A crisis of authority?

Jan 15, 2019 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

At the time of writing, MP’s in the UK Parliament have just rejected, by a huge margin, the deal that Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated for leaving the European Union. Leading up to the vote at 7pm, a debate took place in a half empty chamber as most MP’s had already made up their mind. Meanwhile according to the BBC “noisy, colourful, chaotic protests” filled Parliament Square, as passionate supporters of Brexit and Remain competed for media attention with placards, chants and gimmicks, so far thankfully without violence.

The crushing defeat for the Government leaves more uncertainty about the nation’s future. The Archbishop of Canterbury has seen fit to warn against a hard Brexit. Many churches and Christian groups have issued calls for prayer, seeing this as a potentially transformative moment, for good or ill. Some have pointed out that political change in itself cannot mask underlying problems caused by turning away from God.

If a government is unable to carry out its intended legislation because so many members of its own party are voting against it, this indicates a crisis of authority. Politicians are putting adherence to a supra-political vision or ideology above loyalty to party leadership. It could be said that the same phenomenon is being witnessed in the Church of England.

In recent months, Bishops have in various ways moved towards implementing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s policies of “good disagreement” on the issue of sexuality, and “radical inclusion” for gay people in the church. This involves  treating the issue of same sex relationships and gender identity as ‘second order’, on which Christians may legitimately differ without undermining the gospel. And also, finding ways of eliminating any barriers to participation in church sacraments and leadership for those who identify as LGBT, and signalling support for the cause of ‘diversity and equality’ generally, without changing the church’s official teaching or liturgy in the short term.

The Ad Clerum from the Bishops of Oxford, released on 31st October 2018, was a textbook example of this, a “case study” in fact. While using gentle language, the Bishops were nevertheless using their authority to give a clear steer in a certain direction. Initially, a few commentators responded publicly, and a few clergy sent private letters to the Bishops. Many were watching to see if there would be a wider expression of public opposition.

Early in the new year it came, as the Oxford Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship published what amounted to a rejection of the Bishops’ pastoral guidance, signed by over 100 clergy and a significant number of senior lay people. Behind the scenes careful bridge-building had been going on between the various evangelical sub-constituencies, whose leaders all had a hand in the drafting and re-drafting of the ODEF document, and in encouraging people to sign.

The Bishop has in turn responded to the protestors, insisting that his “inclusion” proposals do not mean a change in theology or exclusion for those who hold to the church’s historic teaching. While its not certain how events will unfold in the months to come, what is clear is that the Bishops of Oxford Diocese have declared themselves in favour of a revisionist trajectory, and many clergy, normally loyal to the institution or at least certainly not given to public protest, have made it known that they do not agree and will not follow those in authority over them on this and related issues. Our comprehensive list of articles on this can be found here.

There is a similar mood of polite but firm unwillingness to cooperate with the Church of England’s leadership’s recent Guidance on how to liturgically mark someone’s gender transition, as part of a gesture of welcome and inclusion for those who identify as transgender. Initially, leading evangelical Julian Henderson, Bishop of Blackburn and President of the theologically conservative Church of England Evangelical Council, in his role as Chair of the House of Bishops’ Delegation Committee, out of loyalty to the Archbishops and the principle of Episcopal collegiality, did sign off and even commend the Guidance, which had been developed largely by transgender activist clergy. But after complaints from his own constituency, Bishop Henderson soon afterwards signed another document from CEEC critiquing the ‘gender transition services’. This led to confusion and even ridicule in some quarters.

Following the CEEC meeting in early January, Bishop Julian in a statement clarified that he regretted his role in commending the liturgy, and made it clear that he stood by the CEEC position in calling for it to be withdrawn. I was at the meeting, and there was unanimous agreement among the delegates that not only were the Bishops commending liturgy with faulty theology, but the governance processes which gave rise to the Guidance did not inspire confidence. Again, various news and comment pieces can be found here.

Meanwhile that same week I took part in a series of online conference discussions with a total of around 90 clergy and laity, organized by Gafcon UK, to hear the various objections to the proposed liturgy, and to talk about possible future action plans in the face of what is generally perceived to be Church of England leadership which is now following a vision and a programme at odds with historic biblical faith. There are a variety of different views on what action should be taken, but all agreed that clergy should do more to teach lay people at parish level what a bible-based approach to sex and gender should be, how to do appropriate pastoral care and welcome within these parameters, and why the church senior leadership’s apparent alignment with new ideologies and lobby groups rather than Christian teaching needs to be resisted.

Is there a crisis of authority? It seems that in society and the church, there is much more willingness to question and even contradict leaders, following principle rather than obedience to hierarchies. In politics there is not necessarily a clear-cut right and wrong answer, so there’s a danger of “everyone doing what is right in his own eyes”. But in the church, there’s evidence that among evangelicals in the C of E, there is still a strong commitment to the authority of Scripture and the idea of faithfulness to the apostolic deposit, and that as Anglicans we want to come under the authority of Bishops who share this understanding.

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