Change is hard.

In fact it is traumatic for many.

As the Church of England waivers perilously close to seismic shifts in its doctrine and practice this has led to the usual array of responses in any era of conflict and change.

In one direction there are the campaigners, early adopters, convinced converts to a cause of justice and liberation.

In the polar opposite direction there are the chief resisters, the ‘we need to separate-ers’, the ‘I have to leave-ers’.

As the Scripture says: How can two walk together, unless they be agreed?

Amos 3:3

In the institutional middle are Bishops who in their corporate capacity have interpreted their role to be a so-called ‘centre of unity’ between the poles, and the ecclesial civil servants who back them up. This unity comprises of trying to hold together such disparate voices within an institution, with underlying motives ranging from ‘not on my watch / not long till I retire / to a genuine belief that the ‘breadth of the Church of England is its strength’. But unity so comprised can only have an institutional meaning. It’s a static unity where the Bishop is an all things to all people, the embracer of all traditions, allowing them to orbit their sun unless they threaten to veer out of their institutional solar system. It’s an image that can only lead to atrophy. Streams of renewal may flow into this pond but they come there to remain and to stagnate. A confusion of ideas, values and practices are in that pond, with no clear direction, value set or vision, save for generic ideas like simpler – humbler – bolder but with no clear sense of Why?

On the edges there is a clear sense of Why? The campaigners want for justice reasons to revise the historic doctrines and formularies of the Church of England. For them it is time to have a liturgical bomb-fire with the parts of the tradition and history that do not accord with the State+Media consensus of where we should go. Prominent among them is the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Oxford. The institutional middle matters less to them – although they’d like to conquer it. Riding on the coattails of Jayne Ozanne and other campaigners their evangelistic zeal is to align the church as much with culture as possible so as to make it as simple as possible for those in the nation to be a Christian/ Anglican without counting a cost of walking against the State+Media consensus. Like Jayne (who in the end could not vote for the house of bishops motion as it was too watered down) they want to deliver wholesale change to the Church of England and have counted in the cost of that meaning separation from the vast majority of the Anglican Communion and separation from vast numbers in their own dioceses and provinces. Settlement is with not enough for them, only allowable for now because it is a ‘stepping stone’ for further change. (It reminds me of the early 19th Century when at the height of modernism for apparently evangelistic reasons commentators de-mysticised the gospel so that it did not have any spiritual impediments in it to a sceptical Europeans accepting the religion. The feeding of the five thousand therefore became a picnic sharing exercise and Jesus the man who encouraged/shames people into sharing, because that was all the British intelligentsia could be expected to believe at that time.) There have always been ‘radical’ voices conforming the church to State+Media.

At the other edge there is a clear sense of Why too? To borrow a phrase resonate of those great Anglican reformers that the Church of England could not contain in the 18th Century, the Why? is a ‘holy people for a holy God’ – defined by the Scriptures, creeds and orthodoxy apparent through the ages. Unlike Wesley and Whitefield these ‘orthodox’ are, by and large, not keen to say ‘the world is my parish’, because they like the one they are in. But they can’t stand to see the goal posts moved, as they stand still on what they have always believed over a lifetime of Anglicanism. Just because State+Media have moved substantially does not mean they should depart biblical, traditional, and what seem reasonable views to them. They hear the campaigners and don’t recognise the new religion underlying the campaign as Anglican. It sounds like ‘self-affirmation’ not the ‘self-denial’ so prevalent in our Book of Common Prayer. And they hear the institutional middle as Orwellian. ‘Broad is Narrow and Narrow is Broad’ seemed an apt summary of the Bishop of London’s own Synod speech. It’s a confusing mess to them, with no-one seeming more confused than the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose intervention in response to the amendment from Busola Sodeinde, a Church Commissioner from HTB Church, was probably the thing that ripped the Anglican Communion in two even more than any procedural part of the motion that carried.

But there is another middle too. The large compassionate middle of people waking up late to this nightmare. The sort of people shocked that so many Anglican Clergy turned out the “compelled to resist” meeting the Bishop of London called. The Diocesan Finance teams. The pastorally hearted moderates who just want all to be well. The conflicted because they want to do one thing but their families and churches are going to be divided if they do so. The conflict averse who couldn’t imagine having tough conversations with family/friends if that challenged their identity. The worried that their livelihoods will be upended if this all goes through. The compromised who know that we have all sinned greatly and definitely don’t want to point out logs or specks in other people’s eyes. The people who have spent years thinking the ‘Bridget Jones’ gospel is about affirming people just the way they are, who are waking up to a seismic culture shift in State+Media and beginning to think that the gospel might be costlier than that after all, and there is a cross to take up and to teach that will cost us (and them) everything, but opens the doors of eternity as well. They include people who will fall ‘both ways’ in the event of a fundamental divide, and will make those choices for reasons of love, hope and kindness. These are some of the nicest (and most-‘Christian’) people in the church.

The ‘compassionate middle’ includes people who will fall ‘both ways’ in the event of a fundamental divide, and will make those choices for reasons of love, hope and kindness. These are some of the nicest (and most-‘Christian’) people in the church.

So this is a plea for kindness. How can two walk together unless they are agreed? The answer is they maybe cannot. The institutional middle have been trying to engineer a compromise by dancing on the head of pin repeating a mantra that ‘doctrine has not changed’ out of one corner of their mouths, while proclaiming it changed by the actions of their hands. This does not work, but it may take longer for everyone to see it does not work! A magical pastoral/theological framework to accompany watered down/enhanced prayers of blessing is not walking a ‘narrow way’ it’s putting on a blindfold and walking off a cliff. A crash is coming, but many may need to feel that the ground is coming away from under their feet before they are able to step back from that.

For those of us who have been close to the ‘action’, the Synod types, those who work with the Global South and the Anglican Communion, those like the church planters at the Compelled to Resist meeting with Global Majority Heritage congregations, and indeed those who have spent a life time campaigning for change, it can seem clear. Unity is not a static image for us, but the sort of unity you get from flying behind a lead goose in V formation. The Archbishop of York is flying in one direction, many of us are flying in another, a direction we think prayer book Anglicans have always been flying in based on our formularies and Scriptures.

Two cannot walk together unless they be agreed. I suppose they can sit down together in Synods for decades, but that’s not the same thing! The real result of the LLF listening process was not any great appetite for what the groupspeak of the College of Bishops came up with. It was for:

1) radical change and departure from the CoE doctrine of marriage to allow for Equal Marriage;

2) Heads buried and hope nothing much changes but I’ll concede a little to hold it all together and be nice even if that means changing doctrine by accident [as for an Anglican ‘as we pray, so we believe’];

3) Remaining put and sticking to what we’ve always believed on this as a church catholic over our life times.

As Anglicans we’ve been groomed into thinking that if there are three options the middle one is to be preferred. But this time the heads buried / concessions approach has already proved a breach too far. It just might take those in the middle a good while to see that.

So in the coming months:

Some will hold out till July (or November assuming the can is typically kicked down the road). If prayers are authorised that change doctrine (even if it’s fingers crossed behind the back time and the Bishops insist they didn’t change it really) that will be enough.

Others are already planning an exit.

Many, many others would prefer ‘differentiation’ / ‘protection’ (from what!? – your own church/State+Media?)

Others believe they can ‘win’ (whatever ‘win’ means)

For most orthodox/traditional/conservatives who have not changed their position the natural stance in an impending split would be to say to the campaigners and revisionists ‘well leave if you want to’ – a sort of Luke 15 moment with the hope for a prodigal return. That’s what the Global South seem to be gearing up to say. The so-called ‘Old Canterbury Communion’ [England, Scotland, Wales, The Episcopal Church, Canada etc] can leave if they want… but we (the majority) are still the ‘Anglican Communion’ even if those ancient Provinces have left. But the Church of England is more divided than that. ‘Leave if you want’ would be a seismic event hard for it to recover from, and the revisionists (generally) are not the ones willing to leave on conviction. The challenge being laid down is to the orthodox to leave or put up (with a vague nod to ‘provision’ for those ‘compelled to resist’). All in all this self-inflicted wound has left a gaping hole for which there is precious little leadership /answers.

As we try and work out why this may or may not be serious for us, and what responses we may or may not make – in each direction – let’s nevertheless be kind to the many in the awakening middle, who are often the best and most humble of us, and whose pastoral hearts are often most lacking at the edges. Among this group are many Bishops, Clergy and people in all areas of our churches’ lives that we would do well to continue to travel with.

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