THERE SEEM TO BE several ways in which pressure is mounting for a return to doctrinal orthodoxy in the Church of England. For many years, evangelicals have sought to play an active part in the processes of synodical government. Many believe there is a great deal that still needs to be done and that the debates in the coming years will be crucial for the future direction of the church. The very seriousness of these issues is prompting many to consider fresh involvement in a process that, certainly in the early 1990s, had been perceived to fail.
The second point of growing pressure is at the level of parish. Reform has always presented itself as a network where individual parishes are encouraged to take reforming action on the basis that others will stand by them. In the last 18 months the action of parishes in Newcastle to reject the spiritual oversight of Bishop Wharton has been a reminder of both the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. The strength is that parishes can act more freely if they are not encumbered with the need to act in concert with others. The weakness is that support for their action may be limited if the circumstances of others are not so pressing. As it happens, developments in the USA have shown that the steps taken by the Newcastle churches are very much in line with thinking across the Anglican Communion. So far from being the initiatives of an eccentric and isolated few, they are blazing a trail in this country that has already been followed in the USA. The action of the USA conservatives has increased the pressure here.
Thirdly, there is the effect of Lambeth. The effectiveness of Lambeth as a reference point for orthodox opinion continues to make itself felt both within and outside the Church of England. For example, the United Reform Church has recently drawn back from approving the ordination of actively homosexual people – although it has to be said that this might not have happened had a Reform – type organisation not emerged which gained the adherence of a large minority within the URC.
Finally, there is the desperate action being taken by conservatives in the USA to distance themselves from the rampant liberalism of the Episcopal Church by securing the oversight of orthodox bishops from other countries. This action, and the encouraging response from a number of Anglican Primates, is proving to be a shot in the arm for developments elsewhere. In Australia, for example, as Geoffrey Kirk reported last month, there is now a proposal that parishes should be able to opt for the oversight provided by dioceses other than the one in which they are geographically situated. In the UK, Reform has recently completed an initial consultative exercise on what action it might be appropriate to take where bishops depart from their canonical duty to preserve the Church from doctrinal error.
In the face of these different pressures, it is tempting to ask whether action could not be better co-ordinated so that reform could be more effectively achieved. But the question “how can we best reform the church?” is the wrong one to ask.. The issue is not effectiveness but faithfulness. The question we should be asking, if we believe in semper reformanda is “what do we need to do to be faithful to the gospel?” The resulting action, as current circumstances show, will be as diverse as the various settings and ministries in which God has placed us.