The Theologian - The internet journal for integrated theology




The Church of England

by Christopher Ash


Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ-- their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 1v1-3

"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me - just as the Father knows me and I know the Father--and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life— only to take it up again. No-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father." At these words the Jews were again divided.

Many of them said, "He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?" But others said, "These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?"  John 10v14-21

Jesus says, They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.  Paul writes …to the church of God in Corinth… together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours.

What is the Church? "Our Church is medieval", we say, meaning the building. "When did you go into the Church?" I am asked, meaning the ordained ministry. "What Church do you belong to?", meaning perhaps a local parish Church or perhaps a denomination, "The Church of England" or "The Methodist Church".

But what is the Christian Church? I want us to consider this against a background of controversy. Our new Archbishop has been in office a fortnight. And as we know, his appointment has been surrounded by sometimes heated debate. We must pray for him and his family; it is a time of stress for them; and Dr. Rowan Williams is entrusted with a great responsibility under God.

Wisely or unwisely, I decided to give three sermons to substantial issues in the controversy. Most of us hear only sound-bites in the media, slanted this way or that by editors.

The controversy is not personal; Dr. Williams is a likeable man and an able scholar. He says many good things; and he says them well. As one early Church father, St. Jerome, said of the brilliant but erratic theologian Origen, "where he wrote well, nobody wrote better". Origen was a brilliant theologian but something of a loose cannon, firing sometimes on the mark, sometimes well off it. I fear Dr. Williams may be similar; where he speaks well, few can speak better. But he does not always speak within the bounds of Christian truth. And that is a problem.

Two weeks ago we began with the authority of Holy Scripture in the Church; I spoke of how we must bow before this authority; it is, as someone has said, the sceptre by which the Lord Jesus rules his Church. I expressed my worries that Dr. Williams feels free to take liberties with scripture I do not think he ought to take.

Last week I spoke, with reluctance, about homosexual practice. Not a central issue. But forced on us. For the Archbishop has repeatedly stated in public that he hopes the Church of England will move to recognise and validate faithful same-sex relationships. I tried to explain the main reasons why this is false teaching. And it is a new situation. If people had told us ten years ago that in 2002 we would have an Archbishop saying these things we would have dismissed them as scaremongers.

So this week I want to consider what it is to be a Christian Church, what our new Archbishop means for us as an Anglican Church. I know that some here are not Anglicans; you watch from the sidelines with some puzzlement the fracas on the pitch.

Some say, 'who cares?' Does a bit of unorthodoxy matter so long as it is spiced with some good stuff elsewhere? I have little sympathy with that attitude, I'm afraid. Truth matters, even if our culture says it doesn't.

But then others say, "After all, we have had bishops before who have not believed all sorts of things. And we've carried on. We even had a Bishop of Durham who denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, which is more than Dr. Williams does. So what's the fuss?"

Others take what I call the IDS view. This is the argument that the cause is not going particularly well in the country and the last thing we need is internal squabbling. Even if Ian Duncan-Smith (or in our case Rowan Williams) may not be our leader of choice, let's at least be loyal for the sake of the party. That's another view.

Then others say, "No, it is serious. It is a matter of integrity. I cannot be associated with a denomination with such teachings from its Archbishop. I must leave." That is another view.

Well, what should we do, if anything? It would be nice to think that I could be the Referee; I could blow my whistle, point firmly in one direction and you would all cooperate. But I know you wouldn't; at least I hope you wouldn't, not just because I said something. For my calling is to teach the Christian faith from scripture and to try to make the issues clearer.

I have three headings


A. What is the Universal Church?

The Church is called into being by Jesus Christ. Christ calls; Christ gathers; Christ adds to the Church; Christ builds his Church. It is his flock gathered as his sheep heed his voice (our 2nd reading). He gathers by his voice; he leads by his word.

In our 1st reading from 1 Corinthians 1, Paul speaks of it as "sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints", that is called out into a new community belonging to God in Christ. It is those who "call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ". We are the branches of Christ the true vine. She is the bride of Christ the bridegroom. It is the body of Christ. It is his flock. The Church is defined by and created by and sustained by the Lord Jesus Christ. It has no authenticity apart from him.

And because there is one God and one Shepherd, there is one flock. At the end of time there will be one people gathered around the throne. Millions upon millions, women and men of every nation, tribe and language. There will not be millions of isolated individuals privately worshipping. Nor will there be distinct groups gathering around different thrones to worship in their different ways. But one flock gathered around one shepherd.

This is what we mean in the Nicene Creed when we say we believe in "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church".

One, not many.

Holy, that is called out to belong to God.

Catholic, that is universal – all Christians in every time and every place.

Apostolic, that is founded upon the word of Christ, the teaching of the apostles, what we call the New Testament, and the Old Testament on which they built.

So this is the Church. The Lord Jesus calls the Church into being. Christianity defines the Church; the Church does not define Christianity. We do not discover what Christianity is by sociology, by conducting a survey of what people who call themselves Christians believe. Rather, as one famous theologian put it, the Church is the crater formed by the impact of the word of God on earth.

Well, says someone, that sounds all very grand, but rather abstract. I do believe in one holy catholic apostolic Church. I look forward to that day when we bow down together, 'lost in wonder love and praise'. But what about now and here? After all, what you and I experience as Church is the people we meet face to face week by week; this is what visible Church actually is. What does this doctrine mean for the visible Church?

Answer: a lot. That Christ calls the Church into existence by his word, means that the word of Christ defines the Church.


B. What is a visible Church?

Here is the beginning of Article 19 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England. It is a definition closely echoing others produced by the great Reformers both in this country and in continental Europe.

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men (in the old inclusive sense, both genders), in the which the pure Word of God is preached (pure, that is, without unscriptural additions of the medieval Roman Church – and we might add, without the subtractions of some modern teachers), and the Sacraments (that is, Baptism and Holy Communion or Lord's Supper) be duly ministered …

The central point is that it is the preaching of the pure word of God (with the sacraments, which are visible 'words'), that defines a local Church and makes it a real local expression of the universal Church. This is the litmus test. The Church is not defined by the purity of its members but by the faithfulness of its message. Which is why there is in the New Testament such a massive concern with false teachers; for false teaching undoes the glue that holds the Church together and strikes at the heart of its authenticity.

But I want to add one thing which was taken as read by the Reformers who shaped the 39 Articles. It is true that a local Church is a Church; it is not a fragment of the Church. It is a full local expression of the Church of God. Nevertheless we must remember that we will not stand alone; no local Church is to be an isolated congregation. On the last day we will be in a much greater gathering. As Paul reminds the Church in Corinth, they are together with all those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours.

That is to say, our local Churches are part of a connected Church. We share with every other Church in which the pure Word of God is preached a common Lord. And therefore we are connected. The earliest Churches recognised this. The apostles taught not just for one Church but for all the Churches. Paul organised a collection from some Churches for the needy in other Churches. Connected, a common Lord, a common teaching and a common concern for one another.

All this, so long as there is a common apostolic teaching. From quite early on we meet false teachers. Most of the New Testament letters were written to correct wrong teaching. Some of these teachers arose from within the Churches. Some of them were very clever. A visible Church may call itself a Church but not be a Church in any authentic spiritual sense; in the visionary language of Revelation the Lord Jesus may remove its lampstand from its place.

It is the gospel that defines the Church. A denomination, such as the Church of England, is one form (often a helpful form) of connectedness between local Churches. It is not the only form; as we know, we may belong to, and enjoy fellowship with, another local Church whether or not it is a part of the Anglican communion, so long as the word of God is preached there.

The connectedness of a denomination strengthens or weakens not primarily in proportion to the centralisation of its institutional framework, but in proportion to its gospel unity. The closer a denomination is to the gospel (both in its doctrinal formularies and in its general tone and leadership), the stronger will be the connectedness. A local Church with a commitment to the gospel will have a strong and natural bond with all other Churches that share that commitment, a stronger bond than merely institutional ties.

But when a denomination weakens commitment to the biblical gospel, the spiritual bonds are weakened. Gospel unity is strong unity; merely institutional unity is fragile unity.

This is not a matter of absolute black and white, whereby some denominations are pure and others impure; there is no such thing as a pure denomination. Church history strongly suggests that the search for the perfect denomination, while it is associated with first generation zeal, leads inexorably to second generation disillusion and fragmentation; it breeds a mentality that is endlessly fissiparous. Like cooking without gluten, it crumbles.

But although no denomination is or can be pure in this age (and in the next they will not exist!), the fact remains that a stronger gospel commitment leads to a stronger unity, and a weaker gospel commitment tends to division.

It is against this background of the doctrine of the Church that we must consider the practical question facing us.


C. Does the appointment of an Archbishop matter to us?

The answer (in characteristically Anglican terms!) is 'Yes' and 'No'.

On the one hand, yes. It must weaken our spiritual affinity with the Church of England as a denomination. For although the Archbishop is not the Head of the Church of England (and certainly not the Head of the Anglican Church in other Provinces), he is the public figurehead of the Anglican communion worldwide – which is many times bigger than the Anglicans in England.

His words attract greater publicity than most other Anglican spokesmen put together. And over his years as Archbishop he will be influential in senior appointments, particularly of diocesan bishops. For he chairs the Crown Appointments Commission. And because he is such a public figurehead our PCC will need to consider if there is some symbolic way in which we want to distance ourselves from his teachings where they are wrong. We certainly want it to be clear we do not share them.

On the sensitive issue of sexual ethics Dr. Williams is unlikely to make the brave stand that Archbishop George Carey did. Although Dr. Williams has said he will uphold the teaching of the denomination, he cannot easily make a firm stand, since he has publicly said he hopes the denomination will change its mind on these issues. And it may be that we shall see more diocesan bishops of like mind with Dr. Williams being appointed. Who knows?

But all this weakens our sense of spiritual identification with the Church of England as a denomination. Personally I am glad to be an Anglican Christian; I think there are significant spiritual strengths in our traditions; we have a Christian presence with open doors into all manner of areas of our society - Schools, prisons, hospitals, local communities. This counteracts our tendency to retreat into the ghetto. An ordinand on placement here came visiting with me and commented that his Free Church friends would give their right arm for the openings he saw just in one hour or so.

There is still a sense in which the Church of England is the national Church; and I am glad to be part of it. But this appointment dampens my enthusiasm. If we care for the gospel it is bound to weaken our spiritual affinity with the Church of England. And I think that is sad. For I think the Church of England is worth striving for; struggling and praying for its Christian integrity.

But having said that this appointment is damaging to the unity of the denomination (which I fear it is), we must not overstate the case. We must remember that the Archbishop is not a Pope.

What is an Archbishop? I had to ask myself this question when the controversy arose. It is not a question most of us spend much time asking! The media paint the Archbishop as a quasi-Pope. Like the alien coming out of the spaceship they love to say, "Take me to your leader" and to assume there is one hierarchical leader whose word rules. But thank God the Church of England is not like that. And we need to educate our society and perhaps ourselves to grasp that. We must never encourage that perception.

Bishops have limited powers over parochial clergy; and Archbishops have very limited power over Bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury is by tradition and courtesy the senior Bishop in the Anglican communion, the first among equals. He is no more than that.

It has been so ever since the Reformation. When Thomas Cranmer became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 at the time of the break with Rome he very much wanted to throw his weight behind Reformation. He found it very difficult. He had almost no influence over the northern Province of York. All he could do there was write a polite letter to the Archbishop of York asking him to cooperate in reform – which, by and large, he did not.

He had some success in his own diocese of Canterbury. But when in 1534 he embarked on a formal visitation of the other dioceses in his Province, he had very mixed success. For the bishops unsympathetic to his cause obstructed him with great success. In fact he gave up the visitation after a while. The Reformation only continued because Henry VIII weighed in with the Royal power exercised through Thomas Cromwell. The Archbishop could not change the Church of England by his power.

It is much the same today. The Archbishop of Canterbury does not tell the Bishops what to believe or teach or do; they wouldn't do it if he tried, unless persuaded it was right! And he certainly doesn't tell me what to believer or teach or do; and I wouldn't pay attention unless persuaded that it was biblical!

Personally I am grateful that our Diocesan Bishop is orthodox both in his teaching and practice of Church discipline in sexual ethics. I am grateful too for his warm support and encouragement. But even if in the future we were to have a Bishop who was not orthodox, my integrity would not be compromised. I have promised to uphold the doctrine of the Church of England in which scripture is supreme; I hope I shall do so. To maintain my integrity I must publicly disagree where I believe the Archbishop is wrong; but his wrongness is his problem not mine. So long as the doctrinal basis of the denomination is biblical, which it is.

Were the basis to be changed, that would be different. It is possible that there will come an autocratic liberal ascendancy (though not I think through Dr. Williams, whose own instincts are far from autocratic). It is possible that we shall move towards the unhappy state of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., or of some Dioceses in the Anglican Church in Canada (notably the Diocese of New Westminster). I, and others like me might be forced out. I hope it will never come to that. But unless that happens, I remain.

So we must not overstate the importance of the Archbishop; he is not a Pope.

There are, it seems to me, more important matters than the Archbishop. What is more important is that the denomination encourage and support mission and not be a hindrance to it. We live in a needy world; a dark world desperate for the light of Christ. We need to pray that our denomination will facilitate mission.

That means enabling workers to be recruited and trained and sent out and given open doors of opportunity, places to serve. This means the continued existence of evangelical theological colleges. It means parish boundaries not being an excuse for territorial jealousy, but being interpreted flexibly in line with the radical demands of mission. It means money being put to gospel use and not to the support of wrong teaching.

If the denomination is or becomes an obstacle to these things, well then we have a problem. For our loyalty to the gospel of Christ must come before any denominational loyalty.

But so long as we can recruit and train and send workers; so long as we can use our money with integrity for the gospel; so long as we can go where there is no gospel ministry and reach people with the light of Christ – so long as we can do these things, well, let's do them. So let us as a visible local Church take care; let us think clearly to recognise false teaching and distance ourselves from it; let us watch and pray and witness and work for Christ for all we're worth.

Christopher AshAbout the Author

Christopher Ash is the Director of the Cornhill Training Course in London, and was previously the minister of All Saints Church, Little Shelford, near Cambridge. He is the author of Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (IVP 2003) and Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the book of Job (IVP 2004).