The Church of England made a decision last week which will have long-term consequences for the Anglican Communion around the world. Their General Synod (national oversight body) voted to accept a recommendation from the Bishops to prepare prayers of blessing for same-sex marriages in the Church of England.
Their official media release says:
The General Synod has welcomed proposals which would enable same-sex couples to come to church after a civil marriage or civil partnership to give thanks, dedicate their relationship to God and receive God’s blessing.
How shameful that the bishops who are charged with upholding the doctrine of the church were more willing to promote error than the people that they are supposed to lead.
The Bishops were adamant that the church was not changing its official doctrine of marriage, which is still understood to be a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman. However, the decision to offer prayers of blessing and to unequivocally accept and affirm people in same-sex relationships seems to challenge that assertion.
The decision is undoubtedly out of step with the official doctrine of the Anglican Communion, against its own commitment that it “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions”, and contrary to the opinion of over 75% of the worshipping members of the Anglican Church throughout the world.
These moves come as the conclusion of a six-year process called “Living in Love and Faith,” in which the Church of England has been exploring issues of human sexuality. The Bishops met last month and agreed to recommend the prayers of blessing which were accepted by the Synod. The vote was carried by an overwhelming majority of bishops (36/4) and a narrow majority of lay people (103/92).
How shameful that the bishops who are charged with upholding the doctrine of the church were more willing to promote error than the people that they are supposed to lead. The same shame was echoed recently in Australia, where lay people overwhelmingly supported an orthodox statement on marriage in our General Synod for it only to be voted down by our bishops.
The reactions around the world have been swift. Archbishop Kaziimba of Uganda described it as a “suicidal path” and challenged them to have the integrity to step out of the Anglican Communion. The Global South Primates questioned the fitness of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who supported the measure) to lead the Communion. Archbishop Foley Beach, the Chairman of Gafcon, said that the Archbishop of Canterbury was “shredding the last remaining fragile fabric” of the Communion. The Church of England Evangelical Council spoke of their deep sadness and profound grief that the “Church of England now appears set on a course of action that rejects our historic and biblical understanding of sex and marriage, by departing from the apostolic faith we are called to uphold.”
The bishops have made these recommendations ostensibly in light of long theological and biblical reflection and listening to the experience of LGBTIQ+ people in the church. So it is astounding that they have provided little if any, theological or biblical justification for their conclusion. In the paper they presented to the Synod, there was only one biblical reference (to 1 John 4:16). They promote a “radical new Christian inclusion” that they claim is “founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith”, yet provide no theological or biblical justification for it.
It is astounding that they have provided little if any, theological or biblical justification for their conclusion.
Many in England are reeling from the decision and are bewildered by its implications. The word “betrayal” has been used by a number of folk to describe their experience. Perhaps the greatest betrayal is of the faithful disciples of Jesus who are same-sex attracted and living celibate lives in response to biblical teaching. In effect, these people have now been told that their sacrifice and integrity were unnecessary.
The sense of betrayal extends to those around the world who originally received the gospel from the Church of England. Its missionary movement has been instrumental in the conversion of millions. The average Anglican today is a woman in her 30s living in sub-Saharan Africa, and there are more Anglicans at worship on a Sunday in Nigeria than in England and the United States put together. But the gospel that was preached to them is now under attack from the very people who brought it to them in the first place.
One saving grace is that a successful amendment to the motion required that any prayers of blessing to be proposed should not be contrary to the doctrine of marriage that they espouse to uphold. Time will tell if this will bring any restraint on the desire to move in this novel direction.
For non-Anglican readers, some context may help here. The Anglican Communion is a worldwide fellowship of autonomous national churches. We are supposed to be united by our doctrine expressed in the Book of Common Prayer and Anglican formularies like the 39 Articles. Our practical working together is via the so-called “instruments of communion,” which include the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting, and the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC).
Each of these Instruments is feeling the strain of the decision. The Archbishop of Canterbury addressed the ACC this week in Ghana. He raised the possibility that the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury may not be an Instrument of Communion forever, in effect acknowledging the implications of last week’s decision. The Lambeth Conference met last year, but over 300 bishops were absent from it, and 150 participants refused to go to the Lord’s Table during the conference due to the trouble over human sexuality. The Primates’ Meeting is missing some of the Primates (national leaders) from the largest churches because of doctrinal disunity. This recent decision of the Church of England will only hasten the further disintegration of the Anglican Communion as we know it.
Hope for Anglicans
But all is not lost. There is a growing coalition of orthodox church leaders, dioceses and provinces as part of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GFSA), who are keen to provide leadership for the majority of the Communion. The Gafcon movement also stands ready to assist, having already established the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) to make sure that the gospel is faithfully preached in that nation.
Warnings against false teachers are in all but one book in the New Testament.
This realignment will most likely result in the “Canterbury Communion” sliding into irrelevancy and fresh networks committed to the biblical gospel growing from strength to strength. Warnings against false teachers are in all but one book in the New Testament and we know that God blesses the truth of his word.
The Church in Ephesus was warned in Revelation 2, that if they did not repent and return to their first love that the Lord would remove his Spirit from their midst. Sadly we have seen the Spirit depart from many denominations and movements over the centuries as they have forsaken the truth, and resisted the call to repentance. May this not be true of the Church of England.