Just imagine a letter like this….
Dear Episcopal Colleagues
If you’ve started preparation for next Sunday, you’ll have noticed that the Epistle reading is from Ephesians 4.1-16, a significant passage on the unity of the church. John Stott in his commentary on Ephesians describes this as one of the two classic passages on Christian unity with the other being John 17. Ephesians 4 starts with these words:
I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
As I reflected on the Ephesians passage, and continued moves by many in the Anglican Church of Australia to reshape our understanding of the doctrine of marriage, I have to say, I was struck by what I see as a contradiction between the Ephesians passage and these repeated actions.
Following the publication of the Appellate Tribunal’s opinion last year I called for restraint to enable clear air for discussion at the next meeting of the General Synod which will be our first opportunity to discuss the change to the Marriage Act and the opinion of the Appellate Tribunal. I am grateful that very significant restraint has been shown by people who are concerned that there are those who seek to change our doctrine. I recognise that although the Gafcon announcement of Monday evening contains more details, it has nothing different in substance to the “2020 Commitment” that the Gafcon board made last year. In my view, unfortunately, those who pursue a revisionist agenda have not shown similar restraint. I note that the Diocese of Gippsland has joined those who now declare it is acceptable to have people in positions of leadership who’s life does not conform to our agreed standards as set out in Faithfulness in Service. Simply changing the language of Faithfulness in Service in their dioceses does not negate this breach of our common life. We worked hard together to agree a common framework of standards and yet these actions unilaterally erode that structure. I wish I could say that this was the first time such a thing had happened but, as you well know, it is simply the latest in a long list of events. In some cases bishops have openly and publicly rejected the clear words of Scriptures, in others they have allowed their diocesan organisations and institutions to also reject them with not a word of censure. Even worse some have encouraged their dioceses to follow suit by promoting or approving legislation at their synods that have brought us into a serious crisis. All of this despite the fact that our General Synod has repeatedly affirmed the long-held doctrine of the church on marriage and censured those in other provinces who have taken such steps. Perhaps worst of all, they have broken trust with their fellow bishops by previously agreeing not to take such unilateral actions. In the light of these regular repeated and increasingly blatant moves I am very grateful for Gafcon’s continued restraint.
We need to be clear that the opinion of the Appellate Tribunal has effectively changed the understanding of doctrine in the Anglican Church of Australia, setting out a narrow definition of that term that the original framers of our Constitution would not recognise and which is certainly inconsistent with the way that term is used in the Scriptures. The Scriptures are, of course, our highest authority as the Fundamental Declarations of the Constitution make clear. When the Appellate Tribunal takes a position contrary to those Fundamental Declarations then it only increases the sense of crisis that we feel and I understand why many are questioning the Tribunal’s legitimacy.
I am aware that those bishops of our church who have openly departed from the doctrine of the church have not yet been formally found to have done so by any properly constituted tribunal or process. But those tribunals are not the only fair or reasonable basis for any member of the Anglican Church of Australia to believe that a bishop of this church has departed from the doctrine of our church. Their open rejection of that doctrine is, some might argue, evidence enough. It is certainly the argument of the New Testament, which also tells us what to do when such incontrovertible evidence is presented to us. As Jesus’ Apostle states when discussing the unity that we ought to strive for, there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:5-6). Our unity is found in obedience to that one Lord Jesus and in coherence to that one faith. Those that reject the teaching of Jesus and promote something contrary to that one faith have in some way walked away from the rest of what Paul speaks of; the one baptism and the One God and Father of all. There is no unity where those things are not united. When we seek to change one or more of the elements we abandon that unity. It is the very opposite of the “making every effort to maintain the unity” that the Apostle called us to. It is to place a division between our unity and the truth, whereas we see in John 17:17 that the Lord Jesus says different. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth“. It is the truth of the word of God that sanctifies us into one body.
It is to my deep regret that despite the years of such attacks upon our common life, there has not been a word of serious public criticism from my predecessors about those actions. Not a flood, not a trickle. Not a drip.
In other words, Anglicans who consistently undermine our common life cannot continue with confidence as genuine members of the Anglican Church of Australia. To suggest or insinuate otherwise is to not speak the truth.
In many ways it doesn’t matter what those false teachers do since they will not ultimately prevail. We could say with the Apostle, “the Lord knows those who are his” (2Tim. 2:19). The difficulty I have with this apparently neat solution is that some of those are bishops.
My expectation is that people who say they are committed to the Anglican church, and who have made oaths and promises upholding its constitution and canons and therefore its governance processes, would be committed to keeping it strong, united and effective. I have to say this is difficult to see in many of these bishops’ statements and actions. It feels like the life of our church is being undermined from within. Rather than making ‘every effort’ to stay together, they appear to want to be in a different church. We haven’t in any way decided together on these important matters and yet they carry on with their actions, tearing the fabric of our unity.
It might also be easy to say- ‘if you don’t like it leave’. But that’s not the way I believe will glorify God, preserve our unity and above all enhance our missional effectiveness. This approach would be easy but would be to take the world’s way of dealing with matters of difference. The Scriptural way forward is not to wait for those who disturb the church in this way to leave, it is to warn about them and to deal with them decisively for the sake of the church. (Matt. 24:24; Acts 20:28-30; 2Tim. 4:3-4; Titus 1:11 etc.)
As Christians and especially as leaders in Christ’s church we are called to reflect God’s enormous grace by which we are saved. We are called to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’. This is hard work and requires love. Stott again, says, ‘love is the final quality, which embraces the preceding four, and is the crown and sum of all virtues’. Rather than say, ‘if you don’t like it leave’, I say, ‘please, let’s take the less easy path and by God’s grace work on staying together as you submit once again to Christ and his word in the Scriptures.’, though I realise fully this will take humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. I am confident that when our straying brethren return repentant they will be met with that love. Otherwise, of course, it will eventually prove impossible for them to remain in our fellowship despite our desire to renew our unity with them.
I understand that the presence at national bishops’ meetings of some bishops who are supportive of a revisionist agenda might lead others to, from a conscience perspective, stay away from the meetings. This is understandable and entirely consistent with the command of the Apostle John (the Apostle who taught us “God is love”):
Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.2John 9-11
This may yet be necessary, in obedience to Christ and his Apostle for the sake of the church. In the meantime my strong encouragement is for everyone to attend. All bishops in office will be invited. As bishops in the church of God we have a corporate responsibility to lead the church which, in the light of the promises we all made at our consecration, is greater than what some might argue is the sensitivity of individual conscience. Of course, there ought to be no conflict between the two. Each of us, years ago, when we were made deacon (according to the BCP) were asked by the bishop “do you unfeignedly believe all the Canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testament?”. When we were priested the bishop asked us, “Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word?”. Finally, and most significantly, in our consecration service we were asked “be you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same?”. I trust we answered “yes” without any hint of semblance and with full integrity. If we cannot still answer “yes” with the same conviction now then perhaps the course of action before us should be obvious. As for me, I intend to keep those vows.
One of the very powerful accounts in the Scriptures is the journey of the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt to the promised land. Throughout the journey the people were asked to trust in God who constantly demonstrated trustworthiness. But from time to time the people became afraid and let that fear rather than trust in God drive their actions. Each time that happened the outcome was not good or godly. My prayer is that as bishops in the church of God we won’t give in to fear for the future of the church, or fear for outcomes of any future General Synod, but will trust in God whose church we serve and whose mission we share, always making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Of course, during that journey God had sometimes to maintain unity by dealing most severely with those who opposed his rule in the assembly. It is very difficult when such things happen, but it may also be necessary. I trust that is not the case amongst us.
Please be assured of my prayers for you. Please keep praying for me. Peace in Christ