Andrew Atherstone writes: Evangelical friends have challenged me to give an account for my participation in the Living in Love and Faith project (LLF), which is currently advising the House of Bishops on ‘human identity, sexuality and marriage’. After 18 months spent discussing academic papers in four work streams (Bible, Doctrine, History, Science), the report drafting has begun in earnest during 2019, for publication around the time of the Lambeth Conference in 2020. There are approximately 35 consultants to the project, including a number of evangelicals. But is participation in this project consistent with evangelical profession? Are the evangelical consultants merely pawns in someone else’s game, recruited to provide window-dressing to a ‘revisionist’ agenda? To maintain our integrity, should we resign and wash our hands of the whole affair?
The Ryle Model
One of the best models of evangelical engagement in the Church of England is John Charles Ryle (1816-1900), a parish clergyman in Norwich diocese who became the first Bishop of Liverpool. As a prodigious tract writer and popular platform speaker, one striking feature of Ryle’s ministry was his willingness to engage theologically in intra-Anglican dialogue. He regularly attended the Church Congress, an annual event launched in the 1860s at which Anglicans across the whole theological spectrum addressed the hot topics of the day. Many evangelicals refused to go, believing the Church Congress movement to be a vehicle for doctrinal compromise, but Ryle insisted that evangelicals should be there to speak up, articulately and winsomely, for biblical Christianity. To decline the invitation, he suggested, was not proof of doctrinal purity but of timidity and doctrinal surrender.
Because of his participation on the Congress platform, Ryle was assailed by his fellow evangelicals with many rude epithets. They called him a ‘neo-evangelical’, a weak compromiser, a trimmer, and a broken bugle which gave an uncertain sound. They suggested his complicity in these Anglican dialogues was incompatible with his famous books in praise of the Reformers, Puritans, and evangelical revivalists. But Ryle stuck to his guns. He explained that attending Congresses was not a pleasure but an evangelical duty. How else would the evangelical position be heard? Why let error reign unchallenged when there was an opportunity to speak for the truth? ‘If we refuse to take part in them’, he pleaded, ‘we shall throw them into the hands of other Schools of Thought, and our own cause will suffer damage.’ Why beat a retreat, and lower the flag, and jump ship – some of his favourite militaristic metaphors – when all was not lost? Nor did Ryle think it right ‘to use rough and severe language towards men with whom we differ, and to turn a Congress platform into a bear-garden’. He delivered clear evangelical position papers, but was determined to treat his fellow Anglicans ‘with civility, courtesy, and respect, even when I cannot agree with them’. Evangelical critics who claimed he had forgotten his evangelical principles were ‘utterly, entirely, wholly, and completely mistaken’ (The Record, 1877-78).
I confess to being an avid Ryle fan. His books are some of the most refreshing, sparkling, invigorating expositions of Anglican evangelical theology ever written. And his desire to engage patiently and rigorously with the whole Church of England, rather than only with likeminded friends, has a great deal to commend it.
Those who engage in Anglican councils and commissions are obliged to seek theological consensus and a common mind. That itself is a virtue. The New Testament frequently urges us to ‘be of one mind’ (2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Peter 3:8) and theological dialogue is one way in which we take seriously that apostolic injunction. Of course there can be intense institutional pressure to minimize differences, or to hide behind ambiguous statements, in order to present a united façade. Sometimes, where no consensus is possible, it is necessary to break ranks and dissent against the majority. Dissent is troublesome to Church authorities who prefer to smooth over divisions, but is a helpful reminder that we are not yet of one mind.
Last autumn I was brought to the brink of resignation from the LLF process. It is a fragile project, chasing a moving target and the parameters continue to evolve. But one of the chief unresolved tensions is between the priorities of LLF and the Pastoral Advisory Group (PAG); both were set up in parallel by the Archbishops, though with different objectives which sometimes clash. LLF’s remit is to examine Anglican doctrine in the light of pressing pastoral concerns; PAG’s remit it to provide pastoral guidance to meet those concerns without changing Anglican doctrine. There is an inherent ambiguity here. One pressing question is whether the Church of England should offer public prayers to celebrate same-sex marriages and civil partnerships. Is that a pastoral question or a doctrinal question? Clergy across the country have taken the law into their own hands by constructing local liturgy, often with the tacit or even explicit approval of their bishops. Some more brazen diocesan bishops have written their own liturgical guidance, which is arguably illegal, and others are eager to follow suit. My own bishops in the Diocese of Oxford announced in a recent Ad Clerum that if PAG is too slow in producing liturgical resources, they may issue their own liturgical reflections ‘for the benefit of the diocese’ in the short term. These calls continue to grow in their clamour. Wouldn’t it be best, some ask, for PAG to produce nationally approved liturgical guidance, to be signed off by the House of Bishops?
Such liturgical guidelines from the House of Bishops would not only derail the entire LLF process, but would rupture the Church of England’s common life. Thankfully PAG pulled back after wrestling with ‘the very real tensions between doctrine, liturgy and pastoral practice’ (GS Misc 1200). Indeed the legal advice summarized in GS Misc 2055 is clear that every form of service ‘shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’ (Canon B5). Such prayers would indicate a departure in essential doctrine. But PAG’s disappointment at this limitation of their remit is palpable in their ‘Living Letter’ read to General Synod in February 2019:
A key task with which we’ve been entrusted is to produce pastoral resources ‘consistent with the current doctrine and ecclesiastical laws of the Church of England’. In producing the Pastoral Principles we’ve become highly sensitized to the fact than in offering almost any resources we could be accused of seeking to affect teaching and doctrine. And it’s for this reason therefore that the group does not intend to venture into the realm of offering guidelines and resources for public prayer. Responsibility for this correctly lies elsewhere in the Church. This has been a difficult realization for us, because people are making pastoral requests for prayer. We have clearly heard this. Prayer means standing alongside people in often complex and sometimes impossible situations, and offering our concern for them to God. It is inherently costly, and risky, and utterly in line with the ministry of Jesus.
All would agree that these are complex questions of the deepest pastoral importance. But liturgy and doctrine are inextricably linked (lex orandi, lex credendi). The furore over the House of Bishops’ guidance on public prayer to celebrate gender transition is a mere pothole in a bumpy road, compared to the car crash we would now be facing if the House of Bishops had issued guidance on public prayer to celebrate same-sex unions. If evangelicals absented themselves from these painful discussions, where would we be? Public statements of dissent are a necessary final resort, but dissent expressed privately in commissions and committees can sometimes be effective in restraining serious missteps before they are taken.
A Word of Hope
Living in Love and Faith picks up two parts of the Pauline trio – faith, hope, love (1 Corinthians 13:13) – but as Dr Eeva John (LLF enabling officer) told General Synod, ‘hope’ is the word that ‘underpins the whole of LLF process’ and will be stamped as a watermark on every page of the resources. She declared:
The Living in Love and Faith resources are about creating a space for us the Church to exercise this discipline of hope in a Church and a world that too easily resorts to cynicism, division, and polarization. After all, our hope is not in a process, not even in scholarly knowledge, not even in bishops or archbishops. Our hope is in Christ, who holds out his arms on the cross, to hold us together in love and faith, and in so doing transform us, his Church, into his own likeness.
Hope for the future is not naïve optimism. There are plenty of obvious reasons to feel despondent about our current Anglican confusions, and the lessons of history are not encouraging. But hope remains. My hopes for the LLF project can be summarized under three headings: Listening and Learning; Gracious Engagement; Clarity and Coherence.
(a) Listening and Learning
My first hope is that the LLF project will enable deep learning across the whole Church. And we don’t learn if we don’t listen. First and foremost we must listen to the voice of God in Scripture, digging deeply into God’s Word and reading it with great care and attention. We must remove our modern Western spectacles and seek help in our Bible interpretation from the whole Church, down the centuries and across the world (including, for example, our sisters and brothers in the Global South). Scripture is always primary in healthy Anglican theology, and is embedded in the first learning outcome for the LLF resources: to ‘be inspired by Scripture’s glorious and joyful vision of God’s intention for human life’. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if LLF helped us to understand the Bible better, to live under its supreme authority, to embrace its beautiful pattern of holiness, and to proclaim the gospel more effectively? That is my greatest hope for the project.
But it is also imperative that we learn from real life experiences. Another LLF learning outcome is that we will ‘hear the voices and encounter the experiences of people who would otherwise have been invisible to us’. How can we hear if we do not listen? John Stott (1921-2011), like John Ryle, is an excellent model of evangelical engagement in the Church of England. His teaching on ‘double listening’ is especially helpful in this context. In The Contemporary Christian (1992), Stott argues that it is not possible to know how best to respond to those who challenge classic Christian teaching ‘until we have listened to them and struggled to understand and feel the appeal of their arguments’. He defines double listening as…
…the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and Christian mission.
Of course we do not give equal weight to these voices, as Stott explains:
I am not suggesting that we should listen to God and to our fellow human beings in the same way or with the same degree of deference. We listen to the Word with humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to believe and obey it, but to sympathize with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it.
The new ‘Pastoral Principles for Living Well Together’, published by PAG, deserve thoughtful theological critique. But their challenge to the six sins of Prejudice, Silence, Ignorance, Fear, Hypocrisy, and the Abuse of Power, also deserves serious personal reflection, self-examination, and repentance. Careful listening and learning, as fostered by the LLF project, is a step in the right direction to rooting out these iniquities in our own lives. That is cause for hope.
(b) Gracious Engagement
My second hope is that LLF will model godly graciousness in our debates. Patient engagement helps to change the tone of our conversation, by dialing down the rhetoric. Some evangelical cynics suggest that LLF is a Machiavellian attempt by the House of Bishops to soften us up before they plan to introduce doctrinal change after 2020. But perhaps our attitudes to one another do need to be softened up? The modern Church of England is often guilty of soft-headedness and hard-heartedness, which is the wrong way round. We need more steel in our thinking – indeed General Synod is allergic to serious theological endeavor, a symptom of wider Anglican malaise. But we need far more generosity and grace in our loving. The world watches in disgust as Anglicans throw rocks at each other from all sides. Any initiative or statement from outside our own small party is greeted with a hermeneutic of suspicion, interpreted in the worst possible light, and destroyed with snide abuse. And hectoring online commentary quickly descends to the level of the gutter. Evangelicals, sadly, are not immune from these sins. ‘Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near’ (Philippians 4:5).
‘Good disagreement’ is a redundant, ambiguous phrase which has been stretched to fit an increasingly broad lexical range, including as a synonym for Anglican pluralism (see Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard, Good Disagreement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church, 2015). We need a moratorium on the language of ‘good disagreement’, which is now used to cover a multitude of theological indiscretions, a shorthand for visible-unity-at-any-cost. Disagreement, in and of itself, can never be ‘good’. But where divisions remain unresolved, ‘gracious disagreement’ is a mercy. The alternative is ‘vicious disagreement’, which currently typifies much of our political and ecclesial life. The LLF process seeks to model disagreeing with grace not violence, and that is cause for hope.
(c) Clarity and Coherence
My third hope is that LLF will help the Church of England to clarify its doctrinal position on marriage and sexuality. We should be unafraid of these difficult debates because it is good for Anglican teaching to be tested and tried at the bar of Scripture in the light of pressing contemporary questions. A fog has descended upon us in recent years. We need to clarify the issues at stake. What precisely are our disagreements, and what lies behind them? How do different anthropologies spring from different understandings of the gospel? Careless caricatures must be replaced by accurate detailed analysis, and woolly thinking by hard intellectual labour. Instead of vanquishing straw-men we need to wrestle with the best and strongest alternative viewpoints. And in clarifying our disagreements we may even discover some surprising areas of agreement which we don’t expect. There are too many Anglican Don Quixotes who spend their energies tilting at windmills.
But LLF must do more than simply clear the fog and provide a map of the terrain. It also needs to provide tools for the Church to weigh the various positions: which are consistent with the teaching of Scripture, and life-giving for Christian disciples, and which are not? Some of the current viewpoints on human identity, sexuality, and marriage are incompatible and cannot be held together in the Church. For LLF merely to produce a catalogue of views side by side, as if all are acceptable and as if bona fide Anglicans can simply take their pick, would be a recipe for the collapse of the Church of England. We need the House of Bishops to promote theological coherence, not destructive moral pluralism. As Eeva John reassured General Synod in February 2019, the LLF project explicitly eschews ‘a post-modern libertarianism, where anything and everything goes’, as if ‘different views and behaviours don’t really matter as long as we love each other’. But any map needs boundaries, to show which views are compatible with historic Anglicanism, and which are not.
Clarity and coherence lead to renewed confidence. If the LLF process helps the Church of England to grow in confidence in God and the gospel, and to proclaim the good news of redemption through Christ with compassion and conviction, that really would be cause for hope. And while hope remains, evangelicals should stay at the table.
Andrew Atherstone is Latimer research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, The Faith and Order Commission, and the Liturgical Commission.
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