Guest post: Why I left ministry in the Church of England and think others should too

Following on from my Evangelicals Now article on why I believe (as a dissenter) Evangelicals should quit the Church of England, I asked someone who is not confessionally Anglican to write why he thought it legitimate for Evangelicals to stay within the CofE. You can read that here. Today, a former Church of England minister who left the CofE explains why he thinks others should also leave. Tomorrow, a serving Anglican minister will explain why he thinks remaining is important and why he thinks others should stay.

This is a guest post by Stephen Watkinson. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

I grew up in a good evangelical Church of England church. I was baptised, confirmed and ultimately ordained in the Church of England. I served as a curate and then a number of years as an incumbent (vicar) eventually in one of the most aggressively liberal dioceses in the country (Manchester). In that time, I’ve remained a conservative evangelical, while the church at large has drifted into more and more into liberalism. As a conservative evangelical incumbent in a liberal diocese this reality became especially sharp. It seemed to me that I was regularly being faced with decisions where I was struggling to hold my convictions with integrity. In other words, for me staying in or leaving the Church of England became a question of faithfulness.

An important issue for me is around the question of how you relate to false teachers. I served in a context where it became very clear that my diocesan bishop, suffragan bishop, archdeacon and area dean were particularly liberal and persistent false teachers. I realised that over the years I’d been shielded from that reality, but as the vicar of a local church, these were the people I now had to deal with. Over a long period, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with this ‘game’. As I thought more about it, I couldn’t square what I was being asked to do with the Bible teaching on such false teachers. We are to separate ourselves from them (Romans 16:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:6) and we need to be very wary of the implications of working together with them (2 John 10-11). I worked hard at that separation. Believe me, they and my congregation knew what I thought of them! Yet I still found myself in events they were leading, being expected to take church members to services where they were preaching or to meetings they were leading. I don’t think it is ultimately possible to extract yourself from the system and even if you could, in what sense would you be an Anglican?

A second issue was around how the church has changed in recent years. An incumbent is now forced to deal with some issues that are incompatible with the Bible. So, there are issues around the requirement to baptise and the difficulty of refusing communion that evangelicals have been uncomfortable with for some years, but these have been made more acute (or perhaps just more obvious) because of the rise of values within the church and society that are explicitly unbiblical – yes around gay relationships and transgender issues, but also around the prevalence of sex outside of marriage and divorce.

In essence, there has been is a complete breakdown of church discipline – so much so that it has broken down within the clergy, as much as within the laity. You’re specifically prevented, for example, from querying the giving of communion to a couple in a gay relationship. Another example is that, because of some of the complexities of UK law and its relationship to the Church of England, you could be required to allow a marriage of a transgender person to someone of the same birth sex in your church building (I think it is still possible to avoid doing the ceremony yourself, but one still has to permit it). So there is a sense in which same-sex marriage is already legal in the Church of England. Then of course there was the publishing of guidance about using a service for the re-affirmation of baptismal vows in the context of transitioning gender, which although resisted to a degree has still been accepted as appropriate practice. And for those, like myself, who view ministry in complementarian terms, that conviction was swept aside by the way the legislation for women bishops was implemented. However I might like to view it, a woman diocesan bishop is an incumbent’s bishop and there is no escaping the headship implications.

As I write these things, I’m aware of some of the answers that evangelicals have given. On the one hand there is the call to resist and fight for reform. On the other, there is the conviction that the doctrinal position of the Church of England has not been fundamentally changed yet and so that gives us the place from which to fight. I’m sympathetic to these answers. In fact, it’s what I would have said myself for a number of years.

However, in practice, as an incumbent I made three observations, which I think mean evangelicals must consider leaving as I did. First, too many evangelicals are not fighting. So often when I tried to stand up on an issue, it felt like most/all the other evangelicals took a step back, leaving me exposed. I think there isn’t enough will to fight, which is dangerous. However, I also think that there isn’t a convincing way to fight any more without compromise. And that is even more dangerous.

Second, I think in less obvious ways, around the edges, the doctrine of the Church of England has changed. This is evidenced by some of the examples above. I’m not sure we can still “sign-up” to the Church of England with integrity, however much people tell us that it hasn’t fundamentally shifted.

Third, I came to the conclusion that it was implausible to think that you could act with integrity as a minister within a context where church discipline within the denomination had broken down. You would inevitably compromise. Particularly sharp in my experience was being told by an evangelical receiving lots of money and support from the diocese to plant churches that he couldn’t work with me because I was “toxic in the diocese.” I realised that if you wanted to pursue ministry you would lose integrity or vice versa. This is not a position we can remain in.

I love much of what historically Anglicanism stands for. I’m grateful to what so many Anglicans have stood for and taught me. In the end though, I couldn’t see how faithfulness and integrity could be maintained. That’s why I left and why I think it is time for others to consider a similar path.