Anglican primates conference: what will the evangelicals do?

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Guy Davies has written a helpful article in relation to the latest Anglican Primates Conference at his Exiled Preacher blog. It is written from a Reformed Baptist perspective, so I shall leave you to infer whatever biases you may wish to ascribe to him. I basically share his views on this issue.

I was particularly interested in one comment he made. He states:

this story does raise some interesting questions. Even for a Baptist. The first is, what on earth are Evangelicals still doing in the CofE, and is there anything that would prompt them to break with Canterbury en masse?

The Liberal ascendancy in the 1980s didn’t do it, with David Jenkins describing the bodily resurrection of Jesus as ‘a conjuring trick with a bag of bones’. Womens’ ordination was meant to be the tipping point, and then female Bishops. Tipping points come and go, biblical authority is flouted, historic church teachings are jettisoned, but Evangelical Anglicans don’t seem to be able to to let go of Mother Anglican’s apron strings.And now this.

Will the acceptance of active homosexuals as Ministers of the Church finally tip Evangelical Anglicans over the edge? I dunno. Given the precedents, what do you reckon? Some may say that Christian teaching on sexuality isn’t a core doctrinal issue anyway. In a sense that’s right. What Scripture says about sex in general and same sex relationships in particular isn’t up there with gospel-defining truths such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation of Christ, his sin-atoning death and bodily resurrection etc. Why should Evangelicals leave the CofE over a second order issue?

As I argued similarly here, Evangelicals have now found themselves in a spot of bother. It is not primarily that the Anglican communion has departed from biblical truth en masse, that is nothing new and Liberalism has been shot through the church for some while. As Davies rightly notes, first-order gospel issues did not seem to lead Evangelicals towards the door.

The issue, then, is not – as Davies avers – whether there are any circumstances under which Evangelicals would leave the CofE; it is that Evangelicals have now backed themselves into a thoroughly difficult corner. Had they left the church when Liberalism was in the ascendancy they could have been clear that they were breaking fellowship based on significant first-order gospel doctrines. The world may have looked on bemused but the message would have been simple and consistent: we are people of the gospel and here the gospel is not.

Unfortunately, that is not the issue they now face. Having wrung hands and drawn lines, they were roundly ignored on the first-order gospel issues and yet chose to remain. Since then, a series of important – but nevertheless secondary – issues have come to the fore. We now have the same hand wringing and red lines being drawn, only this time – though the world still looks on bemused – the position is less consistent. For the message is no longer one of gospel people concerned about the gospel, that boat sailed a while ago. The issue now appears to be gospel people, who were not so concerned about the gospel that they left when it was fundamentally under attack, now threatening to leave because of the acceptance of gay people. No matter how you hope to spin it, the message that comes over loudest is not “this is a gospel issue” – not least given previous form on gospel issues – but that a bunch of po-faced hardliners want to break fellowship because they don’t like gays in the church.

The evangelicals may well be right on the issue, they may well hold the biblical line, but they are now in an impossible position. No matter how much they claim to the contrary, it is hard to see how their claims of maintaining gospel purity can be seen as credible to the wider world given that previous, and much more direct, attacks on the gospel did not lead to them seceding from the church. What is more, even if they eventually choose to remain in fellowship with the worldwide Anglican communion, the public threats to leave have already made the message clear in the minds of many: evangelical Anglicans appear to hate gays more than they love the gospel (fair or unfair as that claim may be).

Having been preparing a series on Judges recently, I have been struck by the consistent message in that book of how one unfaithfulness will soon lead to another. Had the children of Israel dealt with the Canaanites as God called them to do, and had they done it as soon as God told them to do it, they would have avoided an awful lot of trouble and difficulty that grows to ridiculous levels by the end of the book. I am minded to think that had evangelical Anglicans dealt with the gospel issues when they first reared their head – difficult as doing that may have been – we might have avoided decades of these bigger and deeper problems. Sadly, having done nothing over the first-order issues, evangelical Anglicans are now faced with the unenviable choice of remaining within a church with whom they have fundamental doctrinal differences or seceding from Anglicanism for what will only be seen as their opposition to homosexuals, not any basic gospel concern.

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