Saturday, June 28, 2008


Given at GAFCON 2008


My brothers and sisters in Christ, as you know, we are here in extraordinary circumstances. The Anglican Communion stands at a crossroads and we have gathered in the Holy Land to enquire after the ancient paths so that we may discern for ourselves and the wider Church the path for the future that leads to life (Jeremiah 6:16). Let us not pretend that this Conference is not a sign of judgement, God’s judgement on our unfaithfulness as a Communion.

Thirty years ago, I was working on a doctorate on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were produced by a group of Jews who dissented from the worldly leadership of the Jerusalem priesthood and who set up a New Covenant community in the desert of Judea. They saw themselves repeating or rather continuing the Exile of 587 BC, when the nation had been overrun and a remnant sent to the waters of Babylon. The paradigm of Exile and Return is fixed in the Old Testament prophets and has been applied at critical moments in the Church’s history. Martin Luther, for instance, spoke of the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” by Rome. Each in his own way, George Herbert the Anglican and Richard Baxter, the Puritan, sought to restore the church from the ground up, producing two classics of pastoral care: The Country Parson and The Reformed Pastor.

So today it obliges us to retrace the paths which made the Church of England and its daughter churches great so that we may, with penitent hearts, seek God’s grace and guidance for the future of the Communion. In particular, I am addressing the topic of Anglican Ecclesiology, the doctrine of church, ministry and sacraments, and church discipline.

The Nature of the Church
We begin by asking about the nature of the church. Scripture gives no precise definition but rather a number of metaphors or analogies, two of which are of primary importance. The first is political, having to do with the Church and the Kingdom of God, as the Gospel introduces it: “Jesus came proclaiming: ‘the Kingdom of God is near’” (Mark 1:15). It is hard to translate Jesus’ use of “kingdom” properly; the idea of basileia is more a constitutional order, the result of a regime change, as it were. The Kingdom of God is in one sense an eschatological reality, coming to fulfillment in the end-time, but the regime change is starting now with the community around Jesus. The apostles are the first pupils of the Kingdom, learning its secrets in Parables and the Sermon on the Mount. They are its guardians, founded on the confession of Peter and given the keys of access (Matthew 16:19); and they are its witnesses (Acts 1:6-8), commanded to make and baptize more disciples until the end of the age. What unifies the end-time Kingdom with the present church is the Lordship of Christ as sovereign in this age and the age to come.

The Kingdom of God is inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection, which seal the new Covenant in His blood and empower it through the Holy Spirit and faith. The Church is the outpost of the Kingdom, and hence St. Paul can say:

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. (Ephesians 3:8-12)

The second analogy of the Church is an organic one: the Church as the Body of Christ. Again St. Paul says:

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink…. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27)

One can hardly imagine a more intimate, holistic metaphor for the relationship of Christ and the Church, although Paul uses a related one when he speaks of marriage, with Christ as the husband and the Church as the Bride (Ephesians 5:22-35). The relationships within the Triune God Himself are mirrored in His relation to the Church. When we say: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:14), we are acknowledging that our incorporation into Christ brings with it communion in the fullness of the Godhead, as St. Peter confesses: “that you may become partakers (koinonoi) of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4; cf. Ephesians 1:22-23).

The Attributes of the Church
Christian theology distinguishes between the invisible and visible church. According to Richard Hooker (Laws iii.1.2), the former “body mystical” cannot be “sensibly discerned by any man,” consisting, as the Westminster Confession (xxv.1) puts it, “of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof.” “The visible Church of Jesus Christ,” Hooker continues (Laws iii.1.3) “is therefore one, in outward profession of those things, which supernaturally appertain to the very essence of Christianity, and are necessarily required of every Christian man.” Just as the Kingdom of God is present yet imperfectly fulfilled in this age, and just as the individual Christian has received merely the first-fruits of the Spirit, so also the visible Church, the so-called Church Militant, is but a partial and imperfect manifestation of “the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). In this age, the true citizenship of the elect is “kept in heaven” (Philippians 3:20) and not identical with membership in the church or reception of the sacraments. Indeed, Jesus taught that the Kingdom is like a field sown with grain and weeds, which will only be separated at the last judgement (Matthew 13:24-30).

When we say in the Creed that we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church, we acknowledge the attributes of the church in perfection which are imperfectly realized in the church as found at any one place or time. The church is one in the sense that is confesses one God the Father and one Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6) and that this one God has only one elect communion of saints from all eternity, and “its division by discordant polities is an accident, contrary to its ideal” (H.C.G. Moule). The church is holy in that it is filled and transformed by the Holy Spirit. The church is catholic in that it is drawn from every nation, tribe, people, and language down to the end of the age (Revelation 7:9; Matthew 28:18-20). The church is apostolic in that it is founded on the truth of the Gospel proclaimed by the apostles in Scripture which is received by the hearing of faith (Ephesians 2:20; Romans 10:18-19) and passed on in the authentic teaching of the church (1 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Thessalonians 2:15).

The Marks of the Church
The marks of the Church are, according to the Reformers, those characteristics that distinguish a true church from a heretical church. The Homily for Whitsunday has the fullest definition of the marks among the Anglican formularies:

The true church is an universal congregation or fellowship of God’s faithful and elect people, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ being the head corner-stone. And it hath always three notes or marks, whereby it is known: Pure and sound doctrine; The sacraments ministered according to Christ’s holy institution; And the right use of ecclesiastical discipline.

This definition is broader than that of the Articles in that it speaks of a “universal congregation,” which may include what we today might call the worldwide (visible) church. By contrast, Article 19 is focused more locally:

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

It seems likely Cranmer had in mind the collective society of English congregations gathered for worship. The health of Christ’s church cannot be measured by ecumenical dialogues, or the Instruments of Unity, or even by bishops in their cathedrals, unless it is manifested in vital, faithful congregations. Anglicans are not congregationalists, but according to the Articles we experience the congregation to be the basic unit of church life.

Another emphasis of Article 19 is the centrality of Scripture, with its insistence that the “pure Word of God is preached.” Anglicans rightly pride themselves on their rich lectionary of Scripture readings at every service. However, it is equally important that Scripture be practically applied to the lives of the people. The famous Scripture Collect captures this aim:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that, by patience and comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ…

The people of the Church are to be hearers and readers of Scripture: note that the first East African converts were described as “readers” because the Bible was their first written text. Beyond that, the clergy are to help them discern the whole pattern of Scripture, the Old and New Testaments, and its culmination in the promise of salvation in Christ.

The marks of the church are not limited to preaching alone: the “due” administration of the sacraments is also necessary for the fullness of church life. It has been difficult for Anglicans to get this balance right. Evangelicals have relegated Holy Communion to an occasional service or tacked it on to a long service of preaching. Anglo-Catholics, on the other hand, have often treated preaching as no more than a grace note in crescendo to Communion. And charismatics often allow both notes to be drowned out in endless choruses of praise music.

It will be important for the future of Anglicanism that we claim our classic inheritance of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, marked by lively biblical preaching and reverent reception of the sacraments, in the spirit of worship and praise.

Finally, the third mark of the Church – discipline – is stated in the Homilies and either assumed in Article 19 or subsumed under the words “faithful men” and “duly administered.” Church discipline has been badly neglected in the Anglican tradition and is at the heart of the current troubles of the Communion, so I have reserved a separate section on this mark for the end of the presentation.

The Ordained Ministry
The exalted nature of the Church as Christ’s Body is accompanied by an exalted sense of the Spirit’s gifts for ministry. As Paul says:

And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ… (Ephesians 4:11-12)

Paul begins with certain extraordinary offices – apostles, prophets, evangelists. The first three offices have a dual reference: to the original apostolic generation, whose works and words have become canonical; and also to contemporary missionary pioneers who bring the Gospel to unreached peoples and hostile territory. Sometimes this latter group arises outside the normal structures of the church; we Anglicans must find ways to deploy such people, as the Church of Nigeria is doing in sending its missionary bishops into already existing dioceses.

When we come to “pastors and teachers,” it is probably more accurate to translate “pastor-teachers” for the ordinary role of the clergy. A pastor-teacher is involved in a personal way with his congregation, in imitation of the Good Shepherd who said: “I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:14). It is one of the great failures I have observed over almost forty years of church ministry – and this observation applies both in the West and in Africa – that clergy seldom visit their people at home any more, except in crisis situations. I know all the excuses we give, but I think it is a serious falling away from the pastoral ideal.

The pastor is also a catechist and teacher, forming new converts and counselling the mature. In order to teach others, he must himself be educated in God’s Word and other necessary disciplines. Hence a Church that fails to provide adequate theological training for its clergy is negligent indeed. The pastor should consider it his duty to provide Christian education at all levels of the laity, beginning with the children. He should work hard in his preaching and catechesis to speak in language understood by the people, both in their vernacular and with appropriate illustrations and applications.

The office of priest or presbyter, according to Article 23, must involve a “lawful” call from the Church. The vocation is a weighty one, as ordinands are reminded in the Prayer Book service:

...that ye have in remembrance, into how high a Dignity, and to how weighty an Office and Charge ye are called: that is to say, to be Messengers, Watchmen, and Stewards of the Lord; to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world that they be saved through Christ for ever.

I have emphasized here the role of the parish priest and pastor as the key to church ministry. It is only when the pastorate is well-supplied that the other orders of ministry will be properly equipped. Having said this, note that the aim of the ordained is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” Laypeople have an equal role to play in the work of the Church. It is a particular challenge to a “hierarchical” church – again I see this problem both in the West and in Africa – to recognize and empower laypeople in their roles of building up the Kingdom of God, not through quasi-clerical functions, but in situ, where they live and work – at home and in the field and office.

We come now to the office of bishop (I leave aside the role of deacon, which strikes me as needing serious rethinking). In the apostolic church, the distinction between bishop (episkopos) and elder (presbyteros) was fluid. The sub-apostolic church appointed bishops as the clerical heads of the Church, even as they retained their pastoral oversight of metropolitan churches. The Anglican Reformers retained the threefold ministry in practice but were reluctant to assign separate orders for priests and bishops as an essential mark of the church (hence the “ordination” of a priest and the “consecration” of a bishop). To be sure, bishops functioned as de facto hierarchs in the Church of England, and the Lambeth Quadrilateral notes the historic episcopate as a non-negotiable of ecumenical agreement. The English and American parish systems also evolved checks-and-balances between the authority of the bishop, parish priest and the laity. The Communion Instruments also contained elements of mixed polity, but that balance has been badly damaged in the last few years.

The bishop exercises formal headship within the church, and this role has fallen exclusively to men throughout most of church history and even today across an ecumenical majority of churches. The notion that headship should be reserved to men has biblical support in the family (Ephesians 5:22-24) and in the church (1 Corinthians 11:2; 1 Timothy 2:12-14), although the New Testament in particular also raises the status of women in church and society as full partners in God’s kingdom (Galatians 3:28). Biblically faithful Anglicans need to wrestle once again with God’s order for the family and church; and unless there is overwhelming biblical justification and ecumenical consensus to change, we should reserve the episcopacy (at least) to men.

Worship and Sacraments
The adage that “praying shapes believing” (lex orandi lex credendi) is a commonplace among Anglicans. To begin with, it has deep biblical roots, as can be seen from the presence of liturgical nuggets throughout the Scriptures and the entire Book of Psalms. The formative role of prayer and worship in the Jewish and Christian tradition is beyond question. Anglicans in particular have been blessed by the Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer’s gift to the Christian world. One need only think of the great Collect for Purity, the Litany, the Prayer of Humble Access, and the General Thanksgiving to realize what a treasure we have been entrusted with. These prayers and others have been translated into numerous languages and adopted by many free churches into their orders of worship.

Another contribution of Anglicanism has been the use of the Church Year and a lectionary of Scripture readings, both in daily and Sunday worship. Morning and Evening Prayer in particular include biblical canticles, a rota of psalms, and serial reading of Old and New Testament texts. The Eucharist also includes provision for psalms and up to three lessons. Hence Anglicans who follow the lectionary (though this is a dwindling band, it seems) are exposed to the whole counsel of God in Scripture. The Church Year is reflected in seasonal collects and feasts and fasts, observed in differing degrees by low- and high-churchmen. The due observance of Sunday is recognized formally in the main worship service of the week, but in other ways Anglicans need to recover the fullness of celebrating the Lord’s Day as a distinctive time of each week, a true Christian Sabbath.

While recognizing the importance of liturgical worship on Christian faith and spirituality, it can be equally stated that “believing shapes praying.” It was Archbishop Cranmer’s project to revise the traditional liturgy in accordance with the doctrine expressed in the Articles. Furthermore, he provided a variety of media by which that doctrine might be appropriated. Take, for instance, what Ashley Null calls “Thomas Cranmer’s doctrine of repentance.” We find the following expressions of this doctrine:

What is required of those who come to the Lord’s Supper? To examine themselves, whether they repent truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.

Exhortation to Communion:
Judge yourselves therefore, brethren, that ye be not judged of the Lord; repent you truly of your sins past; have a lively and steadfast faith in Christ our Saviour; amend your lives, and be in perfect charity with all men; so shall ye be partakers of these holy mysteries.

Invitation to Communion:
Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith and take this sacrament to your comfort; and make your humbleconfession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.

After Communion:
And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou has prepared for us to walk in, through Jesus Christ our Lord…

We may question whether the Reformers recognized the power of music to supplement the verbal expressions of worship. “He who sings prays twice,” it is often said. At this point, Evangelicals like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley and Anglo-Catholics like J. M Neale came to enrich our tradition of worship.

For all its merits, the conformity required in using the Book of Common Prayer has had its down side. From the early Puritans with their prophesyings, to the Wesleyan chapels, to contemporary African “overnight prayer” services, Anglicans have felt the need to supplement formal corporate worship and said prayers. Contemporary liturgies often provide blended worship: space in the formal liturgy for spontaneous prayer, for testimony, for praise choruses and for healing prayer and calls to faith. By relaxing the form of liturgy, contemporary Anglicans have responded to the allure of Pentecostalism. Nevertheless, this compromising of the traditional with the contemporary constitutes an ongoing tension. We cannot afford to retreat into a rigid formalism nor can we embrace uncritically every latest trend in worship and music. There is a need, in my opinion, for a set core of identifiable Anglican prayer that can be memorized and is familiar to the flock worldwide.

The Sacraments
Sacramental theology has been one of the most disputed elements of church doctrine from the time of the Reformation down to the present. It will be important to understand the essential teaching of the Articles in light of the wider doctrine of the Church. Archbishop Cranmer’s first edition of the Articles included the following important preface: “Our Lord Jesus Christ hath knit together a company of new people with Sacraments….” This preface makes clear that sacraments are public signs of church membership. The Thirty-Nine Articles go on to state:

Sacraments ordained by Christ are not only badges and tokens of Christian men’s profession: but rather they are certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace and God’s good will towards us, by which he works invisibly in us, and not only quickens but also strengthens and confirms our faith in him.

This definition positions Anglicans and Anglicanism in the midst of a spectrum of interpretations of the sacraments and sacramental grace, especially concerning the Eucharist. These four views can be classified as:

--“memorials”, i.e., human aids to recollect or attest to Christ’s work;
--spiritual presence, that God’s grace is truly present through the “action” of baptizing and giving and taking the Communion;
--“real presence,” i.e., Christ is truly present in the sacramental elements without changing their outer substance;
--“transubstantiation,” i.e., that the sacramental elements are changed in essence to that which they signify and communicate grace ex opere operato.

In stating that sacraments “are not only badges and tokens,” the Articles reject the memorialist view. They also explicitly reject as unbiblical the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation and the practices that flow from that view. Between the other two views (usually identified as “Reformed” and “Lutheran”), the judgement of the whole tradition is less clear, and probably best left open to conscience.

In the case of baptism, Article 27 states:

Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened; but it is also a sign of regeneration and new birth, whereby as by an instrument they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the church; the promise of forgiveness of sin and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost are visibly signed and sealed; faith is confirmed; and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.

At one level, the Article rejects baptism as a mere memorial of church membership and states that baptism conveys the reality of new birth in Christ, “as by an instrument.” The promissory character of the baptismal language – “seeing now that this person is regenerate and born again” – has been variously interpreted. For an adult, it gives assurance that the once for all salvation of Christ has been received by faith. In the case of an infant, this assurance is provided by the faith of the parents and godparents which must be owned by the child at confirmation or at a subsequent occasion of commitment to Christ. Assurance, however, is not to be confused with complacency, as St. Paul warns: “let him who stands beware lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12; cf. Hebrews 5:11-6:12). Finally, baptism conveys the communal reality of the Christian life: just as a child is born into a human family, so the baptized is “grafted into the body of Christ’s church” and “received into the congregation of Christ’s flock.”

When we turn to the Eucharist, a similar balance occurs, as is captured in the familiar Prayer Book words of Administration: “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.” The first clause, like our Lord’s words of institution, sets forth an objective reality to the sacramental elements: “This is my Body; this is my Blood.” The second clause captures one powerful feature of Reformed theology: the requirement that God’s grace must be received by faith. The sacramental signs are effectual only when received by those who worthily receive them with penitent hearts. Yet even without faith, they are not bare signs, as they carry a negative effect on the ungodly, who “purchase to themselves damnation.”

Another characteristic feature of Anglican sacramental teaching – which appears in the Lambeth Quadrilateral – is the naming of two Gospel sacraments. As Article XXV continues: “There are two Sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord….” The specification of two and only two is of a piece with the focus of the Anglican formularies on “those things necessary for salvation.” Baptism and Holy Communion are not only instituted by Jesus Christ but they signify his saving work on the Cross.

The Homilies concede a place for other sacramental rites:

But in a general acceptance, the name of a sacrament may be attributed to any thing, whereby an holy thing is signified. In which understanding of the word, the ancient writers have given this name, not only to the other five, commonly of late years taken and used for supplying the number of the seven sacraments; but also to divers and sundry other ceremonies, as to oil, washing of feet, and such like: not meaning thereby to repute them as sacraments, in the same signification that the two forenamed sacraments are. (“Of Common Prayer and Sacraments”)

Taken together, I think Anglican teaching is clear that a sacrament, strictly speaking, must convey Christ’s saving work, but that as part of the Church’s liturgy and ministry, other external signs can be edifying.

Church Discipline
As noted above, the Anglican Reformers considered church discipline, either explicitly or tacitly, to be one of the marks of the true church. In order to do this topic justice, we need to take the broadest perspective: discipline is of a piece with discipleship. The Risen Christ commands his followers to “disciple the nations, baptizing them and teaching them all that I have taught you” (Matthew 28:18). Discipline has a constructive, educative end – presenting the church blameless in Christ (Ephesians 5:27). The writer to the Hebrews makes clear that spiritual discipline requires believers to “lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely” in order to run the Christian race, and he goes on to say that “the Lord disciplines him whom he loves” (Hebrews 12:1,6). Likewise St. Paul describes the pastor’s calling as a matter of rigourous edifying: “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).

The Anglican Prayer Book is itself a book of discipline. It provides the believer with a regimen of morning and evening prayer, a calendar of psalms and lessons, fast and feast days, and a way of “learning” the prayers of the congregation by memorizing responses and canticles. In Africa people often do not have individual Prayer Books and hymnals, yet even the children have the service and hymns memorized in their local language. The catechism in particular presents a summary of faith consistent with the more sophisticated Articles of Religion, and confirmation is set as a coming-of-age ritual to be taken with great seriousness.

Penance is not a sacrament for Anglicans, but the Prayer Book contains several exhortations to self-examination, preparation for Communion and confession of sin. Repentance and gratitude for Christ’s forgiveness of our sins is an ongoing way of life, not to be disconnected to the freedom and joy of walking as children of light (1 John 1:7). It is unfortunate that many clergy today skip over the longer forms of invitation to confession or even omit them altogether. This goes against the whole grain of the Prayer Book Eucharist as an act of thanksgiving for Christ’s death for our sins and offer of forgiveness and new life.

Articles 32-36 address aspects of discipline, though they are hardly comprehensive (Cranmer intended his reform of English canon law to fill in the detail, which sadly never happened). Three of these Articles relate in some way to clerical discipline. One establishes that clergy of the Church of England are lawfully called to the office. Another provides clergy and lay readers with a syllabus of homilies to assist them in preaching and teaching. And another opens the priesthood to married men, in contrast to Rome’s requirement of celibacy.

Clergy discipline is of great importance to the morale of the Church. Scripture and the historic church, along with the Anglican Ordinal, have been of one accord in insisting that discipline begins with the household of God, and that church leaders are therefore especially accountable (1 Peter 4:17). I have observed serious breakdowns in this area on both sides of the ocean, but only in the West has this been done shamelessly. In the Episcopal Church, clergy divorce has become rampant in the last 35 years. While the so-called “gay lifestyle” of some clergy in the West grabs the headlines, rampant divorce among clergy, some with several marriages (let’s call this serial polygamy) is probably the more corrosive factor in the decline of those churches. Whatever the precise meaning of a bishop being husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2), it seems to me to limit the highest office in the church to those who have not been divorced as Christians.

Article 34 may seem out of place in a section on discipline, as it speaks of the diversity of traditions within the church. It teaches us, on the one hand, to be slow to judge those who practice their religion differently from us. There are many customs – which we term adiaphora – which Christians may follow in good conscience. The Article goes on to state that we must follow our local traditions in cases where they are the law of our church. This Article lays the foundation for obedience to canon law.

Article 33 speaks frankly of excommunicate persons who by open denunciation of the church should be shunned until they repent and are publicly reconciled. This Article complements the disciplinary rubric which allows a priest to refuse Communion to a “notorious evil-liver.” For many Anglicans in the West the whole idea of excommunication seems quaint or even anathema, although the Episcopal Church USA has managed to reinvent it under the twisted rubric of “abandonment of communion,” which is being used to bludgeon the orthodox. In the Church of England, for instance, a priest can be brought up on charges to the bishop if he were to refuse Holy Communion to an openly gay parishioner. Coming from this permissive culture to Africa, I was rather shocked to find there the opposite tendency: large numbers of Ugandan Anglicans absenting themselves from the Eucharist because of irregular marriages which render them excommunicate.

In the Gospel texts supporting the practice of excommunication, the Lord Jesus himself entrusts to his apostles the keys to enter and remain in the church, i.e., the visible church (Matthew 16:19; John 20:22). In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to describe a process of discipline:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:15-18)

We see here a careful process which moves from personal exhortation, to semi-private admonition, to public scandal and excommunication. St. Paul clearly understood the process in a similar way in dealing with the immoral man in Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:5) and the false teachers Alexander and Hymenaeus (1 Timothy 1:20). It is also worth noting that the laity is involved in various stages of this process.

John Calvin, perhaps the preeminent spokesman on the subject, teaches that church discipline is essential to preserve the honour and purity of the church, to protect the flock from false and wicked ideas and people, and to bring evil-doers back to Christ. On this latter aim, Calvin is the consummate pastor in advising that the aim of discipline is transformation:

Let us not claim for ourselves more licence in judgement, unless we wish to limit God’s power and confine his mercy by law. For God, whenever it pleases him, changes the worst men into the best, engrafts the alien, and adopts the stranger into the church. (Institutes xii.9)

I wonder whether African pastors have done enough in this regard to labour to restore to fellowship those who have contracted “customary marriages.” I believe many would wish to have their unions blessed if they were pursued and encouraged.

Communion Discipline
The problem of church discipline is not limited to individuals: it can involve whole churches. Indeed it was at the heart of the Reformation conflict. The Anglican Reformers were all excommunicate in the eyes of Rome and many, including Thomas Cranmer, paid with their lives. But they refused to accept this judgement. Indeed, Richard Hooker turned the charge back against Rome, saying:

That which they call schism, we know to be our reasonable service unto God and obedience to his voice which crieth shrill in our ears, "Go out of Babylon, my people, that you be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues" (Revelation 18:4). (from Hooker’s “Sermon on Jude”)

Heresy is schismatic, according to the Reformers, and hence to be labeled schismatic by Rome was a badge of honour.

Almost ten years ago, shortly after Lambeth 1998, when it became clear that the Episcopal Church was not going to heed the Resolution on Human Sexuality, I wrote an essay titled:
“Broken Communion: The Ultimate Sanction Against False Religion and Morality in the Episcopal Church” ( In view of the Episcopal Church’s general intransigence, I called on faithful Episcopal bishops to declare a state of broken communion with those who openly advocated homosexual ordinations and same-sex blessings (no sitting bishop did so). Next I turned to the international church.

If the charges against the revisionist leadership of the Episcopal Church are true, the appropriate response is for the Primates of the Communion to threaten and if necessary declare a state of broken communion with the Episcopal Church or with those leaders who have publicly endorsed the gay-rights agenda….

Excommunicating bishops of the Episcopal Church or the Church as a whole may seem like a very long step to take. And it should be. No division of this sort should be taken lightly. On the other hand, for a church council to refuse to exercise ultimate sanctions when they are clearly called for is to undermine its own legitimacy. To put it bluntly, if the Episcopal Church calls the bluff of the Communion and the Communion flinches, the Communion will undermine its own authority and identity.

In 2002, several Primates and theologians produced a document called To Mend the Net, an entirely reasonable proposal for careful Communion discipline, in which a church that finally refused to conform could be excluded. Even the Windsor Report held out the possibility that a church might choose to walk apart. But To Mend the Net was consigned to outer darkness by the Communion bureaucracy, and the “Windsor process” seems to have made excommunication (a.k.a., “walking apart”) an ever-retreating mirage.

We are here this week because, after ten years of patient but futile calls for repentance on the part of the majority of the world’s Anglicans, the Communion, under the direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, has flinched. Hence while it may seem that we are the ones who have excluded ourselves, the truth is, as Hooker put it, that this is our reasonable service to God.

We are not breaking the communion. The title deeds of the Church are ours, not by our own merits, but by his eternal Covenant. Our city is the Jerusalem which is above, who is our mother. Our communion is with God in Christ, who is the author of Scripture and the author of our salvation. To Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus for all generations for ever and ever. Amen.

26 June 2008

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