An address to the Chester Association

Good Morning. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. And I as I do so I am very conscious that I am doing so in a time of great crisis. Now it should be admitted that we as Reformed Catholics in the Church of England have been in a crisis for generations. In fact we have been in a crisis for so long that I suspect many of us have simply become used to it so that this new crisis that has been visited upon us can simply be regarded as just one more crisis that has come our way. After all during my own 34 years as Presbyter in the Church of England I have become increasing aware of 

  1. The continual downgrade of Scriptural authority.
  2. The silencing and relegation of the 39 Articles of Religion to the extent that the Church of England’s own commitment to her own doctrinal first principles is an open question; thereby rendering the Articles a dead letter. 
  3. The denial of fundamental doctrines by the hierarchy or if not open denial a refusal to uphold and defend them; often hidden under the pretence that to do so would weaken the Church’s evangelistic cutting edge and in so doing elevating John 3:16 above the proclamation and declaration of the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). 

And this is serious. It is serious because what it has done is to fragment and compartmentalise the single Church, the one Church of England which was, until recently an ecclesial body, happy to be simply a part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and having no doctrines of her own or ministry of her own holding only to the doctrines and ministry of the Universal Church.

Nevertheless within the one Church of England disparate groups have now sprung up that that have little to do with each other. Which means that we now have Liberals, Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals but in recent years, although it seems to me the Liberals, (being theologically lazy and parasitic) have remained united as a revolutionary school of thought, the Anglo-Catholics have split into two groups; Affirming Catholics and Forward in Faith, as have the Evangelicals who have splintered into those who regard themselves as Open Evangelicals and those who do not.

But an even worse situation was to make itself felt. And that was with the advent of women presbyters and bishops the Orders of the Church herself were fractured so the Ministry was no longer an interchangeable ministry and as such could longer function as a principle bond by which believers were held together in a single body.

Now I say all this as the background to our most recent crisis which has been brought upon us by the recent decision of the General Synod to authorise prayers and blessings for those living in various types of relationship sexual or otherwise. Of course this is again incredibly serious. But I want you to see that this most recent step is not a step that has been taken, as it were, out of the blue but is a step and I think I could say, a necessary step, in keeping with all the previous baby steps, that have led to this last step. And we should not kid ourselves that in the future there will not be further steps along the road.

And so it is in a situation like this; a situation in which Scripture has been downgraded, the Articles relegated, fundamental doctrines discarded, the Church fragmented and her Orders fractured that we are forced to go back to elemental first principles. But in order to do so we will find ourselves being forced to go back to the day each and every one of us who are Presbyters here today were ordained; and so go back to the day when all of us swore oaths, solemn and binding, before God and the Bishops of His Church and the people of His pasture brought with the price of His own blood and in the context of Holy Communion, the Covenant Meal.

And what did we swear? Well, we swore that we would teach the Scriptures, the whole counsel of God. We swore we would instruct the people committed to our charge. We swore we would administer the Sacraments and if necessary exercise discipline. We swore we would be faithful in prayer. We swore that we would frame our lives and the lives of our families according to the Doctrine of Christ. We swore that we would set forth quietness and peace; which means that we would not introduce novel and eccentric teaching which would only serve to distress, disturb and unsettle the flock. We swore that we would obey our Bishops in all things lawful and honest. And above all, given the context in which we find ourselves today, we all swore that at all times we would be ready, with all faithful diligence, both in public and in private to drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines.

Now this is what we all swore to do. That we would not disturb or unsettle Christian people with novel doctrines and unheard of practices. And we should remember that this was a divine calling. Not a human one. Yes, the inner call of God had to be ratified by the outward call of the Church but the truth is that was God who called us to this Office.

The Bishop reminds us of this. He says: We have good hope that you have determined to give your self wholly to this Office to which God has called you. And in this Office we are to be Messengers, Watchmen and Stewards of the Lord to teach and admonish. And so as Richard Hooker has argued, once we have been admitted into the Presbyteral Order we are no longer lay men. We are Presbyters in the Church of God.

We have been “inflicted”, Hooker argues, with “a mark of separation”. Although Hooker does not say this or draw this analogy a “mark of separation” is of course placed upon all the people of God when they are baptised. But if this original mark of separation separates the whole Church lay and ordained from the world so this second “mark of separation” is not placed upon all but only upon those men called to deal with what Hooker calls “the inner affairs of God” and those who are not.

And so in the Household of God, in the Church, Presbyters are not laity and as such will be judged more severely. Hooker reminds his readers that this “mark of separation” should be regarded as a type of cloak that cannot be taken off and put on again depending on the weather. Hooker writes: They which have once received this power may not think to put it off and on like a cloak as the weather serveth, to take it, reject it and resume it as oft as themselves wish. Elsewhere he writes “they which have once received ordination cannot again return into the world”.

I apologise if I have taken time on this point. Some may wish to say that I have laboured the point. Which I think would be a fair assessment. But I felt I have to do so because I think a great temptation lies before all of us at the present time.

And I want to be honest with you. I have felt this temptation keenly myself. And there have been times when I have almost acted upon it. And this is simply to leave the Church into which I was confirmed, made Deacon and ordained Presbyter. Sadly I cannot say I was baptised in the Church of England. Joyfully I can say I was baptised!! But baptised in the Waldensian Church in Italy. But the point remains. When we were all ordained Presbyters we were all charged to preach the word of God in the Church of England. And we all promised that we would.

And of course this call to preach the Word of God is taken from 2 Timothy where Paul, on the point of martyrdom, tells Timothy to preach the word. He says: Timothy in the presence of God, in the presence of Jesus Christ who is the judge of the living and the dead I solemnly charge you to preach the word of God. And then He says: I want you to do this in season and out of season. I want you to do this in good times and in bad. I want you to do this when people will not put up with sound doctrine. I want you to do this when men will gather around them vast numbers of teachers to say what their itching ears want them to say. I want you to preach the word when men turn away from the truth and turn to myths.

I guess if Paul was here today he would say: I want you to preach the word in the Church in which you have been ordained even when the General Synod loses its mind. I want you to do this when your Bishops do not hold to the sound teaching, or if they hold to it in private, do not uphold it in public. I want you to do this when your congregation and your PCC and your Church Wardens turn against you. I want you to do this even if the Church of which you are a part apostasies and removes the doctrinal foundation stones on which you are standing.

And if you were to ask Paul: Paul, where do you want me to do this? I strongly suspect he would say: I want you to do this in the place in which you have been placed. I want you to do this in the place to which you have been called. I don’t want you to do it in another place. I want you to do it in the place where I have placed you. I want you to preach the word in the Church that I have called you! Isn’t his what Paul himself did?

You will remember in Acts 20 when Paul was speaking to the Presbyters of Ephesus. And he said to them: I did not hesitate to declare unto you the whole counsel of God. Hesitate. Its almost as if Paul was on the point of hesitating. But then he didn’t. Its almost as if he was on the point of not preaching. But then he did. Why? Because I guess he realised that he was dealing with the “inner affairs of God” and that the lives of men women were at stake. That he would be held accountable for their blood. If he did not declare unto them the whole counsel of God. The men and women of Ephesus. The Church of God in Ephesus. Not Antioch. Not Jerusalem. Ephesus. The men, women and presbyters of Ephesus. 

Having said this I do want to go onto say that there might well be a time where we have to leave. Because we are forced to do so. But before I say that let me say something that may be a bit more encouraging. But only a bit more!! I began by saying that we have been called to minister in the Church of England at this time and in the individual places to which we have been called. I wish it were not so. I wish I had been ordained in 1959 instead of 1989.

Why? I think the answer is obvious. Because deep down I want a ministry of glory and not a ministry of suffering. I want to minister in a culture that is by and large warm and supportive. That appreciates what I am trying to do. I want to minster in a culture where Evensong (and it would be Evensong!!) could attract over 200 parishioners as used to be the case in Knutsford. But instead we have been called to a ministry of suffering. For as I have already argued we are ministering in a time and in a Church where the Bible is regarded as irrelevant. The 39 Articles are a dead letter and the Orders of the Church fractured.

Which then, of course, simply raises the question as to where these things are alive? If they are dead as far as the wider Church is concerned where do they still breathe? And of course these things still live in our hearts. The still burn in our minds. These things are still real to us. They still feed our souls. Thats why we are here. Thats why we belong to the Chester Association. In other words we hold this treasure as in jars of clay. Even though we are afflicted and crushed and perplexed and despairing and forsaken and struck down.

But, as yet, the wider Church does not recognise this. It does not see it. These things are hidden from them. And they are hidden from the wider culture as well. But the point is this. If we are called to stay (which I believe we are) we are called to make these things alive and visible. We are called to make these things live. And they will only be visible if we are willing to die. If we are prepared to suffer for what we say we believe. Then the world will see. Then the Church will see. If we are willing to have our property confiscated. Our ministry cancelled. If we are prepared to be called names. And if we so speak and act that the powers that be are forced to move against us. That in order to advance their gospel denying agenda they have positively to rid the Church of our gospel affirming agenda. And so have to get rid of us.

But this they will not have to do if we all just leave. Because we will have done their dirty work for them. Let them take us to court. Let them slap CDM’s on us. Let them harry us and hound us!! For what? For upholding what we and they said they would uphold. And then the Nation would notice. The Nation would see. Just as the Roman populace eventually turned in support of the Christians simply because they could see the injustices perpetrated on them so, in like manner, many in the country would turn in support.

And if anything is this not what Cranmer’s death teaches us? There he was on trial for his life. But then he recants. And at that moment the Gospel in which he believed became invisible. But then in public he recanted his recantation. And the Gospel sprang to life once more and through his suffering he laid the Evangelical foundation of the Church of England.

And of course it could be that God uses our faithfulness in the same way. If He uses our suffering to raise up the Church once more. And of course it is only if we stay and take the same approach that we will magnify our calling. And it is only once we have done that and so discharged our duty that we will then and at that moment will we have earned the right to leave. But to leave before that moment would, I think, be precipitate.

As I close let me say one thing. I am being told by many modern day Puritans that to stay is to collude with heretics. This is a charge that strikes home. But I think on reflection it is a baseless charge. It would stick if we did nothing. If we did not contend. Because, as some of our detractors are saying, we are too in love with our stipends, our vicarages, our status.

And I agree that would be unconscionable. To stay and not contend. But if some of us, at the end of day remain and contend and stay in post we should remember one thing. In the Church of England there are still souls who believe and trust in Jesus. And it is an honourable thing to stay and try and minster to them even as we call for the Church to come back to a sound mind. And I think this because you may remember that after the Reformation began to take hold in England some radical, purist, puritans arose in the Church. And they began to argue that the Church of Rome was an apostate, fallen Church. That everyone, everyone, who lived and died in the Church of Rome were Papists and when they died they all went to hell. And therefore, the argument went, the Reformed Church of England should abolish anything that smacked of the Papacy. Or that reeked of medievalism. Naturally they had the Bishops of the Church in mind as they were the obvious residue and hang over that remained in the newly minted  Reformed Church of England.

But Hooker took a different view. He was reluctant to consign everyone who lived and died in the Church since the year 700 AD to 1517 to everlasting perdition and woe. And he said: No. Those who lived and died in the Church of Rome were not papists but “our Fathers”. And surprisingly Luther took the same line. He argued that in the apostate Roman Church the real Church still existed.

Where did she exist? And the answer that came back was that “she lurked beneath the folds of that garment of many colours, which the hand of superstition had woven and embellished for her…she slept in that cavern of enchantment, where costly odours and intoxicating fumes were floating around to overpower her sense”.

The language is undoubtedly extravagant but the point is an unanswerable one. Hooker and Luther are both saying that in the Church of Rome the true Church still existed. She has always existed. She was always there, hidden and overpowered, lurking and sleeping no doubt; but ever present.

And surely the same is true for is. I say this because this is beginning to prey on my mind. I am 62. I have been Vicar of Knutsford and Toft since 1998. And I know that when I leave there will be souls in those parishes who have been saved. Now, of course, some may leave. Some may leave the Church where they have worshipped all their lives. And drive to Stockport or Hartford to worship.

Perhaps they will do that for a few years. Some will do that. And then stop. Because the pull of time and tide, memory and history will be too strong. But others won’t. They will stay. And pray. And struggle on. Waiting and praying for a better day. Are they to be abandoned to the wolves? Will no shepherd come to care for them? And continue to minster to them? So by all means. Contend. Fight. Then leave if you have to. But as you do so spare a thought for those left behind.

Thank you. 

Nigel Atkinson