8 August, 2013 Rupert Standring
Three big game changers for church planting within the Church of England (C of E)
1. The Pilling Report
This is a working group set up by the House of Bishops to advise them on changes to the current C of E position on human sexuality that was drawn up at the Lambeth conference in 1998. The report is due later in the year and there has been some speculation that it will recommend permitting services of Thanksgiving in C of E churches following a Civil Partnership ceremony. This would be at the discretion of each individual parish minister, but such services would not be illegal as they currently are.
If this speculation is true, it would mean that, for the first time, the C of E would be officially sanctioning sin, i.e. calling something contrary to the word of God a good thing by thanking God for it. Of course, many within the C of E do this unofficially already by expressing their own views and opinions but, if this change were to be accepted by the House of Bishops, it would officially condone civil partnerships and make them seem to be a legitimate and acceptable human relationship before God.
For many a church, that would be a compromise too far; for others, they could live with that.
2. Women Bishops
This proposal failed at General Synod in November and is going to be re-launched this summer with the prospect of the first women bishops being appointed in 2016. As yet, the provision for those who don’t want women bishops is up for grabs, but certainly attitudes have hardened in the ‘pro’ camp against conservative evangelicals and the mood is not for accommodation, but expulsion.
Nothing has been fixed yet – we have 3 years in which to plant churches, preach the Gospel and make the case on the ground and in Synod for being allowed to stay within the C of E as legitimate and effective members. So some would say that we should stay as long as we can, plant as much as we can, and make as much ground as we can so that in 2016, when things begin to fall apart, we are in a strong position to negotiate.
For some, the appointment of women bishops is a compromise too far; for others they can live with that.
3. Same sex marriage bill
Now that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill has become law, the big question is: what becomes of the much-vaunted ‘quadruple lock’ (a guarantee from MPs that the European Court of Human Rights won’t interfere)?
Peter Tatchell has said that he will challenge the lock immediately and we’d have to say that, given the track record of the European Court of Human Rights, the legal protections given to the C of E would undoubtedly fail.
How long will it be before same-sex marriage is explicitly permitted within the C of E and the state church’s practice falls in line with the state?
For some, same-sex marriages being performed by the C of E will be a compromise too far; for others, they will be able to live with that.
What are the implications of these three significant changes to church planting within the C of E? Does the trajectory that the C of E is on suggest that the game is up or soon will be? Would it be best to get out now and start planting churches outside the C of E so that, when it all begins to collapse, we’re 5 or 10 years established and going strong?
Or do all these imminent changes call us to stay? To plant as many churches as we can; to capture as many parishes as we can; so that, when the whole thing begins to fragment, we’re in as strong a position as possible and can take as many assets and people with us as we can?
Does the C of E actually offer any positive benefits to the prospective church planter that nullifies any compromises or future changes?
I recently asked two friends involved in church plants that question. They are both now in established plants, and both said the same thing. The C of E offered them cultural acceptability and stopped people thinking they were a strange cult or an extreme Christian sect.
For them the C of E is a benign fig leaf to hide behind, to enable them to get the Gospel a hearing without people running away straightaway.
My question to them is: is that benefit drawing to a close? As soon as belonging to a denomination doesn’t simply reassure people we are ‘safe’, but clearly connects us to a denomination that has unbiblical and immoral practices, is that a fig leaf we want to continue to use?
Parish churches are tied to a building and a locality but church planters, almost by definition, have flexibility. We can choose where to go; whom to reach; where we meet.
For those of us who have always ministered within the C of E, maybe the question we now need to grapple with is not ‘which compromises do I need to make by planting within the C of E?’ but maybe instead we need to grapple with the possibility, and perhaps the necessity, of planting outside the C of E.
Life outside the C of E is possible – we just might take a while to realise that!