Over the last five years, the Church of England has been on a journey of discernment and decision-making around the issues of sex, relationships and gender, which has been titled “Living in Love and Faith”. In 2020, the House of Bishops published the “Living in Love and Faith” (LLF) book- a nearly 500-page document that lays out, fairly neutrally, the various positions Christians in the Church of England hold on issues relating to sex and relationships. Over the subsequent 2 years, the leadership of the Church of England have engaged in a range of meetings, consultations and “listening exercises”. On 20th January 2023, this “LLF journey” culminated in an 18-page statement from the Bishops of the Church of England, setting out their position on sex and relationships that they are going to propose to General Synod this week.
The Bishops’ statement has caused uproar amongst evangelical Christians inside, and associated with, the Church of England. This is primarily because the Bishops’ statement overturns several key established teachings of the Church of England.
Although the statement explicitly does not redefine biblical marriage, which it maintains as between one man and one woman, it does however express a new accommodation of same-sex relationships within legitimate Christian discipleship. As the statement says: “We commit ourselves – and urge the churches in our care – to welcome same-sex couples unreservedly and joyfully.” The statement is then supplemented with draft prayers and liturgies that are design to “offer clergy a variety of flexible ways to affirm and celebrate same-sex couples in church”.
In addition, the statement also contained a somewhat unexpected declaration about sex outside of marriage. Here is the full quotation from the Bishops’ statement:
“Another question arises regarding sexual intimacy in relationships. The Prayers of Love and Faith do not explicitly refer to sexual intimacy. They leave open the possibility that some may wish to enter into a covenanted friendship that does not involve sexual intimacy, while for others – as in the case of most (but not all) opposite-sex couples coming to be married in the church today – their relationship has been sexually active before they come to take part in a service of dedication, thanksgiving or blessing. How the Church responds to this reality in a way that continues to encourage holiness in holding faithfulness and commitment together with sexual intimacy is another area where convictions among us differ, and where it is important to create a generous space for one another’s consciences.”
Although it is not explicitly stated, the comparison of extra-marital sex within homosexual relationships, with pre-marital sex within heterosexual relationships, appears to imply that both are legitimate expressions of relational intimacy. In fact, the statement describes the matter of extra-marital sex as one of “conscience”. This again overturns established Church of England teaching that sex should only be contained within marriage.
From pulpits to podcasts, many evangelical church leaders are now passionately expressing their disagreements, frustrations and laments over the Bishops’ statement. This blog is not going to go over this ground. Rather, I want to explore what happens now.
The Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) has released a statement in response to the Bishops’ proclamation, proposing “a permanent structural rearrangement resulting in visible differentiation” between those holding different views on sex and relationships. The details of this proposed restructuring are yet to delineated. However I assume it will involve the formation of a new independent group of evangelical churches within the Church of England, that are in some way exempt from some of the Bishops’ authority.
In addition this week, All Souls Langham Place- one of the biggest evangelical churches in the Church of England- made the bold public gesture of pausing its Common Fund payments to the Church of England. In a video for CEEC, Rector of All Souls Charlie Skrine stated that he is willing to “take the kind of actions that will disrupt life in the diocese until bishops are able to come with a solution that gives us what we need”.
How the Bishops, Synod and church leaders are going to respond to these statements and actions is still to be seen. It is difficult to predict what the next few months hold for the Church of England. However, I suspect we will see the emergence of a growing voice within evangelical circles that advocates for full separation from the Church of England.
We saw a similar debate play out amongst Anglicans north of the border in 2015, when the Scottish Episcopal Church became the first major church denomination in the UK to formally vote to bless gay marriages. Following this announcement, there was a large exodus of evangelical churches across Scotland out of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Although it is worth mentioning here that the situation in England is slightly different, as the formal definition of marriage has remained unchanged (unlike in the Scottish Episcopal Church).
Proponents of separatism from the Church of England will probably cite verses such as Titus 1: 9-11, 2 Peter 2:1 and Revelation 2:20 which teach that we must disassociate with and not tolerate those propagating teachings contrary to Scripture. In addition, some evangelical leaders see working under national church structures and leaderships that formally bless gay relationships, as incompatible with maintaining their own integrity and commitment to Scripture.
There is also the concern that the blessing of gay relationships is just the first step down a path which will eventually lead to the blessing of gay marriages, and potentially even the compulsion of Church of England clergy to conduct gay marriages regardless of their theological views.
However, I personally find these arguments for separatism unconvincing.
Firstly, I am not convinced by the parallel between tolerating false teachers (e.g. Revelation 2:20) and remaining part of the Church of England. Evangelical churches are given a huge amount of freedom within the Church of England to run their churches as they please. They can raise their own funds, teach their own doctrines, choose if they wish to be overseen by a flying Bishop, and even publicly criticise their own Bishops without fear of discipline. It seems unlikely that this will change, and I do not foresee a situation in the near future in which evangelical clergy are forced to preach sermons in line with the Bishops’ statement, or conduct blessings against their consciences.
I would instead draw the parallel between remaining in the Church of England and Christian laypeople being commanded to be salt and light in the world (Matt 5:13-16). Each week, church congregations are implored by their clergy to go out into their secular organisations, to speak and live for Christ, to advocate for Christian values, and to willingly face persecution because of their minority ethical views. Week in and week out, clergy tell their parishioners to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord” in the secular world and hostile public arena.
Therefore I think it is ironic that when evangelical clergy find themselves holding minority ethical views within their organisation, and having to fight for their values and face persecution, some instinctively seem to want to pack up and leave. Or to put it another way, they seem to want to “light a lamp and put it under a bowl” (Matt 5:15).
Furthermore, I think we need to acknowledge how much evangelical Christians gain from being part of the Church of England. Churches of course benefit materially from being part of the Church of England, both financially and in the form of church buildings. However, I think the Church of England’s power is most notable in its socio-political influence. As the state church, the Church of England has a big impact on British society, from the reserved places for Bishops in the House of Lords, to involvement in state events such as the Queen’s funeral, to the running of schools and charities, to the place of Church of England clergy in public discourse. One obvious example of the state church’s political power was during the later COVID national lockdowns, when churches were allowed to remain open despite almost all other indoor gatherings being banned. I do not think churches would have remained open during the lockdowns had it not been for the political power of the Church of England.
Therefore if there is a mass exodus of evangelical churches from the Church of England, I think the people who will be most negatively affected are not the clergy, but the Christian laypeople trying to stand up for Christianity and Christian values in the public arena- whether they be in the areas of medical ethics, politics, education, law, or entertainment (to name just a few). My fear is that if there is an exodus of evangelical churches from the Church of England, evangelical Christians will no longer be seen in wider society as a mainstream or even legitimate voice of Christianity, but rather as an extreme sect (or even cult), as is the case in some Western European countries.
All this being said, I don’t think separatism will necessarily always be the wrong decision. For example, I think remaining part of the Church of England would be untenable if clergy and churches were forced to bless relationships against their theological beliefs. However, I would suggest that leaving the Church of England at this moment would come at huge cost- a cost that will not primarily be felt by the clergy, but by ordinary lay Christians who are trying to speak for Jesus in the public square. It may possibly end up being the right decision- but it is not one that should be taken lightly.