Australian and English evangelicals show different approaches to Anglican institutional revisionism

Jul 30, 2021 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

On the same day (19th July) that Gafcon Australia publicly unveiled their plans to establish an alternative Anglican jurisdiction in response to the trajectory of revisionism in the Church of Australia, the Church of England Evangelical Council issued a statement about the Bishop of Liverpool’s address to the MOSAIC campaign group, in which he called for same sex marriage in the Church of England. The difference in the two statements is symptomatic of more general differences between the way that orthodox Anglicans are engaging with the national church in both countries.

The CEEC statement begins with an appreciation of  Bishop Bayes’ subsequent apology for his attack on those who believe the historic teaching of the church on sex and marriage, and says that humility and forgiveness on both sides of the debate are important “as we engage…during the LLF process”. The statement goes on to question the substance of Bishop Bayes’ remarks. To call for a change to the teaching of the church in the context of ordinations is at odds with the Bishop’s role as a teacher of the faith. The LLF guidance shows the Bishops calling for unity: Bishop Bayes risks undermining that unity.

CEEC, which is made up of representatives from a number of evangelical organisations in the C of E as well as elected members from the Dioceses, is within itself not in agreement about how to respond to LLF. The majority position, as espoused by those who were part of the LLF drafting process, and by evangelical Bishops on CEEC, is to encourage evangelicals to engage winsomely with LLF, putting forward the historic biblical position as articulated in the video The Beautiful Story, but with gentleness, respect and humbly listening to other points of view.

A minority position, as put forward by theologian Martin Davie and as represented by Anglican Mainstream (eg here and here) , is that LLF is a flawed project, in which erroneous teaching, deriving from the sexual revolution and its malign philosophical roots, is put on equal footing with historic Christianity. The weight of the cultural zeitgeist, the privileging of experience over doctrine and of liberal academic theology over universally agreed plain readings of Scripture, the constant threat that even to utter conservative views on sexuality may be harmful and should be suppressed like racism, makes the LLF discussion process potentially biased and therefore to be avoided; there is an increasing feeling that the results are predetermined anyway in the form of planned changes to church teaching and practice in this area.

Some position papers on the CEEC website (never formally endorsed as policy by its membership) have pointed to a crisis in doctrine and order in the C of E, requiring decisions about options for ‘differentiation’, or separation of orthodox Anglicans from a revisionist institution. The statement about Paul Bayes appears to row back from this, preferring to see the problem in terms of one rogue Bishop threatening unity by ‘jumping the gun’ before the church has been through a proper process of discussion and reflection.

Meanwhile, CEEC’s energies are centred on ensuring good representation of conservative candidates in the forthcoming General Synod elections. But there does not appear to be any plan for what to do if, for example, the Bishops issue some kind of pastoral guidance permitting blessing of same sex relationships, by-passing Synod (as happened with the ‘transgender baptism’ guidance), or if Synod itself approves major changes, which many evangelicals would find unacceptable, at some point in the next quinquennium.

The statement by Gafcon Australia, on the surface, comes from a very similar place theologically to CEEC. While Gafcon is broader in the sense that it includes those from the anglo catholic and Prayer Book traditions who would not call themselves evangelical but nevertheless share the orthodox convictions expressed in the Jerusalem Declaration, its Australian membership and leadership would be predominantly evangelical, and many have a long history of close relationships with English Anglican evangelicals.

Unlike CEEC’s more gentle advocacy of “no change” to doctrine and practice from a place of good relationships with the institution, Gafcon Australia takes a more robust line. They explicitly refuse to accept church authority which contradicts the bible (for example, the Appellate Tribunal’s official ruling on same sex blessing services 2020). They are taking a first step in providing an Anglican home for those who in conscience cannot remain in the denomination, and in so doing, create an option to leave the denomination in future. The way they have done this is not only to align fully with the global Gafcon movement, but to recognise the authority of the Gafcon Primates to step in and provide oversight in situations where local Anglican leaders no longer accept basic teachings and practice of the Christian faith (as per clause 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration). By contrast CEEC has not questioned the spiritual authority of the Bishop of Liverpool or any other revisionist leader in the Church of England, has not made any moves to provide oversight for faithful Anglicans out of fellowship with their Dioceses, and seems reluctant to recognise the importance of Gafcon in its role of contending for orthodox Anglican belief.

Gafcon Australia’s plan to create an extra-Provincial Diocese is being endorsed and carried out by senior leaders currently in the ACA, such as the bishop of Tasmania and Archbishop of Sydney. They have appointed as the Executive Officer of the new entity a clergyman who has previously served as the head of Freedom for Faith, a think tank on religious freedom similar to Christian Institute and Christian Concern in the UK. This is a sign that Australian evangelicals involved in this project see understanding of the broader cultural context as a vital component of leadership of such an initiative. By contrast, when Gafcon authorised the formation of the Anglican Network in Europe, a similar initiative, the significant leadership, pastoral and administrative work involved was carried out almost entirely without the help of any evangelical leadership in the Church of England. Meanwhile advocates for more awareness and critique of the broader cultural context remain as outliers in English Anglican evangelicalism, in contrast with the situation in Australia.

There have been times in the last few years when evangelical leaders in the Church of England could have taken a more proactive stance, for example by developing closer relationships with Gafcon leadership around the world, by actively supporting Anglicans alienated from the denomination, by being involved in the development of an alternative Anglican jurisdiction. This could have happened in 2017, when Synod voted not to ‘take note’ of a report advocating retaining the historic teaching on marriage, Archbishop Welby called for ‘radical inclusion’ and Synod voted for a ban on ‘conversion therapy’. Or it could have happened in 2018 when around 150 evangelical C of E leaders attended Gafcon in Jerusalem, or later that year when the Bishops endorsed transgender ‘baptism’ services and a number of clergy and congregations expressed interest in a more secure Anglican home.

But these opportunities were missed. There were some letters of complaint, some private meetings in Bishops’ offices, some papers written. Then, after some time, evangelical policy seems to have switched to support for LLF, and re-commitment to the dysfunctional processes of a church whose Bishops see their role not as teaching the faith, but at best as trying to keep the peace between people who believe completely different things, and at worst publicly contradicting that faith. 

The good news is that Gafcon Great Britain and Europe (formerly Gafcon UK) exists, as a fellowship and source of information for all in our region who align with the Gafcon vision. As with Gafcon Australia, Gafcon GBE is not calling for all orthodox to leave the liberal-leaning historic denomination. However, there must be support and provision, both for those faithful individuals and congregations who wish to stay in to promote authentic Christianity in its classical Anglican expression but not to engage in friendly dialogue with the revisionist trajectory, and for those who feel it is necessary to leave and remain Anglican. So, the Anglican Network in Europe has been formed for Anglicans outside historic structures: small beginnings but new congregations will be established in the coming months.

It’s not too late for CEEC to develop better links with Gafcon, and more intentionally focus on the vision of “proclaiming Christ faithfully to the nations” rather than expending energy on endless negotiating with those in the shared space with a different agenda.

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