As we think through the significance of the meeting of Primates in Canterbury, we come to the key subject of repentance.
The issues before us have doctrinal and political aspects. But, finally, they are spiritual and that is why repentance matters.
The original tragic division in the Anglican Communion was the responsibility of certain North American Anglicans. They have been invited back into communion with those who severed relationships.
But this is not simply a matter of apology without change.
The need is repentance, with the hope of reconciliation and restoration.
Gentle but firm
In Canterbury, an overwhelming number of Primates agreed that the endorsement of same sex marriage by The Episcopal Church (TEC) should be challenged and the consequences for continued fellowship be set out.
The Primates deliberately chose the greatest offence (redefining marriage), the greatest offenders (TEC) and the mildest rebuke (three years suspension from some activities).
The Primates were virtually united in this gentle approach – gentle but firm. The most outrageous offence against biblical truth was singled out, and a mild set of consequences outlined. It left The Episcopal Church with nowhere to hide. No one can say that this is vindictive or punitive.
It is a symbolic, gentle invitation to return home.
What is repentance?
Coming home is what repentance looks like.
Repentance is at the heart of spiritual renewal. It is the Prodigal’s return. It is coming home.
We have all strayed from God’s will expressed in his word; we hear the hammer blows of the word of God; our conscience convicts us of our sin; we know that we have offended; we return to the One whom we have offended, giving up our sin, not pleading our supposed virtues, but seeking only his mercy and making no claims upon him; we speak only in the name of the Lord Jesus; we place ourselves once more under his authority; we hear his blessed word of forgiveness, peace and assurance.
We all need to repent of much. It is a normal spiritual discipline of the Christian life. In this case it is a challenge to a whole Province to think again, to turn, to return, to come home.
It is tragic that so many of their fellow Anglican Christians have declared themselves to be in broken communion with TEC. Desperately poor Anglicans have declined to receive money from TEC because of what they have done; thousands of North Americans have left TEC and the Canadian Church and formed the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) at great personal cost, in order to stand for the truth of the word of God.
The GAFCON movement speaks in love to their friends and asks for repentance, not just for their teaching on same-sex marriage, but for their endorsement of sexual lifestyles which are condemned by the word of God.
They stand with arms out seeking reconciliation through repentance.
There are risks in the gentle but firm course chosen by the Primates.
First, it may be that those in Canada and Scotland, not to mention England who agree with such things as the blessing of same sex unions may think that they have now escaped censure and are free to proceed.
But Lambeth 1.10 still stands, as does the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration and of course the Holy Scriptures. Let not those who have breached the word in other ways now take comfort, as though they have been somehow endorsed. Rather let them, too, consider turning again to the Lord.
Second, the gentleness of the rebuke may suggest that no great matters are at stake and that the passage of time will allow people to become used to this new doctrine.
But surely we should see this in the reverse way. If TEC fails to heed so gentle a voice calling her home it indicates how far has she strayed.
We may well fear that, for some, the Canterbury meeting has been just another episode in the long history of acceptance. After all, TEC has been chastised before; those who would exercise discipline have exercised infinite patience; nothing has happened and matters have got worse. There is a moment when enough is enough.
That is why it is essential to understand the story of which we are part. In God’s providence, GAFCON stands, guarding and proclaiming the gospel we love. For this reason, we continue to support ACNA while calling for a spiritual renewal through repentance for those whose actions have created the division.
Repentance is a blessed discipline and we should be grateful to those who call us back to the standard of the word of God.
But – alas! It has been made immediately clear that there is no intention of repentance in TEC. Bishop after Bishop as well as other leaders repudiated the summons and even suggested that this was an institutional rather than a spiritual matter, saying that the Primates have no right to make these decisions – an observation which even if true, is still irrelevant.
It is too early yet to be absolutely sure, but the signs are not good. We must all constantly heed the summons to repentance, watching our own lives and teaching. But we cannot afford to allow our dear brothers and sisters embrace the deadly errors of the sexual revolution without the challenge to repentance and the pain of separation.
Not all agree. Some think that we should live with ‘good disagreement’. But that raises the issue of the nature of the Christian gospel itself. To that we turn in the next letter.