In our monthly podcast, Anglican perspectiveCanon Mark Eldredge and I explore what I believe are the competing values underlying the controversies surrounding the ACNA Bishops’ Pastoral Statement on Sexuality and Identity.  These competing values are biblical faithfulness on the one hand and restating the Gospel in fresh ways to reach those who do not yet follow or find their identity in Christ on the other.  Both sets of values find their roots in God’s word. 

In our consultations with clergy and congregations over the last 10 years, the American Anglican Council has asserted that many (if not most) church conflicts become toxic when leaders fail to recognize the competing values they are championing on both sides of the conflict.  We have been influenced by the work of Ronald Heifetz and others[1] to encourage champions of competing values to step back from personalizing conflict to understand and honor each other’s competing values. Then together, both sides of the conflict can diligently seek to honor those values.

As followers of Jesus in the Anglican way, we in North America accomplish this task through the “guardrails” provided in our Fundamental Declarations[2]: fidelity to the Bible as our ultimate authority, the Sacraments, the historic Episcopate, the Councils, the Creeds, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1571), and the Book of Common Prayer (1662) and its Ordinal. These are standards for Anglican doctrine and tradition.  

For all the reasons I stated last week, I believe the Bishops’ Pastoral Statement on Sexuality and Identity provides a loving and compassionate balance between the values of biblical faithfulness and fresh expression of the Gospel.  It is well worth reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting.  You can find it here:  I agree with a dear brother in Christ who said that every time he reads it, he becomes more convinced of the balance this statement strikes between truth and love.

On Sunday, I finished Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership[3]. The penultimate chapter on “Finding God’s Will Together” struck me as incredibly relevant to recent events and the way forward in our ACNA life together.  Barton concludes her study of the life of Moses and his leadership by pointing out that finding God’s will together was in fact the heart of Moses’ effective spiritual leadership of Israel.  More than that, finding God’s will together is at the heart of our identity in Christ and what sets the body of Christ (the Church) apart from other leaders and communities.  In terms of our life together, the Apostle Paul writes that there is a causal connection between maturity in Christ (discipleship) and finding God’s will:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—which is your spiritual worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).

You see, the habit of discerning God’s will together is grounded in the conviction that God’s will is good, pleasing, and perfect.  As Barton observes, “God’s will is the best thing that could happen to us under any circumstances” (pg. 197 ).

As followers of Jesus in the Anglican way, we hasten to add that God’s will is never contrary to God’s Word written nor to the interpretation and application of God’s Word by the Church throughout the ages (the mind of the Church or consensus fidelium).

Barton goes on to identify some of the practices that flow from the habit of finding God’s will:

  • Clarifying the question at the heart of finding God’s will (e.g., how to balance truth and love)
  • Involving those people in the listening and decision-making process who place a priority on finding God’s will above all else
  • Establishing guiding values and principles for the discernment process
  • Praying without ceasing (which includes stopping for silence and listening prayer when we are stuck)
  • Praying for indifference; NOT apathy but indifference to anything other than God’s will
  • Praying for wisdom (James 1:5)
  • Listening as the Apostles did in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Council:  listening to God’s word, the testimonies of all parties involved in the dispute, and listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit (pp. 197-203).

There is a remarkable convergence in Barton’s “Finding God’s Will” and the conciliar principles that Anglicans worldwide have followed in deciding controversial matters of faith, order, and worship.  Both are grounded in the model we find in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.  The restatement of Gospel and doctrine in a fresh way, in every age and generation, so that people everywhere may come to know Jesus Christ is mission-critical for Anglicans in North America[4].  Equally critical are the words of St. Paul on our commitment to biblical faithfulness: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

As I have written elsewhere, in many churches of the Anglican Communion discerning the mind of the Church in restating doctrine, discipline, and order for the sake of mission happens through a rigorous synodal process that involves all orders of the Church—bishops, clergy and laity—while preserving the unique role of bishops as chief guardians and teachers of that faith and order.[5] I wonder if the controversies surrounding the Bishops Pastoral Statement on Sexuality and Identity are a symptom of ACNA growing pains and so offer an opportunity to develop even more participatory and conciliar processes in finding God’s will for the purpose of mission and in keeping with the biblical model in Acts 15.  Together, may this be our prayer:

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgement, and light rises up in the darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices; that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path we may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

(BCP 2019, Prayer for Guidance, pg. 669)

[1] Heifetz, R.  Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994) and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009); and Osterhaus, J, Jurkowski J. and Hahn T. Thriving through Ministry Conflict by Understanding Your Red and Blue Zones (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).

[2]   Article I: Fundamental Declarations of the Province in The Anglican Church in North America: Constitution and Canons  at pp. 2-3.

[3] Barton, R.H. Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (Downers Grove: IVP, 2018)

[4] Article 3:  The Mission of The Province: “The mission of the Province is to extend the Kingdom of God by so presenting Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit that people everywhere will come to put their trust in God through Him, know Him as Savior and serve Him as Lord in the fellowship of the Church.  ACNA Constitution  at p. 3.

[5] Ashey, P.  Anglican Conciliarism: The Church Meeting to Decide Together (Newport Beach CA: Anglican House, 2017) at 221-230.  NB:  The Anglican Churches surveyed include The Church of England, The Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), the Church of Australia, The Church of the Province in Southeast Asia, the Church of Ireland, The Episcopal Church USA and The Anglican Church in North America, including at least two dioceses in each such Church.

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