Andy Hawes 

Living in a divided church


Changing times do throw up new challenges to the spiritual life; the last year has provided a very powerful example of that. For many readers of this magazine there has been a perennial challenge to their spiritual life: how to remain faithful in a divided church. Many friends, including former editorial board members of New Directions have found this impossible. The spiritual and emotional damage of remaining in the Church of England became too much to bear. Some have experienced a strong call to become Roman Catholics or Orthodox and some have fallen away from any involvement in church community life. I know people who have taken all these paths in life.

The settlement that brought the Society into being has provided some clarity in how to respond to the question ‘how do I remain faithful in a divided church?’ Society parishes do enable individuals and families to have a secure spiritual home. However, not everyone is able to be travel the distances that are sometimes necessary, and find themselves in parish that has embraced the ‘new order’: there are certainly readers who are in this situation. Some of my directees experience this dilemma: do I attend a local church that has ‘liberal tendencies’ or do I not? Individuals often have long and deep attachments to churches and congregations who have slipped away into the mire of confused doctrine, weird liturgy and doubtful orders of ministry: what is the faithful path to take then? I have spent many long hours helping people discern a way to pursue holiness in an unholy mess.

The truth is that the situation of each person is very different; we have to remind ourselves of St Paul’s advice to the Philippians (2:12) ‘work out your own salvation in prayer and trembling.’ There are a few guidelines that are helpful to follow. First, bear in mind the ‘ecumenical principle’, which is to act together in all the ways that are possible, and not to emphasise the points of difference. Secondly, make sure that your spiritual life is fed: sometimes it is necessary to attend an alternative church or fellowship on a regular basis (Forward in Faith has helped provide this very effectively in the past). Thirdly, take some advice and seek guidance about your own personal prayer life: don’t rely too much on the corporate life of the church to meet all spiritual needs.  Finally, do not offend your own conscience, live in the truth: unity will only happen where and when Christians live in truth. Your conscience is the guardian of your soul – follow it. Compromise is not an option.

The really crucial matter surrounds when to receive Holy Communion and when not to. The Society’s ‘Communion Statement’ is helpful here. It can help to understand the reasons impaired communion is necessary. Holy Communion is not an expression of a desire or aspiration for unity. Holy Communion is the sacramental expression of unity between Christians. Where differences exist in doctrine, ethical teaching and church order there is no full communion. The inability to receive Holy Communion is a church is perhaps the acid test of whether to stay or leave. ‘Keep in step with the Spirit.’ (Galatians 5) Be prayerful and seek the prayers of others.