I have a great deal of respect for my Anglican brothers and sisters. Many of them are plugging away in gospel work seeking to turn around effectively non-Christian churches in nigh on lost dioceses in a midst of a exceptionally broad and mixed denomination. Many of them function as something closer to missionaries than church ministers. Those in more healthy churches, or even tolerable dioceses, are still fighting battles on a national stage that are simply non-issues in many non-conformist circles. Whatever else we may want to say, it takes enormous courage to stand for gospel truth in the midst of such a hostile environment.
Never having been Anglican, it is easy for me to say I personally would have left the communion a long time ago. Nonetheless, that does not mean I am unsympathetic to their current plight. Back in 2015, following the ordination of their first female bishop and with the promise of another on the horizon, I noted this:
In the past, Evangelicals could have left over the denigration of the gospel. Having chosen not to do that, many are now faced with leaving over important, but secondary, external matters such as complementarianism and gay marriage. What the world would have seen as an exodus over gospel issues – a watering down of theology and an inability to have meaningful fellowship with churches that eschew basic gospel truth – will now simply be seen as a hissy fit by misogynists and homophobes who couldn’t get their own way. Cries of “but this is a gospel issue” will be lost on those who see only years of increasingly errant doctrine, denounced as dreadful at the time but nonetheless tolerated to the point of remaining in fellowship, while the inclusion of women and homosexuals is the prima facie cause of schism.
Whilst we in the Free Churches may look on and wonder why such lines were not drawn decades ago, the CofE is where it is. The question has now become eminently more complex. Do Evangelicals remain in a church broader than the Norfolk waterways and risk increasing compromise or do they leave for the sanctuary of independency and risk a misconstruction of the basic issues?
I have to say it is not a choice I envy. But one feels the “it’s a gospel issue” boat sailed some while ago. One way or the other, there are choppy waters ahead.
I still find this to be basically true. The issue is now much more complex than simply leaving over ‘gospel issues’, despite the fact that gay marriage and homosexual practice may well be gospel issues. I also recognise the complexity of that decision. One must now decide between the Scylla of remaining in a mixed denomination that appears to be moving ever further away from a biblical centre and Charybdis of breaking fellowship and having it misconstrued as homophobic, misogynistic and the rest. On issues like these, I do not envy my Anglican friends but I do admire their courage.
Which leads me on to my question. It is a genuine question. I apologise if it is seen as provocative, it is certainly not intended to be, but it is one that I feel deeply (as I know do many other Free Churchmen). It was really brought home to me as I watched a discussion between Susie Leafe of Reform and Andrew Forshaw-Cain on the BBC (I watched the discussion of YouTube which has since been removed). Here were two people with two diametrically opposed gospels sitting together, having voted together in the synod, proclaiming to the world that they belong to the same communion. It was cast very much as a family squabble rather than the patently clear division between two people that belong to different families who happen to wear the same clothes.
My question is fundamentally this: why does it appear to the outside world, and often to those within the non-Anglican Evangelical world, that much time is spent seeking to uphold a union with those who reject the gospel of Jesus Christ to the detriment of fellowship with those who share the same gospel and love the same Jesus but are outside the bounds of Anglicanism?
I would love greater and deeper fellowship with my Evangelical Anglican friends. Our Lord is the same, our gospel is the same. Barring the issues of polity and baptism – which are very much secondary, or even tertiary, issues – we are on the same page (and even on the latter there are significant numbers of Anglicans who would share our view). Yet, so often, it feels like Anglicanism trumps all. Anglican relationships and structures take precedence over gospel partnership. Even formal communion with those you wouldn’t let preach in your church often feels as though it takes precedent. If our money and our time give some insight onto where our hearts lie, what does it suggest about our approach to gospel unity over denominational allegiances?
As I say, I’m not trying to throw stones here. I’m not trying to wind anybody up. It is a genuine question which I have long struggled to understand. Could it be that Anglicanism is determined as more valuable than the gospel itself? If not, shouldn’t gospel unity be worked out in a way that visibly demonstrates it is more valuable to us in reality than our denominational allegiances? I can tell you honestly there is nothing more painful than being ignored by those you consider brothers and sisters – with whom you would dearly love greater fellowship – because they are busy holding together a union they themselves admit is neither gospel centred nor based on shared faith in Christ.
It’s not for me to call anybody out of their denomination. I do not want to insist all Anglicans leave the Church of England. Last time someone did that it led to 60 or so years of deep Evangelical distrust. I would just love it if perhaps there might be some visible outworking of the often cited claim that the gospel is most important. It would be really nice to feel that we as Evangelical non-conformists are not viewed with more suspicion than your liberal, homosexual Anglican counterparts with whom you remain in fellowship. And it is all very well us saying it ain’t so, but perhaps some of us would do well to put our money (or time, or resources, or whatever) where our mouth is.
My question is this: do you really want gospel partnership more than you want Anglican unity?