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Topical Tuesday: A Call to Steadfastness

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 16 May 2017

Lee Gatiss’s call to the Church Society Annual Meeting to remain in the Church of England, with integrity and courage.

We all remember how around this time last year the EU Referendum campaign was raging all around us. Passions ran high and there was an abundance of information, and disinformation, flying around. Both sides indulged in scare tactics in order to persuade us to vote in, or out. It was a simple and binary choice.

Many evangelicals continue to consider the same question with regards to the Church of England. Where shall I go to church? Where shall I offer myself to serve in ministry? Is it time to leave the C of E?

This is not, however, quite such a straightforward question. It isn’t “in or out” in as clean a way as the EU Referendum was. Evangelicals will not en masse leave the C of E. There is no fabled blueprint or master plan for doing that. And there never has been. 

Evangelicals and Bishops
Reference has been made in newspapers and on social media this week to ‘Credible Bishops’, a discussion document produced for the 2016 ReNew conference. ReNew’s goal is to pioneer, establish, and secure healthy local Anglican churches across the length and breadth of England and this document was designed to stimulate debate at last September’s conference.

It was a useful discussion paper by two individuals (to whom we gave some feedback), on an important subject which must be discussed. There was no vote on it at the conference. It can hardly be said to be the official or widely accepted plan or plot, as some make out.

Recent events, and discussions at General Synod, have served to reduce confidence in the structures of the Church of England. We have often warned of the growing credibility gap. There should be little surprise, however, that Anglican Evangelicals in England are desirous of orthodox episcopal oversight. We have stated this often and clearly. We are eager to remain in the strongest possible fellowship with those in the Church of England, and in the vast majority of global Anglicanism, who are faithful in theology and practice to our historic formularies. Such oversight may emerge in different ways for the benefit of the many churches and the distinct and separate organisations behind the specific goals of the ReNew conference.

Anglican evangelicals do not all agree on tactics or that the victory of the liberal agenda in the Church is inevitable and imminent as some say. We must try however to maintain gospel unity with one another, just as we do with our Baptist and Presbyterian friends in Affinity and the Gospel Partnerships for example. That’s why I spoke at this year’s Affinity conference, often preach in nonconformist churches, and have lectured in various non-denominational training courses and colleges over the last few years.

The secession strategy
Some Anglicans talk of leaving: to join AMiE, or the Free Church of England, or some other group organised around individuals, perhaps with some kind of foreign backing — whether South African Anglicans or Texan Baptists.

Interestingly, those who often seem to talk “toughest” on all this, cannot bring themselves to actually do it themselves. They are happy to urge others to leave but I’ve noticed some of the most strident advocates for leaving, on social media and elsewhere, are all still in Church of England parishes and vicarages and pension schemes. Though they try to push others into much more precarious family and financial and fellowship situations than they themselves happen to enjoy.

There is a logical error at work in some evangelical thinking. It is of the variety of: “All cats have four legs; my dog has four legs: therefore my dog is a cat.” It is known as the politician’s fallacy and it goes like this: “Something must be done about the state of the Church! This current hare-brained scheme is something. Therefore we must do it.”

But doing the wrong thing can be worse than doing nothing. What we must try to do is the right thing.

There have always been people who leave. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, or cause us to panic and lose focus. In 17th century many who left the Church of England ended up as Unitarians, especially those who were decidedly against systematic theology and wanted to only talk about and study the Bible.

In the 18th century, the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion was detached.

In the 19th century the Free Church of England people began to leave. 

In the 20th century the C of E (Continuing) was formed.

Some good gospel work was done and some felt liberated by their uncoupling from the established church. 

Where are they now?  Those who left in the 18th century… About 1000 people meet each week in the Countess of Huntingdon’s churches. 

Those who left in the 19th century… The Free Church of England is still small, and generally much more high church than many evangelicals would be comfortable with. I think there are more C of E churches in Cambridge alone, than the FCE has in the whole country.

Those who left in the 20th century… The Church of England (Continuing) may not continue for very much longer. It has 4 congregations (and 2 bishops) soldiering on with the King James Version and the 1662 Prayer Book alone. There are also a few ministers still going of the 20 or so who left the Church of England after Martyn Lloyd-Jones called for more evangelical unity in the 1960s. I met one recently who had once been a curate at our church in Cambridge, and he was still pleased that he had made that move.

I’m not sure anyone can blame those starting out from scratch away from the C of E, when we can all see a lamentable credibility gap between the rhetoric of careful synodical statements and the incessant official frowns (and worse) which many of us have had to endure. Sensitive and insecure critics within the establishment may like to keep that in mind when they struggle to tolerate these enterprising souls, some of whom are labouring in places where less than 1% of people currently go to church. The most important thing is that Christ is proclaimed, and in that we rejoice!

But what of the strategy generally? I’m told that madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Narcissistic madness is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting it to turn out differently because it’s YOU doing it this time!

Secession is never easy, and organising things so that they last is clearly not as straightforward as people who discourage the reading of church history might imagine. These things need to be much more carefully thought through.

The main game
However, it must be said that these are very fringe concerns for most.

The vast majority of Conservative evangelicals in the Church of England are not about to go anywhere, or do anything wild. They are united around the agenda of staying in and fighting on, for the glory of God and the good of England. 

Yes, a very small number are in AMiE (though they have ambitious plans for growth, with which we wish them well and for which we pray); and one perplexingly idiosyncratic church has gone a bit rogue by making its curate into a bishop. They get all the headlines, while the Church Society approach continues to be the main game, supported by the Bishop of Maidstone, Rod Thomas; by those who speak for us in GAFCON meetings such as our President, Wallace Benn; by the next generation of ministers in our Junior Anglican Evangelical Conference; and by many others in churches up and down the country who are thinking every week not about the latest political game or ecclesiastical twitterstorm, but about using the still vast opportunities given to us within the Church of England for reaching out, building up, and sending people into the harvest field.

So today, we in Church Society reaffirm our commitment to working within the structures of the Church of England, for reform and renewal, and the re-evangelisation of our spiritually needy land. 

This is sometimes called “being in it to win it.” That’s ok, I guess. If we do want to “win it”, we do have to be actually in it. No one ever won a game by sitting on the bench murmuring about the other players who are actually engaged on the field, or by simply screaming at them to do better. 

But we are not absolutely guaranteed of success, if success is measured in worldly terms.  It does not always work that way, pragmatically. But as always in the Christian life, being faithful to our calling IS success, in God’s eyes. 

We recognise there are many difficulties in sticking with it, in some dioceses more than others. We are not always made to feel welcome, and we find it hard to believe promises of “mutual flourishing”, especially after the debacle over Philip North’s appointment in Sheffield, when we have no ordinary bishops who embody our theological concerns. It would be fairly easy to give a little more credibility to those promises of flourishing, if senior imaginations were truly engaged to prevent further schism.

It is nice that the “Five Guiding Principles” assure loyal Anglicans like us that we have an honoured place in the Church and that it wants us to flourish in its life and structures. But I have heard far too many stories of complementarian evangelicals trying without success to get posts in the Church over the last few years that this becomes a somewhat problematic claim. We have our token “special” bishop in Maidstone of course, but still no representation amongst the other 100+ “ordinary” bishops, despite several very qualified candidates, the 1997 Pilling Report, and numerous “assurances.”

Some of our brightest young ministers have left Anglican ministry disheartened, to pursue careers where their gifts and gusto are better appreciated. Several others have given up resisting the open arms of other denominations which are crying out for their vision and enthusiasm, and some have reluctantly left the country to find employment after scores and scores of rejected applications here. Some of our number know first hand how bishops have used (or abused) their powers to screen them out from appointments processes.

I know of several church plants and church planters around the country who were extremely keen to work within the Church that nourished them — and which by conviction they chose to serve — but who have been repulsed by dioceses which seem unable to embrace new life when it is offered to them on a plate. Even some bishops who choose to call themselves evangelical seem incapable at times of making these people feel at home; one boasts that no conservative evangelical will ever be permitted in his area. With broadminded friends like these to help us flourish, who needs enemies?

Despite these difficulties, I hope and pray for more in our number to be (and remain) resilient reformers like Thomas Cranmer and courageous evangelists like Nicholas Ridley — within the Church of England. The calibre of men and women coming through our Junior Anglican Evangelical Conference (JAEC) is most encouraging in this regard.

Do not panic
Ours is not the easiest strategy, and it is not for the faint hearted. It will take guts and gumption to see it through. As J. C. Ryle said many many years ago:

“It may be that sifting, trying times are before us. It may be that our numbers may be thinned, and many may desert our cause under the pressure of incessant official frowns, persecution, ridicule, and unpopularity. But come what may, I trust the Evangelical cause will always have a representative body in the Church of England, and a faithful remnant who can stand fire, and stand alone. If gaps are made in our ranks, I hope the cry will always be, as it was in the squares at Waterloo, “Close up, men, close up; let none give way.”

So say I this day to my Evangelical brethren, we have no cause for discouragement, despondency, or despair… Then let us stand firm and fight on.”

We must keep our heads when all around are losing theirs. 

We must not panic or be afraid. We are the plausibility structure for those who consider staying in or joining the Church of England as conservative evangelicals. Those who are undecided will look at us, and look at the other options, and think about who they want to be with and who they want to be like.

So either way, let’s fight for Jesus in ways Jesus would approve. And Jesus’s people will, we pray, see something attractive and worth being part of — for the glory of God and the good of his world.

Revd Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society

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