Last week, I commented on the Church of England’s pastoral guidelines issued in response to a change in law allowing opposite sex couples to enter into civil partnerships. I first commented here that, despite the ostensible orthodox statement, the very issuing of it spoke to much deeper problems. As if on cue, I wrote a second comment in response to a letter – signed by clergy and praised on social media by some of the bishops themselves – that railed against the guidance that had been issued.
To compound matters further, on Friday, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint state apologising for the issuing of the pastoral guidance. If there was any doubt whatsoever about the rot within the Church of England, it is hard to look past this particular exemplar. Having issued a biblical statement of orthodoxy, c. 3000 people – including c. 800 clergy – vigorously fought back against the statement. At no point were any of these people disciplined by the church for flagrantly disregarding the teaching of the Bible (and, as a result, the church). Then, a number of bishops themselves broke ranks to add their voices to those who reject the official teaching of the church and claimed the guidance was issued against their wishes. Finally, the most senior bishops apologise for having dared to state basic Christian teaching and ‘jeopardised trust’ (presumably of those who wish to undermine biblical teaching and church orthodoxy).
Whilst the statement, in typical Anglican style, was carefully worded enough to allow people to read into whatever they want, David Robertson rightly summed up the situation this way:
Some argued this is incorrect:
But the fact remains, the senior bishops are now apologising for issuing statements of orthodoxy due to pressure from clergy and other bishops who wish to depart from it. They are now concerned about ‘jeopardising trust’ among those who wish to depart from orthodoxy, with little concern for how issuing such an apology will jeopardise trust among those relying on them to back the historic, orthodox teaching of the church. They have issued a clear statement of orthodoxy and now, at best, issued another statement muddying the waters if not undermining the original guidance. Minimally, it is a dog’s breakfast.
No doubt, Evangelicals will tut and make noises about how dreadful this all is. They will insist they are staying and ‘contending’. The problem is that for everyone who insists they are contending, whenever they are asked how they are contending, they seem unable to tell anyone. In fact, I have only seen people get shirty at the impertinence of somebody daring to ask the question. But what I am yet to hear is any statement about what ‘contending’ actually means or looks like in practice beyond an evident desire to stay put come what may without really doing anything.
The problem with that tactic is obvious (and borne out in recent history). If the Evangelical bottom line is that they will stay and contend come what may, what actual pressure have the liberals on them to do any differently? The line appears to be, no matter what you do, we will sit tight and continue paying our dues and never leave. Faced with that bottom line, maybe coupled with the occasional letter disagreeing with your stance but still insisting they won’t leave over it, would you change your position? Essentially, you can do what you want and we won’t actually do anything other than make the occasional public statement saying how unhappy we are about it. Forgive me, but that just doesn’t seem like a credible tactic. It’s like a man going into car dealership telling the dealer, I will literally pay whatever you want but I will make a few noises about not liking it before I do. I’m pretty sure they would take your grumbles for the purposes of making the sale.
Even as scores of bishops have come out and said the pastoral guidance shouldn’t have been issued, and others have openly praised those who want to see it changed altogether, staying put and ‘contending’ still seems to be the watchword. Any action in response has, at the very least, been easy to miss to outside observers like me. I can’t help but feel ‘contending’ is little more than a self-soothing mechanism designed to make people feel good about their evident desire to do very little.
Those who insist they are remaining to contend become frustrated at any suggestion they are not being faithful. I have no doubt that they want to remain faithful. But for those who wish to remain faithful to Christ but stay where they are, some hard questions need answering:
- How do you understand the term ‘faithful’ and does your current situation help or hinder your being faithful?
- How can you remain faithful whilst in submission to those who, minimally, apologise for orthodoxy and are entertaining those who wish to undermine it?
- How can you remain faithful while remaining in formal communion with those who openly want to reject historic orthodoxy?
- How do you remain faithful staying in whilst taking seriously the biblical call to separate from those who depart the faith and partaking in the sins of those with whom we commune?
- How can you remain faithful to the official historic teaching of the church when liturgies and practice, with guidance issued, now affirm what is unbiblical? Can one stand on a constitution that is not applied?
- What is your actual plan to change the situation? How are you ‘contending’ in a way that has any hope whatsoever of effecting change?
Whilst few people like having these conversations, the reality is that at some point the discussion must be had. I sense a lot of us don’t like having this conversation because it (potentially) means implicating those we love as friends and brothers. Others don’t like it because we simply don’t like our choices being questioned. Others still find it impossible to see what else they could ever do and so feel the need to support their current position come what may. And I really do have great sympathy with all of them. But there comes a time when the questions must be asked and the conversation had.
So here it is. Is it possible to stay in the Church of England and remain faithful? If so, how?