Over the last two weeks, several bishops in the Church of England have publicly endorsed the Bishop of Oxford’s booklet, Together in Love and Faith, which he sets out his thinking about same-sex relationships. He proposes that the Church of England should provide public services for the blessing of same-sex civil partnerships and marriages but allow a conscience clause for those who dissent. Barbara Gauthier has done a superb job chronicling all of the statements and rebuttals by Vaughan Roberts [https://www.oxforddef.co.uk/Groups/268395/Latest_News.aspx], Ian Paul [https://www.psephizo.com/sexuality-2/what-is-the-bishop-of-oxford-thinking/], Bishop Andy Lines (GAFCON ANiE) [https://www.anglicannetwork.org/resources/safe-harbour], and others.
As one of the senior Bishops in the Church of England, Steven Croft (the Bishop of Oxford) has proposed nothing less than a sea-change in the teaching of the Church of England. It will divide the Church of England and further harden the divisions within the Anglican Communion. That it comes on the heels of Archbishop Justin Welby’s embrace of “pluriform truth” at Lambeth Conference 2022 does not bode well for biblically-faithful Anglicans in the Church of England who adhere to the traditional teaching of the Bible and the Church on human sexuality and marriage. Martin Davie also signals the trajectory of the Church of England in his careful observation of an article in The Church Times, reporting on meetings among the bishops themselves [https://mbarrattdavie.wordpress.com/2022/11/06/why-the-bishops-have-an-option/#_ftn5]:
“Although no decision has been made about what formal proposals will be presented to the General Synod in February 2023 — these will be finalised at the next College of Bishops meeting, 12-14 December — it is understood that the bishops acknowledge that simply to restate the existing ban on same-sex blessings or marriage in church is not an option.”
As Davie observes, even though the meetings of the bishops are confidential, “it would be naive to think that this briefing of the Church Times was not connected with the release of the Bishop of Oxford’s paper. Those who want the Church of England to change its position are seeking to create a public narrative in which change is seen as inevitable, and both the briefings and the Bishop of Oxford’s paper are part of this attempt.”
In his magisterial dissection of Bishop Croft’s booklet, Ian Paul issues this final lament:
The Church has long been facing a decline in attendance, which is rapidly coming to a crisis point in many dioceses. At the same time, these dioceses were also already facing acute financial pressures…
Into this context, Steven now wants to bring division and disunity. This will have a direct impact on confidence, on mission and growth, and on finance. It feels as if the good ship Church of England is running on one engine, listing to port, holed at or below the waterline—and Captain Croft wants to grab the helm and steer her onto the rocks. Lord have mercy.
In 2011, almost 12 years ago, Bishop David Anderson and I were invited to come to the Church of England General Synod to address questions around a Private Members Motion that the Church of England recognize the Anglican Church in North America. During those discussions, we shared extensively with evangelical leaders in the Church of England from our own experience leaving TEC. We shared about how the issues of human sexuality, marriage and holiness of life are merely the tip of the iceberg, and how the underlying issues of the doctrine of creation and the clarity and authority of the Bible are like the mass of the iceberg that lies underneath that rips a hole in the ship which is the Church [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDWiddH-U2A]. In terms of the larger Anglican Communion, we also explained how “the good ship SS Anglican Communion” had already hit the iceberg and necessitated the kind of lifeboats we were offered from biblically-faithful Anglican provinces like Nigeria, Uganda, and Rwanda.
Time and again, evangelical leaders in the Church of England assured us that nothing like this could ever happen in the Church of England—that its official teaching could NEVER be overturned. We were sometimes treated as “extremists” and “pessimists” by the bishops and others with whom we spoke and were accused of not understanding the “culture” of the Church of England that could never permit such a change. Twelve years later, our warnings have come true. In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Consider Ian Paul’s observations of the thinking behind Bishop Croft’s proposal—the exact same thinking the AAC found among the TEC College of Bishops and leadership leading up to the consecration of a same-sex partnered bishop in 2003 (20 years ago):
- Croft’s proposal is actually a call for division rather than its title “Living together.” TEC Bishops and leaders were warned that the 2003 consecration “would tear the fabric of the Anglican Communion at its deepest level.” They ignored the warning, and the rest is history.
- Despite characterizing himself as an evangelical with a high view of the authority of scripture, Croft sets the holy scriptures as a hindrance rather than as a help on the question of marriage, sexuality, and sexual ethics. This is exactly what TEC Bishops did as they turned to alternative authorities of experience and sociological studies in their decision making.
- Croft makes the astonishing and unproven claim not supported by evidence that genetics determines sexuality and gender. This is exactly what TEC Bishops and other leaders did as well.
- Croft makes the further astonishing claim that Jesus is largely silent about matters of human sexuality and that his teaching is principally about mercy rather than repentance. Time and again, we heard our bishops selectively quote from John 8, the women caught in adultery, to support this assertion while selectively omitting his final words “go and sin no more.” We pointed out Jesus’ affirmation of Genesis on marriage between a man and a woman. Our writings were ignored. Philip Turner identified the cause of this studied ignorance among TEC bishops, theologians, and other leaders in a great essay about TEC’s heresy of the Incarnation as meaning that Jesus affirms us in every way, just as we are. [https://www.firstthings.com/article/2005/06/an-unworkable-theology]
- Croft proposes that the best way for the Church to serve the society in which it is located is to affirm the culture’s moral outlook and accommodate to it, in utter disregard of Jesus’ radical and counter-cultural Kingdom ethic. We, too, were assured by our TEC bishops and other leaders that such accommodation would actually GROW the church with large numbers of people joining us. This strategy has backfired and caused a massive hemorrhage of members, churches “aging out,” and increasing financial pressures for dioceses to merge in order to stay afloat. You can check the facts and figures yourself here [https://covenant.livingchurch.org/2015/11/06/new-tec-statistics-what-do-these-numbers-say]
The trajectory for the Church of England is clear: we find evangelical leaders in the CofE applauding Croft’s calls for a conscience clause for those who dissent so that they can stay within the Church. Vaughn Roberts even notes in his essay that within the Diocese of Oxford, Croft has offered “alternative episcopal oversight” for St. Ebbes.
And yet, within the same diocese, lesser churches have not been offered such assurances. Barbara Gauthier quotes Dan MacGowan, an Oxford clergyman, who recounts how over the past five years, when the trajectory of the Diocese of Oxford was becoming clear, the parish councils of four Oxford parishes (including his own) had asked the Bishop of Oxford “to provide us with ‘extended oversight’ from Rod Thomas, the Bishop of Maidstone.” That alternative episcopal oversight was denied because the Bishop of Maidstone was appointed to serve only those who were opposed to women’s ordination. Croft did, however, allow Bp. Thomas to “oversee each of the four churches on pastoral matters.”
How do we explain the difference of treatment within the same Diocese?
As far as AEO goes, our lengthy discussions with the TEC Presiding Bishop and other leaders went nowhere. After many discussions it was clear we were expected to submit without exception.
It would be tempting to say that this was motivated by malice towards biblically-faithful Anglicans remaining at that point within TEC. I have come to the conclusion that it was not malice but ideologically driven convictions as strong as those which we held. As one leader explained to me, we had been given a certain amount of time to “get with the program,” to receive the re-education in the scriptures that was the agenda behind every “dialogue” in which we were invited to listen principally. As this leader warned me, this was a matter of justice. “You are like the last plantation owners,” he said, “and you have been given time to do what is just. When that time expires we are quite willing to burn down the plantation if it serves justice.”
May I respectfully suggest that this kind of thinking is often behind the kind of proposals to abandon the teaching of Scripture and the Church on matters of sexuality, marriage, and holiness of life. It’s not personal, but the results will be the same. We believe that will include a proposal for an affinity-based “Third Province” based on the biblically-faithful doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church of England. The Church of England, however, is an established Church with all its legislation subject to approval by Parliament. What reason do evangelical leaders within the Church of England have to believe that Parliament, even more ideologically driven among its members than the Bishops, will ever approve such a proposal?
When Mother loses her mind, what can we do?
I’m aware from years of travel abroad how deeply Anglicans in Africa, South Asia, and South America have affection for the Church of England. The Church of England is the “Mother Church” whose missionaries brought their coffins with them when they came to share the Gospel. Global Anglicans revere the sacrifices English missionaries made to share the gospel. There is tremendous affection for Canterbury and all it represents to them.
And yet, it is this same affection and the grief of seeing the Church of England increasingly depart from the “faith once delivered” (Jude 3) that caused the Global South Primates and Assembly to declare in the Cairo Covenant (2019):
“Jesus Christ is head of the body, the Church (Colossians 1.18). The ordered ministry, episcopal authority and territorial jurisdiction are not sociological, historical and cultural constructs. They testify to rather than constitute the apostolic character of the Church. They attest to Christ’s own formation of his people, giving them a social visibility – in the world and yet not of the world – to witness to his life-giving power, holiness and glory in the world. As such, episcopal jurisdiction is unintelligent and becomes an obstacle to the Gospel if it is detached from authentic discipleship and submission to the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Para. 1.6, emphasis added)
Ian Paul notes that the mind of the Church, the consensus fidelium, has been absolutely clear with regards to the clarity and authority of the Bible, and the subsequent teaching of the same on human sexuality, marriage, and holiness of life in the councils of the church. Quoting from Darrin Belouseks’ excellent Marriage, Scripture, and the Church he observes “The creational-covenant pattern of marriage…is a consensus doctrine of the church catholic. Until the present generation, all Christians everywhere have believed, and every branch of the Christian tradition has taught, that marriage is man-woman monogamy.” (at p. 52, emphasis added)
So, we have the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion losing the mind of the Church. What do we do when our own mothers whom we love and cherish lose their minds and slip into dementia? We do not stop loving them; we do not stop cherishing them or honoring them to the extent that we can without giving into their dementia.
But one thing we never do is to put them in charge of the family.
Therefore, with regards to the family of national and regional Anglican churches across the world that constitute the Anglican Communion, let me offer the following suggestions:
- The Archbishop of Canterbury can no longer serve as a focus of unity. He will be leading a church that tolerates false teaching and embraces pluriform truth. He may have a place of honor historically but cannot lead the global majority of biblically-faithful Anglicans in practice.
- The Primates Meetings of the Anglican Communion should be led by someone elected by the primates themselves. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury granted that possibility during the Gafcon Leaders gathering in the UK in 2012. He has been silent since. But in the recent press statement of the Global South Primates responding to the appointment of a same sex partnered Dean of Canterbury Cathedral [https://www.thegsfa.org/_files/ugd/6e992c_2324c9699a5d4ed8ac46475dce0c7bc3.pdf], the GSFA Primates took note of the Archbishop’s unwillingness to use his office for discipline. They also took note of the way he reset the Lambeth Conference of Bishops meeting 2022 from its traditional role of restating the mind of the church to “walking together in good disagreement.” Rejecting that narrative and appealing to a reform of the Instruments, they suggested one last opportunity to do so, through the meetings of the Primates themselves. It is time for a primate elected by the primates to convene and lead those primates meetings, rather than the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion office.
Lord, have mercy, and give us the grace to do what is right in your eyes.
Editorial Note from Canon Phil Ashey: When reading this article, based on information we received last week, it is important to remember that there is NO “alternative episcopal oversight” (AEO) in the Church of England at all, despite what some comments and articles may lead readers to believe. Whatever oversight exists in Oxford, it is partial. The Bishop of Oxford has given permission for other bishops to perform pastoral and sacramental ministry in the diocese, but this has been on an informal basis in response to individual requests and does not constitute a change in episcopal structure or oversight. Meanwhile, the Bishop of Southwark’s diocesan address (headlined in Global News below) clearly paves the way for blessings of same-sex partnerships and also denies that this issue is anything other than adiaphora, despite the voice of the GSFA, which is being ignored. Because there is no actual episcopal oversight provided to orthodox Anglicans, the situation in the Church of England is actually much worse than it first appeared, and we will continue to comment as the situation unfolds.