To Stay or To Go?

A maelstrom of political, social and religious factors, mixed with theological divisions and zeal for God were tearing the Anglican Church apart. 

Sinful or godly motivations were hard to discern as clergy and lay people faced hard choices about whether they would stay in the Anglican Church or leave.

People agonized over their options and at what point their threshold of faithfulness to the word of God meant they should leave and shake off the limitations of the church structures.  Some with the same commitment to faithfulness led them intentionally to stay, and seek to reform the church from the inside. 

Some ministers started independent churches, some stayed, but quietly “broke the rules”.  Still others left, but felt torn by the decision and the damage to congregations they had left behind.  Some criticised those who left, some criticised those who stayed. 

A present day scenario? 

Well, yes, but the description above refers to a defining year in the Church of England.  It was 1662 and the Act of Uniformity required ministers to assent to its declarations and restrictions and to only use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in their public worship.

In a short but extremely illuminating book, Gospel Trials in 1662: To Stay or to Go? [82 pages The Latimer Trust, 2012, ISBN 978-1906327132.]Dr. Peter Adam (former Principal of Ridley College, Melbourne) outlines the pain and struggle over the years before and after that had a profound effect on the Church of England, such influences that carry over into today's challenges.  This is a timely, readable and relevant book, from an “elder statesman” of the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church in Australia.

Between 1660 and 1662 an astounding 1,760 of its clergy, 20%, left the Anglican Church, unable, for various reasons to stay.

In analysing the historical context and causes of the divisions, theological foundations and assumptions, the political and social factors that precipitated such changes, Peter Adam raises some helpful questions and indeed gives some direct advice for our current context, and the basis on which some might choose to remain within the Anglican Church in their context, or choose to leave.

He doesn't gloss over the complexities1 nor give a definitive answer as to why people left in such numbers, rather he suggests that there was no one issue and hence no single answer as to why people left, such were the assortment of factors at play.  He reminds us of the difficulties at this distance to comprehend the intentions of the people involved, and in a helpful pastoral comment amidst the historical analysis, notes that human sinfulness rarely allows us to be completely honest about our motivations, no matter how self reflective we seek to be.

Nevertheless some motivations can be discerned, and you will find in this book a striking number of parallels with our present day.

Some did not want to accept the role of Bishops, or to have Bishops' powers changed.  Some, though they found the Book of Common Prayer generally to their liking, were offended that no other prayers could be used except those authorised. This excluded extempore prayer, which offended the sensibilities of those who felt there needed be more reliance on the work of the Holy Spirit.

Quakers saw no room for them under the strictures of The Act of Uniformity nor did a number of pastors of Puritan persuasion.  Some, like Richard Baxter while acting as a Puritan pastor, stayed in the Church of England as a parishioner but not as a minister, so as to “to separate from them no further than they separate from God”.2 

These “non conformists” started independent churches (sound familiar?) or held private meetings for teaching people the faith.  But unlike today, these public or private meetings were under sanction from the government, as well as the Church of England, and persecution, fines, loss of property or imprisonment could result from rebellion against the Act of Uniformity. 

Various acts of parliament in the years that followed turned the screws tighter against those who would not conform – “This was a persecution of Protestants by Protestants unique in Europe in its intensity and bitterness: another major question mark against the complacent English boast of a national history of tolerance”.3  Nonconformists were not allowed to graduate from Universities until the 19th Century!

While we in Australia do not yet feel such extreme pressures (although no doubt there are some who do indeed face hostility from liberal Bishops), some of our fellow Anglicans in the USA and Canada have faced persecution from The Episcopal Churches.  They have lost their church properties, and through secular courts have been threatened with legal action including the threat of suing individuals who have sought, through convinced biblical reasons, to separate their churches or dioceses away from the liberal philosophies of a heterodox church.

In trying to identify some factors as to why the division in the Church of England occurred and so many ministers left, Peter Adam gives us reason to reflect on our own church context and practice. 

Some of it was due to the political agenda pursued by the Puritans, some to the failure of Puritanism to actually bring about the change in the hearts of people that should be expected of those who were committed to listening to faithful preaching from the Scriptures.

While skepticism of scholastic preaching – that is detailed academic and intellectual ways of doing theology and paying close attention to the text - would likely not be a weakness of current-day evangelical Anglicanism (although it might be in other parts of the Australian church), the Puritan commitment to the medieval style of preaching – taking a short text of scripture and analysing and dissecting it, seemed to be too far above the minds (and hearts?) of ordinary people so that it “became increasingly culturally inappropriate and unacceptable”.4

While those who are preachers today lament that many in our congregations seem to think that most sermons, no matter how long, are “too long”, Puritan sermons were routinely an hour or so in length, and became unpopular in being caught up in the minutia of the text. 

One Puritan, Joseph Carryl, in thinking Job would be an appropriate book for a suffering church, began as Peter Adam sagely says a “perhaps pastorally unwise” decision to preach on it for 29 years!

 There were class divisions undermining the Reformed movement (not such an issue in egalitarian Australia?), and a weakness within reformed theology that led to Arianism, Deism and Unitarianism creeping into the church, whilst Calvinist ministers fought over the extent of Christ's atonement – “only for the elect or for the whole world?”  These theologically founded fights, though different in emphasis, are evident amongst Australian Anglican churches today.

The Preface to the Book of Common Prayer” says

Christ's Gospel is not Ceremonial Law, (as much as Moses' Law was) but it is a Religion to serve God, not in the bondage of the figure or shadow, but in the freedom of the Spirit…

Adam says, “While the rhetoric of the Church of England appeared to promise liberty, the practice was very different… The Act of Uniformity felt like bondage,not liberty”.5

Clergy in Australia today who work under liberal bishops can find similarly that their “liberal” bishops do not tolerate questioning or dissent, and sometimes work actively against the practice and placement of evangelical clergy in parishes as well as seek to micro manage the practice of their ministries.  “Liberalism” can tolerate great diversity, but sometimes be very intolerant of evangelicals with little “liberty” offered to them. 

Despite all the ructions and divisions that surrounded it, Peter Adam also says the Church of England in 1662 is rightly described as “Reformed Anglicanism” and 1662 a key to Anglican identity even today.  He argues that its formularies and emphasis on Scripture as the final place of authority above church councils helps its reformed flavour, even if it did over time become broader in practice and lose some of its cutting gospel edge.

Peter Adam finishes his book with some helpful lessons and wise advice as the Anglican Church of Australia faces its own internal tensions over numerous issues – from the role of women in ordained or bishop's roles to the sexuality debate that has continued for decades.  These issues in some cases divide evangelicals from evangelicals, in some cases evangelicals and liberals.

The Anglican Church worldwide faces great strains with the rise of the African initiated GAFCON movement, who no longer see the link with “Canterbury” as necessary to have an authentic Anglican identity. 

Orthodox Anglican clergy, congregations and even dioceses are leaving the Episcopal Church in both North and South America.  Some have suffered much in these circumstances, and some clergy in trying to work for the good of the Gospel and in seeking to be godly have seen their health broken and their ministries taken away.

The Church of England in England seems set for ongoing fights over numerous issues.  Many of these are seen as battles for orthodoxy and it seems almost inevitable that more clergy, members of churches and congregations will need to decide whether “to stay or to go”.

Peter Adam identifies a lack of grace towards those who stay or those who go a major failure of Christian charity.  In 1662, the Bishop of Exeter, a Reformed Anglican, described some of those who left as “enemies of the church”.  “Those whom he should have loved as brothers in the gospel he dismissed because of their lack of Anglican order.  Valuing conformity to church practice over gospel partnership is a great sin”.6

I was challenged by his comments - “it is difficult to think of a Biblical instruction to leave a church or to leave ministry in a church because it has fallen away from the Gospel.  Jeremiah had to continue his ministry, and face the consequent persecution.  Timothy seems to be the only minster in Ephesus… who was still faithful to Paul’s gospel, but he was instructed to stay, teach and reform”.7

He warns to not to be too quick to judge the motives of those who choose a different path, to be careful of being so critical that we focus on secondary matters and make them primary.  That issue of course depends on your definitions of “primary” and “secondary”!  He suggests that the Puritan problem – that their theological rigor led often to division and intolerance – may be true of some evangelical movements today.

Referencing the call to love and the fruit of the Spirit (1 Cor 13:4; Gal 5:22) he urges those of us who are pastors to be patient in ministry even though we are urgent for godly change and God's glory – “We need patience with individuals, much more patience with a congregation, and even more patience with a denomination or nation.”8  Aim to win people, not arguments he says.  God is patient with our sin so we should show God's patience towards others.

In a caution to those who think leaving will solve many problems he notes “If you look from the perspective of the 21st Century, it could be argued that staying within the Church of England had as much gospel impact on the nation as leaving”.

If you are planning to leave he says, do not leave for trivial reasons, for “unnecessary schism is a sin”.  He recognises that different people with different temperaments might be more likely to stay or to leave, one to reform within, another to offer through a new ministry something that the existing structures won't or can't.

He warns about thinking the pasture is greener on the side of leaving when you may not be in a good position to know the real cost to gospel-founded relationships if you leave.

For those who stay he encourages reforming your church by the Bible, making godly, appropriate changes.  He even draws our attention to the strategy of the liberal part of the Anglican Church.  They made their theological and ministry changes despite the objections of the orthodox, and those changes are now accepted as normal Anglican practice.  His advice? – “Make changes, and suffer the consequences, and eventually the Church of England will change too”.9  On the certainty of outcome of that piece of advice I am more skeptical, although maybe I need a more historical perspective on our current day church!

Gospel trials are not unexpected; indeed they come upon those who seek to be the true church in every age.  And while we need to plan long term – training future gospel leaders especially – he reminds the impatient amongst us that we must trust in the providential care of God and his accomplishment of his gospel plan for the world.  It is a call to humility and recognition of the limits of our wisdom as we put into place our plans.

Of those 20% who left in 1662 he asks - “was it right to leave or to stay?  It is not for us to say:  each of us is accountable to God, not to each other.” (Romans 14:12).

“This booklet is dedicated to those who for the sake of Christ and the gospel, and to those who left, for the sake of Christ and the gospel.  They honoured God by patiently enduring gospel trials, and by their lives and ministries.  May their examples encourage us to fight the good fight, keep the faith and run the race, so that we, with them, may receive the crown”.

To that I say – Amen.

Paul Hunt is Rector of St Georges Anglican Church, Magill, Adelaide and Chair of EFAC-SA.

1                        His comprehensive bibliography indicates the research behind this short book

2                        p7, quoting Baxter from Wood, Church Unity, p242

3                        p 7, quoting Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 (London: Penguin 2004), p531

4                        p18

5                        p26

6                        Peter Adam, p43

7                        p50

8                       p55

9                       p64