‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’ John 18:37
On November 15th 2023, General Synod voted to support the bishops’ proposal to change the ethical teaching of the church (and thereby also its doctrine, although they claim not to have done this!) Much has already been said (examples in News 24.11.23) about this sad but almost inevitable next phase of the Church of England’s trajectory away from Christian orthodoxy. It’s important to be clear about what is happening, to look at some options for further action, and to look with optimism to the future.
Here are some thoughts from John 18:28-40. In this passage, the religious leaders take Jesus from his trial with the High Priest to “the palace of the Roman governor”. They will not go into a gentile building, “to avoid ceremonial uncleanness”. Jesus has a private conversation with Pilate about the nature of kingship, authority and truth.
Liberal scholars have for decades questioned the historical reliability of John’s gospel, and use this passage as an example. How could John have known what was said in a private meeting? He must have made it up, put words in the mouth of Jesus to suit the audience of a Christian community 50 or more years later. But of course, there’s no need for this scepticism. It is quite possible that other witnesses and even notetakers were there when Pilate met Jesus. Or even that Jesus himself, risen from the dead, told John what had happened. And why do we need to know what liberal scholars think anyway? The answer is in what has just happened in the Church of England. The assumption that Scripture is just a human story, whose wisdom we can choose to take on board or ignore, is central to the theological education that most of today’s Church of England leaders have received. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Synod has made its decision, or that the laity, who often have not been subjected to such academic theological heresy, are more conservative than the bishops and clergy!
There is deliberate irony in John’s account, of religious leaders who are so concerned to avoid ritual uncleanness, an outward show of being good, and yet they are willing to override legal due process, and literally kill and bury the Truth in its embodiment as the Son of God. Today’s religious leaders are concerned about ritual cleanness in a different way – being seen as having the culturally “correct” views on issues such as sexuality. Like the High Priest’s men in Jesus time, the bishops of the Church of England are so concerned to avoid the danger of being branded “unclean” in today’s form of being “homophobic” that they force through a legally and theologically unsound motion which has the effect of burying the gospel of God’s grace to sinners.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day claimed to be separate and distinct from the secular authorities, but here they are, negotiating with the Roman governor for his assistance in putting Jesus to death. They claimed to speak God’s word, but they stayed outside the gentile area. They were as Jesus said, blind guides to their own people, and with no spiritual message for the secular world, like Church of England bishops of today. What about Jesus? He did go into the heart of gentile power, and had a conversation! He testified to the truth, not just in a religious setting, but to the powers of the world.
This trial before Pilate is the place where Jesus is at his most alone, as he undergoes the inexorable sequence of events which culminate in the cross. He alone faces evil and rejection of God; he alone will take it on himself in the atoning sacrifice for our sin and rebellion. But there will come a time when he draws others into his mission of witnessing to the truth. Then, Jesus alone did it all for us. Now, it is the church, the members of the Kingdom of which he speaks to Pilate, which bears witness to the truth, to corrupt religious leaders, cynical secular authorities, and the millions of souls whom God intends to hear and to be saved through faith in Christ. The true church is not buildings, or an asset-rich institution, or high status individuals, but those who confess Christ as Lord whatever the cost. As Gafcon boldly stated in its Jerusalem Statement of 2008, it is “the doctrinal foundation of Anglicanism, which defines our core identity as Anglicans”, rather than relationship to Canterbury.
This is why Anglicans do not need to feel despair or fear after the Synod vote, because on this rock of the ordinary faithful people prioritising this confession, Jesus builds his church. People have spoken of how the Synod decision does not bring a “crumb of comfort”, but in fact we can take comfort from the fact that the true church is clearly visible. Despite years of relentless promotion of secular ideologies about sex and marriage and other issues outside and inside the church, there are still many in the Church of England, and a larger number in other churches and denominations, who have not bowed the knee to these false and dangerous ways of thinking.
We can take comfort from the fact that while faithful Christians are in a small minority in England and in Europe and the West generally, the centre of gospel-based energy has passed to the global south. Gafcon and GSFA have emerged, not just as allies for the faithful re-stating the truth in the Church of England, but as a new spiritual leadership, who have now rejected the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, have authorised new Anglican jurisdictions and are establishing new governance structures. For these reasons, Gafcon GBE continues to support CEEC in their efforts to support faithful Anglicans within the C of E, and also promote the development of the Anglican Network in Europe.
Over the coming days, weeks and months, many in the Church of England will be examining their consciences in prayer and listening to different views on what action to take. We hope that awareness will grow of the dangers of “the frog being cooked in the pot” – of acceptance and compromise rather than costly obedience. As the availability of different models of being faithfully Anglican, connected to Gafcon, become more widely known, we pray that faithful Anglicans will not get stuck in binary debates around “stay” or “leave”, but will be flexible, fluid and creative, in keeping with God’s people on the move.