Don’t Sign the Letter

 

Some orthodox Anglican clergy, friends of mine, are circulating a “Clergy Letter of Encouragement” in response to the Church of England’s paper entitled: “Men and Women in Marriage”. The Letter of Encouragement praises the contents of the paper, expresses gratitude for this “early fruit” of Archbishop Welby’s ministry, extends Archbishop Welby prayers and “goodwill” and, finally, articulates a desire to “strengthen” and “enhance” the links between the ACNA and the Communion. Clergy are asked to sign the letter. I hope few do.

The Clergy Letter of Encouragement begins with this paragraph:

The Church of England recently issued a report entitled, “Men and Women in Marriage”. We have read this report and will commend it to the members of our own churches. We are grateful for the theological grounding of marriage and especially the reaffirmation of Christian marriage as a sacramental act between one man and one woman.

It is right to be grateful for the reaffirmation of Christian marriage contained in the first 45 paragraphs of “Men and Women in Marriage” but it is wrong to commend it to our churches.

Up to paragraph 45, the authors clearly and forthrightly articulate the biblical doctrine of marriage, presenting heterosexual marriage as the exclusive God-ordained venue for the physical expression of human sexuality. If the authors had stopped there, I would be happy to commend their work.

But they didn’t. The paper begins well but ends quite badly. Paragraphs 46-50 open up the well worn distinction between “teaching” and “practice”. The authors suggest that there is more flexibility in dealing with homosexual relationships on the pastoral level than the biblical principle articulated in the first 45 paragraphs might suggest. The authors draw an analogy between the practice of receiving people living in civil unions and the acceptance of remarried couples and the reception of polygamous converts in Africa. In both cases, the authors point out, the doctrinal standard for marriage was upheld but was applied “flexibly”. The analogy suggests that the church, in practice, need not require repentance and separation from homosexual partners in order to maintain doctrinal integrity.  Thus, the penultimate paragraph reads:

The meaning of such pastoral accommodations can be misunderstood, as though the Church were solving pastoral difficulties by redefining marriage from the ground up, which it cannot do. What it can do is devise accommodations for specific conditions, bearing witness in special ways to the abiding importance of the norm. Well-designed accommodations proclaim the form of life given by God’s creative goodness and bring those in difficult positions into closer approximation to it. They mark the point where teaching and pastoral care coincide.

Three points:

1. If remarriage/polygamy are sinful then allowing them “in practice” is not “flexibility”. It is abdication. Being “flexible” about sin hurts the very people the church is called to heal.

2. But the bible does not teach that remarriage is “always” sinful. It is sinful in the case of a divorce without biblical cause (adultery or abandonment by the non-believing spouse) or for the guilty party in a divorce for cause. Moreover, even in cases where someone has remarried after an unjustified divorce, there is good reason not to demand a second divorce. God designed men and women to be together in covenant bonds. Even second marriages are capable of meeting that intention. Additionally, such an act would represent an attempt to remedy the sin of divorce by committing a second divorce. It would only compound the sin.

A similar case can be made in the circumstance of an already existing case of polygamy in which men become Christians after marrying more than one woman. Demanding divorce in such a case only adds something that God hates (divorce) to an already imperfect situation, not to speak of the economic deprivation and social humiliation that would be visited upon the divorced women in most of the cultures in question.

3. Homosexual relationships are not of like character. Living in a condition of regular unrepentant sexual engagement with a person of the same sex is, according to 1 Cor 6:9-10, damnable. The best thing, the only thing, to be done is to repent, break off the relationship, and turn to Jesus Christ. For the sake of those engaged in this sin (and those who are tempted by it) there can be no pastoral or practical accommodation.

It shouldn’t be difficult to see why Giles Fraser welcomed “Men and Women in Marriage.”

They are winking at people like me saying ‘be creative’ – it is a classic Anglican fudge…In effect what it is saying is you can do it as long as you don’t say that is what you are doing – call it something different, be as imaginative as you can.”

He’s right. The paper represents a significant step toward placing same sex couples on the same ground remarried heterosexual couples occupy.

The Clergy Letter of Encouragement expresses gratitude for Men and Women in Marriage as a “first fruit” of Archbishop Justin Welby’s ministry.

“We are also thankful for this early fruit of the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As someone new in the office, he surely needs our prayers and goodwill for the Anglican Communion. He has them.”

The new Archbishop of Canterbury does need our prayers and he has them along with our goodwill. This is true.

But if this is, indeed, a first fruit of the new Archbishop’s ministry, it is not one for which we ought to be thankful. It is the camel’s nose in the tent.

And if we look back at what Archbishop Welby has said and done before and after his enthronement, it is par for the course. It is, indeed, the sort of middling, compromising, reconciling “fruit” we might expect.

The Letter ends with this note:

“We are in different contexts and we face different realities, but we also pray that our existing links between the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Communion can be strengthened and enhanced.”

I do pray that the existing links can be strengthened and enhanced. But there are two requisite conditions that must be met first. The Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada, if they remain unrepentant, must be removed from the Communion and, for the love of the souls given to our care, homosexual sin must not be tolerated either in principle or practice. If these conditions are not met, I pray that the ties and links between the ACNA and the CofE continue to weaken and ultimately sever. The spiritual health and well-being of the flock of God is our most pressing concern not institutional unity with the Church of England.

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