Unofficial Bishops, non-C of E Anglicans: fragmentation and schism, or new reformation?

May 9, 2017 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

“We are on the cusp of a new reformation”, says Gavin Ashenden in an article about conflicts and new initiatives in Anglicanism in Britain.

The original Reformation, which we remember particularly this year, 500 years after Martin Luther’s famous public protest against the Church of Rome, was characterized by often bitter conflict but also led to amazingly fruitful initiatives in mission throughout the world. It involved not just schism between Catholic and Protestant, but the fragmentation of Protestantism into thousands of denominations. We’re often told that this ‘disunity’ is a terrible stain on the body of Christ, and yet there is often far more warm fellowship and productive cooperation between believers in different denominations sharing the same commitment to basic Christian truths, than there is between people of the same denomination together on paper, but internally divided by adherence to different teachings and even opposing fundamental worldviews.

Jesus warned that not everyone who calls him Lord will be included in his family; he also made clear that human ties of kinship and institution don’t unite us as closely as sharing the same faith in Christ and commitment to obedience to his Word. But even among those who believe the same fundamentals within the same denomination, there can be disagreements, for example over how we understand events, over strategy and timing, over personality clashes – even over matters which come down to personal taste. This was true in the 16th century Reformation, and it’s certainly true in contemporary Western Protestantism in general and Anglicanism in particular.

For example, a brief look at the recent history of the Anglican Church in North America reminds us that there was never a single bloc of faithful orthodox Anglicans who separated from the official structures at one time. Rather, over a period of years, different groups coalesced around particular fundamental doctrinal concerns, shared tastes in church culture (charismatic, catholic, Reformed), and relationships with overseas churches. So the ‘Common Cause Partnership’ which was to evolve into ACNA consisted of those who had left to form their own separate Anglican denomination decades earlier, groups who had over the past few years sought Episcopal oversight from other Provinces in the Anglican Communion, and others who did not make the decision to leave TEC until after the consecration of Gene Robinson. All of these groups were led by Bishops and were validly Anglican. Sometimes they disagreed sharply with each other.

In time some of these groups came together to form a single ecclesial body, others stayed out. Of crucial importance has been not so much the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ (“is it a proper church or a schismatic sect led by difficult people?”) but the ‘why’: a response to the crisis of Gospel faithfulness in the ‘official’  church, and the ‘how’ – the ability to work together based on shared faith and values, streamlining effort and avoiding duplication, and the relationship with, and support from, the global fellowship of confessing Anglicans known as Gafcon.


It looks very much as if a similar pattern is emerging in the UK. The Free Church of England is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year as an independent Anglican Church with its own Bishops, Canons and fully developed ecclesiology. Anglican Mission in England is a different model; less than ten years old, it began when Anglican congregations, planted outside the jurisdiction of the Church of England, came together for support and oversight from Gafcon. As Gavin Ashenden explains, the Gafcon Primates will some time this year consecrate a Bishop to minister to these congregations and any in Scotland, and possibly Wales, who seek faithful oversight as a result of abandonment of orthodoxy by the official Anglican leaders.

Meanwhile, a small number of anglo-catholic clergy linked to Gafcon have been ordained into other Episcopal churches based in Europe and north America. Now a large evangelical church and its satellite congregations in the north east of England, Anglicans who for some time have been in impaired communion with their ‘official’ Church of England Bishop, have witnessed one of their own leaders consecrated as a Bishop under the oversight of a South African denomination which self identifies as Anglican, and is part of Gafcon, but not part of the Anglican Communion (see statement here).


The large majority of orthodox Anglican believers continue to remain in the C of E for the moment. A proportion continue to be unconcerned about theological liberalism and are more vexed about disagreement, disloyalty and disunity. But an increasing number have already distanced themselves spiritually and psychologically from their Diocesan leadership which they see as going in a different theological direction, and operate more in networks of local churches. The ministry of the Bishop of Maidstone was established to oversee congregations within the C of E which do not agree with the ordination and consecration of women from a conservative evangelical perspective, but of course all of these churches would also be conservative on other key issues. Among charismatics, historically more averse to ‘church politics’ and currently generally more loyal to the institutional leadership, there is already division over sexual ethics; among those who agree about the bible’s position on this and other fundamental theological issues there would be different views on whether Gafcon is seen positively or negatively.

It’s like a variation on the old Jewish joke: put ten orthodox British Anglicans in a room and you’ll get eleven different opinions! It looks messy, and it is at the moment, just as it was in America fifteen years ago.

Regarding the Jesmond consecration, it’s true that Gafcon has not been involved, although Gafcon UK has been informed of developments leading up to this point. It would be easy to be critical; to question something that could seem un-Englishly hasty and disrespectful, to bemoan the apparent divisions among the orthodox (picked up with glee by commentators on ‘Thinking Anglicans”), to highlight the narrow theological and cultural axis of Jesmond/REACH compared with the breadth of ACNA and GAFCON, to challenge Jesmond’s inaccurate dismissal of the entire Anglican Church in South Africa as ‘heterodox’, to speculate about motives of individuals, and so on.  No doubt in north America in the 1990’s and early 2000’s every time a new grouping sought Episcopal oversight from overseas and actually broke with the mother church, similar criticisms were applied by friends and enemies, some of which were valid. Mistakes were no doubt made, but lessons were learnt, relationships healed, and in a remarkably short time the different groups came together in the fruitful and biblically faithful partnership that is ACNA.

Hopefully something similar can occur in Britain and Ireland as groups which want to stop arguing endlessly about basic theology and ethics, pushed on the defensive within their own Anglican denomination, and instead just get on with mission under the banner of a shared faith based on apostolic Christianity, can do so freely, linked to orthodox global Anglicanism.

In time, as the Church of England continues its drift away from Christian orthodoxy, pulled by the values of an increasingly secular culture, more of those orthodox currently committed to remain in the official structures will find the tensions increasingly difficult to handle and will continue to loosen the ties to the mother church. Many will look for alternative structural models of being Anglican such as currently exist or are coming into being, or they will simply join non Anglican denominations as many young people from Anglican backgrounds are doing.

This may not be a sign of the shattering of unity among the orthodox as some are saying,  but rather the beginnings of the new Reformation that Gavin Ashenden has described.


[This is a personal view, not necessarily the shared view of any organisation].

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