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Gospel Partnership (iii): Reformed episcopacy

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Posted by George Crowder, 13 May 2020

George Crowder continues his series on gospel ministry with a look at the deficiencies of our denomination and offers five essential ingredients for change.

Anglican evangelicals have serious cause for concern about the Church of England.  Though we prize our doctrinal heritage, the increasing revisionism advanced by our ecclesiastical hierarchy is a drain on our integrity.  We have confidence in the historic foundations, but not in the current administrations of the Church of England.  We might feel the need to leave, or actively oppose the denomination, or distance ourselves from it, or simply act as if it isn’t there.

As we consider our options and prayerfully reflect on what course of action we should take, we must take account of the roots of inter-ecclesial polity in the New Testament.  Gospel fruitfulness requires gospel faithfulness, and gospel faithfulness requires gospel partnership.  Seven principles emerge from my brief survey of Acts and the Epistles:

1. Partnership between churches is a result of unity with Christ, like salvation and fellowship.
2. Relational capital expedites the advance of faithful, fruitful gospel ministry.
3. Relational capital builds up through the reception and transmission of God’s grace.
4. A shared agenda for gospel faithfulness must be driven by gospel calling and gospel mission.
5. Gospel faithfulness calls on accountable inter-church partnership, particularly between church leaders.
6. Gospel fruitfulness is promoted by visiting, strengthening and encouragement of local churches across regions.
7. Appointing elders is a key part of gospel fruitfulness and is supported and endorsed in partnership.

I believe that reformed episcopacy is simply the faithful application of these principles.  The church of England, and indeed the wider Anglican church, is reformed and episcopal at its roots.  Historical controversy and human innovation have, nevertheless, significantly marred its ecclesiological probity.  Like an ancient timber framed house, the framework of the Church of England has become warped and misaligned over centuries.  Though still standing and giving shelter, it is not altogether true; it is observably unorthodox. 

As much as we strive to remain true to the historic, reformed doctrines of the Church of England, we must also strive to remain true to the relational framework of reformed episcopacy, whatever action we may take.  Indeed, I would hold that there is an interdependent relationship between doctrinal and relational integrity. 

The spiritual quality of partnership in deaneries and dioceses and in the denomination falls far short of the New Testament mandate for reformed episcopacy.  Whilst humbly honouring our inherited structures as far as possible, Bible-teaching churches need to make up for what is lacking by forming deeper bonds between each other.

Partnership is vital for churches to be fruitful and faithful, especially in times of crisis, though it can be challenging to procure.  For healthy local churches to be pioneered, established and secured, we need local groups – within or across dioceses – which recapture a New Testament vision for faithfulness and fruitfulness in active partnership.

Partnership requires personal investment in the relationship between local churches by their leaders for the sake of the health those local churches.  Partnership is necessary to sustain the ministry of healthy local churches, and to support revitalisation of unhealthy local churches or help plant new ones.

I propose five essential ingredients for inter-church partnerships that recapture New Testament reformed episcopacy:

1. Shared faith
• Teaching input and a chance to discuss it at each meeting encourages faithfulness, especially if the input is from group members.
• Although it is enough to say we stand on the historic doctrines of the Anglican Church, a simple doctrinal statement has helped some groups to unite.

2. Shared mission
• Our mission from Jesus is to make disciples and – as the apostles did in Acts – we do that through local churches in partnership together.
• The ReNew Agenda has summarised this well: to pioneer, establish and secure healthy local Anglican churches.
• Local groups should write a road map for how they will take on this agenda in their setting and then work together on it.

3. Mutual encouragement and accountability
• Regular group meetings, at the very least to share news and pray for each other, are essential for building up trust and deepening accountability.
• Reading groups are a great way to have fellowship and to stay sharp, especially in smaller groups.
• Preaching groups are good for accountability in our teaching.
• Larger groups should have smaller sub-groups that are open and accountable to each other.

4. Mutual support
• The mainstay of partnership between church leaders is sharing news, seeking pastoral advice and praying for each other, either verbally or using a distributed list.
• Churches in partnership are well placed to help those in crisis.
• There needs to be a means for financial support to ministries in need – either informally between partner churches, or by setting up a trust.

5. Contending together
• Though more challenging, it is necessary to act together and not alone in response to heresy, which calls on trust and mutual understanding.
• Collaborative visible differentiation requires a coherent consensus on our evangelical distinctiveness.
• We should be drawing together like-minded evangelicals more than distancing from well-meaning liberals. 

Partnership requires give and take.  All churches do not sound the same note at the same time; it is not like a monotone recital.  Rather they are in concert with each other, and the rich harmonious blend of different tones and parts is cogniscent of the fulness of God’s grace. 

George Crowder is vicar of St John's, Over, and Regional Director of Church Society in the north and the midlands.

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