Author(s)Lee Gatiss
Date 13 October 2023

Lee Gatiss wonders what we can do when we are exasperated by bishops and the direction of the Church of England.

There’s been a lot of talk about the doctrine of the Church of England of late. The doctrine of the Church of England is clearly stated in Canon Law. Canon A5 says:

“The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.

In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.”

I have devoted my life and ministry to these things. The scriptures — this is foolish to list, but I’ve written an exposition on every Sunday Bible reading in the Church’s 3-year lectionary, have edited a study Bible and a commentary on some of the New Testament epistles, and am series editor of a 50-volume commentary on the whole Bible for a major publisher. The teachings of the ancient fathers and councils — I’ve read them, and studied them, written a book expounding the Apostles’ Creed, and taught church history at a number of institutions. The Anglican formularies — I’ve edited a book of reflections on the 39 Articles, another on the Prayer Book Collects, and an updated-language edition of the First Book of Homilies. I have another book out soon on Anglican polity and have published in peer-review journals and books on confessional Anglican doctrine and history.

All of which is to say: I’m a bit of an Angli-nerd. I love the doctrine of the Church of England. I study it, write about it, defend and promote it wherever I get the chance. This is what I was ordained to do. I don’t think I can be accused of not taking this seriously or giving it little thought. I am loyal to this inheritance of faith and want to proclaim it afresh in this generation, just as I promised at my ordination. For me, those words meant something. Something real and true and binding.

Doctrinal departure
So when I hear that it is apparently not contrary to Anglican doctrine to bless same-sex couples in church, my response is “Good Lord!” When I’m told by bishops, with a straight face, that using words from the church’s marriage service to bless a same-sex couple is “not indicative of any departure from the doctrine of the Church of England”, surely puzzlement or exasperation are warranted? Is this honest? Is this legal?

There is nowhere in scripture, nowhere in the teachings of the early church fathers, and nowhere in the Reformation formularies or the laws of the Church — nowhere I have found in all my geeky Anglican-ness — that says any kind of same-sex sexual relationship (or any sex outside of male-female marriage) is pleasing to God. It is not a state of life that enjoys his blessing, but rather it appears in Anglican doctrine to be the opposite, as surely as denials of the Trinity or the existence of God or the physical resurrection of Christ would be.

It is not loving or kind or clever to tell people that sin is not sin, when “Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). Who would have the effrontery to bless what God with his own lips says excludes people from his kingdom, and which Christ died to save us from? “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Until very very recently, every official report and every international statement agreed on this (from the 1987 motion of General Synod to the 1998 Lambeth Conference and beyond). But now the terms and conditions are about to be unilaterally changed on the sole authority of our bishops. Their own official legal and theological advice apparently tells them that it’s not allowed, but they’re going to do it anyway. This is a cause of deep and profound grief.

Obeying bishops?
I happily promised to give canonical obedience to my bishop in all things lawful and honest. The canons are unchanged, and still define Anglican doctrine as described above. In Canon B30 they clearly set out that “The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord's teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman.” This alone is where sexual desire can be “hallowed and directed aright”.

But if bishops now require obedience or acquiescence in something neither lawful nor honest, and against the plain and public definition of Anglican doctrine, it is clearly not just a matter of conscience but my duty to the truth to say no. They should expect resistance.

It is hard to see how anyone who took their ordination vows seriously, who takes any words and promises seriously, could think otherwise. Bishops who abuse their power to subvert due process and attempt to enshrine a lie (that their commended prayers for same-sex blessings are not a change of Anglican doctrine) in the heart of our constitution, do not deserve obedience or command respect as serious and honest leaders. They are introducing falsehood, when they dressed up and solemnly promised to banish it. Schoolboys would hoot at such impudence! What chutzpah.

They may receive plaudits from those they seek to mollify in the press or the corridors of power, but one day they will have to give an account for all these things to a higher tribunal. I fear for them because of this, even while I acknowledge with sadness that they may well get away with it in this life.

I also pray for them, that they may repent of this heretical and egregiously divisive attempt at institutional gaslighting. “Repurposing liturgy” is a change of doctrine, even if they tell us it’s not. A change in clergy discipline to allow same-sex partners in the vicarage is a change of doctrine. We all know it. We can all see it. So I pray the bishops who are conspiring to make this happen may have the courage to return to the Lord and his teaching, which they swore at their consecrations to uphold. Until then, it is unsafe to trust them with the spiritual safeguarding that the church so badly needs at this time.

John Calvin said this in his sermon on Job 5:11-16 in 1554:

“God will allow the wicked to exercise great craftiness and prudence. It will appear that they are to bring down the entire church or, if they try to oppress one, two or three people, it will appear they cannot be resisted in some way or another. What are we to do in that case? Let us hasten to our God and say, 'Well, Lord, it is true our enemies have many tricks up their sleeves. When it comes to fighting against them using wily stratagems and crafty devices, we do not have a chance. We would be lost. It is now up to you to disrupt their plans and make all their undertakings ineffective so they will not have in their hands the power to carry them out.' That is how we are to hasten to God.”

Or, we might just pray in the words of our National Anthem:

“Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God, save us all!”

We must lament and cry out to God for the Church of England. How great our sins must be, that he has brought all this upon us.

How should pious Christians and pastors feel about the sins of their own churches or denominations? Angry? Dismissive? Sanctimonious? Judging? Calvin once said something about this too, which I have found to be very wise:

"Paul lets us know the disposition of a true and genuine Pastor, when he says that he will look upon the sins of others with grief. And, undoubtedly, the right way of acting is this — that every Christian shall have his Church inclosed within his heart, and be affected with its maladies, as if they were his own — sympathize with its sorrows, and bewail its sins... It is, indeed, a thing that is common to all the pious, to be grieved in every case in which God is offended, and to bewail the ruin of brethren, and present themselves before God in their room as in a manner guilty, but it is more particularly requisite on the part of Pastors." - John Calvin commenting on 2 Corinthians 12:21

So let us not simply bewail what is happening, or point fingers at those who are responsible. But let us have the Church of England on our hearts and in our prayers, because it is our church. Its sins are our sins. Those being led astray are fellow Anglicans, even if we may feel they are far away from the gospel. We must grieve because of this all the more, and pray to God to save us all.

Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what to pray. As an Angli-nerd, may I suggest that we might use the words of the Litany, in the Book of Common Prayer? Please join with me in praying these extracts:

From all evil and mischief; from sin, from the crafts and assaults of the devil; from thy wrath, and from everlasting damnation,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vain-glory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From fornication, and all other deadly sin; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all sedition, privy conspiracy, and rebellion; from all false doctrine, heresy, and schism; from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word and Commandment,
Good Lord, deliver us.

We sinners do beseech thee to hear us, O Lord God: and that it may please thee to rule and govern thy holy Church universal in the right way,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to illuminate all Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, with true knowledge and understanding of thy Word; and that both by their preaching and living they may set it forth and shew it accordingly,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to give us an heart to love and dread thee, and diligently to live after thy commandments,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to give to all thy people increase of grace, to hear meekly thy Word, and to receive it with pure affection, and to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to bring into the way of truth all such as have erred, and are deceived,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand; and to comfort and help the weak-hearted; and to raise up them that fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to give us true repentance; to forgive us all our sins, negligences, and ignorances; and to endue us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, to amend our lives according to thy holy Word,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.


Revd Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society.