A house divided

May 29, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Are there limits to the diversity found in the Church of England? A look at recent communications from two leaders shows the seemingly unbridgeable gulf in how different groups understand the essence of the Christian faith and the mission of the church.

Model 1: God converts a conservative church by speaking through his activity in the world.

Firstly Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Oxford, in an essay for Modern Church outlines familiar criticisms of the ‘evangelical’ leadership of the C of E, and proposes a very different model for the Church’s engagement with the world. He begins by reflecting on two best-selling publications.  The first of these books, Faith in the City (1985), focuses on the world, and how the Kingdom of God can be found and nurtured there, in helping the poor and challenging injustice, not on building up the church. This, in Percy’s view, reflects better the priorities of Jesus.

The second book, Mission-Shaped Church (2004), reveals the increasing influence of evangelicals; the focus is on developing homogenous groups of believers rather than socio-political involvement in the world. Percy sees this as a ‘shift to the right’, with its roots in the 1990’s Decade of Evangelism, which was “not successful”, claims the Dean. church attendance numbers have continued to decline, and while evangelicals have become more prominent in the C of E’s leadership, the British public have been alienated by a ministry that just “shouts louder” and yet is not heard. What is needed, according to Percy, is an “authentic and humble” Church, which listens to and observes what God is doing in the world, and joins in, rather than evangelistic initiatives which “achieve very little”.

In particular, according to Percy’s preferred theology of the Holy Spirit and mission, God speaks from the world, where he is establishing his Kingdom, to the Church, which is conservative, stuck in the past, and needing renewal and conversion. Contemporary culture, for example, has understood “progressive truth and justice” in issues of gender, sexuality and equality; the Church resists these insights which are from the Holy Spirit, so the world backs away, leaving the Church with only the converted to speak to. And yet, the Church is only too happy to borrow from the world to learn about subjects like management and entrepreneurship. So according to Percy, there is inconsistency, but also a false missiology, where the Church thinks it has God’s message and power which it can dispense to the world. Rather, in “Kingdom” thinking, God renews the Church when Christians accept and celebrate the Spirit’s activity in the world. Some examples are given where Percy thinks local churches have worked this out in practice.

It’s important for evangelicals to read Percy’s piece, because he articulates the thinking of an increasing proportion of the Church of England leadership. Many Bishops, clergy and leading lay people are convinced, like him, of the innate goodness, wholeness and spiritual awareness of most outside the church, especially those holding to progressive views. Instead of a traditional understanding of sin and unbelief preventing people from entering the Kingdom of God, in this account it is only conservative dogma associated with the church that prevents the Kingdom, already realized in the world, being fully accepted in the Church, creating a seamless connection between God, world and Church.

Of course, this understanding of mission as ‘progressive’ sociology and politics learned by the church from the world is utterly alien to any orthodox understanding of Christian faith. Also, Percy’s criticisms of evangelical ministry are based on caricature, and his sweeping statements about the wholesale failure of evangelistic campaigns are historically inaccurate. But these views are very influential – Bishops and Archbishops from an evangelical background are likely to try to incorporate them as part of a broad, generous and inclusive Anglicanism rather than refute them.

Model 2: God speaks through the bible to individuals, church and world

When this recent articulation of a revisionist approach is set alongside an orthodox one, it can be seen more clearly why the theological crisis and confusion in the Western church is not just about sexuality.

Rod Thomas, Bishop of Maidstone, recently gave a talk to Church Society entitled “Flourishing in the Church of England today”. Thomas begins by saying he will partly answer the question of whether conservative evangelicals such as himself can continue to occupy a space and grow and develop within the C of E. But then he questions whether to accept simply being part of a minority protected group within a theologically plural and heterodox church is a valid goal, and insists on a ministry of ‘contending for the faith’, to fight from within the C of E for its continued identity as an apostolically faithful church.

Unlike Martyn Percy, who makes no effort to engage with Scripture in his 4000 word essay, Thomas takes his listeners straight to Psalm 1 and Ephesians 4. The compilers of the Psalter, he notes, don’t choose a hymn of praise to God as an introduction to the collection, but start with human beings and the choice facing each individual, to follow the world, or God’s law. The consequences of this choice are stark: “flourishing”, pictured as a fruitful tree, or dryness, lifelessness and dispersal. A New Testament image of flourishing is the healthy body, which Paul in Ephesians 4:11-16 uses as a metaphor for God’s people, built up by God’s word as brought to them by gifted servants, and active in good works. In both cases, there are warnings about hindrances to flourishing in obedience to God’s word – those not following God’s way, and those bringing in the confusion of false teaching. This is why the task of the church must be both to teach the truth and refute error.

[Percy would of course agree with this. He sees ‘the truth’ as progressive social and political views with a high Anglican veneer, and error as evangelicalism. Both he and Thomas would no doubt agree, from completely different standpoints, that the C of E should stop trying to be all things to all people, and hold unequivocally to ‘the truth’.]

Bishop Rod goes on to list five ways in which the C of E paradoxically both provides a good environment for the flourishing of bible-centred churches, and also shows worrying signs of undermining it:

  • the doctrinal basis is biblically sound (Canon A5), but often ignored and undermined in practice
  • the evangelistic potential is huge: 16,000 churches vastly outnumber congregations of all other denominations put together, and controlling 25% of all primary schools gives great opportunities for gospel mission. But in reality, in many schools and churches, either people are not hearing God’s word, or there is active opposition to it
  • the mission vision of the C of E includes the whole parish, indeed the whole nation, not just the congregation and its fringe. But this can lead to too much of the world in the church
  • governance: the wisdom of Anglican polity with its checks and balances has sometimes been outweighed by over-centralisation
  • some current initiatives are positive (such as Renewal and Reform, Thy Kingdom Come), but others are worrying (such as the forthcoming Teaching Document on sexuality).

Concluding with suggestions for practical action, Thomas says that conservative evangelicals must stand for General Synod and other governing bodies, but also take to heart some valid criticism and be prepared to go to hard places where traditionally there has not been much flourishing evangelical ministry, such as poorer urban areas.

Evangelical ecclesiology, as articulated by Bishop Rod’s talk, is the polar opposite of Martyn Percy’s. Based on Article 19, Thomas’s view of the church begins not with God’s work in the world, but with the local congregation with authentic faith based on the word of God. The most important relationships then are with other similar congregations, Anglican and non-Anglican, in the C of E and outside. There may be times, says Bishop Rod, when faithful Anglicans find themselves in impaired communion with their Bishops or others in the same denomination who are promoting false teaching. In answer to a question about the trajectory of the C of E, he is in no doubt: “if there is any change [in liturgy] towards the accommodation of same sex marriage…to me, that crosses a red line…it would make my ministry in the Church of England impossible”. Maintaining a minimum 34% ‘blocking minority’ on General Synod could ensure that this red line is not crossed, he believes; he remains optimistic about the good influence of ‘evangelical’ Bishops, despite their voting record at last year’s York Synod.

The wider context: the UK government, the secular West, GAFCON

It will be very encouraging to the many biblically faithful members of the C of E to hear a Bishop speaking publicly with such clarity, and stating where he would stand if the Church of England follows TEC, Canada, Scotland and New Zealand in changing liturgy to allow for the blessing of same sex relationships in church. Set alongside Martyn Percy’s derivative and heterodox theology, Rod Thomas’ version aligns with the biblical gospel, and provides justification for differentiation from false teachers within the denomination, and ultimately secession from it (although as Bishop Rod says, there are different views about this within C of E evangelicalism).

However, a focus on flourishing in the local church can make us lose sight of the wider context. In particular, C of E evangelicals are subject not just to the trajectory of the denomination, but what will be increasing pressure to change from the world: government, media, education, law and revisionist church, assisted by the likes of Dean Percy. We’ll need to get better at explaining and rejoicing in the amazing biblical teaching about sex and marriage, and also helping those inside and outside the church to understand the origins and harmful effects of secular humanism in general and the sexual revolution in particular. And then, there is a global fellowship of confessing Anglicans to which Bishop Rod and many of those under his oversight belong, and which represents the best hope for beleaguered Anglicans in the West. Memo to Rod: can Gafcon get a mention next time?!

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