An example of ‘good separation’ as new Anglican church is established outside the C of E

Apr 30, 2019 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

For many faithful members of the Church of England, Christian experience is defined almost entirely by the local fellowship. The weeks just before and after Easter constitute the season for Annual Meetings in parishes and congregations. These deal with issues of finance and buildings, but many churches will also use them as an opportunity for a spiritual audit, looking at setbacks and successes over the past year, and putting forward strategies and vision for the future. These can be times of celebrating another year of survival against the odds or even growth, and of  building unity in a shared commitment to mission and ministry. The members can thank God for his guidance and strength in enabling the church to be a source of light in the community, and they can pray for the new initiatives being attempted.

The parish is not a stand-alone unit though, but part of a Diocese, and a national denomination with a particular relationship with the wider society and nation. As the culture becomes more secular, indifferent to religion and increasingly hostile to biblical Christian faith, the Church of England tries to accommodate this in a positive way while at the same time attempting to remain recognisably Christian in its doctrine and practice. This may result in many of its leaders adapting and compromising their beliefs, retaining outward symbols of Anglican tradition and worship while reinterpreting the meaning of faith so as to be acceptable and uncontroversial in the eyes of society and government.

In the light of this, some clergy and laity are asking themselves the question (even if they may not be mentioning it to their congregation or PCC): is being part of the Church of England helping or hindering local church mission? It may be that the local fellowship is solidly committed to a bible based approach, but the Diocesan leadership is showing in different ways that it does not share this understanding of gospel ministry. Or the local church itself may be mixed. Unlike a ‘gathered’ church where those who share the same beliefs travel in from miles around, many C of E parishes contain a combination of Christ-centred believers pursuing costly counter-cultural discipleship, and those who don’t get the radical challenge of God’s word, and are in church for a religious veneer over a worldview and values which are essentially secular. 

Since the famous exchange between John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1966, and then the successful National Evangelical Anglican Conferences of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the majority of bible-believing Anglicans in England have held to the argument that the benefits of staying in the C of E outweigh the disadvantages, and that evangelicals can continue both to pursue effective local ministry, while either attempting to influence, or ignore the wider denomination. But what if the general direction of the C of E, as perceived from statements and actions by Synods and Bishops over time, makes this more and more difficult? What if committed lay people begin to drift away to non-Anglican churches, and a growing crisis of conscience develops among clergy and laity who remain? 

Meanwhile, because of the emergence of Gafcon, which validates as truly Anglican those faithful churches which have separated from national structures, as in North America, Brazil and Scotland, it’s possible now to be part of new expressions of Anglicanism outside the Church of England – options that were not available in the days of John Stott or JC Ryle. So the idea of planting new congregations under the auspices of, for example, Anglican Mission in England or Free Church of England is being entertained by a growing number of C of E clergy and supportive members of their congregations.

Rev Dr Peter Sanlon is such a clergyman. He has for some time been publicly critical of the theological direction of the C of E. In 2018 he published a book, ‘The Bible Theft’, detailing the C of E leadership’s move away from biblical teaching (review here).  As vicar of St Mark’s Church of England Parish, Tunbridge Wells, he openly shared his concerns with his parish leadership and congregation, as well as with the Diocesan leadership. After some time of preparation and negotiation, he and a small team have begun Emmanuel Anglican Church, a new congregation of the Free Church of England congregation which meets in the library of a community centre on a housing estate about a mile down the hill from the centre of town.

The decision was influenced by the history of the town: a fellowship with the name of Emmanuel Church was established as part of the foundation of the Countess of Huntingdon in the 18th century. ; this later became part of the Free Church of England but closed in the early part of the 20th century. So the new church is actually a revival of an old one.

In February the Diocese of Rochester announced Sanlon’s resignation as vicar of St Mark’s C of E in order to transfer to become Rector of Emmanuel FCE. 

On 25th April a service was held in the Showfields Centre site, where he was formally received into the FCE and appointed as minister by FCE Bishop Paul Hunt, who preached on the foolishness of the cross and God’s power for salvation for those who believe (I Corinthians 1), an appropriate text for Easter week, and also to remind us of the need for faith in God’s gospel message and methods at the start of such a daunting mission venture. Andrea Williams of Christian Concern led the prayers.

[from left to right: Mrs Andrea Williams, Mrs Sanlon, Rev Dr Peter Sanlon, Bishop Paul Hunt]

It was clear from the service that the Free Church of England retains a number of aspects of ‘traditional’ Anglicanism, such as 16th century BCP liturgical language, and in some cases clerical robes, though with contemporary music. In this it differs from the Anglican Mission in England which is intentionally informal and perhaps geared to those potentially put off by any ‘churchiness’. FCE has a fully-fledged ecclesial structure with canons and Bishops; AMiE is in the process of working theirs out. Both movements share the same understanding of the gospel, are connected to Gafcon and its UK branch, and though currently small and without any of the huge resources of the Church of England, are being seen as important vehicles for orthodox Anglicanism by growing numbers of clergy and laity looking for an alternative to the C of E.

While the Archbishop of Canterbury talks of ‘good disagreement’, meaning the holding together of those with radically different understandings of Christian faith in the same church, the emergence of Emmanuel Anglican Church (FCE) demonstrates ‘good separation’, whereby Dr Sanlon, St Mark’s Church and the area Archdeacon have worked in a professional and friendly way to ensure the establishment of the new church without bitterness, in fact with good will on both sides.

See also: Peter Sanlon – my decision to leave the C of E. YouTube video.

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