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No Red Lines

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 12 Sep 2019

Tom Woolford considers the strategy of drawing red lines, and suggests a different biblical approach to protecting the flock from wolves.

I have no red lines. I am not going voluntarily to leave the Church of England under any circumstances. No, not even if the Church authorises services of blessing for same-sex unions. But I have not ‘gone soft’ on that or any other issue. There is no way that I would conduct such services: there is no way that I am going to bless what God calls sin (of course, this means that a situation is certainly conceivable in which I may be expelled from ministry in the Church of England – I’ll return to this possibility later).

Other classic evangelicals take a different approach; namely, to draw a line in the sand and plan to leave the Church of England if that line were crossed. There are several weaknesses with this approach. One such is that there are at least five or six different places where that line is drawn. For some, it will be an unbiblical liturgical innovation. For others, it will be a change in the canons. For a third group, it will be allowing clergy openly to be in sinful sexual relationships. Still others will walk if the Living in Love and Faith teaching resources establish ‘two integrities’ in the Church’s official teaching.

Indeed, for a few, their line has already been crossed – in the House of Bishops’ Guidance for adapting the renewal of baptismal vows to celebrate a gender transition, and/or in the toleration of false teaching and false living under the guise of ‘pastoral accommodation’ and ‘radical inclusivity.’ The line-in-the-sand approach is therefore a recipe for confusion, frustration, and division among those on the same side.

A second drawback is its inherent ambiguity. Has General Synod act A crossed line B? Has House of Bishops’ Guidance X transgressed ultimatum Y? Things are rarely – if ever – clear cut. There is always some (deliberate?) fudging that obscures whether the Rubicon has in fact been forded – and there always will be. Indeed, evangelicals both within and without the Church of England have warned of salami-slicing, ‘boiling the frog,’ and smoothing over a previous line-in-the-sand to retreat a little further and draw a new (also inevitably provisional) one.

To be absolutely clear, I think it would be disastrous and desperately wicked if the Church were to prepare blessings for things we must not bless, alter the canons to accommodate worldly thinking, give up the standard of chastity for ordained office-holders, or sanction false teaching. I have, and always will, resist such things with everything I can muster – in prayer and preaching, petitions and politics.

But I will not leave if those things happen. My reasons are not pragmatic. I think there will be some pragmatic benefits to remaining in the Church of England even if she were to err so badly, but not such benefits that would outweigh the practical advantages presented by cutting loose. If the Church were to renounce biblical teaching and morality in such an appalling way, she would not be ‘the best boat to fish from’ any longer.

My reasons are to do with what I believe about the Church and about the calling of her presbyters.

In John 10, Jesus teaches about himself as the Good Shepherd; with the sheepfold as the Church. Jesus envisages both thieves (vv1, 8) and wolves (v12) entering the fold. The thieves will steal, kill, and destroy (v10); the wolf will snatch and scatter (v12). In the pen, therefore, we have a Shepherd, his sheep, thieves, and wolves. We have a very mixed Church (cf. Article 26). We also have the hired hand, who has not come to steal, kill, or scatter – he has come to shepherd the sheep. But when the wolves come, he flees.

Praise be to Jesus that he is the Good Shepherd!

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

The great laying-down-his-life-for-the-sheep is, of course, Calvary; and without a doubt, it is to his life-giving death by crucifixion that Christ is primarily referring (vv14-18). And it goes without saying that however high a conception we may have of the presbyteral office, there is ultimately only one Good Shepherd (v16). However, presbyters are called to be pastors, that is, under-shepherds of the chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4). Note carefully: under-shepherds – not mere hired hands of the one Shepherd. Furthermore, the lives of all believers are meant to be cruciform, and the lives of presbyters should be examples of cruciform living. I take it, then, that we are to under-shepherd like Jesus shepherds. Which, I believe, means potentially dying in the sheepfold.

St Paul says much the same thing. In his farewell to those presbyters based around Ephesus, Paul employs the pastoral metaphor:

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” Acts 20:28-31

Note that the presbyters are to keep watch over all the flock, and that the command to ‘be shepherds’ is given in the closest possible proximity to the reminder that God the Son spent his blood to purchase the Church. Paul, like his Master, is under no illusions about the Church’s future: “savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” False teachers who “distort the truth” will certainly arise in the Church – from the order of presbyters (“even from your own number”).

The right response is to guard (ourselves as well as our portion of the flock), not go; it is fight not flight. Wolves in the sheep pen has always and will always be part of pastoral ministry. We should not expect a church without wolves: we should expect a church with wolves – wolves to fight and fend off, of course, even (if it comes to it) to the point of death.

I don’t think I, or you, should stay in an apparently apostatising Church of England (if it comes to that) because there will remain missional advantages to doing so. No. I don’t even say that we should stay because we could yet turn it around: if those changes occur, it is impossible – short, of course, of a miracle of grace – to conceive their being undone. I invite you to stay…and die. Stay and die because, frankly, that’s what Jesus would do (and did).

‘Dying’ in the context of the capitulation of the Church of England to revisionism would likely take the shape of being removed from office after being found guilty in a CDM tribunal – for ‘sins’ of omission (e.g. refusing to conduct a service we are meant to offer) or ‘sins’ of commission (e.g. unashamed preaching of an unpopular biblical truth). There will be other ‘sundry kinds of death,’ of course, that are less final and decisive than this: lack of preferment, our postulants not being recommended for ordination training, being discriminated against when curates and cash are distributed.

Remaining as an unapologetic orthodox evangelical in a liberal church would bring much sorrow. If we conduct ourselves in such a way that we keep our consciences clean in a church that has moved decisively away from scriptural faith and ethics, we would sooner or later be seen as obnoxious in that institution, and would be made to suffer for it. But that’s OK: I signed up to suffer and die for the flock when I became an under-shepherd.

How we could keep our consciences clean and best protect and prosper the work of the gospel in that situation is another matter – and such a vital conversation has begun (‘visible differentiation,’ the debate about withholding parish share and/or storing some monies in a separate trust, entering impaired communion, seeking alternative episcopal oversight and so on). But the presbyter’s calling is to fight wolves, to the death (whether the wolves’ death, or our own).

Of course, we must not sin against conscience. And the problems in the Church are the fault of the wolves, not the under-shepherds struggling to work out the best way to save the most sheep. However, I don’t think that we can leave the ‘enwolfed’ pen but claim to have carried out with us all the sheep, leaving only goats behind (to mix parables!). Sheep are often nervous and helpless creatures who don’t typically relish a midnight adventure out of their familiar fold, and as Anglicans we ought to believe that we are given the cure of all souls in a parish – not just the definite-sheep, but also the maybe-sheep, the not-yet-sheep, and even (in some sense) the goats.

This is not some sort of official Church Society view. I realise I am just starting out in ordained ministry. A lot could happen in the next 10 years. But this is my personal resolution as we face an unknown future together. What’s yours?

Dr Tom Woolford is junior under-shepherd (curate) at Bispham All Hallows (Blackburn Diocese).

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