The declaration prefacing the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England says that they “concern the settled Continuance of the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England now established, from which We will not endure any varying or departing in the least Degree.”
The dictionary defines doctrine as “a principle of belief” and, as far as I understand it, this is clarified for the Church of England in the Thirty Nine Articles and homilies. Discipline is defined as “a mode of life in accordance with rules; subjection to control; training.” Yes, this may imply punishment but that is not its main purpose. Discipline is necessary in order to remain faithful to God’s covenant with the community of believers. The church needs to take seriously the Bible’s injunctions to warn, rebuke, exhort, correct, encourage and build one another up in love (2 Timothy 3) in order to hold its members together.
Christian faith is rooted in the Bible, so Bible teaching is crucial. In the New Testament quality of character and spiritual maturity are the most important factors in the choice of church leaders. Leadership must be by example as well as by word. Christian concern must be to guard the truth and inspire the faithful.
But, do we want to know the truth? A lot of us seem to have a pick’n’mix approach to the teaching of the Bible, accepting the `comfortable’ words but neglecting, or ignoring, those which challenge or disturb us.
Isaiah knew what this was like. (Isaiah 29), The people of Jerusalem were blinded by commercial greed, nationalistic pride and hypocritical religion. They preferred to listen to the so-called clever people of their society rather than to the challenging words from God spoken by His prophet. Worse still, they turned the truth upside down. They argued with God. They thought that they knew better than He did. They turned deaf ears to God’s message.
Sadly, the Church of England seems to be following their example, and consequently spiritual growth is stunted and there is no protection against heresy. Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20.29) applies here: “I know …. wolves will come in among you …. and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.”
James advises, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3.1) This has to be a sobering thought for those in church leadership, especially those who are clergy, with a responsibility for teaching church doctrine.
So, why did the General Synod in November vote for the amendment that “teaching, preaching, publishing or professing doctrine or belief incompatible with that of the Church of England as expressed in its formularies” should not be a disciplinary offence liable to invoke disciplinary processes under the new proposals, but remain subject to the present unsatisfactory arrangements. Under Authority is not the definitive document on church discipline but a report reviewing clergy discipline and the working of ecclesiastical courts. It does, quite rightly, emphasise the need for quality and accountability of clergy, “allowing discipline to be handled firmly, fairly, sensitively and without delay, without distracting God’s people from their primary task of mission.” (Foreword, page vi)
Several members of Synod were worried that clergy would be hounded for doctrinal beliefs. One was overheard to say that “if evangelicals don’t believe in my doctrine of atonement, they’ll take me to court.” That selfishness, I fear, is at the root of the problem. Selfishness was also at the root of the New Testament church’s problem. In the event, it was a shame that the media hi-jacked the debate and emphasised the homosexual issue because it distracted public attention from this further erosion of the importance of doctrine. The original conflict was about doctrine not practice, and this crucial distinction was lost.
Article xix of the Thirty Nine Articles describes the church as a place where “the pure word of God is preached”. If the Church of England recommitted herself to this task in the power of the Holy Spirit, then she would truly be a caring, witnessing and growing church, a missionary church devoted to the spread of the Gospel and the Kingdom.
Mary Judkins is a lay member of the General Synod. She represents the Diocese of Wakefield.