Anglican Bishops: ‘Unity’ Over Truth?
When he ran for president in 2004, then-Senator John Kerry famously said of a vote to fund the Iraq war, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
Verbal gymnastics aside, Kerry’s embarrassing attempt to explain himself pales in comparison to the statements coming out of this week’s annual Lambeth Conference in Great Britain. The conference is a once-a-decade meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops, convened by Anglicanism’s leader, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The incoherence emanating from this gathering of Anglican leaders is not isolated to a single offhand remark by an obscure churchman. As one British news headline put it, “Anglican church still tying itself in knots over same-sex marriage.”
First, the Archbishop of Canterbury has affirmed the “validity” of the Anglican Communion’s 1998 statement on human sexuality, which states, “in view of the teaching of Scripture, (the Communion) upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage” and “(rejects) homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture.” The document says Anglican leaders “cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.”
The Archbishop also notes that “for the large majority of the Anglican Communion,” questioning the traditional understanding of marriage “is unthinkable.”
So far, so good. But then Archbishop Welby, long associated as a committed evangelical, takes with one hand what the other just offered. Referring to his call to the bishops to come to the Lambeth event, Welby writes, “other (church) provinces have blessed and welcomed same sex union or marriage, after careful theological reflection and a process of reception.” He continues that these theological outliers “have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study, and reflection on understandings of human nature.”
And then, referring to the American and Canadian churches, Welby says, “For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.”
First, if fidelity to Scripture means a loss of members or even ecclesiastical collapse, then “let God be true and every man a liar” (Romans 3:4). Is the survival of a denominational organization more important than obeying our Redeemer? Welby knows better.
Second, the “very existence” of the Episcopal Church in the United States already seems doomed. Researcher Ryan Burge, writing in 2019, reports that “The (median) age of an Episcopalian in 2019 was 69 years old. With life expectancy around 80, we can easily expect at least a third of the current membership of the denomination to be gone in the next 15 or 20 years.”
The Episcopal Church itself notes that its membership is in rapid decline. As of 2019, there were about 1.8 million members — down from 3.4 million members in the 1960s. “Average (Sunday) attendance fell to 518,411. … Median attendance dropped from 53 worshippers to 51, while 61% of parishes saw attendance declines of 10% or more.”
“The overall picture is dire — not one of decline as much as demise within the next generation unless trends change significantly,” according to Episcopal priest and denominational scholar Rev. Dwight Zscheile. “At this rate,” he says, “there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.”
There is one overriding reason for this massive loss: People don’t want to belong to a denomination that is Christian in name only. The American Episcopal Church, as a denomination, long ago abandoned steadfast allegiance to historic Christian orthodoxy. Rev. John Yates, for many years the rector of the large Falls Church Episcopal Church in Virginia left the denomination because of its failure to adhere to basic Christian doctrine.
So did the noted Christian scholar Os Guinness. In a 2007 Washington Post op-ed, they wrote, “The American Episcopal Church no longer believes the historic, orthodox Christian faith common to all believers. Some leaders expressly deny the central articles of the faith — saying that traditional theism is ‘dead,’ the incarnation is ‘nonsense,’ the resurrection of Jesus is a fiction, the understanding of the cross (as an atonement for sin) is ‘a barbarous idea,’ the Bible is ‘pure propaganda’ and so on.”
Is it any surprise, then, that traditional Anglicanism, which is evangelical in conviction, is thriving in the United States and around the world?
In his statement, Welby concludes, “We are deeply divided. That will not end soon. We are called by Christ himself both to truth and unity.” This is true, but Welby should know that unity flows from a common commitment to the truth. When that commitment is forsaken, unity becomes an idol and an end unto itself. This is not the scriptural understanding of what oneness in Christ truly means.
John Kerry, in his losing presidential campaign, found out that you can’t have things both ways. We can pray that Justin Welby and his senior advisors will come to acknowledge the same thing. There is no middle ground between truth and error. Good feeling is not unity, and turning from the Bible’s teaching for the sake of even a cherished denomination is far too high a cost when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.