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A national or apostolic church? The C of E, sex, and inclusion

Editor’s note: this is a follow-up to Friday’s “Missing the point: GAFCON UK, acrimony, and Lambeth I.10.”

The Church of England claims to be an ‘apostolic’ church — guided and constrained by the teaching and example of those whom Jesus commissioned as leaders of his church.[1]

The Church of England is the State church in this country: you have a right to have a say.[2]

These quotations reveal some of the deep differences in the Church of England. They come from two documents released this autumn for the same purpose: to influence the deliberations of the church’s House and College of Bishops as the bishops (1) consider the reports of their Reflection Group on Human Sexuality (appointed back in September), and (2) think about some way forward for the church in advance of General Synod in February 2017.

The House of Bishops has now finished its first meeting and released a notably bland statement: no big surprises, nor any proposed action, other than that they will present “some material” to the General Synod and that the reports from the Reflection Group are “an update” amid ongoing work. The House has another meeting in December, followed by a meeting of the whole College of Bishops in January.

As they continue to deliberate and as the C of E prepares for a combative season, it is important to take stock of where (and what) the church is. The two documents quoted above provide a good starting point, illustrating the problem the church faces: overwhelmingly different approaches and understandings of the nature of the church. The wrangling over gay clergy and GAFCON UK’s recent list of “Lambeth I.10 violations,” which I detailed yesterday, pales in comparison – a symptom of deeper issues.[3]

Education, norms, and advocacy in a “State church”: Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement

The LGCM document, “Educate for LGBTI inclusion in the Church of England,” is 12 pages long and resembles an action packet from a governmental lobbying group. The first half contains an explanation of “the issue of human sexuality” in the church, including a brief history of C of E and Anglican Communion developments, an explanation for Why write now? to the bishops, and specific instructions on what to write. The second half contains a list of all the diocesan bishops, along with their contact details.

Throughout, the emphasis is on how the church is “lagging behind” national opinion, and how the bishops are out of touch with the people in the pew, leading to a myopic institutional perspective “no longer representative of [church] membership.”[4]

I won’t pick apart the claims in this document.[5] Rather, I want to focus on its clarity in relation to “the issue” and the church. For LGCM, it’s all clear: the document invokes “normal people” or “members of the normal population,”[6] and it believes the key issue is that the church is “out of step with society.”[7] Here is a particular version of what it calls a “State church”: namely, one that ought to follow local opinion.

Moreover, it frames the bishops as simply ignorant, needing to be enlightened by the personal experiences of LGBTI people, with whom they must be unacquainted due to their advanced age and other “demographic” features.[8]

LGCM states that the bishops have simply treated differences around LGBTI inclusion as the concerns of “factions” that must be managed. This must change. And, for LGCM, the primary way to effect change in the church is by personal advocacy and testimony.

It is vital at this time that bishops are educated in the experience, belief, and conviction of normal people in the UK – both LGBTI people and straight allies – so that they take to their meetings from 22 November a better understanding of the personal impact of the church’s teaching and the value that could be added for the UK population as well as the church by taking a more affirming and representative stance. [9]

What are the projected ends if the bishops fail to follow through? To some extent, the document doesn’t address this point; there is no endgame beyond immediate political victory.[10] (Here, it differs from CEEC’s document.)

Is anything else missing? Well, yes, quite a bit: Scripture, tradition, reason; any account that the church has a distinctive message; also, any sense that the church exists for something beyond “adding value” to already formed lives. 

Theology and constructive proposals for an apostolic church: Church of England Evangelical Council

The document from CEEC, “Guarding the deposit: Apostolic Truth for an Apostolic Church,” is very different: 20 pages long, filled with a series of questions, theological teaching on sexuality, reviews of church history, and projections and proposals regarding what might happen next, with a light sprinkle of footnotes. The latter proposals focus on concrete arrangements for the church’s structures in the face of ongoing division.

The document provides a summary of Christian teaching on sexuality (as well as the specific teaching of the C of E), but, unlike the LGCM document, it does not assert that the bishops are unaware of these points. Rather, it seems to worry that, in discerning a way forward, the bishops will suffer from a lack of nerve in “the midst of a very heated political climate”: they will find it impossible to act in concert with their convictions and the C of E’s apostolic identity.[11] It thus addresses them as bishops with vows to protect the church’s life and teaching.

The document projects three possible results in coming months: maintenance of the status quo, a “full acceptance” of same-sex relationships, or (what the CEEC truly worries about) an attempt to thread the needle and find a compromising “via media” between the various parties of the church. This latter approach would avoid the real issues: Will the C of E be apostolic, and remain “bound to the apostles’ teaching?” Or not? Will it bless what God has said to bless? Or take another path in “a recipe for continuing conflict” and Anglican fragmentation around the world?

The document seeks to persuade the C of E to return to apostolic fidelity, with an acknowledgment of the church’s international character and responsibilities to the Anglican Communion. Yet it goes further, foreseeing the possibility that the church will be unable to agree on sexual ethics. And, thus, it offers multiple options for “visible differentiation,”[12] options that allow for maximal loyalty to the institutional structures of the church, minimal departures, and a preservation of energies for mission, such that the church’s parties are no longer consumed by fighting each other.

Let not your eyes glaze over yet: what follows may be the most significant proposal for the future of the C of E.


Structural options from “Guarding the Deposit”

The first option they propose: beside the two provinces of Canterbury and York, the Church of England could create a “non-apostolic community” as a third province. Here, those who advocate for LGBTI inclusion could create their own community, still within the C of E, but no longer bound by “the historic and apostolic teaching and practice.”

The second option: the two provinces of Canterbury and York could be “deterritorialized” so that Canterbury stands for “apostolic continuity” and York is the non-apostolic community.

The third option is the reverse of the first: besides Canterbury and York, the “apostolic community” could be a third province, leaving the rest of the C of E to go its own way.

The fourth option: the church could create a “society” like those for parishes who cannot accept women bishops: dozens of conservative evangelicals in this category have passed resolutions to be under the supervision of the Bishop of Maidstone (also the chairman of Reform); meanwhile, over 400 conservative catholic congregations have opted into The Society under the patronage of Saint Wilfrid and Saint Hilda.

These four different options would each create different relationships to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion, with which the document is keen for the “apostolic community” to retain association. Moreover, the document raises the possibility that the option for “visible differentiation” that the C of E follows could well end up being the model for the rest of the Communion.

Is anything missing in “Guarding the Deposit?” Well, unlike LGCM, the CEEC document doesn’t imagine ringing up or writing a letter to the diocesan bishops. One wonders whether the CEEC avoids such practical moves out of deference to the bishops, or because they are sure their voice will be heard, given the number of evangelicals in the bishops’ reflection group.

But the gaping hole in the document is any sophisticated treatment of the C of E’s qualities of establishment, beyond their “historic” character and the presence of “relentless pressure … from the media and from contemporary society” around LGBTI inclusion.[13]

Commonalities, questions 

Do the documents share anything in common? I think so. Both believe the C of E has entered a critical time, and they hope the House of Bishops and General Synod will come to a new, decisive position. Their commonalities end there, however.

I think other questions are more interesting.

First, do LGCM, CEEC, and other organizations like them represent the Church of England at large? It’s hard to know exactly, but I doubt most active members of the church share LGCM’s impassioned advocacy or CEEC’s clear theological vision and its mix of ecclesiological idealism and pragmatism. Yet both their efforts strike me as heuristically useful for reflection: in taking hard lines on the problem of the church as national or apostolic, they usefully lay out some of the primary issues for the church.

Second, is there a way forward for an apostolic church that is of and for the nation, with the boldness to be its conscience — accusing and absolving, caring and challenging? Recall Canon A1, quoted by CEEC, but incompletely and with attention to only one part of it. I have emboldened what they didn’t emphasize and underlined what they omitted:

The Church of England, established according to the laws of this realm under the Queen’s Majesty, belongs to the true and apostolic Church of Christ; and, as our duty to the said Church of England requires, we do constitute and ordain that no member thereof shall be at liberty to maintain or hold the contrary.

The balance or blending of national and apostolic elements: this remains a primary challenge for the Church of England. Let us pray that she attends wisely to both elements, which sit at the core of her being, since neither can easily be jettisoned or set aside.

Third, is there room for a more Catholic voice in this discussion? I am heartened by CEEC’s appeal to apostolicity and tradition, though I note it is tied largely to maintaining scriptural teaching, a traditional Reformed emphasis (albeit present in some Roman Catholic and Orthodox treatments of apostolicity). Here, I wonder whether C of E groups like Forward in Faith, Anglican Catholic Future, and Affirming Catholicism simply lack the energy (or unity of vision) to advocate vigorously for or produce substantive proposals concerning the church’s future at this time. This is an especially interesting point, given that the model of The Society’s visible differentiation (noted above) provides the example for one of CEEC’s potential models for working out differences over sexuality.

But I have an instinct that something might be said for a more fully Catholic Anglicanism in the Church of England: open and accountable to the fullness of the Communion and to its ecumenical partners; visibly united in essential teaching, practice, and order; and ready to grow and develop the historic bonds of affection into more robust instruments of communion. Only such a vision can prevent appeals to establishment and apostolicity from collapsing into a narrow focus on internal issues, and a too precious sense of the unique character of the Church of England vis-à-vis other Anglican churches globally.

No doubt, England has a central role, but others are not simply waiting for it to take the lead. They are waiting for some sign that it is truly and humbly aware, realizing its history is bound up with that of a global Communion that wishes to walk together in mission, fidelity, common counsel, and perhaps some form of global synodality.

What we might hope, then, is something more than attention to establishment and apostolicity: instead, a recognition of the Church of England’s providential role as a servant in the formation of a global Communion of national churches straining for a more Catholic identity, not ignoring the gift of the local, but always with an eye towards the graces of the universal.

A covenantal postscript

Since the Anglican Covenant aimed at just such a vision, I add here something of a postscript or goal, by quoting part of its introduction (§§ 3-4).

We humbly recognize that this calling and gift of communion entails responsibilities for our common life before God as we seek, through grace, to be faithful in our service of God’s purposes for the world. Joined in one universal Church, which is Christ’s Body, spread throughout the earth, we serve his gospel even as we are enabled to be made one across the dividing walls of human sin and estrangement (Eph 2.12-22). The forms of this life in the Church, caught up in the mystery of divine communion, reveal to the hostile and divisive power of the world the “manifold wisdom of God” (Eph 3:9-10). Faithfulness, honesty, gentleness, humility, patience, forgiveness, and love itself, lived out in mutual deference and service (Mk 10.44-45) among the Church’s people and through its ministries, contribute to building up the body of Christ as it grows to maturity (Eph 4.1-16; Col 3.8-17).

In the providence of God, which holds sway even over our divisions caused by sin, various families of churches have grown up within the universal Church in the course of history. Among these families is the Anglican Communion, which provides a particular charism and identity among the many followers and servants of Jesus. We recognise the wonder, beauty and challenge of maintaining communion in this family of churches, and the need for mutual commitment and discipline as a witness to God’s promise in a world and time of instability, conflict, and fragmentation. Therefore, we covenant together as churches of this Anglican Communion to be faithful to God’s promises through the historic faith we confess, our common worship, our participation in God’s mission, and the way we live together.


[1] Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), “Guarding the deposit: Apostolic Truth for an Apostolic Church,” p. 1.

[2] Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), “Educate for LGBTI inclusion in the Church of England,” p. 1.

[3] I do not pretend to do full justice to either document (or movement) in what follows; more could be said.

[4] Ibid., p. 3.

[5] Suffice it to say that its history of the church’s deliberations is inaccurate, and it cites a YouGov poll of dubious value for establishing what the church’s “members” believe.

[6] Ibid., pp. 1, 4, emphasis added.

[7] At the same time, it expresses the worry that the church’s position “re-enforces” [sic] an ever-present “tacit homophobia” among those same normal people and that same authoritative society, a considerable tension. It is difficult to invoke something like a common sense approach to morality, if there is no settled consensus. Is society on the side of LGBTI inclusion or not? It turns out to be more complicated. Ibid. p. 4.

[8] Ibid., p. 1: “survey data suggests that their demographic makes them least well placed to represent the mind of the general population or people in the pews or to understand the significance for LGBTI people of the decision they are about to make.” Cf. pp. 3, 4.

[9] Ibid., pp. 4-5, emphasis added.

[10] Although it reveals in a particular anecdote that it believes the church’s position is causing mental distress to LGBTI people and even suicide. Ibid.

[11] “Guarding the Deposit,” p. 7.

[12] Ibid., pp. 10-14.

[13] “Guarding the deposit,” p. 7.


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