Is it me, or is some of the reaction in traditionalist quarters of the Church of England in the last few weeks regarding the introduction of women bishops rather reminiscent of Chicken Little — she of the sky is falling in fame?
OK, there are reasons to be upset. Existing and workable (if not ideal) compromises are to be dismantled, trust has been betrayed whilst calls are being made to trust those doing the betraying, and looming in the background for those with ‘ears to hear’ are the next items on the agenda, to do with theology and sexuality.
But the world is not coming to an end, and the sky is not falling in, for in the Church it was ever thus. Read the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, and you’ll find false teaching and teachers, syncretism, immorality and compromise aplenty.
Yet always the call to repentance is addressed to the church: ‘He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ And always there is also the promise to the faithful hearer in those same churches, however corrupted they may be: ‘To him who overcomes, I will ...’
Certainly things are looking bad, but they have never been very good. This would not be the first time the Church of England has deliberately opted against compromise at the expense of losing members and ministers (remember the Great Ejection?). As to embracing theological error, this is the Church of England we’re talking about, right? And yet, as a famous evangelical speaker once famously remarked, this is the church to which we choose to belong, so what must we think of the rest?
No, the disappointment in the past few months has not been from the revisionists, who stand in a long tradition of their own, but from those who regard themselves as the faithful remnant.
Let me start with the Anglo-Catholics, even though in many respects I disagree with their version of what the truth is.
The Anglo-Catholic movement as we know it began (correct me if I am wrong) with a protest at the state’s involvement in spiritual matters and a recall to a ‘primitive’ ecclesiology in the face of institutional compromise.
There was no expectation that the law-makers would come to the rescue of the faith delivered to the saints. On the contrary, there was a willingness to challenge, and even break, the law in the interests of upholding the faith. As to expecting the bishops to deliver the Church in its hour of peril, even whilst upholding the essential nature of the historic episcopate the early Anglo-Catholics were rather notorious for treating their own bishops with something close to contempt.
But where is that spirit today? Actually I have no doubt that the offer of the Anglican Ordinariate has done much to enfeeble, rather than strengthen, Anglo-Catholicism. But where are the men like Keble, to say nothing of those who were later imprisoned for their actions? We hear much from Anglo-Catholics about the Church not wanting them. Did Keble and his successors think the Church of England wanted them?
The Catholic movement did not get where it did by waiting for the Church to enact legislation to provide what it wanted. Yet today it has four dedicated bishops and a dozen or so sympathizers, hundreds of clergy, a multitude of buildings and a host of people. Why, then, is it so much on the back foot?
Now for the Evangelicals. Our problem is simply this: many of us don’t really want to be Church of England, and it shows. As a result, we’ve never organized ourselves to be an effective force within the institution. Instead, we’ve laughed at bishops and ploughed our own individual parish furrows. We’ve never had a vision for the Church of England, because we’ve never really had heart for it. Indeed, for some of us, the prospect of ‘ejection’ is greeted not with gloom but elation, confirming as it does all our prejudices.
Yet there are many things we could do, if only we would act together to do them. Here are just a few suggestions, old and new:
1. Passing Resolutions A and B and petitioning under the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993. Well, of course it’s a bit late now — but we could at least repent for the fact that we didn’t do it.
2. Giving As Partners. I’ve explained in a paper how it is entirely possible, and legal, to channel diocesan quota to parishes and ministries of your own choice without protest ‘quota capping’, thereby making the present system work in our favour. This was proposed years ago, yet outside our own diocese, where it worked quite well for a time, nothing was done.
3. Pulpit exchanges. Most of our congregation members have very little awareness of the ‘constituency’, which is largely an ‘old boy’ network of clergy. An exchange of preachers amongst ourselves would break down some of the barriers and create a sense of mutual belonging and awareness. Where are the invitations, though?
4. Re-emphasising the Thirty-nine Articles. I have just been reading J C Ryle’s Warnings to the Churches, and was impressed by how often he appealed to clergy not only to be aware of the Articles themselves (which in those days most of them were), but to urge them on their people. Today, however, even many so-called Conservative Evangelicals have little, if any, knowledge of the Articles.
5. Increasing our familiarity with the Prayer Book. The BCP is not perfect. It is, nevertheless, better than much of what is on offer today, and remains the liturgical ‘gold standard’ of the Church of England. We ought to know it, and make sure our people know it, and we should be aware of its doctrinal standpoints and the modern departures from them.
6. Re-affirming the Declaration of Assent. People accuse Evangelicals of compromising on the Declaration of Assent when it comes to the liturgy, and there is some truth in that. But even worse is the far more widespread compromise on doctrine that seems to be accepted as the Anglican norm. The Declaration of Assent is on our side.
More than all this, perhaps, every evangelical group in every place should be asking itself, ‘How can we strengthen evangelicalism in this diocese and how can we make our diocese more evangelical?’ The answer will always come down to money, ministry and doctrine. We just need to work out how to use them better.
We are not chickens, and the sky is not falling in. Let us then, by contrast, ‘quit ourselves like men’, stop flapping and start doing.
John P RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
8 August 2010
8 August 2010