Last year our family took a road trip across the United States of America, beginning on the west coast and finishing in Boston. During our stay in the Cradle of the American Revolution we went to the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, a tourist attraction I can thoroughly recommend to you all.
The tour begins with a re-enactment of the many small meetings that occurred in the run-up to the Tea Party, with the tour leaders reprising the role of “Sons of Liberty” rallying us to the cause by recounting tales of the oppressive and unfair taxation policies of the British Crown. Every so often they would issue a rousing cry to cheer with them, “Down with the King” or similar. Wag that I am I responded with an assertive (but measured) “God Save the King”.
Mine was a lone voice.
And who could blame those early revolutionaries? Their mantra of “No Taxation Without Representation” was a fair one, the Crown took from them and gave them no equitable reward for their contributions. They ended up propping up a hierarchy which, to their understanding, was acting against their deepest interests and principles.
And so they rebelled and eventually built a nation on a political foundation which they understood had God-given roots (“…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”). Before the first shots were volleyed at Lexington the Tea Party had fired a broadside right at the heart of the British Crown, declaring that enough was enough. But the Revolutionaries weren’t going anywhere, they had worked hard to establish their homes and livelihoods and, more than that, a way of life. It was the Crown that must leave them be.
Once those first chests of tea were dumped in the harbour there was no going back because the intent had been signalled. The Governor of the Colonies would have known he had a fight on his hands and it was never going to go away.
Without straining the parallels too much, there are lessons to be learned here for both sides in the current conflict in the Anglican Communion. I know that some will not like the language of “conflict”, thinking it unhelpful, but I’ve always thought it best to call a spade a spade and a fight a fight. That way nobody is surprised when there’s suddenly a hole in the ground or a punch in the guts.
The reality is that as the Anglican Communion effectively splits the conflict is being played out most of all in the Anglo national churches. Allan has helpfully outlined the key events in the global background to all of this but it’s interesting to consider how it’s working it’s way out in the “Western” Provinces. The history of the North American church now already consists of whole chapters that have been written, with more yet to come but there is much yet to be written in the Church of England and Anglican Church of Australia.
The CofE’s position is a precarious one. Evangelicals have for a long time felt disenfranchised and marginalised. For them it is also, to some limited extent, a question of taxation and representation. Evangelical parishes (of which the large and growing parishes are mainly drawn) pay regular quotas of their offertory to diocesan coffers and on to the national funds. These monies are used to fund what is often perceived as irrelevant or even anti-gospel activities. To compound the situation there is not one single evangelical bishop in the House. At this stage some will protest with indignation that there are indeed evangelicals there, just not of the “conservative” label, to which I say this. The reality is that since the retirement of Bishop Wallace Benn we have not had one genuinely evangelical man representing us at the highest level. We have been marginalised, had the label “conservative evangelical” placed upon us to marginalise us even further, and had a promise of a “conservative evangelical” bishop made but ignored. They tax our tea (which in the Church of England is second in gravity only to taxing cake – or doubling the excise on a good Gin and Tonic) but the Crown gives us no representation.
So while the House of Bishops appears to be holding a fairly conservative position on human sexuality (although there are some glaring inconsistencies in their guidance) there is open opposition from not only clergy and laity but also actual bishops who are once again making outrageous claims (but, of course, don’t have the courage to back up their charge – they do, however, like the salary they get). What will be done in response to Bishop Alan’s open and brazen criticism of his episcopal colleagues? About the same that was done the last time; diddly squat. But the bigger issue is that the Church of England is an institution that is regularly elevating men who hold such views while not placing in leadership those who actually hold to consistent Biblical positions on the controversies of the day. It’s no good claiming to be standing in the right position on a controversy if open and wilful opposition is left unchecked.
All of this is the backdrop to the recent GAFCON Chairman’s pastoral letter which includes these paragraphs:
In the twenty first century, it is becoming clear that we must see the once missionary nations of the West as now themselves mission fields. The fact that the United Kingdom came close to breaking up last week is a symptom of the disintegration that follows when a once common Christian faith has been lost and I want to appreciate the work of the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) who are sharing with other mission minded Anglicans in England as they meet for the ‘ReNew’ Conference this week.
AMiE is authorised by the GAFCON Primates to work within and, where necessary, outside the structures of the Church of England as a missionary society. In my message of greeting to the conference I said ‘We understand the challenges that faithful Anglicans face in England. At GAFCON 2013 here in Nairobi we recognised that the focus of the struggle for biblical faithfulness has shifted from North America to England. The temptation to dilute the message of Jesus Christ and compromise with the surrounding culture is strong, so it is vital for the gospel in England, and also for the world, that you continue as a beacon to the revealed truth of the Scriptures. The salvation of people from hell is at stake. So nothing could be more important.’
The Anglican Mission in England has been around for a while but is getting on with it’s work slowly. It is, however, a “Tea Party moment”. It signals to the leadership of the Church of England that the fight is not going away. Evangelicals will continue to hold their own, and do so in solidarity with the majority of the Anglican Communion represented by a GAFCON/FCA movement that encourages their work. Just as the Tea Party signalled an irreversible moment in the conflict, so the collaboration of parties such as Church Society and Reform signals an intent which cannot be ignored, even if the pace is not to everyone’s liking.
The irony here is that quasi-evangelicals, such as the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, find themselves in a curious position. They hold a conservative position on human sexuality, but are undermined in their support of women’s consecration. Further, they give the impression they will constantly seek to appease the liberalising tendencies within the church. Tragically this moves them away from their more natural theological partners in parties like the AMiE and into the hands of those who they are, ironically, in far less agreement with on the more substantial issues.
Here in Australia a similar movement is underway, albeit in a different context. The Australia church, not least by virtue of it’s constitutional arrangements, has not officially moved to the extremes although there are some clear pockets of revisionism. The smaller House of Bishops has a variety of perspectives in it but has a good number of genuine conservatives. The new Primate, Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier, is seen as a safer pair of hands and a man with some experience of handling the inherent tensions having overseen the smorgasbord of Melbourne where solid evangelical parishes lie next to blatantly liberal ones. He has recently imposed new rules on the conduct of ministers including asking clear questions about their living arrangements and behaviour prior to ordination and licensing. Nevertheless Melbourne remains home to many who would espouse a gospel that evangelicals simply cannot recognise. My own sense speaking to others here about the matter is that some opposition to conservatives has softened, at least publicly. Privately I have seen correspondence and been involved in conversations where the animosity is a clear as it ever was.
All of this has led to the Australian chapter of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans announcing plans for a first local conference in March 2015. Further details are yet to come but this will prove, I suspect, to be another “Tea Party moment”. It signals to the hierarchy of the Anglican Church of Australia that the conservatives are not going anywhere. This is particularly important given what may happen in the next few years. It is no secret that liberals in Perth are very unhappy with Archbishop Herft’s decision to veto their motion on human sexuality. We should expect the next Archbishop there to be elected on the understanding that he (or she) will allow similar motions to pass. This or similar events will leave conservatives needing to decide how to respond. But the theological revisionists should also be clear on the consequences of their actions. Throwing a few tea chests in the harbour now gives a very clear indication of what might be yet to come.
The reality of the Anglican Communion is that conservatives are not going anywhere. In many senses liberals are fighting a rearguard action trying to hold onto local ground while they see the wider global battle being lost. The wholesale rejection of the Anglican Covenant idea by those same liberals is only further evidence of their increasing parochialism, they want the prestige of being part of the Anglican Communion but not the mutual responsibility. They are, globally, a lone voice crying “God save our picture of Christianity” while the rest of the Communion moves on and battles for their Biblical understanding of what Anglicanism always was and should continue to be.
Just as the British Crown lost control over the colonies and the once Great Britain is now reduced to one small nation amongst others, so also the revisionists in the Communion are looking at a similar shrinking of their influence and standing in the face of conservatives’ standing firm. Expect to see more Tea Parties, if only to let the institutions know that we’re not going away and this is all only going in one direction.