Gretna Green and the dog that didn’t bark”

Gavin Ashenden looks at the opportunities and omissions in the Lagos communique

Marriage as source of contention has history between England and Scotland. In 1754 Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act came into force in England. It was designed to stop young people marrying without parental consent under the age of 21. It didn’t apply in Scotland, where boys could marry at 14 and girls at 12. So generations of ‘minors’ fled to Gretna Green to be married by the village blacksmith. Scotland didn’t even require the celebrant to be a priest or civil servant. 

Once again, at least in Christian terms, the Anglican Church in Scotland is going to have a different attitude to marriage from the Anglican Church in and of England.

When the Gafcon Primates recently met in Lagos, they did so knowing that in a matter of weeks the Scottish Episcopal Church “was likely​ to formalise their rejection of Jesus’ teaching on marriage.” This prospect provokes a crisis of belief and authority amongst Anglicans in the British Isles. It also ramps up the pressure for the recognition of gay marriage south of the border. People will argue with the force of nothing more than common sense, that it makes no sense being able to have an Anglican ‘gay wedding’ in Gretna Green, but not in Carlisle 10 miles down the road, in England.

Homosexual marriage is the Rubicon that biblical Christians may not cross under any circumstances. That being the case there will be a number of clergy and congregations whose relations with their bishops in Scotland are severed by the vote in their Synod. 

Arguments about the historicity of the physical chain of apostolic succession being valid for Anglican bishops, disappear into thin air compared with the obvious impossibility of relating to a bishop consecrated to be a guardian of the apostolic faith who has been derailed by secularist arguments and abandoning Biblical principles.; and just as importantly, a religious spirit working against the Holy Spirit.  

At last, in the face of this perversion of the faith that was always going to challenge the integrity of the Church somewhere, sometime, the Gafcon Primates have acted and promised a missionary bishop.

That much is all clear and very good.

But what follows in the communique is less clear and may be less than good.

Communiques are a little like crosswords. The have clues, codes and solutions. This one is no different. The blessing of those who remain within the structures is intended to encourage people like Rod Thomas, the Bishop of Maidstone, the one and only bishop available for conservative evangelicals in the whole of the Church of England. He in particular will feel the new missionary bishop as a threat to his responsibilities and his constituency.  

It is generous of the Primates to remember that he needs recognition and encouragement in what must be a lonely place. As they carefully comment, many people are weighing up whether the Church of England can be saved for the faith, or whether it has been swept too far down the secular stream by currents that are too strong to allow it to turn around. This affects whether or not they leave of stay.

But there is an odd analysis in the rather clumsy linking of the one missionary bishop with the two constituencies of the Church planting AMiE, and the orthodox Scottish Episcopalians. 

He would have to be a very gifted and most unusual man to gain the theological confidence of both these groups. For the truth is that the Church planters of AMiE don’t really believe in bishops or use them. They have cheerfully and energetically planted and opened churches under the chairmanship of prominent lay figures if a bishop was not available. The clergy do not see themselves as deriving their orders or their ministerial mandates from anyone but the Holy Spirit. They are de facto Congregationalists. The question has often been posed without any ill intent, as what is it that makes them Anglicans at all?

The Scots Episcopalians are very different and will expect a bishop who has the expectations of relating to them as a bishop. The Church planters of AMiE do not feel the need of that kind of a bishop. They may not expect any kind of bishop, since they have done very well so far without much more than a nod towards anything episcopal.

Yet bishops, apart from being guardians of the faith, have their functional uses. They are like the Lego blocks which allow ecclesial superstructures to be more easily connected to each other. And these connections are exactly what orthodox Anglicans in England and Scotland need if they are to avoid the centrifugal scattering that is the pattern of the orthodox sheep fleeing the ravenous heretical wolves down the ages.

Apart from this odd and probably unmanageable missionary bishop for two incompatible constituencies, there is as Sherlock Holmes described in the short story “Silver Blaize’ “the dog that didn’t bark in the night.”

Why is there no mention of the Free Church of England in this communique? It must be evident to the Primates that the FCE is going to play a key role in the renewal of orthodox Anglicans in the British Isles. By what may be a serendipity of history they already constitute a GAFCON episcopate. Through their relations with the Reformed Episcopal Church which itself is a constituent part of ACNA, they are both a conduit and a bridge into Gafcon. Ignoring them is more than odd. The consecration of a missionary bishop without reference to them would set up two Gafcon episcopal jurisdictions. This would not only contravene clause 11 of the Jerusalem Declaration, but it would set in place exactly the competing and parallel structures that have so weighed down and complicated orthodox jurisdictions elsewhere.

A simplistic reading of this communique would suggest that the Scottish crisis is providing the catalyst for some kind of regularising of the rather irregular Anglicanism of AMiE, with the offer of a safety net for any Scots who might care to use it in extremis.

But this won’t do as a strategy for the future of orthodox Anglicanism in the UK. There is a very broad spectrum of Anglican orthodoxy stretching from AMiE at one end, through the FCE and lapping up to the feet of the Society of St Wilfred and Hilda at the Anglo-Catholic end. What is needed is a strategy that gives episcopal expression to the constituent parts of this spectrum; effectively a coalition and a college of missionary bishops to provide the right spiritual care for their communities and represent and hold the spectrum together by their mutual commitment and vision. One AMiE missionary bishop falls too far short of this.

Of course one reason for restricting this initial act to a bishop for desperate Scots and Church planting independent Anglicans, is that it avoids a confrontation with Archbishop Justin Welby. Neither of these two groups belong to his jurisdiction. Perhaps they have judged that this is not yet the moment to confront him, but rather to fire the Missionary bishop across his bows so to speak, to warn him of what will follow if the C of E imitates the Scottish Episcopal Church.

If so, they misjudge the strategy of the Archbishop of Canterbury. For as long as he can he will stick to the undertaking not to consent to the change in the law. But meanwhile, he will foster a climate of ‘good disagreement’ designed to produce the maximum inclusion of the erotic and romantic homosexual culture within the C of E. A change in the law is not always necessary to affect a change of culture or spirit. If Jesus was clear on anything in the Gospels however, he was clear that hiding behind the protection and practice of the law whilst offending God in spirit, was an attitude and practice he refused to condone but instead exposed and confronted.  

There is still time to remedy the analysis and implement a wiser and wider vision. The Gafcon Primates are to be congratulated on their courage in having at last taken this first step of principle. It is better to be abreast of the curve than a long way behind it. 

Archbishop Foley Beach is coming to England in June to preside over a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the union of the Free Church of England with the Reformed Episcopal Church and an associated forum of representatives of that wide spectrum of orthodox Anglican witness taking counsel together; a spectrum which as yet appears to be beyond the focus of the Gafcon primates’ radar.  Perhaps he can carry back with him a refreshed vision of what is required to establish an orthodox Anglican episcopal jurisdiction; one that holds the different interests and spiritualties together and binds them in a unity of purpose and identity that will be essential to the health and witness of a renewed faithful Anglicanism.

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