As I wearily return from another meeting (the third this year!) of the Church of England’s governing body, General Synod, I’m preparing to answer two questions: what’s going on in the Church of England, and what are you doing about it?
How will I be responding?
1. What’s going on in the Church of England?
There’s total chaos
A carefully managed six year project called Living in Love and Faith aimed at scoping the areas of agreement and disagreement on sex, marriage and relationships exposed clearly irreconcilable divisions when it comes to whether the Church of England approves of any sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage.
In response the bishops quickly pushed some controversial proposals under the title Prayers of Love and Faith through General Synod back in February. The theological and legal foundations of these were questioned at the time and many have since been exposed as shaky. Further pastoral guidelines and reassurances were promised, but haven’t been forthcoming. As a result, some of the changes were reversed, others delayed, and novel reasons found to justify some more. At the extra General Synod meeting this week there was a last minute change to allow the prayers to be used experimentally in stand-alone services for gay couples – despite a recent undertaking to take them through a formal two-year decision-making process, with proper legal guarantees. No-one knows what might happen next.
There’s damaging error
At the heart of everything is the damaging error that it’s okay to reject Jesus’ teaching that marriage is for one man and one woman, and that sex is for marriage (Matthew 19:1-6) The rejection of this foundational biblical teaching (Genesis 2:24) has always hurt women and children most, but negatively impacts us all. Driving such rejection is often the cruel cultural misunderstanding that sex is necessary for a fulfilled life, when the lives of many single people down the centuries (Jesus included) have told a much better story.
A two-thirds majority of the Church of England’s senior bishops are now seeming to agree with our culture that marriage is not just for one man and one woman, and that sex is not just for marriage. Many perhaps hope that this will help us better connect with our culture, when sadly all the historical and contemporary evidence shows us that churches that go with cultural sexual ethics soon disappear.
There’s real courage
The pressure on the rest of the bishops, and parts of the church that still want to lovingly preach and practice Jesus’ teaching has been immense. But, by God’s grace, there are a group of dissenting bishops courageously going against the flow by simply wanting to maintain the church’s current official teaching (that sex is still for the marriage of one man and one woman). A new alliance of conservative and charismatic evangelicals and traditional Anglo-Catholics has been formed to resist the changes, alongside existing bodies like the CEEC (Church of England Evangelical Council).
These brave women and men are tragically not just having to contend with false teaching but a simple lack of good governance. Decisions have not followed established processes, and there has been a lack of transparency when it comes to legal advice (amongst other things).
2. What are you doing about it?
Many fellow evangelicals want to know how I can possibly stay in the Church of England – especially as a gay man that believes that sex is just for heterosexual marriage. I’m:
Contending for the Church of England – not surrendering it to others
Giving up and/ or leaving would feel like handing over our national church to error: a church whose foundational documents and liturgy are beautifully biblical in content, a church that we believe still has the potential to reach every part of our nation through the parish system, a church that God has consistently used and blessed in the past – even through times of false teaching and living by its leaders. The apostle Paul urges Timothy to stay and fight false teaching in the church in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3) – not leave the church to the false teachers. In church history, people like Martin Luther, John Wesley and, more recently, JI Packer, were effectively excluded by existing denominations – they didn’t leave of their own accord. This may, of course, happen to us in the future, but does not yet feel inevitable. Interestingly some of the people that are most supportive of people like me staying and fighting are friends in other denominations who don’t want the Church of England to be lost to orthodoxy.
So, for now, I’m staying put and, wearily, putting the next General Synod date in my diary.
Ed Shaw is Co-Chair of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and a member of the General Synod of the Church of England. He’s is the Lay Pastor of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol and the Ministry Director of www.livingout.org.
This article was first published by Premier Christianity and can be viewed here