GAFCON, Women Bishops and the End of the World…

Ahh yes….

So I’ve been plagued for a few days by emails asking me what I think about GAFCON, the latest nonsense from the Church of England General Synod and other such what not. I’ve been sitting on my hands for a few days on all of this because I wanted to make sure that what I said was not just a knee jerk response. Now the silence is, at it were, broken.

There is a fundamental problem with the Church of England today and it is that we have completely forgotten what it means to be a broad church. There are portions of the church that believe that to be "broad" is to allow a huge variety of theological opinion, and while that may be right, there are certain bounds within which that broadness is intended to operate. It is simply incorrect to argue that when Elizabeth I said that we were not to pry into men’s souls, she was perfectly happy to have clergy who denied the divinity of Jesus, let alone who taught publicy a sexual moral that denies the heart of the transforming Gospel of redemption.

John Richardson, the "Ugley Vicar", hits the nail on the head when he writes:

Occasionally I have a look to see how traffic has come to my blog, and if the source looks interesting I’ll nip over there and see what is going on. Thus earlier today I found myself on Bishop Alan’s Blog, run by Alan Wilson, the Area Bishop of Buckingham.

There I found a thread headed ‘A Church of Navel Gazers?’, which quoted approvingly an article from the Daily Mail which accused the Church of England of neglecting its real mission for all this stuff about women and gays. Why, the writer asked, couldn’t the Church just accept both and get on with the job? And Bishop Alan entirely agreed.

The problem is, though, it surely depends on your understanding of Church, and therefore on your understanding of controversies within the Church. If the Church is a ‘rainbow coalition’ of theologies where we focus on tackling social issues, then I can see the point of the Mail article. But if the Church is ‘the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (and according to my computer Bible, the word ‘truth’ occurs in 237 verses in the NIV translation, beating the word ‘poor’ by 60), then the issues which divide us are ‘mission issues’ (including on mission to the poor).

Rightly, John raised with Bishop Alan, an Evangelical, the question of whether Bishops and their appointed selectors for ministry make any reasonable attempt at discernment of the creedal faith of a candidate for ordination. Bishop Alan’s reply ducks the issue:

There are clergy, as you know, who are not Conservative Evangelicals, and since the 1860’s Clerical Subscription Acts there has been a formal degree of lattude to allow for honest divergence about epistemology and the meanngs of words. You may say Elizabeth I’s comment about "windowes into men’s soules" has always, to a certain extent, applied. However, all clergy subscribe on every appointment and at ordination. Before ordination they are certified from their course or college in the form given in the ordination service. Before selection in this diocese we enquire as to their willingness to live according to Issues in Human Sexuality, and written assurance is sought and given in every sponsorship for which I am responsible. There is an issue about people’s integrity, of course, and we do not have an efficient thought police. You can challenge their integrity and they can challenge yours.

I am anxious that people who are appointed are people of faith. I don’t care whether they are high or low or Catholic or Evangelical, but I would be looking for people who bring faith to their work. My custom at interview is to give them a bible and five mnutes and tell them to get on with it. Usually appointment boards discover in this way what kind of a gospel people preach, and that is a significant question, surely, for any parsh ministry appointment.

Practce in different diocese may vary greatly, no doubt.

Finally I know what you mean about truth and unity, and on a human pelagian level, of course that will do. I need to say, however, that this is not a gnostic cult founded on propositonal truth. Unity is a gift of Christ arising uniquely from his blood shedding on the cross, not something you or I can create by signing up to checkboxes. I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

Firstly, I believe the Bishop is simply wrong on this matter when he rejects the idea that Anglicanism does not hold to a "propositional truth". Even a cursory glance at the 39 Articles, which all Church of England clergy assent to both at their ordination and then at each subsequent licencing, reveals a series of truth claims which lie at the heart of what it means to be Anglican. For example, article four reads:

Of the Resurrection of Christ. Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day. [wikipedia links maintained]

which is a sequence of clear doctrinal statements. It strikes me, as it does John Richardson, that any Church of England clergyman who denies the physical resurrection of Christ has moved outside the bounds of faith which he himself on his ordination has vowed to uphold. Most of us know priests who have committed such an act of perjury.

And yet, the Church of England does nothing about this, and so it undermines its doctrinal authority everytime a clergyman is permitted to spout heresy from the pulpit. For example, were the Bishop of London to do anything less than to remove the licence of the Rev Martin Dudley for conducting a sham of a marriage service for two men he will de facto accept such a service to be permissable and indeed good. But the lack of discipline isn’t just in matters of doctrine.

This Sunday, Gene Robinson will preach at St Mary’s Putney, the church of Giles Fraser, at Giles’ invitation and against the express admonition of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Will Fraser’s Bishop, Tom Butler of Southwark, discipline him for this? Absolutely not, and this shows how deep the rot is. Bishops are meant to act collegially but in this instance Bishop Butler seems to want to operate outside of the framework of accountability. Or take other diocesan bishops who sign pastoral statements agreeing to inquire of those clergy entering into civil partnerships whether they are sexually active, but then in their diocesan synods declare publicly that they have no intention of inquiring what their priests get up to in their bedrooms.

There is no real discipline at all in some parts of the church in matters holy, lawful and honest and this is the reason why GAFCON happened, why the Jerusalem Statement was issued and why hundreds of orthodox clergy and laity, evangelical and anglo-catholic, met at All Souls Langham Place last week. They met because the moment has now come in England to stand up to liberalism.

Of course, "Liberal Christianity" is anything but. Despite the loud exhortations from its leading proponents that the "broad church" is the key nature of Anglicanism, Christina Rees and others like her worked on Monday night to produce a framework for the legislation for Women Bishops that would cut out from the Church of England those traditionalists who believed that the ordination of women, let alone their consecration as bishops, was a deeply heterodox move. In doing so they demonstrated that they were far less interested in liberality of theological thought and far more concerned with pushing a specific revisionist interpretation of Scripture with the explicit removal of those who believed the traditional orthodox faith.

This is no wonder though when you examine the theology of some of those leading the campaign to make women bishops with a single clause measure. For example, some of the leading candidates to be the first women bishop, like Christine Hardman, Archdeacon of Lewisham (Southwark Diocese again) and June Osbourne, Dean of Salisbury Cathedral (again, not the most conservative of dioceses at all) have some of the most liberal doctrine of their contemporaries. Christina Rees the Chair of WATCH (Women and the Church) is also heavily involved with Giles Fraser’s Inclusive Church which campaigns for the acceptance of gay sexual relationships in the church.

If evangelicals who support women bishops, and there are a fair number who do in good conscience, eventually allow a single clause measure to go through General Synod they will unwittingly be signing their own theological death warrants, for a single clause measure will signal a victory for the revisionist agenda which, despite its pretence otherwise, is not interested in the slightest in a broad church but rather wishes to expunge the Church of England of its up to now orthodox doctrine. It is for the likes of Elaine Storkey, Bishops Tom Wright and Pete Broadbent, Andrew Goddard, Graham Kings and their open evangelical colleagues to consider very carefully whether they can support the adoption of a single clause measure. These are the real decision makers now, and the future of the Church of England is actually in their hands, for they hold the key votes and the key influentual voices in the orthodox constituency. Let us not kid ourselves that Reform or Forward in Faith can by themselves save the day – it is Fulcrum who now have the hands to play. Yet, they run the danger of not seeing the problems that are destroying the Church of England, not stepping up to the job of both standing very clearly for creedal and moral orthodoxy and working actively against heresy and ethical unholiness.

Is it the end of the Church of England as we know it? Do we feel fine? The answer to that is now firmly in the hands of those who can choose either to accept the reality of the drift to apostasy that we are slowly facing, or to keep their heads in the sand and deny the current inability of the Instruments of Unity of the Communion to discipline those who would rewrite the very nature of Anglicanism.

13 Comments on “GAFCON, Women Bishops and the End of the World…

  1. Good post Peter. I think you are right especially about Open Evangelicals having a key role to play. I’ve been on the forums at Fulcrum discussing with them the vote on Monday, including with a couple of GS members who voted for the Single Clause (Code of Practice) option. Depressingly, the majority don’t accept it was a mistake. 

    I find it bizarre that primary issues clearly taught in the new testament like church unity, respect for fellow Christians etc have been thrown out in favour of secondary stuff like “the dignity of the office of bishop” and such like. If people can’t get their priorities right, then it’s no wonder people let things like Monday night happen.

  2. Peter, I was wondering if you could confirm that, during the ordination process (post being accepted) canditates are told that the assorted vows they take are very much to be understood literally. I have no problem with people being accountable for vows they took; I would , however, have a problem with a situation where everyone *knows* that the ordination vows and things like the 39 articles are not understood literally in this day and age but don’t mention this when discussing the issue with laity. Are there liberal dioceses where clergy are schooled liberally or is it the same process everywhere?

    • Ryan,

      Let’s take article four as an example:

      Of the Resurrection of Christ. Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.

      How could you possibly interpret “took again his body, with flesh, bones” as meaning anything other than the body that Jesus was resurrected with being the body that died on the cross, holes and all? Nothing has formally changed doctrinally in the CofE since the 17th Century in this regard and to claim that the resurrection is just a conjuring trick with bones is to step very clearly outside the bounds of creedal catholic faith.

      • Peter,

        I would stress that I was not attempting to argue that the 39 Articles entail liberal theology  (and moreover I personally believe in the Resurrection, and don’t believe this somehow contradicts being pro-gay inclusion in Church).  You posted a blog entry  by David McCarthy ( where he said that “Canon law will simply have to catch up with the facts on the ground” and am asking, more generally in regard to England, if this is how the C of E operates? From an evangelical perspective, are Bishops who (for example) ordain practising homosexuals guilty of gross misconduct which should warrant them losing their position?  I find it very hard to believe that – as you seem to be saying – all ordinands (and in a sense this is a condition of employment) in the C of E agree to the 39 articles being literally true and binding and this is the situation until an announcement at Lambeth or similiar is made. More recently, I thought  that the Primates *advised* that the TEC shouldn’t repeat the “mistake” of  ordaining +Gene Robinson, *not* that them doing so was a gross heresy and a repeat would see them kicked out.

      • I should clarify that I mean all ordinands prior to becoming clergy agree to the 39 articles being literally true and that, in a sense, this is a condition of employment.

  3. Peter, I think you’ve got a negative too many in your comment about me and propositional truth. I also need to say, as I did on John’s blog, it is simply not true that I “entirely agree” with Stephen Glover’s Mail piece. I floated it as a discussion starter, reflecting a point of view held by many Conservative minded laypeople. I understand what Stephen means and have sympathy for it, but do not think it the whole answer.

    As far as subscription goes, the C of E does require assent to its standards of faith, and I expect clergy to do this sincerely. Creeds set broad limits, but there is a range of interpretation within the creeds. Gregory of Nyssa said “Concepts create idols; only wonder understands” and for that reason alone I think you need to exercise some caution about absolutizing the 39 articles. I might be tempted, e.g. on the existence of God and the Incarnation and resurrection, but do you, for example, require all Christians to belive that they cannot hold a council without the commandment of the civil magistrate? What about pacifism and capital punishment? Are they core doctrines of the faith? Many Evangelical Anglican Christians would not see it that way.

    If you really believe a brother is being false in making the declaration of assent I would commend the gospel solution of discussing it with him privately, then involving the Church with evidence, not simply accusing people in some general way.

    Finally you may find the C of E’s broad approach to subscription to be lacking, but in the eighteenth century it did preserve the Church from the prevailng deism and unitarianism of the age. This contrasts with the collapse of some English churches that emerged from the Civil war with strongly propositional confessions of faith into both these errors. There may be more life in the Anglican approach than you think, but you need to try and understand what it actually is and how it works.

    • Afternoon Bishop Alan,

      Let me take your points in reverse. What were the reasons that the church did not submit to deism or Unitarianism? Was it simply because everybody was allowed to believe anything, or was it because at the heart of Anglicanism was a sense of creedal confession? I have no problem with a broad Anglican approach, but I’ve never understood it to mean the acceptance on any belief and I don’t believe that you would ask me to accept that the likes of Cranmer and Hooker intended that either.

      The problem with your suggestion about those who perjure themselves when making the declaration of assent is that such an approach gets nowhere. I could point the Bishop of London to any number of online sermons from several of his clergy that deny key creedal points, but do you really think he would do anything about it. Let me put this another way – if I were to point out to you an Oxford priest who in a sermon had denied a creedal point, what would you do about it? Would you genuinely take such a repudiation of the faith handed down seriously? What action would you undertake?

      As for article 21, I have absolutely no problem with it. We have a supreme governor of the Church who I’m sure if the Archbishop of Canterbury asked her for permission to summon a council of bishops wouldn’t have a problem with acceding to such a demand. Such a 21st century interpretation of the article is not repugnant to the text, unlike those in our midst who deny the bodily resurrection of Christ, which in any sense is a rejection of the creedal faith.

      I suggest that in reality, article 17 might prove the more tricky to some of our friends…

      • Dear Peter

        I don’t believe “anything goes” and nor does the Church of England. But the method of relating clergy to doctrine has been to use conepts like “the faith uniquely revealed in the holy scriptures and set forth in the Catholic creeds which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.” Anglicanism has relied more on theological method than propositional tickboxes.

        In the eighteenth century Unitarianism and Deism grew in all churches; but those that emerged from the 17th century with highly specified propositional standards like the Westminster Confession easily slid into bad places. In the C of E there were many broadly deist clergy, but the liturgy was largely drawn from Scripture, and the propositions were limited radically to the historic creeds. That may not have secured things entirely, but it certainly protected the base deposit of faith and provided fertile seedbed for the Evangelical and Tractarian revivals.

        Complaints about doctrine and/or ritual have been a knotty problem in the C of E for 150 years and more, certainly since 1850 and the denial by some Evangelical clergy of the Prayer Book doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration in the Gorham case. The judge decided to give them a degree of liberty on this, and various high churchmen walked out in protest. It was to protect Evangelical consciences that the Clerical Subscription Acts were passed in the wake of the Gorham judgment. Anglo-Cathlic clergy made extensive use of them in ritual cases between 1860 and the 1906.

        Because we are a church within which there is a rule of law, everyone involved in any kind of complaint has rights, including the complainant and the person being complained about. Of course matters of doctrine can be taken serously, but only if people work accordng to the rules. You may remember a case in Sussex a few years ago where a clergyman did have his licence withdrawn for doctrinal unorthodoxy. It did happen and could again; but the standards of fair process and evidence are high and the general liberty clergy have around core doctrines, along with the very high degree of protection incumbents have (you couldn’t withdraw Martin Dudley’s licence because he hasn’t got one) has been used by Evangelical saints as well as Liberal freebooters down the years.

        Please forgive a long winded and historically based answer, but things are the way they are for reasons. It doesn’t mean they can’t be changed. I believe it is more fruitful to found sound ministry on positive discipleship and conviction than repressive legalism.

  4. Thank you to Bishop Alan for his very helpful comments and always excellent blog, which gives me daily inspiration.
    It is very clear, Peter, that not all the Bishops would agree with all of the 39 articles, and most particularly the Anglo Catholic so called ‘orthodox ‘ bishops would have serious difficulty with some of them. The Bishop of Ebbsfleet was on the Sunday programme this morning affirming the differences that there are within the Church of England about papal infallibility for one thing. He was clear he had no problem with that at all.  Someone at odds with the Articles? I’ve also seen him preside at the service of Benediction and procession of the blessed sacrament.  Do you intend to complain about him?
    As I understand it, clergy give assent that the 39 articles are an historic formulary of the C of E. They are. I have no problem asserting that. But they were written at a particular and very turbulent time. And would not be written as they are if they were written today.     
    We work in a syodical Church. The decision has been taken about women in the episcopate and I rejoice in it. I feel for those who don’t like the decision – but in all honestly, we have all simply now to respect it and get on with the cumbersome process of making it law, not getting bogged down with a re-run of the theological arguments. Or else seek a home somewhere else, as Andrew Burnham has indicated is an option for him… 
    As for Gafco – I think the interview with Greg Venables on BBC world last week showed how doomed the whole process is. Best of luck to Foca – but it is clear that the splits within the church within a church will not allow it to really happen as they hope. There will be so many internal tensions, and the power group will end up having to simply walk away. Pray for them.   

    • Dear Sound,
      “As I understand it, clergy give assent that the 39 articles are an historic formulary of the C of E. They are. I have no problem asserting that. But they were written at a particular and very turbulent time. And would not be written as they are if they were written today.     
      We work in a syodical Church. The decision has been taken about women in the episcopate and I rejoice in it. I feel for those who don’t like the decision – but in all honestly, we have all simply now to respect it and get on with the cumbersome process of making it law…”
      What’s to prevent disgruntled high-churchmen from asserting that the CoE decision over women bishops is “historic within the CoE,” and then tossing it on the scrapheap of history, as some have done with the 39 Articles?  More to the point, what is the basis for determining which ought to be historic formulary, or which ought to be law? 

  5. I think that you make some really important points here Peter–thank you. I agree with you that a key role is to be played by those who would be called ‘open’ evangelicals–though I myself would want simply to be known as ‘evangelical.’ I will be conservative if and when Scripture calls me to be conservative’; I will be ‘charismatic’ inasmuch as Scripture invites me to be charismatic; I will be ‘open’ in ways which Scripture asks me to be open. The underlying question here is that of hermeneutics–is it possible to read the ‘plain’ meaning of Scripture in a way which is unambiguous and will command universal agreement amongst evangelicals? Perhaps the debate NEAC (in 1977?) sensed both the need for this but the dangers of it–the advantage of the ‘conservative’ groups is that it is easy for them to plant a flag to rally around, whereas the problem for ‘open’ groups is that it is difficult to go to the stake for being reasonable.

    I think you make one strong case which Bishop Alan does not come anywhere near to answering. Of course there as *one* clergyman disciplined for unorthodox belief, but you are right Peter to point out that by and large this simply does not happen. How can someone stand up in Synod and talk about his active homosexual union (now a Civil Partnership) in front of his diocesan and nothing be done? How can the bishop in my former diocese, Salisbury, push a revisionist view on the diocesan clergy conference, harangue the Chair of the DEF when he questions this, and attend the celebration party of the Precentor for his Civil Partnership with another man–and the bishops think there is not a problem?

    But I think you are wrong on one important point, Peter. GAFCON and all the other things have not happened because *liberalism* is stronger, but because *evangelicalism* is stronger. Why attack Rowan Williams when he is much more orthodox than Robert Runcie? Only because evangelicals can now do so, when they could not before. On sexuality, the church has been compromised for years; it is only now that we are facing up to it, because evangelicals are feeling strong enough to ask the questions.

    You are right to point out that consecration of women bishops will mean a step-change in a liberal direction for the church; the irony of this is that it will come at a time when the church on the ground continues to be more evangelical

  6. It puzzles me how one can believe in the resurrection and yet not believe in orthodox doctrine on sexuality. It seems to me that the kind of reasoning that leads one to abandon orthodox doctrine on sexuality very clearly leads one to, at best, unitarianism, but more likely, as most unitarians now are, to secular humanism.

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