A Dangerous Structure: Can General Synod Stave Off Collapse?

david at virtueonline.org david at virtueonline.org
Fri Jul 2 22:14:25 EDT 2010

A Dangerous Structure: Can General Synod Stave Off Collapse? 
The Church of England is becoming an increasingly unsafe place for the gospel.

by Charles Raven
Special to Virtueonline
July 2, 2010

 London's Lambeth Council has some helpful advice on its website about dangerous structures: 'If you notice a building or structure that appears to be in a dangerous condition, or in serious neglect, an engineer will inspect the problem and take the necessary action. If the structure is unsafe, but there is no immediate danger, then the owner will be contacted to make it safe - if they don't, they may face enforcement action.'

There is no question of course that the material fabric of Lambeth Palace, the historic London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, is in good order. In fact, the Archbishop's website reassures us that there are 'plans for future work to upgrade the fabric of the Palace', but the spiritual fabric of the Church over which he presides is looking increasingly precarious.

Many believe that the Church of England's forthcoming General Synod in York may well be the last chance the proprietors have to stave off collapse - and there are strong hints of enforcement action if they fail to take adequate steps.

The immediate pressure on the Church of England's structures comes from the relentless drive to see women in the episcopate on terms which will effectively eject those who cannot in conscience accept female oversight. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have belatedly put forward a formula which, they believe, recognizes that both those who oppose and those who accept women's ordination are 'loyal Anglicans' as agreed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference (Resolution III.2.c), but for their pains have been upbraided in an open letter by curate Lindsey Southern, a member of the committee of the feminist pressure group WATCH (Women and the Church), for adopting a 'smoke and mirrors' strategy.

Such boldness from a junior member of the clergy reflects a growing confidence about convictions which are held with evangelical passion, but are energized by political fashion rather than the gospel. Within the Anglican world, the leading expositor of this counterfeit gospel is the American Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. According to the New Zealand Anglican website Anglican Taonga she claimed last week that the legacy of slavery had shaped the struggle for women's rights just as it had the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s and it reported '"the move for gay and lesbian rights," she told an Auckland forum this morning, "has followed that same trajectory."'

A half page advertisment by WATCH in today's Church of England Newspaper neatly illustrates her thinking. Headed 'Gifted, Called, Consecrated...Women Bishops of the Anglican Communion 2010', it includes pictures of the Anglican Communion's 28 female bishops, including Mary Glasspool, the partnered lesbian suffragan bishop of Los Angeles. And the point of this? Surrounded by the assembled dignitaries, of whom 17 are from TEC alone, is the prominent slogan 'England...Still Waiting' - waiting, that is, not only for female bishops, but also for partnered lesbian and gay bishops too.

The chances of the Church of England being able to resist this inexorable pressure must be rated as virtually nil. John Richardson has recently documented the alarming loss of nerve occurring amongst the Church of England's House of Bishops as a growing number, including some who identify as evangelicals, embrace the incoherence of 'optional orthodoxy'. Rowan Williams has done much to create a climate where this is acceptable. If even the Archbishop of Canterbury can articulate orthodox Anglican teaching on the neuralgic question of sexuality while refusing to renounce his personal disagreement with it, then it becomes easy to think of doctrinal issues as organisational rules rather than matters of conviction - and so the attempt to get some doctrinal underpinning underneath the structure is never going to be convincing.

The speed at which the English episcopate is retreating from the position established by Lambeth Resolution 1.10 of 1998 was underscored by a further development following John Richardson's article - the Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Revd John Hind, known as a leading traditionalist on the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church, has given his blessing to a project by the gay pressure group Changing Attitude to compile a list of the extent to which churches in his diocese are 'gay friendly'.

He has justified this on the basis that Lambeth Resolution 1.10 called for a 'listening process', but as regular readers will know, the 'listening process' now promoted as part of the Windsor process is a spurious and contradictory interpretation of the resolution - see for instance Moses Tay: A Prophet confronts Lambeth Pragmatism name . So we now have a senior conservative bishop who, according to an officially sanctioned press release , has concluded that it is acceptable to have churches with an 'affirming "openly gay people are integral to the life of our church" approach' as a legitimate expression of diversity in his diocese.

Perhaps even worse, such churches are contrasted with 'traditionalist' congregations whose line is "homosexuality is condemned by the Bible" and so churches which are both faithful and loving come to be represented as hateful. Anglo Catholic incumbent Edward Tomlinson in neighbouring Rochester Diocese draws out the consequences of allowing revisionists to frame the debate in this way: 'Hence this church, which we know is loving and welcoming, and myself in particular, must live with the reputation of being 'bigoted and intolerant' simply because we uphold the biblical line. The liberals love to tag us as 'gay haters' and 'misogynists' - even though every woman and homosexual in this congregation is loved, valued and - I hope- always treated with respect.'

In this climate, was it then a mistake for the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans in the UK and Ireland to issue a statement welcoming the Archbishops' last minute attempt to square the circle on women in the episcopate? Was this collusion with a short term shoring up exercise which, in the unlikely event of it succeeding, would simply create a precedent for accommodating to the next wave of the liberal agenda rather than opposing it root and branch? I think not. Firstly, the statement makes the same point about the ambiguity of the Archbishop's proposals as fiercer critics have done, but does so by implication, offering ideas for amendment rather than strident criticism.

Secondly, and more significantly, it then goes on to observe 'As you will be aware there is much interest amongst us in the concept of a mission society' and this is seen as a way of providing a structural solution for those affected by the introduction of women bishops. This is not couched in language to grab headlines, but its implications are radical when we remember the context: it is now almost a year since a plea was made to the GAFCON Primates Council at the launch of the FCA UK and Ireland for intervention on behalf of orthodox Anglican congregations which for reasons of biblical conscience and mission found themselves on the edge or even outside of formal Anglican structures.

A public response came on October 20th when the GAFCON Primates released an open letter in which they pledged to support the marginalised orthodox in the UK, stating 'We are encouraged by your commitment to work for an internal solution that can address these deep concerns. Steps taken early enough to make provision to address them can preserve good order. We firmly support your efforts to ensure the provision of appropriate oversight, and if this is not forthcoming, to provide it.' It is hardly plausible to believe that this coincided with the Pope's announcement of the Ordinariate by accident.

Although the FCA statement expresses the hope that necessary arrangements can be set up 'in a clearly Church of England framework' - which would seem to imply an 'internal solution' - the chances of the Church of England's ascendant liberals accepting what they would see as a huge concession, akin to a kind of non-geographic Third Province, must be considered as remote.

The question will then become this - does belonging within ' a clearly Church of England framework' necessarily mean being within the Church of England framework? From a legal and constitutional standpoint, the received wisdom is that the difference between the indefinite and the definite article is insignificant; in other words 'Church of England' must refer to that which falls under the metropolitical jurisdiction of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. There is an urgent need to review the legal issues which lie behind this assumption because it is clear from a confessional standpoint that the Church of England in its ramshackle practice is increasingly at odds with what a Church of England faithful to its formularies should look like.

As issues of succession for incumbents and training opportunities for ordinands become more acute for the orthodox the likelihood must be that the authentic voice of the Church of England, although recognised by the GAFCON Primates, may have to come from outside the structures of the Church of England, just as during the Second World War it was General de Gaulle from exile who articulated the authentic voice of the French nation rather than the Vichy Government of Marshal Pétain.

Subject to the strains and stresses of mounting revisionist pressure, the Church of England is becoming an increasingly unsafe place for the gospel. If the present proprietors will not accept offers of help to make at least parts of the structure safe, then in the not too distant future, enforcement action will have to be taken, even if that means the faithful have to risk moving into alternative accommodation.


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