The following, written by Andrew Symes, was originally published on Anglican Mainstream on June 21, 2016:
Not long to go now until General Synod in July. The first part will involve normal business, and then the members will move into a closed session of Shared Conversations on sexuality and mission, guided by facilitators. I am not a member of General Synod and so will not be there, but I took part in the regional version of these Conversations and my report of my experience, the process and its implications can be read here.
‘Grace and truth’ from ‘affirming evangelicals’
In the lead-up to the Conversations, lobbying from groups on both sides of the debate has been taking place. Books and articles have been sent to members, and one such is ‘Journeys in Grace and Truth’, from the newly formed Via Media Publications, which is a collection of essays by C of E leaders who describe themselves as evangelical but who have come to accept that same sex relationships are positive and worthy of celebration. Jayne Ozanne, who has edited the collection, has been doing a now familiar round of media interviews to promote the book and its main idea; Paul Bayes Bishop of Liverpool and the most senior ‘evangelical’ to publicly endorse the ‘affirming’ stance, was on the Radio 4 Sunday programme explaining why, in his view, the Church needs to change. He expressed his understanding of mission in this way:
“Since we’ve been called to be there for England as it is, how do we look at what we’ve got, in order to make it available to people who want to love God but who also want to be faithful to who they are?”
This idea that the church’s role is somehow to uncritically affirm the culture and hold out the love of God without any call to repentance is at the very least a defective view of New Testament Christianity and certainly cannot be called evangelical. But for me to say such a thing is itself the problem, according to another Bishop, Colin Fletcher who has been acting Bishop of Oxford for the past 18 months. Christian Today reports that Fletcher, who recently authorized an Oxford clergywoman to officiate at a celebration of a same sex marriage and wrote the foreward to the ‘Grace and Truth’ book, accuses evangelicals who hold to the traditional position of causing pain to gay people. He calls for conservatives to continue to engage in conversation, and not to marginalise and write off those with a different interpretation of the Bible.
Jayne Ozanne initially does the same, urging commitment to “understanding and celebrating the rich tapestry of ‘difference’ that… binds us together in the Body of Christ”, but then in the same breath she implies the complicity of conservative theology in the Orlando tragedy. Claiming to be urging unity from the middle ground (‘grace and truth’; ‘via media’) and at the same time unashamedly accusing historic Christian understandings of sexual ethics to be responsible for self-hatred and violence, is a tactic commonly used by Ozanne.
Meanwhile Bishop Alan Wilson, also from Oxford Diocese, has returned from the “Queering Paradigms” conference in the Cayman Islands where he was one of the keynote speakers, claiming support from the teaching of Jesus for ‘queer theology’. To nobody’s surprise he then acclaimed the eccentric poet laureate Ann Duffy’s latest piece of doggerel as a work of great theological insight. Ian Paul rightly asks why this Bishop is not held accountable for his increasingly bizarre and offensive pronouncements.
Communion and disagreement
Well, how can the very different opinions of Alan Wilson, Jayne Ozanne and someone like myself be held together to ensure continued unity in the church? Answering this question is the task given to the authors of a major new report from the Faith and Order Commission, approved by the House of Bishops to resource the Synodical Shared Conversations, entitled ‘Communion and Difference’.
In his preface, the Chair of the Commission Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry, explains that the document doesn’t attempt to resolve questions about sexual ethics (in fact it hardly refers to them at all), but serves as a reflection on “Scriptural, historical and doctrinal perspectives”, to analyse what happens when Christians disagree, and to look at possible options for continued conversation based on what is held in common. Written in careful, nuanced, academic language, the report reflects in detail on the meanings of Communion, the types of conflict in the church throughout history and in the present, and outlines some paths that might be taken towards resolution.
I will not attempt to make a full critique of the report (others better qualified than I will do that in due course). But I will say that it is very frustrating to read; although Scripture is used throughout, verses are often taken out of context, for example verses from Philippians and Galatians which urge unity in the body are quoted, but verses in the same passage which warn about false teaching are ignored. The way the church comes to an understanding of truth is assumed to emerge from a ‘Hegelian’ method of discussion debate and finding middle or higher ground between two positions (eg paras 14, 28), rather than any concept of the authoritative revelation of Scripture affirmed by tradition. Antagonism between factions holding different views in the church is seen as bad for mission. But the report appears to take the line that as the sexuality debate is not just something within the church but symptomatic of a clash between historic Christian faith and contemporary culture, the role of the Church should be to act as mediator between its own historic counter-cultural understandings and those of the culture.
The report gives a tentative steer towards using the agreement reached over women Bishops as a model for future resolution (paras 67 and 68), ie a solution whereby change happens but there is protection and respect for those who disagree (similar to what has happened in the Episcopal Church of Scotland, perhaps?). Although the authors admit that this may result in a substantial number of people breaking communion over the issue, they feel that those who want to separate would be to blame, and would be acting like the Donatists of Augustine’s day (para 87). Rather, Christians are obligated to continue in communion with one another because of a commitment to love.
Unlike the Pilling report, this document does not openly advocate a change to the Church’s teaching and practice regarding same sex relationships, but in focusing on the priority of peace and unity at all costs and in questioning the possibility of knowing truth, it is intended to break down any resistance to incremental and inevitable change from the conservative side. It provides further evidence of the senior leadership of the Church’s complete lack of confidence in being able to articulate the key doctrines of creation, sex and marriage, the authority of Scripture and the Gospel of salvation which Anglicans claim to still espouse.
Despite wading through this report and reading about heretical Bishops, I was encouraged last week by the visit of four Kenyan Anglicans, who all happened to be in England on separate itineraries yet ended up staying with me at the same time. Fidel Nyongesa came to England in 2011 to help with youth work in my church; he went on to complete the London Cornhill course, returned to Kenya, got married to Christine a teacher and church youth worker, and now he runs an apprenticeship scheme with iServe Africa in Nairobi. This programme trains Christian graduates for a year of service in churches, schools and hospitals all over the country, sometimes in very deprived areas. Benjamin Kibara is in charge of Diocesan ministry training in Butere, Western Kenya, and is pioneering a programme of low cost, in-service discipleship and leadership development which has been running for several years in Uganda and now is spreading throughout the Great Lakes region. The fourth visitor was Martin Olando, Principal of a theological college in Mombasa, who also has strong connections with a Diocese south of Nairobi which is developing a number of evangelistic and community development ministries. Martin’s brother works in a counselling centre with abused young people, often from very poor backgrounds who are given Christian discipleship and practical life skills.
These Africans came to our (very white British) church home group, shared their testimonies and spoke about their ministries. We prayed together, and the locals were inspired and encouraged. That for me represents true Communion, real unity in the body, sharing in hospitality and mission. I am nominally part of the Church of England and under the authority of its leaders. Spiritually and theologically I feel increasingly alienated from them, but naturally at home with those from other parts of the world with whom I share the same understandings of faith. Developing this global fellowship is surely a priority now for the orthodox for whom confidence in the C of E is ebbing away.