There is a debate raging within the Anglican Church of Australia at the moment around the issue of the blessing of Same Sex Marriages. At the end of last year the Appellate Tribunal of the church (essentially the equivalent of the High Court for Anglicans) delivered an opinion on a liturgy developed and authorised by the Diocese of Wangaratta which would allow for the blessing of same sex marriages performed outside the church.
The tribunal chose to apply a novel definition of 'doctrine', (which was contrary in the view of many to the plain meaning of the word as understood for essentially all of Christian history), in order to opine that the liturgy is not contrary to the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. This was despite comprehensive submissions from the Board of Assessors and the House of Bishops, both of which supported the traditional orthodox view.
In response to this opinion being handed down by the Appellate Tribunal the bishops struck an agreement to wait until General Synod met and could address the opinion of the Tribunal. There has however been at least one use of the liturgy in the Diocese of Wangaratta and it is well known that in other parts of the church there have been 'unofficial' blessings taking place for years whilst diocesan leadership has turned a blind eye.
It is clear that revisionists intend to push ahead with authorising same sex marriage blessings. As mentioned there is a bishop's agreement in place which has so far held firm to hold off doing anything until General Synod meets. However There is a general understanding that no matter what General Synod says (it has re-affirmed the traditional understanding of marriage as recently as its last meeting in 2017) revisionists will push forward with the blessings.
With this in mind Gafcon Australia has announced that they are planning to create an extra provincial structure in order to provide alternate episcopal oversite of orthodox parishes who find themselves in Dioceses which have taken a heterodox position.
As a result of this the Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, The Most Rev Geoffrey Smith wrote a letter to bishops condemning the actions of Gafcon while claiming that the revisionists had shown great restraint. Most concerning for me was the Archbishop's implication that those conservatives that support the actions of GAFCON are in danger of breaking their vows as Anglican clergy:
My expectation is that people who say they are committed to the Anglican church, and who have made oaths and promises upholding its constitution and canons and therefore its governance processes, would be committed to keeping it strong, united and effective. I have to say this is difficult to see in Gafcon’s statement and proposed actions.
What this fails to address is the fact that the only reason that orthodox Anglicans are making preparations is because revisionists are willing to break their vows of ordination which include:
Will you faithfully and humbly minister the doctrine, sacraments and discipline of Christ, as he has commanded and as this Church has received them?
(From 'The Ordinal', A Prayer Book for Australia - Again emphasis mine)
How anyone in the revisionist camp can claim that they can uphold the vow to minister doctrines as the church has received them, whilst simultaneously seeking to change that doctrine is beyond my understanding. Yet the primate elected not to address this clear breach and instead chose to target those who are simply putting in place contingencies. The idea that Gafcon Australia and its supporters are eager for a 'quick exit' simply shows that the Archbishop doesn't understand Gafcon.
Making preparations as a contingency is not the same as wanting to use that contingency. If we were to look at other parts of the world where Gafcon has done similar things we will find it is only AFTER the church/diocese elects to make a change in doctrine which is contrary to scripture - and is no longer the doctrine of the church as it has been received that Gafcon has acted. The same is true here - the great hope of all who uphold the orthodox position is that Gafcon's extra provincial structure will never have to be used. The great hope is that bishops will not walk down the path of heterodoxy and will uphold their promise to:
...correct and set aside teaching that is contrary to the mind of Christ, both privately and publicly urging all to live according to God’s word...
As noted above however, the sad fact is that there are bishops in the church who will push ahead with this change no matter what General Synod says when it can finally meet. Gafcon knows this, the revisionists know this and anyone suggesting otherwise is either very naïve or just isn't paying attention.
When that happens there will be whole churches and individual clergy who find themselves in a difficult position, where they may feel they are unable due to conscience, to stay under the leadership of their bishop. At that point they have tough choices to make:
1. Stay, with the intention of simply getting on with orthodox ministry despite being part of a heterodox diocese. This doesn't solve the issue of being under what they see as heterodox leadership, and being part of the diocese would require the parish to financially contribute to its upkeep and diocesan ministries which were against their own beliefs.
2.Walk away. This is an option for clergy and for individual lay people or whole congregations. They may choose to simply leave the church and take up membership and ministry in other churches. The cost of this is great - they will lose their Anglican identity, and historical and familial connections to buildings etc. Clergy may seek to move to orthodox dioceses rather than leave the church altogether at the cost of uprooting their lives and families.
3.Go with Gafcon. This may be an option for whole churches, where they could seek to move under the oversight of the bishop of the proposed extra provincial diocese. This will be painful also. For example it is unlikely that Diocesan bishops will be willing to let these churches continue to use their buildings. However, they will remain Anglican, under the leadership of an Anglican bishop. Where they go as a whole church they could maintain their current clergy and lay leadership.
The truth is these options are all horrible. The best outcome would be for the church, its bishops and clergy to hold firm by upholding and teaching the traditional orthodox doctrine of the church as it has been received and taught for 2000 years and which all the ordained have vowed to uphold.
Within the Anglican Communion we often see those on the liberal end of the theological spectrum choosing to ignore our formularies and make up their own doctrine on the run.... today though I found an example of a conservative evangelical Anglican Church doing the same thing... Their website makes the following statement:
"Baptism is a sign or a seal. It neither confers God’s grace, nor is it a precondition to receiving God’s grace (his gift of salvation)."
Now, that may seem fairly innocuous and many non Anglican evangelical Christians would have no problem with it... however if you are an Anglican Christian you cannot accept this.
Why? Because those same formularies that we as conservatives so often direct the liberals to, also reject the notion of Baptism being a mere sign with no effect.
Lets look at what those formularies say:
In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer it says in the Catechism (emphasis mine):
Question. How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?
Hmmm…. Our friends said “…nor is it a precondition to receiving God’s grace (his gift of salvation)…” But it seems the Book of Common Prayer views it differently, making it clear that Baptism is in fact generally necessary for salvation… there will be exceptions, for example where it was impossible to baptise someone for some reason… but generally it IS necessary.
Question. What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
The baptism is a sign, yes, but it is a sign of something that is actually happening – in fact it is the means by which that something happens. What is that something? Grace! So our friends have it wrong again when they say: “…It neither confers God’s grace,..”
Question. How many parts are there in a Sacrament?
So Baptism is actually a means by which we receive the grace of God through dying to sin, and being born anew unto righteousness. Our sinful nature is overcome, the wrath of God against us is overcome through his Grace and we are made His children.
It seems Baptism is much more than our friends at this church would have us believe. But lets look a little further shall we? Let’s examine relevant articles from The Articles of Religion – also part of the standard for doctrine in the Anglican Church of Australia - again the emphasis is mine.
XXV. Of the Sacraments.
So we see Article 25 declaring that the sacraments (including Baptism) are not mere ‘tokens’ but are in fact effectual signs of God’s grace being invisibly worked in us… in other words the baptism is the means by which the grace comes.
XXVII. Of Baptism.
Article 27 is clear also – speaking specifically about Baptism, it declares that it is not only a sign of profession, but is in fact the very instrument through which we are grafted into the church – i.e. it is through Baptism that God pours forth the grace of God to adopt us as His children.
It is clear then, from the catechism and Articles that if we are to call ourselves Anglican, that we must hold to the belief that Baptism is not merely a ‘sign or seal’, but that it is in fact an outward and visible sign of the invisible grace of God acting in the soul of the person baptised. Baptism therefore does bestow the grace of God, which leads to us dying to sin and being reborn to righteousness. We are transformed through baptism to become ‘children of grace’ rather than the children of wrath we were born as and for this reason Baptism is generally necessary for salvation.
Then of course in the Nicene Creed we declare that we "acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins"... Through baptism then, our sins are remitted - in other words we acknowledge that God has established Baptism as the primary way in which we receive the Grace of forgiveness bought for us through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The baptism is not the thing that saves us - we are saved by the grace of God, through faith. However God has given us baptism as a means by which to receive that grace, We are called to put our faith in Jesus, that faith is enough to save us, but Jesus gave us baptism as a way to experience that saving grace in a real, tangible way.
Am I arguing then that someone can be baptised as an infant and then live a life without faith and still be saved? No. Of course not. Baptism pours out grace, the grace of forgiveness and adoption, but just as with any gift (grace means unmerited gift) we need to accept it, and we accept the gift of forgiveness and adoption given in Baptism by putting our faith in Jesus - it is the faith that actually unlocks the grace - it is the faith that saves us. So the baby is baptised in anticipation of their own faith, with promises made to raise that child in the faith of the church. If they as an adult reject the faith, the grace (unmerited gift) they have received is also rejected.
There is a lot of media attention at the moment about the appointment of The Rev Dr John Shepherd as the interim director of the Anglican Centre in Rome. The holder of the position essentially acts as an ambassador of the Anglican Communion to the Holy See - so it is a position of significant importance, and the holder of the post needs to be someone that can represent the official position of the Anglican church in ecumenical dialogue. This should be a person that can be supported by the broad spectrum of Anglican churchmanship - and also by the Vatican.
The problem is that Dr Shepherd is not such a person. Now I want to be clear I do not know Dr Shepherd personally, I do not make judgements about his general character as a man. I'm sure he is a perfectly nice guy - I can however make a judgement, based on his publicly espoused beliefs, that he should not be in this post, and in my opinion, that he should not be in Holy Orders.
Why? Because as reported in multiple places Dr Shepherd does not believe in the most fundamental of Christian doctrines - that Jesus rose from the dead. In fact he has preached this openly - during an Easter service of all places! He has also shared his view in op-ed pieces in the West Australian Newspaper. Why does that matter? Because as St Paul makes it clear in his first letter to the Corinthians:
.... if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. ... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Scripture then is clear - the resurrection of Jesus is absolutely fundamental to the Christian faith - and without that resurrection, the Christian faith is simply a waste of time.
So that raises some problems for Dr Shepherd. If he rejects the resurrection, he then declares Christianity and its teaching - as St Paul says useless - and the scriptures to be false.
How then can he even be in holy orders? Surely if he no longer believes the faith he vowed to uphold at his ordination (assuming he believed it then) he should stand down. Yet he doesn't stand down and instead he is rewarded for his blatant heresy, by being put into a high profile representative role.
This of course tells us a couple of things - the process for appointing someone to this significant role is very flawed, and there is also a fundamental problem within the Anglican Communion and within the Anglican Church of Australia which allows clergy who are openly espousing views in direct contradiction to their vows of ordination to not only get away with it, but get promoted into positions of authority and major significance. Dr Shepherd should not have been the Dean of Perth, and he certainly shouldn't be director of the Anglican Centre..
This is not an isolated incident, we have seen this previously with clergy in the Australian church. Rod Bower in Gosford, who as David Ould has reported, openly says Jesus didn't die for our sins, and that there is no such thing as heaven or hell, and also that God isn't a divine being was rather than being disciplined for heresy, made an Archdeacon. I could point to many more.
I have no doubt that there are many Anglican (and other) clergy out there who over time may come to have views contrary to the position of the church. Over non fundamental things this isn't really a problem, but when we find ourselves with clergy who stand up in church each Sunday and recite the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed because they don't actually believe it, that is unacceptable.
It is unacceptable because it shows an incredible lack of integrity on behalf of the church leadership which stands by and lets these people lie to their congregations, to their colleagues and to the wider society they serve when in leadership roles. It also shows an incredible lack of integrity from those who are happy to continue to stand in front of their congregation each week, and take the stipend (salary) which is paid for through their donations, while not actually believing in, or upholding the faith they vowed to uphold when they were ordained.
To be clear, I am not asking for clergy to be perfect, and I am not asking for everyone to believe and behave identically - The Anglican tradition is broad, and we have room for evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics and Charismatics alike. I understand that there are areas within the Christian faith which are more grey than black and white, and that we can agree to disagree on those, without compromising our faith or the Gospel message. But when an ordained man or woman no longer believes in the fundamentals of the Christian faith, when they can no longer honestly recite the creeds of the church, they need to stand down - and if they won't, then the church leadership needs to deal with it - by removing them from ministry.
Daryl is a priest and chaplain living in regional New South Wales Australia. Learn more on the About page.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my church or any other organisation I am affiliated with.