Striving for the Kingdom – A paper for the Sexuality & Anglican Identities Conference

This is a long post. It’s the text of the paper as given to the Sexuality and Anglican Identities day Conference in Chester on 6th May 2017. There’s talk of getting the papers published, in which case a slightly polished version of this (with proper referencing for all my dodgy arguments) will be available elsewhere at some point. Until then, though, here it is.

TLDR: The current conflicts around sexuality are reshaping the identities of both evangelicals and liberals. The activist wings of both groupings are increasingly becoming monstrous twins who are eschatologically focused.


Striving for the Kingdom – the battle-forged identities of evangelical anglicans

It’s a truism that identity is shaped in adversity. It’s certainly true contemporary evangelical Anglican identities cannot be understood without reference to a number of key debates that have happened within and beyond the Church of England in the latter part of the last century and into the current millennium. There are many of these debates that could be named: around gender and specifically women’s ministry, around relations with other faiths and specifically interfaith worship, around the engagement with an increasingly secular media and public discourse and specifically ‘persecution’ of Christians real or imagined. However, the most prominent of these, especially in recent years, has been the debate around sexuality. Broadly, these debates can be understood as key sites in evangelicalism’s response to late modernity.


English Evangelicalism in Late Modernity

The cultural landscape around evangelicalism has shifted over the last 60 years almost beyond recognition. There has been a massive increase in cultural and religious pluralism, leading to a corresponding shift of religion from the public to the private sphere, so that religious truth claims have been relativised and treated as subjective. Social and cultural controls over women and minority groups (including sexual minorities) have been increasingly relaxed and/or disavowed (though in some cases, clearly, a rhetoric of political correctness has encouraged public disavowal of controls that may in fact still remain in place in the form of glass ceilings and other structural inequities). Simultaneously, as Pete Ward described 20 years ago, an expansion in access to higher education, increased social mobility, and shifts in educational practices have resulted in highly educated congregations (and increasingly church leaders) from non-elite backgrounds, capable of asking critical theological questions of their tradition, and used to a more egalitarian and cooperative style of learning and leadership than had previously been the case. Evangelical church leaders, many of whom are still drawn from elite backgrounds, the legacy of a strategy of investment in summer camps and Christian unions, can no longer fall back on the comfortable assumptions of a shared public school and Oxbridge background as was the case in the 50s.


The most obvious symptom of Late Modernity to the churches (and the one that most evangelicals still feel keenly as the area where the church should direct most of its energies) has of course been catastrophic decline in church attendance, highlighted in increasingly detailed and widely available statistical surveys from the 70s onwards through the English Church Censuses. A corresponding rise in church closures and decline in levels of ministry provision has created a situation in which the felt experience of Anglican evangelicals over the last 60 years has been finding the modern world to be a profoundly hostile environment. In this struggle the cultural elites of the liberal intelligentsia in the Media, Higher Education, the Arts and Sciences have often been seen as the enemy without, the embodiment of a creeping secularism. Amongst charismatic circles, the world was often viewed explicitly in demonic terms. Frank Peretti’s novel This Present Darkness, which portrayed everyday life as a supernatural battle between angels and demons in which the church was a battleground was a bestseller in evangelical churches in the 80s. With Church attendance plummeting, the nominal Christianity of the nation at large declining with each successive generation, evangelicals seemed locked in a never-ending struggle against cultural forces that seemed determined to eradicate their existence. An increasingly alien and hostile culture, ‘out there’ was asking difficult and new questions, and had a growing dissatisfaction with the evangelicalism that attempted to answer, embodied as it was in establishment, within institutions and in elite white, straight male authority figures. More recently there has been a particular focus in evangelical circles on legal cases brought against evangelical believers, often these cases have been widely publicised through the charity Christian Concern. Cases around the public display of Christian symbols, or evangelicals offering praying with others in their workplace, or the public statement of traditional views on sexuality. While we may wish to resist understanding these as ‘persecution’, the felt effect of these cases being widely publicised is an evangelical sense of being marginalised, and pushed out of the public square.


Alongside this, Anglican evangelicals have felt themselves to be fighting a civil war within their own denomination against liberalism, largely informed by the shared history of the Christian Union movement and its struggle with SCM, later ossified by UCCF’s self-construction of its identity around the Doctrinal Basis. The experience, shared by many evangelical church leaders, of having served on the executive committee of a Christian Union in their formative years crystalises two key touchstones of evangelical (and by extension authentic Christian) identity: there is an irreducible core of doctrine that everyone should be expected to affirm, and our primary focus should be engaging in evangelism. These two key assumptions work together – all necessary doctrine can be summarised on a sheet of A4, that can be referred to once a year, signed, and then forgotten about. Because discussing doctrine is a distraction from our main focus, which is evangelism. This is a caricature, of course. Evangelicals are not simplistic or anti-intellectual, and are often also aware of and active in other areas of mission as well as evangelism – the last half century has also seen the recovery of evangelical concern with social justice, rather the point I am making is that they are characterised by what Bebbington labels as Activism: an instinctive leaning towards doing the work of the gospel, in prayer, in apologetics, or mission.

Evangelicals are wary of speculative theology. At best it’s a distraction from the work of proclaiming the gospel. At worst, it undermines those less sure in their faith and brings disunity. Liberal theology, therefore, has always been viewed with suspicion by evangelicals. Liberals were the enemy within the church, weakening its witness and unity, distracting from the task of evangelism, an impression solidified by statistical analyses of church decline which suggested that liberal churches declined significantly while evangelical churches did not.


Embattled evangelicalism

I don’t think any of the above is particularly controversial as a description of the position of evangelicalism in recent times. Often though, it is described in rather sterile sociological terms, with the aid of statistics. I have myself done this elsewhere, and noted the extent to which the whole conflict between evangelicalism and Modernity is in technical terms mythical – the evangelicalism which casts itself as the defender of tradition against modernity is itself thoroughly modern. However, although these sorts of nuances and specifics undoubtedly bring accuracy and perspective to discussions, they have the effect of encouraging a discourse of historical detachment, in which all of this is seen as simply evidence of long-term social trends. It’s pointless to ask how you feel about them, any more than it makes sense to ask how you feel about the tide coming in. It’s happening. You just need to decide if you’re going to move or risk being washed away. What I want to suggest is that this evasion of the felt experience of these cultural shifts that I have just outlined obscures the effect they have on the one experiencing them. Because that effect is fear. It’s the flight or fight reflex. So I want to suggest a rather more visceral language with which to discuss these shifts and evangelical responses to them: the language of warfare.


Evangelicals are engaged in a battle with the world. It’s a language as we’ve seen, that evangelicals themselves use. I think this language is helpful in understanding what has happened to Anglican evangelical identity, because it helps to explain the way in which particular aspects of it change. In war, lines are drawn, and positions become entrenched where they face strong resistance. Certain positions become weakened over time and are abandoned. Unexpected new fronts open up to exploit a weakness in the enemy. Other areas are unexpectedly reinforced in anticipation of an enemy attack. The point is that increasingly evangelical identity has become shaped around resistance to the claims of the world. The evangelicalism of today is not the evangelicalism of a century ago precisely because it has been shaped and formed by conflict.


The changes in evangelical identity can be mapped out in various ways. Rob Warner’s study Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1966-2001 traces the ways in which doctrinal statements have changed over that period, reflecting underlying shifts and splits in evangelical identity. The changes can also be mapped out in relation to the increasingly public debates over sexuality within the Church of England. The growing understanding of the diversity of sexual identities and the campaigning for legal equalities and protections for sexual minorities, leading to growing acceptance of diverse sexualities and legal protections for their expressions has been a key part of the cultural shifts in Late Modernity I have been discussing. Throughout the 60s and 70s sexuality, along with the rest of these sites of cultural change, was reacted to by evangelicals as a problematic aspect of the world they were striving against. It was not particularly singled out, but it was very much a part of the problem. Within this there could be evangelical pastoral responses towards gay people that are remarkably affirming. This was only, however, because at this point sexuality was not being singled out by evangelicals as a particular ‘front’ in the battle against the world.


All this was to change. Homosexuality became an ‘issue’ to be addressed. It became a strategic front to defend in the war against the world. And increasingly, for conservative evangelicals it has become the key position in the whole front, principally because it seems to embody the clearest point where evangelicals are feeling pressured to abandon and disown a reading of scripture that most evangelicals regard as straightforwardly and uncontroversially true. If evangelicals lose this point, they fear, not only that battle but the whole war will be lost. Unfettered modernity will sweep all before it. The point was perhaps made most clearly by the American evangelical Richard Lovelace writing in 1979: ‘if we can interpret Scripture to endorse homosexual acts among Christians, we can make it endorse anything else we want to do or believe and our faith and practice are cut loose in a borderless chaos.’


As far as many evangelicals are concerned throughout their lifetimes, they have been locked into a life and death struggle with the world for the soul of the church. The enemy was shadowy and indistinct (sometimes ‘liberals’, or ‘gays’, or ‘the godless media’ or even ‘demonic forces’.) Occasionally a champion would emerge to do battle. But much of the time this was a war of attrition, waged against an enemy who could wear many faces, and might infiltrate your own ranks. In a word, this enemy was terrifying. It corrupted the best and the brightest and turned them against you. It captured your own weapons and fired them back at you. It served supernatural masters determined to plunge the whole world into darkness.


Rene Girard and Clausewitz’s On War

I want to draw into the discussion here Rene Girard’s fascinating engagement with the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s 19th Century treatise On War in his book Battling to the End. (I realise this sounds unpromising, but bear with me, and I’ll try and make it worth your while.) The work of Rene Girard has been devoted to exploring the areas where violence and the sacred interact. In Battling to the end, he reflects on the modern turn to violence in the light of apocalyptic texts and Clausewitz’s work. Clausewitz was a Prussian general writing about warfare from his experience of the Napoleonic wars, which were in many senses the first world wars. On War ostensibly describes Clausewitz’s understanding of ‘Real War’, but Girard teases out the extent to which it is haunted by the terrifying concept of the ‘Absolute War’ that Clausewitz had glimpsed in Napoleon’s mobilisation of a nation.


The ‘Real War’ is war that would be recogniseable to generals of the 18th century and earlier. It is, in Clausewitz’s own phrase ‘a continuation of politics by other means’. It is an attempt to achieve particular goals unachievable except by violence, based on a calculation of the probabilities of success. It does not lead to an absolute decision, but to a relative result. One side wins an advantage which the other calculates it cannot afford to challenge, and thus concedes, ending hostilities and making a peace treaty – moving back into the realm of politics. Real War is about politics embracing violence to achieve its ends. It is concerned with the possible, with the workable compromise.


However, Girard discerns that although he seems to be describing ‘Real War’, Clausewitz has seen that it can become something else: Absolute War. This is the unchecked form of warfare that characterises the modern age. In the Absolute War, no-one is willing to settle for a relative result. The victory of one side must entail the overthrow of the other. All violence, according to Girard, is prone to reciprocal escalation. In the words of Sean Connery in The Untouchables: ‘He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He puts one of yours in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue.’ The cycle of reciprocal violence naturally escalates and accelerates, moving Real War into Absolute War, as we move from seeking to achieve a goal to seeking to annihilate the enemy. The escalation is suspended if we start to speculate, if our response is not immediate, if we slow to calculate what the best possible outcome might be. We start to move back to Real War, to the realm of politics. Absolute War depends on a sense of urgency.


It is implicit in Girard’s thought that the two sides locked in reciprocal violence are mimetic – they increasingly mirror each other to the point where they become indistinguishable. In The Untouchables it becomes harder to tell which side is which, when both essentially operate as mob families answerable to no-one, and lose sight of all goals but that of destroying their enemy. Ness’s response to the question what he’ll do when they repeal Prohibition is ‘I’ll have a drink.’ When he examines On War, therefore, Girard highlights Clausewitz’s counter-intuitive insight that it is the attacker who wants peace, where the defender wants war. The aggressor in a conflict acts pre-emptively in a bid to bring conflict quickly to an end and restore peace. They are hoping and planning for there to be as little violence as possible. The defender, meanwhile, provokes the conflict by their aggressive preparations for war. All their plans are made to ensure that the conflict will be as long and costly as possible. Girard notes


The aggressor has always already been attacked…people always have the impression that the other is the first to attack, that they are never the ones who begin, though in a way they are always the ones… We make others understand that we recognise the signs of aggressiveness which they manifest, and they in turn interpret our posture as aggression. And so on.


The rhetoric of being the aggrieved party, reluctantly drawn into a conflict they did not seek simply to defend themselves is everywhere in the sexuality debate. Liberals speak of centuries of oppression and ongoing homophobia, which necessitate harsh steps being taken now. Conservatives speak of the need to resist the ongoing liberal drift of the church, and of being continually drawn away from the urgent need to focus on mission into debates around sexuality simply in order to defend themselves against attack and misrepresentations of their position.


In the recent reactions to the statement of the House of Bishops on sexuality following the Shared Conversations: GS 2055(prior to its being brought to Synod), these dynamics are clearly observable.


Adrian Symes, Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainsteam, commented that:


For many decades, perhaps for centuries, evangelicals in the C of E have wrestled with their consciences as unbiblical practices have taken hold in the culture of parish churches and Diocesan administrations up and down the land, and Bishops have spoken in support of heretical ideas… While the headline recommendations mean that there is no emergency requiring an immediate alternative Anglicanism as in Scotland, the underlying theology reflects and describes a church from which more and more potential ordinands and faithful lay people are already drifting away to other spiritual homes. The preservation of orthodox Anglicanism in England requires something different to trusting in the outcome of this document.


Meanwhile, the then LGCM’s open letter to Synod members urging them not to take note of the report stated that:


The Report was a betrayal of the trust vested in the House of Bishops during the Shared Conversations process, and opens the way to a single, very conservative interpretation of these matters being introduced… Our understanding is that the majority of members of synod were looking to the College and House of Bishops, when they took the initiative to respond to the Shared Conversations process, to lay a path for a process of change, perhaps setting a programme of activity to realise some of the priorities articulated by the LGBTI Mission.


For many conservative evangelicals then, the report represented the latest in a long series of slow concessions by the House of Bishops to heresy and a lukewarm failure to resist the pressures of the world, something they had feared being normalised in the Shared Conversations, prompting many to boycott them. For many liberals it represented a betrayal of trust by the House of Bishops, scorning the implicit promise that change would come that they felt had been made by the Shared Conversations. Both conservatives and liberals were the aggrieved party, responding to aggression, reluctantly forced to make a stand after long suffering. And although the common interpretation of the Synod vote was that not taking note represented a liberal victory, as many evangelicals felt that the report should be taken note of despite their misgivings, some did refuse to, voting with the many liberals who did likewise. Members of Reform and LGCM both urged a vote to not take note.


In fact, Girard’s insights illuminate the way in which the House of Bishops is increasingly playing the part of the villain for both liberals and conservatives. Girard notes that refusing conflict does not prevent an escalation of violence, it incites it. The House of Bishops fairly clearly are doing all they can to manage a situation spiralling out of their control, attempting to stop the conflict of an open split. They want peace. But the more you want peace, the more you prepare for war. In their quest for peace, the Bishops engage in elaborate managerial expansion. This was precisely what the content of the statement was: they strengthened and clarified their systems of observation and control. They set out areas where they might permit liberty, explicitly delineated the powers they were entitled to use, the legal structures they would refer to as authority. These steps to secure peace are inevitably interpreted as acts of aggression. The one seeking peace at all costs becomes the one making the most effective preparations for war. Ultimately, putting so much effort into systems of observation and control is daring the aggressor to violence. Because only through the aggressor showing their aggression can the morality of their own stance be demonstrated. Part of the implicit purpose of the statement’s studied moderation is so that when one or the other side massively over-reacts to a statement that was utterly predictable in content the Bishops are shown to be justified in their need to focus on managing the volatility.


I draw on Girard, however, not simply to make the fairly obvious point that ‘well, they’re all as bad as each other’. Girard’s insights around the way in which conflicts escalate and become increasingly mimetic do not just illuminate the rather depressing way that this cultural war is progressing. They also illuminate the way in which it is changing the identity of both conservative evangelicals and liberals (and, I suspect, the House of Bishops, though that is beyond the scope of this paper). I’ve suggested that the very fact of being engaged in warfare changes you: you become entrenched in your key positions, abandon indefensible ones, seize new ground that has become strategically important. These sorts of changes are readily observable, from evangelical tactical alliances with anglo-catholics to Reform’s quiet acceptance that women’s ministry perhaps wasn’t a first order issue after all. In the paper I presented in February I drew attention to the way in which some evangelicals have adopted hierarchical understandings of the Trinity explicitly as a means of bolstering a complementarian understanding of sexual identity, with obvious implications for women’s ministry. But Girard’s insight pushes this further: the longer and more intensely warfare rages the more changes occur and the more indistinguishable the opponents become. This seems counter-intuitive, and would be strongly resisted by both liberals and conservatives, so I want to focus my discussion here. In what follows I will use the terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘liberal’ for convenience. I’m very aware that both of these are complex and multi-faceted identities which have fractured and changed over the last half century or so. For the purposes of this discussion, then, I’m going to use the terms primarily to describe those wider groupings within the Church of England who would broadly identify themselves with the causes advocated by activists and campaigners on either side of the sexuality debates.


Evangelicals and liberals as monstrous twins

It’s a commonplace observation that for both evangelicals and liberals this is a conflict over their seemingly irreconcileable identities as Anglicans. Both sides openly question the extent to which an Anglican identity that encompasses both of them is really possible or might have any integrity. Evangelicals believe they are fighting to defend their Anglican identity as bible-believing Christians, as good protestants who can do no other than stand on the truth of scripture as they have received it. Liberals believe they are fighting to defend the Anglican identity of being a national church for all people, gay and straight, male and female as equals within the body of Christ. Both believe that compromise in these areas would be fatal to their identity as Anglicans. Evangelicals believe they are fighting against making a compromise, holding firm to a true biblical Anglican identity. Liberals believe they are fighting to redeem an already compromised Anglican identity, stained by centuries of homophobia and oppression. So far, these positions appear clear and opposite. And yet as we have seen in the responses to the House of Bishops statement, increasingly, evangelicals also believe and explicitly speak as if they are fighting to redeem an already compromised Anglican identity. Melvin Tinker writes of the need to work for Deep Change within a compromised Anglican church. Liberals believe they are fighting against making a compromise on an existing Anglican identity that has already been discerned, but is in danger of being dishonoured. The purpose of the YouGov survey of Anglican views on sexuality commissioned by Jayne Ozanne prior to the statement being released, was to make precisely this point. The responses by LGCM and others pointing to the integrity of LGBTI Anglicans involved in the Shared Conversations, as well as the implicit promise of change that had been betrayed by the Bishops, all point to a Liberal understanding that there is a clear Anglican identity already existing that must be held firm to, and which cannot be compromised.


Liberals, like evangelicals, have their own statements of faith, easily reducible to a side of A4, on the basis of agreement on which doctrinal differences (and the doctrinal differences between different liberals make those between different evangelicals pale by comparison) can be shelved and activism can be engaged with. OneBodyOneFaith retains the same Statement of Conviction held by LGCM since 1976, which members must accept. The more recent Inclusive Church requires agreement to their Statement of Belief in order to become a member. Liberals increasingly define themselves by their activism in campaigning on issues of social justice. Both Evangelicals and liberals then can be characterised as doctrinally focussed, yet with a tendency to use a very brief statement of doctrine as a shibboleth of identity, on the basis of which any deeper doctrinal differences can be ignored, allowing unified activism, with their identity primarily being found in the shared activism. In a nutshell, they both follow the CU model of membership and shared purpose.


Both evangelicals and liberals are working to safeguard a true Anglicanism threatened with fatal compromise, and working within an already compromised Anglican church to bring redemption. For both, the question of how much longer and under what circumstances they can remain Anglican with this issue unresolved, or resolved in a way that excludes them is a very live one. These are not abstract questions, especially for those of us who are ordained and members of one tribe or the other. They can be as personal and far-reaching as “Should I be honest about who I am and what I believe”, “Should I get married?”, or “Should I defy my bishop?” The lived experience of being a liberal and being an evangelical within the Church of England at present is in fact incredibly similar. Inasmuchas their identity is increasingly shaped around this struggle, therefore, evangelicals and liberals will begin to resemble each other more and more closely. The very fact that for both their identity hinges around the deeply-felt dangers of a compromise of integrity sharply distinguishes both from the more relaxed broad Anglican identity that sees Englishness and being Anglican as unproblematically overlapping. Both are massively invested in and committed to the Church of England – which is why both feel the pain of compromised identity. Walking away is not something that comes easily to either. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, conservative evangelical Anglicans are not really free church evangelicals, and liberal Anglicans are not really closet secularists. Both have been driven by their shared pain and fear deeper and deeper into a fight to the death. They tell themselves different myths about the nature and purpose of the struggle: that it is the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, or the struggle for principle against convenience, or ideals against money. Though actually, all these myths are used by both sides: whether the oppressed are seen as sexual minorities or the two-thirds world, or the wealthy are seen as evangelical mega churches or the wealthy West. The struggle is itself mimetic. Any weapon used by one side will soon be used by the other. So both sides see themselves as a persecuted minority when it suits them, and both sides proclaim that their position represents the settled view of the majority when it suits them.


The struggle changes both sides, not into more extreme and monstrous versions of themselves (though that is what each perceives in the other) but into increasingly identically monstrous versions of each other. As time goes by, evangelicals and liberals become less evangelical and less liberal. Ironically, the very thing that compels us to fight – the fear that our identity is threatened, that distinctions are being broken down, dissolving, creating the crisis where our friends can at any moment be unmasked as our enemies – is only accelerated by the conflict. The struggle, because it is reciprocal, becomes mimetic. The more we fight, the more we resemble our enemy.


Striving for the Kingdom – visions of the coming apocalypse

If all this is true, and Anglican identities are increasingly being reshaped around this conflict, the future of Anglican identities is bound up in the future of the conflict. Where is it headed? Is some sort of a resolution in sight that might resolve these tensions? Well, significantly for our discussion, the hope of just such a resolution is a central myth for both evangelicals and liberals. Both have become hugely eschatological identities.


Both sides are explicitly describing themselves as moving towards the end, towards the coming of the Kingdom in a moment of apocalyptic judgement – the destruction of the community as a whole. Only by destroying the Church of England can it be saved. Only by tearing it in two can we hope that a unified body will rise from the carcass. What is interesting in this is what they perceive to be the eventual fate of the others who are not to be counted amongst the faithful and therefore have no place in the coming kingdom.


Both liberals and evangelicals are striving for the Kingdom. They want to see a church that models and proclaims the Kingdom to the world. They want it so much that they will fight with each other to get it. And in this fight, more violence is always required before victory. Both sides nurture a hope that everything will be resolved at the end of history. That when this story is over, all the differences and divisions based on violence and ignorance will be overcome and their true identities will be clear. There will be no compromise. But both also believe that there is one last remaining obstacle to be overcome first. Girard comments that this is the mark of Absolute War: ‘Peace is perpetually postponed. More violence is always needed before reconciliation.’ This can clearly be seen in the way both sides describe the struggle in which they are locked and their hopes for the future.


On 29th April 2017, the Gafcon primates announced their intention to consecrate a missionary bishop to operate in the British Isles, offering episcopal oversight for conservatives completely separate from the existing provinces. This move of course implies a complete loss of faith in the integrity of existing structures, however much they may stress their willingness to recognise that some faithful Anglicans may still feel the need to remain within them. GafconUK’s statement responding to this move describes the position of the Church of England, Church in Scotland and Church of Wales in this way:


…a weak version of the Christian faith which has too often failed to point out these dangers or even made accommodation with them. This accommodation and ‘cultural captivity’ is seen in the failure by many Anglican leaders in the UK to hold to the key principles of Holy Scripture as speaking clearly to God’s will for human flourishing, and of requiring unequivocal obedience whatever the cost… some Anglicans are already outside of these structures and need Episcopal oversight; others may do so soon… [the Primates have] expressed respect for and continued warm fellowship with those who for the moment are choosing to remain within the official structures and contend for orthodox biblical faith there, while warning that inaction in the face of revisionist pressure is not a faithful option.


True faithful Anglican identity requires Episcopal oversight, but this cannot come from structures that are compromised by ‘cultural captivity.’ Inaction is not a sign of faithfulness. The only faithful options are to come out of the structures, or to stay within them in order to ‘contend for orthodox biblical faith.’ The last days have come. The only options for the faithful are flight or fight. The faithful find their unity in their shared theology, whether it corresponds with official structures or not. The fate of those who are not faithful is left unspoken. But it is clear that they have no foreseeable place in the Kingdom that is to come unless they can be brought back to the faith by reformation of the Church.


Similarly, Martyn Percy, in his recent piece ‘Not a matter of opinion’ on the Philip North debacle, broadened the scope of his reflections to consider the wider crisis and division gripping the Church of England centred around discrimination. He argues that any discrimination based on either gender or sexuality should have no place in the church, but explicitly exempts discrimination based on religious belief (or ‘opinion which can be changed’ as he describes it) from this. Unity must come through the imposition of a shared belief:


Because a temporary political solution cannot resolve our deep theological divisions. Only deeper theology will bring us lasting peace. Such theology will be founded on equality and inclusion, not dubious ‘equal-but-different’ discriminatory reasoning.


The church may tolerate flawed and discriminatory theologies within a ghetto, but they cannot be part of the mainstream because they cannot form the basis for unity that can only come from the true deeper theology. Despite Percy’s savage critique of Forward in Faith’s secret hope that one day women priests might become ‘extinct’ as he puts it, it’s hard to tell the difference between this and his hope that:


they should remain in their partially sealed-off wings (but still self-constructed, incidentally), until such time as they wish to part company with those alienating opinions, and no longer choose to practice their identity-based discrimination.


The faithful will be united through their true theology which must coexist with the official structures of the church. Those who are not found amongst the faithful, in their half-in and half-out ghetto must be left to ponder the error of their ways. We can hope that after spending time in this purgatory, in which they are bound by nothing but their own sins and ignorance, they will rejoin the faithful in the kingdom.


I’m sure much could be made of the fact that GafconUK’s vision of the future is so characteristically protestant with its notion of the invisible church, and Percy’s is so characteristically catholic with its notion of purgatory, but the point I really want to make is that the language of both is almost explicitly apocalyptic and eschatological. We must strive towards the coming of the Kingdom, we must see the eternal consequences of our present action or inaction. We must turn aside from any thought of compromise or prevarication. In all this, once again, evangelicals and liberals are almost identical to each other, and profoundly different from the broad Anglicanism that thrives on ambiguity, compromise and incremental change.


Evangelicals and liberals are locked together in an accelerating conflict of increasing aggression and absolutism. It is changing both of them. It threatens to tear the church apart. And both of them yearn for that to happen. There are dark days ahead.


MVS 5th May 2017