If you follow these sorts of things, you may have picked up that the Church of England have passed another of their oft well received motions at synod. This time (just like last time) is really (just like last time) it! Everyone (just like last time) is totally mad. Everyone (just like last time) is packing up and going home. So (just like last time) I await with bated breath the now absolutely-for-definites-we-promise-this-time-its-totally-different slew of supposedly sound evangelical types leaving the Church of England.
The Church of England Evangelical Council – which speaks for a lot of Church of England evangelicals on these things – really made their feelings clear by stating they were “saddened”. They go on to insist, ‘This is, however, more than just a departure from the biblical understanding of sex and marriage. Sadly, today marks a “watershed” moment, in that it appears that the Church of England no longer sees Scripture as our supreme authority.’ Which sounds serious until they go on to say, ‘CEEC is committed to supporting the ministry of orthodox evangelical lay people and ministers across the dioceses… to ensure evangelical life and witness in the Church of England continues for years to come.’
If I understand them rightly, they seem to be saying their communion has departed from biblical understanding on a significant ethical issue which is so serious the church no longer sees scripture as its supreme authority. But the issue nevertheless is not serious enough for them to actually do anything significant about it, like leave such an errant communion. Indeed, they will be doing all they can to ensure their folks stay in! Which, for all the rhetoric of ‘watershed moments’, sounds very much like we’re just going to do the same as we have done before; namely, make some sad noises, fire off a few missives and then carry on as normal with perhaps a fresh set of red lines repainted a bit further down the road. I await the announcement of their “series of provisions” – and am quite prepared to be roundly surprised – but let’s say hope remains muted at best.
It is not as if anybody failed to see this coming. It seems a little strange – dare I say, disingenuous – for CEEC to suggest that this latest move marks a watershed and that, only now, do they notice the Church of England no longer holds to the bible as its highest authority. This has been plain for decades. The bishops evidently do not, and have not, upheld scripture for quite some time. Anybody genuinely shocked by the result of this particular vote simply has not been paying any attention. In light of all that, some questions seem worth asking. They are not new. They are – given the situation is largely the same as ever – the same ones I have made previously. But they bear asking again given we are in the same position.
Why is this issue the one that exercises evangelicals when bishops denying orthodoxy, and others spouting heresy in the hierarchy, have not been cause to walk previously? If the gospel of Jesus Christ can be under attack more directly than this, why is this the vote that causes such consternation? What is different about this? I don’t deny this is a gospel issue, but I am minded to ask why this gospel issue and not all the others – that is, the even more overt and serious ones – that came before? If bishops can be installed into office denying core gospel truth, and yet evangelicals sit tight, what precisely is their concern with blessing those of gospel-denying ethics? If you didn’t sound the alarm and organise ‘a series of provisions’ for the problems with the former, not least when that equally showed the Church of England doesn’t take the Bible as its highest authority, why is this the issue that really does it? The gospel doesn’t appear to be the central concern.
Which leads me to my second question. What, exactly, would it take for evangelicals to actually leave the Church of England? I strongly suspect the answer is nothing. There are really no lines. Some openly admit this and say they will never leave. I applaud the honesty. But for those who are not saying that, the question stands. If bishops denying the gospel won’t do it, and the CEEC are intending to merely make provisions for those who will stay in over this latest issue (evidently expecting most to do so), what lines are there? It seems the evangelical position is that the Church of England has departed from orthodoxy, it has rejected the Bible as its supreme authority and we are desperate to continue belonging to it on those terms. Maybe I am missing something, but it seems evangelicals are – at one and the same time – arguing orthodoxy has been abandoned and this is disastrous but they desperately want to remain on an heterodox sinking ship.
Third, if the Church of England really has departed from orthodoxy and rejected the Bible as its authority, but evangelicals nevertheless wish to remain a part of it, how are we evangelicals on the outside to view those evangelicals inside? Belonging is, after all, an active choice. If I choose to belong to an organisation, I necessarily share some part in its works. If the evangelicals are truly evangelical – if they are truly gospel people who hold the bible in high regard – how can they continue to attach themselves to a body that they openly claim themselves rejects the supreme authority of the bible and affirms heterodoxy? In what way are these evangelicals really evangelical if their evangelicalism doesn’t lead them to cede from an organisation, that has authority over them by its very nature, that has itself departed from the gospel?
Fourth, what do the evangelicals who remain credibly expect nonconformists to do? No doubt some would ask that we would pray for them. But much like the very prayers that they are currently handwringing over, how can we pray to bless what we consider to be unfaithful? If evangelicals in the Church of England are troubled at the thought their church is now prepared to bless sin, what do they expect us to think when they ask us to pray for their blessing as they remain under bishops who deny the gospel, in a church that rejects biblical authority and blesses what ought not to be blessed? How exactly can we meaningfully pray for blessing in a situation that we consider to be fundamentally unfaithful?
At some point, evangelicals in the Church of England are going to have to decide whether they value fellowship with those they count as heterodox as more or less valuable than fellowship with fellow evangelicals outside their communion. Nonconformists are increasingly having to ask themselves, if evangelicals in the CofE really are happy to continue aligning with these heterodox bishops and belong to a bible-denying church, can we really call them evangelicals at all? If evangelicals in the Church of England don’t make clear that fellowship in the gospel with evangelicals outside their communion is of more import to them than fellowship with those who deny the gospel inside it, they may just find what free church fellowship they currently have dries up. It bears remembering, nonconformists tend to separate when we say that is what we are going to do!