England’s orthodox Anglicans: agreed on Synod’s implications, divided on what to do.

Aug 1, 2017 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

General Synod was, it seems, a shock and a wake-up call to many people. The decision-making body of the Church of England has voted, unequivocally, to condemn the idea that people unhappy with their sexual attraction, lifestyle or identity can seek professional or pastoral help to move away from it. The leadership has rejected amendments to motions which commend Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Bible to the nation in a time of great difficulty for government, and it has asked the Bishops to set in motion a process leading to the liturgical celebration of gender transition. The Bishops appeared to be silent as those looking to move the teaching and practice of the Church away from Christian orthodoxy were feted as heroes, while those standing up for orthodoxy were booed in the chamber and mocked on social media.

A number of theologically orthodox members who previously would have put their faith in the political processes of Synod to prevent change in a liberal direction are now admitting that in the area of sexuality and gender the battle has been lost. While the doctrine of marriage itself may not be changed for a while (the Archbishop of Canterbury would like the Lambeth Conference of 2020 to feature at least a few non-Western faces), in practice it is clear that boundaries are becoming blurred to put it mildly. While those Bishops apparently known to be conservative and evangelical were quiet during the Synod debates and even voted for the controversial motions, other more liberal ones have publicly spoken out in favour of same sex marriage, become patrons of Gay Pride, and given permission for same sex relationships to be blessed and celebrated in Cathedrals.

Among orthodox Anglicans in Britain, lively debates, both private and public, are continuing about how to respond. They could be said to coalesce around two basic positions in ways similar to last year’s debate on membership of the European Union: ‘remain’ or ‘leave’?

There are those, mostly in senior leadership, who continue to be loyal to the institution. Although they don’t agree with some of the recent decisions, they believe that the C of E is still the best vehicle for communicating the Christian faith to the nation, and that those critical of the Church’s leadership are just as unhelpful as those driving radical change.

Among those who see the C of E heading in a one-way revisionist direction, there is a wide spectrum of views. An increasing number are losing faith in the institution and its leadership, but believe that the local church is the most important unit of ministry rather than the Diocese, and networks of likeminded local orthodox C of E churches can continue to operate bible-based ministry in ways which make use of C of E administration, buildings etc, without having to follow the latest theological fads. Some look to be on good terms with Diocesan leadership but in practice look elsewhere for spiritual guidance and oversight, for example Gafcon. A small but growing number have recently publicly criticized their Bishops and essentially broken communion with them, while remaining in the C of E.

These would be the ‘reluctant remainers’ – like those who saw many faults with the EU, that it couldn’t be reformed from within, but that it would be too difficult, complicated and costly to leave, and it would be possible for the UK to live with the great benefits of some compromises, for example being in the single market but not the single currency.

But for others, such pragmatic compromise might be an option in politics (or might have been before June 2016), but not in matters of church and faith. While one could argue that most laity at the local level aren’t interested in what Bishops say or what Synods decide, when there will be times when being part of a church institution which appears to be moving away from a historic understanding of apostolic Christianity does create problems of personal conscience and public witness. Is it worth constantly expending energy fighting doctrinal battles with national church, Diocese and Deanery, and educating one’s congregation and PCC on why our congregation should take a different approach? Some may be able to shut out the controversial issues entirely, and just talk about Jesus locally – but others see this as a form of escapism. In the view of this group, just as the apostles could not reform and bring Christ to the centre of institutional Judaism but had to move out of synagogues into homes, and just as Luther and the Reformers, and Wesley and the Methodists had to establish new ecclesial structures, so something similar is required today, it is argued. Not the forming of a new denomination, but the emergence of a new brand of faithful Anglicanism distinct and separate from the Church of England, the Church in Wales and the Scottish Episcopal Church.

And then one can nuance it further: some ‘remainers’ and ‘leavers’ are so committed to their cause that they have no time for the other side and make this clear publicly even though doctrinally they believe the same things. Others can see value in all the different views about strategy and recognize their own position as provisional.

All of this is by way of answer to the recent article in Christian Today by David Baker, asking “where is the Church of England Evangelical Council when we need it?”  Baker argues that, at this “fraught and unsettled” time in worldwide Anglicanism, CEEC should be giving a lead. He notes the various individuals and organizations which are part of the Council (of which Anglican Mainstream is one), and suggests that this group should be speaking clearly about current issues, and being a force for evangelical unity within the C of E.

But the wide variety of responses from evangelicals to events at Synod, and the spectrum of different strategies and tactics that are being expressed from different groups, shows why CEEC cannot be expected to unite all the orthodox groupings into a single body, or even speak with one voice. People look back with nostalgia to the days of John Stott and say that this happened under his leadership. But that’s a simplistic picture – there were disagreements then about charismatic gifts, the role of women and the place of social action in mission, among other issues. And also, there is no John Stott figure today. CEEC some years ago recognized this, and made a decision to be a forum of different evangelical groups, rather than an organization speaking with a particular party line. For some, the forum is not wide enough –  it won’t accept those who still refer to themselves as evangelicals though they now take a liberal position on the sexuality debate. For others, it’s too wide – it includes Bishops who voted for transgender liturgies and against ‘conversion therapies’, and it includes those who are supportive and critical of Justin Welby, and those who are pro and anti Gafcon.

So while I don’t blame David Baker for asking the question about CEEC, it will not be able to provide the clear united leadership he asks for, because it reflects the fissiparousness of English Anglican orthodox evangelicalism. What it can do is ensure that those in the C of E thinking about leaving and those committed to remaining, the loyalists and separatists, the compromisers and purists, the optimists and pessimists, reformed and charismatic, the young and old, the Jeremiahs and Obadiahs keep talking to each other on the basis of the same understanding of faith, even if their vision of the future and strategies of how to get there are very different.

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