June 27, 2013

Church of England to Consider Female Bishops, Blessing Gay Unions: What Would Wesley Do?

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By Brian Miller @briankenmiller

In the preface to the Book of Common Prayer Thomas Cranmer observed that, “There was never anything by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted.”

Unfortunately, the sentiment seems to be ringing true even for the Church that Cranmer helped institute, the Church of England. The General Synod, which will meet on July 5, is largely expected to pass legislation that will allow the consecration of women Bishops. The Synod’s general secretary, William Fittall, described the failed attempt to pass the legislation at the Synod’s previous meeting as a “train wreck.” He has further stated that, “One train crash is extremely bad; two would be quite unacceptable.”

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has additionally expressed his belief that the Church should support civil unions, which is another issue that is expected to be brought for debate at the General Synod.

The drastic changes on issues that until recently were considered fundamental leaves orthodox believers, especially those who consider themselves Anglican, pondering how to react, and torn between their loyalties to the Church visible and invisible. Should they remain associated with such an institution, or secede to form a new Church? Fortunately, this is not the first time in history that men have struggled with the question, and the Anglican tradition provides examples of many great men who wrestled with their own church and managed to leave remarkable theological legacies as a witness to those of us who follow in their steps.

While visiting various churches across England, the legal theorist William Blackstone once remarked that he “did not hear a single discourse which had more Christianity in it than the writings of Cicero.” Incidentally, this was around the time John Wesley began his ministry.

Wesley is of course, remembered as the theological father of the Methodist church. However, Wesley died considering himself to still be a member of the Church of England. In fact, on the day he delivered his first outdoor sermon, Wesley recorded in his journal his hesitancy to preach outside of a church building, as he feared true salvation could not be found outside of the established Church. Wesley supplied many reasons for remaining in the Church, and among those he listed the importance of unity, to ensure that unbelievers would not be turned away from the Gospel because of inner strife.

However, perhaps most interestingly, Wesley mentions the mission of the Christian. He claims the first duty of the Christian minister in England is “to the lost Sheep of the Church of England.” Wesley saw the mission field not just as something across the ocean, but also as beginning right at home in his own Church.

The Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton has described the Church of England as “a church which takes its historical nature seriously, acknowledging that its duty is less to spread the gospel among mankind than to sanctify a specific community.” Indeed, the Anglican Church’s link with the English community is deep, and its influence is impossible to deny even in the present. The Book of Common Prayer and The King James Bible, for instance, have both had an immeasurable impact upon the English language and culture. The Church is undoubtedly an English Church.

None of this is to discount the command of the Great Commission, but on the contrary, to focus and therefore further it. Scruton is simply echoing John Wesley, who said:

“We look upon England as that Part of the World, and the Church as that Part of England, to which all we who are born and have been brought up therein, owe our first and chief Regard. We feel in ourselves a strong Storgh, a Kind of Natural Affection for our Country, which we apprehend Christianity was never designed either to root out or to impair. We have a more peculiar Concern for our Brethren, for that Part of our Countrymen , to whom we have been joined from our Youth up, by Ties of a Religious as well as a Civil Nature.”

This of course, also leads to the question of what is a believer to do when confronted with a Church that is linked to an ever increasingly secular state. The House of Bishops of the General Synod has noted that “Parliament is impatient” in regards to the issue of women’s ordination, and that the longer the Church delays in enacting the legislation, the greater the risk that Parliament will intervene.

Faced with such an increasingly hostile government, there will no doubt be many orthodox Anglicans who will become uncomfortable belonging to a Church linked to the state at all. T.S. Eliot, when confronting fellow Christians who held just those sentiments, cautioned that “we must pause to reflect that a Church, once disestablished, cannot easily be reestablished, and that the very act of disestablishment separates it more definitely and irrevocably from the life of the nation than if it had never been established.”

Eliot shared Wesley’s and Scruton’s belief that the church should minister to a specific community, and that it should endeavor to comprehend the whole of that community. If the state is becoming increasingly secular, then it now more than ever needs the influence of the Church. If the Church is becoming increasingly liberal, then it now more than ever needs the influence of the orthodox. If the Church of England will not minister to England, then who will?

I wish to finally give the example of the late Rev. John Stott. In 1966, Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones gave a speech to the National Assembly of Evangelicals in which he seemed to call on ministers to leave the “mixed” denominations in favor of forming free evangelical churches in communion with one other. The Rev. John Stott argued against this sentiment by saying “I believe that history is against Dr. Jones in that others have tried to do this very thing. I believe that Scripture is against him in that the remnant was within the Church and not outside it.”

Years later, Rev. Stott met the Dr. for a friendly visit, and their exchange is reported to have included a discussion on their debate from years past. John Stott said to the Dr., “you give the impression that you think we evangelical Anglicans are unprincipled in our commitment to the Church of England. You use expressions like ‘mixed denomination’ and ‘comprehensive church’ as if we gloried in this. Speaking for myself, I’m first and foremost an evangelical.”

Dr. Lloyd-Jones followed by asking, “Would you ever leave the Church of England?” To which Stott replied, “Yes indeed, I could envisage such a situation, if the church itself compromised officially one of the central doctrines of the faith. I’m not committed to the Church of England irrevocably.”

Many today will likely see the approval of gay-unions and the consecration of female bishops as such a central tenant of the faith. Whether it is an error large enough to justify secession, I confess I do not know. I have endeavored merely to show that there are many Anglicans of immense stature who have grappled with the question of secession. In doing so, they serve as a light and guide to those facing the same question today, and almost uniformly remind us to ask ourselves whom it is we are to minister to.

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(Brian Miller is a student at George Mason University Law School.)