Anglican Perspectives

Do the Bishops of the ACNA have teaching authority when they speak or not?

On January 19, the Anglican Church in North America published Sexuality and Identity: A Pastoral Statement from the College of Bishops.  This Statement from the ACNA College of Bishops sought to address at least three pressing questions:

  • What should our biblical and pastoral response be to those within our Church who self-identify as Christians with same-sex attraction? This raises two more related questions:
  • What is the biblical vision for transformation with regard to same-sex attraction? 
  • What is the most helpful language to employ in describing the reality of same-sex attraction?

In their Pastoral Statement, the College of Bishops reaffirmed the biblical, traditional teaching that marriage is a life-long covenant between a man and a woman “both to self-giving love and exclusive fidelity,” and that same-sex sexual practice is “the exchanging of the truth about God for a lie” and a “serving of the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25) according to the universal and uniform witness among the teachers of the Church throughout the ages.  

In doing so, the College appealed not only to the plain reading of the Scriptures but also to a teaching authority they have as overseers in the Church of Christ. In exercising this authority, they sit with the teachers of the Church in their interpretation and application of the Scriptures both across time (temporally) and across the world (geographically).  Elsewhere, I wrote about this as the consensus fidelium or “mind of the Church.”[1]  Among Anglicans, important and controversial matters of faith, doctrine, and order must be guided by the mind of the whole Church—of which Bishops speak with special responsibility in guarding that mind expressed in the faith and order of the Church.[2]

Regarding human identity and transformation, the College noted that our society in North America promotes a worldview that redefines human identity “predominantly as one of sexual orientation and behavior.”  By contrast, the Scriptures identify us as creatures who are doxological in nature—that is, designed for communion with God that lasts forever and begins as we are transformed into a new creation in and through Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

Time and again, the Bishops noted that the struggle with human identity is real and painful for Christians who experience same-sex attraction.  This requires the greatest care and sensitivity within the Church for those who bear this struggle. 

Finally, with regards to identity and language, the bishops conclude that it is not helpful to attach any prefixes, qualifiers, or adjectives to our identity in Christ.  Rather than “gay Christian” or “same-sex attracted believer,” they ask the Church to use the term “Christians who experience same-sex attraction.”  Why is this such an important point?  Besides the fact that the Bible makes no such qualifications, the bishops note that identity language matters:

“We are concerned that the result in this subtle shift from identification in Christ by modifying our Christian identity with personal orientations and attractions has the potential for leading youth in the wrong directions at a time when above all we need the clarity of definition in Christ alone.” 

You can read the whole statement here:   We commend it for both its biblical precision and emphasis on God’s mercy and care for “all [who] have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

On January 30, Bishop Todd Hunter published a C4SO Pastoral Guidance on the ACNA Statement on Sexuality and Identity.  To his diocese Bishop Hunter wrote:

“Policies are blunt instruments. They are rarely able to take into full consideration the nuances of context and the complexity of personhood. They cannot anticipate all eventualities. Well-meaning theological statements are similar. Eugene Peterson told me he thought the making of polemical statements brought out the worst of the Church and got in the way of the work of God in the Church. For Eugene, ministry was relentlessly local and always carried out among named persons. I agree. 
The College of Bishops does not speak with the authority of a magisterium. The statement, Sexuality and Identity, says: We request that Provincial publications, teaching events, and seminars employ the recommended language and the biblical arguments that support this recommendation. Upholding our commitment to subsidiarity, we defer to diocesan bishops to discern these matters within their own diocesan communities and ministries.”

You can read the whole statement here:

In short, Bishop Hunter seems to challenge the authority of the Pastoral Statement of the ACNA College of Bishops:

  • “The College of Bishops does not speak with the authority of a magisterium”
  • Their Pastoral Statement is a mere “policy” he likens to a blunt instrument that ignores our missional context; and
  • It is a well-meaning but polemical statement that brings out the worst in the Church.

These statements raise the question:  Does the College of Bishops have teaching authority within the Church when it speaks or not?

According to the Constitution and Canons of the Anglican Church in North America, bishops do have such authority:

  • “A Bishop is an overseer of the flock and, as such, is called to propagate, to teach, and to uphold and defend the faith and order of the Church….” Canon. I.8.1 (emphasis added); and
  • “… Bishops are consecrated for the whole Church…They are chief missionaries and chief pastors, guardians and teachers of doctrine, and administrators of godly discipline and governance.”  Canon I.8.2 (emphasis added)

The work of the bishops is exercised not only individually but also collectively:

  • “The chief work of the College of Bishops shall be the propagation and defense of the Faith and Order of the Church, and in service as the visible sign and expression of the Unity of the Church.” Article X (emphasis added).

One cannot dismiss this teaching authority with the observation that the ACNA College of bishops “does not speak with the authority of a magisterium.”  Anglicans have never had the magisterium that the Roman Catholic Church has had.  But that does not mean that Anglicans have no limits on what we believe!  Anglicans observe “the mind of the Church” as it is expressed in such classical Anglican formularies as the Bible, the Creeds, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and the Book of Common Prayer and Ordinal.  The Anglican Church in North America confesses all of these as the basis for the Anglican Way of following Christ and adds, as additional characteristics of the Anglican Way, the sacraments of Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, the godly, historic Episcopate, and the witness of the undivided Church (Article I). One of these sources that is “a standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline” (Article I), the Ordinal attached to the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, clearly describes the office of a bishop in terms of ruling the household of God (I Timothy 3:4-5), teaching and defending God’s church (Acts 20:26-31), and feeding the sheep (John 21:15-17).

The College of Bishops consciously expressed their teaching authority throughout this statement. They are, individually and collectively, fulfilling the office of a bishop as presented by the Anglican formularies. In doing so, when they say that same-sex sexual practice is simply incompatible with the whole witness of the Bible, they are sitting with the teachers of the Church throughout the ages in their “universal and uniform” conclusion.  

Accordingly, the College of Bishops expressly presents the Pastoral Statement as an exercise of its teaching authority:

“We call upon the leaders within our Province, and especially our deacons and priests, to teach the Word of God regarding matters of human sexuality. We desire the churches of the Province to be places where those who experience same-sex attraction, especially our youth, know where they can go to share about this reality, be gently and clearly discipled in God’s Word, and be taught the difference between the unsought experience of same-sex attraction and the sin of engaging in lust or bodily practices that stem from this experience. We strongly encourage robust catechesis on same-sex attraction, Christian marriage, and Christian celibacy.”


“In summary, we recommend this statement to be used as a guide for those in teaching or counseling ministries. We request that Provincial publications, teaching events, and seminars employ the recommended language and the biblical arguments that support this recommendation. Upholding our commitment to subsidiarity, we defer to diocesan bishops to discern these matters within their own diocesan communities and ministries.”

The principle of subsidiarity which the College of Bishops cites is an invitation to each diocesan bishop to apply the teaching of the College in a way that is consistent with the missional challenges and context of the diocese.  In that regard, there is very much to commend in Bishop Hunter’s letter.  His affirmation of our ultimate identity in Christ, the corruption of sin in all people, the alienation and pain that Christians with same-sex attraction have experienced in our churches, our need to extend compassion instead of judgement to those who are struggling with their sexuality, the need for the Church to affirm the goodness of life-long singleness and celibacy, as well as the articulation of Christian marriage with a vision that is broader and deeper than our culture currently offers—these are all praiseworthy and marks of the fruit we should all bear in reaching those who are struggling with sexual identity and same-sex attraction.

But among Anglicans, subsidiarity does not give diocesan bishops or dioceses the authority to decide matters unilaterally that touch upon the faith and order of the Church[3]—the very matters at the heart of the ACNA Bishops’ Pastoral Statement.  Does Bishop Hunter’s repeated use of the very identity language that the College recommends not using reflect a respectful dissent?  Or does it signal a choice to disregard the Pastoral Statement and lead his diocese in a different direction?

If the latter, how would this be any different in tendency and principle than the unilateral decision of the Bishop and Diocese of New Westminster (Canada) in 2002 to recognize same-sex blessings?  Or the unilateral decision of the Bishop and Diocese of New Hampshire (TEC) to elect a same-sex partnered Bishop?

Moreover, the consequences of one Bishop’s seeming rejection of the ACNA Bishops’ Pastoral Statement are already becoming manifest. Yesterday, a new public letter called “Dear Gay Anglicans” began attracting the signatures of clergy and laity in the ACNA. You can read the letter here:

This letter speaks to some of the very same issues as the Pastoral Statement and is clearly inconsistent with its teaching. Its preamble chooses to emphasize and link to the C4SO Guidance on the ACNA Bishops Pastoral Statement not to the ACNA Bishops’ Pastoral Statement itself. And this is not a matter of internal governance within a particular diocese for the clergy and laity who have signed it come from a number of dioceses throughout the Province.

The teaching authority expressed through periodic Statements of the ACNA College of Bishops is an important part of articulating what Anglicans believe in North America and, therefore, of what Anglicans can assert as doctrine and practice in defense of our religious freedom.  Whether a dissent or more, the C4SO Guidance on the ACNA Bishops Pastoral Statement represents the kind of equivocation that could undermine the teaching authority of the College of Bishops thereby making it more difficult for all Anglicans to appeal to such authority (whether in public witness or in defense of religious freedom). At the very least, the C4SO Guidance on the ACNA Bishops Pastoral Statement begs further, public clarification.

[1] Ashey, P.  Anglican Conciliarism (Anglican House, 2017), pp. 58-59, n136.

[2] Ibid., at pp. 29-33; 58-68

[3] Ibid., at 68-70; Principles of canon law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion (2008), Principle 5

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