An English View

Introduction

I am vicar of Jesmond, in Newcastle upon Tyne in England. We have nearly 1000 different people in church every Sunday - that is not large for some areas of the world, but for the Church of England it is: many are young, many are professional, many are students and many come from overseas.

But Jesmond Parish Church has rejected the spiritual oversight of the diocesan bishop, Martin Wharton, because he openly endorsed the principle that "faithful, lifelong, committed and permanent [homosexual] relationships are permitted - certainly amongst the lay members of the church, but that cannot be the position for the priests." Other parishes are taking a similar position.

This is a problem not only for Newcastle in the Province of York. It is also a problem for the Worcester diocese in the Province of Canterbury. The current Bishop of Worcester, Peter Selby, has written that "most of the biblical statements about homosexuality seem to me to be unacceptable". It was this man, the Bishop of Worcester, who said that the Lambeth Conference was like a "Nuremberg Rally!" One parish there already seems to be rejecting the oversight of the bishop and needing help immediately.

The situation is clearly not as bad in the Church of England as it is in ECUSA. However it is growing and serious in England. The Bishop of Norwich said in the House of Lords on 13 April 1999 in the debate concerning lowering the age of consent for homosexuals that there was a division within the House of Bishops. About one third would support lowering the age of consent, he said. That means that in time there will be more parishes rejecting the spiritual oversight of their bishop. Already there are problems with the Bishop of Bath and Wells, a bishop in the Province of Canterbury. The bishop, Jim Thompson, is chairman of the Church of England's Children's Society. Under his chairmanship the society has recently changed its policy on adoption and fostering to permit gay and lesbian couples to adopt and foster.

But in England parishes that reject the spiritual oversight of their bishop on the grounds of their teaching and stance on the homosexual issue, have no provision of other oversight. The "flying bishops" are a provision only for the issue of the ordination of women. Furthermore, a "flying bishop" provides only extended oversight and this can operate only with the permission of the bishop whose oversight is being rejected as heretical.

Let me say, too, while I am still talking about myself that culturally and by temperament I am thoroughly English: I am cautious, conservative and careful. I am somewhat academic, having taught at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, before moving to Jesmond 27 years ago. I am, therefore, not someone who by instinct wants precipitate action.

Also I have had a wide knowledge of the structural life of the Church of England. For 15 years I was on the General Synod of the Church of England - and its boards and councils, including its Standing Committee and Policy Sub-Committee under Robert Runcie. I worked with Runcie at close quarters for five years and I, sadly, came to the conclusion that the gospel was seriously eroded during Robert Runcie's archiepiscopate. The two key symptoms of that erosion were the homosexualization of the church and the multi-faith agenda, with its teaching that Jesus Christ is not the only way.

And I learnt this significant lesson: that change, reformation and leadership is less likely to come from the Western Anglican churches - such as those in the UK or USA. It more likely to come from Africa and South East Asia with help from South America.

I learnt, too, that English Evangelicals, as they get involved in the structures, often are subtly seduced by them - they then lose their cutting edge; they even lose their biblical faith.

One evangelical friend of mine became the secretary for the Board for Social Responsibility of the General Synod; he later became a bishop. But he was the one who preached the sermon at the notorious gay and lesbian anniversary service in Southwark Cathedral - a service that was an "abomination".

Other evangelicals as they get involved in the structures are either intimidated or frustrated by them so that they find it very hard to take action. I believe that may be true of another evangelical friend (from his time at Durham, when he regularly preached at Jesmond Parish Church, took Jesmond Parish house parties and was a member of the local evangelical fellowship) - George Carey.

But action now needs to be taken. Action is required. It is required because of the enormity of the problem.

There are times of real crisis in the church - with issues literally of life and death. That was true of the Arian crisis in the early centuries of the church. That was true at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. That was true at the time of the Deist controversy in the 18th century - a controversy that the great evangelical revival resolved. And that is true today, with the paganizing of the church.

So how, as Anglicans, should we address this situation?

Anglicans like to use arguments from the Bible, Tradition and Reason, although Hooker, to whom that trilogy goes back, always said that the Bible is the supreme authority and must judge church Tradition and Reason. So, with that caution, let us take the Bible, Tradition and Reason and in that order.


First, THE BIBLE

Steve Noll, soon to be the vice-chancellor of the new Christian University here in Uganda, drew my attention to the relevance of the letter of the risen Jesus to the church at Thyatira in Revelation 2.18-27.

There were four groups or elements in the Church of Thyatira.

There was Jezebel who "by her teaching ... misleads my servants into sexual immorality" and idolatry (verse 20).

Then there were those who were her disciples and "commit adultery with her" (verse 22).

But there were also some very good Christian people who were growing in "love and faith, and service and perseverance." And yet these were the real problem people in the church. They are the ones Jesus is primarily concerned with in this letter. And he says this:

"I have this against you - you tolerate that woman."

It was not that they were infected by her teaching (as yet). They were not like those "who commit adultery with her." They simply just did nothing.

Finally there was a fourth group of people who presumably had a more radical rejection of Jezebel. They were told to "hold on".

However we exegete that passage, "sexual immorality" and "idolatry" are lines in the sand! And, of course, homosexual activity is a sub-species of sexual immorality; and the multi-faith agenda is a sub-species of idolatry. These, therefore, are primary issues, not secondary issues. They call for swift discipline (or its equivalent) not dialogue and discussion.

Anglicanism has never been comprehensive over primary issues, only secondary issues. Error and heresy over primary issues requires not gentle and lengthy negotiations but immediate action. In the Church of England we are legally bound - I am legally bound - "to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's word" (1662 Ordinal). And under the Church of England's Canon C18 every bishop is also bound to do that.

But what, you ask, about unity? In my own scriptural reading yesterday, I read Hebrews 12. Verse 14 struck me in the light of our discussions: "make every effort to live in peace with all men." I believe that is so important and by "style" Anglicans seek, rightly, to do that. But the verse immediately goes on, "[make every effort to live in peace with all men] and to be holy." The writer then goes on to talk about a "bitter root" that can "defile many". And verse 16 applies this to "sexual immorality". It is quite clear that "making every effort to live in peace" is compatible with firm and decisive action to root out "bitter roots". There has to be disunity with respect to people like Jezebel (who probably was a very nice woman, in outward appearance).

Perhaps one of the most important passages on unity is John 17 verses 20-21. Jesus has been praying for his disciples - his apostles - and then he says:

"my prayer is not for them alone [his 1st century apostles]. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their [the apostles'] message [i.e. the church, or believers, of all succeeding generations] that all of them may be one ... "

He is praying for the unity of the church of succeeding generations, not among itself - among its current members - but for the unity of the church of succeeding generations with the apostles or their message - the apostolic teaching. As there is that unity with the apostles, so there will become a unity within the church of succeeding generations. Conversely as there is disunity between any church of succeeding generations and the apostolic church, so there will be disunity within that church.

Finally on the Bible, what does it say about action? Somethings in God's purposes have to wait beyond the life time of individuals on many occasions. That is obvious. But calls for obedience have to be acted on immediately: that is also an obvious teaching throughout the Bible and hardly calls for comment.


Secondly, TRADITION

How does our Anglican tradition help us at such a time as this? Very simply, it suggests that leadership at times of crisis comes not from waiting for a consensus, but (at times of crisis, not in more normal times) leadership comes from visionary men taking action.

Take the establishment of the Anglican Communion which, in effect, began 200 years ago with the founding of the CMS (the Church Missionary Society) in 1799 and with whom I worked for a period in the sixties in the Sudan.

The founders of CMS included such people as Charles Simeon of Holy Trinity, Cambridge. They were opposed by the then authorities - bishops in the church. Some bishops refused to ordain men to go overseas. As evangelicals they were objected to on doctrinal grounds: they were called "Calvinists". But the imperatives of the gospel meant that "the system" had to be defeated - men had to be ordained. The first ordinations were in 1813.

Fortunately there were some bishops who broke ranks and were willing to act irregularly. Bishop Ryder (Bishop of Gloucester, then of Lichfield and Coventry) and Bishop Bathurst (Bishop of Norwich) were prepared to ordain "men at the [CMS] committee's request, accepting as a title the committee's agreement to employ them" (Stock, History of CMS, vol. 1, p 245). Even the Archbishop of York ordained men in this way on two or three occasions. But then in 1819 came the Colonial Service Act. This Act of Parliament regularized any irregularities and the Bishop of London then had the responsibility for ordaining men, or seeing that they were ordained, for the colonies.

The point is this: our Anglican communion, which we represent from all over the world, had its beginnings, formally, with irregularities. The founders of CMS didn't wait for the religious establishment to provide for ordination. They sought out bishops who would be willing to put the needs of the gospel before the niceties of secondary issues - keeping to the letter of the regulations.

This also was the position taken by Luther at the time of the Reformation. He had to act irregularly. His argument was simple: "would it not be unnatural if a fire broke out in a city and everybody were to stand by and let it burn on and on and consume everything that could burn because nobody had the authority of the mayor, or because, perhaps, the fire broke out in the mayor's house? In such a situation is it not the duty of every citizen to arouse and summon the rest? How much more should this be done in the spiritual city of Christ if a fire of offence breaks out, whether in the papal government, or anywhere else."

In the early centuries of the church - at the time of the Arian crisis - Athanasius acted irregularly. According to the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates (AD 380-450) Athanasius ...

"... admonished the inhabitants of every city to beware of the Arians, and to receive those only that professed the Homoousian faith. In some of the churches also he performed ordination; which afforded another grounds of accusation against him, because of his undertaking to ordain in the dioceses of others."


Thirdly, REASON

Reason says that the Primates' Meeting in March will not be able to solve our problems unless there is some action before hand. Apart from key revisionist Primates being present, and the agenda and the management of the meeting being steered by a liberal secretariat, the Primates will not properly be able to assess the facts. It has taken us three days of solid presentations from the various interested parties and then serious discussion, not to mention the preceding written submissions and the "Come and See" programme of visits to the US, for this meeting to be able to grapple with the issues in a constructive way. Good decisions can only be taken on a proper understanding of the facts. The Primates at Lisbon will not have the opportunity of hearing from First Promise and the rest of us. Through no fault of their own, they are unlikely to have adequate information to be able to take any radical decision. At best they could decide for "further work" to be done!

Reason also says that our group of Primates here at Kampala are a minority and are unlikely, from "cold", to be able to persuade enough of the other Primates with the likes of Richard Holloway and Frank Griswold present who will oppose their position.

"Structurally" it will be easier for the Primates' meeting in Lisbon to react to alternative episcopal oversight already on the ground and so already on the agenda of the Anglican Communion, than for that meeting to initiate a solution to all the problems.

A number of the structures we have inherited (and which have only recently been formed) in the Anglican Communion are flawed. Our quarrel is not with Anglican beliefs, grounded as they are on the Bible as the supreme authority and the Fathers and Councils of the Church that are congruous with the Bible - such beliefs are found in the 39 Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. Rather we see the structures manipulated in ways that undermine those true Anglican beliefs. Reason says that these structures are not sacrosanct. So the March meeting of the Primates in Lisbon needs to react to initiatives taken before the meeting. To wait for the advice of the meeting is likely to mean waiting for a long time and so will further damage the cause of the gospel. And then for our Primates to act after the Lisbon meeting may well be said to be "disobedient" and "divisive". This will certainly be the case if the meeting says that no action should be taken without a consensus.

Reason, therefore, says that our Primates should follow two courses of action now.

First, they should act immediately to provide alternative oversight in the US and then, where necessary, elsewhere before March. This is by way of "emergency action". Missionary bishops, for example, could be appointed by "overseas" dioceses to act where needed.

Secondly, our Primates should produce, and present, to the Lisbon meeting of all the Primates, a serious document that will address the wider problems that lie behind the paganizing of ECUSA and to a lesser extend the Church of England and other Anglican churches around the world. The issues need to be confronted head on and up front. This is vital and urgent for the health (and survival, long term) of the Anglican Communion.

The Archbishop of Canterbury would find it difficult to initiate any solution himself, but if there is a division at the Primates meeting in Lisbon between the orthodox Christian Primates and the liberal, semi-pagan revisionists, he will side with the orthodox. But there needs to be a "practical demonstration" on the ground already to highlight the problem, let alone to meet desperate pastoral and evangelistic needs that cannot wait.

Nor would the provision of alternative episcopal oversight where there is currently heretical oversight be "innovative" and so requiring consultation. It is not like the ordination of women. It is simply Christian obedience. Even Cyprian could say "a people obedient to the precepts of the Lord is bound to separate itself from a sinful prelate." And Anglican Article 26 (of the 39), while it makes clear that "sometimes the evil have chief authority" in the church and their ministry still can be valid, "nevertheless" it also makes clear that such men are not to continue in office. According to the Article they are to be "deposed". When the structures fail to enable basic discipline, other solutions have to be tried.

Yes, they will involve irregularity. The structures that determine regularity have to be bye-passed. But, and with this I will close, the willingness to ignore protocol is in direct proportion to how serious you see the problem. If the future of the gospel is at stake, the higher "canons" must override the lower "canons". And the supreme canon, of course, is the "canon" of Scripture. A decision from Kampala not to act now will be interpreted as the evangelical Primates saying they are willing for Christ's church to be desecrated; and that the honour and name of the Lord Jesus Christ is less important than the "regularities" of a decadent church.

Remember the "good" Christians of Thyatira and their problem: it was a tolerance of sexual immorality and idolatry. And Jesus says: "He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 2.29).

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