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Topical Tuesday: Justin Welby and Agreeing to Disagree

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 13 Jun 2017

Lee Gatiss examines the idea that the church should just agree to disagree about issues of sexuality, and get on with more important things instead.

Last week, the Scottish Episcopal Church voted to alter that church’s Canon on Marriage, to remove the definition that marriage is between a man and a woman. Furthermore, it added a new section which acknowledges that there are different understandings of marriage, which now allows clergy to solemnise marriage between same sex couples as well as couples of the opposite sex.

Although the revised canon also stipulates that no member of the clergy will be required to solemnise a marriage against their conscience, clearly the orthodox understanding of marriage has now become merely one option for Scottish Episcopalians. The pressure on those who do not wish to offer same sex weddings will now only increase. As Richard John Neuhaus once said, “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

In the light of this long-anticipated rejection of Jesus’s word, the Bible, as the supreme authority over the church, GAFCON have announced that they will be consecrating Canon Andy Lines as a missionary bishop for Europe, including Scotland. Andy is a man of unimpeachable integrity, godliness, and clarity of teaching whose episcopal leadership will be welcomed by all those Scots who have been marginalised by their leaders, and by those outside the Church of England who wish still to remain Anglican in their doctrine and polity. We congratulate him on his consecration by bishops of the Anglican Church in North America, which will take place later this month. We can only wish that there were more bishops like him within the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Archbishop Welby’s response
In response to this, Archbishop Justin Welby wrote to the Primates of the Anglican Communion, several of whom are behind the plan to care for those “outside the structures of any Anglican province.” In his letter, Archbishop Welby sadly seems far more concerned about “cross-border interventions” than with the schismatic and heretical teaching which has infiltrated the Episcopal Church in Scotland (and elsewhere) and emptied churches in the process.

But why are overlaps in jurisdiction (if indeed, there are any here) more important than false doctrine? There are already overlapping Anglican jurisdictions in Europe, where the Church of England and the The Episcopal Church in the United States of America (TEC) both have active bishops and separate congregations. Since TEC threw out many who are now members of the Anglican Church in North America (which will be consecrating Canon Lines), and the Church of England will not step in to help care for orthodox Scots, it is not clear why there should be any cause for complaint. The Archbishop cites canons from the Council of Nicea. But were they promulgated in order to prevent orthodox intervention in the case of outright heterodoxy? Who, upon actually reading those canons, would draw any such conclusion?

Since Archbishop Welby, as he has told many of us face-to-face, actually holds to the traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality, why does he not stand up for it now and see its importance? The Bible speaks of disassociating from those who deceive us on issues of sexual conduct by trying to recalibrate our morality (Ephesians 5:3-7), of driving out those who are recalcitrantly immoral and leading others astray (1 Corinthians 5:9-13), and of denying the teaching of those who turn the grace of God into a license for immorality (Jude 4). There would be no need for any “cross-border interventions” if these things were already being done.

There is a place for orderliness, of course. Emphatically so. Orderliness must include discipline too, of course. But the Bible does not say anything about the evils of “cross-border interventions” undertaken to give pastoral care and support to the orthodox. Indeed, the apostle Paul left Titus in Crete with the express intention of amending what was defective in the church leadership of that place — that he might appoint godly bishops who would teach the truth and refute error, rather than those who were “empty talkers and deceivers” who should be rebuked and silenced from teaching (Titus 1:5-11).

Archbishop Welby also reportedly puts forward the way in which the Church of England has dealt with opponents of women’s ordination/consecration as a model for how we should deal with disagreements over the very different issue of homosexuality and marriage. He cites the consecration of Rod Thomas, the Bishop of Maidstone, as the Church of England’s illustration of how we can “work together without exclusion” and agree to disagree on issues.

Yet Rod Thomas himself recently disavowed and rejected this very idea when it comes to the issue of sexuality and marriage. He wrote, “it is important to recognise that the compromises involved [to accommodate those both for and against women’s ordination] are only possible because most of us regard this as a matter of church order and therefore something on which we can agree to disagree. This is not possible with the issue of sexual relationships, which goes to the heart of what God has made us to be, and of His great design to free us from sin for eternal salvation.”

So we cannot agree to disagree on these issues, and simply get on with mission instead. This “broad church” ecclesiastical utilitarianism may seem peaceable; but it disregards the fact that these disagreements on sexuality and marriage reveal two different gospels are in play. Where there is no agreement on the gospel, can there be real cooperation in mission anyway? Yet Archbishop Welby’s policy seems to be to promote those who cause division by their teaching, only just recently asking the Primate of the Episcopal Church to begin his “Thy Kingdom Come” initiative (despite the way his denomination has persecuted orthodox believers over this issue), and giving an award to a prominent gay activist. Such actions speak louder than studiously ambiguous words about his preferred direction of travel.

Martin Davie on agreeing to disagree
Having seen this coming, we recently published an excellent article by Martin Davie on this very subject, in our magazine Crossway last year. You can now find it online here. “Is this something about which we can agree to disagree?” he asks. Looking at the Bible and at church history, he comes to a very clear answer. The Bible is not silent on sex and sexual conduct, and what it says is explicitly said to be of fundamental importance. As he writes, “In the New Testament, the Old Testament laws regarding sexual conduct are seen as still in place, and transgression of them is seen as a matter which needs to entail the transgressor being subject to disciplinary exclusion from membership of God’s people in this life (1 Corinthians 5). It also carries with it the danger of eternal separation from the life of God’s kingdom in the world to come (Matthew 5:27–30, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, Galatians 5:18–21, Revelation 21:8).”

So this is not a matter on which there is room for friendly disagreement and continued fellowship, but one which involves obedience to clear biblical teaching, and which concerns the salvation of people’s souls. We pray earnestly for Dr Welby to see this more clearly and to give us a better, more biblical, lead.

I commend Martin’s article to you for further prayerful reflection in the light of recent events. We cannot simply agree to disagree on these important theological issues, even if we have differences over tactical responses. However, it is entirely possible — biblically mandated in fact — for us to disagree without being disagreeable. Paul wrote to Timothy that in dealing with false teaching, “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26). As Lawrence Freedman says in his book on Strategy, “The best strategic advice in the Bible… is to always trust God and obey his laws.”

Revd Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society

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