TODAY’S Prayer Book Epistle reading is a powerful call to Christian unity centred on the revealed truth of the gospel rather than on artificial institutional unity.
Writing to the Christians in 1st century Ephesus, the Apostle Paul reminded them of his status as a prisoner for the saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ: ‘I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all’ (Ephesians 4v1-6, King James Version).
Paul’s suffering supported his apostolic authority to appeal to these baptised Christians in virulently pagan Ephesus to stand together for the truth of the biblical gospel centred on Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God the Father almighty. Such unity based on a shared understanding of the essentials of Christian truth is vital if the Church is to be effective in proclaiming the gospel and defending it in a hostile culture.
Sadly, the deep doctrinal divisions in the Church of England undermined a united response to a recent attack on orthodox Oxford churches by the university’s powerful 3,000-member LGBTQ+ Society. As the university prepares to begin a new term, this society’s Safe Churches Team has produced a report ranking around 30 Oxford churches according to their acceptance of LGBT ideology.
Two Church of England churches in Oxford, which uphold traditional marriage in their teaching and practice, St Ebbe’s and St Aldate’s, were ranked lowest and their leaders smeared with anonymous allegations. The report said of St Ebbe’s: ‘Anonymous testimony describes their own experience of leadership attempting to “coerce a young and vulnerable member who wishes to leave the church into justifying themselves on a one-to-one basis, and when they do so, to chastise them and effectively threaten them with Hell”, and that they “felt unsafe in this situation”.’
While trying to cover the story, I contacted St Ebbe’s, a large conservative evangelical church in Oxford city centre attended by many students. I asked whether its leadership had conducted an investigation into the alleged incident. Its minister of operations, Rev Tim Dossor, whom I remember from my undergraduate days when I used to give talks at his school’s Christian Union, told me that the church had no information to go on beyond the anonymous comments in the report. The Rector, Canon Vaughan Roberts, told the Church Times that it ‘would never be appropriate in a pastoral setting to threaten anyone with hell’.
Despite the vote at February’s General Synod to back services of blessing for same-sex couples, the Church of England’s official teaching, as expressed in Canon B30 of its rules, remains that marriage is between one man and one woman for life and that the expression of sexual love should be reserved for heterosexual marriage. The bishops are planning to introduce the new blessings as experimental liturgy after November’s Synod, a move which may be subject to legal challenges by traditionalist opponents.
All four of the bishops in Oxford Diocese, the diocesan Steven Croft and the three suffragans, Alan Wilson, Olivia Graham and Gavin Collins, are in favour of revising Canon B30 to allow same-sex couples to be married in church. It would require a two-thirds majority in each of the three Houses of Synod, bishops, clergy and laity, to change the Church’s official teaching on marriage.
I contacted Oxford Diocese to ask ‘what pastoral support the clergy, particularly at St Ebbe’s and St Aldate’s, are receiving from the Oxford bishops after their churches were targeted in the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society report because they are trying to uphold the received biblical teaching of the Church of England as summarised in Canon B30’.
I also asked: ‘How is the fact that all of the four Oxford bishops appear to be in favour of revising Canon B30 impacting on the level of pastoral support these ministers should be receiving?’
Unsurprisingly, I have not received a response. How can bishops who have departed from apostolic truth be morally capable of standing publicly with orthodox clergy under fire in the front line?
The Collect for today, the 17th Sunday after Trinity, is a succinct commitment to united action by Christian believers in the Lord’s service (the verb ‘prevent’ should be understood in its 16th century sense as ‘go before’):
‘Lord, we pray that thy grace may always prevent and follow us, and make us continually given to all good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’