Church Planting with Menaces

by Richard Truss

from Signs of the Times, No. 20 - Jan 2006

The Diocese of Southwark has just acquired three new deacons without the Bishop of the Diocese's permission, licence, or hands being laid on them, thus bringing home to one of our more enlightened sees the fissure that is widening in the Anglican Communion as a whole. It has deeply divided not only the Church of England in south London as a whole, but also the evangelicals themselves. Whilst some were supportive to the extent of attending the ordinations, others are aghast that they should have happened at all and have rallied round the Bishop of Southwark.

The ordination was carried out by a Bishop from the so-called Church of England in South Africa, itself significantly a breakaway movement from those riven days of the 1840's when the Tractarian movement was in full swing, an Anglo-Catholic was made Bishop of Cape Town and Colenso, of Pentateuchal criticism fame, Bishop of Natal.

Just as then, the church plant group in Southwark sees itself as embodying the true faith of the Church, whilst the rest of us are on the slippery slope to perdition.

In his address at a recent Southwark Diocesan Synod, Bishop Tom Butler didn't mince his words, and spoke of the irregular ordinations as schism. He added "We don't do schism in the Diocese of Southwark".

Some may feel that the constant emphasis on the Bishop as a focus of unity is overdone, that often it is a pretext for fudge and failure to confront seemingly divisive issues. It was therefore gratifying to hear the Bishop speaking clearly on the matter. Unity of course cannot be the paramount. Ahead of it is the speaking of the truth in love. It may be that the debate that has followed these ordinations will have done some good. It suggests that there are limits to which accommodation of diversity can go and these are when clergy and Christian groups take such an intransigent attitude that they in effect damn the rest of the church.

The church plant which will be served by the new deacons has chosen to take its stand on the Bishop of Southwark's refusal to disassociate himself from the House of Bishops' statement on Civil Partnerships (i.e. gay marriages). To most of us it will seem extraordinary that a single issue can cause so much grief and lead to such an outpouring of vitriol. By their attitude they have shown clearly to most people who is on the side of the angels and who are the bigots.

At the same time it is important to see this in some context and not to overestimate the threat. Thomas Arnold's famous words in the 1840's at the time of Tractarian divisions and the secession of Newman and others to Rome, that "the Church of England as it now exists no power on earth can save", was in fact to be disproved by events. The Church of England did go on, embodying a rich variety of views, practices, and theological positions, many of them totally incompatible with one another. There is no reason to think therefore that we will not ride, or be led, though this particular storm. Whether the Anglican Communion survives - well, that is another matter!

Richard Truss is Vicar of St John's, Waterloo and an MCU Vice President.