Peter Sanlon speaks to the Anglican Partnership Synod in Rochester on what must be done
Last night I watched the Channel 4 television documentary – ‘The £1 Houses’. TV crews follow the gripping story of efforts to secure the future of derelict houses in Liverpool. A whole street of houses were due for demolishing. But the plans changed – and instead they were left derelict for 5 years. They got boarded up, damp, vandalised. Trees began growing through roofs, floors fell in. The government tried to secure their future by offering them for sale for £1 each. New owners have one year to restore them to livable standards. If they can do it – they secure a family home for their future at a bargain basement cost. As the cameras follow people round the shells of houses it is clear they will need serious structural work if they are to survive. A lick of paint or whitewash will not do. The programme brought to mind Ezekiel 13. It prompted me to ask, am I securing a future for my church – or just stockpiling whitewash?
Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash, say to those who smear it with whitewash that it shall fall! There will be a deluge of rain, and you, O great hailstones, will fall, and a stormy wind break out. And when the wall falls, will it not be said to you, ‘Where is the coating with which you smeared it?’ Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: I will make a stormy wind break out in my wrath, and there shall be a deluge of rain in my anger, and great hailstones in wrath to make a full end. And I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it down to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare. When it falls, you shall perish in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the LORD. Thus will I spend my wrath upon the wall and upon those who have smeared it with whitewash, and I will say to you, The wall is no more, nor those who smeared it, the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for her, when there was no peace, declares the Lord GOD. (ESV)
The book of Ezekiel has much to say about the nature of good and bad shepherds. Those who feed and care for God’s people, and those who do not. I take it this passage is in the Bible because it is a perennial temptation for shepherds – that is ministers and lay leaders like us – to hope futilely that a lick of whitewash will cover over the fatal structural flaws we are sitting on. We are tempted to declare peace and safety when we are on the brink of disaster. I feel that temptation in my heart. If that is not a common heart problem, then I do not know why God included these words in the Bible.
Not a rerun of the 1966 Falling out
Many of you will be aware of the falling out between John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, after The Doctor gave his address on evangelical unity in 1966. There were lots of reasons that day caused tension. Lloyd-Jones was heard by Stott to be calling ministers to leave the Church of England. The address was not published for years, so it was impossible for rumours and misunderstandings over that point to be corrected till a myth had taken root. For the avoidance of any misunderstanding- please be assured I am not going to be calling on anybody to leave the Church of England. I am speaking from a full script which will be available afterwards – so you can ensure my words are not taken out of context or misremembered.
What I am going to be calling you to do is to begin a spiritual process of analysis and evaluation. I hesitate to do so as I have found engaging in such a process myself, over the past few years, to be an agonising experience. I am still conflicted. I do not have all the answers. My own ministry embodies the internal conflicts we all would rather avoid. I lead two churches – one inside the Church of England and one in the Free Church of England. I see the benefits of the established church. As I approach my fortieth birthday I have so far benefited from 20 years attending and serving in Church of England Churches. Still as I analyse the situation we face, I cannot but fear that my heart is tempted to whitewash over structural problems that I suspect God could in short order punish me for.
We must be concerned to secure a faithful future
One of the reasons we accept a faulty analysis of our situation is that we focus overly on the present situation. Clergy like me are especially prone to this. We think all is well because we are free to preach as we see fit, and have a building to work from and a vicarage to live in. We have these things now and so all is well. But faithful analysis requires that we evaluate the future. Building a sound house is a task aimed at securing a secure home fit for future generations. Look ahead ten years, twenty, thirty years. What will the House of Bishops look like? Who will be willing to come to Church of England churches? What do church laws actually say about succession of clergy appointments? A vicar may ignore their diocesan structures – but how will you get men ordained if your DDO is in a lesbian relationship (as in Southwark Diocese)? How will your church flourish if it has to tacitly support by its silence the LGBTI Eucharists in cathedrals such as Rochester?
There are many good things happening among our constituency. That is not to be denied – the analysis that we must all make is whether those good things are adequate to provide a faithful future in light of the Church of England’s trajectory. We need to synthesise an evaluation of the future benefits provided by good things we are building with an honest analysis of the Church of England’s trajectory. To that task we now turn.
We must analyse the Trajectory of the Church of England
The word trajectory is a very precise one – it does not just mean any kind of future movement. It describes the arc of movement that an object takes after being thrown. A trajectory of a ball one throws is a curve upwards – followed by a curve downwards before it hits the earth. To say the Church of England has a trajectory is to accept it is in motion, it is moving and changing. The evaluation we must make is whether it is on an upward trajectory – or a downward one. If it is on a downward trajectory, then that means that its descent will speed up, get worse and eventually crash to the ground. Our ability to provide faithful futures for churches will inevitably be impacted.
I think that there is relatively little doubt from our constituency that the Church of England is on a downward trajectory. The post Keele positive dream of ever greater influence and successful extensive evangelisation via the structures is not a view many today would have much evidence for. Allow me to remind you of some of the evidence of the Church of England’s downward trajectory:
Our first speaker at this Partnership Synod was Gavin Ashenden – at that point a Queen’s Chaplain. He subsequently resigned saying ‘The Church of England is driving off a cliff… It has been captured by the spirit of the age.’
Lorna Ashworth – who attends one of the churches in our Partnership Synod – was for some years a member of the Archbishops’ Council. She said: ‘An agenda of revisionism is masked in the language of so-called ‘good disagreement’. In fact, ‘good disagreement’ and ‘unity’ have trumped the saving gospel message … In light of this revisionist agenda and the heretical teaching that comes with it, I am no longer willing to sit around the table, pretending that we, as a governing body of the Church of England, are having legitimate conversations about mission… I refuse to be mistaken as one participating in the fanciful notion of ‘good disagreement’. As such, I am standing down from the Archbishops’ Council with immediate effect and all subsequent bodies, including the General Synod.’
Eminent older evangelicals have been expressing their concerns about the future. For example Preb. Dick Lucas has said to a number of people, including me, that he would not go forward for ordination in the Church of England today.
We recently suffered the tragic loss of Mike Ovey’s ministry, due to his untimely death. If you buy the excellent book of his collected essays you will rightly be impressed at his addresses to GAFCON. Why did he support GAFCON? Well for the same reason that despite being principal of Oak Hill he did not attend a Church of England Church. He told one of his close friends a reason he could not bear to go to a Church of England Church as he could see that the Church of England was irredeemably compromised. Indeed it was Mike that alerted me to the precise meaning and value of the word ‘trajectory’ in analysing the Church of England.
Early last year the entire House of Bishops commended a report in which they argued that the Church of England could keep its doctrine unchanged, while permitting divergent practices as ethical applications. In other words the Bishops unanimously said we can listen to God’s Word without doing it.
In the past year General Synod has had scenes described by attendees as deeply disturbing – open anger and disgust at the idea the Church ought to honour God’s Word. Andrea Williams among others were booed for speaking in favour of Biblical views.
Recently the Bishops have announced that clergy are free to amend baptism liturgies to fashion name blessings for transgendered people.
A few weeks ago The Revd Canon Dr Rachel Mann, a transgendered minister, has been elected to serve on General Synod until 2020.
The Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, has become a patron of the Pride March and in defence of his support of the revisionist agenda has announced ‘Love is Love.’
The DDO of Southwark Diocese had her civil partnership ceremony and afterwards held a celebratory eucharist at the cathedral, followed by dinner and dancing in the nave. Clergy who, with Bishop Rod Thomas, have met with the bishop saying they cannot accept her oversight of their curates have been told there can be no alternative provision. Several feel they can no longer accept curates.
Here in Rochester the Bishop appointed an archdeacon who has publicly signed her support of the Church embracing the LGBTI agenda. After many months the bishop has ignored our requests for limited forms of alternative oversight.
The Working Group on Women’s Ministry has published its report on the Five Guiding Principles – it is clear that the mixed economy there described is a pattern for how sexualtity disagreement will – indeed is already – be managed.
Rochester Cathedral recently held its first LGBTI eucharist. Seeing the gay pride flag draped over the communion table will be an increasingly common sight – as the Open Table web site encourages and co-ordinates the increasing prevalence of such services across the county. Rev’d Joel Love who presided was subsequently invited to address our deanery synod.
This downward trajectory is gathering pace as the year 2020 approaches. For in that year – only one and a half years away – three things will occur. The Bishops will release their Teaching Document, designed to guide the Church further along mutual flourishing and good disagreement over sexuality. The Lambeth Conference will occur – when the Archbishop will demonstrate how effective he has been in corralling and persuading the worldwide communion to walk together with him in his toleration of heresy. And we will have elections to the new General Synod. Given our terrible track record of getting evangelicals to top voting slates – this new intake will inevitably be enthusiastic to further implement the revisionism that will be permitted by the Teaching Document and Bishops.
That list of observations is merely representative. I could share many more and give much more detail. There is a question over what our analysis of the situation we face is to be? We may take differing views – but the point of uncertainty lies not in whether Church of England is locked into a downward trajectory – but in the adequacy of evangelical provisions against that trajectory.
We must analyse whether good things we are doing are adequate to secure a faithful future – in light of that Trajectory.
There are many good things that we can be thankful to God for. I am going to mention just some of them. What we need to analyse is whether they are adequate to bear the weight of the Church of England’s downward trajectory. If they are not – and we place our hope in them – then we are doing little more than stockpiling whitewash.
What sort of good things have been going on – and are they adequate to provide for the next ten, twenty or fifty years of faithful ministry we are called to prepare for?
We are very thankful for the ministry of Bishop Rod Thomas. I recently had him lead a confirmation service, and numbers of our PCCs have passed the motion to benefit from his ministry. Bishop Rod is a fine bishop, godly man and a great servant. Can we, with no disrespect to him, analyse whether he is a solution to the problems we face? Given that he is not a diocesan, but can only operate under the authority of revisionist bishops? Bishop Rod is only one man – England is a big country. Even if we had three such men – there are over 100 bishops in the wider Church. Bishop Rod’s authority has been carefully curtailed by the Archbishop so that while he can do much good, he cannot actually prevent the management of the Church into where the Archbishop wants it to go.
The Church of England is making money (about £24 million) available to evangelicals for planting churches. The sum is less than they give annually to fund the cathedrals and bishops – but it has got lots of evangelicals excited. Numbers of church plants are seeking Bishops Mission Orders or accepting buildings- actually coming back into the Church of England, in return for buildings and money. It is wonderful to see plants thriving and growing – but will accepting the money and episcopal oversight of the Church of England paper over problems or help us deal with them?
We remain thankful for the patronage of Church Society. Let’s do all we can to get good men appointed to their posts. They are great ministry opportunities for individuals. Church Society has influence in the appointments of between 120 and 125 churches, fifty of which it is the sole patron of. The upper figure of 125 churches is 0.7% of the 15,638 churches in the Church of England. These certainly represent a great opportunity for those who get appointed, but analysed against the wider trajectory – is it adequate?
Some are hoping the Archbishop will grant evangelicals a third provence. Is there any reason from the establishment’s perspective to give away part of the church? Will the 2020 General Synod weather that? There is no evidence to support the hope and much to the contrary.
We recently heard of Reform and Fellowship of Word and Spirit merging with Church Society. It is wonderful to hear of positive partnerships and new ways of working together. Some people are saying they hope this united commendation of Rev’d Dr Lee Gatiss’s impressive work of renewing Church Society, makes him an obvious candidate to be appointed as a bishop alongside or in succession to Bishop Rod Thomas. Well, if Archbishop Welby does not consecrate Rev’d Lee Gatiss he is not half the tactician I think he is. And doubtless Bishop Lee will do great work – it would be terrific to have a man of his reformed convictions and intellectual calibre in episcopal leadership. But, do we really think that the Archbishop will not carefully hedge his authority such that he cannot under any circumstances overturn his Good Disagreement agenda? If the Establishment managed to so limit Bishop Rod – will it not do the same for any further such bishops?
There is the hope of some that we will outgrow the revisionists by evangelism. Looking at the very small conversion rates in most of our churches, that is most unlikely. But just in case, the Church of England is pouring money into the coffers of the HTB network – knowing that they can grow numerically faster than pure revisionsits, but they have agreed to be silent on the pertinent issues of the day and so dance the good disagreement waltz.
I myself tried to give voice to a theological distinction between temporal and spiritual authority – as a way of carving out freedoms to be faithful under heretical bishops. I did the best I could to make the case for the concept – but on reflection I can see that it is nothing more than a theoretical idea that cannot be put into practice. My own analysis is that my best theological efforts to work around the problems in the Church of England fail.
Many continue to say that if only the orthodox were more winsome they would in some way be successful. Well, winsome toleration of heresy is still toleration of heresy. And given the deep ideological commitment many in the Church of England have to the revisionist agenda, it is difficult to find evidence that winsomeness will somehow reverse that.
I say again that the things I mention above are good things, for which we must be thankful. The question is – do any of them individually or together – secure a faithful future for ministry in England? If we hold out something as a hope for the future which is not able to bear the weight of the Church’s downward trajectory – we are stockpiling whitewash rather than securing a faithful future. The future trajectory of the Church was described by our Archbishop last week in an interview with the Church Times:
Interviewer: Right at the beginning of your primacy, you were said, it might have been in the context of gay marriage: “I must examine my own mind prayerfully and carefully.” I remember a couple of conversations where people were trying to push you to say exactly where you stood on this matter, and you said “Just give me time.” Have you had enough time?
Archbishop: No, not yet [laughs]. I think where that has taken us, taken me, is to this really huge programme around the Episcopal Teaching Document, as it’s called in rather an ungainly fashion (we need something snappy for that). But what that is doing is mapping out the area of our agreement and disagreement. It’s not coming to find a conclusion. It’s mapping out the area of our agreement and disagreement…
Interviewer: In the meantime, we have had the “good disagreement” process.
Archbishop: Or “disagreeing well”, whichever. . . I prefer “disagreeing well”.
Interviewer: Various people, whom I think you used to be quite close to, people like William Taylor and so on, are saying that this is unbiblical.
Archbishop: Well, I’ve never been that close to William. I’ve met him a couple of dozen times over the last 40 years, I guess. I’m very reluctant to disagree with him on this, but I don’t agree with his biblical view on that.
Ponder what all that means. We have an Archbishop who still claims to not know what is right on the cardinal ethical issue of our age; but he is sure that a faithful evangelical minister such as William Taylor is wrong; and he is moving ahead with a programme where even evangelicals who take a different view from the revisionists will find that they are caught up in a process of disagreeing well – in other words tacitly affirming each others views.
We must pray for God to give us a due sense of danger if it is indeed ahead
In the American Episcopal Church evangelicals were saying right up the very end that the problems could still be solved by strategies that for decades had not delivered. I have shared some facts and analysis with you tonight. In the end the analysis must be a spiritual one. We need God to open our eyes to the future, to reality, to our place in it. And so I am not telling anybody to leave the Church of England, nor am I denying the value of the many good things our constituency is doing and has done. But I am begging you to start praying that God would enable each one of us to know what we should do. I am begging you to pray that if there is catastrophic spiritual ruin ahead of us, that God would open our eyes to it before it is too late. If you have not been praying with heartfelt sincerity and desperate dependence on God – start tonight.
As you pray, I will be praying that God will give us clarity of analysis. There are different analyses possible – I would like in the first instance that we just be clear what our analysis of our situations is.
We must take next steps together, on basis of our analysis
Our Partnership Synod began as a prayerful vision to work together to support one another planting churches inside and outside the Church of England. That continues; but hopefully it can continue in light of this address with the full awareness that our decisions, speed and priorities need to flow from an honest spiritual evaluation of the situation we are facing.
If we are convinced that any good thing we see is adequate to provide faithful future in light of the Church of England’s trajectory, we must cherish, promote and strengthen that thing.
If, like me, you are convinced that most of the good things we celebrate are in fact whitewash – when compared with the serious problems posed by the Church of England’s trajectory, then you must accept that is an agonising situation to be in. I do not think that it is necessary to leave the Church of England – it is after all not a very easy thing to do! But if we want some kind of faithful future and want to leave some kind of secure legacy free from the grip of the Church of England’s spiritual corruption – surely we need to work very hard and very fast to plant churches outside the Church of England. Through AMiE or FCE or FIEC – even if it is a small church that meets only on a weeknight or Sunday afternoon. If it is free from the Church of England it offers hope for a future day. Your church plant can progress in faithfulness, while the Church of England follows its trajectory of ever more rapacious unfaithfulness. Time and speed matters. 2020 will be a serious gear change in the trajectory. You do not have to set up a huge church that is equivalent to the Church of England church you have – it can be small, flexible and nimble. We set our FCE church up in one year from concept to opening service. There is no reason you could not do something similar – it all depends on your analysis of the trajectory of the Church of England, and whether solutions are adequate or stockpiles of whitewash.
The Rev’d Dr Peter Sanlon is Convener of the Anglican Partnership Synod in Rochester. He is Vicar of St. Mark’s (Church of England) and Rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church (Free Church of England). Both churches are in Tunbridge Wells.