Few things in life are as pretentious or embarrassing as liberal Church synods, and in May 2022 there were two Anglican efforts to illustrate this – one in England and the other in Australia. The one in England was held in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and was a strongly Hebraic service of repentance for the Synod of Oxford in 1222 which paved the way for the eventual expulsion of Jews from England in 1290. In the midst of the clerical solemnity for sins past, the claims at least were less than humble. So said the press report: ‘Possibly among the most significant events in church history was witnessed at an English cathedral on Sunday May 8th.’ One suspects that the general public was not so moved. But the Anglican clergy felt emboldened and noble that they had denounced a sin of yesterday. They have not been so vocal about sins of their own day.
The other synod took place in the antipodes, on Queensland’s Gold Coast. The diocese of Wangaratta had already blessed a same-sex marriage. The issue was thus the obvious one to dominate proceedings in the three-tier body. Two tiers – the house of clergy and the house of the laity – voted in favour of marriage being between a man and a woman, albeit with significant minorities seeing themselves as progressive. The 24 bishops then voted down the man-woman marriage motion by 12 to 10 (two abstained). The Archbishop of Sydney, Kanishka Raffel, described the situation as ‘perilous’. Kay Goldsworthy, the Archbishop of Perth, assured all and sundry that she would not leave the Church. Mark Durie predicts that a split is coming.
What are we to make of this? One could state the obvious that we ought to be praying for Anglican Christians in their dreadful situation. However, more needs to be said, and it could be applied across all denominations. ‘Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall’ (1 Cor.10:12).
The first thing is that what passes for the Christian gospel in many circles is nothing of the kind. At the Anglican Synod, it was not uncommon for same-sex marriage to be defended on the grounds of Christ’s love for all people. Old-style hecklers in the Domain had more idea of the gospel than these supposed shepherds of the flock. The notion that Christ’s love for all is a saving love is contrary to Scripture. So too is the notion that love of person equates with approval of ethics. As it stands, this could provide a reprieve for Stalin and Hitler, while paedophiles could feel aggrieved if the Church did not find it in its heart to endorse their lifestyles.
Secondly, unity has been promoted to a primary virtue which trumps truth and holiness. Anglicans, like others, have been urged to acknowledge that there are several theological and spiritual cultures within the Church. Strength is said to come through diversity. Is that so? Who is the troubler of Israel? Is it Elijah or is it Ahab? (1 Kings 18:17-18) To trample over the revealed truth of God, and then to plead that unity must be maintained is puerile. How is it worth getting together to sing of unity with those who are at odds with the basics of the gospel? What fellowship has light with darkness? (2 Cor.6:14)
The third point is that Churches are often deriving their ethics from the elites of the progressive world. We all feel the pressure of the world. That is why the apostle told us not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom.12:2). Some of those who profess the name of Christ seem to have trouble distinguishing the gospel from the platform of the Greens. Not long before his death in 1963, C. S. Lewis saw the need for mission work to be undertaken not amongst the English people but first among the English Church. He lamented: ‘if such mission work is not soon undertaken the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.’
The issue is not just about same-sex relations, but how God communicates with His world. Liberal theology supposedly died in the mud of Flanders in World War I. It did nothing of the kind. It has survived, maintained itself in key positions in both church and society, pretended to be virtuous by denouncing sins of past ages, and collapsed before the pressure of the modern zeitgeist. We are not to be any more belligerent than we need to be, but Christ does not pronounce this curse for nothing: ‘Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets’ (Luke 6:26). Which, being translated, means ‘If the ABC loves you, you are likely to have compromised.’
With warm regards in Christ,
Rev. Dr Peter Barnes, Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia