A Future Church of England: Doctrine

I heard a story recently of a family who came to a Church of England church children's holiday club.  One of the ministers was talking to them afterwards and they were shocked to find out it was actually a C of E church.  Why?  Because they thought the Church of England was for people who didn't believe anything!  Clearly there had been some content in the holiday club.

But I think that is a common perception of the C of E.  It seems that pretty much any view within the C of E is tolerated.  Although the irony is that traditional views are perhaps the least tolerated!  You may have seen the reports in 2002 about the belief of ministers in the C of E, which disclosed that around a third of ministers doubted the physical resurrection of Jesus, around half doubted the virgin birth and half don't believe Jesus is the only way to salvation.

Certainly, anyone who's been on the inside of the C of E for any time knows that the sheer variety of what people (perhaps especially the clergy) believe, suggests that this perception a church of believing anything and nothing is justifiable.

This situation must, ultimately, be unsustainable.  At a biblical level, we need to accept that some, maybe even much, of what comes under the C of E umbrella is false teaching and should have been commanded to stop (1 Timothy 1:3) and clearly many don't conform to the standards for church leaders (e.g. 2 Timothy 1:13-14; Titus 1:9).  This teaching is unsustainable of itself (2 Timothy 3:9).  It is also practically unsustainable.  In the end, it simply isn't possible for an organisation to have radically different views in its different branches.  For example, it's no wonder that the C oF E is in decline, when we can't agree on what the mission is.

Perhaps what is most sad is an increasing unwillingness to discuss theology.  It's a form of sweeping differences under the carpet.  So for example, at diocesan training on mission you are likely to get discussion of techniques and methodologies, but a careful avoidance of discussing what message you are taking.

Of course, this is what we're seeing played out with the issue of women being bishops and what it seems is likely to be played out on issues of sexuality.  There is only so long that the church can sweep the differences under the carpet and eventually decisions will be made, quite possibly with only the most limited discussion of the theology behind different viewpoints, that will divide the church.

Now no-one imagines you could have a denomination with huge numbers of churches and clergy and members of congregations where everyone thinks exactly alike.  However, one could imagine a church where membership (e.g. baptism and communion) required the confession of certain core beliefs.  One could imagine that ministers would be required to submit to and teach those beliefs (and if they changed their minds they would be required to step down).  Of course, in principle this is true in the C of E (see the baptism service, confirmation service and promises made at ordination with respect to the creeds and the 39 Articles).  The problem is the lack of discipline at the points where people break these promises.

It seems to me that there are a number of things that could be done.  First, I think we need to get the discussion of theology out in the open again.  This will involve accepting that we might be mistaken and because it is in matter of our own beliefs that can be painful.  However, surely it is better to be shown to be wrong though, instead of being stubborn (Mark 3:5)!

Second, I think we must urge discipline.  This is very difficult, simply in light of the fact that many of the bishops take such radically different views from what they have promised to uphold.  In this case, I think we must pray for integrity and continue to seek it from our bishops.

Third, I think that we must accept that it is likely that the church will split.  We can't live together forever with such varying views.  In some ways it is ironic that it may be women bishops that causes that split (it's not something more central, like the resurrection!).

Fourth, for those of us who are conservative in their theology, if it is the case that we are to leave the C of E, or they us, then we need to reflect on the lessons learned.  I think that perhaps the key question. is how to exercise discipline faithfully

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