Friday, April 26, 2013

If unity seems impossible

I have always been intrigued to meet a fellow minister whose pastoral work seems to major in responding to marriage crises. My own pastoral experience has been quite different. Comparatively few people have ever sought my counsel with marriage difficulties. But among those few I have observed that their difficulties, in a proportion of approximately 9 out of 10 cases, have been such that my instinctive reaction has been ‘Leave your spouse now!’ The presenting difficulties have involved physical violence and it is widely agreed that the general mandate of Scripture, that we stick with our marriages, is trumped by the matter of simple physical safety, especially where children are involved. Incidentally, in about 2 out of 9 cases, the physical threat has stemmed from the wife and not the husband.

Analogously with church unity, there are instances where the difficulties in church life are such that ‘Leave your church now!’ is warranted. Without elucidating the reasons for saying so, I accept that the circumstances of the Western church in the 16th century were such that departure from the rule of Rome was necessary for the sake of the gospel. I can accept that if we then run over the history of Protestantism since then, we could come up with further justifiable instances of schism. A plausible instance, I believe, is the transformation of Methodism from movement within the C of E to church outside of it. The intransigence of the English bishops of the day was an unwarranted quenching of the Spirit. But I do not accept that each and every instance of schism in Protestantism is justifiable as we have become a many splintered set of ecclesial communities: in too many cases, to our shame, personal egos, deficient understanding of the true breadth of the gospel, and a simple failure to be patient have contributed to the splintering. ‘For the sake of the gospel’, at least in historical hindsight, appears to have been ‘for the sake of my/our understanding of the gospel.’

In our day and in our contexts, local and global Anglicanism in the 21st century, just as we might urge ourselves to maintain the unity of the Spirit, we should pause to ask what happens if the unity cannot be maintained and what circumstances might count as a justified constraint on maintenance of unity. A commenter here this morning (on yesterday’s post) raises such questions in respect of the searching judgement of our Lord on the excessively tolerant church in Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29).
Intriguingly, there are matching concerns about ‘tolerance’ from both ends of ACANZP and of the Communion. Some in our church, for instance, seem aghast that we should continue to tolerate a conservative approach to marriage which holds back the blessing of same-sex relationships; and vice versa. Within the Communion there are those who call for the expulsion of TEC, and there are those sympathetic to TEC who long for the day when (say) the GAFCON churches formally secede from the Communion. I also observe that similar theological dynamic concerning ‘for the sake of the gospel’ drives this aghastliness: from both ends of the theological spectrum there is a passionate conviction that the gospel means X and so anti-X (or non-X) should not be tolerated. Cue a certain bewilderment for those at the centre of Anglicanism!

What to do? No doubt there are many things to say, and there is always the possibility of drawing up a “unity” checklist with tick boxes and a formula for determining when a certain number of check boxes are not ticked then schism should take place. For today  I simply share one idea which has been percolating in my mind. In a church where varied understandings of the gospel intermingle a decisive question could be this: may I continue to witness to the understanding of the gospel I believe with all my heart and mind to be the true understanding?

If I can continue to witness to that understanding of the gospel then it always remains an open question whether, over time, my witness may lead to a new allegiance to that understanding in the future.
Evangelicals in the C of E and in ACANZP (to just cite two instances) can look back on past times and see their respective churches in quite different places to what they are today in respect of evangelical allegiance. In both cases what was once viewed by the majority as a tiny and somewhat weird minority is now a stronger, no longer tiny influence (possibly in the C of E, even now a majority), and (with exceptions) not viewed as weird. That change of fortunes has come about because 

(1) evangelicals in the past stayed within their Anglican churches, sometimes with a polite turning down of invitations to join other churches; 

(2) evangelicals remained faithful in their witness to an evangelical understanding of the gospel; and 

(3) the possibility of that witness being given was not suppressed (though sometimes it nearly was).

Is one question before Anglicans in the 21st century the question of whether (3) will remain a feature of Anglican life?


1 comment:

Malcolm said...

Hi Peter,

I do think that in responding to any potential disruptions in church life that we must handle issues of conscience with care.

As part of our new life in Christ, consciences also need to come under the Lordship of Christ. However, our culture emphasises the place of the individual and the right of the individual to act upon conscience. So it could be that we tend to respond to "conscience" more quickly than we should.

As Christians we need to put the Gospel and Christ's Church first. That may mean taming our conscience so as to stay where we are. But it may also mean inflaming our conscience if the future viability of Gospel ministry is threaten.

Malcolm