What are the key questions for whether to stay or leave the CofE? A summary

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. After that, a former Church of England minister who left the CofE explained why he thinks others should also leave. You can read that here. Then, a serving Anglican minister told us why he thinks remaining is important and why he thinks others should stay. You can read that article here. In response, an academic theologian shared why he believes faithful Anglicans should leave the Church of England. You can read that here. Finally, today, I want to summarise the key points of contention and where any future conversations ought to focus if we are to address the points that are actually being made by either side.

In this summary article, I will begin by addressing the arguments that are not being made by either side. We will then turn to the arguments that are being made by either side. I will then draw some conclusions.

What nobody is saying

We start here because it is apparent that many people are hearing, inferring or stating so they don’t actually have to engage arguments that are simply not being made. So, let’s just address these first so that we are clear where the faultlines do not lie.

Anglicanism is errant and everybody should become nonconformist

Whilst it is true that Anglicans and nonconformists will believe their respective polity, theology and practice is the most biblically faithful – it is, after all, why we all believe what we do – nobody is advancing that case in these discussions. It is worth noting that this discussion is not going on between Grace Baptists and IPC Presbyterians, for example, despite their differing ecclesiology and polity. Notably, in the very first article in this series, my opening comment read:

I don’t think those who are convinced of Anglicanism should necessarily leave their faithful Anglican communions. I may not be convinced of their ecclesiology and praxis, but if you are – and your church holds to the gospel – I wouldn’t expect you to leave.

If you are dismissing the arguments put to you because, ‘of course, a Dissenter would think we should all leave Anglicanism!’, you are attacking a straw man. This is specifically not the argument that anybody is making. This is not a question of subscribing to different ecclesiology.

Leaving is the only costly option

Some have inferred that separatists are arguing that staying put carries no cost and that we all think they are taking the ‘easy option’. Again, nobody has actually argued that in any of the posts. Funnily enough, when that line is taken by those who remain, it tends to raise the hackles of those who have left, who hear them inferring that leaving was somehow straightforward and cost very little. But it should be noted – whether one position is easier than the other or not – nobody is arguing from that ground about what anybody ought to do.

Isn’t this just a rehash of 1966?

Nobody calling for separation has referenced this episode in any of their arguments. In fact, some arguing for separation are those who, in 1966, either remained at that point or went into CoE ministry long after that call went out. Whilst there is a superficial similarity, in that the question of separate or remain is indeed the question before us now, those calling for separation today include those who did (or would have) remained in ’66 and are arguing that things have significantly moved on since then. Likewise, those who insist this is a mere rehash of the same argument claim they follow the thinking of Stott and Packer, but fail to contend with the fact that Stott himself said he would leave under circumstances we see now and Packer did walk out over these issues. Even those at the centre of the 1966 debate recognised that things have long since moved on.

We are happy to share our church with those who deny the gospel

We need to be clear that nobody arguing to remain in the CoE is suggesting they are entirely happy with the existing situation. Whilst they advance their reasons why they should stay and fight, nobody has argued that the current situation is ideal and as they would like it. It is wrong to suggest that most are actively seeking to include and welcome those who would deny the gospel. Their position is that they would rather they were not there and will work – as best as they are able – to see them removed.

What separatists are arguing

The Bible calls us to separate from those who deny the gospel

The most common theme from those calling on Evangelicals to cede from the CoE is that the Bible is quite clear, not only in its condemnation of false teachers, but in its view on what those who hold to the gospel should do in relation to them. The call is not to nonconformity, it is simply to separate from those who would peddle a gospel that leads people away from Jesus Christ.

To remain is to compromise

I appreciate this is one that causes great consternation for those who believe they are being faithful in remaining. But this is one of the arguments being advanced. Given that the Bible calls us not even to eat with those who preach a false gospel, and certainly to remove them from our churches, to remain in formal fellowship with them through our denominational affiliations seems to put us in a compromised position. Separatists are arguing that we are all culpable and responsible for those to whom we submit and those with whom we have fellowship. Being in a denomination with bishops over you and in fellowship with those who advocate serious error without threat of church discipline is to be compromised. Joining in ‘shared conversations’ and appearing in the same videos with those advancing error adds to this, making it appear as though there are two legitimate sides to a discussion. Separatists want to insist that darkness should have no fellowship with light.

If we are fighting, why doesn’t it appear much fighting is going on?

Some claim that for all the talk of fighting, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of contending going on. As Frederik Mulder highlighted, Lee Gatiss suggested that attending deanery business meetings but not social events would send a clear message. But, of course, to many people the message is ultimately lost in the fact that you still belong to the same church and you nevertheless do engage in business meetings and other such things. In reality, plenty take their members to meetings at which those in grave error are speaking, knowing that heresy will be advanced and a false gospel propagated. Many see little more than a mealy-mouthed letter to a Bishop – a letter they are sure to ignore knowing that Evangelicals aren’t going anywhere – as the extent of what it means to contend.

If doctrine is the line, it has been crossed long ago

Some argue that even if there is some contending really going on, the war has long been lost. The trajectory is not to ever increasing faithfulness but, instead, the Evangelicals are being squeezed out. To counter this, the definition of Evangelical get stretched to include a wider circle of people, and several large Evangelical congregations give the sense that there is real growth, but the overall trajectory is to multiple congregations being placed together to slowly squeeze the life out of that wing of the church. Moreover, the red lines that have been laid down – particularly those over changed liturgies and official doctrine – have long been broken in practice. The transgender liturgy, for example, is still live and prominent on the CoE website. Separatists argue that we can point to the founding articles all we like, but when practice has overtaken, the war has been lost.

What remainers are arguing

Official doctrine remains sound

Remainers point back to the XXXIX in particular and insist there has been no change to official doctrine. This, therefore, gives us a firm position from which to fight. They argue that the church has not truly been lost until there is specific, unbiblical change to these founding articles.

Evangelicals are increasingly organised and fighting

Jeremy Marshall, particularly, argued that more and more Evangelicals in his view are organising and fighting these changes. It may have been in the past, he averred, that people just kept their heads down. But now, there is a real will to push back to protect the church from error. Historically, he argued, the Puritans remained and contended for truth from within and that is the same tradition many are seeking to stand in now.

There are red lines on which we can win

There is a genuine belief that there are lines which, if crossed, Evangelicals will leave the CoE. Some insist that not only are there such lines, but the Evangelicals can win these battles.

Why should I leave my home?

Hugh Bourne made the case that the CoE is his home. He raises the question, why should I leave my home when the liberal interlopers are effectively like cuckoos trying to steal my nest? Many argue, if anyone should be leaving, it should be the liberals and not the Evangelicals.

Abandoning the flock to the wolves

Many make the case that to leave is to abandon their flock to the false teachers. If they vacate the space, wolves will be let loose among the sheep. As a pastor, it is vital to protect the sheep from harm and so we don’t want to leave because doing so would expose them to damaging teaching.

Where the key questions lie

The purpose behind writing this summary article is to try to outline where the real faultlines lie in our discussions. The key questions, based on the arguments made on both sides, appear to be these:

  1. At what point are we complicit in error and compromising the faith?
  2. Is official doctrine a credible line if official guidance and practice flouts it? Can we credibly cling to official doctrine when other things overtake? Can we reasonably hold of official doctrine when there is no possibility of discipline being enacted over those things?
  3. Is it practically possible to win the war?
  4. What does it really mean to contend? Is our contending credible if nobody outside of our group recognises it as such?
  5. Will our flock be ravaged by wolves if we leave? Are there ways to stop that from happening whilst remaining faithful?

These, it seems to me, are where the key questions lie for our discussions. Other things, most likely, are side issues and distractions. The heart of the matter seems to lie in these.

Personal conclusions

Given it was my original article for Evangelicals Now that kicked off this series, it seems right to return to my own view.

Nothing that has been written in these articles, as far as I can see, goes very far to overturn the challenges that were raised. None of the articles addressed the key contention regarding fellowship with, and submission to, those who peddle heresy and preach a false gospel. This is the central argument from those calling for separation. Very little addressed those questions.

The claim that the war can be won and that Evangelicals are fighting, in my view, is easily the most contestable argument. One man’s hard contention is another man’s wet letter. In the final analysis, this question is really secondary to all the others at any rate. The vociferousness of our contending only really matters if it can be shown, clearly, that fellowship with, and submission to, heretics and those propagating false gospels is somehow not the issue the separatists believe it is. Nothing, as yet, has been produced to suggest this is not a serious problem that leads us to compromise our own faith as well as potentially leading others to compromise too.

The strongest argument for remaining – in my view – is the one advanced by Hugh Bourne regarding the abandonment of the flock. There is a compelling case to made for remaining if we can show that our staying really would protect the flock from error and compromise. This has both theological grounds and a somewhat emotional pull for a pastor.

However, in the end, it ultimately fails to convince for a few reasons. Firstly, we must ask why our people would not come with us should we leave? If we are only remaining for their sake, but we have failed to convince them of the seriousness of the situation, it doesn’t actually say a great deal about our ability to keep them from the wolves.

Second, If the issue is one of compromise and faithfulness, it is a strange argument to say that we will compromise ourselves so that others may continue to be compromised (or, at least, not given over to even greater compromise). I will continue to compromise myself in fellowship with those who deny the gospel because you, too, refuse to be faithful. This does not seem like a faithful move to make.

Third, the desire to save the flock from the wolves that may come in if you leave fails to contend with the wolves they are already in hoc to in the existing hierarchy. It is all very well saying, my people wouldn’t leave with me and if I go a wolf might come in. But, on that ground, to stay in the wolves’ den surrounded by the wolves doesn’t seem like the solution to that problem that it is often presented as being.

In the end, the pressing questions of faithfulness, when we are complicit in the propagation of error – especially as we join in conversations with those who peddle them – and whether we ourselves become compromised by remaining are the key ones. As such, I still find it hard to see how these questions can be answered credibly when our position is to remain.