The Church of England in Crisis
The above heading should give no satisfaction to any evangelical Christian. Some of the finest literature in the evangelical heritage comes from gospel ministers of the Church of England, and a considerable number of evangelicals continue to belong to that denomination today. The crisis to which we refer has arisen from more than one direction; one major cause has been the fact that no discipline has been exercised within the Anglican communion (led by the Archbishop of Canterbury) on the Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church USA for their allowance of practising homosexual clergy. This has prompted the withdrawal of some evangelicals from these sections of Anglicanism and their realignment with the Province of the South Cone (which covers six South American countries), whose Primate, Archbishop Gregory Venables, remains in communion with Canterbury. By this means the disaffected – of whom Dr Jim Packer is the best known – support their claim to remain Anglican.
Justification for this procedure requires a re-examination of what it means to be ‘Anglican’. The historic definition has treated membership in the Church of England as adherence to the Church as by law established in Britain, under the sovereign as ‘Supreme Governor’ and in communion with the See of Canterbury. As the denomination spread into the Dominions, and the overseas provinces ceased to be simply colonial attachments, the definition has been slowly modified. In June of this year, however, a step was taken to redefine ‘Anglican’ in a fundamental manner. Some 1,200 Anglican delegates, including Archbishops Venables (South Cone), Akinola (Nigeria), Orombi (Uganda) and Jensen (Sydney), met at Jerusalem, and took the name ‘GAFCON’ (Global Anglican Future Conference). The primary aim was ‘to promote the gospel as we Anglicans have received it’; this included adhering to the name ‘Anglican’ while disowning large numbers identified with that title and perhaps even Canterbury itself.2 The proposal that emerged was the formation of a new structure which would stand for genuine Anglicanism, that is, for the ‘tenets of orthodoxy which underpin our Anglican Identity’. For this purpose the Primates attending the Jerusalem gathering were encouraged to ‘form a Council’.
Within weeks of the Jerusalem Conference the majority of the General Synod of the Church of England, meeting in York, while not directly addressing the GAFCON proposal, determined that nothing like it would be acceptable. At that Synod a motion that clergy be allowed to remove themselves from the oversight of female bishops (whose existence is now in view), to be under the oversight of another diocese, was decisively rejected. No such accommodation is to be allowed. Evangelicals, however, were not seen as the main sufferers from this decision. It was Anglo-Catholic clergy who took the lead in resisting the appointment of female bishops; many evangelicals voted with them, not necessarily because they were against female bishops, but because the Anglo-Catholics represent ‘orthodox Christology and morality’ and were therefore judged worthy of support.
The alignment of evangelicals with Anglo-Catholics at York was not incidental. It is part of the current Anglican evangelical policy and underlies the GAFCON platform. The participants at Jerusalem did not designate themselves as ‘evangelicals’, but as ‘confessing Anglicans’. The ‘Declaration’ issued by the Conference shows why the latter term was adopted. For centuries evangelicals have appealed to the Thirty-nine Articles as affirming the Protestantism of the Church of England, particularly the Articles which deny the ‘Romish Doctrine of Purgatory’ (22), other ‘sacraments’ (25), ‘the sacrifices of masses’ (31), and the jurisdiction of ‘the Bishop of Rome’ (37). For Anglo-Catholics those statements have long been the most serious barrier to any re-union with Roman Catholicism, and if evangelicals were to enjoy their partnership there was no way that commitment to all the Articles could be required. Consequently Anglo-Catholics were accommodated in the GAFCON Declaration by the words, ‘We uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as containing the true doctrine’ – ‘containing’ is the escape clause that allows for choice on which of the Articles express ‘the true doctrine’. Yet simultaneously the Declaration allows no escape clause when it comes to points Anglo-Catholics regard as necessary truths. Evangelicals have long had problems with certain points in the Book of Common Prayer (1662), yet the Declaration says: ‘We rejoice in our Anglican sacramental and liturgical heritage . . . we uphold the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as a true and authoritative standard of worship.’ And there is to be no equivocation over Episcopacy: ‘We recognise that God has called and gifted bishops, priests and deacons in historic succession to equip all the people of God . . . We uphold the classic Anglican Ordinal as an authoritative standard of clerical orders.’3
The GAFCON Declaration identifies liberal theology as an enemy of the gospel, but it is not the only enemy. The historic Anglican evangelical position was to recognize danger from two directions: secular rationalism on the one hand and false religion on the other – the unbelief of the world and the misbelief which makes sacraments, priests, and the Pope necessary for salvation. From both directions the authority of Scripture is attacked. In an anxiety to remain ‘Anglican’, the new evangelical policy is one of common cause with Anglo-Catholics whose doctrinal deviation from Roman Catholicism is minimal; the price for such co-operation is that some fundamental truths have to be left unstated, while episcopacy is treated as though it was of first importance. This has led to the oddity of supposing it to be necessary for clergy to be under a bishop even though his diocese is thousands of miles distant.
Even as the GAFCON Declaration was beginning to circulate there were signs of disunity among the participants. Dr Packer has called on Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury to resign, alleging that with regard to homosexuality he pretends to believe what he does not in fact believe; but Archbishop Venables – the Primate to whom Packer now answers – when asked if he endorsed Packer’s words, said he did not. Archbishop Jensen urged his bishops not to attend the Lambeth Conference (held in July), and has said, ‘If you continue in fellowship you are endorsing the lie and are complicit in it.’ On the other hand Archbishop Venables attended the Lambeth Conference, believing ‘there is more need for dialogue’. A still more fundamental issue facing the GAFCON movement is the question how they can claim to be the true Anglicans while not wishing to be a breakaway from the majority in the Anglican communion. Point 11 of the GAFCON Declaration says, ‘We recognise the orders and jurisdiction of those Anglicans who uphold orthodox faith and practice’, but what of the others (including the Archbishop of Canterbury)? ‘We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith.’ Packer has called for the Declaration to be a litmus test: ‘I would like to see it established as a basis for orthodoxy and missionary action. Anglican provinces who didn’t come along with this would be in the outer circle of limited communion for not identifying with Anglican orthodoxy.’ How can this be said, while at the same time it is repeatedly asserted by GAFCON leaders that their proposed structure would not be, in Jensen’s words, ‘a Church within a Church’? ‘It is not the formation of an alternative group’, Venables insists, and goes on: ‘We are not taking power over anybody, we are just bringing things together.’ The contradiction inherent in these statements is palpable. It lays GAFCON open to such critics as the Bishop of Durham who ask by what authority this Jerusalem grouping (an ‘unaccountable body’), has set itself up as the custodian of orthodoxy. When asked how the existence of GAFCON’S proposed ‘Primates’ Council’ was to be justified, Jensen replied, ‘First of all they have authority because they have been elected by their own people.’ His answer takes us to the crux of the problem. As an evangelical, holding to Scripture, Jensen has no difficulty in appealing to the election of the people. But when did Anglican Episcopacy ever find its warrant in ‘the people’, and where is there any trace of such a thing in the Ordinal which the GAFCON declaration means to uphold?
It seems to us that the desire to redefine Anglicanism, and to sustain Anglo-Catholic support, has led to an inconsistent appeal to Scripture. It was good to hear Archbishop Orombi of Uganda asserting that the great issue was the authority of Scripture, not homosexuality, but confidence in GAFCON is undermined by the way that authority has been inconsistently used. We regret also, that instead of making appeal to Scripture sufficient, the GAFCON spokesmen follow the ecumenical practice when they write, ‘We believe the Holy Spirit has led us.’4
So far we have heard no Anglican evangelicals resident in England speaking on behalf of GAFCON and few of them appear to have been at the Jerusalem Conference. But it would be a strange new ‘Anglicanism’ that is not in communion with the Church of England and the See of Canterbury. Further, in all the current discussions there is one momentous issue left in silence. The Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1700) secure that the British sovereign cannot be a Roman Catholic. The repealing of this legislation may well be close and, given the current religious climate, there can be no expectation the change will be prevented. Does that matter? Does the cause of Christ depend on acts of Parliament? I do not raise the matter to pursue that question but rather to point out that such a change would radically affect the meaning of ‘Church of England’. What kind of church would it be to have a Roman Catholic as its ‘Supreme Governor’? Or could a multi-faith sovereign – as Prince Charles has said he wishes to be – hold that position? The annulment of the Acts of 1689 and 1700 would entail more than the removal of a religious test for the monarch. The idea that the Church of England is ‘the national Church’ is, for many, already a fiction. A major dismantling of what has been the established Church may well take place, and what comes out of it is likely to have some favourable relation to the Church of Rome. The question Dr Lloyd-Jones pressed in 1966 is the more relevant today: ‘Are evangelicals prepared to be of a Church that would include the Church of Rome?’ Anglo-Catholics have no problem in answering that question, but it will be too late for Anglican evangelicals to return to the position of Bishop Ryle and say: ‘I maintain that the Established Church of England had better be disestablished, disendowed, and broken in pieces, than re-united with the Church of Rome.’5
The current Anglican evangelical response to homosexuality (at least the only one that gets publicity), while being faithful to Scripture on that point, is by-passing more fundamental issues.
- An abbreviated version of this article was published in Evangelicals Now, September 2008.
- ‘While acknowledging the nature of Canterbury as an historic see, we do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury’ (GAFCON Final Statement). In this article I do not mean to overload the text with references to sources. The relevant web-sites can easily be found and other quotations come from the Church of England Newspaper (July 4, 2008) and Evangelicals Now (July and August 2008). The web-site of South Cone Province shows its Anglo-Catholic sympathies and contains the statement, ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury is the focus of unity’.
- Speaking of the way Tractarianism (the origin of Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England) assimilates with Roman Catholic belief, an evangelical leader of the 19th Century wrote: ‘The two systems proceed onwards by many of the same steps. Beginning with Tradition, they go on to Justification by infused righteousness, the authority of the Fathers, the Catholic Church the interpreter of Scripture, salvation by sacraments not by faith, the sacrifice of the Eucharist’ etc. [J. Bateman, Life of Daniel Wilson, Bishop of Calcutta (John Murray: London, 1860), vol. 2, p. 213].
- ven worse is the way the writer of ‘GAFCON Takes Off!’ the lead article in Evangelicals Now (August 2008), thinks there was a succession of ‘miracles’ in the Jerusalem Conference.
- John Charles Ryle, Charges and Addresses (repr. Edinburgh; Banner of Truth, 1978), p. 170. ‘Reunion with Rome means the abolition of our Thirty-nine Articles’ (p. 169).
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