Preventing Schism in the Church of England

Tue, 13/06/2017 - 09:43 -- James Oakley
The fabric is torn
Image Credit: Rigers Rukaj

Is schism the biggest, or even the only, heresy in today's church?

It can seem so. The anonymous Twitter account, operated under the handle @thechurchmouse, recently mused: "Considering whether the heresy of division and disunity is the most prevalent heresy in the church today."

Someone in our church expressed concern to me about the state of our country. We're living in a post-Christian Britain, with alarmingly frequent terrorist attacks on home soil, perpetuated in the name of Allah. In such a world, this person said, we need to work together for evangelism and stop having all these schisms.

Quite so. The trouble is, it's easier said than done. Schism takes (at least) two different parties or viewpoints. As in any relationship breakdown, it's always possible to point the finger at either party as having caused it. Whilst there may be fault on both sides, care is needed to work out clearly who is at fault.

Recent events in the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) have led to big cracks opening up in the wider Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury has, rightly, regarded unity as vital to pursue. A house divided against itself cannot stand. He wants the Anglican Communion to stay together, walk together, in spite of profound disagreement. However, latest events have left him having to work frantically to keep the Anglican Communion together.

More troublingly, Scotland is very close to England. Once fabric starts to tear, it's hard to stop the tear from spreading. So he's also frantically paddling to stop the Church of England ship from cascading over the waterfall of outright division and schism.

In this post, I'm going to do three things. First, I'll review those recent events (in SEC, and then the response from GAFCON). Second, I'll look at how the Archbishop has responded to those events (both in person, and through Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, with whom he works closely), and show how those responses shed important light on the outcome he's working towards. Third, I'll make some tentative suggestions as to how the Archbishop can, even now, steer the ship away from outright schism.

The Scottish Episcopal Church

On Thursday 8th June 2017, the Scottish Episcopal Church voted to amend its Canon (i.e., church law) on marriage. Marriage was formally defined thus:

"The Doctrine of this Church is that Marriage is a physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman created by their mutual consent of heart, mind and will thereto, and is a holy and lifelong estate instituted of God." (SEC Code of Canons, 34.1)

That first paragraph has now been removed. SEC now defines marriage only in paragraph 34.2:

"No cleric of this Church shall solemnise Matrimony except in accordance with the civil law of Scotland for the time being in force in relation to civil marriages"

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Scotland since 2014. This change means that there is now no reference to marriage being between a man and a woman, and SEC clerics may officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies in SEC churches.

We must note, in passing, that 34.1 was replaced by a new text giving a conscience clause. In essence, it recognises that there are different views on marriage, and no cleric would be required to conduct a marriage that conflicted with their view on marriage.

This conscience clause is clearly intended to allow clergy who hold the traditional view of marriage to continue to do so. However, the important thing is that the definition of marriage has now changed for everyone within the SEC. The official position of SEC has changed to one that contradicts the plain teaching of Jesus and the rest of Scripture. Clergy and laity who hold to Jesus' view may not be forced to enact a marriage against their beliefs, but they would still need to accept that they are in a church that has rejected those beliefs and chosen different ones. This is the real problem here.

GAFCON's response

GAFCON gave plenty of advanced notice of what they would do if SEC went ahead with this change.

On 29th April 2017, they issued a communiqué which included this paragraph:

"During our meeting, we considered how best to respond to the voice of faithful Anglicans in some parts of the Global North who are in need of biblically faithful episcopal leadership. Of immediate concern is the reality that on 8th June 2017 the Scottish Episcopal Church is likely to formalize their rejection of Jesus’ teaching on marriage. If this were to happen, faithful Anglicans in Scotland will need appropriate pastoral care. … Therefore, we have decided to consecrate a missionary bishop who will be tasked with providing episcopal leadership for those who are outside the structures of any Anglican province, especially in Europe."

Then, on 2nd June 2017, GAFCON issued a media advisory saying that they would hold a press conference on 8th June. Here is an extract of that advisory:

On 8 June 2017, the Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) is scheduled to vote to finalise a change to their canons that would attempt to redefine marriage.  If this action is taken by the SEC it will further marginalise faithful Anglicans in Scotland who seek to uphold Jesus’ teaching on marriage.

On 8 June 2017 Gafcon will hold a press conference in Edinburgh, Scotland at 5pm.  

At this press conference the Missionary Bishop will be announced and introduced.  He will be joined by a Gafcon Primate and representatives of those whose fellowship with the SEC will be broken by the Synod decision.

As promised, on 8th June at 5pm local time, a press conference was held in Edinburgh. Present were Canon Andy Lines, Archbishop Foley Beach (of the Anglican Church in North America), and Revd Dave McCarthy, rector of St Thomas' Edinburgh (SEC).

They announced that Andy Lines would be consecrated a bishop of the ACNA on 30th June 2017 at a gathering in Wheaton, Illinois, at a service which "will include Primates, Archbishops, and bishops from all over the world". It was stressed that ACNA would be the consecrating province, but that this was at the request of the GAFCON primates and is an initiative of the wider Anglican Communion.

At the press conference, the first question asked was whether this would have proceeded had the SEC General Synod not approved their changes to the marriage Canon. The answer was clear: Those at the press conference had been praying for a different outcome in SEC, and they would not have proceeded if SEC had not done what they did.

Subsequent to the Edinburgh press conference, GAFCON UK issued a press release:

"At the heart of this crisis is a refusal to accept that the God of the Bible speaks clearly to his people through his written Word and the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Whether this takes the form of outright denial of core biblical doctrines, or a more subtle advocacy of the mutual flourishing of plural and even contradictory viewpoints, it amounts to a rejection of the self-disclosed nature of the Christian God himself.

"Humanity is created in God’s own image. Nothing is more serious for humanity than to reject God’s revelation of himself and substitute for it a version of God fashioned in our own image. And yet that is what is happening in the Anglican churches of Britain where apostolic biblical truth is not affirmed and actively upheld."

The response from Josiah Idowu-Fearon

The Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Josiah Idowu-Fearon, issued the following statement:

"The churches of the Anglican Communion are autonomous and free to make their own decisions on canon law. The Scottish Episcopal Church is one of 38, soon to be 39, provinces covering more than 165 countries around the world.

“Today’s decision by the SEC to approve changes to canon law on marriage is not a surprise, given the outcome of the vote at its Synod a year ago.  There are differing views about same-sex marriage within the Anglican Communion but this puts the Scottish Episcopal Church at odds with the majority stance that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman. This is a departure from the faith and teaching upheld by the overwhelming majority of Anglican provinces on the doctrine of marriage. The Anglican Communion’s position on human sexuality is set out very clearly in Resolution 1.10 agreed at the Lambeth conference of 1998 and will remain so unless it is revoked.

“As Secretary General, I want the churches within the Anglican Communion to remain committed to walking together in the love of Christ and to working out how we can maintain our unity and uphold the value of every individual in spite of deeply-held differences. It is important to stress the Communion’s strong opposition to the criminalisation of LGBTIQ+ people.

“The primates of the Communion will be meeting in Canterbury in October. I am sure today’s decision will be among the topics which will be prayerfully discussed. There will be no formal response to the SEC’s vote until the primates have met.

[SEC later responded to this, objecting to the idea that they have departed from the majority view in the Anglican Communion.]

What's noteworthy about this response is the final paragraph.

“The primates of the Communion will be meeting in Canterbury in October. I am sure today’s decision will be among the topics which will be prayerfully discussed. There will be no formal response to the SEC’s vote until the primates have met.

The primates of the Communion met in January 2016. The GAFCON affiliated primates took some persuading to come, because they felt the Archbishop of Canterbury had not rebuked The Episcopal Church (TEC — one of the two Anglican churches in the USA) for their change in the definition of marriage. Eventually, they agreed to come.

The damage caused by TEC changing their canon on marriage was much discussed. The discussions also considered the possibility that the Anglican churches in Canada and Scotland were considering making similar changes. There were sanctions, of a sort, for TEC, reflected in Addendum A of the gathering's communiqué:

"However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years TEC no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity."

It seems to many that those sanctions were not followed through with action; TEC appears to have been present at a number of gatherings for the whole Anglican Communion, including the ACC gathering in Lusaka, and has represented the Anglican Communion in Rome and other places.

Scotland and Canada also got a mention, albeit not by name:

"Possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation."

All of this background makes Idowu-Fearon's response surprising and optimistic.

It is firstly surprising. The primates met in January 2016. They agreed a set of consequences for TEC from then until January 2019. They recognised that other provinces were considering making the same changes. Implicitly, if they did so, they too should face those same consequences until January 2019. There is therefore no need to stall a response until the primates meet in October 2017. All that is needed is to implement the response that they had agreed in advance at their previous meeting.

It is also optimistic. It took a great deal of effort to persuade the GAFCON primates to attend in January 2016. Since then, it appears that the consequences agreed for TEC were not followed through. Since then, SEC has gone the same way and has not been rebuked, let alone disciplined, for what they have done. Does Josiah Idowu-Fearon really think the Archbishop will succeed in gathering all the primates in October? It seems highly likely that the GAFCON primates will not attend, which would make any agreed response to SEC moot.

Justin Welby's letter

The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a letter to the Primates of the Anglican Communion and the Moderators of the United Churches. This letter was somehow seen by Jonathan Petre of the Daily Mail, who wrote it up. I have been able to see a copy of this letter, to verify that this is not just rumour on the part of the DM. According to Petre:

"Archbishop Welby has warned the African archbishops against creating ‘disturbance and discords’ by intervening in Britain. He accused them bluntly of a ‘cross-border’ intervention’ that would ‘carry no weight in the Church of England’."

Indeed, his letter contains 3 (out of 11) paragraphs warning his fellow primates against "cross-border interventions". He refers to canons 15 and 16 of the Council of Nicea (325 AD), which actually appear to have been addressing something altogether different.

"Historically, there has been resistance to cross-border interventions and ordinations from the earliest years of the universal Church's existence."

He also refers back to Resolution 72 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference which

"affirms that it is deemed inappropriate behaviour for any bishop or priest of this Communion to exercise episcopal or pastoral ministry within another diocese without first obtaining the permission and invitation of the ecclesial authority thereof."

There is no mention, at all, of the change to the Canon 34 by SEC.

What does all this show us about how Justin Welby sees things unfolding, and the kind of outcome he's working for? Here are three observations:

1. Refusal to act

This has already been said, but it's worth drawing out the implication.

In January 2016, the primates decided how to treat a province that changed its canons on marriage. Instead of following through on that, Welby's solution is to have another meeting of all the primates. In other words, the solution is to talk some more.

I've posted on this before. There has been a lot of talking in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion on issues relating to human sexuality. We've reached a point where talking has achieved all it will achieve, and Welby (and his fellow primates) need to decide what views on sexuality are acceptable, and then they need to act accordingly.

Now, this may give the impression that the Archbishop's long-term aim is to keep everyone talking. If we can simply keep everyone sat around the same table, talking and walking with one another, remain part of the same denomination in spite of our differences of opinion, then we have managed to maintain unity.

At times, it has certainly appeared that way. However the next two observations suggest this is not the plan.

2. The choice of timing

We also note Welby's choice of timing. [His letter is dated 1st June, which is before SEC changed their canons, but he's clearly pre-empting the GAFCON primates at a point when SEC's action looks certain.]

Why did he wait until this point to speak out, critical of the actions of one or other wing of the church?

There have been a lot of little actions along the way towards seeing a split develop, in practice, in the Church of England (or the Scottish Episcopal Church). Since the (Church of England) General Synod vote in February 2017, not to take note of the House of Bishops' report, various Church of England bishops have said they intend to push for change in doctrine by making full use of the ambiguities in the current laws. SEC have had this change in their canons on the cards for some time. Various GAFCON press releases and communiqués have expressed alarm at the direction things are heading. As noted above, GAFCON warned on both 29th April and 2nd June that they would consecrate a missionary bishop if SEC went ahead as planned.

At none of those points did Justin Welby say anything to criticise what was happening in either wing of the church.

But now, with a missionary bishop's consecration imminent and SEC's move in the past, he writes. One friend of mine, on seeing the article in the Daily Mail, responded by saying: "Ah, now he speaks!"

3. The choice of issue

Third, we note Welby's choice of issue.

His letter is highly critical of the prospect of Anglican primates consecrating a bishop to work in another province. There is not one word of censure for the actions of SEC that have triggered this sad but necessary development.

For example, his letter says:

"Historically, there has been resistance to cross-border interventions and ordinations from the earliest years of the universal Church's existence."

That may be true (although, as noted above, the evidence from Nicea is debateable). But there is an even more ancient history of upholding biblical morality, and of taking actions to ensure that false teaching and unbiblical ethics do not take a hold in the church. In fact, we can trace this further back than Nicea. Jesus himself taught that we must live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus himself confirmed the created order that marriage is for one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6, quoting Genesis 2:24). The Old Testament prophets warned repeatedly against setting aside God's revealed law, warning that God's judgement must fall if God's people persist in doing this.

By comparison, there is no mention of parish, diocesan or Anglican provincial boundaries anywhere in Scripture. These may be wise and expedient creations, but we will search the Scriptures in vain for mention of the sin of intervening across such boundaries.

The Archbishop has chosen to lay in hard against those who would cross man-made provincial boundaries, whilst remaining silent about blatant infringement of the revealed will of God, as spoken by Jesus himself. It is not just about the issue of marriage that Jesus had something to say; he also spoke on picking your battles in this way:

"You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!" (Mark 7:9)

"You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel." (Matthew 23:23-24)

The Priority of Institutional Loyalty

Let me draw all these threads together.

It looks, superficially, that schism is the most serious sin for the Archbishop. The one thing he will not tolerate is for a group of churches to seek episcopal oversight from another province without the consent of their own bishops.

That is a superficial assessment. The reality is that, pending repentance, schism is unavoidable in the current Church of England. There are (at least) two different groups: progressives who see the current doctrine of marriage as unjust and therefore wish to change it, and traditionalists who hold to a biblical view of marriage. Simply allowing different views on marriage will not satisfy the latter group, for this would be to redefine marriage for them as well. There is no way to reconcile those two views.

So, it is a category mistake to say that schism is the most serious sin; schism is caused by other activities. There are various things that people might do, which could lead to schism of some form. This post began with two: (i) SEC, or another province, changing their doctrine of marriage away from that of Jesus Christ and to that of our current zeitgeist; (ii) Anglican churches being given episcopal oversight from another province. The correct question to ask of Justin Welby is this: In the Anglican church of our day, of all the actions that might contribute to some form of schism, which are the most serious sins, such that blame for the schism should be laid at their door?

Welby's answer may not have been clear before now, but Welby's and Idowu-Fearon's most recent responses to SEC and GAFCON have changed that.

A clear signal is being sent out: What SEC did is fine. They will not be censured on the basis of what the Anglican primates resolved in January 2016. Welby waited until they had made their big decision until he expressed his personal view on anything that was going on. When he did express his view, there was not one word of criticism for what happened in Scotland.

What is not fine is what GAFCON did in response. Their big sin, in Welby's eyes, is not schism: It takes two to tango. Their big sin is lack of institutional loyalty. To fail to be loyal to the institution of the Anglican Communion / Church of England is the biggest sin.

Justin Welby has shown that he prioritises institutional loyalty above faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in Holy Scripture.

Steering away from schism

What should the Archbishop of Canterbury do next?

At one level, that's a question I hesitate to ask. His job is an impossible one; I pray for him regularly, and if I were to attempt the role I would probably have crumpled under the pressure long ago.

It simply is not the case that institutional disloyalty is the number one sin of our day. All that GAFCON and the parishes in SEC like St Thomas Edinburgh are doing is recognising that a split has already occurred. Their denomination has moved away from the apostolic faith, once for all delivered to the saints. They simply wish to do three things: to continue to worship the one true God who has revealed himself in the person of his Son, to reach out to their neighbours with the good news of Jesus Christ, and to do all this as an Anglican church — led by godly bishops and in fellowship with other Anglican churches worldwide.

The number one sin is disloyalty to the Word of God and the word of God, not disloyalty to the denominational institution. It is this that causes schism and division.

GAFCON's intervention in Scotland may seem like a big deal. It's really very small, a mere shot across the bows for the Archbishop. The Church of England is much bigger than SEC. (In 2013, SEC hit the headlines because their weekly attendance had fallen below 35000; in 2016, the Church of England hit the headlines because weekly attendance had fallen below a million. The C of E is 30 times bigger than the SEC).

Andy Lines may offer oversight to Church of England parishes as well. (The GAFCON press release said that his appointment is especially for those in Europe, which is wider than Scotland.) If he did so, it would have to be for a handful of parishes, because there's only so much one bishop can do.

The Church of England is currently considering making the same change as the SEC. Sure, it's wrapped up in seemingly endless shared conversations, consultations, discussion papers and more. But we're moving towards a similar vote. Doubtless, there will be all kinds of provisions for those who hold to the Bible's view on marriage: talk of two integrities, conscience clauses and dodecadruple locks.

If the Church of England were to do this, it too would have moved away from apostolic Christianity. If that were to happen, the sheer comparative size of the Church of England would mean GAFCON wouldn't need one missionary bishop. An entire bench of bishops would be required. Justin Welby should be disturbed by what's happened in Scotland, not because of what it is in itself, but because it's a scale model for what could well happen in England.

It may be too late to keep the Church of England together, or at least to stop some groups of people and/or parishes from leaving. But the Archbishop of Canterbury has a choice.

If the Church of England were to split, how will he have used his influence?

Option 1: He could use his influence to aid and abet those who wish to lead the Church away from the one, true, catholic and apostolic church. If he does this, he will share with them the responsibility for the ensuing schism.

Option 2: He could use his influence to steer the Church of England firmly into orthodox waters, whilst leaving those who wish to leave such a church to do so. If he does this, he will share responsibility for preventing the Church of England from splitting from the worldwide Christian church, and he will have no responsibility for those who choose to secede from both.

His most recent actions suggest he's firmly pursuing option 1, but it's not too late. The delays caused by all the conversation have given him time to choose option 2 instead. But it will require firm, decisive leadership that makes this clear to all, and fast. To coin a phrase, he could yet say: "I've got us into this mess, so I'll get us out of it".

In Practice?

What would option 2 look like in practice?

Well, I've got an idea. But this post is long enough already. Maybe one day, I'll write another to outline the next practical steps that I believe could save the Church of England from committing schism.

We need to define schism correctly, If schism is to depart from Christ, his word, and his universal church, then it is the most serious sin in all the world.

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