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Unstable CofE shows need for GAFCON vision

Unstable CofE shows need for GAFCON vision

By Andrew Symes
May 1, 2018

Are evangelicals in the ascendancy, and liberals in retreat in the Church of England? Recent headlines would certainly suggest that. Firstly a letter written by the Secretary General to the Archbishop's Council, William Nye, to TEC in October last year (scroll to bottom of document) has come to light, provoking fury from English revisionists.

The letter (a response to TEC's Communion-wide request for feedback on their proposals) made clear that in the view of the Church of England, a 'gender-neutral' understanding of marriage "breaks with the inherited meaning of marriage across many cultures and over many centuries...and is very hard to reconcile with the Christian churches' teaching on marriage." It warned of "stringent consequences" if TEC goes ahead with its plans to make same sex marriage in church available to all US Episcopalians, not just those whose Bishops agree to allow an alternative liturgy as at present. Such a move would have "divisive implications" for the Anglican Communion, and within TEC itself.

In short, the letter appears to be defending the biblical understanding of marriage against the new, secular one. Letters in the Church Times have now been written, and petitions signed, opposing this position. Is Canterbury standing firm for orthodox Christian teaching against the liberals?

Secondly, an article by Angela Tilby in the same Church Times, arguing that the CofE is facing an "evangelical takeover" has received a lot of coverage and comment. She singles out the Thy Kingdom Come Pentecost prayer initiative being promoted by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, which she describes as "transatlantic evangelicalism filtered through the public-school system" [translation for the transatlantic: England's privileged private schools!] in which hurting people looking for spiritual solace are "patronized by the saved and the certain". Liberal catholics in Oxbridge Colleges and Diocesan offices cheer as they read this; ordinary evangelicals cheer Justin Welby and prepare for a wave of charismatic praise and worship and fervent intercessory prayer beginning on Ascension Day next week. Is this evidence that the light of the true Gospel is winning out over the error of liberalism in the CofE?

Thirdly, as part of the new Renewal and Reform programme in the CofE, it was announced early in the year that a massive £24.4 million would be released by the Church Commissioners, specifically to support new church planting and 'learning communities' geared towards evangelism and growth. It's clear that while the majority of this money is being set aside for charismatic evangelical initiatives, some will also be available to projects run by conservative evangelicals.

Again, questions have to be asked: is this a sign of genuine spiritual renewal and commitment to gospel ministry among the leadership? Could it be rather a strategic management decision, investing in the wing of the church with a track record of growth and most likely to reverse decline in the future? Or more cynically, is it a method of bribing biblically orthodox evangelicals onside, as the Church as a whole moves towards further accommodation with secularism? Or perhaps an element of all three?

It is certainly encouraging that William Nye on behalf of the Archbishop's Council could express so clearly the Church of England's current understanding of marriage as being between one man and one woman. His letter, which given the subsequent clarification was not approved by the whole Archbishops' Council but must rather reflect the views of the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, makes clear that "those with traditional views of marriage" are authentic Anglicans and should not be forced to comply with such an innovation as same sex marriage. But then the letter appears to be saying that TEC's current position of optional same sex marriage in church , with 'trial' liturgies used as part of a process of 'reception', is currently acceptable as part of a policy of good disagreement (implying perhaps that the CofE itself might be moving towards this position?)

At the time the letter was written, in October last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury had warmly welcomed the Presiding Bishops of TEC and the Scottish Episcopal Church to the gathering of Communion Primates, even though both churches had violated what the letter describes as universally accepted Christian teaching on marriage. Wouldn't it have been better for the sentiments of the letter to have been expressed at the time? Of course as the spin-doctor narrative for the Communion was "walking together", such a confrontation was avoided. And is it by chance that the letter has been made public now? Its release serves to stir up revisionists in the CofE pushing for change in time to prepare for July's Synod, while at the same time reassuring conservatives nervously staying in the CofE for the moment, that all is well. In fact, some will reason, if the Archbishop is orthodox on marriage, why do we need GAFCON?

Similarly, it is encouraging that the Archbishops are leading a movement for prayer and mission, and have backed up the desire for making Jesus known and church growth with significant funding grants. But at the same time, the LGBT activist Bishop of Liverpool, who like the TEC leadership does not believe that rites to celebrate same sex relationships should be optional, remains chair of the Archbishop's Task Force on evangelism, an appointment which has led to at least two leading evangelists resigning from the group. Following the debate in Synod in February last year in which the Archbishops called for a "radical inclusion", a number of other Bishops have spoken either publicly or privately in favour of the blessing of same sex unions, and July's General Synod, in an atmosphere hostile to conservatives, voted for a ban on therapy for those wanting to move away from homosexual desire and relationships.

Since then, the Archbishops have commended a programme for introducing the teaching of positive attitudes towards transgender ideology in schools, and Bishops have authorized clergy to use the service of reaffirmation of baptismal vows to mark a person's gender transition. These are just a small selection of recent incidents which undermine confidence in the commitment of the CofE leadership to promoting and defending orthodox Christian doctrine.

Does the apparent drawing of a line on same sex marriage show that the Church of England still essentially conservative with a small and vociferous liberal element? Or is it on a trajectory towards more and more acceptance of encroaching secular values, cleverly keeping conservatives on board through financial incentives and by initially affirming respect for the option of biblical faithfulness? As we have expressed many times in this column, it's not as simple as that; the answer may not be either-or / in-out but both-and; it's not 'binary' but 'fluid', dependent as much on what is trending on social media, or how lay people change their views, or what government decides to do, as decisions of Bishops, debates in Synods, or new liturgies. What is certain is that because of what is at best a serious doctrinal instability in the Church of England, close links with a stable, orthodox global Anglican Communion committed to unchanging truth, and flexibility of long term vision with regards to institutions, buildings and stipends, are more important than ever.

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