TAKING LIBERTIES?

Charles Raven comments on the Kidderminster stance

 

SINCE SEPTEMBER last year St John's Kidderminster has been receiving a surprising amount of media attention. We are an ordinary parish church, growing but not spectacularly, in a relatively obscure corner of north Worcestershire. So why the interest? It lies in the fact that we have been forced into a choice between faith and order stemming from the current Bishop of Worcester's now notorious denigration of the biblical model for human sexuality affirmed by the Lambeth Conference Resolution 1.10 and his public support for the proponents of homosexual sex. This has of course been a testing time for the congregation, for myself and for my family. But it has also been a time of testing for the wider Church of England in that it has added considerable momentum to a process of disclosure in which the increasingly dysfunctional trends in episcopal leadership have been starkly exposed.

And what is being revealed is full of foreboding for the future because we see a church which is unable to hold itself together on any consistent biblical basis, but has to resort to spin and the assorted carrots and sticks of organisational manipulation in an increasingly obsessive drive to preserve its institutional shell. It is a poignant paradox that the mother church of a Communion with a motto text which includes the words 'the truth shall set you free' (John 8:32) has become captive to the habit of taking such liberties with the truth.

The latest episode of the 'Kidderminster Stand' illustrates the point only too well. Although a substantial parish church, St John's is nominally part of a team ministry. This arrangement has never been popular and became even less so last year when irregular means were used in an attempt to install a liberal as team rector based at one of the two smaller churches. The attempt failed, but for St John's Church Council it was the final straw and a resolution was passed calling for the team to be dissolved. Not surprisingly, the vacancy lapsed to the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was the context of the visit to Kidderminster by the Lambeth Chief of Staff, Bishop Richard Llewellyn and an assistant. Even the carefully contrived letter now being sent out to enquirers by Lambeth Palace is barely able to hide the truth, which is simply that I was told that if I had any integrity, I would resign. This may not in formal terms be a direct request, but when such an observation comes from a Bishop representing the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is clearly more than an academic point about ecclesiastical law. Moreover the point was repeated in a separate meeting with St John's churchwardens who are told that if they were in agreement with their vicar they should leave the Church of England.

The Bishop at Lambeth was, of course, only doing his job, but what a shaft of illumination this incident brings. A clergyman who is simply trying to be consistent and faithful to his ordination vows in upholding biblical teaching, as affirmed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion as a whole, is told he has a moral duty to resign while a bishop who openly supports those who promote homosexual practice - in direct contradiction of the teaching of Scripture and the Church - continues in office unrebuked. In this context it is worth noting that the Archbishop refused to comment publicly on Reform's open letter in December last year calling for Peter Selby's resignation or the provision of alternative oversight for St John's. The decision to put pressure on me to resign makes it even more difficult to resist the conclusion that what really matters for the Church of England today is not faithfulness to Christ and its biblical inheritance, but the maintenance of its house rules and organisational self-preservation at all costs. Precisely the same understanding of the church was reflected in Richard Holloway's description of me as 'schismatic' (BBC Radio 4, 'File on Four' 28th March 2000) while he carries on being recognised as a bishop in good standing despite his challenge to key elements of the creeds and his public support for various forms of sexual perversion and drug taking. This of course is a pattern of priorities familiar on the international stage, most recently the failure of the Oporto communiqué to address the flouting of Lambeth 1.10 as any more than a manifestation of regional differences.

The Singapore consecrations, from the 'top down' and St John's stand (and that of other parishes in the UK and the US) from the 'bottom up' have in common a willingness to embrace principled irregularity for the sake of biblical integrity. In a properly functional church order works as a servant of faith and is recognised as authoritative for that reason. But where matters of order, for instance the territorial claims of bishops, are used to buttress unbelief and serious error, faith must take priority.

I believe there is a prophetic quality to these actions. The Anglican Communion is at a crossroads not dissimilar in spiritual terms to that facing Ahaz King of Judah during the ministry of Isaiah. Ahaz was threatened by an alliance of Syria and Israel. Deeply fearful, he wavered between a politically expedient alliance with Assyria on the one hand and trust in God's promises on the other. Isaiah's words 'If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all' (Isaiah 7:9) make it crystal clear that there has to be a definite decision. Faith, if it is to be really faith, cannot be combined with a bit of political reinsurance as a plan B. But Ahaz, under the guise of apparently piety in not wishing to put the Lord to the test, fails his test and from that point on Judah becomes effectively a vassal state of Assyria, with all the dire consequences that will bring. There is enormous sadness in Isaiah's subsequent rebuke to Ahaz 'you have forsaken the gently flowing streams of Shiloah' (8:6). The streams of Shiloah referred to the water supply of Jerusalem flowing from the Kidron spring outside the city walls. This symbolised God's provision, but it must have seemed to seemed to Ahaz vulnerable and unimpressive. The contrast is with the mighty River Euphrates of Assyria, but this river will actually be the source of Jerusalem's destruction 'therefore the Lord is about to bring against them the mighty floodwaters of the River' (8:7). The expedient man-made strategy to secure survival is driven by fear rather than faith, leading ultimately to collapse. A fearful church that relies on spin, carrot and stick cannot defy this spiritual law indefinitely

So what of the future? I am aware of a number of 'continuing' Anglican churches or communions and there is an obvious attraction in resolving all the tensions of seeking a revitalised Anglicanism by making a fresh start. It is possible that we might be left with no alternative if the twin trends of the drive towards centralisation and the drift away from biblical and apostolic faith continue unchecked. However, we are not yet at that point and there are a spectrum of possibilities still to be developed, the pros and cons of which do not need further rehearsal by me, except to say that the PEV system simply doesn't answer in our case because our dispute is doctrinal rather than specifically sacramental. Moreover, as a form of extended oversight, the legal aces remain in the hands of the diocesan and I do not have the protection of the parson's freehold.

But whatever the various structural strategies people adopt for the future, there is a pointer to a spiritual strategy in Isaiah's response to Ahaz' rejection of the way of faith. A discipleship group emerges committed to God's Word - 'Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples' (8:16). A spiritual remnant emerges within the decayed and politicised religious society of Judah, gathered around the written word of God. While we do not know what shape the Church of England or the Anglican Communion will take in the future, there is a biblical model here in which those who are committed to faithful witness relate together within informal networks, characterised by faith, repentance and hope. Practically speaking, this is now much more feasible through the growth of the internet and modern communications. It is already an emergent form of association within the Anglican Communion and its spiritual life and direction will no doubt be found increasingly in international networks of the 'remnant'. Whether this remnant will be the stimulus for reform or the basis for separate reconstructed provinces, even a separate Communion, only time will reveal. I hope it could be the former -and the likelihood of reform rather than reconstruction will be much greater if congregations like mine are given the freedom and space they seek.

Charles Raven is parish priest of St John, Kidderminster.

To find out more and follow events in Kidderminster, visit the web site at: http://www.themelios.org.uk

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