This articles was produced for the Church of England Newspaper and published by them in January 2007.
Next week the Bishops of the Church of England meet together. No doubt, high on their agenda will be the forthcoming meeting in February 2007 of the Primates of the Anglican Communion. It would be surprizing, though, if at least a little time was not given also to a discussion on the recently published Covenant for the Church of England (CCE).
Anglicanism, at home and abroad is in a mess. In one respect Archbishop Rowan Williams and his colleagues have an unenviable task. However, the complexities of the breakdown of the relationship between the Episcopal Church of America (TEC) and the churches of the Global South, for example, should neither obscure nor deflect our leaders from the responsibility incumbent upon them. There are two strands to it. Positively, they are to contend earnestly for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Negatively, they are to drive away all erroneous belief and behaviour. Sadly, our bishops - speaking collectively and not individually - do not have a good track record at doing either.
To illustrate the point, consider this question: When did you last engage with a bishop who would unashamedly describe himself as Protestant and Reformed? An increasing number of the House of Bishops, we are told, style themselves as ‘evangelical’. But what does that mean? When you discover that some who own that title advocate stable same-sex relationships you have to wonder whether the nightmare scenario of a Humpty Dumpty world in which words are invested with our own particular meaning is really upon us.
Be that as it may, what the powers-that-be in church and state appear not to see is that those who may legitimately be described as having the title deeds of the Church of England in their back pockets are scarcely represented in the House of Bishops. At the last count, it was reported that there is only one conservative evangelical bishop in the Church of England, and that he is a suffragan and not a diocesan. If that is so, it means we are in serious trouble. It should not surprize, therefore, that some have singed the CCE document. They are loyal Anglicans who do not want to see the Church of England continue its gradual evolution into a liberal sect.
What is the Church of England? If the Coronation Oath our monarchs swear is anything to go by, it is meant to be that body which guards and propagates within England the Protestant Reformed faith by law established. Historically, Protestants were those who united against the opponents of the reforming movement which began to sweep across Europe in the early 16th century. Fairly quickly the term was used for Lutherans, whilst the term Reformed described Calvinists. Soon, though, the term took on an inclusive meaning to describe those who hold certain specific beliefs. These people came from Lutheran, Zwinglian, Calvinist and Anglican groups. The reformed Church of England of Cranmer and the Elizabethan Settlement was clearly defined as Protestant as opposed to Roman.
What beliefs do Protestants share? For convenience, we shall limit ourselves to three:
 the acceptance of the sixty-six canonical books of the Bible as the sole source of revealed truth and thus the decisive authority in all matters of faith and conduct;
 the conviction that the only way an individual sinner may find acceptance with God is by the sovereign grace of God alone, through faith alone, and in Jesus Christ alone; and
 the belief that all believers enjoy, as a consequence of their adoption in Christ, immediate access to God and are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve him in the church and world. These are fundamental gospel beliefs.
Scripture teaches, and church history illustrates, that attacks upon and challenges to Scriptural truth emerge in every generation. Sometimes the attacks are from without and may properly be described as persecution. Often such attacks are subtle and insidious. On other occasions they are full frontal assaults. The attacks we face today are probably of the former kind. Certainly, the ravages created by evolutionism and political correctness have advanced incrementally. The innovation of Civil Partnerships and the proposed Sexual Orientation Regulations represent further steps along the way of undermining the God-given order for sexual relations.
Sadly, some attacks on Christian truth arise within the church. It has been said that most, if not all, heresies have their origins in the a subtle distortion or reinterpretation of received doctrine. Now we readily acknowledge that there is something provisional about our understanding and articulation of Scriptural truth. After all we are not the source of truth: God is. Moreover, our intellects are not untouched by sin. We also accept that we have a responsibility to check that our understanding and interpretation of Scripture is true to Scripture. That being so, it does not mean that we should, as some do, simplistically assert that everything is just a matter of interpretation.
The concept of Via Media, popularized by Newman in the 19th century, is often invoked in today. Newman used the term to describe Anglicanism as a middle way between Popery and Dissent. As a result he enjoyed a degree of success in seeing the Church of England embrace some devotionally and doctrinally destructive tendencies. Today, it appears, the term is used in a way that resonates with an approach adopted by Hegel. He argued that there is a constant dialectic between a thesis and its antithesis which in time leads to the emergence of a synthesis. This then becomes the new thesis. An example of this sort of approach occurred recently when an overseas bishop argued that, on the one hand, we have a traditional understanding of sexual ethics whilst on the other we have new liberal views. We Anglicans, he said, are to take a middle course between the two. One bishop present was heard to utter an expletive in reaction to such muddled thinking!
In case you think this all extreme, consider an argument recently put forward by the spin doctors of Lambeth Palace. An invitation has been given to Dr Schori of TEC to attend the forthcoming meeting of Anglican Provincial leaders. The reason given to justify the invitation is that it would be inappropriate not to do so bearing in mind that the processes established by the Windsor Report are still being pursued. Furthermore, it would be premature to foreclose the debate. The argument sounds reasonable. Of course, it is if you follow an Hegelian approach. But Christians do not. They constantly check all that is taught and done against the Divine standard and rule of Scripture.
It is a cardinal rule of interpretation that the Bible is to be interpreted in its grammatical, historical, and theological sense. In other words, we start with the plain sense of terms used. We recognize the import of them in their immediate context, both grammatical and historical. We also see how they fit into the theological context of Scripture as a whole. It is also a cardinal rule of interpretation that our interpretation of the Bible must be deemed inadequate or wrong if we make Scripture say the opposite to what it actually says.
Whether we like it or not there are two issues that are being fought out amongst professing Christians today. Both will be before those who attend the Primates’ meeting in February. One concerns leadership; the other the context in which sexual activity with another person is legitimate. Sadly, there has been a collective failure of leadership by the bishops of the Church of England on both topics.
As Richard Holloway, one time Bishop of Edinburgh, rightly said on Radio 4 in the mid 1990s, “You will not find the ordination of women in the Bible”. By that, we take it he meant you will not find the Bible endorses the ordination of women to positions of leadership over men in churches. We say he assessment is correct for, if the plain words of Scripture mean anything, they teach that the apostolic practice was for the office of elder to be filled by men only. In fact, Paul indicates he knew of no other practice. He challenged those who thought otherwise to recognize that they did so contrary to the revealed Word of God (1 Corinthians 14.33ff). He also taught leadership by men is a God-given pattern established at Creation and substantiated in history (1 Timothy 2.12ff). It is for this reason that some members of TEC, as well as leaders within the wider Anglican Communion, disagree with the appointment of and the invitation issued to the Presiding Bishop of that wayward denomination.
We recognize that many disagree with the conservative understanding of leadership roles within the church. However, we respectfully point out two things. First, the substantive arguments for male presbyters put forward by evangelicals have never been refuted. In fact, we know of one senior cleric who was somewhat surprized when he was reminded of the teaching of 1 Timothy. It is somewhat bizarre that, before he had held a Bible study with conservatives on this topic, as he said he would, he publicly called for the church to proceed towards the appointment of women as bishops! It is also bizarre that there appears to be a reluctance to define what is meant by the term ‘reception’. There also appears to be a failure to recognize that, in the 1990s, the Church of England broke with Scripture and tradition. She created an entirely new type of priest; namely one not eligible for appointment as a bishop.
Now, the revisionists want the church to say what God says is immoral is to be deemed ‘moral’. The Scripture states that those who engage in sexual activity with a person other than their spouse (being a person of the opposite sex) commit sin. The Bible also teaches that this is not a secondary matter. It says those who persist in an immoral lifestyle shall not enter the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6.9-11).
Sadly, we are living with the consequences of a collective failure of leadership. In 1991 the House of Bishops issued a statement which has been interpreted as endorsing one rule for the laity and another for the clergy. Whether that is a fair assessment of Issues in Human Sexuality is hotly debated. What seems incontrovertible, though, is that some bishops have been exceedingly slow to follow through parts of their report. They have failed to discipline those who practise or teach a sexual ethic which does not cohere with Scripture or the Christian tradition. This failure is further seen in the flawed and defective advice on civil partnerships issued in 2006.
We wholeheartedly concur with the bishops when they condemn acts of aggression towards those who understand these matters in another way. However, we also recognize that we are under a God-given obligation, in love, to inform people what the Scriptures teach. It is our privilege to invite them most earnestly to forsake what God condemns and to seek from him the forgiveness he freely offers all who repent and believe.
The task of Christians, then, is to proclaim Christ. We are not to preach a christ or gospel of our own making. Nor are we to twist the Scriptures to justify what we want or do. Rather, our responsibility is to hear and heed God’s written Word. Out of love for him, we are to obey his commands. An individual who does otherwise can justifiably be called unfaithful. There is no future for a church which acts contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible. We pray the primates will contend earnestly for the faith. We pray they drive away error. In particular, we pray the Archbishop of Canterbury and his colleagues will unashamedly uphold Anglicanism as Protestant and Reformed.
Vicar of Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne
Chairman of Church Society, “the senior evangelical body of the Church of England” (The Times)