For evangelicals in the Church of England and wider Anglican Communion, it has sometimes felt like there has not been much to celebrate in recent years.
A once united constituency has fragmented into a plethora of smaller groupings, with some degree of mutual suspicion between them. Many have had concerns over a perceived liberal drift in the CofE's direction – even with two archbishops whose backgrounds are firmly evangelical. Others have commented on a perceived vacuum of the sort of leadership which would command wide support.
But now, at last, that situation may just have changed. The Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) – originally set up by the famous Anglican clergyman John Stott half a century or so ago – has issued what it calls a 'reflection' on Anglicanism, marriage and sex. Here are some reasons why evangelicals of whatever hue or shade should rejoice:
1. It is theologically coherent. This is no shooting-from-the-hip document; it does not degenerate into simple or unpleasant soundbites; it's not the sort of thing that can be condensed into an internet meme. Rather, it is a document containing serious, well-argued theology. In other words, it's a 'grown up' paper – and we have needed more of that, both from Anglican evangelical leaders and in much of the current debate about sexuality as well.
2. It is loving. It is described not even as a statement (though plainly it is that!) but as a 'reflection' coming 'out of our deep love for the Church of England, the wider Anglican Communion, and the world we want to serve'. There's no cheap abuse in this document.
3. It is a reality check for archbishops, bishops and the General Synod. If anyone thought that somehow mainstream evangelicals would 'agree to disagree' over issues such as marriage and sexuality in the Church of England, this document will make them sit up and think. The statement also makes clear that, for the CEEC, the responsibility for any resultant consequences will rest firmly with those who have departed from 'apostolic faith and life'.
4. It is unifying. The CEEC says that at a recent residential meeting to consider the situation in the Church of England, it 'formed a consensus on and committed itself to the conclusions set out' in the paper it has now produced. Given that the council has representatives from the Evangelical Group on General Synod ('Eggs'), diocesan evangelical fellowships and unions, New Wine, Fulcrum, Reform, women's network Awesome, CMS, Church Society, Crosslinks, bishops and theological college principals, this is no small achievement and is to be commended.
5. It explains what 'radical inclusion' really is. Many Anglican evangelicals were somewhat annoyed (to put it mildly) when the Archbishop of Canterbury called for a 'radical new inclusion' based on the gospel last year. What, they asked, did he think the gospel had been doing for the past 2,000 years? Thus the paper states: 'We, in the church of Jesus Christ, are called to welcome, and offer God's saving grace to, everyone – whatever their sexual history, identity or behaviour – thus manifesting the radical inclusivity of the gospel by which "God our Saviour wants all people to be saved" (1 Timothy 2:3). Knowing that God's created intent for human sexuality has been spoilt by sin in all people and all societies, we acknowledge our own need, following conversion, to keep turning to God for forgiveness and transformation.' In other words, the inclusion the gospel demands, according to this understanding of the gospel, never leaves people the same: it involves the challenge of deep change. Come as you are, but don't stay as you are.
6. It extends both an olive branch and hand of friendship to the 'new Anglicans'. In recent years a number of 'new Anglican' groupings and bodies have arisen, from the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) in the UK to the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). The reflection speaks of being 'deeply committed to being members of Church of England provinces which are...submissive and so communicating and clearly upholding – both de facto and de jure – the pattern of teaching and discipline handed down to us by the apostles'. The implication is clear: authentic Anglicanism is not about belonging to the 'right structure' but about holding to the 'right truth' – whatever the group.
The reflection ends with a prayer, and that seems a good place to finish an article like this, too. Because at the end of the day any church is not about us – it's about Jesus. Here is the prayer they print: 'Almighty God, who built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the chief cornerstone: so join us together in unity of spirit by their doctrine, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.'
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A