50 Theses on the Future of the Church of England

1) The Church of England itself, like the wider Anglican Communion is facing a crisis that compares with the 16th century Reformation. Bishop Stephen Sykes speaks of de facto or de iure schism. Is such a development inevitable? Sykes says it "seems to me that, humanly speaking, it is very probable."

2) Richard Hooker, the 16th century Anglican theologian, defined the Church as both "a society and a society supernatural". Churches do not cease to be human societies because they are Christian. So, organizational realities as well as divine realities are important for churches. Four things are required of any organization (including a church) for it to succeed – an agreed agenda, competent leadership, enabling structures and client sensitivity.

3) The division spoken about in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion is occurring because there is no real agreed agenda. For example, in a 2002 survey published recently by Christian Research as Believe it or not! – what Church of England clergy actually believe, there was found, I quote,

"the existence side-by-side of two separate churches under the cloak of Anglicanism. One of these is essentially credally orthodox and committed to the historic faith and Apostolic mission of the Church; the other is wrapped in the garments of Christian language, but has only the most tenuous grasp of the central teachings of the faith."

4) The Church of England is committed to principled comprehensiveness –

"agreement on fundamentals, while tolerating disagreement on matters in which Christians may differ without feeling the necessity of breaking communion" (Lambeth Conference 1968).

5) The fundamentals for the Church of England are (constitutionally) summarized in Canon A5 which states:

"The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures and in such teaching of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal."

6) While there may be dispute with regard to particular fundamentals, the Church of England, unlike some churches, has nevertheless been committed to the distinction between essentials and secondary issues. It has held that while some things considered by some as fundamental are disputable, others, if there is an honest and rational commitment to the Holy Scriptures and those subordinate authorities cited in Canon A5, are clearly central and not marginal.

7) The prohibition against homosexual intercourse and the concomitant general sexual morality is such a central and non marginal fundamental prohibition. The Church of England bishops have concluded there is …

"in Scripture an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings. Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable" (Issues in Human Sexuality p 18).

8) The present crisis springs from some leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, denying that this sexual ethic is fundamental but secondary and so homosexual practice can be permitted. At a Primates' Meeting in Portugal he asked "the bare question" as he put it –

"are we really prepared to say that Christians who are united in their affirmation of a single baptism in the threefold name of the Trinity, of the authority of Scripture in matters of doctrine, of the creeds of the undivided Church, and of Episcopal ministry are not mutually recognizable to one another as Christians when they differ on matters of sexual ethics?"

9) Richard Hooker would argue that that was an improper question. He would answer by distinguishing schism, heresy and apostasy. Apostates he would not recognize as Christians. He would, however, recognize schismatics and heretics as schismatical and heretical Christians. The latter are to be "recognized", but so far as they are unrepentant over their teaching of sexual immorality, not to be tolerated. The risen Christ says to the Church at Thyatira:

"I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality" (Rev 2.20)

10) General appeals to "the authority of Scripture" in the current pluralistic church carry little weight. Theology engaging with post modernism can result in a reader-response approach to the bible, where texts no longer mean what they say. In a recent book prefaced by the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is suggested that we have to be uprooted "from the comfortable and unchallenged notion that it is possible to reach agreement on the clear meaning of the biblical texts."

11) The Anglican doctrine is, however, that of the general "perspicuity" of the Scriptures:

"Although many things in the Scripture be spoken in obscure mysteries, yet there is nothing spoken under dark mysteries in one place, but the self-same thing in other places is spoken more familiarly and plainly, to the capacity both of learned and unlearned" (A fruitful exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture, Homilies 1.i).

Without such a belief there is a practical loss of the Scriptures and there can be no agreed agenda.

12) Not surprisingly the Church of England seems lacking in competent leadership. With such doctrinal indiscipline corporate leadership at the diocesan and parish level will often be at the "lowest common denominator". We now know the following – that …

… 18 percent of the clergy do not believe "in God the Father who created the world"; 47 percent do not believe "that Jesus Christ was born of a Virgin"; 25 percent do not believe "that Jesus Christ died to take away the sins of the world;" 46 percent do not believe "that Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead"; 49 percent do not believe "that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way by which we can be saved"; 23 percent do not believe "that the Holy Spirit is a person who empowers Christians today" (Christian Research, op cit).

13) The leaders acceptable to such a constituency will normally be those tolerant of such a wide spectrum and so by definition theologically liberal.

14) The Church of England is in serious decline. Currently 50 percent of churches are declining with 30 percent growing – but these are mostly in Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic parishes. In the 1990s the truly significant growth was that of "mainstream" (as distinct from "broad" or "charismatic") Evangelicals and, it would seem, represented by members of the Reform network. They saw a massive 320 percent growth but from a very small base. Over all, however, the Church of England faces "slow death", a situation not unknown in large secular corporations and industries.

15) Where there is "slow death", the majority in leadership follow a policy of "peace and pay", maintaining the status quo and not "rocking the boat". This is to cope with slow death by choosing slow death. Others follow a strategy of "active exit" – in the church that means leaving the ministry or changing denominations.

16) "Deep Change" is the only solution to "slow death". To quote one management consultant, this …

"… happens only when someone cares enough to exercise the courage to uncover the issues no one dares to recognize or confront. It means someone must be enormously secure and courageous."

It will involve, when right, "breaking the rules" (for some of the rules are strangling the organization to death); risking your job; and, in the words of a management metaphor, "walking naked into the land of uncertainty" – there will be no simple "business plan":

17) "Deep Change" leaders are transformatory leaders. Such are needed for movements of "revitalization". Such were Wesley and Whitefield. According to social scientists:

"revitalization movements prosper when leaders arise who clearly articulate the cultural crisis … [but] such leaders can serve transformation or reaction. They can embody the needed revitalization or a reactionary fundamentalism tied to old shibboleths."

18) This is the crisis for the Evangelical constituency at the moment. Many leaders in the "orthodox" Church of England are following a reactionary path. Their goal seems to be to recreate a present similar to an idealized past when there was a legitimate Anglican comprehensiveness – in the late 1950's prior to the dissolution of the 1960's – the days of the young Mr Stott and his important university missions; the young Dr Packer and his slow but significant erudition and the ebullient Mr Green and his infectious enthusiasm. It is a strategy of reform through rational pleading and ever greater involvement in existing structures.

19) Some must follow that strategy. It will not, however, reverse the course of "slow death". The past was not so wonderful - it has given us the present! And the present culture is so different from the past that 1950's patterns and solutions often will be irrelevant. The experts say:

"revitalization moves beyond reaction only when these movements include adherents who are willing to experiment with new cultural forms."

20) At the denominational level the Church of England, along with the majority of mainline denominations is dysfunctional. In the 16th century the Church of England was evolving into a federation of churches connected by the Crown, the episcopate, the Prayer Book and the Thirty-nine Articles. By the 18th century denominations became a reality as new federations were formed, linked by whatever made them distinctive – presbyteries, independency, baptismal practice or the Quaker ethic. In the 19th century, with the growth of Evangelicalism and the missionary movements followed by the need for social and educational organizations, denominations became "corporations".

21) These lasted until the undisciplined theological innovations of the 1960's. Then the evaporation of the old theological consensus meant denominations "as corporations" could no longer work on behalf of those they represented. The denominations now became simply centralized "regulatory agencies". Their function is little more than to hold budgets and try to tell people what they can or cannot do. The result – denominational breakdown.

22) Churches are "voluntary non-profit organizations", with no sanctions or power, certainly not over the laity. The new denominational regulatory agencies, therefore, have a problem. Lay people who are Bible believing and can administer multimillion pound companies, perform sophisticated surgical operations, or lead modern educational institutions do not take kindly to less than brilliant clergy (even if they are bishops or moderators) or clericalized lay people telling them, from denominational headquarters, what to believe or how much to give in support of causes of which they disapprove.

23) The Church of England, of course, is not a denomination grounded in "synods" or structures. Nor is it grounded in the bishops – a claim made in the 19th century. It is grounded, constitutionally, in the Holy Scriptures and its social embodiment is in the local congregation (Article XIX).

24) In terms of planning, wise Christians pray for miracles and plan on likelihoods. The likelihood is that no solution to the slow death of the Church of England (or to the problems of the Anglican Communion) will come from the centre and the existing leadership.

25) The solution will come – and is coming - informally at first, from a new federal structure of autonomous local Anglican churches but united together under members of the historic episcopate who confess the historic doctrines of the Church of England as enshrined in Canon A5. These churches are especially likely to develop in dioceses where there is teaching in support of the homosexual agenda, or where there is support for open homosexual relationships among the clergy.

26) Nor are such churches out of line with a 2002 resolution from the Anglican Primates' Meeting in Canterbury, 10-17 April 2002 (section 7):

"Primates need to be open to the development of new patterns of ministry within the inherited legal framework of our tradition – for example, non-geographical networks within our geographically structured dioceses, and perhaps even transcending diocesan boundaries along the lines of the work of religious orders with specific ministry commitments."

Now in 2003, developments are needed outside "the inherited legal framework". In the recent words of the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, there will be "new alignments" and a "weakening of territorial jurisdiction". He says, it will be "messy as far as all this is concerned."

27) Following the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974 there is a clear duty not only on bishops but also on clergy to "banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word".

28) Since the "heresy" trials of the 19th century, where at one and the same time cases were won but causes were lost, the use of the courts to restrain heretical bishops is no longer an option for maintaining sound doctrine. This was finally decided by Evangelical clergy at the time of the former Bishop of Durham and his denials of the virginal conception and his doubts of the empty tomb. That, however, did not excuse those clergy from the obligations of the last section of Article XXVI which recognizes that …

"… sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments … Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed."

Without recourse to the courts, "messy" options are all that remain. To be "regular" in doctrine, clergy and churches are now having to be "irregular" in matters of order. They now have to rely on the judgment of God and of history.

29) The imperative of "getting the gospel out" and the need to be "client sensitive" means that leaders – in parishes especially - need a radical willingness to experiment in terms of structures and methodologies. There simply needs to be an adherence to the fundamental principles enshrined in Canon A5.

30) Getting the gospel out – evangelism - is the primary goal after the worship of God. The concern for "maintaining" the gospel and guarding it is also an imperative. There is a direct connection between false teaching and spiritual blindness. The resistance to the former Bishop of Durham in the North East was because local churches found their own evangelism undermined by the bishop's doctrinal denials.

31) St Paul's address to the Ephesian elders reminds us that his ministry was characterized by "serving the Lord with great humility and with tears." And he knew that being faithful to Jesus Christ meant opposition. But he believed the gospel was worth dying for.

"I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace."

32) The gospel to be got out has to be the "gospel of God's grace". That is why Evangelicals are committed to staying in the Church of England defined not by its synods but by its doctrine. They want to see it disciplined to a principled comprehensiveness with those promoting heresy split off until they repent or believe. Evangelicals believe that the Thirty-nine Articles, embedded in Canon A5 contain a good statement of this "gospel of God's grace". They believe, too, that the Church of England as constituted is committed to the "whole will of God".

33) St Paul tells the leaders of the church: "keep watch over yourselves" – it is always easier to see the faults in others – "and over all the flock". The reason for such watchfulness over the flock is, he says, because …

"after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth."

34) Leaders need to be competent in their ability to "fight the wolf". Nor at the moment are these "savage wolves" who "distort the truth" just in episcopal churches in the US and Canada. They are also in the Church of England. Sadly and seriously, the Archbishop of Canterbury, while still maintaining that homosexual intercourse in certain circumstances is compatible with Christian discipleship, is "distorting the truth". So, too, is the Bishop of Oxford and all those bishops who have written in support of Jeffrey John – a man who aggressively teaches the rightness of homosexual sex and has not repented of his former lifestyle.

35) Paul did not speak about structures to the Ephesian elders. But his appointment of elders indicates the importance of structured leadership in the church. There is a need, therefore, for those in dioceses where there is impaired communion with the bishop over the homosexual issue to make alternative provision.

36) Evangelicals wanting to prevent the "slow death" of the Church of England will want their senior leaders to be validly ordained, if irregularly so. Hence the need in some areas for alternative episcopal oversight and new arrangements for succession. With regard to any new structures, these will usually follow new life rather than precede it.

37) It is always easier to give birth than raise the dead. That is why around the country there are many signs of new life. At such a time it is particularly important to remember that the majority of Bishops have not publicly supported the homosexual cause. We should not assume opposition where there is none. Also Christian Research has shown that half the clergy are orthodox – that must include many who do not class themselves as "Evangelical".

38) Until there is public repentance and a change of belief there must be impaired communion with those who "distort the truth". This seems to some unnecessarily rigorous. That is because currently there is a loss of "outrage".

39) In 1979 I was on the Board for Social Responsibility and we had the first report on homosexuality entitled Homosexual Relationships. It is unthinkable that at that time even middle of the road churchmen, let alone Evangelicals, would have invited to open their Congress a person who publicly admits to ordaining a man who he knew had a homosexual partner and who acknowledges, I quote, "that 'conforming your life … to Christ' doesn't necessarily mean giving up a homosexual lifestyle."

40) Last summer I signed a letter to the Prime Minister along with Mark Ashton, Richard Bewes, Jonathan Fletcher, Angus Macleay, Hugh Palmer, Vaughan Roberts and William Taylor. We said:

"such actions and views fly in the face of the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures and the resolutions of the Lambeth Conference 1998. Rowan Williams would not have the confidence of the vast majority of Anglicans in the world, who are now in the third world and who, as loyal Anglicans, take the Holy Scriptures as their supreme authority. His appointment would lead to a major split in the Anglican Communion (including the Church of England)."

41) If we do not take initiatives ourselves – but assume that Rowan Williams will sort out the problems at a Primates' Meeting – we are living in "cloud-cuckoo-land". The fundamental issue, which is the presenting problem and behind which are many more crucial issues, is the homosexual issue. Rowan Williams, however, believes that these matters of sexual ethics are not fundamental and church defining. We and the majority of the Anglican Communion believe they are.

42) There is a point at which we must say, "thus far and no further." If a bishop said that Jews or Muslims should be put in gas-chambers, some would still invite him to open their Congress. Such an issue was real for the members of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and they stood firm while the "German Christians", however, compromised.

43) In the 1990's such an issue faced Anglicans in Rwanda. We now know that the previous Archbishop of Rwanda compromised over the genocide. He was rightly disciplined, with pressure from the former Archbishop of Canterbury. But why should white European and North American bishops and archbishops have the privilege of indiscipline, when black African bishops and archbishops do not? This surely is a form of racism! Praise God, for the current uncompromising Archbishop of Rwanda who has shown courage against hostility from other bishops in doing what is right and consecrating missionary bishops to evangelise and minister in the area of the decadent ECUSA, through the Anglican Mission in America.

44) There is a point, too, where we must say, "thus far and no further" in terms of the Church of England's establishment. If we are to be client sensitive with regard to the national Christian constituency, we must work for a measure of disestablishment. We cannot have Prince Charles as the supreme governor of the Church of England in the light of his relationship with Mrs Parker Bowles.

45) It would indeed be homophobic to confine sexual immorality to homosexuals and excuse heterosexual immorality. We need to be aware that liberal theologians in the Church of England are already supporting heterosexual immorality. A senior clergymen is now publicly proposing that the Church of England "abandon an undiscriminating opposition to pre-marital sexual intercourse".

46) Never again should we have the Prime Minister selecting an Archbishop of Canterbury. The choice of the Chairman of the Crown Appointments Commission for Canterbury is uniquely the Prime Minister's. This last time, the Prime Minister selected Dame Butler Schloss as chairman - a woman known for her public support of parenting by homosexuals. It is not surprising that Rowan Williams secured the nomination. On the previous occasion, the late Lord Caldecote chaired the Commission, an Evangelical and Thatcher appointee. It is not surprising that George Carey secured the nomination. But is this the right way to discover God's will?

47) The further erosion of the establishment will mean the loss of episcopal influence in the House of Lords. That is sad. But not infrequently their influence has been less than benign. For example, a little before the Bishop of Oxford had proposed Jeffrey John for Reading, he spoke in the Lords in support of, and so influenced the debate on, homosexual adoption. Many saw this as a terrible proposal that now means the use of vulnerable children in a project where research suggests there will be positive harm.

48) St Paul said to the Ephesian elders, "for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears." Currently we too must spend much time in "warning" as we seek to defend the "gospel of God's grace". However, this homosexual debate in the Church of England has been raging since 1979. The General Synod then voted massively for an orthodox position in 1987 only to find that the Bishops immediately sought to overturn the result with new working parties. They succeeded with the fog of Issues on Human Sexuality. After a quarter of a century the time, indeed, has come for an ending of the Church debate and for "deep change".

49) The needs of the world mean we must spend more time creatively in evangelism, church growth and church planting. But as Hebrews says in the context of living "in peace with all men" and of holiness and sexual morality:

"See to it that no-one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no-one is sexually immoral."

50) This deep change will come from "below". It needs to be patient, measured, thoughtful and not vindictive. To help with this process I am reconvening in November, after half a century, the Jesmond Conference. We will not be seeking headlines, rather careful "brain-storming sessions" with two overseas bishops as consultants. Our goal is not to demonize those with whom we disagree but to help each other to get the gospel out in the light of the social realities in both the church and the world.

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