Are there limits to the diversity found in the Church of England? A look at recent communications from two leaders shows the seemingly unbridgeable gulf in how different groups understand the essence of the Christian faith and the mission of the church.
Model 1: God converts a conservative church by speaking through his activity in the world.
Firstly Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Oxford, in an essay for Modern Church outlines familiar criticisms of the ‘evangelical’ leadership of the C of E, and proposes a very different model for the Church’s engagement with the world. He begins by reflecting on two best-selling publications. The first of these books, Faith in the City (1985), focuses on the world, and how the Kingdom of God can be found and nurtured there, in helping the poor and challenging injustice, not on building up the church. This, in Percy’s view, reflects better the priorities of Jesus.
The second book, Mission-Shaped Church (2004), reveals the increasing influence of evangelicals; the focus is on developing homogenous groups of believers rather than socio-political involvement in the world. Percy sees this as a ‘shift to the right’, with its roots in the 1990’s Decade of Evangelism, which was “not successful”, claims the Dean. church attendance numbers have continued to decline, and while evangelicals have become more prominent in the C of E’s leadership, the British public have been alienated by a ministry that just “shouts louder” and yet is not heard. What is needed, according to Percy, is an “authentic and humble” Church, which listens to and observes what God is doing in the world, and joins in, rather than evangelistic initiatives which “achieve very little”….
Model 2: God speaks through the bible to individuals, church and world
When this recent articulation of a revisionist approach is set alongside an orthodox one, it can be seen more clearly why the theological crisis and confusion in the Western church is not just about sexuality.
Rod Thomas, Bishop of Maidstone, recently gave a talk to Church Society entitled “Flourishing in the Church of England today”. Thomas begins by saying he will partly answer the question of whether conservative evangelicals such as himself can continue to occupy a space and grow and develop within the C of E. But then he questions whether to accept simply being part of a minority protected group within a theologically plural and heterodox church is a valid goal, and insists on a ministry of ‘contending for the faith’, to fight from within the C of E for its continued identity as an apostolically faithful church.
Unlike Martyn Percy, who makes no effort to engage with Scripture in his 4000 word essay, Thomas takes his listeners straight to Psalm 1 and Ephesians 4. The compilers of the Psalter, he notes, don’t choose a hymn of praise to God as an introduction to the collection, but start with human beings and the choice facing each individual, to follow the world, or God’s law. The consequences of this choice are stark: “flourishing”, pictured as a fruitful tree, or dryness, lifelessness and dispersal. A New Testament image of flourishing is the healthy body, which Paul in Ephesians 4:11-16 uses as a metaphor for God’s people, built up by God’s word as brought to them by gifted servants, and active in good works. In both cases, there are warnings about hindrances to flourishing in obedience to God’s word – those not following God’s way, and those bringing in the confusion of false teaching. This is why the task of the church must be both to teach the truth and refute error….