Packer on leaving the Anglican Church of Canada

Dr JI Packer has given an interesting talk, entitled Global Realignment: Who We Are and Where We Stand: A Theological Perspective, to the national conference of the Anglican Network in Canada. See Packer’s outline of his talk (PDF); Chris Sugden’s report of this talk from which my quotes are taken (it is unclear whether this is an official transcript or Sugden’s notes – he was at the conference); a blogger’s incomplete notes. The “theological perspective” is in fact a defence of this Network’s decision to leave the Anglican Church of Canada and affiliate with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone (of South America).

As Packer says in his talk, he is not one to quit lightly. He persevered in the Church of England when in 1966 Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones called for evangelicals to leave. Since Packer moved to Canada in 1979 he has been a member of the Anglican Church of Canada, and, at least recently, of St John’s, Shaughnessy, Vancouver. The Rector of this church, Rev David Short, is a director of the Anglican Network in Canada and also spoke at its conference. In his Bible study on Ephesians Short had these excellent words to say, as reported by a blogger, as background to the battle within the Anglican Communion:

Evil is not just the ‘naughty things we do’ but there are real spiritual forces of wickedness. In essense it is defiance, rebellion and disbelief. JC has been raised up and sits above all power and authority, hence the strategy is now to attack the Church and the truth. Any structure that commits itself to lies becomes a medium for the principalities and powers.

In fact even now Packer does not quite say that he is leaving the Anglican Church of Canada; nor does Short. But it seems to be their intention not to remain among what they see as “Anglicans Adrift” (from Packer’s talk) and “a medium for the principalities and powers”.

I will not attempt to analyse Packer’s talk in detail. But I do want to give some personal reflections on the issues here.

I fully concur with Packer’s concerns about “liberal theology, which has become increasingly dominant in seminaries and among leaders in what we may call the Anglican Old West”. For, as Packer notes,

Liberal theology as such knows nothing about a God who uses written language to tell us things, or about the reality of sin in the human system, which makes redemption necessary and new birth urgent. Liberal theology posits, rather, a natural religiosity in man (reverance, that is, for a higher power) and a natural capacity for goodwill towards others, and sees Christianity as a force for cherishing and developing these qualities. They are to be fanned into flame and kept burning in the church, which in each generation must articulate itself by concessive dialogue with the cultural pressures, processes and prejudices that surround it. In other words, the church must ever play catch-up to the culture, taking on board whatever is the “in thing” at the moment; otherwise, so it is thought, Christianity will lose all relevance to life. The intrinsic goodness of each “in thing” is taken for granted. In following this agenda the church will inevitably leave the Bible behind at point after point, but since on this view the Bible is the word of fallible men rather than of the infallible God, leaving it behind is no great loss.

Well now; with liberal leaders thinking and teaching in these terms, a collision with conservatives – that is, with upholders of the historic biblical and Anglican faith – was bound to come. It came over gay unions, which liberals wish to bless as a form of holiness, a quasimarriage.

In other words, Packer is underlining that the real issue is not homosexuality but the abandonment of the basics of the Christian gospel for unrestricted cultural relativism. The fundamental principles of liberal and evangelical theologies have become so different that a division has become inevitable.

But I also see a serious danger of over-reaction in the response of Packer and others like him. There is a danger of seeing all “dialogue with the cultural pressures, processes and prejudices” as necessarily “concessive” rather than constructive. The church needs to have such dialogue, both so that it is not seen as irrelevant, and so that it can understand these cultural issues and respond to them constructively. This by no means implies “taking on board whatever is the “in thing” at the moment”, nor that ” The intrinsic goodness of each “in thing” is taken for granted.” But neither does it imply automatically rejecting each “in thing” as intrinsically evil. Rather, it implies a careful discernment about each cultural development, to discover whether it is good, evil or neutral in terms of morality and agreement with the Christian message.

This corresponds with the principles I outlined recently for finding a solid rock ledge on the slippery slope. To use the imagery of that post, the liberal church seems to be rushing down the slope without any concern about what is right. Some conservatives over-react; they

position themselves with pride on a supposedly solid mountain top … and condemn any shift from this position as starting on the slippery slope.

But the right position, as I argued in that post, is to recognise and stand within the

clearly defined boundary, [the] barrier across the slope defining the limits of Christian truth and stopping those who rely on the truth of the Word of God from slipping right down the slope.

So it was with some concern that I read this comment, pointed out to me by a reader, from “Don”, believed but confirmed to be Bishop Donald Harvey, moderator and bishop of the Anglican Network in Canada:

The issue of WO [women’s ordination] is seen by many as simply one of many innovations which have been embraced by the ACC and have brought us to this time and place. For many, including me, acceptance of WO raises questions concerning the true orthodoxy of our emerging church as we appear to be picking and choosing between innovations we will accept and those we will not.

This looks rather too like a retreat back to the mountain top, a blanket rejection of all of the “many innovations which have been embraced by the ACC”. I hope that the Network will not take this approach, but will carefully examine each innovation made by the Anglican Church of Canada and decide which to accept and reject, which lie within the limits of Christian truth and which do not.

In fact I think Don’s comment needs to be understood in the light of a later comment by him in the same thread:

My observation in #6, reflects the fact that WO is not accepted as being theologically sound in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and even in some Anglican dioceses here in North America (ie the Diocese of Fort Worth of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.). My observation is that we may be building a divisive issue for many and a relatively recent innovation into our church right from the get go.

Thus what Don is concerned about is not the generality of “innovations” in ACC but the division from other Christian confessions caused by women’s ordination. This is indeed a concern, but in my opinion not a reason for Anglican churches not to follow their own convictions on this matter. I note that according to this presentation the Anglican Network in Canada

will ordain women to the diaconate and presbyterate, and also recognize and protect the consciences and “careers” of those who dissent from the ordination of women.

So it seems that at least the ordination of women is one “innovation” which the Network is not rejecting, although it is also not alienating complementarians by insisting that every church accept this egalitarian position. The Network is taking no position on consecrating women bishops, but with only two bishops of its own it is not really in a position to do so.

Now I understand that some in the Network may wish to take an extreme conservative or “Reformed” position of refusing to reflect culture out of a fear of compromise, of huddling on the mountain top for fear of the slippery slope. But it seems to me from what I have read that that is not the general position of the Network and will not be imposed on its members. Instead, the Network

will encourage initiative within the bounds of doctrinal and moral orthodoxy and biblical faithfulness. Institutionally, [it] will encourage clergy and parishes to show initiative in reaching the world with the Gospel. … [It] will seek to be charitable and generous in conversation and community with the many spiritual traditions that have nurtured Anglicans in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

This “charitable and generous” orthodoxy is what the Anglican Communion needs. And so I welcome this Network and its decision to part company from the Anglican Church of Canada.

My interest in this issue is not just a long distance one, and not just because I have friends involved in this situation in Canada. I recognise that, unless our own British church leaders turn back from their current path, there may before long be a need for a similar departure from the Church of England. I hope that the group leading any such departure will show a similar spirit to the Anglican Network in Canada.

11 thoughts on “Packer on leaving the Anglican Church of Canada

  1. Well, I’m not jumping ship any time soon.

    To me the fundamental issue is our Anglican propensity to mirror the culture – and this applies to the homophobic culture in Nigeria just as much as the liberal culture in Canada. The biggest theological problem in Anglicanism worldwide, I think, is our unwillingness to be a distinct society, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and our preference for simply being a chaplain to the prevailing culture. I don’t think the Network is going to significantly change things.

    Also, as an evangelical Anglican I can’t understand why it suddenly became so important for us to agree with our bishops doctrinally. When the evangelical revival began in the eighteenth century in England lots of the bishops were deists, and most of them were political time-servers who mainly lived in London and spent their days at the house of Lords. Evangelicals have a long history of not having the official denomination on their side. (And in the past this has led them to make some compromises – for instance, the acceptance of indiscriminate infant baptism, which is in my view a far more significant theological innovation than same-sex blessings). This does not seem to have stopped them from preaching the gospel within the Anglican church and building networks with evangelicals in other denominations.

    Anyway, this Canadian Anglican is not going anywhere else any time soon. And everyone who leaves and joins the Network is one less to stay and contend for the faith in our own church.

  2. I’m not surprised to get quick responses from my Canadian readers.

    Kevin, are you personally involved in this, or in a church which is? You don’t have to answer if you prefer not to.

    Tim, your first paragraph sounds much the same as Packer would say. The rhetoric of the Network makes it sound like they really want to be “a distinct society, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” and not “a chaplain to the prevailing culture”. But you may know more than me about whether that can ever be a reality on the ground. On the other hand, I don’t see any realistic chance of the continuing Anglican Church in Canada becoming what you want it to be. And I am sure that there are more issues involved than simple doctrinal disagreements with bishops.

    So, it seems to me, you have to go it alone, in the denomination if you prefer but not really of it, or maybe find your own network of like-minded Anabaptist Anglicans. I can only hope and pray that you will have success. And I regret that the split between yourself and many of your fellow evangelicals will make things harder rather than easier for both sides. We may well be facing similar issues here in England in the next year or so, so I feel the pain of the situation.

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  4. In truth, sad as the necessity is, these splits are long overdue.
    They are made worse by being so drawn out. That it would come to this has been apparent for many years.
    Saying this gives me no joy and I would that it were otherwise, nonetheless, the compromises required to even remotely stand a chance of keeping it together would destroy it completely.

  5. I’m in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), which is in full communion with the Anglican Church of Canada. Though I’m not personally involved, I know people who are. Actually, the ELCIC is discussing the very same issue and came very close the past two summers of passing “same-sex blessing.” This issue has been very divisive and I can foresee it splitting both churches in the future.

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