Early church, Reformation and Anglican realignment: making some connections

Oct 31, 2017 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

I have recently returned from Canada where I attended the tenth Synod of the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC), which was held in Burlington, near Toronto. It was a great experience over four days, with bible exposition, Eucharistic worship and band-led praise, seminar-style teaching on the primacy of grace in clergy self-care (day one), and the ‘solas’ of the Reformation (day two); fervent prayer for evangelism, testimonies about local mission initiatives – and some administrative business – all in the context of warm fellowship based on shared understanding of faith. ANiC is an important part of the slow but inexorable global Anglican realignment. As the historic ‘control centres’ of the denomination in the West lose confidence in the foundational elements of the Christian faith, and look to align with powerful forces of secularism, so new centres of decision making, new church groupings and missional movements have emerged, based on remarkable church growth in the global South, and courageous counter-cultural witness in north America.

In some cases the realignment takes the form of actual separation and the forming of new, confessing, Anglican ecclesial bodies. Even then, the process has been slow. For example, the Diocese of New Westminster (British Columbia) voted to provide services of blessing for same sex couples in 2002. But despite the immediate protest by faithful congregations and clergy, impaired communion and lawsuits, ANiC was not formally constituted as a separate body until 5 years later, and that with only two congregations which had formally separated from the Anglican Church of Canada and come under the oversight of Archbishop Venables of Southern Cone. Today there are around 70 congregations of Anglicans in Canada who form a Diocese as part of Anglican Church of North America, which is a member of Gafcon.

Earlier this year it became clear that the Scottish Episcopal Church was intent on changing its canons on marriage, in opposition to the clear teaching of Scripture and in violation of agreements made by the Anglican Communion. Gafcon decided to respond by consecrating a ‘missionary Bishop’ to minister to faithful Anglicans in Scotland. The consecration of Andy Lines took place in Wheaton Illinois in June, under the auspices of ACNA, after +Andy, the Mission Director of Crosslinks who lives in London, had been received as ‘canonically resident’ in Canada as part of ANiC. I was able to represent Gafcon UK at the ANiC Synod, and bring greetings from Britain. The Canadian Bishops told me that just as faithful Anglican leaders from overseas had reached out to them in their hour of need, providing oversight when their own Bishops had decided to pursue a different ‘gospel’, so they were delighted now to be able to provide the same service, to assist the emerging realignment in Britain.

In other cases, the realignment takes the form of informal broken fellowship within the official structures, for example, Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda not being represented at the recent Primates’ Meeting, or in England, a number of parishes operating semi-independently from their Dioceses, which they regard as convenient centres of administration but not providers of spiritual oversight. New ecclesial structures in England are at the moment embryonic but growing. Anglican Mission in England, Free Church of England and others are taking new initiatives, but so far appear unattractive for various reasons to the majority of biblically faithful Anglicans concerned about the direction of the C of E. There is much debate on whether this may change as more ‘rubicons’ are crossed. What strategies for staying in and being faithful might be sustainable? How many might be tempted to follow the path of compromise, like one large evangelical church I heard of in Canada which stayed in ACoC (the Canterbury-aligned denomination) to ‘witness from within’, and then earlier this year agreed to host the consecration of the new same sex-partnered Bishop.

The ANiC clergy I met had been unable to live with the dissonance of being part of a church which speaks positively about people with diverse views coming together in unity, when in practice this means accepting the dominance of theological revisionism. A woman in her 60’s, now ordained and looking after two small congregations, left ACoC after she heard her Bishop say in a packed Cathedral service that all religions lead to God. One Rector in his early 50’s had convinced himself that he could keep his head down in the ACoC, focusing on his local church. In 2016 the Diocesan Synod voted on same sex marriage, did not quite manage to obtain the two thirds majority, but the Bishop said he would permit it anyway as a ‘prophetic act’. For this clergyman and his congregation, that was the last straw: most followed him as he left his ‘living’ and the building, and began a new ANiC congregation.

But ANiC is also being joined by a new generation who have been attracted by the history, biblically-based liturgy and polity and global fellowship that Anglicanism offers. Young leaders from ‘Via Apostolica’, a small group of (originally) independent charismatic churches who have taken on elements of worship style that we might call ‘high Anglican’, were at the ANiC Synod. Meanwhile there is a real commitment within ANiC, spearheaded by the growing number of young clergy from an East Asian heritage, to reach out to the growing immigrant populations, and reflect racial and cultural diversity within theological unity (but not uniformity).

In his parable of the new wineskins, Jesus warned that the fermenting, fizzing juice of the Gospel can’t be contained in the dry and cracked containers of religious structures which have become self-serving and human-centred. He demonstrated this visibly by cleansing the temple, having shown his followers on Palm Sunday that there was no need to collude with the values of secular authority because its sovereignty is temporary and limited compared to the Kingship of Jesus himself. But still, for many years after his death, resurrection and ascension, after the explosion of church growth among the Gentiles, some believers from Jewish backgrounds in Jerusalem and elsewhere remained tied to the temple structures, unwilling to associate with the new Gentile congregations, and seemingly turning away from Paul after his arrest and imprisonment (Acts 21-26; 2 Timothy 4:16-17), but spreading the Good News of Jesus among Jewish communities.

Similarly, in the early days of the Reformation, many across Europe would have been convinced of the truth of the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith, but remained in churches loyal to Rome rather than associating with the new ‘toxic’, ‘divisive’ and ‘political’ movement of Protestantism. It took some years – in England, perhaps not until after the persecution and burning of martyrs by Queen Mary in the 1550’s and the terrifying fleet of the Spanish Armada sailing up the channel in 1588 – before many bible-believing Christians felt comfortable in the new Protestant Church of England (remembering that in those days, “to protest” meant “to hold forth and confess a truth”, as Fred Sanders reminds us in this excellent article about how reformed Christians should be more ‘catholic’).

The early church and the Reformation teach us that realignment among the people of God is necessary at key times in history to preserve faithfulness to the truth, and to release Gospel workers for mission in new contexts. The ‘early adopters’ may need patience and wisdom, while those naturally cautious need courage and vision.

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