I know I won’t win many friends writing this. I know I will get called ungracious and unkind. I know this will be viewed by some as the only unsayable consequence of where we are currently at. But I fear graciousness and kindness is often used as a cover for not saying what is hard to hear. I can’t help but think many Christians would consider Jesus pretty ungracious and ask him to tone it down a bit. I appreciate these things are hard to hear for some, but I am afraid they are the reality of where things are at and the consequence of choices that have been made up to now.
Yesterday, the Church of England synod voted to begin blessing same-sex marriages. The church has now officially set itself – and voted en masse – to bless what God has said ought not to be blessed. The Church of England has now embraced a false gospel. A gospel that says you can believe, practice and even be blessed in particular things that scripture makes clear specifically place you outside the kingdom if unrepentantly continued in. Those who choose to remain in the Church of England are, therefore, necessarily accepting that false gospel as, minimally, a legitimate expression of orthodoxy amongst believers. Individuals may demur, but they affirm it is a legitimate interpretation rather than a damnable piece of heterodoxy.
Most Evangelicals will not have formal fellowship of any sort with Roman Catholics for this reason. Not that they affirm this specific gospel-denying doctrine, but that they teach other gospel-denying doctrines. Because they proclaim a false gospel that will keep people out of the kingdom if they believe and practice it. This was the very cause of the Protestant Reformation. A recovery of biblical doctrine and the core truths of the Christian gospel. One of our affiliate organisations will not welcome members into fellowship if they belong to Churches Together for this reason, because they welcome those who formally deny core gospel truth. We cannot partner in the gospel with those who deny the gospel. We have a hand in damning people to Hell ourselves through such formal fellowship because we give credence to those who deny the very gospel of Jesus Christ that would save people from it.
The latest moves by the Church of England are difficult to view very differently. Those who continue to subscribe to it will be formally associating themselves with a gospel that cannot and will not save. They are minimally willing to remain in fellowship, and call brothers, those who affirm it. They are submitting to authorities who are officially permitting and encouraging it. They are choosing to view it as a matter of secondary importance on which we can agree to disagree when it is no such thing. To stay is to say you are okay with your ministry being based on a gospel that includes the blessing of sin.
The truth is, everybody saw this coming. The vote was not even close. Evangelicals knew this was going to happen. Minimally, they knew it was a possibility. Knowing that was the case, they should – as many nonconformists have been urging them – had a plan to leave ready. There should have been contingencies for such an event as this. Nevertheless, I am prepared to believe some were so hopeful of a different outcome (even in the face of all evidence), that they made no such plans. But here we are. The question is, what will we do now?
What Evangelical and Conservative Anglicans in the Church of England do is, of course, a matter for them. But it bears saying – and I appreciate people will not want to hear it – what nonconformists do from here is similarly for us. As independents, it will almost certainly be a matter for each individual church to consider themselves.
I am conscious of those who have had involvement with Methodism who are no longer able to continue with them since they made similar moves. Whilst many had left the denomination, they continued to keep their hand in serving. But once the Rubicon was crossed, they felt they could no longer help them act and function like a church when, in fact, they had departed from the gospel and were no longer a true church. I think it would be particular poor for us to take such a decision with the Methodists but not the Church of England who are now in the same boat.
Similarly, I think it sends an appalling message to those who left the Church of England over this trajectory. People who, for the sake of faithfulness to Christ, did give up stipends and homes and security because they could see the writing on the wall. People who warned us this was coming. Do we turn round to them and say they wasted their time? Their faithfulness was not really faithfulness at all? Their desire not to compromise their faith and ministry was, actually, unnecessary? Do we say, on the one hand, this is an unfaithful move by the Church of England but on the the other it is totally unnecessary for any genuine believers to do anything about it? This cannot be right.
I want to give a little time to our Church of England friends to figure out what they will do from here. I want to give them time to get their affairs in order. Though I am concerned that, for many, if they did not already have a contingency to leave given the evident possibility of this outcome, I am worried that we may see a familiar pattern repeated. Lots of handwringing, lots of ‘woe is me’, but an eventual, begrudging acceptance of matters and then a determination to carry on regardless in what can only be considered to be an unfaithful compromise. I think we are already beginning to see moves in that direction (I hope they row back) but here we have Evangelicals openly saying they look forward to a time when sin will not only be openly blessed after the fact in church, but will be fully celebrated and conducted by the church!
It seems to me, if this is the direction of travel already, we are unlikely to see people leaving in droves. But, as I say, that is for Church of England folk. But as a nonconformist, I think the only course of action is, if we do not see clear and evident moves out fairly quickly, to begin withdrawing fellowship ourselves. If Church of England ministers do not see that they are compromised by remaining and do not make moves to formally withdraw, nonconformity will necessarily begin to withdraw from you. This is not a matter of secondary separation of whom you are willing to entertain in fellowship, but a first degree matter of what you are now affirming by continuing to belong. As my friend rightly put it, ‘To do nothing now as a local church/minister in the CoE you are saying I am OK with my church/ministry being based on a gospel that includes blessing sin. I don’t think I could have fellowship with a church or minister who made that call. It’s not secondary, it’s primary, because they’re happy to redefine the gospel.’
The ramifications of such a move will be big. They will take in Gospel Partnerships, perhaps excellent local church partnerships, it will impact the colleges we attend, it will (for some of us) impact the funding we might access. It bears saying it is not only Church of England brothers and sisters who will have to bear a cost for a willingness to be faithful. These are moves that I am sure nobody countenancing them take lightly or with much joy. All of us would much prefer easy-going, reciprocal fellowship which does not include these difficult choices. The question for all of us on all side of this matter is this: what is our faithfulness to Jesus worth? I trust none of us will be arguing it amounts to the cost of a building, a manse and a stipend.
I will leave the final word to a brother who left the Church of England within the last few years over such matters. He is an example to us of genuinely seeking to be faithful to Christ and not allowing himself to be compromised. He says this:
I would say that the principle would be that without separation from the CoE, we should no longer work with Anglicans (in their terms their church is no longer a church because it has embraced a false gospel and we would not partner with Roman Catholic churches for the same reason). This will affect everything from gospel partnerships, local missions, Oak Hill, conferences etc. and I say this as a former Anglican who trained at Oak Hill! I think this is good for our brothers and sisters in the CoE, it is part of encouraging them to be faithful and pulling them back from sin.
The practice will be more difficult. For one thing, we can’t expect that separation to happen by the weekend. What will almost certainly happen will be a range of forms of separation (some more compelling than others!). I think we will be forced to be discerning and we will be forced to encourage things we’re part of to be discerning – we live in a context where ‘graciousness’ is often used as a cover for not being faithful.
On a more positive note, people I know are making their plans to leave. Statements on spearation are beginning to come. My prayer is that this would free the faithful from the battles and compromises of the CoE to preach the gospel to a nation that needs to hear it.