That was the week that was...

So we've manged to have yet another interesting/shocking week in the Church of England. One announcement contained two shocks for orthodox evangelicals. First, the House of Bishops issued pastoral guidance (more binding than it sounds for clergy!) on how to mark gender transition using either baptism (for the unbaptised) or the re-affirmation of baptism (for the already baptised) liturgy. In so doing, they by-passed pretty much anything you might think significant in such a change which implies a significant change in doctrine, ethics and pastoral practice. For example, you might expect some theological discussion, some reflection on contrary views, some reflection on historical understanding. There was none. Instead, overnight we became a denomination that, to quote the guidance:
"welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people, equally with all people, within the body of Christ, and rejoices in the diversity of that body into which all Christians have been baptized by one Spirit" (my emphasis)
which, as various people have commented, doesn't sound much the call of the gospel! Lee Gatiss has given a good analysis of the problems with the guidance (see also Ian Paul's blog which I also found helpful), which I don't intend to repeat here. As you might guess if you've read this blog before, I agree that this guidance is nothing less than false teaching from our seemingly utterly liberal House of Bishops.

The second shock for orthodox evangelicals was that the chair of the committee providing this advice and then commending it was the Bishop of Blackburn, Julian Henderson. Up to this point he had seemed one of the most solidly evangelical bishops within the Church of England - he is, after all, the President of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC). To confuse the matter even further, the CEEC then released a response to the guidance (signed by Bishop Julian), which was pretty critical of the guidance. Not surprisingly evangelicals are a little bemused as to what is going on with the Bishop of Blackburn.

What should we make of all this? A few reflections:

  1. This is a red line. One of the persistent questions evangelicals have been asking is: what are our red lines? I.e. what could the Church of England do that would necessitate significant action and separation of some sort? In this guidance the church has simply changed the gospel by removing repentance and faith and replacing it with unconditional affirmation. We wouldn't want that expressed in any context and it's probably a bit of a surprise it's come from the direction of gender transition rather same-sex relationships, but it has been expressed and it is deeply serious false teaching.
  2. Think about your team. One of my observations since the guidance and from beforehand is that there is an ongoing frustration of many members of the orthodox evangelical community in the Church of England at the actions of many of our groupings, large churches or leaders. Why aren't they doing X, saying Y and leading us in direction Z? Why have they done A, said B or led in direction C? I can understand this and these are perfectly valid questions. Noticeably lacking in the statements thus far for example have been any substantial suggestions of action (although I think that is understandable in the short term). My reflection is simply that as individuals we need to think hard about what team we are a part of. If the people you look to as leaders and the organisations you are part of persistently don't act in the way you think they should then you are working in a different direction to them. You are not on the same team. So don't pretend to yourself that you are! Personally, I've found this liberating. I'm grateful for good work done by groups like the Church Society and CEEC, but I'm aware that much of what they do is something that I think is misguided and potentially dangerous. While not denying our common faith and salvation, in terms of addressing the issues of the Church of England I know I'm not on the same team and couldn't be in conscience. Is that a shame? Yes of course. It would be much better if we could get the largest possible group of churches and leaders to act effectively together. Would I be willing to bend a little for that to happen? Yes, but I can't break my conscience and my commitment, as I see it, to faithfulness. Given the crossing of a red line, it is now more important than ever to work out honestly what team you are on and act accordingly.
  3. Act don't wait to be led. A consequence of not working out your team is often that you expect others to act. In effect we say: this is terrible, why are they not doing something about it! In many cases we will know that the actions that we might want others to take aren't likely to happen. Ultimately we can't make those thing happen or not. Much of the inertia amongst evangelicals is down to the fact that each one of us doesn't get on with being faithful ourselves. Of course don't act without wise counsel, prayer and reflecting on God's word, but when you've done that, start acting in the direction you need to go. Start the plans to plant out. Start the plan about talking to your PCC about the finances. Teach your congregations now if you haven't already. Put up clear separation between your church and senior leadership in your diocese. Get a plan in place and start working through the actions. Have an end date in mind. Have milestones in place. And I wonder if most importantly, stop moaning on social media and get on with it!
  4. Don't put your faith in leaders. I don't know what has happened with Bishop Julian, although I hope very much there is a positive explanation or resolution. However, while we must respect our leaders and appropriately submit to them, in what has happened this week we have seen the folly of putting our faith anywhere but in Jesus. The same could be said for those who are frustrated at other leaders for their action or inaction! Where appropriate you may be able to say or do something, but in many cases there won't be that opportunity. We need to resolve to put our faith in Christ, pray for our brothers and sisters, pray for ourselves and get on with being faithful where God has placed us (see point 3).

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