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Issues on the eve of General Synod

Since the phased release of documents for the February meeting of the Church of England’s General Synod, attention has focused predictably on human sexuality. The House of Bishops’ Working Group on Human Sexuality released its report, and a welter of articles and blog posts have minutely parsed its meaning, its relation to the Shared Conversations, whether it represents a step forward or back, and so forth. Unsurprisingly, members on the reactive right and left of the C of E (e.g., GAFCON UK and Reform, LGCM and LGBTI Mission) have voiced their concerns. And what modern Church of England controversy would be complete without the Primate of Nigeria, the Most Rev. Nicholas Okoh, chiming in as GAFCON chairman?

(Perhaps the only twists are the recent open letter from a small number of retired C of E bishops, as well as a reported “lib-con coalition” to block the motion to “take note” of the report. Only 14 of the many retired bishops have signed the letter, while the “lib-con coalition” has had no numbers attached to it yet.)

The report is of course newsworthy, but it seems to me that reaction has missed some significant elements. I’d like to return to themes I mentioned back in November, while analyzing the Church of England Evangelical Council’s document sent to the House of Bishops and LGCM’s letter campaign (“A national or apostolic Church? The C of E, sex, and inclusion”). Afterward, I will highlight just a few other issues in General Synod documents that I think many have overlooked.

A national or apostolic church? Revisited

One thing few seem to have picked up on in the recent Working Group report is that its recommended course of action aligns quite closely with Option 1 of “Guarding the Deposit: Apostolic Truth for an Apostolic Church,” a document submitted by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC). That document recommended as “the best way forward” the maintenance of the Church’s present doctrine, albeit with certain changes in the articulation and enforcement of that doctrine and perhaps closer scrutiny of morality among heterosexuals as well as homosexuals.

[T]his way forward would need to be accompanied by a renewed commitment among clergy and laity alike to live according to the apostolic teaching, a renewed apologetic strategy to explain why the traditional pattern of Christian sexual ethics best makes for human flourishing, and further thinking about how best to help and care for those with same-sex attraction, building on the work already being done by bodies such as Living Out and True Freedom Trust.

In order to avoid justifiable charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy the Church would also need to enforce with consistency the forms of Christian discipline set out in its present teaching. In particular, ordained ministers would be required to live lives of sexual fidelity within marriage (or sexual abstinence outside it) as models for the faithful as whole; and not to engage in any form of unauthorised liturgical activity that appeared to confirm legitimacy upon same-sex sexual unions. The Church would also need to take effective sanctions upon them when they did not do this. (Guarding the Deposit, p. 9, emphasis added)

The bishops’ planned new teaching document, shift in tone, and greater discipline in general seem to follow the recommendations here quite directly. Even their focus on the theme of unity (national and international) was a key point of that document. I find this clear link between the report and the CEEC document unsurprising since, as I noted before, the CEEC’s document was the most substantive and realistic proposal, having mapped out a series of different options (and given the membership of the task force). I still commend that document for reading; it will give everyone a clearer sense of what other options were on the table, something many seem to miss, as Andrew Goddard has noted recently at Fulcrum (“Giving and Receiving Episcopal Oversight: The Bishops’ Report (GS 2055)“).

Perhaps the only addition the bishops made to the CEEC recommendation is the idea that priests will have “maximum freedom” on current doctrine and practice, but just what that means is unclear at the moment.

In the same previous article, I noted that LGCM seems to perceive the Church of England as a solely political body, accountable to the nation at large, and moveable by massive letter campaigns. LGCM applies this approach to church doctrine, discipline, and worship and has launched yet another letter campaign, this time aimed at all General Synod members, rather than simply bishops. One MP has raised the prospect of Parliament forcing the Church of England to revise its rules. And various groups are suggesting a protest during the “take note” debate.

This state of affairs suggests that the fault lines in the C of E remain as volatile as ever, even if the CEEC’s suggestions appear to be those taken on board at the episcopal level. A national or apostolic church? We’ll have to wait and see.

Ecumenical proposals

Two synod documents propose quite different futures for ecumenical dialogue and relationships. One (GS 2044) relates to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and commends a series of

initiatives in this anniversary year to foster mutual understanding and reconciliation between [the C of E and various Reformation churches, especially Lutherans], for the sake of our deeper renewal in the grace of God and our ability to share the gospel of salvation with all the world.

This resolution represents the fruit of hard-earned dialogue on local and international levels between many churches. It’s a resolution in the traditional genre of “Faith and Order” ecumenism: careful consideration, small changes, recommended cooperation on already established lines.

A second one is more radical (GS 2046), although still in draft form. Although it involves certain changes to ecclesiastical law that reflect mere tidying, or that are of significance but will not be reviewed here, it also proposes allowing diocesan or even area or suffragan bishops to stipulate that the Church of England (Ecumenical Relations) Measure 1988 applies to certain churches in their diocese for a season. This is, effectively, devolving certain powers to determine ecumenical communion away from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The intention seems aimed at allowing local partnerships to flourish quickly, rather than requiring extensive review; one suspects it is also a case of normalizing certain practices that already obtain on the ground. The only limits are that the churches must be Trinitarian, “administer the Sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion,” and “not promote any doctrine which is contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.”

This proposal is in line with various suggestions that might come under the heading of administrative “simplification,” as an explanatory document related to the measure notes (GS Misc 1152). But Anglicans have normally adverted to substantive ecumenical dialogue, as well as to the competence of higher authorities and their advisers (e.g., archbishops, wisdom from the global Anglican Communion, the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order), before leaping toward relationships of communion. The explanation for the current proposal seems to assume that individual diocesan bishops should have the legal capacity to make consequential determinations regarding just what counts as a doctrinal deviance on “any essential matter.” Of course, considering the known diversity of views on these matters in the House of Bishops, this strikes me as a significant assumption. And what would be the process of review, should a bishop make a disputed choice?

Another intention of the proposed change is admirable, opening possibilities for ecumenical communion with bodies to which it seems existing canons and procedures could not easily apply, “especially local independent churches, including a large number of new and black and minority-ethnic majority churches” (GS 1152, p. 2).

I agree that greater ecumenical cooperation on the ground would generally be a good thing, and I admit to lacking an alternative proposal, but I worry that the change could pave the way for some disconcerting partnerships or potential abuses.

Consider: the doctrine and practice of local independent churches differs so widely that a huge number of different churches might be covered by the measure — from congregations that reflect fairly run-of-the-mill Presbyterianism or Pentecostal congregationalism to personality cults that practice female genital mutilation. Moreover, the proposal seems to assume that Anglican convictions regarding order (episcopal governance in relation to Holy Communion, for instance) may be set aside such that C of E priests could preside at Communion services in these independent churches, with the agreement of their bishop.

At best, leaving aside many questions, the proposal would require detailed evaluation of each church, and would leave a lot open to individual episcopal discretion. Consider another possibility: What would prevent a diocesan or suffragan bishop who sympathizes with GAFCON from designating a separatist “Anglican Mission in England” church plant a local ecumenical partner? Again, what is the process of review? Or what chaos could ensue as the C of E’s ecumenical relations potentially expand to include a great range of contradictory relationships and as varied evaluations proliferate concerning what contradicts the church’s teaching?

I am sure the drafters did not intend these results, and I offer this point as an initial set of questions, rather than a final evaluation. Again, more may come out in further deliberations.

Reform and Renewal

I suspect I am rather less cynical than many about the Reform and Renewal agenda, and I only want to offer a few observations about the material from it. The key document for the coming Synod is “Setting God’s People Free,” which contains proposals for a “culture change” in lay ministry. It’s well worth digesting, and recommends itself as an initial resource over which the C of E might pray. My primary concern about it is that it is not ambitious enough.

It has an exclusively national focus, with phrases like “evangelise the nation” or transform “society” appearing again and again, as well as at key moments of vision-casting. In contrast, words like world and other “universal” language appear, but usually in general language, as a synonym for “not Church” (as in “the working world” or “the secular world”).

In this regard, the report’s ambition to empower the laity is rather like Reform and Renewal’s goal to increase the number of ordinands by 50 percent: such small thinking cannot meet our current challenges. Just as the drive for more ordinands is not ambitious enough to stanch the flow of clergy into retirement (or death), a simple focus on evangelizing and transforming the English nation, while superficially apt for these post-Brexit times, pales in comparison to the truly global challenges the church faces and that the laity already engage.

We’d be better off absorbing documents like Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes or Apostolicam Actuositatem. They set out ambitious programs for lay ministry and societal transformation, but aimed at universal goals. It’s as if the C of E, having exhausted itself in ambitious global mission in previous centuries, can only envision more limited goals in its current state of contraction. There is no attempt at fostering an inner dynamism that moves ever outward to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world.

The report also seems to oscillate between wanting to avoid instituting “a top-down approach” (in favor instead of “culture change”) and commending precisely that sort of thing. Its fifth section has a list of actions to be taken at all levels of the church (from the archbishops on down or from Church House on out): designating “an Episcopal Champion” for the effort, visible support from the archbishops, some kind of theological development for the effort, a communications strategy, and even “central communication to Dioceses, to Parishes, to Members, to the wider public.” And its “Annex 1” contains a managerial outline at effecting culture change, with a series of action items for “high level implementation” of the report’s recommendations.

Perhaps the Lay Leadership Task Group that produced the report should re-examine its recommendations. Does it want top-down, centralised change, or not? I suppose we’ll find out.

I’ll be covering General Synod for The Living Church this week. Follow me on Twitter @ZacharyGuiliano. 


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