The following are questions by independent church minister Stephen Kneale to Church of England ministers in the light of recent developments, along with a first attempt at answering them.
1. How do you understand the term ‘faithful’ and does your current situation help or hinder your being faithful?
Faithfulness means loyalty to Christ and his body. This includes devotion to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers (Acts 2:42). It covers attitudes and behaviour as well as speech.
For me, as an ordained minister in the Church of England, it also means devoting myself wholly to the service of God, daily following the rule and teaching of our Lord and growing into his likeness so that God may sanctify the lives of all with whom I have to do. (From the Liturgy of Ordination)
Among other, equally important but perhaps less contentious, things this involves faithfully ministering the doctrine and sacraments of Christ as the Church of England has received them, proclaiming the good news of salvation, and defending the people committed to my charge against error.
(It also means submitting to the authority of the British Monarch and my Bishop in all things lawful and honest, and using only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon.)
My situation is both help and hindrance. The Church of England declares and formally asks of his ministers belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness, but it tolerates clergy that openly contradict the Scriptures and teach contrary to the Christian faith.
While many in this country worship Christ outside the Church of England, no other denomination, with the possible exception of the Roman Catholic church, has a better claim to catholicity, in the sense of seeking to hold together the body of Christ in a given place. Being in the Church of England is a help in terms of faithfully serving the body of Christ in my place. (It may well be different in other parts of the country.) I cannot have this close fellowship without having also fellowship with many who in word or deed deny Christ as our Lord and Saviour. This is a hindrance.
I can speak the truth freely but the lies of others compromise the message that is proclaimed. This would not altogether change by leaving the Church of England for a smaller, more faithful denomination. The background noise would not thereby go away.
Lest this be misread, I must add that my situation does of course include myself and I recognise that there are threats to faithfulness within me as well as from without.
2. How can you remain faithful whilst in submission to those who, minimally, apologise for orthodoxy and are entertaining those who wish to undermine it?
As far as I can see, my submission to my Bishops (in all things lawful and honest) does not at present compromise my faithfulness to Christ, as far as my own actions are concerned.
The apology to which Stephen Kneale alludes was not for orthodoxy (or orthopraxis) as such but for stating orthodoxy (or orthopraxis) and maybe for doing so in a clumsy or untimely way. Still, the apology hinders rather than helps faithful Christian ministry. It does not, however, prevent it altogether.
I agree with the observation that our Bishops, on the whole, want us to keep company with people, including clergy, who wish to undermine the historic Christian faith (and by no means on matters of sexuality only), pretending that people are fellow servants in the gospel for the sake of the kingdom of God who in reality serve a God of their own imagination, perverting the gospel of Christ. This is a grievous ill, even allowing that most, maybe all, false teachers have persuaded themselves that they are promoting the Christian faith.
This does undermine my ministry. But, in some sense, it undermines all faithful Christian ministry in this country and beyond. It makes it harder to remain faithful but not impossible.
3. How can you remain faithful while remaining in formal communion with those who openly want to reject historic orthodoxy?
I am not sure that there is much difference between this and the following question. See below. Celebrating Holy Communion alongside false teachers has elements of both joy (because it is not communion with false teachers only but with Christ and his body) and pain (because it includes an element of falsehood, apparently recognising some as fellow servants who are not in fact submitting to Christ).
In the current context absenting myself from events like the Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday at which ministers from across the Diocese gather and clergy renew their ordination vow would not effectively signal to false teachers the dangers in which they are. But the presence of those who openly want to reject historic orthodoxy devalues the renewal of vows and makes the Eucharist less joyful than it might be otherwise.
4. How do you remain faithful staying in whilst taking seriously the biblical call to separate from those who depart the faith and partaking in the sins of those with whom we commune?
Knowing (in principle) how to respond to the instruction to keep away from those who call themselves Christian but are idle (2 Thessalonians 3:6), or sexually immoral, or greedy, or idolaters, or verbally abusive, or drunkards, or swindlers (1 Corinthians 5:11) was arguably more straightforward when the number of those who were Christian by name only was small.
Today there are many who bear the name of Christ but do not know him, do not acknowledge Christ as their Saviour, and do not submit to him as their Lord. Some of them are in open rebellion to Christ and the teaching of his church, others are confused, still others oblivious to their state. (And I am, of course, not necessarily in a position to judge.)
We need to be mindful of a double risk. Keeping close to ‘false Christians’ makes it more challenging to heed the call of Christ not to participate in the unfruitful works of darkness but rather to expose them, not least if we come to know them as friends whom we love, respect, and in parts admire.
But keeping a clear distance to ‘false Christians’ makes it more challenging to share the good news with many in our post-Christendom society. There are two broad differences between our situation and that of the early church: (a) those from whom the early Christians were to distance themselves had heard the gospel and the separation would have communicated to them a call to mend their ways in order to be re-integrated; (b) the separation would have helped those outside the church to see more clearly the meaning and significance of the Christian faith.
Today those outside the church see a multiplicity of denominations that tells them little more than this: Christians are not agreed about what it means to be a Christian. And separating ourselves from those whose lives or doctrine betray the faith in all likelihood communicates ‘we think ourselves better than you’ rather than ‘the way you live or teach is incompatible with being a faithful disciple of Christ.’
We partake in the sins of others by committing them ourselves or by endorsing them (which 1 Timothy 5:22 may have in mind). But this is not inevitably the case by staying in the Church of England.
It is a fair question whether faithful Christians staying in the Church of England helps to preserve nominal and false Christianity, thereby promoting confusion about the Christian faith. Would it not be better to let the Church of England die? Maybe, but this is a matter of carefully weighing up a range of factors, not a matter of simple obedience to a straightforward command.
5. How can you remain faithful to the official historic teaching of the church when liturgies and practice, with guidance issued, now affirm what is unbiblical? Can one stand on a constitution that is not applied?
The fact that the constitution is not applied in other parish churches makes life and ministry more difficult but it does not mean that I cannot apply it in our parish church.
The Guidance for Gender Transitioning Services is a grave error (cf. this post) but I am resolved to remain faithful to the official historic teaching of the church and to use any liturgy accordingly. I am dismayed but not (yet) unable to remain faithful, except for my own weakness.
6. What is your actual plan to change the situation? How are you ‘contending’ in a way that has any hope whatsoever of effecting change?
My plan is to truly preach the word and rightly administer the sacraments, as best as I can. My contending is a matter of faithfulness to Christ, whether or not it makes any difference. Only God’s Spirit can bring repentance and submission to Christ. I try to play my very small part. For now, I don’t think that leaving the Church of England would ‘change the situation’ for the better.