why do [Thompson and those who think like him] remain in the Anglican Communion? Why do you, John? Why do I?
In an apparent response John did not give a straight answer, for Thompson or for himself, but he did quote from an article by Andrew Goddard implying that when an institutional church starts to bless homosexual unions a line has been crossed such that those who remain faithful to biblical Christianity are right to leave that church. That is a clear position which I would not dispute, except to say (as I do in more detail below) that personally I would consider denial of core doctrines such as the Resurrection to be a better marker of that boundary line than anything to do with homosexuality.
But I posed the question about myself as well. And of course I am the only one who can answer this. Before I do so, I need to give some background about myself.
I have been an Anglican all my life. I was christened as a young baby. As a child I attended church regularly with my parents. I was confirmed by Archbishop Michael Ramsey in Canterbury Cathedral. I attended a church youth group, of a not very spiritual kind. I joined a church electoral roll when I first reached the age when I could, and have remained on one ever since, for more than 35 years. I could boast the Anglican equivalent of Philippians 3:5.
But all of that was before I properly became a Christian. I was introduced to and accepted for myself biblical Christianity through my fellow students and others who were mostly not Anglican by background. While I have generally continued to attend Church of England services, most of my formative experiences through the years since then have been through non-denominational groups and through individuals of many different Christian backgrounds. A few years after becoming a Christian I was baptised by immersion, with the knowledge and tacit approval of my Anglican church leaders.
As a consequence of this varied background I have never, since I first truly became a Christian, considered myself committed to the Church of England as an institution, or to its particular theological approach or model of the church.
I don’t go quite as far as Paul in calling my religious background “garbage” (actually more like “dung” or even “s**t” in the original), as in Philippians 3:8, because some of it was helpful, such as the prayer of a godly man in Canterbury Cathedral that I would be filled with the Holy Spirit. But I certainly don’t want to put any kind of trust in this background, and I reject any part of it which does not help me to “gain Christ and be found in him”.
Only once have I formally joined a non-Anglican church, and then for only about a year, when I was living in High Wycombe and joined the King’s Church there. I left that church when I moved back to Chelmsford in 2003. I was initially reluctant to return to Meadgate Church, the Anglican church of which I had been a member since 1985, because of my serious concerns about the Church of England.
When I first joined Meadgate Church it was officially an “ecumenical experiment”, set up by the Church of England parish in partnership with some individual Christians from different backgrounds. At some stage the church formally lost that special status, but a tacit agreement remained that it was free to diverge to some extent from normal Anglican practices. To this day, at least on Sunday mornings, there is rather little Anglican character to the services, with a cut-down liturgy in an otherwise informal contemporary setting. We have an excellent Anglican vicar who is happy with this arrangement, while remaining personally committed to the Church of England.
In 2003, and even more so now, I would not have been prepared to join a regular Church of England church, at least if there was a reasonable alternative available. It is only because of the special character of Meadgate Church that I felt free to return to it and play a full part in its life. However, I do not really identify myself as an Anglican. Personally I would not hesitate to formally leave the Church of England, if there was a good reason to do so, because I feel almost no loyalty to it as an institution. The loyalty I do feel is to Meadgate Church, and it is because of that loyalty that I remain formally an Anglican.
So what would make me leave the Church of England?
Firstly, there might be purely personal or local reasons. If I were to move to another city (not my current intention) and look for a new church, it would probably not be an Anglican one. Also if the character of my current church were to change so seriously that I felt the need to move (unlikely while our current vicar stays) I would probably not look first for another Anglican church.
More relevant here are broader changes, at the diocesan, national or international level, which might prompt me to leave the Church of England. These would not necessarily require me to leave Meadgate Church, as I could join the substantial minority of the congregation who do not consider themselves Anglican and are not on the electoral roll. In fact this step would largely be a symbolic one, although it might disqualify me from certain offices at Meadgate Church which I could otherwise consider. But what issues might prompt me to take such a step? Here I can only give provisional answers, as I don’t want to commit myself in advance concerning situations which may develop in ways which I cannot now foresee.
I think I would have to agree with Mark Thompson that if the official teaching of the Church of England became that homosexual relationships were fully valid and equivalent to heterosexual ones, I would have to conclude that the institution is so apostate that I should leave it.
But for me that is by no means the primary indication of such apostasy. The gradual acceptance of homosexual practice by more and more Anglicans is only a symptom of a gradual abandonment of the gospel message and the doctrines of the church, based on the Bible and summarised in the creeds and the Thirty-Nine Articles. This abandonment is of course presented as reinterpretation, a process which Mark Thompson provocatively traced back to the pioneering Anglo-Catholic, and later defector to Rome, John Henry Newman; Thompson quotes concerning Newman:
whether he intended to or not, he taught us to lie.
And it is abandonment of the gospel message of repentance and faith, and of the core doctrines of the faith such as the atoning death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, which I would take as the real signs of apostasy, that the Church of England had become an institution which I needed to leave. And so far, despite the public doubts of some bishops, the church remains committed to these core doctrines, accepting a rather wide range of interpretations but not complete abandonment; and whereas not all present quite the same gospel there is at least an openness to good biblical preaching of it.
It is in fact unlikely that the Church of England or the Anglican Communion will take a formal decision in the near future to fully accept homosexual relationships, still less to change its creeds and Articles. More likely, according to the kind of scenario outlined here and barring divine intervention to save the denomination or a mass movement of ordinary Anglicans taking a stand against the continuing drift, to a gradually increasing extent the creeds and Articles, and the formal condemnations of homosexuality, will simply be ignored, as they already often are in the Episcopal Church in the USA. The inevitable result, as the church abandons its distinctive message and God’s blessing is gradually removed from it, will be its gradual decline into insignificance.
The question really is how many conservative leaders will go down with this sinking ship and how many will leave. When should they leave? When should I leave? I cannot give a clear answer.
For me, barring an unexpected formal change of the church’s doctrine, I think it would have to come back to the local situation. As long as the local church of which I am a part is permitted to continue its work of presenting the biblical faith without serious hindrance from the wider church, it should remain part of that wider church and I should remain within it. If a time comes, as it very likely will, when the wider church no longer allows this congregation to remain faithful to its gospel calling, that will be the time to leave. In that case I would hope that the local church as a whole would be prepared to make the painful decision to separate from the Church of England, as several Anglican churches in the USA and Canada have separated from their national churches, and I would leave with it. If, however, the local church chose to compromise rather than separate, I might be forced to leave as an individual, or as one of a minority group within the congregation.
Writing this has helped me to clarify my own position. I hope these mostly personal thoughts might be helpful to others, including some, perhaps in North America, for whom a decision of this kind is already pressing.