The Gospel of Liberalism
Last April, a man dressed as an asparagus solemnly passed the pews in an Anglican church for a special ceremony blessing the vegetable.
The appearance of “Asparagus Man” was met with mixed reactions, like so many other actions the Church of England has taken in the past years. On one side were references to the biblical tradition of the firstfruits harvest. On the other side, prominent Anglicans accused the procession as being “infantile” entertainment and a scene that made “a mockery of Christian worship.”
For the Church of England’s large traditionalist wing, acts like this can have them asking: “Just what is going on with the church I used to know?” On many issues, from female priests to abortion to mental health to homosexual “marriage” to transgenders, the new Anglican line has split from its tradition. Doctrines that were seemingly immovable in years past are now up for debate.
For those hundreds of years, the independent spirit of the Church of England guided the spirit of England. It rallied the English to independence from Rome’s authority. When the Spanish Armada attacked in 1588, England believed its independence was divinely ordained—“God blew and they were scattered.” During the Dunkirk evacuation of World War ii, the archbishop of Canterbury led the nation in pausing each day at noon to pray for deliverance.
There have been doctrinal disputes in the Church of England’s past, of course. But now, to the insider and the outsider, the trumpet of the Church of England is not blowing a certain sound. Both the traditionalists and the reformists could agree on one thing: The Church of England has not recently been shaping and guiding British spirit and culture. It has been conforming to the new culture. The new gospel trends towards the spirit of the age—it sounds like a gospel of liberalism.
The Anglican Liberal Tradition
The truth is, the Church of England has always had a liberal strain. You can see it from the story of King Henry viii and his famous divorce.
England broke from Rome’s authority and established the Church of England when King Henry viii wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. But before it became official in 1534, Thomas Cranmer, the man who would write the Church of England’s most important work, the Book of Common Prayer, sent for the opinions of Europe’s leading universities on whether Henry viii had biblical justification for his divorce.
As many as 160 scholars and 23 universities across Western Europe gave their opinions on the divorce. The whole process exposed the ridiculousness of having committees of scholars determine doctrinal disputes. Political bribery abounded and there was still no agreement.
The point though, as Anglican historian Paul Badham writes, is this: “Anglicanism came into being with the insight that a true understanding of Christian sources was a matter for scholarly research” (emphasis added).
Once the pope was out of the way, the scholars had the power.
In the 1700s, British philosopher and theologian Joseph Butler was one of the Church of England’s most influential thinkers. To him, the Bible was out of date. The New Testament epistles, he said in his first sermon “Upon Human Nature,” reflected “the condition and usages of the Christian world at the time they were written.” Because they were so old, and thus out of date, their “exhortations” couldn’t “be urged in that manner, and with that force which they were to the primitive Christians.”
These ideas became hugely influential in the Church of England (and in Christianity as a whole). One can’t underestimate their importance. If you want to end up introducing your own thinking to doctrine, you must first establish that the old writings don’t really apply anymore.
Fast forward another few hundred years—past the era of German biblical criticism—and you arrive in an age where the “scholarly consensus” has managed to discount nearly every facet of the Christian narrative. Badham writes that “virtually all academic studies of the historical Jesus discount the nativity stories and virtually all discussions of the resurrection accept that however it is or is not to be interpreted, it is not a question of Jesus’s corpse being restored to life.”
Once you’ve established that the Bible doesn’t really mean what it says, and if it does mean what it says, it’s outdated anyway, doctrines can become easy to manipulate. This, as we’ll see, is what the gospel of liberalism has done.
In 1992, after 5½ hours of debate—the culmination of years of bitter arguing—hundreds of members of the Church of England Synod voted on whether the church should ordain female priests. Around 1,000 conservative priests, who cried with the increasingly weightless claim that it would “violate Scripture,” threatened to resign if the motion passed.
The main scriptures they were referring to are found in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, where Paul is abundantly dogmatic about the role of female teachers.
A two thirds majority was needed in all three houses—the Bishops, the Clergy and the Laity. Of the bishops, 75 percent approved. Of the clergy, 70 percent. Where it just scraped through was the mere laymen—if two more members had voted against, it would have been blocked. The legislation was passed and the crowds outside were described as “jubilant.”
“What binds us together in God’s love as a church is vastly more important than a disagreement about women’s ordination,” then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said. If the vote didn’t pass, Carey told reporters, society would turn its back on the church—it would be heard no longer.
For Anne Widdecombe, the highly visible British member of Parliament, the debate was the trigger to leave the Anglican Church. The church was “promoting political correctness above the very clear teachings of Scripture,” she said. Widdecombe went on to join the Catholic Church.
Two years later the first female priest was ordained. In 2010, more women were ordained as priests than men—290 to 273. And then, finally, in 2014, the Synod voted and accepted the decision to promote women to the position of bishop. Nearly all remaining opposition had withered away.
The Church of Inclusion
Nearly a decade after the Church of England ordained its first female priest, Dr. Jeffrey John was nominated as bishop of Reading (the town, not the act). When his long-term homosexual relationship went public, the nomination was withdrawn. Former archbishop Carey, who had supported female priests, was now labeled a “traditionalist” because he opposed the nomination. The new archbishop, Rowan Williams, praised John’s “dignity and forbearance” and made clear that homosexuals “are full and welcome members of the church.”
Outraged members of the church created an online petition to support a statement of belief against discrimination. It gained nearly 10,000 signatories. Out of this, what is now called the “Church of Inclusion” was born.
Over the subsequent years, the Inclusive Church branched out of its Anglican roots. According to its website, Inclusive Church now has a “national directory of over 250 churches that have registered with us as ‘inclusive.’” If navigating its site, you’ll come across a section “Inclusion Is …” where churchgoers ideas of inclusion are written on cards, photographed and posted on Twitter. “Inclusion is … the freedom to be yourself,” reads one card. Another: “Inclusion is … everybody is allowed to be as they want. No one can stop the way you are. Not even God judges you.”
“It is no secret,” writes Baptist minister Steve Chalke, “that the negative stance taken by the Church [of England], and so many individual local churches, has a hugely distressing impact on large numbers of lgb people and leaves countless numbers of them living lives of forced secrecy and dishonesty.” It is the “church” who is “fueling this negativity” and needs to “take a long, hard look in the mirror and see the consequences of what we have said and done ….”
There is pushback against this type of reasoning, but it is stuck in the minority. “It becomes difficult in this gospel paradigm to discern why people need Jesus at all: There is no sin, no need for the cross, no judgment, no narrow path to salvation,” wrote popular Anglican theologian and blogger Adrian Hilton:
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 7:21), says Jesus. Bit stressful, isn’t it?
“For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (Rom. 2:13), says St Paul. So terribly oppressive. And don’t, whatever you do, talk about sheep and goats: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Mt. 25:46). Poor goats. We must include them. It’s an outrageous discrimination; appallingly specieist. The only true mercy is to suspend all moral judgment and responsibility, so these scriptures must be revised.
Within his circle of followers, this view is taken as common sense. In the General Synod, this view is the new radical.
Culture vs. Commands
Since 2005, the Church of England has given its blessing to “civil partnership” for same-sex partners. At the same time, it has opposed same-sex “marriage,” not wanting to change its definition of marriage from between a man and a woman. This has led to a plethora of doublespeak on fidelity and healthy relationships.
The most recent General Synod debate ran into 2017. It discussed whether to “take note” of a new report written by the House of Bishops called “Marriage and Same-Sex Relationships After the Shared Conversations.” It prefaced the report by telling its readers “we know that this report may prove challenging or difficult reading.” It then went on to describe the new vision for homosexuals in the church.
According to the report, Paul had to set aside the “wonderful privilege of Jewish identity” to prioritize Christ and thus the “traditional” view of homosexuality has to be set aside for the new light of human sexuality. The Church of England is living in a moment where “our teachings,” through the “prism” of “Western culture,” can be seen as “undermining, even contradicting our Lord’s command that we should love one another as ourselves.”
In practical terms, accepting the report would mean “establishing across the Church of England a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people” and “guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same-sex couples,” as the report says.
Just like Thomas Cranmer’s appeal to the universities of Europe over Henry viii’s divorce, the “constructive way forward” for “theological coherence” meant including all “different perspectives.” But just to clarify: “We are seeking to discern the right next steps, not be sure about the end of the road.”
Instead of countering culture, the Church of England is conforming to it. Instead of the Word of God being eternal, it must obey the culture of tolerance. Forget “I am the Lord, I change not.” When new ideas about human sexuality and tolerance arrive, the Church of England changes.
In the end, the vote on whether to “take note” of the report was narrowly blocked by the House of Clergy—and mostly because 78 percent of women voted against it. Apart from one “no” vote (which was apparently an accident), the House of Bishops unanimously voted in favor. The educated led from the front.
No More Committees
One thing theologian and educator Herbert W. Armstrong constantly emphasized was the ridiculousness of consensus-based truth. Christ didn’t consult the Pharisees before declaring the oral law as making the “commandment of God of none effect.”
“One thing there will not be in the millennial headquarters Church,” he wrote, “is a doctrinal committee of intellectual ‘scholars’ to decide whether Christ’s teachings are true doctrines.” The idea that King Henry’s divorce was legal if Europe’s best scholars decided it was is ridiculous. The idea that the Church of England’s best scholars can decide whether female priests and same-sex unions are appropriate is just as ridiculous.
Christ, in describing the conditions of this world’s teachers before His return, told the disciples that “many false prophets shall rise, and deceive many” (Matthew 24:11). Later, the Apostle John spoke of false prophets and antichrists, the Apostle Peter spoke of “false teachers,” and the Apostle Paul warned that “in the latter days, the Spirit distinctly declares, certain people will rebel against the faith; they will listen to spirits of error and to teach doctrines that demons teach through plausible sophists who are seared in conscience” (1 Timothy 4:1-2; Moffatt).
So when you see a church as influential as the Church of England—with highly intelligent, supremely sophisticated and plausible sophists—change the doctrines of Christ for the doctrines of men, you shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, it should build your faith because its very existence was prophesied.