Can there be ‘good disagreement’ in the Church of England?

11 March 2021

The Wilberforce Academy’s Ben John reflects on the recent Jesmond Conference, a conference for Anglicans which aims to ‘stimulate discussion’ on British society through a Biblical lens.

The theme of this year’s Jesmond Conference was “Good Disagreement?” in light of the Living in Love and Faith resources published by the Church of England. David Holloway, Vicar at Jesmond Parish Church, gave four short talks detailing different considerations we need to understand the present crisis and how to respond. Given my engagement with the Living in Love and Faith trailer and the backlash I received, I was excited to attend.

Contending for the faith

Jonathan Pryke grounded the conference with two Bible readings, the first looking at Ezra 9-10 as an Old Testament case study in contending for the faith. He emphasised the need for us to understand the seriousness of the situation in church and society, to be people who tremble at the words of the Living God, and who contend humbly but boldly.

The second Bible reading looked at 1 Corinthians 5 and the what/why/who/how of church discipline. This talk almost seemed alien for the Church of England, where church discipline is largely non-existent.

‘Soft totalitarianism’?

In David Holloway’s first session, ‘The seriousness of the situation in society and in the church,’ he drew from Rod Dreher’s recent book Live not by lies, and the diagnosis of the threat of “soft totalitarianism” in the West today. Holloway noted how this was manifesting itself with the push to ban so-called conversion therapy (i.e. pastoral support for those with unwanted same sex desires). Interestingly, this came on the same day that there was a debate in Parliament triggered by a petition to criminalise the practice.

Society’s sexual confusion

In his second session, Holloway gave a helpful trace of the ideological roots behind Living in Love and Faith and the sexual confusion seen in society, arguing well that it is a modern form of paganism, and also how Scripture has been devalued by the overvaluing of reason, and absence of a theology of “tradition”.

Good and bad disagreement

In his third session he looked at the question of what the Bible teaches about good disagreement, bad disagreement and discipline. We looked at John 17 and the need for unity, but not unity at any cost. He reaffirmed the Church of England’s formal position, as stated in Issues in Human Sexuality that “… there is in Scripture an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the development of men and women as sexual beings; sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable” (Issues in Human Sexuality; 2:29). We are unlikely to hear these words today.

How should we respond?

In his final session ‘How should we respond?’ Holloway made the case, to use language from Business and leadership consultant Robert E Quinn, for “Deep Change”. He said, “this solution requires someone who faces the facts, is inside the organisation, is willing to risk his job and to break some rules [not laws] that are strangling the organization and who ‘builds the bridge as he walks on it’.”

There were two key things we can do: call our leaders to account to what they have vowed to do. The General Synod in November 1987, in the Higton Debate, voted to affirm that “homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion.” This is what Bishops should be doing!

Holloway emphasised that we should be prepared when Bishops refuse to do this, and what we are now seeing is the active promotion of homosexuality by some Bishops, to go into impaired communion noting that Jesmond Parish Church has been in impaired communion for around 20 years, given the teaching and promotion of liberalism by the last two Bishops of Newcastle. St Helens Bishopsgate have announced something similar recently. Whilst I am sympathetic to this strategy, it needs many more evangelicals willing to take this public stand.

There may be some Bishops that opposed this, but the guidance published by the House of Bishops in 2018 where they said that churches could use the re-affirmation of baptismal vows liturgy to celebrate someone’s transition is clearly false teaching. Over 2,000 evangelical Anglican leaders signed a letter expressing concerns about the guidance, but there appeared to be little meaningful outcomes or action taken. Bishops promoting transgenderism – which is now policy of the Church of England and the position of the two Archbishops – should be met with condemnation and, if met with no repentance, impaired communion.

I am supportive of those who wish to work for “deep change” in the Church of England, but this requires a commitment to faithfulness and visible disunity with those who promote error. Should we presume on God to bless our ministry, however faithful, if we partner with agents of Satan? One area that could have been addressed was also the question of succession and longevity. Bishops license ministers, churches cannot appoint their own Vicar or Rector, this was the key reason for Melvin Tinker and the congregation at St John Newland to leave the Church of England to plant separate churches, because the Archbishop of York would have been able to appoint the successor. Whilst Bishops would be unlikely to appoint outright liberals into evangelical churches, over time they would seek to appoint those who are willing to have visible unity. Impaired communion therefore has a limited lifespan, what do churches do in these situations when their Minister is coming to retirement?

The Jesmond Conference was a challenging and interesting conference wrestling with the various questions of how we are respond to the challenges in society and in the church. The small group discussion times were helpful in thinking through practically what we can do in our own circles and churches. We must pray for grace, wisdom and courage as we seek to serve God faithfully where he has called us and “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

You can watch the talks here.

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