israel’s religion and morality (eg Isaiah 49:6-7; 59:19; 60:3), but seeds of this vision for ‘cultural leadership’ can be seen in Deuteronomy itself (eg 4:6-8). This Old Testament concept of the global mission of God’s people including not just the message of salvation but also changing society is fulfilled in the teaching of Jesus, who told his followers to “let your light shine”, and to teach and disciple all nations. Jesus also taught that the Kingdom of God is like a tiny seed or almost invisible yeast which has a wide and pervading influence.
History is littered with examples of the Church getting this wrong by emphasizing one of the three mandates at the expense of the other two. A church which emphasizes theologically correct preaching of the Gospel and teaching the bible to those on the inside can sometimes see caring for the needy and influencing society as a distraction from ‘the main thing’, and so is in danger of ‘walking by on the other side’. But the other two alternatives are worse. A church can see its main ministry as caring for physical and emotional needs without addressing the causes of those needs, and/or without leading people to the Great Physician. Or a church which tries to change culture while neglecting truths about God and neighbour can get itself caught up in the trappings of political power, and ending up with Crusades, inquisitions and colonial conquests in the name of Christ.
But what we are seeing with today’s C of E revisionists is wrong on all three fronts. In a misguided attempt to care for those whom they see as the most needy (LGBT people), they risk diverting attention and energy away from the many groups of those with much more obvious genuine needs – the hungry, the refugees, those caught up in conflict, the inadequately-cared-for elderly, the abused children, and so on. In demanding same sex marriage, they are directly opposing clear biblical doctrine about our humanity, male and female in the image of God, and denying the Gospel of salvation by repentance and faith in Christ the Lord. And instead of wanting to see the church transforming the world’s values, they are willing agents of the transformation of the church by the world.
The church in Africa has been vilified in recent debates on sexuality. But for the most part, African Anglicanism (especially in its GAFCON form) does display the three components of authentic church life. A strong commitment to the Christ-centred Gospel of salvation, and biblical ethics. A track record of genuine care for the poor and needy in contexts that are often unimaginable to the comfort-loving Christians of the West. This includes appropriate pastoral care in community for people who are same sex attracted and those who have been involved in the homosexual lifestyle. And involvement in wider society which includes engagement with government, giving support for good governance, but also providing a critique for example against tribalism, corruption and unjust laws (hence the willingness of African Archbishops to sign the recent Canterbury communiqué opposing the criminalization of homosexuality).
“Cultural leadership” is the natural outworking of a conviction that Christ is Lord of all, not just of the church. While it is true that people are not saved from sin and brought into God’s Kingdom without explicit repentance and faith in Christ through the message of his death and resurrection, we cannot restrict the work of God’s Holy Spirit only to the culture of the gathered fellowship. I saw this principle at first hand when working as vicar of a small church on a housing estate outside an English midlands town, which was notorious for social problems and low income levels. As a church we prioritized evangelism and the teaching of the Word, and we sought as much as possible to provide friendship and practical care to those in need. Though our congregation grew slightly during my time there, from perhaps 20 to around 40 adults at Sunday worship, the influence of even a pathetically tiny but growing church in the community was noticeable. Petty crime, particularly by young people, decreased (the local police commented on this). Some adults who had been long term unemployed, got jobs. Couples who had been living together, got married. Young people from broken families who had been failing at school, began to do better. Of course there were many frustrations and heartbreaks and spiritual blockages and misunderstandings, but overall there is no doubt that the impact of the ‘cultural leadership’ of the church goes way beyond the numbers of professing believers in church on Sunday.
Cultural leadership by the Church means looking beyond the essential core of teaching and pastoral care of the congregation, and evangelism of the fringe, to challenging the powers that hold people captive and lead them astray in wider society, and demonstrating a better way, so that change begins to happen, whether or not it is accompanied by ‘revival’. As a fellowship of sinners the Church does not judge or condemn individuals, but as God’s holy people it must judge between right and wrong ideas, based on the revelation of his Word. The Church’s mission to the culture will not be fulfilled by withdrawing from it, nor by accommodating to its values, but by being yeast, salt, light, mustard seeds of Kingdom influence.
See also A call to cultural leadership, by Andrew Symes