As 2016 draws to a close we look back on a year in which both the UK and USA have had starkly revealed what has been known for a long time: that they are deeply divided societies. This has led to major questions about how to move forward in a new situation once that reality has been made so obvious. It seems that the Church of England may face a similar scenario in 2017, perhaps as early as its February General Synod.
We have all long known we are deeply divided over how to respond to our society’s sexual revolution, especially changed attitudes to same-sex unions. Next year, it seems, after decades of conflict and two years of shared conversations, we may have to make some decisions.
When the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) has its annual meeting on 11-12 January much of its time will be spent considering this situation and evangelical responses. The Council – reformed and renewed in recent years – does not claim to speak for all evangelicals. It does, however, bring together leaders of a range of evangelical networks and groups, people elected by diocesan evangelical organisations, principals of evangelical theological colleges and representatives of evangelical bishops and the Evangelical Group on General Synod (EGGS). A major resource will be a discussion document circulated by CEEC officers earlier this year entitled “Guarding the Deposit – Apostolic Truth for an Apostolic Church” (available at www.ceec.info).
The basis of the document, in line with CEEC’s stance, is adherence to the church’s traditional teaching on marriage and sexuality as faithful to Scripture and summed up in the 1998 Lambeth Conference Resolution 1.10 and in the GAFCON Jerusalem Declaration statement on sex and marriage.
Particularly in the light of recent public controversy it is important that Lambeth 1.10 has been formally accepted by the Church of England. The last major Synodical debate on the subject in 2007 overwhelmingly commended “continuing efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion” and recognized “that such efforts would not be advanced by doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions (1978: 10; 1988: 64; 1998: 1.10)”.
The danger now is that some already perceive us as qualifying our commitment while others boast of disregarding and wanting to abandon 1.10. Many think that next year the bishops and Synod may do something – exactly what remains unclear – that will be perceived as a significant qualification, even abandonment, of the Lambeth Conference Resolutions. If so, there will inevitably be further division and impaired fellowship.
One of CEEC’s tasks, prompted by “Guarding the Deposit”, is to consider together the various ways evangelicals will respond to this situation and how the wider church might face the reality of our diversity over human sexuality. “Guarding the Deposit” outlines three broad ways the church might act in 2017 and beyond.
Its hope is that the Church of England will maintain its current teaching and practice as the 2007 Synod committed us to do. Alternatively there may be a full acceptance of same-sex relationships as in a few other Anglican provinces. This would undoubtedly lead to major division within the CofE and the destruction of the Anglican Communion in its current form. There may therefore be an attempt – as in the Pilling Report – to offer some form of supposed via media with official permission for marking of same-sex relationships.
But, as “Guarding the Deposit” argues, this too would both represent a departure from apostolicity and lead to continuing conflict. It would therefore require some form of agreed visible differentiation and structural separation within the Church of England (and wider Communion).
The CEEC will be looking at what possible ways there might be of visibly differentiating between incompatible and deeply held visions of faithfulness and flourishing among Anglicans so as to maintain a clear witness to what the church has received as apostolic teaching. While some may be content simply to keep faithful in their parish or para-church structure and seek nothing new, “Guarding the Deposit” sets out a number of forms of differentiation without adjudicating between them.
One option would be some form of recognized and episcopally led society committed to Scripture and its ethic. Another would be alternative episcopal oversight whenever a bishop advocates for, permits, or authorizes public liturgies affirming same-sex unions. If the Church as a whole shifts its position, it may be necessary to look for a distinct provincial structure (a non-geographical Third Province or a distinguishing between the two existing provinces on the basis not of geography but of their acceptance or rejection of Communion teaching) or affiliation with another Anglican province. Each of these raises a whole range of theological, ecclesiological, missiological and legal and practical questions.
If all that were not complex enough, evangelicals are also aware that the only solution that they can recognize as apostolic – the church reaffirming marriage between a man and a woman as the only divinely approved pattern of sexual relationship – will deeply disappoint and anger those pressing for change. Maintaining current teaching may therefore require some sort of structural changes to allow them to follow their consciences and express their dissent responsibly in a distinct structure without continuing to disturb the peace and unity of the wider church as they have been doing.
These would likely mirror those sketched above which evangelicals will require if the church moves away from its current position.
Everyone wishes this was not what we face in the year ahead. Many remain in denial about the seriousness of this painful reality. As we are discovering nationally, reconfiguring long-established structures is never easy, especially given a desire and need to maintain good working relationships with those from whom there has to be some level of institutional differentiation.
It is encouraging that evangelicals at CEEC will be wrestling with these issues in the context of Scripture’s teaching about God as Creator, Redeemer and Revealer. The even bigger challenge which needs our prayers as we enter 2017 is how, even in our brokenness, disunity, and sin, the wider CofE and Anglican Communion will address them in a way that still witnesses to the gospel of grace and truth and the God who has made us, redeemed us and made his good purposes known to us.
Andrew Goddard is a member of the CEEC Working Group and writes here in a personal capacity