Wednesday, 5 August 2009

'Open warfare' in the Church of England?

According to Ruth Gledhill’s blog,

The liberal fightback against Anglican conservatives and the Archbishop of Canterbury has begun. Open warfare is now declared.

The justification for this is the release of a statement, signed by a number of Anglican groupings, which is highly critical of Dr Rowan Williams’s recent Reflections on events in TEC. In typically English fashion, the criticisms are nuanced, but they go so far as to say he is being “inconsistent with [his] previous statements on committed and faithful same sex relationships”. This, in Anglican-speak, is indeed ‘fighting talk’.

Ruth is sometimes given to exuberance in her reporting, not least because she cares passionately about the issues where they concern the Church of England. I am therefore personally adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach as to whether this is, indeed, part of a greater plan or merely a letting-off-of-steam. I am also aware how often things which, from the inside, are known to be disorganized or barely-organized, may seem far more coordinated from the outside than is really the case.

Nevertheless, the appearance of the statement, and in particular, the list of signatories, raises some very important questions about the state of our already-fragile Church.

First, we may note that at least the ‘liberals’ managed to get their act together enough to issue a joint statement. The orthodox have managed no such thing, and my own efforts to encourage such a statement, despite behind-the-scenes contacts, have run into the sands of, frankly, mutual hostilities between evangelicals. That is not encouraging.

Secondly, though, and relevant to the first point, there are three evangelical groupings listed as signatories, Accepting Evangelicals, Courage and the Evangelical Fellowship of Lesbian and Gay Anglicans. This is symptomatic of the ‘drift’ in evangelicalism generally, which now means that in some quarters, the acceptance of same-sex relationships is regarded as a personal matter and a subject for dialogue rather than correction. (We might note, however, that not all dialogues end happily.)

Thirdly, two of the signatory groups are at the forefront of the pressure for the consecration of women bishops, namely the Group for the Rescinding of the Act of Synod (aka GRAS) and the WATCH (Women and the Church) National Committee. And this highlights the fact that, no matter how much some evangelicals (such as myself) might try to treat the ordination of women as a ‘second order’ issue, in our present context in the Church of England, women’s ordination and gay inclusion depend very much on the same arguments and are often supported by the same people.

Fourthly, ‘gay inclusion’ is as much a rallying point for revisionists as other matters are for traditionalists. Some of the criticism of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, (not least the unfortunate article by Revd Stephen Kuhrt in the Church of England Newspaper) is that it is a ‘flag of convenience’, drawing together people who really disagree about everything except homosexuality and women’s ordination. Yet here we apparently have evangelicals and outright liberals doing the same. There is not much, after all, on the Modern Churchpeople’s Union website to encourage an evangelical, if such they are, in Accepting Evangelicals. We must therefore wonder at the principles behind this coalition, as some have about other groupings.

Fifthly, related to the last point, one cannot help pointing out that there are several bishops involved in these organizations: Lincoln, Leicester and Newcastle are listed as being on the Council of the MCU, whilst Hulme, Ripon and Leeds, Lincoln (again) and Salisbury are listed as being patrons of Changing Attitude. If this is indeed a ‘declaration of war’ then for these dioceses it is bound to be of the unhappily ‘civil’ kind we have had in Chelmsford over the past few years. What, for example, will the newly-appointed evangelical Bishop of Sherborne make of his boss’s implicit support for doctrines, practices and campaigns he himself is committed to opposing?

What all this really calls for, however, is immediate and courageous clarity from Evangelicals, and all the orthodox. There are evangelical leaders, including evangelical bishops, who want to ‘resist’ the erosion of orthodox faith and practice, but who at the same time seem to be unwilling to bear the cold winds of rejection. Yet it is they, above all, who have the power to steady the ship and (to mix metaphors) settle the flock. They should call on us in Joshua’s words, “Choose you this day ...”

Revd John P Richardson
5 August 2009

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  1. Amanda Robbie, West Bromwich5 August 2009 at 16:30

    John, the Changing Attitude website is obviously rather out of date. The current bishop, Clive Gregory, is not a patron. Michael Bourke retired in 2007.

  2. I wonder why Affirming Catholicism is not a signatory?

  3. What do you make of your boss the Bishop of Chelmsford's "implicit support for doctrines, practices and campaigns [you your]self [are] committed to opposing"? Unlike Michael Bourke, John Gladwin hasn't retired yet. Is it significant that you have left him off your list of episcopal patrons of Changing Attitude? Is this a sign of a changing attitude towards him from those who were formerly so vocal in refusing to take communion from him? (Note who is now refusing to take communion as he instructs.) If you have an issue with the new Bishop of Sherborne having a different position on this issue to his boss, why don't you apply the same standard to yourself?

  4. In relation to 'the drift in evangelicalism generally', it mustn't be forgotten that anyone can call himself/herself an 'evangelical'. And when evangelical congregations are growing and others are declining, it becomes the obvious thing to do.

  5. Peter, I left John Gladwin off the Changing Attitude list because he retires this month. There didn't seem much point in including him, and I'm genuinely glad to see some other names off the list as well.

    The problems experienced by orthodox Anglicans in Chelmsford have been many over this time, including the painfully delayed ordination of a good friend. There were numerous delegations to John Gladwin in the early part of his ministry here. One of the difficulties was that he took on the patronage of Changing Attitude despite this.

    My hope, publicly expressed at the FCA launch, is that we can now move on. If we find ourselves with the same situation again, I think there will be very serious problems indeed.

  6. Hi John,

    Well done for your "own efforts to encourage such a statement" even though "despite behind-the-scenes contacts, [these] have run into the sands of, frankly, mutual hostilities between evangelicals. That is not encouraging." Well done for trying!

    I just wonder: is it worth aiming for something as simple as possible that I am sure the likes of Anglican Mainstream, Church Society, Fellowship of Word and Spirit, New Wine, Reform and CEEC could certainly sign up to, and hopefully others, maybe even Fulcrum, plus prominent individual bishops?

    How about: "In the current uncertain situation in the Church of England, we pledge ourselves to 'contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints' (Jude v3) by upholding the Christian ethic that marriage between a man and a woman is the only God-appointed context for sexual relations, while recognising his offer of mercy and grace for all of us who fall short of this standard in whatever way. We recognise differences among us as to how best to contend, but contend we must and contend we will, praying that God will lead us in paths that are pleasing to Him."

    Surely even Fulcrum could sign up for this?

  7. Anonymous, I suspect that many less conservative evangelicals, like myself, would have reservations about the repeated use of "contend". "Uphold" is fine, but "contend" sounds too much like a declaration of war. If we really want a statement which all evangelicals can sign up to, I would suggest omitting the Jude quote and changing this to something like:

    "In the current uncertain situation in the Church of England, we pledge ourselves to uphold the Christian ethic that marriage between a man and a woman is the only God-appointed context for sexual relations, while recognising his offer of mercy and grace for all of us who fall short of this standard in whatever way. We recognise differences among us as to how best to respond to those who have different views, but we will not accept an abandonment of biblical Christian ethics. We pray that God will lead us in paths that are pleasing to Him."

  8. Anonymous, I think you can see your answer in Peter's suggestion. The different 'brands' of evangelicalism just have a different ethos.

    Peter, if I were a liberal I would be very pleased with a statement by a different group pledging to 'uphold' their view but who recognize 'different views', even amongst themselves. That, after all, is what 'liberalism' is all about, is it not?

  9. John, it was Anonymous who first proposed the words "We recognise differences among us as to how best to ...". I would be quite happy to omit that part, without conceding my agreement with the ways that some evangelicals have chosen to respond or "contend" in this situation.

  10. Brenda Harrison9 August 2009 at 15:35

    John, the difference between the FoCA `flag of convenience' coalition and the grouping of eg MCU and three evangelical organisations is that FoCA wish to create a narrow sectarian Church of England, and the Inclusive Church statement signatories are wanting to maintain a broad and generous Anglicanism.

    And yes we are evangelicals, in spite of the current trend to deny that we could possibly be truly evangelical if we are LGBT affirming.

    I don't accept the label 'liberal' just because I am willing to recognise the authentic discleship of others who see things differently. Thank God his grace is bigger than that.

  11. Brenda, the thing is, what should be the limits of Christian belief? Within the FCA coalition, and within the 'MCU et al' coalition there are differing versions of Christian belief. Some of these may be possible to include in one, comprehensive, denominational expression of the Church. Others may not.

    I doubt there is much in common, for example, between the MCU view of the Virgin Birth and the Evangelical view, yet this is an historically 'credal' statement. Or what about the view that Christ offered on the cross a "full, perfect and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world", as we say in the Prayer Book service of Holy Communion? The first might not be regarded as a salvation issue, whereas the second is, but how 'comprehensive' can one denomination be?

    Certainly a denomination which was, in your terms, 'LGBT affirming' could not ultimately be inclusive of those who are not. The question of 'narrowness' might therefore depend on where one stands.

    My suspicion, however, is that it will be as Evangelicals cease to hold their evangelical distinctives that they will be gradually embraced by those in the new coalition. Otherwise this is just another flag of convenience.

  12. John, I am puzzled by your suggestion that an "LGBT affirming" denomination could not include those, like me, who are not "LGBT affirming". This is not a salvation issue, at least not in my evangelical judgment. There are many strange things which our denominations hold, at least as official decisions, which are not accepted by us evangelicals but do not lead us into schism. Personally I would stay in an "LGBT affirming" denomination as long as it did not try to enforce that position on me or my congregation. Things might be different for me in for example Vancouver where, I understand, Anglican Church of Canada congregations are allowed to accept only ministers who agree to conduct gay "marriages". But in the Church of England we are nowhere near that at the moment. So if I leave it will not be for this reason.

  13. I think it depends on what you mean by "LGBT affiming". If you mean that grace is not denied to LBGT people and that they are sinners just like any other group of people for whom Jesus died, then I too would be "LBGT affirming" as I think most Evanglicals would.

    However I suspect this is not what "affiming LBGT" people means for those who are, which is to affirm practising same (or bisexual) ual relationships in a similar way to heterosexual marriage.

    If passages like Romans Chapter 1 which lists same ual activity as part of the godlessness and wickedness of men are as traditionally understood by Evangelicals, then this indeed looks to me like a salvation issue although I'm sure that those who affirm LBGT ual relationships have found a way of understanding the text to show that this passage does not really mean them.

    in 2002, organisations like Courage did this and it was agreed that they part company with the Evangelical Alliance as the EA felt they could not agree with their 'affiming stance' as they would be affirming sin. see e.g.

    So I think you need to look carefully at exactly what you are asked to affirm.

    The other thing this shows is just how much the term 'Evangelical" has become frayed. If someone says to me now that they are 'Evangelical' I am not sure what they mean although say 20 years ago, I would have been much more certain. I would not see the MCU as 'Evangelical' although they may have some 'Evangelical -like' features and this is not exclusively due to their stance on LGBT affirmation.

    I think it is worth exploring on this thread (or maybe JR might like to start one) as to what the term 'Evangelical actually means today and why it appears to have changed its meaning to those who claim to be of the Evangelical fold. Perhaps the term has now become too dilute to be useful.

    Chris Bishop

  14. Chris, if you think that committing the sins listed in Romans 1 is a salvation issue, then would you hold that people like those described in these verses from that chapter also cannot be saved?

    "They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy." (vv. 29-31, TNIV)

    It does seem very strange to me that people are picking on just one kind of sin as an issue to divide the church over while tolerating rampant sin in the church of several of these other kinds listed in the same chapter.

  15. Peter,

    No I don't. LBGT people can be saved as with all others. I think that if people persist in the other behaviours listed in Rom 1 it also has a bearing on their salvation. It is after all, the fruits that tell if someone is a christian, not what they claim to be.

    What it seems to me, is that 'affiming LGBT' same-sexual relationships often means redefining something that was formerly regarded as sin and sanitising as something that no longer is.

    This is done usually in the light of propositions based mainly (but not exclusively), on 'modern knowledge' and increasing public acceptance, not to mention equal rights leglislation and personal experience.

    This is what I think Courage has done and is why the EA could not go along with it although to give them credit, I think that Courage acted mainly from pastoral considerations and I think the EA recognised this.

    I suppose that it is just as if you were saying that all or some of the other behaviours in Roman 1 can now be
    "affirmed" as being no longer sinful. Same - ual relationships are included on the list(I am not BTW persuaded by the 'abuse' argument used by LBGT to show that this is inapplicable to them).

    There is no distinction between 'sins' as listed in Rom 1 but when you start redefining some of them as being "post-sinful" (for want of a better term) or inapplicable, then you had better be pretty sure of your reasons for doing so.

    Nobody disputes the fact that envy, greed, malice etc. are sinful, but in our modern times they now dispute that same - ual relationships are, and should in many cases even be regarded as holy. I think the MCU takes this view.

    The reason I think that the church is 'picking' on one type of sin such as same-sexual relationships is because of the sense that a redefining process is going on in this area. It also appears not just to be confined to liberals, as some who claim the title 'Evangelical', are redefining it as well.

    Chris Bishop

  16. Chris, I am not suggesting that "all or some of the other behaviours in Roman 1 can now be "affirmed" as being no longer sinful". I am rather suggesting that in practice the church has for decades or centuries affirmed some of these.

    Of course no one actually denies that "envy, greed, malice etc. are sinful", but they redefine these sins to exclude and justify their own acts of envy, greed, malice etc. Isn't that what many "LGBT affirming" Christians (maybe the self-defined evangelicals rather than MCU) do, redefine biblical and traditional prohibitions to exclude their own behaviour?

  17. Peter, I am astonished that you are arguing that same-sex relationships are 'not a salvation issue'! (Once again, I notice the dreaded 'private judgement' raising its ugly head.) If they are sinful - as the Catholic Church has believed - they are most certainly 'a salvation issue'.

    Meanwhile, the problem with the position you're adopting vis a vis Chris Bishop is that it is a form of the (fallacious) tu quoque argument: "the church has for decades or centuries affirmed some of these [other sins listed in Romans]", therefore it shouldn't be so 'intolerant' towards those who want to 'affirm' LGBT sexuality.

    But of course that does not follow at all. Rather, the argument is the other way round: "the Church which recognizes the sinfulness of same-sex sex should also recognize the sinfulness of envy, murder, strife, etc."

    Otherwise, we must argue that the Church which has recognized its 'intolerance' of same-sex sex should be more tolerant of envy, murder, strife, etc - a very odd position for a Church to adopt, I think you'll agree!

  18. Chris, I did do a 'What is an Evangelical?' piece here two years ago (24 Sept 2007 to be precise). It generated a bit of discussion at the time, but has sunk into the archives. You may still find it interesting. Without having re-read it in detail, I doubt there is much there I would change.

  19. John, I am astonished that you are suggesting that sins committed by Christians are a salvation issue. That is salvation by works. We all sin, in different ways. For some our major sins are "envy, greed, malice etc", for some they are sexual of a hetero- variety, and for others homosexual practices. We are all, if Christians, saved by grace and grace alone. So our sins do not affect our salvation - which is by no means a licence to sin, see Romans 6:1ff.

    My point is indeed that "the Church which recognizes the sinfulness of same-sex sex should also recognize the sinfulness of envy, murder, strife, etc." - and that it is hypocritical to single out one of these sins and ignore the others - specifically, it is hypocritical that anyone now separating from the Church of England over this issue has not long ago separated those other issues.

  20. Peter, you misunderstand! In fact, if astonishment is in the air, I am astonished by your present astonishment ...

    Sin is what we are saved from. Christ's death on the cross (not our works) saves us from our sins. To suggest I might think otherwise is, frankly, bizarre and I'm not sure why you seem to imply this - unless I have very much misunderstood you.

    We are therefore agreed that same-sex sex is sinful, as are all the other sins listed in Romans 1ff.

    If, however, a church says, "This, which the Bible calls sin, is not a sin," then we must declare that 'anathema'.

  21. There is now an important piece online by Giles Goddard, the chair of 'Inclusive Church', titled TEC and CofE: the making of a progressive alliance.

  22. I agree with you in rejecting any church which says, "This, which the Bible calls sin, is not a sin." But there is still a matter of biblical exegesis.

    For example, of course we would reject any church which says that adultery is not a sin. But the majority of Anglican Evangelicals (including me) accept the official C of E line that remarriage after divorce at least under certain circumstances is not adultery and therefore not sin - despite some quite explicit words of Jesus to the contrary. There are good biblical arguments for this line. So should we evangelicals have ignored those arguments and instead have years ago declared the C of E 'anathema' for this policy?

    Similarly, some evangelicals interpret the Bible to say that the apostolic prohibition of homosexual activity applies only to the typical Greek homosexual abuse of teenage boys (which we would condemn as paedophilia) and not to long term committed same sex relationships. I don't agree with this argument. But I do think it is one which needs to be considered carefully and not rejected out of hand with anathemas.

    Meanwhile of course I believe that "Christ's death on the cross (not our works) saves us from our sins", among other things like death and hell. But we were all sinners and all need to be saved from the consequences of our sin. We don't need to be saved in a different way from homosexual sin than from the ordinary little sins each of has done. If we have not committed any big sins, that is no reason to boast, and it certainly won't get us into heaven apart from Christ's death. That's why I claim that the precise definition of sin is not a salvation issue.

  23. Peter, for what it's worth, I and many others think the Church of England made a major mistake when it ceased to prohibit the remarriage of divorcees 'according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England'.

    First, this is clearly - as you acknowledge - disobedient to Jesus' words, reiterated by the Apostle Paul. I cannot understand how people who claim to 'follow Jesus' or 'believe the Bible' can simply ignore this. Indeed, I believe the ignoring is sinful - forgivable but sinful.

    Secondly, it opened the floodgates to the argument - used by Desmond Tutu amongst others - that we ought, by the same token, to allow same-sex sex. This surely shows us we have gone down a wrong path.

    Of course, the Church of England did not require people to go along with this - there was still the infamous room for 'conscience' amongst the orthodox. However, it is a classic case of 'optional orthodoxy', and you do need to read Richard John Neuhaus's short essay here.

  24. Well, John, I don't want to hijack this thread on to a different issue. But my point about Scripture is that in one gospel there is an unconditional prohibition on remarriage after divorce - but in another an exception is made for adultery, and in 1 Corinthians an exception is made for desertion by an unbelieving spouse.

    So one cannot take one passage of Scripture as absolute, claiming that to "believe the Bible" requires doing this and it is "sinful" to do otherwise, where that passage appears to conflict with other parts of Scripture. Proper exegesis is needed, not rushing into condemnation and schism based on a literalistic reading of an individual passage out of context.

  25. Peter, all you've said about divorce in the NT is true - so we wind up with a situation where divorce is prohibited except for adultery (which is itself already a breach of the marriage covenant) and similarly re-marriage after divorce, except for in the case of adultery or desertion by a spouse.

    That is not so complicated! But that is not where the Church of England is at, any more - at least, not officially. It is interesting to read earlier Anglican documents on divorce and remarriage in church speaking of the need to observe the dominical commands. So what does that say about us, now?

    The bearing this has on homosexuality is that laxity in the one area is now being used to argue for laxity in the other. It is not, I would put it to you, an issue of 'exegesis'.

    Incidentally, I think Greek aristocratic relationships between older and younger men cannot be equated to paedophilia, nor dismissed as "abuse". On the contrary, there was a degree of commitment, and so long as the boy remained a boy, it was "long term". Insofar as it was part of the introduction to adult male culture, it was not, culturally, 'abusive'. I would refer you to Bruce Thornton's Eros: The myth of Greek sexuality.

  26. Well, I thought the C of E was more or less officially (at least in this diocese) in the position that divorcees should be remarried only if the divorce doesn't seem to be their fault. This is quite close to the biblical teaching especially if you realise that most partners who are at fault have either deserted their spouse or taken up with another partner. I know that these matters have to be cleared with a bishop. But I suppose not all bishops are equally strict.

    As for my "paedophilia" comment, I was mainly echoing part of the argument I have seen from the more open evangelical camp.

  27. I concur with John here. Anglicans interpret the Bible by comparing scripture with scripture, and the composite picture that emerges is a strong disapproval of divorce (or rather the attitude or conduct that causes divorce), and the recognition that the party sinned against by adultery or desertion is not disbarred from a new marriage. David Instone-Brewer's work is very helpful here.
    As for Greek male sexual habits, a better term than paedophilia (which connotes the sexual abuse of pre-pubescent children) is ephebophilia, a sexual bonding between teacher and late teenage-young adult student.

    Mark B.

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  29. Evangelicalism is not defined on strictly moralistic terms. In other words, simply because you have a moral stand against homosexuality does not make you an Evangelical any more than affirming homosexuality makes you an Evangelical. Evangelicals reject Anglo-Catholicism because it in turn denies the principle teachings of Holy Scripture which are justification by faith ALONE; justification by grace alone; Scripture ALONE is the final authority in all matters of faith, doctrine, morality, and practice; Jesus Christ alone is the way of salvation and our substitute for righteousness and for our sins paid for on the cross; to God alone be all the glory!

    If you do not accept that Scripture is the final authority, you are not an Evangelical. You are something else. The short answer is Anglo-Catholics are not orthodox or Christian no matter how "conservative" or "orthodox" they might be on the issue of homosexuality. Homosexuality is not the problem. It is a symptom of a greater problem: rejecting the Scriptures and the Protestant/Evangelical distinctives of Christian faith. If you care to find out what these are, read the 39 Articles, the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity or one of the other Reformed Confessions of the Christian faith.