“I have red lines”

Sep 28, 2019 by

By John Parker, Anglican Mainstream.

In a blog posted on the Church Society website on 12th September, Tom Woolford expressed clearly that for him, there were “no red lines” which if crossed, would force him to leave the Church of England. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to Tom Woolford’s article here.

Perhaps I can begin with agreement. Those given the responsibility of caring for any portion of the flock of God are undershepherds serving the chief shepherd after his pattern (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5). I would agree with Tom that the “red lines” that exist within our constituency are many and sometimes ambiguous. I certainly agree with the visible differentiation that he espouses with senior leaders in the church who no longer believe and teach the apostolic faith, be this breaking of communion, withholding of finances and such. I wholeheartedly agree that we must not sin against conscience, and that we should not simply take a pragmatic approach, be this political or missional. Faith in God is how his work is done. So I am glad, with Tom to rejoice in the good shepherd who has laid down his life for us which is clear in John 10.

Yet I find some of the correlations that Tom makes between the Good Shepherd and us, and the claim that there are “no red lines”, unconvincing and concerning. Firstly, I do not think John 10 is really about us as undershepherds. The context is Jesus speaking to those who are blind to the good shepherd (9:41). The good shepherd of John 10, “owns the sheep” (v12) he saves the sheep (v8), he takes up his life again (v18). Similarly the hired hands are not originally referring to Christian pastors, because in the context, they are contrasted with Jesus as those who shepherd the sheep pen which is Israel (v16). Hence I am unconvinced whether we can draw a strong line of application from His dying in the sheep pen (Israel) to our dying in the sheep pen of the C of E, nor draw a strong line from hired hands to those leaving the C of E.

Secondly, Tom suggests that clergy who leave the Church of England are like ‘hired hands’ who care nothing for the sheep (John 10:15). Again, in the context of John 10, the hired hands are the religious leaders of Israel who are blind to who Jesus is. The line I think we can draw is from the motivation of the hired hands to today’s pastors: they are more motivated by money than love for the sheep, a line that runs strongly into the New Testament. Undershepherds are to flee from the love of money (1 Tim 6:3-11, 1 Peter 5) which is a warning, surely, to us all, not just to those pastors who leave the Church of England.

Thirdly, if scripture were to produce just one clear red line, free from ambiguity, then the claim that there are none, would be unconvincing. Are there any examples in the New Testament where the apostles advocate separation if a line is crossed into false teaching and idolatry? Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?… What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God…Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord…let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1.

There are times when a separation within the church is necessary.The purity and holiness of the people of God is at stake. This is in the context of his defence of his ministry against false apostles within the church (chapters 10-12) who are like satan (11:13). In the first letter to the Corinthians he warns his hearers not even to eat with those who claim to be believers but who live grossly immoral lifestyles (5:9-11). They are not unbelievers, but worse in Paul’s view, and so this is part of scriptural teaching on how the apostolic gospel is preserved against false teachers. As the apostle John puts it, 2 John 11 “Anyone who welcomes him (one who denies the incarnation v7) into his home, shares in his wicked work.” This is a clear separation, a clear red line.

Some see every Church of England church to be functionally, legally and relationally independent – and that it is possible to keep ourselves ‘spiritually’ separate from false teachers while remaining in the same denomination. But this is not my understanding of the C of E and Anglican ecclesiology. I am not for one moment saying that there is a one-size-fits-all red line, nor that we can easily apply the first century red lines to our cultural context. Nor am I suggesting we should be rude and inhospitable! Surely in our differing contexts, with differing personal histories, different understandings of scriptural red lines, different Bishops and Diocesan practice, we will have differing responses. But to say there are “no red lines” is problematic.

In my situation it became apparent, that despite breaking communion with my Bishop, despite seeking to lead the church in visible and financial differentiation, further separation was required. The final straw was the situation in the local school with the transitioning of a child, where the Diocese backed the false teaching of the Mermaids group promoting transgender ideology, rather than the bible and common sense.  I think in reality, the weight of red lines being crossed was so great, there was only one route for me to take according to conscience, godliness and the law. It was a delight and joy to act to safeguard succession at the parish of Fordham and Eight Ash Green for the sake of the sheep, but also to know the joy of being supported by all in the Chelmsford ReNew group, with their full spectrum of views about red lines and strategy.

This unity is precious and was expressed at the time, yet has been challenged by Tom’s article. This concerns me. It seems to have cast doubt on motives of such as me who have left the C of E, and this will promote division rather than working together. The cost of leaving has been very high, emotionally, financially and in terms of health. Yet I have experienced something of participating in the sufferings of Christ. I know this is not unique to those who leave. Many brothers are suffering from remaining within the C of E, but surely this is related to being a faithful shepherd, not staying or leaving? There are also wrong motivations for staying. So, in my view we should be slow to cast aspersions on each other. We should be careful, as I have tried to be, of uniting around the good shepherd. His voice is the only voice that saves and so he is the only one who enables us to stand, whether in or outside the C of E. What we must do, is to be sure we are listening to his word regarding questions of conscience and maybe be slower to judge (Romans 14)?

See also: Why I Joined the Free Church of EnglandInterview with Julian Mann, Virtueonline

Controversy in Cornwall town as vicar starts new church accused of extremism and homophobia, by Lee Trewhela, Cornwall Live

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