Have C of E evangelical leaders suggested that a Rubicon has been crossed?

Aug 15, 2017 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

In a recent article, the Church of England Evangelical Council was asked to provide a stronger lead at this time of uncertainty in the Church’s doctrine, governance and direction following July’s General Synod. In an editorial I responded by suggesting that CEEC cannot speak with one voice, because it is not a single body but a forum for fellowship, discussion and prayer of various Anglican Evangelical groupings, who can agree on the same basis of faith, but have different interpretations of the current situation and different solutions in terms of what could and should be done. Almost immediately the senior officers of CEEC issued a public letter to members of Diocesan Evangelical Fellowships and others connected with the constituent networks. The letter goes much further than its modest stated aim to offer “update and comment” on the current situation with regard to the sexuality debate in the Church of England.

Have our articles have somehow prompted action from CEEC? Similar to the way in which a sports commentator, analyzing the game in-play, outlines some changes that a team must make in order to have more success – and sure enough the coach or captain makes the changes and the result is greater effectiveness! But of course just as the on-field decision makers can’t hear the commentators, nor are the CEEC leaders reacting to recent articles – the letter published by CEEC must have been drafted long before comments on Christian Today and Anglican Mainstream.

The document begins with an appreciation for the way the February House of Bishops Report on sexuality (GS2055) did not advocate blessing of same sex relationships or changing the canons of marriage. But then it adopts a pessimistic tone, outlining several “disappointing developments” in the Church of England. Votes in General Synod in February and July, the call of the Archbishops for “radical inclusion”, and public calls for change in the Church’s teaching by a number of Bishops, all suggest a negative “change in direction”, says the letter, but there are encouraging signs that in the face of this revisionism, orthodox theology is finding its voice again. Examples given include the consecration of Andy Lines as Gafcon missionary Bishop, the number of people prepared to be associated with the ‘renewed orthodox Anglican’ letter of 25th July, and the consensus around ‘Guarding the Deposit’, a document re-stating the orthodox position on sexuality and setting out options for the future, which was published in October 2016 (Click here to download the summary or here to view the full paper.)

The CEEC leaders go on to stress the importance for evangelicals of continuing to teach orthodox biblical sexual ethics, and say clearly that if the wider church continues to deviate from this, it will be necessary to find ways in which “visible differentiation” or formal distancing can occur between those who want to remain faithful to the apostolic deposit, and the Institution which is following a more liberal path. The paragraph on ‘visible differentiation’ helpfully gives latitude in not prescribing one particular form of distancing, but assumes that various forms of moving apart from the official structures will happen according to different circumstances and individual conscience, and calls for unity between those who make different decisions.

I have to admit that at the beginning of the year, as I attended the CEEC conference, I did not think it would be possible that a letter such as this could be produced. While all members of CEEC are in agreement about core doctrines including the sexuality questions, the January conference revealed significant differences over analysis of the current situation, and potential solutions. A number of more ‘pro-establishment’ members of CEEC may well feel that this letter does not speak for them in its pessimistic evaluation of the revisionist trajectory of the C of E, its commendation of and conscious alignment with Gafcon and the Global South, and its advocating of ‘differentiation’.

There have always been strong voices on the Council arguing that evangelicals can trust the orthodox historic formularies of the Church of England, and the current leadership, to avoid a revisionist trajectory. Many have been uncomfortable with any stance or tone appearing to be confrontational with the institution, for example appearing to be critical of the Archbishops or supportive of Gafcon, and have preferred to talk about the positive emphases which evangelicalism can offer the wider church (eg commitment to evangelism, contemporary worship, bible teaching) rather than risking being known ‘for what we are against’ – especially the potentially toxic brand of ‘anti-gay’.

The letter demonstrates that for some senior CEEC leaders at least, things have changed in the wake of the July Synod. Many clergy now view this as a ‘crossing of the Rubicon’ moment where the Church’s governing body showed clearly that it is no longer interested in following Scripture, tradition and reason. It is particularly significant that a Diocesan Bishop, Julian Henderson of Blackburn, who is President of CEEC, should put his name to this letter so soon after voting for the ‘ban conversion therapy’ motion at Synod. The near unanimous Bishops’ bloc supporting such a clearly unreasonable motion suggests some kind of Parliamentary-style whip was in force to ensure the appearance of collegiality?

All this indicates that a growing number of senior evangelicals are prepared to publicly draw a line in the sand over sexual ethics. Having said this, there are a number of areas which perhaps will require further work over the next few months.

Firstly, as was noted at the time, by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, Gafcon UK and myself,  among many evangelicals there was relief that the Bishops’ report on sexuality GS2055 did not suggest any change in teaching or practice, but an overlooking of the report’s underlying theology which appeared to have lost confidence in authoritative Scripture providing a clear guide. CEEC will need to make sure that, for example, in seeking to provide resources teaching biblical orthodoxy on marriage, gender, sexuality etc, it grounds this in a robust re-statement for a new generation of the trustworthiness and authority of the bible by which we know the will of God. As many expressions of Christian faith become more grounded in experience, and the clear witness of Scripture is rejected, other key tenets of orthodox Christianity will also be under the spotlight, for example the sinfulness of humanity and the uniqueness of Christ.

Secondly, CEEC will need to set out clearly and in much more detail some of the options for ‘visible differentiation’, including cost and benefit. Writing a private letter to the Bishop, not taking communion with a liberal colleague who carries out same sex blessings or multi faith services, or even not turning up to Diocesan events, might be a start which costs little, but what might it achieve in the way of halting revisionism or strengthening orthodoxy? Some acts of protest such as withholding of parish share or asking for orthodox Bishops to conduct confirmations are easier for some large churches than smaller ones, and there needs to be clarity on what the goal of such actions might be. Those advocating a differentiated structure within the C of E, such as a Society or a Third Province, need to begin to make clear the pros and cons. Likewise leaving the C of E altogether, for example for Free Church of England, AMiE or some new Gafcon-aligned movement, would be much more costly for full time clergy than for laity or SSM’s: what advantages would result?

Lastly, as the CEEC letter ends with an admission of the difficulty of reading ‘the signs of the times’, it would have been good for the letter to have included some recognition that the assault on apostolic Christian orthodoxy in the Church of England is not just an in-house matter, but is a direct result of changes in Western culture, notably the carefully-orchestrated promotion and acceptance of anti-Christian philosophies on what it means to be human. Evangelical churches should not think that by maintaining biblical teaching and separating themselves from liberal Anglicans, they will be protected from paying any price in the face of these ideologies, which need to be named, understood and resisted with the weapons of spiritual warfare as well as preaching, writing and the establishment of new ecclesial models.

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