Church Society have for some time been enthusiastically publishing (and tweeting and blogging!) resources urging evangelicals in the Church of England that there is no need to step away from the established denomination. The short collection of six papers entitled Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion: Wisdom from the Bible and church history for Anglican Evangelicals
Edited by Lee Gatiss
is part of that ‘remain’ project. That so much energy and effort has had to be devoted to reassuring clergy and laity suggests that icebergs ahead have been spotted. Passengers will have to evaluate for themselves whether the icebergs are real, and if so whether they will survive a collision.
Bishop Rod Thomas opens the book by rehearsing strengths of the C of E: it ‘officially supports the idea of flourishing on God’s word’ and has ‘almost eight times as many churches as the Baptist Union’ and a ‘quarter of all primary schools are C of E.’ He praises the Archbishop’s national initiative ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ which encourages people to pray. Bishop Thomas reminds clergy that they have ‘good standards of housing’ and they can be ‘funded for training college.’
Bishop Thomas does not mention the ways the C of E has already changed its doctrine and practice (e.g. In 2014 forbidding clergy from withholding marriage or sacraments from people in homosexual relationships or who are transgender) but he insists that while there are ‘huge pressures’ for change towards secular views, ‘the current doctrine and liturgy of the Church of England is entirely orthodox.’ The way forward Bishop Rod commends is threefold – Get involved in local support groups, encourage people to stand for General Synod and renew efforts to plant and revitalise churches.
Bishop Wallace Benn’s chapter recognises that a ‘crisis is upon us’ but reassures readers ‘the battle is not yet lost.’ He warns ‘we must not cave in too easily by acquiescence or departure.’ Bishop Benn favours the provision of an orthodox province – saying that without that the orthodox ‘will be forced to divide.’ Thus far the C of E has adamantly refused to make such an offer – given that it is understandable Bishop Benn notes that ‘storm clouds are gathering.’
A minister, Rev Dr James Hughes, offers a paper reflecting on lessons from Judges. Rev Hughes uses Judges 17:6 to criticise conservative evangelicals for doing what they think is right in their own eyes, rather than listening to ‘other partners and voices outside our constituency.’ The implication is explicitly made that those who step away from the C of E are selfish individualists – they want to ‘save some money’ and minister ‘in comfort and security knowing my nearest Bishop was hundreds of miles away.’
It is always a danger of edited volumes that contributors contradict one another – while Bishop Rod urges people to stay in the C of E because it offer ‘good housing’, Rev Hughes accuses those who leave of somehow saving money and enjoying greater comfort. For what it is worth all clergy I know who have left the C of E have done so to their own families’ financial cost. Bishop Rod is correct – the practical provision of the C of E makes ministry more comfortable. The editor sides with Bishop Rod in noting ‘leaving is not easy.’ (p62)
Rev Rob Munro pens a chapter on the Remnant in Old Testament Israel. He encourages readers to remember that remnants ‘remain, resist, revive and repent.’ This is edifying material – however it is only of relevance to those who think it legitimate to apply the Bible’s record of how the remnant of Israel figured in God’s plans, to a subset of people in today’s Church of England. One could perhaps find more relevant verses.
The final two chapters are from Lee Gatiss – one giving a brief history of secession from the C of E, the other sharing lessons from the Early Church for flourishing in a hostile world. Rev Gatiss recognises there are real ‘pressure points’ in the C of E. He concludes his paper by claiming that his chapter is ‘only about the history. The future is something else and I claim no special spiritual insight about that.’ Nevertheless Dr Gatiss does have insight to share that goes beyond mere historical facts. So he counsels: ‘Something must be done. Secession is something. So perhaps we should do it? I think that’s faulty logic. Doing the wrong thing can be worse than doing nothing.’ Given his strong desire to dissuade readers from secession, it is not surprising that Dr Gatiss’s summaries of the non jurors, Methodists, Lloyd Jones and others are all painted in a most negative light. Many of his critical comments are in point of fact accurate – the thing that may surprise some readers is that so much import is granted to ‘this worldly’ matters such as numbers, size and longevity in evaluating what are properly matters of spiritual judgement. Dr Gatiss shares a list of conclusions that go some way towards summarising aspects of the realties from both perspectives – one commends him for this effort. His concluding points include: There have always been some who leave and some who stay; Leaving is not easy; Remaining is not an easy life; Conscience and strategic judgment may lead people with similar theology to do different things; There’s a cost to secession; Secession can undermine the stand of those who stay.’
The final essay on the faithfulness of the Early Church in persecution is a timely reminder that the debates over staying or leaving the C of E occur against a wider cultural context, in which the secular world looks set to increase its use of coercion against faithful believers both inside and outside the C of E. Decisions about what constitutes faithfulness are going to be made under duress.
The reviewer recently led his congregation out of the C of E, so I was keen to reflect on this book and decide whether any of its arguments make me fear I have done the wrong thing! In the end I am satisfied that our way of seeking to protect and provide for our congregation was the right move. I am glad that books like this are published in that they stimulate debate and critical reflection. That is much needed and long overdue. My sadness about the contents of this book are threefold: Firstly, I (and I am sure the authors) agree that the situation facing believers in the C of E is profoundly sad and grievous. We all agree that the false teaching promoted by the C of E is a tragedy for gospel ministry. That sadness is a fact of life for us all, and it is good that this book points that out. Secondly, I am sad that if the fears of some of the authors prove to be accurate, then books like this will prove to have encouraged people to not make adequate preparations for future provision in a timely fashion. Dr Gatiss offers only two options – ‘Do the wrong thing or do nothing.’ A third alternative would be making wise preparations, which may or may not be needed.
Finally, I feel sad reading this book as it talks on every page about those who lead the C of E, but fails to express or understand the feelings, theology and goals of those who have done what Dr Gatiss counsels us against. Perhaps those clergy and laity who are even this week resigning or making preparations for a future outside the established church will in time be able to record and give an account of their positive spiritual vision and how it was experienced.