“Don’t abandon the flock” – command from the Lord, or excuse for inaction?

Oct 17, 2017 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Over the past 60 years English Anglican evangelicals, who share the same commitment to the core elements of biblical faith “once delivered to the saints”, have disagreed, sometimes sharply, about very important, but ‘secondary’ issues. These include: should we expect the Holy Spirit to operate in the life of the believer and of churches in the form of (for example) physical healing, tongues, tangible experience of God’s presence? Can women be vicars? To what extent is social action part of mission? Should preaching always mainly consist of biblical exposition? How often should we use liturgy and Holy Communion? Should evangelicals focus on local church ministry, or try to influence the denominational structures at senior level? And then, a question which took shape famously during a debate between John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1966: should the bible-believing Christian leave the Church of England if the denomination heads in a direction which threatens faithful witness?

Various factors have led to this latter question re-surfacing recently. The increasing acceptance of “affirming” views on same sex relationships by senior C of E leaders points to the real possibility of the denomination following the path of TEC, Anglican Church of Canada, and Scottish Episcopal Church in formally abandoning Christian orthodoxy in this and other related areas. Then, the emergence of strong united global witness for orthodox Anglicanism through Gafcon and now the partnership of Gafcon and Global South, who have validated an alternative and viable Anglican jurisdiction in North America, and made possible the idea of something similar happening in the UK. Added to this, social media has meant that people ‘think out loud’ about these and other issues much more than we used to!

The last few months have seen the consecration of Andy Lines as Gafcon missionary Bishop, while at the same time Gafcon UK held public meetings seeking to unite those committed to the biblical reform and renewal of Anglicanism both inside and outside the official structures. An open letter calling on the Church to be faithful and counter-cultural, and accusing the House of Bishops of failure to clearly uphold the Bible’s teaching in the July General Synod, received over 1800 signatures, and coincided with a number of parishes expressed ‘no confidence’ in their Bishop or Archbishop. This was interpreted by some as signaling that the time had come for a split in the C of E.

Others have responded to argue strongly against the impulse to leave the Church of England, describing this as “jumping ship” and “abandoning the sheep”. For example, Mark Pickles, writing in Church Society’s Crossway magazine, says that the two temptations in the face of attacks on orthodoxy from the world and some in the Church are either to “abandon the flock when fierce wolves come in”, or “change or compromise their message to make it more culturally acceptable”.

I am currently still in the Church of England, and my understanding is that Gafcon looks to support, and be supported by, biblically faithful Anglicans within the official structures as well as those who have left for various reasons, or are planning to in the face of overt revisionism as in Scotland. So I am not advocating either a “stay in” or “leave the C of E now” position. But having said that, it is worth looking in more detail at this new, stronger line taken by some influential voices suggesting that C of E clergy should never consider being part of an alternative jurisdiction, as if this would somehow constitute abandonment of the pastoral mandate.

Firstly, faithful clergy move from one post to another all the time. It may be that they feel they hear a call to a new challenge; that they need to be closer to ageing parents; that they have an opportunity to look after a larger and more influential congregation. This is generally accepted as part of the life of ministry: clergy who move like this do not have to face the accusation that they have abandoned their flock, as if they are expected to remain with the same group of people until retirement. So it seems inconsistent and unfair to suggest that those clergy who have left to pastor a church outside the C of E, or who are thinking of doing so, for reasons of theology and conscience, are guilty of abandoning their post.

Secondly, the biblical image of the flock and the shepherd is not the only one for the Church that we find in the New Testament. While Peter, and the Ephesian elders, are urged to feed and keep watch over the sheep, the Bible does not portray the Church as made up of helpless, docile lay people who may grow in number but cannot do anything for themselves, passively sitting in rows while a pastor feeds them, and unable to think for themselves in the face of false teaching. The church is a dynamic body, with each one carrying out a different function; the leaders’ role is to prepare the people for their works of ministry. While sound teaching and pastoral care is needed in a community of healing and learning, leadership and defending against ‘wolves’ is never seen as down to one person, but the responsibility of a plural eldership under the one Good Shepherd, part of the priesthood of all believers.

Thirdly, it is surely the context which determines whether the pastor should leave, and/or suggest to his flock that they leave the C of E sheepfold and move elsewhere, to continue the metaphor. Some clergy will feel that their congregation is a mix of mature Christians, new Christians and nominal or seeking folk. They may have decided that it would create controversy and upset to teach a clear biblical line, for example on sexuality, so best to wait until more people have grown spiritually and accept the Bible’s authority. This may be so, but of course it may happen the other way: many in the congregation are heading in the opposite direction, towards contemporary culture, so if you wait for them all to accept the Bible’s authority you never get to tell them the truth on the subject! In the meantime, some of the biblically faithful lay people may be frustrated and embarrassed by the teaching of Bishops, Synods and Diocesan staff, and have already voted with their feet. They are “sheep” with a mind of their own, who want to be in a church with less compromise. Is the pastor’s primary duty to the spiritually growing believers under his care, or those who are rebellious or even wolves in sheep’s clothing?

Then, it is unhelpful to suggest, as some have a tendency of doing, that staying in the C of E means fighting for truth, whereas being part of an alternative, faithful Anglican witness means cowardice and dereliction of duty. There are some good examples of clergy both within the C of E and who have those who have moved out of the structures, who have bravely put their heads above the parapet to oppose revisionism in church and sin in society. On the other hand, while some may have opted for a role as pastor in FIEC or AMiE for a quiet life, there are certainly many in the C of E who though orthodox, are reluctant to publicly oppose error and have even been quick to denounce those who have done so as “shrill” and “lacking winsomeness”. The concept of friendly association with revisionist leaders in order to try to bring change through ‘quiet and gentle influence’ is increasingly difficult to sustain – apart from anything it can be used to argue that conservatives are part of a process of ‘good disagreement’. Those who say publicly that they are staying in the C of E to contend for the truth, need to actually do it!

Lastly, it’s important to be honest about our motives. One vicar said to me “I’m very concerned about the trajectory of the C of E, but I could never think about leaving, because it would mean giving up my family home, my means of earning a living, and my pension”. This seems to me to be completely fair, and those who have left or are making plans to do so, who have the financial arrangements worked out, should be careful not to judge. But at the same time, it is surely wrong for those determined to remain in the C of E to criticize the (currently) relatively small number of ‘leavers’ for abandoning the flock, when they are making a considerable sacrifice by stepping outside what is certainly a secure way of life as stipendiary clergy.

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