Church of England

The two opposed expressions of Anglicanism

There is a letter published in today’s Telegraph signed by 23 conservative (/traditionalists/orthodox) Anglicans concerning the tensions in the Church over England (and wider Anglicanism) over same-sex marriage and other gender-sexuality divisions. It is signed most prominently by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, and reads:

Sir,

Recent actions in the General Synod in pursuit of a culture which denies biblical ethics, as they have been practised and understood ‘at all places and in all times’, has caused many Anglicans great concern. There are times, particularly in the face of social disintegration, when it is the duty of the Church to be counter-cultural. The failure of the House of Bishops to uphold the teaching of the Bible and of the Universal Church in this area is very disappointing, if not surprising.

The booing of traditionalists and the levels of personal abuse aimed at them during the General Synod has only deepened mistrust between the different sides.

There are now effectively, at least, two opposed expressions of Anglicanism in this country. One which has capitulated to secular values, and one that continues to hold the faith ‘once delivered to the saints’.

We and others stand with the majority of faithful Anglican across the globe, in prioritising Scripture and the unanimous teaching of the universal Church over secular fashion. We note the results of this same conflict in North America, even as we look for and pray for a similar renewal of orthodox Anglicanism and of Anglican structures in these islands.

Yours faithfully,

Rev’d Dr. Gavin Ashenden, Former Chaplain to the Queen
Rev’d Nigel Atkinson, Vicar of St. John’s, Knutsford
Rev’d Dr. Mark Burkill, Chairman of Reform
Rev’d Tim Chapman, Minister of Christ Church South Cambs, AMiE
Rev’d Paul Darlington, Vicar of Oswestry Holy Trinity, Chair of Church Society
Rt. Rev’d John Ellison, AMiE Executive
Rev’d Dick Farr, Chairman of Church Society Trust
Rt. Rev’d Dr John Fenwick, Bishop Primus, Free Church of England
Fr. Martin Hislop, St. Luke’s, Kingston upon Thames
Rev’d Canon Nigel Juckes, Incumbent, Parish of Llandogo
Rt. Rev’d Josep Miquel Ferrer, Free Church of England
Rev’d Steven Hanna, St Elisabeth’s Church, Dagenham
Rt. Rev’d Paul Hunt, General Secretary, Free Church of England
Rev’d Lee McMunn, AMiE Mission Director
Rt. Rev’d Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, 106th Bishop of Rochester
Rev’d James Paice, Vicar of St. Luke’s Wimbledon Park, Trustee of Southwark Good Stewards Trust
Rev’d Dr. Peter Sanlon, Vicar of St. Mark’s Tunbridge Wells, Convener of Anglican Partnership Synod
Rev’d Dr Andrew Symes, Executive Secretary, Anglican Mainstream
Rev’d William Taylor, Rector of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, Chairman of Renew
Rev’d Melvin Tinker, Vicar of St. John’s Newland
Rev’d Robin Weekes, Minister of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon, Chair of Reform Southwark
Mrs Andrea Minchello Williams, CEO of Christian Concern and Christian Legal Centre

There is also an article in that newspaper headed ‘Queen’s former chaplain leads vicar rebellion over gay marriage‘, in which Education Editor Camilla Turner informs us that the Rev’d Dr Gavin Ashenden “threatens to break away from the Church of England”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he has already broken away, and did so some months ago. But he raises the prospect of a wider breakaway, beginning with many of the signatories to the above letter:

“This is a warning that the Archbishop is under notice that unless he leads the Church in a way that remains consistent with the values and authority of the bible as opposed to progressive secularism, he will risk some kind of revolt in the form of an independence movement,” he said.

…“We are saying if you don’t draw a halt at this point the same thing will happen here and there will be a significant number who will secede and reconstitute an Anglican church to keep faith with authentic Anglican Christianity,” Dr Ashenden said.

The Rev Dr Peter Sanlon, Vicar of St Mark’s Church in Tunbridge Wells, said that a lot of Anglican leaders are concerned “not just about votes at the General Synod regarding sexuality but also votes against the uniqueness of Christ and against urging all minister to share the gospel with the nation”.

Dr Sanlon, who also helped to organise the letter, added that “increasing numbers of orthodox Anglicans have lost confidence in the archbishops…”

And the Church of England’s official response to this warning of revolt, secession and schism?

A Church of England spokesman said: “As with any debating chamber, Synod often debates controversial issues and members can sometimes disagree strongly with each other. That is the nature of debate. If there is an issue the Chair will intervene. The expectation is that Synod members are courteous at all times both to each other and invited guests.”

Which kind of misses the point spectacularly. In fact, it blithely reduces the substance of the dispute to the soundness of debate and the imperative of courtesy, neither of which is in contention. The matter laid before us concerns “biblical ethics, as they have been practised and understood ‘at all places and in all times’”, set against “two opposed expressions of Anglicanism in this country. One which has capitulated to secular values, and one that continues to hold the faith ‘once delivered to the saints'”. The matter, then, is whether the Church of England is approaching (or has reached) that point where progressive liberal Anglicans who (it is alleged) advocate ‘secular values’ may continue to be in communion with those conservative Anglicans who believe it is their mission and vocation to be counter-cultural; to affirm “biblical ethics, as they have been practised and understood ‘at all places and in all times'”; “to hold the faith ‘once delivered to the saints'”.

And so we are concerned with gender, sex and sexuality viewed through the lens of Anglicanism, and debates about the essentials Anglican identity, with one side accusing the other of fomenting schism by compromising with the world, and that side accusing the other of impeding the church’s mission by retreating from the world. These tensions echo those within the Worldwide Anglican Communion, which mirror those in the Roman Catholic Church. This ‘humanity’ debate is by no means peculiar to Anglicanism: it is taking place, to varying degrees, in all church denominations all over the world. Or at least in those which aren’t preoccupied with inconvenient distractions such as existential persecution.

For some, Anglicanism and the Anglican tradition is strengthened and enhanced by continuing reformation on what are considered ‘second order’ issues, such as the nature of church authority, liturgy, sacramental ministry and moral theology. For others, these ‘second order’ issues are not so conveniently carved out: the orthodox understanding of the created order thereby becomes a ‘first order’ issue, touching on the nature of salvation and the sanctification of souls. Is there a via media to be found between these polarities, or would that be a compromise too far? Is this, in short, the end of Anglicanism as a coherent, empirical, identifiable worldwide communion, or is it simply a further diverse expression of that communion, which was itself born of division and fragmentation, not to mention contentious debates about sex and marriage.

The problem is that Anglicanism has always been provisional. As Paul Avis observes:

Its participation in catholicity is partial and incomplete. It can only aspire to a catholicity that remains ultimately eschatological – that is to say, it will be fulfilled when God’s plan of salvation is perfected beyond this life. All parts of the Christian Church, large and small, not just Anglicanism, stand in this position of incompleteness and fragmentation vis-à-vis the catholic Church of the Creed. There is no already existing empirical ‘body’… with which Anglicanism seeks a home, except in the universal Church (The Identity of Anglicanism [2007:2]).

And so Anglicanism will continue fragmenting as humanity continues diversifying, for that is the inescapable framework of its ecclesial foundation. The “two opposed expressions of Anglicanism” to which Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali et al refer are simply two more opposing expressions in a long line of opposing expressions, as might be considered consistent with Anglicanism’s historical provisionality and the mortal reality that, for now, we see in mirrors darkly. We live in a world of concentric ecclesial communities forever separating from each other, each led by their own infallible pope or popes of genuinely expressed irreconcilable mysteries. Communion is impaired and unity remains invisible because the Church awaits the eschatological consummation.

So, write your open letters to the Telegraph about the impending CofE schism. Make your pejorative sociological judgments on ‘Sunday Morning Live’, proclaim your confessional soundbites on ‘The Big Questions’, and issue your episcopal condemnations via the Times.

It is a very secular strategy, steeped in secular values.