The open letter to Canon Andy Lines of GAFCON UK from the Secretary-General of the Archbishops’ Council is very significant. It can be taken as the official position of the C of E leadership. Helpfully, the letter moves away from matters of tone and motive which tend to dominate discussion and gets to the real issue, namely, what is, or should be, the teaching of the worldwide Church on sexual ethics, and how do we apply this in the Church of England?
Underlying the letter is an institutional mentality which does not locate ecclesial authority with the unchanging Scriptural principles of apostolic Christianity, as affirmed by the global Church. Rather it puts confidence in legal process, with the effect that what is not ‘legally binding’ can be disregarded or relegated to the respected status of a historical curiosity. More than ever, GAFCON UK with its clear confessional grounding in the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration has a vital role to play in our current context.
THE GLOBAL ANGLICAN CONFLICT OVER SEXUAL MORALITY: AIRBRUSHED OUT?
The letter does not acknowledge at all the fractious recent history of the worldwide Anglican Communion since the Lambeth Conference of 1998. (George Conger has written a reflection on his own involvement in the formation of that document here ).
In short, Lambeth I:10 represented the mind of the Communion on the interpretation of Scripture concerning a key pastoral and missiological issue, and on how Anglicans can continue to have fellowship together. The majority of Anglicans rejoiced; in USA and Canada, however, the leadership did not accept the Resolution. The ensuing process aligned TEC and ACoC with Western cultural trends in undermining Judaeo-Christian sexual morality, which is so vital to cohesion in society and individual flourishing.
In the years that followed, the fabric of the Anglican Communion was torn, because of the attitude of a few members that they had no obligation to abide by the will of the group or the clear teaching of Scripture. There were years of agony as meeting after meeting of Primates failed to resolve the crisis of broken fellowship.
But thankfully, in 2008, a courageous group of Primates gathered a group of Anglicans from all over the world (including England) to meet in Jerusalem, to have fellowship, worship and listening to God’s word together, to recommit to the joint enterprise of reaching the world for Christ and serving its people. This was GAFCON, not a breakaway Anglican Communion, but representing the majority of the Communion; not seeking to undermine or rebel against authority but to restore proper authority to the church, the word of God rather than an institution. GAFCON, now firmly in partnership with the Global South movement, is continuing its task of renewing the Anglican Communion.
The letter issued by the Church of England ignores this recent history of departure from orthodoxy, global schism and restoration which is inseparable from any discussion of Lambeth I:10 and Anglican debates on sexual ethics. At best it can be seen as an ‘England-centric’ viewpoint; others may have good cause to see evidence of disregard for the fellowship and leadership of the global Anglican Communion.
THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND DOCTRINE OF SEXUALITY: ‘NO CHANGE’, BUT OPEN TO REINTERPRETATION IN PRACTICE?
Likewise, will Anglicans worldwide who hold to the historic, orthodox teaching on sexual ethics be reassured that this standard and practice will be maintained in the Church of England? To be sure, the letter sets out the legal situation regarding marriage and civil partnerships, and says there is “no formal proposal” to change the church’s teaching, which the majority and clergy and laity “have adhered to” (note past tense). But having downplayed the significance of Lambeth I:10 and rejected the possibility that its precepts can be violated because it has no legal authority, it does not say how the Church of England intends to maintain and commend the Christian doctrines of sex and marriage to the nation.
Instead, it gives bullet points (not referenced, but presumably coming from the Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance document of February 2014) which are extremely ambiguous and open to a number of different interpretations.
First, because clergy in civil partnerships are not legally married, this therefore apparently has “no bearing on the doctrine of marriage”. Technically true, but if clergy in civil partnerships are part of a psychological societal and congregational process of acceptance of same sex relationships, their presence will certainly influence the popular understanding of marriage away from what the Church has historically taught. Where does that leave the Church’s “doctrine of marriage”? A museum piece, perhaps, especially if it may not be supported by Lambeth I:10 but only a reference to the much longer and less accessible “Issues in Human Sexuality”?
Secondly, “clergy and laity are entitled to argue for changes to teaching and practice”. Again, of course we have freedom of speech! But this seems to open the door to the widespread promotion of any view, even an irresponsible disregard for core doctrines, which include marriage. This provision was no doubt originally intended to allow for a free exchange of views during the ‘Shared Conversation’ process. Its effect now will be again to undermine any idea of clear universally agreed teaching in which we can have confidence.
Thirdly, the letter says “prayers of support on a pastoral basis for people in same-sex relationships” are permitted in churches. This is very misleading: in its original context (The Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance of 2014) such private prayers were clearly distinguished from public ‘prayers of blessing’ which are explicitly not permitted. Without this clear distinction, public services of celebration of same sex relationships could be carried out under the guidelines of ‘pastoral prayer’ - and indeed such services are being carried out as the GAFCON document on Lambeth I:10 violations shows.
On one hand, then, the Church of England has an official doctrine of sex and marriage based on the wonderful fruitful biblical vision of godly celibate singleness, man and woman sacrificially committed to each other exclusively for life, a family of mum, dad and kids; power for living it out, forgiveness for all (ie the 100%) who fall short. But in practice the Church is extremely diffident about explaining or commending this vision, not just because it knows that many in the ranks of its own leadership don’t believe in it, but because it is more afraid of unpopularity from the secular British establishment and Twitter mobs than it is concerned about fellowship with the worldwide church or doing what is right before God.
So rather than changing the doctrine, the Church puts it on the shelf, and allows other beliefs and practices to take hold. The church officially believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, but Bishops can argue for same sex marriage, and clergy can conduct a ceremony which looks to all intents and purposes like the blessing of a same sex relationship, and it’s ‘within the guidelines’. If the line is crossed into same sex marriage, with laity it doesn’t matter; clergy have a private chat with the Bishop because discipline is a matter for them – they are not accountable to the worldwide church. In a postmodern world people are increasingly unconcerned about these contradictions.
The question to ask, then, is not “what will happen if the Church of England crosses the line and accepts same sex relationships”. It has already crossed that line in practice if not in the increasingly irrelevant official doctrine. The question is, what will the faithful do?
Let’s take a step back for a moment from the sharp public exchange between the Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council and GAFCON UK, and ask: what kind of Church do we want as Anglicans? Do we want our spiritual and moral guidance to come from bureaucratic interpretations of church law, or from the biblical revelation about humanity in relation to one another and God? Is our vision of the church narrowly confined to what we hope will be acceptable to the metropolitan elites in modern secular England, diffidently offering uncertainties as we continue our numerical decline? Or are we more excited by the reality of being part of a global Anglican future, a worldwide fellowship of disciples from almost every nation, tribe and tongue, confidently affirming the apostolic deposit of faith despite the cost, and encouraging one another to live it out with mutual accountability?