Since the widely publicised General Synod debate about the House of Bishops’ Report on marriage and same-sex relationships, there has been speculation about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for ‘radical inclusion’ and a number of bishops have called for the Church of England to be more affirming of same-sex relationships. The latter see the Church as being on a trajectory towards change. One bishop, John Wraw, has explicitly said he hopes that in time there will be full acceptance of same-sex marriages in the Church of England.
Evangelicals in the Church of England are on a different trajectory. We hope we are not insensitive to the value of intimate relationships or the needs we all feel for intimacy and life sharing. But it is both our conviction and our experience that as people who find their identity in Christ, there is great joy, fulfilment and blessing in obedience to the Word of God. In the General Synod debate, the Rev’d Sam Allberry, himself a same-sex attracted man, said ‘my primary sense of worth and fulfillment as a human being is not contingent on being romantically or sexually fulfilled, and this is liberating.’
The Church of England defines its doctrine as ‘grounded in the Holy Scriptures’ (Canon A5). It cannot sit loose to what the Bible teaches and then expect its mission to thrive. Even the latest survey evidence demonstrates that the only certain predictor of growth in the church is adherence by ministers to God’s Word (see my blog of 17th November 2016). Many advocates of change affirm their desire to be faithful to the Bible but say that it should be interpreted differently. However, there are very few Biblical commentators who would agree. Marriage is presented to us in both the Old and New Testaments as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman. Loving friendships between people of the same sex are given great value. But sexual intimacy is only ever commended in the context of marriage between a man and a woman. Outside of marriage it is revealed as contrary to God’s will and therefore sinful.
In the face of false teaching, the Apostle Paul tells Timothy both to keep his distance from it but also to continue in patient teaching (2 Tim 2:23-25 & 4:1-5). He recognizes that this may involve suffering. The time may be on us where individual congregations and parishes have to take fresh steps to show that they are not following the trajectory of others. This may well involve them in difficult decisions, unpopular actions and awkward situations. However, the doctrinal foundations of the Church of England are worth protecting. If we are clergy, we need to remember that when the Apostle Paul warned of false teachers, he didn’t urge the Ephesian elders to run away in order to avoid attack, but instead said ‘guard the flock’ (Acts 20:28-31). So we need to stand firm – continuing to teach and do the work of evangelism, continuing to turn up at Synods in order to contend for the gospel, continuing to encourage one another by meeting together, and continuing to support those who run into difficulty.
In 1877, in an essay on ‘The Lord’s Supper’, J C Ryle similarly urged evangelicals to stand firm: ‘Let us not desert our post to save trouble, and move out to please our adversaries … The good ship of the Church of England may have some rotten planks about her. The crew may, many of them, be useless and mutinous, and not trustworthy. But there are still some faithful ones among them. There is still hope for the good old craft. The Great Pilot has not yet left her. Let us therefore stick by the ship.’