Not too long ago I had written out a post on liberalism, particularly in the Church of England. It was precipitated by a mixture of a piece in the Telegraph and some interactions my wife had with a liberal anglo-catholic friend. However after reading Anthony Smith‘s take on the Telegraph article I’ve found myself reforming my views on the subject or rather at least how I articulate them.

In the issue of liberalism I find my attitudes framed rather well by the tension between characters like John Stott and his counterpart Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 60’s. Stott, a faithful Anglican professed to being a witness seeking to reform the CoE. Lloyd-Jones an Evangelical minister calling for all-evangelicals to not associate with denominations with liberal wings. Some days I side with Stott, some days with Lloyd-Jones. So the Telegraph article in question naturally caught my interest when it detailed a group of Evangelical Anglicans potentially taking steps to formally break away whilst still trying to remain distinctly Anglican.

As Anthony Smith rightfully points out in his article little to no means exists for any churches that did break away to do so easily. With Women’s ordination Anglicans who wished to rejoin the Catholic church had to give up their buildings. I imagine nothing would change with any subsequent ecclesial break with the CoE. Its not impossible however, in the case of the ACNA / Episcopalian split in the US this has been attempted. Attempts to hold onto church buildings by local congregations have resulted in a flurry of  lawsuits initiated by the denomination against the congregations as a result of their actions with mixed results.

Anthony Smith also highlights that their are provisions for those who disagree on issues of theology already within the CoE meaning no one has to compromise.

Those who hold to the traditional teaching, by and large, are able to just get on with their ministry, without hindrance. The cost of breaking away would be so great, and the pressing urgency to leave is simply nonexistent (for the majority), so it really ain’t going to happen.

Anthony Smith, The CofE is not about to split – 2016

The distinction here however is in regard to a formal split. I wonder however, if functionally at least amongst laity, there is already an informal split between conservative and liberal wings of the Church of England already. Practices such as the fostering or habilitation of Zen Meditation or Islamic Prayer are acceptable to perhaps liberals but anathema to conservatives. Attitudes towards female bishops (or priests) and any potential future concession regarding homosexuality may only exacerbate the divide. The provision of flying bishops to take into account these divisions is arguably leading to a church within a church system. What starts off as a grassroots division is gradually taking on a ecclesial role which whilst on paper is still united but in reality is increasingly segregated in both creed, commissioning and culture.

The first leavers were the Anglo-Catholics but the second might be the Evangelicals. The sentiments expressed by many earlier anglo-catholic leavers I find on the lips of many evangelical lay people.

I left the Church of England because there was a huge bundle of straw. The ordination of women was the last straw, but it was only one of many. For years I had been disillusioned by the Church of England’s compromising on everything. The Catholic Church doesn’t care if something is unpopular. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned if it’s true it’s true, and if it’s false it’s false. The issue over women priests was not only that I think it’s theologically impossible to ordain women, it was the nature of the debate that was the damaging thing, because instead of the debate being “Is this theologically possible?” the debate was “If we don’t do this we won’t be acceptable to the outside world”. To me, that was an abdication of the Church’s role, which is to lead, not to follow.

Ann Widdecombe, New Statesman Interview 2010

So whilst no formal split may occur and no evangelical equivalent to the Roman Catholic church exists to help facilitate the rehabilitation of leavers (unless you count GAFCON). This doesn’t necessarily mean business as usual. The compromise of the Anglican via media increasingly is isolating itself from both the Catholic and the Orthodox in addition to the overwhelming majority of Protestants. Over time it is likely the Conservative Evangelical wing of the Church of England is the one that will suffer as a result of this arrangement.

  • Conservative clergy will wane in influence in the face of continued acceptance of liberal attitudes and theology.
  • Conservative clergy will increasingly see no problem adopting more liberal attitudes themselves over time leading to the erosion of conservative numbers.
  • Conservative laity will be progressively deterred from considering ordination in a liberalising institution
  • Conservative laity will increasingly find it easier to fall into denominations outside of Anglicanism and Evangelicals outside the church will be deterred from joining an existing Anglican congregation.

When I think about this whole thing I’m reminded of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?  That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.  ‘A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.’

Galatians 5:7-9

The yeast in this essence I think is the influence of other parties working through to change the whole body. Over time theology matters less than the structure our institutions take and the practices they encourage, the formal cohabitation of liberal and conservative wings over time is by nature a liberal action. Conservative doesn’t just mean ‘traditional’ but is linked etymologically to the word ‘conservation’. Yet we are no longer conserving the denomination in the practices and beliefs that have defined the CoE over time. Instead we are ring fencing a small facet in a broader spectrum of increasingly diverging beliefs and practices as one equivalent option among many. The biggest losers in all of this are genuine conservative Anglicans. Free range evangelicals can go independent at worst and the liberals will keep pushing boundaries which so far haven’t been definitively reached within Anglicanism. Any attempt to navigate this tension is done with the feelings of the respective parties being the primary consideration, this is a reactive mindset akin to therapy. The actual goal of any ‘discussions‘ or ‘listening‘ seems to be to continuously assuage the feelings of the respective parties till they are comfortable with cohabitation, or at least less concerned.

Maybe I’m too strict and narrow in my definition of Anglicanism, many will probably disagree with the outlook I’ve put forward. Even many evangelicals sit somewhere between the conservative and liberal divide. Yet I believe that some measure of church discipline should be put upon those in leadership who stray from the boundaries of orthodoxy. Some may say such a thing already occurs but I think thats wrong as several public examples testify that this is largely dependent of which bishops clergy serve under. To do anything less is, in the words of Ann Widdecombe is “an abdication of the Church’s role, which is to lead, not to follow”. Whatever it is the Church of England is doing it isn’t leading, its being lead. This isn’t to say the Church should become overbearing or aggressive but instead clear and consistent on its teaching in a pastoral fashion as best maintained from the time of Christ irrespective of our current cultures circumstances.

There isn’t a final word spoken yet, so time will tell what the fate of the Church of England will be. Yet even in the process of ‘conversations’ and ‘listening’ the ground is moving under the Churches feet. Maybe I’ll be wrong but if the Church doesn’t change I don’t think clergy would be crazy if they did consider leaving the Church. Where they go afterwards however is an even tougher question.

3 thoughts on “Liberalism and schism in the Church of England

  1. Great article, and thanks for the mention! It’s difficult to know what will happen. The CofE has massive inertia, and any significant change to its official doctrines would take years. There’s also a limit to how broad things can be, with Diocesan bishops trying to hold things together. And the culture is changing rapidly in all sorts of ways. But there is also a huge tendency to be relaxed about discipline, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. We can pray on!


    1. Thanks for the response! Your post on the initial article was really useful I thought. My initial reaction was a little rash and you’re writing certainly challenged me on this. I think this talk of an informal or cultural split is at least present in my mind, if nowhere else, because it raises too many questions to attempt to reconcile the various perspectives views. Again though, that might be a fault on my part and no one elses.

      I don’t think anyone can predict where the CofE will end up but we can pray (and I do!).


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