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The future of the Church of England: Synod, wider culture, and challenges for evangelicals

The future of the Church of England: Synod, wider culture, and challenges for evangelicals

By Andrew Symes,
September 25, 2021

Different wings of the Church of England have been mobilising to ensure sufficient representation of their distinctive points of view in the new General Synod, elections for which are currently taking place. While Synod candidates understand their responsibility for governance of the organisation in a broad sense, they are aware that if elected, their votes will affect crucial decisions to be made by the church, not just in matters of finance, administration and mission strategy, but in areas which touch on fundamental theological issues. How the specific headline question is answered: "should the church bless and celebrate same sex relationships or not?" -- depends on how the church understands its own nature and purpose; God, his word to his people and the world; what we should believe and how we should behave.

The Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), and its representative Evangelical Group on General Synod (EGGS) has achieved a remarkable degree of unity and agreement on clear answers to the above questions. Its members agree that the church should not bless same sex relationships, because to do so would be in contravention of the clear teaching of Scripture, which is the word of God, provided for our instruction and guidance, for our flourishing in relationship with him. English Evangelical Anglicans agree on the content of the gospel and the importance of the task of proclaiming it, and building up disciples in faith, holiness and love. So C of E evangelicals are together on theology. But differences are apparent among evangelicals in analysis and strategy: how to interpret the current situation, and what action to take and when.

For example, some evangelical leaders are pessimistic about the immediate future, believing that we are heading for a crisis of doctrine and pastoral practice in the Church of England, as the make-up of the new Synod may contain large majorities in favour of a progressive approach to sex and gender ethics, and could vote through major changes to follow those made by Anglican churches in the US and Canada, Scotland, Brazil, New Zealand and most recently, Wales. Others are less convinced about the 'crisis' analysis and believe that things are largely safe for now; the focus should be on positive engagement with the institution. Either way, most evangelicals are in favour of continuing to witness in parishes and remain in C of E structures of governance, hoping to maintain influence in the organisation.

What are the main arguments used by these 'optimists' and 'pessimists'? How should they be evaluated?

1. There is no crisis -- the Church of England will never depart from Christian orthodoxy, because of its historic formularies / the bishops as guardians of the faith / the C of E's unique position as leader of the Anglican Communion / God's faithfulness.
Canon A5 says: "The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures." The Book of Common Prayer and its subsequent revisions are clear that marriage is between a man and a woman.

However, these seemingly simple and unchangeable formularies can be changed by episcopal leadership and synodical majority vote: Article 7 of the General Synod's constitution requires any "provision touching doctrinal formulae or the services or ceremonies of the Church of England or the administration of the sacraments or sacred rites thereof" to be voted on at final approval in a form submitted by the House of Bishops.

We have just seen this happen in Wales. It can happen in the C of E, hence the urgency (for some) in the forthcoming canvassing and votes for candidates for GS.

But even if General Synod is prevented from making these changes, the orthodox formularies are increasingly being ignored anyway on the ground by parishes where heterodox teaching and practice is carried out regularly while bishops turn a blind eye and in some cases, advocate for change. As the acceptance of same sex relationships, transgender and other progressive agendas are normalised in the church it will be impossible to 'put the genie back in the bottle' -- instead canons and liturgy will be seen as having to catch up.

3. Talk of a crisis and planning for potentially unfavourable outcomes is negative / shows lack of faith / promotes disunity / gives evangelicals a bad image of disloyalty and extremism.

However, is a pessimistic outlook always wrong? Biblical writers were often negative in their assessment of human sin and its consequences, while remaining confident in God carrying out his sovereign purposes with justice and love. The book of Jeremiah shows a man warning about a coming disaster for God's people. His analysis is refuted by the 'optimists', who accuse the prophet of negativity, stirring up disunity, and being disloyal to the official decision-makers. The optimists of Jeremiah's day could not believe that God would allow an invasion and exile to happen -- didn't they have the temple as the sign of God's protection? Similarly today some evangelical leaders refuse to accept a realistic analysis of the Church of England's plight, despite mounting evidence.

What of those with a more pessimistic view, which sees the Church of England as inexorably heading towards revisionist theology and practice? Often this pessimism about the present is combined with hope about the future:

4. A "win-win" solution will be found to protect the orthodox, with the formation of an officially recognised system of differentiation, such as a 'third province'.

This is based on confidence that a united evangelical voice has sufficient numbers and power to push this solution through. However, if the majority of leadership of the Church of England believe, as the bishops, senior clergy and laity believe in the Church in Wales, that the current teaching of the C of E on sex and marriage, along with other doctrines, are outdated and unsustainable, why would they want to give a 'win' to conservatives trying to hold on to these teachings? Only if they fear that the orthodox would all leave en bloc, causing a split. They now know that this would never happen: the majority of conservatives have shown in the face of incremental change, that even mild protest is kept to a minimum.

A 'third province' would need to be approved by Parliament. Why would this body, committed to LGBT rights, about to discuss possible legal restrictions on pastoral counselling and even prayer, approve the creation of what would be seen as an official 'homophobic enclave' in the national church? Even if such a thing could happen, negotiations should have begun at least ten years ago. The best the orthodox can hope for, following institutional and liturgical approval of same sex blessings, will be delegated and limited episcopal oversight, which depends on good relations and compromises with the liberal Diocesan bishop in order to be permitted a fig leaf of an orthodox Bishop coming in for ceremonial occasions.

5. The situation looks bad, but it can be turned around.

Some "middle ground" churches are not engaging with the battle, and even embracing liberal teaching, the argument goes, because of failure in communication and/or compassion from orthodox conservatives. A programme of clear and winsome bible teaching, together with a posture of humility and contrition, e.g. for our complicity in homophobia and abuse, will win over the majority.

This analysis tends to come from a pastoral focus on the church, and a lack of awareness of the power and influence of the wider Western culture in which the church is set. A broader view understands that the crisis evangelicals face is worse than a temporary ascendancy of liberal theology and embrace of wokeness in the church. These are symptoms of deeper malaise -- with the advance of secularism, and the triumph of the identity and needs of the self as the ultimate centre of truth and reality, we live in a society in the process of tearing up of roots which make human existence meaningful. This can't be turned around by tweaks in internal communication strategy by some C of E evangelicals.

The church in the wider cultural context

Paul in Romans 1 identified sex and gender dysfunction not just as a problem of breaking of biblical injunctions among the people of God, but as a symptom of a wider context -- the whole of humanity's rebellion against our created identity and purpose -- embracing idolatry and narcissism instead of orientation towards God. Homosexual acts, along with other sins mentioned in Rom 1:29-31, are a result of God "giving over" godless human culture to what it wants to do. But, Paul goes on to say immediately, this cannot lead to any complacency or sense of superiority among those who acknowledge the bible's verdict on these sins, because all have sinned, fallen short and deserve wrath, from which we are delivered only by the sacrificial death and imparted righteousness of the Saviour. This is why C of E evangelicals are right to stress humility and recognition of their own sins. We advocate this challenging and in today's world, offensive interpretation of God's word about issues such as sexuality from 'below' rather than 'above', not as a marketing ploy, as a way of getting people to like us, but out of the truth of the gospel.

The problem, then, is much worse than potential change of liturgies in the C of E. It is the Christian church in the West abandoning its mandate and joining the world in its rebellion against God. So the solution cannot just be one of survival of the evangelical brand, electing Synod reps and political negotiations to create orthodox enclaves in a revisionist church. It must be stepping out of that church and recovering the true purpose of church as counter-cultural witness, nurturing rooted and worshipping communities which are prepared for marginalisation. This should be the aim of evangelical bible teaching.

For the majority, the essential 'differentiation' will be internal, psychological and spiritual while remaining in the institution of the C of E -- but questions remain about the feasibility of defending and promoting orthodoxy in the wider sense of witness to the culture, in a church where the leadership has a contrary agenda. A small but growing number have already come to the conclusion that the Church of England has "crossed the line", citing recent incidents such as Synod's rejection of moderate statements affirming the traditional view of marriage (GS2055, 2017); Synod's affirmation of a call to ban 'conversion therapy' (2017), Bishops' approval of liturgies and school policies affirming transgender ideology (2018), and bishops' regular virtue-signalling over woke causes at the expense of giving clear teaching of the gospel. The formation of the Anglican Network in Europe, under the auspices of Gafcon in 2020-21, has provided a home for those who want to remain Anglican but not in the Canterbury/York- aligned structures of Britain and the continent.

See also: Australian and English evangelicals show different approaches to Anglican institutional revisionism, By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream: Unlike CEEC's more gentle advocacy of "no change" to doctrine and practice from a place of good relationships with the institution, Gafcon Australia takes a more robust line.

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