How do we relate to Anglicans and the Church of England?

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The main protestant church here in the UK is the Church of England.  Its status owes to three things. First its size, it is the largest, secondly its prominence, it is the established church and so, it’s what most people thinking of when they think about church and thirdly it has influence. The Church of England’s influence extends further and into independent/free church evangelicalism because it probably includes the largest single grouping of evangelicals in the UK and because of the resources at the disposal of evangelical Anglicans.[1]

Yet the relationship has at various times been strained.  From time to time questions come up about partnership across our differences for the sake of the Gospel.  This isn’t a new issue. There have been frequent points through my life  when the question has come up and I must admit that because of that issue of a mixed denomination, when senior members of the CofE have said and done things that go against the Gospel such as denying the virgin birth and the resurrection then I have been frustrated so often that the impression is given that formal unity with those who deny the Gospel gets prioritised over fellowship with those who hold to it.

It’s worth me declaring my hand on a couple of points here upfront.  I’m what traditionally was referred to as a dissenter. This means that I personally don’t think there should be an established church because State and religion are best kept separate.

 As well as concerns about the mix of church and state/politics, I am sceptical about the benefit of formal denominations believing that they centralise and take too much away from the local church.  Added to that is the problem that many denominations are at best mixed including people who hold to Scripture in all matters and believe the Gospel ranging through to those who outright deny Scripture and the Bible. Often the latter have significant authority and status in denominations regardless of the beliefs of the members on the ground. 

So, I don’t personally think that the Church of England should exist in its present form. However, I respect that other believers disagree with me on that and that whilst we disagree on church polity, we agree on so much more in  terms of the essential things that matter regarding the Gospel.  This means that my concern when engaging with Anglican evangelicals should be to respect and love my brothers and sisters and disagree well with them.

However, what I think has become clearer to me is that too often when we (evangelicals outside of the Church of England) talk about how to relate to Anglicans that we tend to be naïve, ignorant even towards how Anglicans relate to each other and their understanding of church (sometimes talked about under the headings of ecclesiology and polity). The result is that we impose our own polity onto Anglicanism.  I don’t think that’s helpful when it comes to making decisions and I don’t think it is fair to our brothers and sisters either.

So, I’m not going to comment on specific controversies here.  Instead I want us to take a step back and try to understand a bit more about the Anglican Church.  I think when we impose our own thinking onto the CofE we end up thinking of each parish church as really identical to an independent or autonomous local church as you might find in the FIEC or even Baptist Union.  We then want to relate to each individual church. 

We then go from there to the question of bishops. We are not quite sure to do with them. If we are from an FIEC or similar background, then we might just consider them to be administrators or perhaps people with a little relational care to the church similar to the Moderators/Visitors or even national directors like John Stevens and Adrian Reynolds.  If we are linked into newer churches like New Frontiers then we may consider the bishops as equivalent to the apostolic teams and The Archbishop of Canterbury as equivalent to Justin Welby.

I think that’s to misunderstand the nature of those roles in our networks and the nature of bishops in the church of England.  What those different people/roles have in common across free church contexts is that they are primarily about long standing relationships and so there are people who we look to, outside of our churches for support and wisdom because of their experience and gifting.  Whilst the level of personal authority that comes with this may vary, it remains the case that primary shepherding responsibility lies in the local church through elders/pastors.

Now, there are people carrying out similar kinds of functions within the CofE. These are men who don’t specifically have  a formal role in a hierarchy/structure but are looked to.  We might think historically of people like John Stott and Dick Lucas. Today you might think of Richard Coekin and Vaughan Roberts on the conservative side.  On the charismatic side, we might think historically of David Watson and today Nicky Gumbell. 

Bishops are something different.  I remember that a previous pastor of a church where I was a member used to joke that we had 4 bishops in our church because when you think about terminology a bishop is most closely equivalent to an elder, indeed it may well be an alternative title because it is to do with being an overseer.

And that works out not just in etymology but in terms of what the role is meant to do.  The bishop in effect is the one who holds the keys or is the gatekeeper to the church.  They do this in a number of ways. First, they licence people to preach and administer sacraments in the church.  Secondly confirmation (which is confirming a baptism as the person’s own profession) requires a bishop.  This means that bishops decide who is part of the church and who does and says what.  This means they have overall responsibility for doctrine, membership and discipline. In fact whilst it is technically possible to refuse communion to someone this can only be done with the bishop’s agreement. 

The implication of this is that the parish church is not the equivalent of the local independent church. The diocese is much closer to that in equivalence and the parish is closer to being the campus of a multi-site church with the vicar acting as campus elder.

All of these things have implications.  I think its true that in some cases because of the size of a church and because of a bishop being fairly detached that the church is able to function like a de-facto independent church but that isn’t guaranteed. Smaller churches with less resources on the frontline may not find it so easy to do as they please.  Indeed I’m increasingly hearing stories of vicars having their decisions thwarted and even being subject to vexatious complaints processes.

It’s important when thinking about how we relate to the Church of England and its members that we respond to the church as it is, not as we want it to be.

[1] Several of the largest and resource richest churches are Anglican including St Helen’s Bishopsgate, All Souls Langham Place, Holy Trinity Brompton, Christchurch Fulwood (Sheffield), St Thomas’ (Sheffield), Ste Ebbes and St Aldates (Oxford). Anglican Evangelicals are therefore influential in supporting church planting movements, ministry training schemes, The Proclamation Trust, Gospel Partnerships, 9:38 etc and evangelism through Alpha and Christianity Explored.  Many non Anglicans have been trained via Oak Hill Theological College and its offshoot Crosslands.

Postscript: As I’ve been reminded, traditionally an Anglican vicar held his post or “living” for life. This gave them much more security (no doubt with its own challenges), it also meant that the church functioned more as a network in effect of trusts. This tempered the control of the bishops and did make the vicar’s position closer to that of an elder/pastor. At the same time, I would argue that the polity still viewed the bishop as elder and so the parish church was not autonomous like an independent/congregational/Baptist church. However, there has been a move over recent years in any case to end “livings” so that the vicar is the priest in charge who can be removed by the bishop.

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