Recently I received an email from a young man I had never met who was contemplating leaving the Anglican Church of Canada. He is a husband and father in his 30s and, despite having grown up in the ACoC, he has spent the last year preparing to be received into the Roman Catholic Church. A few weeks before the Great Vigil of Easter he reached out to me, spiritually exhausted: “I’m devastated by the Church’s decline and move away from Christian orthodoxy. I also realize that we are called by the Lord to see the beam in our own eye before calling out the mote in our brother’s eye. But the leadership of the ACoC is moving the church in a direction that I’m not prepared to follow.”
Across the country members of this church who affirm the historic teaching of the Church on marriage — the indissoluble union of one man and one woman established by God in the beginning and ordered towards procreation among other things — are growing increasingly anxious as we approach General Synod in July. We love this church and wonder how to remain faithful in the current environment regardless of what happens with the Marriage Canon vote.
One option is to leave for greener pastures. Indeed, many of us have already left for Rome, Constantinople, or the ACNA. But does this not replace a theological error with an ecclesial one, further exacerbating our present division? Are there other options? Is there scriptural and historical sense to be made of our present situation? And, moreover, what does Christian hope look like in the midst of competing approaches to theology and ecclesial division? Let me take these in order.
First, is there scriptural sense to be made of our present divisions? Recent ecclesiological reflection has been recapturing a figurative reading of Scripture whereby the whole of the Church’s life is caught up and unveiled in the whole of Israel’s life (e.g., the late George Lindbeck and his student, Ephraim Radner). Therefore, to ask the question, “What is happening to the Church according to Scripture?” is to ask the question, “What is happening to Israel in the Scriptures?” Only then may we ask the question that follows from this: What is the Lord calling us to do?
Scripture tells the story of the division of a united Israel into two kingdoms in 1 & 2 Kings. Following the death of Solomon, Rehoboam was made king over Israel. He neglected wise counsel and instead chose to impose harsher taxes on the people resulting in an uprising (1 Kgs 12:16). On the surface, Israel’s division seems to be a reaction to politics and human folly. Yet, the Scriptures unveil a deeper truth: Israel’s division is brought about by the Lord as a judgment upon them for their sin (1 Kgs 11:1-13; 2 Kgs 17:7-20).
We might say then that to be the Church is to come under divine judgment (Ephraim Radner, Church [Cascade, 2017], 168). As Israel’s division and exile are matters of judgment, so too the Church’s own divisions are the consequence of divine judgment upon our idolatrous and sinful hearts. What then are we to do?
Again, the Scriptures enlighten. In the life of Israel the vocation of the prophets was to proclaim the reality of divine judgment and to call the people to repentance, usually leading the way themselves (Jer 2; Zech 1). Divine judgment invites our repentance.
To view the sin of others as greater than my own sin is an ever-present temptation. Even more so in the case of divided and competing churches. But divine judgment does not fall just upon one faction of a divided church. It was Israel and Judah together that came under God’s judgment. So too in the case of our ecclesial division: it is not simply a judgment upon them but upon us. There is nowhere to run. Judgment has befallen us and it now occasions our individual and collective repentance, that the Lord himself might bind up our wounds.
A few years ago, Archbishop Justin Welby instituted Thy Kingdom Come, a Communion-wide call to prayer between Ascension and Pentecost. This year Pope Francis encouraged Catholics to participate alongside Anglicans. Perhaps a Communion-wide season of repentance is in order? An intentional period to come before the Lord, individually and corporately, with broken and contrite hearts, to test one another, hold one another accountable, and be open to correction from one another.
Second, one of the complications of our present disunity are disagreements precisely over what God is saying to us in and through the witness of Scripture. Our present disagreements are deeply theological and cannot simply be boiled down to differences of opinion.
The prevalence of Marcionism in the first few centuries of the Church’s life provides a helpful historical lens here. John Behr argues that Marcion was deeply concerned with correct doctrine and understanding God rightly. Initially, as we know, this led to the cutting away of Scripture (the Old Testament). Only Paul had a correct grasp of Jesus, according to Marcion. None of the Gospels could be trusted but Luke, who was Paul’s disciple (The Way to Nicaea [SVS Press, 2001], 17–18).
In the middle of the second century Marcion’s concern for true doctrine led him away from the Church to the Gnostic teacher Cerdo. In the Christological debates of the first few centuries the Church had neither the financial resources nor the power that it would later have. In this context, argues Behr, excommunication was a self-chosen affair (ibid., 46–47). Men like Marcion and Cerdo chose to break with the other Christian communities in Rome rather than share in the common teaching. Historically speaking we might say that self-chosen separation is the way of heretics.
I am not arguing that Marcion represents any particular contemporary group. Rather, Marcionism provides a helpful historical case study: even a serious theological error cannot derail God’s work. The false teaching of Marcion indeed found adherents and a Marcionite church existed in and around the Mediterranean for several centuries (ibid., 17). In the end the truth of the gospel wins the day despite the fact that at any given moment in history it may seem to be under siege.
Our vocation then is not to leave but to remain and so to pray, teach, instruct, and correct that we might endure error. This is difficult work but it is the witness of Christ himself: “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood … Endure trials for the sake of discipline … Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness,” (Hebrews 12:3ff). The early Church endured the error of Marcionism for centuries. Have we sufficiently borne the errors of our own time?
Conservative Anglicans in Canada now find themselves in a church in which they are the minority with respect to marriage and human sexuality. Nevertheless, the gospel does not permit us to give up hope or to grow weary in doing good. Yes, same-sex marriage is an innovation lacking a coherent Scriptural, theological, liturgical, and historical warrant, and departs from the historic teaching of the Church, and is at odds with the mind of the majority of the Anglican Communion. Therefore, it ought to be resisted and opposed. But how we resist and oppose matters.
Let us remain committed to visible unity, self-consciously own and courageously teach the faith of the Church, and prayerfully, wisely, and sacrificially endure erroneous teaching even to the point of being bound and taken where we do not wish to go (Jn 21:18). Moreover, let us do so not as ones given to despair on the one hand or pride on the other but as ones given to repentance, trusting in the Crucified One who is Lord over all. In other words, let us love.
The Rev. Jonathan Turtle is priest-in-charge of a two-point rural parish in the northern part of the Diocese of Toronto, where he lives and serves with his wife Christina and their four children Charlotte, Grace, Joseph, and Samuel.