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The Church of England's General Synod: The Best Things in the Worst Times

The Church of England's General Synod: The Best Things in the Worst Times

By Charles Raven
Special to Virtueonline
July 13, 2010

Tucked away in the English countryside, Staunton Harold Hall has a church in its grounds with an inscription above the west door which reads (spelling as original) 'In the year 1653 when all thinges sacred were throughout ye Nation either demolisht or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, founded this church, whose singular praise it is to have done the best thinges in ye worst times and hoped them in the most callamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.'

Without necessarily agreeing that erecting a church dedicated to the High Church Laudian tradition was one of the 'best thinges' that could be done in the Commonwealth, or that Cromwell's rule was 'the most callamitous' - after all it was during this period that there were some outstanding Reformed clergy in the pulpits of English parish churches, most notably Richard Baxter of Kidderminster - we may nonetheless look back and admire Sir Robert's courage and initiative.

At a time when General Synod's intransigence towards those who oppose the innovation of women bishops threatens the Church of England with a degree of chaos and division unprecedented since the turbulence of the mid seventeenth century, it is good to ask what the 'best thing' for English Anglicans might look like in our own 'worst times'.

While some may draw comfort from the apparent ruling out (if he was ever ruled in) of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Southwark, the Church of England's direction of travel is now abundantly clear. Whether or not we agree with David Virtue's assessment that the Church of England 'is now Province XVII of The Episcopal Church', he is absolutely right that we are seeing the same ruthless marginalisation of the orthodox as has happened in the United States. It is entirely certain that the Church of England will soon have women bishops and not far behind will be openly gay bishops too because that is the relentless logic of power relationships, rights and inclusion which sustains the long march of radical liberals through political and ecclesiastical instructions on this side of the Atlantic as it has in North America.

The fundamental changes taking place in Anglican institutions are reflected in the accelerating collapse of that spurious middle ground which Rowan Williams has tried so hard to establish through the Windsor Covenant process. On the international level, the resignation of Bishop Mouneer Anis from the Anglican Communion Standing Committee in January presaged a steady stream of other orthodox members heading for the exit, the fifth and most recent being Justice Akrofi, the Primate of West Africa, while the recent outspoken criticisms of Rowan Williams by Mrs Jefferts Schori and members of WATCH in the Church of England reflect the growing boldness of the liberals. In this context, Synod's rejection of the Archbishops' amendment is a further sign that institutional fixes designed to nuance the underlying dynamics simply will not work.

Of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury maintained in his closing speech to Synod that the process has not yet reached the 'end of the road', and the Archbishop of York has described himself as 'a prisoner of hope', but there is a distinct air of unreality about even this guarded optimism. Surely the fact that both Archbishops were willing to take such a gamble by staking their authority on a very uncertain outcome shows how desperate the situation had become.

Sir Robert not only hoped for 'the best thinges'; it was his 'singular praise' to have acted on that hope, but both Archbishops seem to have nothing left to offer except to press ahead with the unamended legislation and hope for the best. They are not so much prisoners of hope as prisoners of facts on the ground which they have allowed to happen. For Rowan Williams, this is a personal issue - his incapacity to act with any conviction stems from a form of double mindedness which holds that on the most divisive issue of homosexuality, even an Archbishop can hold one view personally and uphold another by virtue of office.

In the case of the Archbishop of York, it seems that he is a good man trapped in a resolutely institutional mindset. Three years ago he warned that those who failed to attend the 2008 Lambeth Conference would be severing their links with the Communion and that disagreements with American liberals on homosexuality were not 'core issues'. Yesterday, he told Ruth Gledhill of the London Times that 'In the end these other tribes - evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, liberals, Reform - they make people become more single-issue focused. For myself I am only Anglican, Anglican right to my fingertips. The Anglican tradition is always the middle way. They never press people to the left or the right because the cross of Jesus straddles the whole spectrum.'

This is precisely the bankrupt ecclesiology which has allowed a false gospel to infiltrate parts of the Anglican Communion so successfully - it dismisses those with a confessional understanding of Anglicanism as 'tribal' and effectively equates a shifting institutional centre with the mind of the Holy Spirit, a centre which is falling apart as the now dominant liberals refuse to play any longer by the old rules of tolerance which enabled them to establish a foothold in the first place.

So however good their intentions, it is difficult to see what hope either Archbishop can hold out. Speaking on the BBC this morning, Bishop John Broadhurst, the Bishop of Fulham, one who would no doubt see Sir Robert as one of his spiritual forebears, said that the 1,000 Anglo-Catholic clergy he represents have been 'dispossessed' ; the honoured place they believed they had when women were ordained to the presbyterate in 1992 no longer exists. Some will leave, but he believed that others would 'just defy' and refuse to co-operate.

So the rickety structure of the Church of England looks set for inevitable collapse as its doctrinal incoherence manifests itself in practical disorder and confusion. The pressing question for the orthodox now is to clarify that 'best thing' they can do if they are not willing to abandon Anglicanism for the Ordinariate. They could take their chance in a crumbling structure and hope against hope that by 2012 there will be sufficient in numbers in General Synod to vote the legislation down, which seems to be Reform's position, but even if that were to happen it seems highly unlikely that Parliament's Ecclesiastical Committee would accept anything other than unimpaired jurisdiction for female bishops.

And then even if that hurdle were to be overcome, could Reform live with the same arrangements being put in place for the next stage of the revisionist agenda which would be bishops in openly homosexual relationships? While it may be possible at a stretch to maintain the position that there can be 'two integrities' on the ordination of women, conservative evangelical Anglicans are convinced that there is no ambiguity in Scripture about homosexuality and would therefore have great difficulty being part of a structure which holds out such a lifestyle as an acceptable option.

The 'best thing' now is to take action and form as a matter of urgency, with or without official blessing, a religious/mission society based on the proposal by Canon Chris Sugden in his article offering a solution to the problem of women bishops, 'A Question of Jurisdiction' in the Church of England Newspaper (9th July). If this were to be backed by the GAFCON Primates it would offer an unassailably Anglican alternative to the Ordinariate.

In the unlikely event that the revisionist juggernaut were halted, it would at least have provided a structure for those twenty or so congregations in the British Isles and continental Europe which are led by Anglican clergy, but for reasons of biblical conscience and mission are outside official structures. It might even be a way in which continuing Anglican bodies like the Free Church of England could engage with the Anglican mainstream as has happened with its sister Church, the Reformed Episcopal Church which is now part of the Anglican Church in North America.

However the probability must be that the Church of England will slide into further chaos and incoherence and it was precisely to bring a sense of order into a disordered Communion that the GAFCON movement was formed. But this will not happen overnight; it helps to recover a sense of historical perspective. For instance, in his insightful article 'The Limits of Anglican Diversity' (Churchman 117/4 2003) Roger Beckwith examines the Constitutional Report for the Anglican Communion accepted by the 1930 Lambeth Conference and makes the interesting comment that Anglican Communion in comparison with the Eastern Orthodox is 'still young'.

If we see the Anglican Communion as still in the process of being formed, our vision should be that the revisionism which is so dominant in the more economically developed areas of the Communion today will come to be seen as an ecclesial cul de sac, a temporary aberration. The significance of a GAFCON sponsored mission in the British Isles would therefore be not just to act as a holding structure for the marginalized, but to articulate and teach as clearly and powerfully as possible the reformed Western tradition of classic Anglicanism as we have received it, rooted in the theology of the sixteenth century reformers. This would surely be the best of things in our worst of times.

Charles Raven can be reached at: charles.raven@christchurchwyreforest.org.uk


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