I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew then for the Gentile… (Romans 1:16)

 

Since an overseer [bishop] is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless… He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.  (Titus 1:7, 9)

 

Every bishop is the chief pastor of all that are within his diocese, as well laity as clergy, and their father in God; it appertains to his office to teach and to uphold sound and wholesome doctrine, and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions…  (C 18, the Canons of the Church of England)

 
 

Right now, in Syria and Iraq, militant Islamists are taking over churches by force and turning them in to mosques. In the Church of England, apparently, all that’s needed is an ask. On March 6, in the heart of London, St. John’s Waterloo hosted a Muslim prayer service or “Jummah” in the sanctuary, on consecrated ground. Apparently the “Inclusive Jummah” was exclusive of anything Christian—hence what appears to be the covering up of all Christian imagery so as not to offend the worshippers.

 

 

Can you think of anything more bewildering, more offensive to Anglican followers of Jesus Christ and others who are suffering persecution at the hands of radical Muslims—watching their children beheaded by ISIS in places like Mosul, Iraq because they would not deny Jesus Christ?  Watching their loved ones burned alive in hundreds of Anglican churches in Northern Nigeria by members of Boko Haram?  Watching their relatives and friends be blown up during Sunday worship services by Islamic extremists in Pakistan?

 

Would it seem to them simply “a strange and erroneous opinion”?

 

And what sense could they possibly make of the relative silence and inaction of the bishops in the Church of England who are overseers of this church—the Bishop of Southwark, the area bishop who directly oversees this congregation, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury who is, apparently, the patron of St. John’s?

 

Well, there has been an “apology” by the Vicar of St. John’s, in a joint statement from the Bishop of Southwark. But in fact it isn’t an apology at all.  The apology is only for the “offence” that it caused, for the “infringement” of the “guidelines and framework” of the Church of England. There is no acknowledgement that this service denied a core doctrine of the Christian faith. No acknowledgement that it was simply wrong to cover up Christian symbols and to permit a prayer service that begins with the assertion that only Allah is God and Muhammed his prophet. There is no acknowledgement of the complete denial of the core Christian doctrine held by the Church of England in the Thirty Nine Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and its Ordinal, and the Creeds– that we believe in the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  There is no acknowledgement of the incompatibility of Christianity and Islam on this issue of “the one true God,” the denial of the first five Articles of Religion which witness to the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ and, with Article 18, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of all people, at all times, everywhere.

 

This “apology,” apparently accepted by the Bishop of Southwark, has only made matters worse, as David Ould observes:

 

“The joint issuing of statement and apology also demonstrates that the bishop has not insisted upon the seriousness of this matter being addressed by Goddard. Why not? Why has the bishop allowed Goddard to “apologise” without dealing with the denial of core Christian doctrine? Does bishop Chessun [Diocese of Southwark] not understand these matters either?

 

Or is it,that at the end of the day, neither Goddard nor Chessun grasp quite how serious all of this really is? In which case, what are their fundamental convictions about the nature of God, the place of Jesus, and how walking away from any of these core undeniable truths speaks to the world of what we all really believe? What is their concern for those who uphold the official position of the Church of England that these matters are, actually, of first and central importance?

 

Do they not understand why for the orthodox in the Diocese of Southwark, let alone the rest of the Church of England, this “apology” has only made things much, much worse?” (you can read it all here)

 

It is inconceivable that Anglicans in other parts of the world, especially in the Global South, will accept this fundamental denial of the Christian faith.  Neither will many ecumenical partners, especially Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical.  This does not bode well for the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the chief spokesman for the Anglican Communion and the primus inter pares (first among equals) among the other Archbishops and Primates of the Anglican Communion.

 

Of course, the canons of the Church of England also empower the Archbishop to take some action if he chooses to do so: “The archbishop has throughout his province at all times metropolitical jurisdiction, as superintendent of all ecclesiastical matters therein, to correct and supply the defects of other bishops…”  (C17.2, the Canons of the Church of England).  But will he choose to do so?

 

Andrew Symes of Anglican Mainstream has done a brilliant job unpacking all of the canons of the Church of England that were violated by this service, as well as the core doctrines.  But he also points out that this misguided act of “building trust” with a woman Imam is likely to enrage conservative Muslims as well, further adding to the rage and offense they feel about Western culture.  Moreover, this was not merely an act of hospitality—it was a service that lead participating Christians to worship someone other than Jesus Christ, who alone is worthy of our worship.

 

So there are certainly documented grounds for the Archbishop of Canterbury to supply the defects in the response of the Bishop of Southwark.  And as a matter of shared principles of canon law among the Churches of the Anglican Communion, our international Anglican brothers and sisters would expect him to do so.[1]

 

The prospects for the Archbishop doing so are rather dim. Under the Church of England Disciplinary Measure (2003), it might be possible to bring an action against the Vicar of St. Johns under Section 8(1)(a) for doing “any act in contravention of the laws ecclesiastical.”  But the only persons who have standing to bring such an action are the churchwardens of St. John’s, or a person “who has a proper interest in making the complaint” nominated by the parochial church council (PCC= vestry) by no less than 2/3 of the lay members of the PCC, “or any other person who has a proper interest in making the complaint.” (Section 10(1)(a)).  Well, what about the Bishop of Southwark? Doesn’t he have a proper interest in making the complaint under his canonical authority to “uphold strong and wholesome doctrine and to refute all erroneous and strange opinions?” (C 18).

 

In such cases, where the offense involves matters of doctrine, ritual or ceremonial, the complaint comes under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963.  After an initial interview with the bishop having jurisdiction, the case may be referred to a “committee of inquiry “for further investigation, who may then refer the matter for trial (in the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved).

 

But for whatever reasons no diocesan bishop has ever done so.  When the doctrinal controversies generated by Bishops John A.T. Robinson (Honest to God) and David Jenkins (denial of the Virgin birth and Resurrection) presented themselves in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Court was never convened. No doctrinal case has been brought under this procedure during the 50 plus years it has been in existence—except for a few cases involving disputes over the doctrinal propriety of baptismal fonts, plaques, and other items in the church!  Does that suggest an implicit or unwritten consensus in the House of Bishops that no clergy will ever be disciplined unless a complaint is brought against them by a qualified person in the parish? If so, what does that say about the bishops in the Church of England and their willingness to set any boundaries to doctrine, discipline and order?

 

Could the Archbishop of Canterbury put pressure on the Bishop of Southwark to take action under Section 10 of the Clergy Disciplinary Measure?  Conceivably, Yes, in principle.  But in practice, no Archbishop of Canterbury has done so since the late 1940’s when ++Geoffrey Fisher publicly rebuked Bishop Barnes of Birmingham for rejecting any miraculous element in the origins of Christianity. And even when he suggested that +Barnes should feel obliged to resign for such views, +Barnes ignored the Archbishop with impunity.  There is no reason to believe the Bishop of Southwark would resign even if, privately or publicly, Archbishop Welby suggested he do so.

 

The churchwardens of St. John’s will not set boundaries on their Vicar. The Bishop of Southwark will not do so—he is satisfied with the Vicar’s non-apology.  To date, no person within the parish “having a proper interest” has been found to bring a complaint.  And even if they did, it would be unprecedented for the Court to try this case. And as Bishop Peter Forster of Chester (retired) wrote in 2004, even if the trial of such a case were compliant with the European Court of Human Rights, in the current theological culture of the Church of England where there seem to be no theological boundaries, doctrinal disloyalty is simply not “justiciable” and “Trial of such matters in a court or tribunal would be a nuclear option.”[2]

 

How tragic that the Church of England would consider affirming its own Articles of Religion, and setting doctrinal boundaries accordingly, a nuclear “madness” that would assure its own destruction.  With an Archbishop who has no precedent since the late 1940’s to set boundaries for his own bishops, the Church of England in this case has lost its ability to lead the Anglican Communion.

 

 

The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is CEO of the American Anglican Council.

 

 

 

 


[1] “The bishop is the principal minister of the word and sacraments, with authority to ensure the worthiness of public worship…the bishop must teach, uphold and safeguard the faith and doctrine of the church…the bishop has the primary responsibility to maintain ecclesiastical discipline in the diocese amongst clergy and laity in the manner and to the extent prescribed by law.”  Principle 37: Diocesan episcopal ministry, sections 3, 4 and 6; “The principal episcopal office in a province is that of archbishop, presiding bishop or moderator, and office to which metropolitical power customarily attaches… A principal bishop, in the manner and to the extent prescribed by law:…oversees the episcopacy…,” Principle 39, sections 1, 6.  The Principles of Canon Law Common to The Churches of The Anglican Communion, (London: Anglican Communion Office, 2008).

[2] P Forster, ‘The Significance of the Declaration of Assent’ (2005) 8 Ecclesiastical Law Journal 162-172 at 172.

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