Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
I’m a member of a Christian group on Facebook where we discuss … Christian stuff. Current events from a Christian perspective, all that sort of stuff. One topic which gets discussed with depressing regularity is whether evangelicals should leave the Church of England. Just this morning, yet another thread was posted because someone has written an article about why sound evangelicals should quit the CofE.
I am finding these discussions more and more wearisome. It’s not because I strongly agree or disagree with the premise, but because I think so much of the time the discussion misses the point. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer when it comes to leaving the Church of England – it’s complicated. But I think the discussion often seems to focus on a few things (e.g. relating to false teachers) when I think there are other issues which get missed.
Every time we have the discussion I feel like I don’t have the bravery to say what I think. So I’ve decided to write this blog post to put down what I believe. I think blogging is probably a better medium for hashing out ideas, Facebook is good for quick discussions but it’s really not conducive to thinking things through.
I am called to preach the gospel
For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!1 Corinthians 9:6
I believe God has called me to be a pastor-teacher – someone who is set apart to proclaim the gospel. Various denominations use different words for this, e.g. the word ‘priest’ (which I wrote about a few years ago). But we all recognise that the calling of a pastor-teacher is to proclaim the gospel.
So, for example, when I was ordained as a ‘priest’, I had to answer these questions:
Do you accept the Holy Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ?
Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?
Will you lead Christ’s people in proclaiming his glorious gospel, so that the good news of salvation may be heard in every place?
I could answer ‘with the help of God, I will’ wholeheartedly to each question. I am called and ordained as a minister of the gospel in the church of God. That is my primary calling, it is what I’m here to do.
And when I say ‘here’, I really do mean, ‘here’. One of the things about being an Anglican is that you are called to a particular place, to a particular parish. You have a particular duty to proclaim the gospel to the people who live within your parish boundary. It’s a duty and an honour to be commissioned to serve the people of a particular parish. I think it’s a real strength of the Anglican church actually, in a disconnected age we stand against it and say: I am here for this people in this place. Not just the rich ones, or the ones who have white-collar jobs, or who’ve been to university.
So my primary calling is to preach the gospel. Why do I start with this?
I’m not called to save the Church of England
I am called to proclaim the gospel, not to save the Church of England. Sometimes I think you could get from the discussion that our primary calling was to save the Church of England. Other times, I think it’s assumed that they are one and the same thing. I do not believe this is the case.
Saving the Church of England seems to be at the moment to be largely about politics. I appreciate that any organisation, large or small, will have an element of politics about it. It is right for Christians to go into politics – I talked a bit about that here. But I think, by and large, those who are called to preach the gospel should not get caught up in politics.
In our church, we’re currently working through 2 Timothy on a Sunday morning. Recently we had the passage which included 2 Tim 2:4, “No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.” The lesson here for me is that we need to keep the main thing as the main thing – we need to focus on preaching the gospel, to please our commanding officer – Christ. It is, after all, his church.
I’m also struck by the need of the hour: looking round at the state of the nation, what we desperately need as a country is revival. What we need more than anything is for people to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and believe. It was reported recently that CofE churches had a usual Sunday attendance of 854,000 people – that’s about 1.25% of the population. About 5% of the UK population goes to church regularly across all denominations. To put that the other way round, 95% of people don’t go to church regularly.
We need to reach the unreached as a matter of urgency. The one thing we don’t need is to spend hours of our time debating the church’s view of sexuality in Living in Love and Faith, for example. (As a number of people have put it, we need these discussions like we need a hole in the head!)
The priority of preaching the gospel
I’m not saying that all evangelicals should abandon the Church of England, or that everyone should stay! Far from it. I’m saying that there are more important things than leaving or staying in the Church of England. I think the question we should be asking is not whether we should stay or leave, but rather – what does faithfulness to God look like? How and where does he want us to proclaim the gospel?
Clearly there is much good work going on in the CofE. There are many churches where the gospel is being proclaimed and people are coming to faith and being discipled. That’s fantastic. I’m also very aware that there is a huge mission field in that many Church of England churches don’t hear regular Biblical preaching. I grieve for the many Christians seeking to be faithful but who are not being fed regularly with sound teaching.
There are also a number of opportunities in Church of England churches which are unique, for example the link with church schools, as well as opportunities for ‘hatch, match and dispatch’ services. I appreciate that the Church of England has a role in civic life which offers many opportunities for proclaiming the gospel.
However, that is not the whole picture, and this is where I want to talk a little about my own experience.
The Church of England is hindering the gospel
I’m not talking about the national picture here. I just want to talk about my experience as an ordinary ‘run of the mill’ member of the clergy in an ordinary church. I obviously don’t want to go into all the ins and outs of my experience. However, I can say that the diocese and particularly bishops have made it very difficult for me individually, and (in my opinion) the church. I / we have had to deal with dishonesty, bad faith, and some behaviour which I would consider manipulative and bullying. Like I said, I cannot go into all the details here.
Our church is not in a wealthy area. If a diocese decides to cut clergy numbers, as ours has, we can’t simply find the money to fund one ourselves. To an extent, we are at their mercy – and they know that.
This wouldn’t be such an issue if it hadn’t all become politicised. Conservative evangelical churches are often seen as ‘the problem’. I’ve heard of one church in our diocese, for example, who were told during a vacancy if they appealed to have alternative oversight from Rod Thomas, they’d only be offered a half-time post. This is the kind of political game that gets played all the time.
The gospel can be preached… but, more and more, it can only be preached if you’re prepared to play the political game. Perhaps this is why several clergy from this diocese have left over the past couple years – I can think of at least five or six off the top of my head. As I said above, I believe my calling is to preach the gospel – not to get enmeshed in church politics.
Where can I preach the gospel?
In the end, the fundamental question is – where is God calling me to preach the gospel? For me, I believe that God called me to this town to proclaim the gospel. The bishop did not agree. At the end of the day I felt that I had no choice but to disobey him (but, I believe, obey God) and remain here. That meant that once my curacy finished, I stopped receiving a stipend (i.e. a wage) and we were told we would need to vacate our house.
Fortunately we were able to come to an arrangement to continue living in our house as paying tenants. God has been very gracious in providing for us in all sorts of ways. And I have been granted Permission to Officiate, which essentially means I am able to continue ministry in our church (with permission of the vicar and PCC).
But I don’t want to dwell on what happened to me, so much as the principle. God’s call to preach the gospel came first. The Church of England, although in principle ordaining me to preach the gospel, actually stood in the way of it when it came to the crunch.
And this is really what I want to contribute to the whole staying / leaving the CofE discussion: I don’t think it can simply be reduced to a matter of principle. I’ve held various opinions over the years, but at the end of the day it came down to whether I would be obedient to the call of God to preach the gospel in a particular place.
Actually, I think sometimes obeying our ordination vows might necessitate leaving the Church of England. I was really struck by Philip de Grey-Water when he left his position as the vicar of Fowey parish church, but started up Anchor Church in Fowey. He was commissioned by the bishop to preach the gospel in a particular place, and he still is (although no longer as part of the Church of England). To my mind that shows a commendable commitment to the place and people.
It’s not abandoning the flock
One of the verses which gets brought up in these discussions frequently is John 10:13: “The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” This is often applied to those who leave the Church of England. I don’t think this is fair.
In my own case, my own course of action has been determined by care for the sheep. If the Church of England are not going to provide for someone to take care of the sheep, who is? Our average Sunday attendance is about 120, give or take a few. Our parish size is around 25,000 – possibly more. Less than half of one percent of people in our parish come to church. Who’s going to preach the gospel to them? All the diocese are interested in doing is cutting back clergy numbers. There is some funding available, although – as I said – there’s a fair element of church politics involved in that.
I’m committed to serving the people here, I’m committed to helping people grow in faith. I’m committed to praying for a wonderful act of God to bring many to repentance and faith. I’m preaching the gospel. I’m not leaving.
A few concluding thoughts
What gets to me about the stay / leave discussions about the Church of England is that people talk about it like it’s an academic issue. Like it’s as simple as “I’ll stay until they kick me out!”, or “Come out and separate from the false teachers!” Life is rarely that simple, and I hope my story here has helped to illustrate that.
I hope that, as an evangelical constituency, we can learn to treat each other with gentleness and grace. And I hope and pray that we can commit, wherever we are, whatever situation God places us in, to preach the gospel to his glory.
Soli deo gloria.