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Don’t Leave

Last night I attended with, by my estimation, at least two hundred other clergy from the Diocese of London, a lengthy meeting with several bishops from the Diocese. I was there with three other ordained teaching staff from Oak Hill College. Having found the church where the meeting was happening (the venue was a classical central London church building: hidden among surrounding financial behemoths rearing above its ancient architecture), all the pews were packed, and extra chairs were laid out with standing room at the back. Dimly lit walls clad with memorials from the past life of the church formed a subdued backdrop for the present and future state of the Church of England which was up for discussion.

The meeting, called by the Bishop of London, was for those clergy who are in some sense dismayed by the changes from present practices surrounding marriage and same-sex-attracted relationships commended by the recent General Synod. The bishops attending were in active listening mode and, after a time, there was plenty of chance for those others present to speak.

Having not taken any notes (having also been on active listening mode), it's useful to reflect the following morning on what I was left with after such a meeting.

First, I came away with a strong sense of diversity within the Church of England, and in a strong, faithful and healthy sense. Among the many who spoke (and I wasn't keeping a count) there were evangelicals of many kinds, conservative and open and, I imagine, ones who would dislike labels; charismatics were there; so were Anglo-catholics and others. Men and women; young and old (I didn't know until last night how young one can be these days and be ordained); people of different ethnicities, diverse sexualities, ministering in a myriad of situations, among all parts of the city, all nations within it. The Church of England at its best seeks to be broad, diverse, reaching, receiving, giving and faithful. This was wonderfully in view around me in the pews last night.

I want to repeat those words: and faithful. This diversity was - and is - among the faithful. I hope that testimony was both seen and heard by all present last night. It is a devilish false dichotomy to think diversity and faithfulness to scripture and the Lord Jesus cannot and should not co-exist. I'm deeply thankful to those who showed me that last night, and sent me home with rejoicing, challenge and encouragement. It was a rich company, in a true sense of riches, to be among last night.

But not all is well. If this was not clear before the evening, the evening spoke it well, and repeatedly. As one person put it, there is a danger of digging too deep, of what one can unleash in so doing. Diversity of a good kind needs and deserves leadership of a good kind. Nothing less will please the Lord of the Churches: there are today, as in Revelation, lampstands, multiple lampstands, in particular places. The Lord knows where we live, he appraises his lampstands. Each of us present needs to be aware of, conscious of, and welcoming his continual gracious scrutiny and judgment.

I was challenged and warmed by those who spoke of their willingness and intention to continue standing by the faithful flock, even if it means not walking together with others who will work in other paths. Scripture is full of encouragements about good and bad walking together. Psalm 1 launches the Psalter, such a precious part of our Anglican liturgy, tradition and scripture, in such a fashion. The apostle Peter explicitly employs images of walking and running together in relation to ethical practices that do and do not honour the Lord Jesus (1 Peter 4:1-5). Indeed, in vv.3 and 4 walking accelerates to running. Throughout scripture, direction counts, as well as company. As does too, of course, stance, ethos. In the great commission there is much to 'keep' (Matthew 28:19-20).

Last night's meeting mixed honesty with humility, clarity with charity, and faithfulness with fellowship. People spoke of those to whom they minister, seeking to stand for Christ in a world that is surprised, angered and resistant to such things. The room contained its fair share of surprise, anger and resistance to what has happened in the Church of England, but in godly and calm ways. Again, this was a delight to be a part of, a mark of a biblical living together in love and faith.

So, then, what has happened in the Church of England? This is where the evening was less satisfactory. Among the responses from the bishops (not all spoke, and I'm not sure who they all were: if they were introduced, I missed their names) there was a clear sense that fear and anxiety and risk lay ahead of them. Far less any sense, spoken at least, of what they have already done to the church. There was talk of the wounded body of Christ; but no reflection on self-inflicted wounds, instigated by his shepherds. Also, there was a slippery sense of what constitutes the Church of Christ - slippery at least to me, in seeking to understand their presentation of it. It seems that the Church of England is the Church of Christ, and that this is - could we say it - the only boat to fish from. Some clergy spoke of willingness, indeed need, to leave the Church of England's present trajectory. Among the expressions from the bishops, here seemed to me to be little sense of other lampstands, alongside him who walks among them.

Don't leave. These are the two words that stuck with me most from the evening. Don't leave. These words were said by one person present, and they struck me as prescient and even prophetic. They were addressed by one speaker (I don't remember who) to the bishops. If I could have spoken to even one bishop at the close last night, I would have said to them these same two words. Don't leave the Church of Jesus Christ. Don't lead others with you on this venture of your own design. And please don't think you're forcing anyone who leaves the Church of England over this matter to leave the Church of Christ. The Lord knows who are his. Today, more than before, I’m praying like crazy that the diverse-but-faithful gathering last night might find, in God's grace, some leaders to hold them together, to lead them together, in days ahead. Looking around the whole room, I do wonder where it will come from. The human signs are not good. But the Lord is good.

Don't leave. Please, bishops, if you see yourselves as instruments of unity, do not leave the scriptural path. There is pathos and appeal towards those leaving at the end of the book of Acts, and an openness in Christ for all who will come to him. Shepherds can stray. Leaders can be a vice as well as a virtue. Deeds in keeping with repentance signal feasts in keeping with repentance (e.g. Luke 15:21-32; Luke 19:6-10). Don't leave. Please, bishops, don't leave.


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