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"Liberal theology without the gospel has the smell of death" J.I. Packer

"Liberal theology without the gospel has the smell of death rather than of life" -- J.I. Packer

In a wide-ranging interview, the Canadian Anglican theologian J.I. Packer talked with David W. Virtue about the state of the Anglican Communion at the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMiA) Winter Conference in Dallas, Texas.

Dr. Packer, 81, is a British-born Canadian Christian theologian in the Calvinistic Anglican tradition. He currently serves as the Board of Governors' Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is considered to be one of the most important evangelical theologians of the late 20th century.

Packer was educated at Corpus Christi College, obtaining the degrees of Bachelor of Arts (1948), Master of Arts (1952), and Doctor of Philosophy (1955). In a meeting of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, Packer committed his life to Christian service. He taught briefly at Oak Hill Theological College in London, and in 1949 entered Wycliffe Hall, Oxford to study theology.

He was ordained a deacon (1952) and priest (1953) in the Church of England, within which he was associated with the Evangelical movement. He was a lecturer at Tyndale Hall, Bristol 1955-61 and Librarian of Latimer House, Oxford 1961-62 and Principal 1962-69. In 1970 he became Principal of Tyndale Hall, Bristol. From 1971 until 1979 he was Associate Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, which had been formed from the amalgamation of Tyndale Hall with Clifton College and Dalton House-St Michael's. In 1979, Packer moved to Vancouver to take up a position at Regent College, eventually being named the first Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology, a title he held until his retirement.

He is a prolific writer and frequent lecturer, but he is best known for a single book, "Knowing God". He is a frequent contributor to and an executive editor of Christianity Today. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version, an Evangelical revision of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

By David W. Virtue

VIRTUEONLINE: Dr. Packer, you sit in Vancouver, British Columbia. You have seen the collapse of a united Anglicanism in your city and area and it is a microcosm of what is going on in many places. How do you read the present fractures and controversies within the Anglican Communion?

PACKER: It is true that the Diocese of New Westminster is where the modern Anglican troubles began. They began with the decision of the bishop to accept the request of his Synod to start blessing gay unions and drawing up a liturgy for the same. When he did this, he was able to claim "local option" in way among Anglican provinces of settling questions about what Diocesan policy should be. Local option is a corollary from the principle of subsiduarity originally focused on the Roman Catholic fence. Another name for local option is pluralism in practice and there was a time when Anglicans thought that such freedom of thought was Anglicanism in practice. That opinion was revised when applied to blessing gay unions in the Anglican Communion. It is by no means one. The Lambeth '98 Resolution 1:10 declared categorically that such unions were off limits, so when New Westminster opted for gay unions it was like throwing a stone into a pond. The ripples went out to the edge of the pond in all directions. The impact of New Westminster's actions was increased by the action of New Hampshire diocese, electing Gene Robinson. Accepting and consecrating Robinson was Bishop Michael Ingham who was prominent among the consecrators of the wider Anglican Communion. The orthodox became increasingly antsy and the southern hemisphere Primates, the South by South community protested in stronger and stronger language. One reason they did so is that they had a straight forward evangelical faith and they were up against Muslims who saw homosexuality as absolutely off limits and they could foresee what the Muslim world would say to the community as if it were preached as a form of holiness.

VIRTUEONLINE: What happened in practice, and was the response strong enough?

PACKER: In North America both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada were asked to withdraw from Anglican Consultative Council, and a body of theologians produced the Windsor Report which reviewed the whole situation and along with the four instruments of unity imposed a moratorium on affirming homosexual behavior, blessing same-sex unions and consecrating gay priests and bishops. The moratorium was not honored in North America. Homosexuals were put up for election, a lesbian in Chicago was honored in the breach rather than observance. Ingham maintained that churches already blessing gay unions could continue and said he was maintaining the spirit of the moratorium on no gay unions pro tem.

The rest of the Anglican Communion did not agree and it was being discussed at the primatial level. The Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) said the communion should not be hasty in action, more talking needed to be done. This is what liberals always say and they gain ground every time no action is taken or enacted, and the reason for that is they have more time to get people used to their ideas and drill people in their preferred practice. It is a transparent political calculation. The present situation is something of a stand off. The ABC is desperately seeming to try and stave off the day of further decision against the blessing of gays. He is showing himself to be more and more clearly a liberal with an Anglo-Catholic top dressing expressed in his active commitment of the Affirming Catholic movement. Increasingly, what makes him tick is a liberal perspective on theology rather than the catholic heritage which is robustly against condoning homosexuality.

Is he really a catholic with his mind entreating liberalism, or is he a liberal with a catholic top dressing? That's the question.

Since the Primates of the Global south discovered politically, they now have more clout with a working majority. Unhappily, politics has entered into the whole situation and such action as Akinola's concerning the constitution of the church of the Province of Nigeria to remove all reference to Canterbury is seen as ventures into power politics. That's a mistake rather than a step forward. It is reducing an issue of truth to a matter of power politics; it takes people minds off of the question of truth. I am not interested in power politics.

VIRTUEONLINE: Can you be more specific about Jerusalem (GAFCON) and Canterbury (LAMBETH)?

PACKER: A political jobbery has entered into the debate and the GAFCON gathering of primates, bishops and leaders in Jerusalem in June, before the Lambeth conference, inevitably looks like an attempt to upstage and defuse the Lambeth Conference. A number of bishops are not going to the Lambeth Conference -- they see Rowan Williams as too compromised. Williams is trying to meet their needs by organizing Lambeth as a study conference with Bible study and topical study without serious resolutions emerging.

But the general consensus is that that isn't an answer. We are not going to attend Lambeth and put our heads in the sand. We are not going to not discuss this question about gay unions and holiness with licit linkings fit for blessing. If Lambeth doesn't deal with these issues, Lambeth is not worth coming to. The unity of the Anglican Communion is so impaired at the present time that any Lambeth agreement would be hollow. That is why bishops are not coming. I see GAFCON as an attempt to upstage Lambeth by making policy decisions for the Anglican Communion, distilling policy guidelines for the Anglican Communion for Lambeth proper.

The other side of the GAFCON conference is very important. In a good way, it will establish in advance of Lambeth, global policy principle as a fixed point. There is legitimate disagreement whether it is better to go to GAFCON or have GAFCON after Lambeth and encourage everyone to go to Lambeth. Archbishop Mouneer Anis is much wiser by saying we should go to Lambeth and constitute an evangelical phalanx. It would create a stand off position with each side is digging in. Rowan Williams is doing everything he can to judge its significance while the Global South through its Primates ensure that it won't happen.

It is clear that at least one of the crucial issues involved in this debate is the issue of jurisdiction, which history has always affirmed mon-episcopal (whoever the bishop turns out to be) that pattern of jurisdiction is in process of being broken first by the action of Archbishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone who is going to give Episcopal jurisdiction to churches in Canada as he did to Recife, and certainly in Canada that means parallel jurisdictions. It was earlier breached by Emmanuel Kolini who took AMiA into the Diocese of Rwanda. Second, it is being breached by the Common Cause negotiations for a third non geographic province for North America, a province that will take in US and Canadian churches. Those negotiations, they hope, will come to fruition in a couple of years. I don't think the principle of mon-episcopal oversight can ever be abolished.

VIRTUEONLINE: Do you approve of the ecclesiastical intervention of alternative Anglican archbishops into Canada, and what is your overall view of diocesan boundary crossing?

PACKER: If the Anglican Church of Canada were clearly and unambiguously committed to the constitution of the Anglican Church of 1893 and appealed to the 39 Articles and to the 1662 BCP as standards, then I would discourage causing more trouble than it is worth for churches to leave the ACC to come under their jurisdiction whom they liked more than their own bishops. Where as now the ACC refuses to stick unambiguously to its constitution, the intervention of the primates, though regrettable, is much less regrettable than forcing faithful Anglican churches to continue in an unfaithful Anglican situation so there is no alternative save into a splinter group.

We in Canada have carefully seen the acceptance of foreign episcopal jurisdictions as an emergency measure that we would not have accepted unless pushed upon us, and our hope is that the Anglican Church of Canada might come to its senses and halt its tentative sanctioning of gay unions by Synod. Now four dioceses have voted to ask the bishops to sanction the blessings of same sex unions, and bishops accede to it on some murky situational ethics basis with any complaint to the effect that leaving the constitution of ACC falls on deaf ears. So some have declared the ACC out of communion. Calls upon the bishops to repent of all form of sin falls on deaf ears.

VIRTUEONLINE: Three archbishops, one from the Southern Cone, one from Rwanda for the Anglican Coalition in Canada in Vancouver and one from Kenya, Bill Murdoch have, or will, intervene in Canada. (Murdoch is going there without invitation to a conference and will celebrate with the Eucharist March 2-3). What is your thinking about that?

PACKER: In an emergency, necessity knows no law. Any ordinary sanctions can, with impunity, be disregarded if necessity so requires. In this case, it does require that the ordinary rules be breached.

VIRTUEONLINE: Do the archbishops of Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have sufficient experience and wisdom to make major decisions, which are leading to the break up of the Anglican Communion?

PACKER: I think they have sufficient clarity of biblical understanding to see that treating gay unions as holy and blessing them is contrary to the Bible and to the gospel and cannot be sanctioned whatever. I think they are right, that when the gospel itself is impugned, it must at all costs be maintained. It is not a question of wisdom but obligation. People are pushing the acceptance of gay unions and blessing them accordingly.

VIRTUEONLINE: Do you think that personal animosity is driving it too fast and without sufficient reflection?

PACKER: If there are personal animosities, they are conscientiously discounted in their statements. Those arguments are at level of principle, so animosities have been stalled or suspended for the truth.

VIRTUEONLINE: Why can't the GAFCON folk wait till after Lambeth and then, on that basis say that they tried, reasoned, been patient and then make a big decision in August, than now?

PACKER: I don't know because I am not involved in GAFCON discussions and I am not sure I know all the reasoning that guided the GAFCON meeting in June.

VIRTUEONLINE: The Book of Common Prayer presumes that the Anglican Church in any one geographical area is one; this is presumed by the BCP. How do you explain in any American metropolis the presence of multiple Anglican jurisdictions? Is there a way of reconciling the multiplicity of jurisdictions with the Prayer Book and the 39 Articles in one church in one region?

PACKER: Realism says there are few liberal churches, if any, who hold to the 1662 liturgy in its ideal, none hold to the 39 Articles, so if there are separate jurisdictions, the stock piling of conservative Anglicans in a Third Province is necessary. The liberals only prove they will become more liberal and they will shrink and shrink. So the issue of parallel jurisdictions will resolve itself in 30 years.

VIRTUEONLINE: On women's ordination. CANA is opening up the subject and AMiA has opened up this subject, do you think that pursuing women's ordination as an issue will eventually bring schism and division among the orthodox?

PACKER: My hope is that the ordination of women will never bring about church division. This is not a part of the gospel, it is a secondary issue rather than a primary one and I would hope that an amicable arrangement, not to everyone's full satisfaction, but a workable arrangement, can be arranged that have differed historically can come together. It is hoped that 10 splinter bodies will come together in the Common Cause diocese.

VIRTUEONLINE: What do you think Anglicanism in North America will look like in 10 years time?

PACKER: First, I disclaim any gifts as a prophet. My guess is that the Third Province, the Common Cause province will have arrived. That reluctantly its presence will be accepted by the TEC and ACC. That in the light of the situation, the ACC and TEC will go forward in making liberal theology their standard and bless and accept gay unions. It will be the Common Cause churches that preach the gospel and teach the Bible. I expect congregations in TEC and the ACC being fed on liberal theology will continue to wither on the vine as they have done for the last half century. Liberal theology, without the gospel, proves to be the smell of death rather than of life. While Common Cause are [sic] a minority today, that will change as liberal churches get smaller and smaller and become in turn a minority.

VIRTUEONLINE: Thank you Dr. Packer.

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