I was intrigued earlier this week to discover that two evangelical groups, Reform and the Fellowship of Word and Spirit, are to merge under the banner of another conservative evangelical group: the Church Society. The rationale for the merger is to create greater unity among evangelicals opposed to (further) liberalization in the Church of England, in respect of issues relating to gender and sexuality.
Institutional mergers, in all walks of life, are interesting things. A positive narrative is, of course, always spun to support the merger (scale, efficiency, unity etc) but, the real driver is frequently fear. Somehow or other institutions tend to believe in an unspoken line that suggests that bigger is safer. I am never convinced by this line of reasoning. In fact I would suggest that the history of mergers, at least in the corporate world, shows that they tend to fail, sometimes quite catastrophically. The reason is simple: combining two piles of trouble (anxiety, fear etc) in some ways only ends up creating one bigger pile of trouble (anxiety, fear etc). Mergers can work, but they tend not to when they are just a structural attempt to solve a strategic, political, or theo-political problem. So will the newly enlarged Church Society be more successful in combating progressive tendencies than Reform and the Fellowship of Word and Spirit were as two separate entities? Possibly, but, probably not, would be my guess.
Of course some progressives were left scratching their heads in wonder at the suggestion that the Church of England is embracing progressive theologies, particularly in relation to ‘issues of human sexuality’ (church code for homosexuality). Where, they have asked, is the evidence that the Church of England has gone ‘mega liberal?’ And, up to a point its a valid question. I say, up to a point, because last week in his interview with the Church Times I began to detect a shift in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rhetoric. Now, to be clear, I think caution needs to be exercised when analyzing precisely what ++Justin means, and where he is trying to lead the debate. I also recognize that I might be being just a tad overoptimistic.
I was intrigued by the title of the interview: ‘To bless and withhold blessing.’ Could this be a reflection of the dilemma that ++Justin faces in his leadership of the discussions over human sexuality (church code for homosexuality)? Surely, he knows that at some stage he will have to come down on one side of the argument or the other? Is he going to argue for a church which does, or does not, permit same-sex relationships to be blessed in some way, shape, or form? My gut feeling is that he is moving, purposefully and intentionally, in a vaguely progressive direction. Vaguely because I think he accepts that it is an inevitability that there will be changes in some, yet to be defined, way, shape or form. My only ‘evidence’ for this is some of his replies (which I hope were given after serious consideration). Let’s look at some of the statements ++Justin made:
‘One of the other changes, I hope, I think, has been that both the College and the House of Bishops have become more willing to discuss – the last meeting was a very good one – more open, more collegial. And, that’s not something I’ve just brought in: it’s happened steadily, with a common view of that happening. But, what this means is you can raise subjects and actually chew them over together, and that reopens your room for manoeuvre.’
Could it just be that the bishops have, at last, realized that unity is not to be found in uniformity and, that disagreement and divergence is not only okay, but that ‘disagreeing well,’ is a sign of health and vitality? It might seem a statement of the obvious but if ‘disagreeing well,’ is to be a guiding ecclesiological motif it needs to be modeled in, by and through the episcopacy!
I was also struck by the extent to which ++Justin was keen to distance himself from William Taylor and the approach that he, and those who adopt similar critiques, of ‘disagreeing well’ endorse:
‘Well, I’ve never been that close to William. I’ve met him a couple of dozen times over the last forty years, I guess. I’m very reluctant to disagree with him on this, but I don’t agree with his biblical view on that. I think that when you look through, particularly, Paul’s letter to the Romans, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, the latter part of Philippians, Ephesians – I could go on and on – a lot of the underlying theme is how a Church that was extraordinarily diverse, particularly between Jews and non-Jews, found its unity in Jesus Christ, although it disagreed on numerous things, most fundamentally about the application of the law.’
This statement, and to me it does read like a statement, is clearly thought through and argued with vigor. It doesn’t read to me as the thoughts of someone who thinks that one side in the debate is going to win at the expense of the other. It reads as an endorsement of different integrities ‘in Jesus Christ,’ alongside a pragmatic acceptance of the inevitability of change in some way, shape or form. Maybe the comment that ‘we don’t have to tick exactly the same boxes, but we do have to be devoted to Christ as Lord; we need to be caught up in the love of God, in Jesus Christ,’ also confronts the reality of divergence and change? I may be reading too much in to this but is it also possible that its not really about William Taylor (the Rector of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate), as an individual, but rather William Taylor as an archetype for all, including some bishops, who disagree with the notion of ‘disagreeing well?’ Maybe its these sorts of reflections that has got Reform, the Fellowship of Word and Spirit, and the Church Society so concerned?
Reform, Word and Spirit, the Church Society and no doubt a fair few other evangelicals will remain unhappy with the idea of different integrities but it does seem to be the track that is now being carefully laid.
My final piece of supporting evidence is ++Justin’s comments in relation to the Episcopal Teaching Document: ‘Its not coming to find a conclusion (good – my addition). It’s a mapping out the areas of our agreement and disagreement always around the themes of missiology and theological anthropology and general anthropology; and looking at the culture, biblical theology and the history and patristic theology. Those four great themes……..the outcome of it, I hope, will be a much clearer map of the things we agree on, the things we disagree on: and the things we think are really serious disagreements, the most fundamental disagreements.’ This quote makes it crystal clear that a settled unified, enforced doctrinal outcome is not even remotely on the cards. Different integrities are here to stay.
Once the principle of different integrities is accepted (as it appears to have been by ++Justin) then in some way, shape or form change is inevitable. The ability ‘to bless and withhold blessing’ is on its way and I suspect that there is little that the merger of Reform and the Fellowship of Word and Spirit, under the banner of the Church Society, can do to prevent it.