Monday, January 11, 2016

Anglican Primates' conference: the church militant or muddled?


There's nothing that draws the attention of the media to church-related matters so much as stories involving splits and sex. A story featuring both factors in one is the religious affairs correspondents' equivalent of the Holy Grail. As ever, our dear old Church of England is happy to oblige. This week Justin Welby has convened an Anglican Primates' meeting at Canterbury with the hope of holding the fractured communion together. The issue that threatens to divide global Anglicanism is, of course, homosexuality. 

Cue calls issued by the Liberal wing for the church to repent over its treatment of gays. While Evangelicals warn, "Everywhere we see the danger of Christians committed to a gospel without salvation, reconciliation without repentance, a Saviour without a cross and a Lord without a word." 

This being the Church of England with its habit of muddling through crisis after crisis, conciliatory voices are hoping that the grand assemblage of Primates will find some way of agreeing to disagree. Apparently, church needs both the Liberals with their 'love for people' thing and the Evangelicals with their 'love for doctrine' thing. 

After all, writes David Ilson, Dean of St. Paul's, "The Church is not a body defined by rules and dogmas, but a fellowship of diverse people joined together by faithfulness to following Jesus Christ." OK, but it is pretty hard to know what faithfulness to following Jesus Christ looks like without at least a smidgen of agreed dogma concerning his identity and the purpose of his work. If there is no doctrinal agreement on who Jesus is and what he came to do, there can be no grounds for meaningful fellowship. Is Jesus the Son of God incarnate who came to save the world from sin? Or was he a very nice, spiritual sort of fellow who taught a kindly message of inclusion and tolerance? 

Faithfulness to following the 'Evangelical Jesus' will look quite different to following your 'Liberal Jesus'. The question of which is the authentic Christ of the New Testament brings us back to doctrinal matters and we can't go there because 'doctrine divides', and the main thing is to hold the CofE together come what may. That's the case even though its various 'wings' fundamentally disagree on what constitutes the gospel, consequently what constitutes a Christian, and what therefore constitutes the church. 

Not being an Anglican I don't have a dog in this particular fight. The nearest I've got to any primates lately was spotting an elderly silverback gorilla when visiting Longleat Safari Park. But this story does raise some interesting questions. Even for a Baptist. The first is, what on earth are Evangelicals still doing in the CofE, and is there anything that would prompt them to break with Canterbury en masse?

The Liberal ascendancy in the 1980s didn't do it, with David Jenkins describing the bodily resurrection of Jesus as 'a conjuring trick with a bag of bones'. Womens' ordination was meant to be the tipping point, and then female Bishops. Tipping points come and go, biblical authority is flouted, historic church teachings are jettisoned, but Evangelical Anglicans don't seem to be able to to let go of Mother Anglican's apron strings. 

And now this. Will the acceptance of active homosexuals as Ministers of the Church finally tip Evangelical Anglicans over the edge? I dunno. Given the precedents, what do you reckon? Some may say that Christian teaching on sexuality isn't a core doctrinal issue anyway. In a sense that's right. What Scripture says about sex in general and same sex relationships in particular isn't up there with gospel-defining truths such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation of Christ, his sin-atoning death and bodily resurrection etc. Why should Evangelicals leave the CofE over a second order issue? 


Which brings us to another question, what's the relationship between church and culture when it comes to deciding what Christians should believe and do? In this case, does God as Creator have the right to order the form of our human relationships, and has he deigned to reveal that form to us? Most Christians would say, 'yes' and 'yes'. If the the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture rather than fashionable opinion is to function as the ultimate authority in the church, then it is clear that male-female marriage is only legitimate context for sexual intimacy. That's it. Period. If anything Jesus tightened things up on that point, jettisoning the Old Testament's rather lax approach to polygamy and divorce, Matthew 19:3-6. When the apostles of Christ were confronted with same sex relations in Gentile culture of their day they made it clear that such behaviour was not acceptable for Christians.


The church is called to follow the teaching of Scripture as an expression of her submission to the lordship of Christ. If he is our Lord and Head, we cannot simply ignore or reject those bits of the Bible that might be upsetting Guardian readers. In 1930's Germany the church was being pressurised to conform to the culture. By way of response the confessing church drew up the Barmen Declaration, which included the points:

8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. 
8.12 We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation.
What is at stake here is the church's loyalty to Christ's revealed will. It is not our calling to conform to the world and it's patterns of thought, but to confront the world with the challenge of the gospel. When contemporary church leaders suggest that we should listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church on the issue of same sex relations and then we hear them simply reaffirming fashionable liberal opinion on the matter, we know that they have well and truly lost the plot. In that case, apart from the clergy decked out in fancy dress and a few rituals, what's the difference between the 'church' and the world?  We have no other source of revelation besides the Word of God. And if any teaching of the Word of God is subject to sustained attack, the task of the church is not to surrender, but stand and fight. As Martin Luther put it, 
If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.
For how much longer can Evangelicals remain in the forever flinching Church of England? Less the church militant and more the church muddled. 

And yet, one final question needs to be faced. Has the church always treated people who feel same sex attraction with the respect and love that is their due as human beings made in the image of God? The call to repent referred to above is not altogether misplaced. The conservative position of Nigerian church leaders would be all the more credible if they campaigned against the demonisation and criminalisation of gay people in their own land. The cry of the church should not be, 'lock 'em up', but 'Christ came into the world to save sinners', whatever their race, gender, background or sexual orientation. That was certainly the gospel-centred approach of the apostles, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Christians wrestling with same sex attraction should be treated with great pastoral sensitivity and offered the love and support of the church. It is good to note that UK Evangelicals are now beginning to adopt a much more caring and thoughtful approachsee here

This is not a matter of the church needing both Liberals with their 'love for people' and Evangelicals with their 'love for doctrine' to deal with this matter in an appropriately balanced manner. Framing it like that is just an ecclesio-political way of papering over gaping wide theological chasms. Rather, the church's witness must forever be characterised by costly compassion, 'speaking the truth [however unpopular] in love [extended to all people without exception]', Ephesians 4:15. Christ our Lord demands nothing less. We'll have to wait and see to discover what the Primates have to say, and then what Evangelical Anglicans do by way of response. 

3 comments:

Thad said...

Another very relevant and succinct article.
As I read it, I was reminded of two pieces of Scripture:

"He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad." (Matthew 12:30)

"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Matthew 6:24)

Ben said...

C of E evangelicals make regular and judicious inspection of the cadaver on the mortuary slab, and conclude each time that the patient may be quite seriously ill. I wouldn't trust any of them as physicians of souls.

Ben said...

Will you allow the late arrival of a further comment?

It occurred to me while reflecting on your post that what is at stake here is the authority of Scripture, surely not a secondary matter in anybody's taxonomy. Then, David J Randall's book "A Sad Departure" arrived (about secession from the Church of Scotland over the ordination of practising homosexual ministers). He shows, I think convincingly, why this went to the core of the gospel because the C of S was, he argues, putting its collective authority in opposition to the authority of Scripture; also because of the fact that the Bible explicitly teaches that unrepentant homosexual practitioners do not enter the kingdom of heaven.

The book is very well worth the time spent reading it. The chapter on the inspiration and authority of Scripture alone is a very worthwhile summary of the doctrine; the explanation of the seceeders' position is well made. A substantial part of the book is given to personal stories and testimonies of ministers and congregations caught in the controversy, of the blessing and the heartache that followed. Although one sometimes feels like saying "Well, I wouldn't have started from here" in response to the painful dilemmas revealed, one comes to understand why it was this issue specifically which caused the elastic, for many people, to break.

Also, in the background, are professing evangelicals who counselled those contemplating leaving to stay and "preach the word, just leave the other stuff"; ruling elders who in some cases after years of evangelical ministry could not see that the case for separation was overwhelming; small communities served by a single church which could not face the cost of division; nameless members of the denominational machinery using devious methods to try to get their own way, or to wreak revenge. A lot to ponder.