Conservative Anglicans on the March

In the last post, I expressed the belief (and the hope!) that General Synod was shifting away, bit by bit, from endorsing or supporting the hard-line ‘biblical views’ of small conservative pressure groups. These are associated with politically active Anglican bodies like REFORM, GAFCON and the Church Society. This assessment has been echoed by others. The ultra-conservative Synod members who support these groups seem also to reflect a concern that their influence may be slipping. In June, various individuals from these factions wrote a joint letter to the Church Times. This letter contained the threat that they would walk out of Synod if the Bishop of Edinburgh was permitted to address the Synod which was then about to take place. The Scottish Episcopal Church has recently redefined marriage so that it will be possible for same-sex weddings to take place in their churches. The CT letter suggested that an invitation to Bishop John Armes by Synod might damage the Instruments of Communion which bind the Church of England to the wider Anglican Communion. The signatories, 10 lay members and 5 clergy, believed that their presence at Synod would somehow endorse the views of the Scottish Episcopal Church. I understand that no such walk-out took place in the end. We are still left with the memory of an unpleasant discourteous threat that was contained in the letter.

After the General Synod meetings which were concluded in York on the week-end of July 9th, the same conservative factions represented in the letter have geared themselves for more confrontation with the wider church. An open letter has appeared on Wednesday 19th July on the Anglican Mainstream website, which is another conservative grouping. In it the signatories declare that the General Synod are ‘pursuing principles, values and practices contrary to Holy Scripture and church Tradition.’ Such a failure, they continue, is ‘not wholly unexpected’. They are therefore starting to meet ‘on behalf of our fellow Anglicans, to discuss how to ensure a faithful ecclesial future.’

There is a certain amount of coded language here. What I think the signatories are saying is that they recognise that their influence in the Church of England may be declining. Their answer to this is to draw on the strength they possess through the alliances they have with similar-thinking Anglicans elsewhere in the world, especially in the Global South. These alliances enable them to attempt to threaten and even manipulate the main body of the Church of England. ‘A faithful ecclesial future’ would appear to be another term for a full-blown division within the Anglican Communion. Once again this relatively small faction in the Church of England is flexing its muscles by threatening to leave the Communion and align itself to other conservatives across the world.

It should be repeated here that this threatened schism is not one that concerns the bulk of evangelicals in the Church of England. While the evangelical representation in Synod is strong and includes many bishops, few of them are playing the political games which always seem to involve threats of division and splits. The names of those who have signed the letter is interesting. We have both the newly but irregularly consecrated Anglican bishops, Andy Lines and Jonathan Pryke. Also included are the two bishops of the Free Church of England which is a tiny schismatic Anglican grouping. While their orders are recognised, the Free Church of England is not in communion with the main body. All the main conservative groups at work in Britain, GAFCON, REFORM and Mainstream are signatories. The main feature of all these groups is that they each came into being in order to protest against what they believe to be a liberal drift among their fellow Anglicans, especially in England. GAFCON provocatively held its first meeting in Jerusalem at the same time as Lambeth 2008. REFORM and Mainstream both thrive on presenting themselves to the press as the true voice of worldwide Anglicanism even if their main message seems always to be about sexual behaviour. Their reactionary perspective seems to have a single aim – how they can destroy the Church of England and rebuild it in a purer form which meets with their theological vision. This ‘new’ biblical version of the Church would lack one key feature of the Anglicanism which most of us have long appreciated. This is the ability of the church to preserve more than one theological perspective simultaneously. The Elizabethan settlement allowed Catholics and Puritans to live and work together in a single ecclesial body. Anything that destroys this balance would destroy Anglicanism as we have known it for 450 years.

The Anglicans in Britain represented by these letters is not a large. Probably the Church of England would survive easily if it allowed these politically motivated conservative Christians to go their own way. Other prominent groupings of evangelicals, like those attached to Holy Trinity Brompton, do not appear to be political in this way. The strength of this ultra-conservative Anglican alliance, is, as we have pointed out, in the links it has with churches overseas. On paper the Anglicans in the Global South vastly outnumber members of the Church of England, however you count the numbers. But, just as I want to query figures claimed by some Christian networks in this country, so I question the numbers of Anglicans actively supporting these conservative issues overseas. Archbishop Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria may have twenty million active Anglican members in his church, but I find it very hard to believe that all these Anglicans are as concerned about the topic of same-sex marriage as their leaders. I doubt very much if most African Anglicans have even heard about the debates which are so passionately argued about as a hall-mark of conservative Anglican identity in this country.

The Mainstream letter about the ‘ecclesial future’ of the Anglican Church may just be one more threat by a distinct group of conservative Anglicans to split away from the main body. Alternatively it may finally persuade church leaders that the days of pretending that the Anglican Communion is a single body are over. Over the next three years, preparations are being made to bring together the Anglican Communion from all over the world to England in 2020 for the Lambeth Conference. Will the scheming of these groups finally result in a split between the North and the South on this issue of gay sex? The acclaimed aim of the group, to restore the Communion back to a tradition and a version of biblical orthodoxy will never happen in the way they would like. The Anglican Church in England will always preserve its Elizabethan balance of different views and outlooks. Thus it will continue to represent the moderation of the English people. It will never be a body representing fanaticism. Those who want to control the entire body by denying a place to the opinions of those who disagree with them will always ultimately be defeated.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

3 thoughts on “Conservative Anglicans on the March

  1. I’m guessing, only guessing, that the vast majority of Anglicans in Africa think pretty much the same way as the majority of British people did in the 50s and 60s. That homosexuality is deviant, that many are paedophiles as well, that sort of thing. And precisely because gay people keep quiet, no one gets the opportunity to discover that gays are much like anyone else, because they can’t be identified. And although most people in the 50s and 60s didn’t beat people up in the street, nor even approve of it, many did.

  2. Stephen, you may remember that, some years ago, Graham Kings (now a bishop, I think), wrote a paper called “watercourses” which divided Anglican evangelicals into conservative, open, and charismatic streams. It is indeed the conservatives who are into political games as you say. They seem to be defined by their views on women clergy and sexuality.

    The interesting question is the relative sizes of these different groups. I have never seen any published figures. How many churches identify with each, and how many parishioners? My feeling is that, at best, the sizes are equal, so conservatives are outnumbered 2:1 by open/charismatic evangelicals. But my instinctive feeling is they might be smaller than that.

    Have you any idea on the numbers? I would love to know…

  3. Peter. I have just been away for a few days which is why I have not been active. There is an online book published by Peter Herriot on this topic of the different strands of evangelicals. His view is that the ‘hard’ Anglican evangelicals are not a huge force and that the church could survive without them. The numbers of softer evangelicals is far greater and the they generally have no interest in the blackmail game that is is being played out by the group on General Synod. If I could guess numbers, I would say that the ‘hard’ group is outnumbered 5 to 1 by the rest which of course includes the charismatic group around New Wine and HTB. These softer groups have no wish to rock the boat as the lot represented by REFORM. They seem devoted to doing a take-over of the entire church in the name of their narrow puritan ideas. The Herriot book should be easy to find on Amazon but it does not exist except as a Kindle book. It is very good. He does not quote numbers so I imagine no one has done a proper count.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.