Fundamental shifts in the General Synod
The decisions taken in the February and July 2017 sessions of the General Synod crossed a line never before reached. Its failure to take note of the definition of marriage as that between ‘one man and one woman in lifelong commitment’, and its embrace of key LGBT agenda (banning so-called ‘conversion therapy’ for unwanted same-sex attraction, liturgy to mark a person’s gender transition) has caused serious consternation, anger and anxiety in the Church of England, and beyond. It was the scale of defeat of orthodoxy in the July sessions that is most shocking. The following is my reflection on some of the significant shifts in the character and workings of the General Synod over my last 12 years as a member of General Synod:
From theology to experience
The quality of debate has fallen sharply in recent years. The vogue is to vocalise experience and ‘tell stories’. In particular, the victimisation and injustice narrative holds sway. Any serious theological input is viewed with growing impatience and embarrassment. Theology is seen to get in the way of real life. The little theological context there is focuses on love, acceptance, equality and justice. These issues have trumped any references to the holiness of God and the need for purity and obedience in His church. The two debates on sexuality in the July sessions consisted of stories of ‘victims’ of church teachings and actions. What little there was of serious theology came from the lips of conservative evangelicals.
The LGBT agenda and constituency firmly entrenched
12 years ago when I first joined Synod, the LGBT lobby consisted of a little stand with a few people handing out leaflets. Many Synod members subtly changed the direction of movement away from them and politely avoided any conversation with LGBT activists. 12 years on, they are the all-winning victorious juggernaut, crushing all in its path. Not only is the LGBT constituency well and truly embedded in the organisational structure of the Church of England, its agenda for change dominates proceedings.
Loss of the fear of God and reverence for His word
There is no fear of God or reverence for His word anymore. Scripture has been twisted, misinterpreted, misused, or avoided to support ideologies that are completely at odds with God’s word. Theological illiteracy reigns. A Synod member speaking in support of transgender liturgy quoted a transgender friend who said to her that Genesis says ‘… and He made them man and woman’ and the not ‘man or woman’. The implication is that God did not create man distinct from woman but created 'man' in the nebulous 'man and woman mixed sexuality'. Linguistically, hermeneutically and theologically this was as example of a descent into theological balderdash. Every opportunity to proclaim the uniqueness of Christ and Biblical teachings, by way of amendments, was comprehensively defeated in vote after vote. Oftentimes, what is left unsaid and untaught is that which leads to errors and sin rather than outright heretical statements.
Demise of socially conservative Anglo-Catholics
There was a time when the Anglo-Catholics reigned supreme in the Church of England. Although sacramental in their theological approach, they were at least largely socially conservative. Their sad demise since the ordination of women clergy and bishops, and their apparent loss of cohesion in General Synod, is to be lamented. That constituency’s voice on sexuality is becoming less and less clear.
The loss of any meaningful understanding of evangelicalism
The so-called ‘evangelicals’ form the largest bloc of Synod members. Despite there being more ‘evangelicals’ than ever, its weakness has never been more obvious. The word ‘evangelical’ has lost its distinctive meaning and Synod ‘evangelicals’ range from openly practising homosexuals who take the lead in promoting the LGBT agenda to conservative evangelicals who believe that ‘God’s Word (the Bible) is God’s word in His own words’. Despite the EGGS (Evangelical Group in General Synod) leadership’s valiant effort to steer the evangelical group in Synod towards Biblical orthodoxy, it is clear from the voting records that many members vote for revision.
Presence of women bishops
Whatever position evangelicals take on complementarian theology, the admission of women into the House and College of Bishops have moved the church and Synod towards a more revisionist position. Even a senior evangelical bishop in favour of women bishops privately admitted that to me. With the increasing tendency to appoint women (almost exclusively drawn from the liberal constituency) to episcopal vacancies, the trajectory is ominous for the General Synod and for the Church of England.
Loss of giants in the House of Bishops
I respect the faithful orthodox bishops who are quietly working behind the scene to ensure Biblical teachings are adhered to. Yet I lament the loss of some of the true giants that I had the privilege to know when I first entered Synod. One can immediately think of Bishops Michael Scott-Joynt and Michael Nazir-Ali. A present bold figure and rising star is Julian Henderson of Blackburn but we need more orthodox prophet-bishops to speak to our times.
Not without sympathy, I think there are now many Christians, Synod members included, who have chosen the path of self-censorship. It is increasingly difficult to be counter-cultural and it is telling that our own church leaders are avoiding making any statements that will cause conflict with the LGBT lobby in society, and even within Synod itself. Who are the prophets of our times in the Church of England? Where are the Elijahs? Certainly not our archbishops, one of whom was conspicuous by the absence of any contribution in the two major debates on sexuality and the other notable by his support of the LGBT-inspired motions. This has raised serious concerns about the future of our beloved church.
What of the future?
In the U.S., the secularists are fighting to separate church from state. In the UK, the church (of England) is fighting to be like the state. Recent actions and statements by General Synod, except for the perfunctory use of words like ‘God’, ‘Jesus’ and ‘church’, are indistinguishable from statements made by secular and state organisations.
Within the next 3-7 years I anticipate three tumultuous and tragic events:
- There will be a major split in the Church of England over sexuality issues. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury is, apparently, willing and ready to accept that.
- There will be deep division between the orthodox who choose to remain in the Church of England and those who choose to leave (whilst remaining Anglican within the Anglican Communion or leaving the denomination entirely)
- There will be a more formalised split in the global Anglican Communion, along with the continuing re-alignment between the orthodox across all Christian denominations.
It is time for deep reflection and prayer and we need to prepare for the evil days ahead. But for the faithful, whatever the tribulations, we can confidently trust in the God who is ‘from everlasting to everlasting.’
Chik Kaw Tan (Dr.)
General Synod member