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Do Denominations Matter?

William Taylor recently gave a presentation to his church about the C of E and how he believes evangelicals ought to respond to challenges in the established denomination. The presentation has been made available online and is being promoted by St. Helen’s Bishopsgate on social media. It can be found here:

William has formal and informal leadership responsibilities across a wide range of organisations that impact on the evangelical world – so careful evaluation of his teaching is important. His influence and how people respond to it will inevitably impact many organisations – not least Church Society, AMiE, GAFCON, FIEC and Gospel Partnerships.

A few initial reflections from a Free Church of England rector in Tunbridge Wells on the presentation from the Church of England rector in Bishopsgate:

1. William gives a concise and hard hitting summary of the decline of orthodoxy in the established church. Whereas many are now afraid to call out the national church for its toleration and promotion of heterodoxy, William is bold and clearsighted in doing so. He should be commended for doing this, and his analysis deserves to be taken seriously. He is surely right in explaining the relationship between doctrinal decline and ethical chaos. He is prescient in warning that if our generation is unwilling to contend against false teaching, then our children will be liberals. Many could take a leaf out of Williams’s book in being so clear, faithful and challenging as regards the toleration of false teaching.

2. William addresses head on the fact that some ministers and congregations have already, or are in the process of considering, leaving the established denomination. As a minister who has transplanted a ministry out of the Church of England into the Free Church of England, I appreciate the willingness of William to discuss the possibilities and reasons for such a move. Again, many are hoping to avoid having the conversation – William’s forthrightness is helpful. In Evangelicals Now Sept 2018, I argued that evangelicals ought to not be ‘Silent Anglicans’ but rather ought to have a debate about what is to be done. William enables such a conversation to occur by making his views public. He should be commended for that.

3. Two matters, one’s Doctrine of Church (ecclesiology) and one’s view of Buildings are specifically highlighted as significant in determining a course of action. William said in the Q & A:

‘Those who are leaving often have a ecclesiology which is very different from what I articulated as a Biblical ecclesiology, or they feel – to be honest – that the buildings are a bit of a hindrance to us and it doesn’t really matter.’

These two matters are thus suggested by William as requiring careful consideration and study, and were indeed spoken about in his main presentation. We turn then to reflect upon them.

4. Ecclesiology

a. William argues that there are only two aspects of church which are biblical – the local congregation and the universal church (that is, all believers and angels throughout all time)

b. The concept of any intermediary structure – such as a ‘denomination’ is rejected. William said

‘There is no such thing in the Bible as denomination – it just doesn’t exist.’

This is of course accurate as an observation – but only in the sense that the ‘Trinity’ is not in the Bible.

c. William argues that the denomination can be viewed as a secular organisation:

‘The Church of England can claim validity, and we should recognise it as valid on two levels: One, a secular body. It owns a lot of property, it dishes out the property – an estate agent, a golf club. You know, it’s just a kind of secular body held together like Southwark Council. It’s also a spiritual body, insofar as the Church of England holds to the gospel. But insofar as it doesn’t – well it’s irrelevant.’

This creates a situation where if the denomination supports what a particular presbyter thinks is needed for gospel ministry – it can be recognised. So money and buildings can be accepted. But wherever there are problems in the denomination’s teaching or practices – it can be ignored. This is a very pragmatic approach to denomination – though to be sure William tries to present it as theologically thought through and Anglican.

d. Church History is used to defend William’s idea that the local congregation (or a homegroup) is to be approached as the true church – while the denomination can be viewed as a secular organisation such as a golf club or local council, when convenient. The problem is that the evidence adduced to support his view is mishandled:

i. So the first half of Article 19 is quoted to defend the idea that the local congregation is the church. But this interpretation of the first half is not credible since in the second half of the very same Article, the word ‘church’ is applied to denominations such as the ‘Church of Rome.’ As with Bible handling, context determines the interpretation of words.

ii. William claims Anglican divine Richard Hooker agrees with him:

‘Richard Hooker 1554-1600 – listen to this – “The truth is a particular congregational church is the highest tribunal to which an aggrieved party may appeal. If difficulties arise in the proceedings the counsel of other congregations may be sought … but the power of censure rests still in the congregation where Christ placed it.” So some say ‘Oh William – this line of ecclesiology you are taking means you are just a congregationalist.’ No – this is Anglican ecclesiology.’

The problem is that those who feel the sentiments here described as ‘Anglican ecclesiology’ have a rather congregationalist feel to them would be quite correct. The quote used is not from Richard Hooker – it is lifted from Thomas Hooker, a puritan congregationalist minister. The quote can be found cited in ‘A View of Congregationalism: Its Principles and Doctrines, by George Punchard, p. 106.

e. Given the importance of the matters being discussed, listeners will have to evaluate for themselves whether partial and misattributed quotations are an adequate basis for William’s unique take on Anglican ecclesiology.

5. Buildings:

William argues in the Q & A that those who leave the Church of England feel ‘that the buildings are a bit of a hindrance.’ By this he seems to be saying that congregations leave the Church of England because it makes life and ministry easier. Doubtless that is in some ways true – but I for one having made the move myself find it very hurtful to have an evangelical minister make this comment. The sacrifices made by families leaving vicarages, and congregations leaving much loved buildings are considerable – they are reputational, emotional, financial, practical and costly. Families may have to spend less time together in order to fund new housing arrangements, ministers are taking pay cuts, people are getting up early to lay out equipment for services. This and much more is being done – not to make ministry easier, or to avoid the price of staying in a provided building. I am struck that liberals in the denomination and secular media display empathy and understanding of this point.

6. Implications of all this will need to be pondered by others over time. The views William commends will shape the ability of Renew – and those organisations associated with it (Church Society and AMiE) to deliver their vision. The arguments William makes pave the way for him to announce that his church will be in broken or impaired fellowship with the House of Bishops – treating them as merely a secular organisation on the level of a local council or golf club. The problems with this are at least two fold. If the theology and vision such a move is based upon are faulty, it will lack spiritual as well as temporal power. Spiritually – God will not bless it. Temporally – no practical solutions to succession, curacies, finances or ordinations will be forthcoming.

7. I have long been frustrated at the lack of a debate among evangelicals over these important matters. I am therefore grateful to William for having the courage to share his own vision for the future so openly, so that it can be debated and evaluated. Doubtless others will be able to do with more depth and precision than I can, in this initial off the cuff reflection.

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