Something momentous happened this week.
The Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA) announced they no longer recognize the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury as “first among equals.” What’s more, they say that in adopting “innovation in the liturgies of the Church and her pastoral practice” in order to bless same-sex sexual relationships, the Church of England has “departed from the historic faith passed down from the Apostles” and has thus “disqualified herself” from leading the Anglican Communion.
In choosing to move closer to the wishes of politicians and revisionist church leaders in the United Kingdom, the Church of England has signaled that her desire to stay as a “wife” to the state is greater than her desire to remain a “mother” to the worldwide Anglican Communion. Perhaps the fear of disestablishment and divorce from the state is greater than the fear of losing “the kids.”
But here’s what’s strange. If you read the headlines or peruse the news articles or listen to Church of England leaders who have promoted revisionist teaching, you get the impression it’s those pesky, stubborn African bishops who have chosen schism rather than “unity.” Everyone else just wants peace, to walk together in love. It’s the Global South that refuses to just “agree to disagree” and “maintain the bond of the unity.” It’s unfortunate, sad really—this schismatic impulse of those who pull away.
But this take is backward.
First of all, the Church of England and the other churches associated with the Anglican Communion that have adopted revisionist theologies in line with the sexual revolution make up a tiny proportion of the Anglicans who worship every Sunday around the world. The vast majority of today’s Anglicans are represented by the Global South and by theologically orthodox provinces. It’s not Africa that represents a small segment of the worldwide church breaking away; it’s the revisionists who are splintering off from the whole.
Second, bishops and priests in the Anglican Communion take vows to defend and promote official church teaching as expressed in the Thiry-nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal and the Book of Homilies, and more recently, the Lambeth Resolution 1.10 in the 1998 Lambeth Conference, which preserves the traditional teaching of Scripture and the church related to marriage and sexuality.
What does it mean, then, for bishops to deliberately defy these teachings upheld by the worldwide Communion or to advocate for positions that go against what they vowed to teach? Who is schismatic? The bishops and priests who remain faithful to their vows to promote biblical teaching or those who change the practice and then expect everyone else to ignore, downplay, or be OK with such doctrinal deviations? Certainly it’s not the Global South but the bishops and priests who, against their vows, introduce errors and heterodoxy and then expect everyone else to accept it and remain in full communion.
Third, when a group of people is walking together down a path and several depart from the group and begin to take a different path, how does it make sense for those walking in a new direction to chastise the main group for their “divisiveness”? And yet that’s exactly what we see today. All the language about “walking together” obscures the reality that some have walked off. It’s as if those who walk away now wag the finger at the bigger group, saying, “Why don’t you want to walk together anymore?”
Once again, who is the schismatic? Who has changed here? Who has walked off? Not the vast majority of Anglicans across the world but the shrinking subset of predominantly white churches who have adapted their policies in line with the state’s institutionalization of the sexual revolution’s revision of marriage. It makes no sense to label as “schismatic” the bishops and churches that remain in line with every Christian in history until just decades ago.
Coverage of these disputes often seems to lay blame for schism at the feet of those who uphold Christianity’s historic sexual ethic instead of those who advocate for a sexual revisionism that would have been unfathomable to the generations of the Christians who came before us and, even today, shocks the consciences of the vast majority of Christians outside the West. Only in Western cultures do we call churches “affirming.” Outside the West, the term is “apostate.”
Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg’s analysis in the late 1990s was prescient:
Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism.
This is schism brought about by those whose “cheap grace” is employed as justification for sexual immorality—the sort of situation the brother of Jesus warned against (Jude 4), which means that defending the faith (Jude 3) in this context is about the church’s moral witness to the sexual ethic handed down by Jesus and the apostles.
This isn’t about fundamentalist division. It’s about faithfulness in doctrine and fidelity to Christ. Don’t blame faithful Christians who cannot “walk together” with those who walk away from the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.”
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