An umbrella body for evangelicals in the Church of England has issued a stark warning of consequences for Church unity if it departs from 'apostolic truth' on sexual ethics.
The Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) comprises a wide range of representatives from within the evangelical tradition. Members are drawn not only from bodies noted for their opposition to any move to liberalise Church teaching, such as the Anglican Mission in England, but mainstream organisations such as the Church Mission Society (CMS) and New Wine.
In a document entitled Gospel, Church & Marriage: Preserving Apostolic Faith and Life released to its supporters and organisational representatives, CEEC says: 'As we face many changes in British society and forceful challenges within the Church of England on matters of human sexuality and marriage, we believe it is important not simply to focus on these contentious areas of disagreement but to set them within a wider and deeper theological vision.
'Our desire is for the Church's teaching and practice to offer a vision of human flourishing which is faithful to Scripture.'
While the document does not explicitly mention homosexuality or same-sex marriage, its context is the continuing turmoil in the CofE about how far it should go in accommodating changing social mores. The ongoing controversy has effectively already split the Anglican Communion and the CofE's unity is under pressure.
The document stresses the 'gift of singleness' and the House of Bishops' affirmation that sexual relations are 'properly conducted only within heterosexual marriage'.
This teaching is not an 'optional extra' or 'adiaphora' but is 'apostolic and essential to the gospel's transforming purpose', it says.
CEEC warns that affirming 'non-apostolic teaching and behaviour' damages the unity of the Anglican Communion and would have 'a similar distancing effect on our ecumenical relationships with the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and most Protestant and Pentecostal churches, which have not changed their doctrine in this vital area'.
In an indication that evangelicals might distance themselves from the Church's structures, it says that such a departure from apostolic teaching 'regrettably requires in response some degree of visible differentiation, in order formally to acknowledge and mark this distance. Moving away from "apostolic" and "catholic" teaching concerning what it means to be "holy" will tragically mean we are less visibly "one".'
CEEC says its members 'do not wish for this differentiation, but recognise that it may become a tragic necessity'. They are, it says, committed to being members of CofE provinces which are 'communicating and clearly upholding – both de facto and de jure –the pattern of teaching and discipline handed down to us by the apostles'.
While the Anglican Mission in England – effectively a rival Anglican Church with its own bishop and clergy – is tiny by comparison with the CofE, the Anglican Church in North America, which split from The Episcopal Church over what it said was its liberal drift, provides an alternative conservative province for disaffected US Anglicans. The influential international GAFCON organisation campaigns against Anglican provinces affirming same-sex marriage and argues that the Archbishop of Canterbury – traditionally the first among equals in the Anglican Communion – should not prescribe who can be part of the Communion.
See Comment by David Baker.