The decision of the General Synod to support the bishops of the Church of England in their intention to make provision for blessings for couples in same-sex relationships represents a shocking departure from the teaching of God’s Word, which will have serious and distressing repercussions.
I should stress that there is no disagreement about the great dignity of all people, made in God’s image and deeply loved by him. We all affirm the importance of welcoming everyone to our churches, whatever their sexuality or relational circumstances. The division is about sex and marriage. The Bible’s teaching is clear, as taught by the universal church down the ages, that God intended his good gift of sex to be reserved for the marriage of a man and a woman (see my recent publication Together in Love and Faith? for more detailed teaching on this and related matters).
By offering the prayers they have published, the bishops will be giving authority (to those clergy who wish to use them), to bless in God’s name behaviour which the Bible calls sin. This is a very grievous step to take, which will cause serious spiritual damage and result in deep division within the Church of England and wider Anglican Communion.
Although the blessings will only be formally commended after the bishops publish further guidance in the summer about the context in which they can be used, the direction of travel is clear. In our distress, and perhaps confusion, we should remember that Christ is lovingly sovereign over his church and his purposes will prevail. We should also be encouraged by the principled, robust and united opposition to these proposals from over 40% of the Houses of Clergy and Laity in Synod, as well as a handful of bishops. That is a significant grouping which, in fellowship with the great majority of global Anglicans, alongside faithful Christians of all traditions and denominations, is determined to continue to walk together in obedience to Christ, as we seek to bear witness to him in our lost and needy world. We cannot, however, travel with those who are leading people away from God’s ways.
St Ebbe’s clergy have already declared that we are in impaired communion with the bishops in our diocese, which means that we will not welcome them to preach, confirm, ordain or conduct our ministerial reviews, and we will not take communion with them. The PCC has also taken action to ensure that any money we pay within the diocese is distributed via the Oxford Good Stewards Trust and is only used for faithful gospel ministry and essential administrative costs. We will be working closely with others, especially within the Church of England Evangelical Council, to discuss what other actions we can take, either individually as churches or together, both to distance ourselves from false teaching and to promote the cause of the gospel. As a larger church, we are especially conscious of our responsibility to help and support smaller evangelical churches, as well as faithful clergy and laity who are in the especially vulnerable situation of serving in churches where their congregations are divided or against them on these issues.
The debate within Synod, and the decision it made, bear witness to a division which goes far deeper than that over the particular presenting issue. There are now two distinct groups within the Church of England. One has chosen the way of compromise with the world and disobedience to God’s word; the other is determined to stay faithful to Christ, whatever the cost. It has been very encouraging to see deepening bonds growing between orthodox Anglicans, from different evangelical and other orthodox ‘tribes’. In the months, and no doubt years, ahead we will be seeking to build new structures that will, God willing, enable us to maintain distance from those who have gone down the wrong path, while working together with orthodox Anglicans in the cause of the gospel.
There will be significant challenges ahead, as we are forced to distance ourselves from many within the Church of England, while being faced with bemusement and, no doubt hostility, from the watching world. Perhaps most painfully, we will have to face differences amongst friends about how to respond to these realities. Our consciences and contexts differ. For myself, along with very many others, I am determined to stay to contend for truth and bear witness to Christ within the Church of England, and believe we can do so with integrity, certainly at this time and for the foreseeable future. Others, for varying reasons, whether principled, pragmatic or both, will choose a different path. Let us determine to resist the devil in his attempts to divide us and keep looking to our loving God. We are in desperate need of his mercy, because of our many sins, his wisdom in our perplexity and his strength in our weakness.