(Rev Jules Gomes interviews Susie Leafe, Director of Reform, a conservative evangelical pressure group within the Church of England. Susie has been a fierce opponent of the ordination of women and will be one of the strongest conservative voices in this week’s General Synod debate on the Report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations)
Jules Gomes: The last few weeks has seen a PR disaster for the Church of England. If not a reading from the Koran that denies the divinity of Jesus at St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, it is a service of Evening Prayer at Westcott House, Cambridge using gay slang and calling the Holy Spirit “Fantabulosa Fairy.” As director of Reform and committed to biblical orthodoxy, you must be hanging in by your fingernails. How long before your fingernails begin to crack and you let go?
Susie Leafe: I’m not sure we can blame the Church of England for what happens in Glasgow but I know what you mean. The great thing to know is that we are not hanging over an abyss—God has promised to build his Church—only he knows what role the Church of England will play in his future plans. As Reform, we have followed the experiences of orthodox Anglicans in North America and like them we are very grateful for the support and leadership we receive from other parts of the Anglican Communion GAFCON and the Global South. As always, we pray and work for the best whilst planning for the worst.
JG: In its recent report the House of Bishops have upheld traditional teaching that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. But in the very same breath the report says that Church law should be interpreted to provide “maximum freedom” for LGBT people. Isn’t this the C of E fudge factory working overtime?
SL: The Report will be discussed at General Synod this week. It describes itself as a compromise and I have not heard anyone endorse it without very serious reservations. Personally, I believe the most worrying element of the Report is the way the bishops have reinterpreted the law of the C of E about where our doctrine can be found. They appear to sideline Scripture and the traditional formularies of the Church, in favour of finding the boundaries of freedom in Canon Law.
JG: The law on marriage is being openly flouted by a number of senior members of clergy. One such person is the Revd Andrew Forshew-Cain who married his partner and is on General Synod. How is it even possible that a priest who openly disobeys the law of the Church is elected to a body that is making law for the Church and is not disciplined? Doesn’t this make General Synod a complete farce?
SL: The hierarchies would say that Foreshew-Cain has been disciplined, though he remains in post so is eligible to be a member of General Synod. However, what makes General Synod a farce is the attempt to avoid bringing important matters to the floor of Synod. The bishops have repeatedly used confidential group work or working parties, rather than synodical debate, to determine the direction of travel for the Church.
JG: As if the civil war over the ordination of women as priests and bishops wasn’t enough we’ve had unending skirmishes over homosexuality that has consumed the energy of the C of E for the last three years. Now it gets worse with a new proposal for the baptism of transgender people! The Church has always insisted that baptism is for life. What will this new policy of baptism mean? Isn’t this the C of E buying lock, stock and barrel into the agenda of cultural Marxism and identity politics?
SL: This motion has been brought to General Synod by Blackburn Diocese—it refers to new liturgy to mark the gender transition. In many ways, I welcome the opportunity for Synod to debate the very important issues behind such a motion. Are we a Church that really believes that God is the Creator and we are his creatures—or do we believe that somehow we can re-create ourselves? How do we affirm the truth that God created us male and female without imposing the kind of gender stereotypes that make most of us feel uncomfortable? Is it possible that God offers more to those struggling with their gender identity than liturgical affirmation of that struggle ever can?
JG: To many the exchange between conservatives like yourself and liberals looks like a game of never-ending ping-pong as statement followed by counter-statement is batted across the net and slammed on the table. Where will it all end? Can there ever be a resolution to completely contradictory positions on the issue of homosexual practice within the Church of England?
SL: In short, the answer is no—not without a clear decision one way or the other—but sadly the House of Bishops are too divided amongst themselves to offer that kind of clear leadership. The real problem is that at the heart of the debate are very different views of God’s character, the extent to which God has revealed himself in the Scriptures, the nature of human flourishing and ultimately our need and the means of our salvation. Personally, I think it is a pastoral disaster that instead of having honest debate about these matters, the argument has been personalised in issues of sexuality, but I guess that is how identity politics works.
JG: Some would say that leaders like you and movements like Reform are failing to recognise that the C of E is an ecclesiastical Titanic that has hit the iceberg and all you are doing is staying on board and rearranging the deckchairs. What would it take for you to leave? Why not spend all this time you are investing in the C of E into the real gospel task of evangelism and discipleship?
SL: Great question—and one that I get asked frequently. What most people don’t realise is that week in, week out, evangelical churches are going about the business of evangelism and discipleship—individuals are coming to faith and people are growing in their knowledge and love of God in Church of England churches all over the country. If organisations like Reform allow that work to keep happening for just a week, or month, longer, then that may be a great thing.
JG: Has Archbishop Justin Welby completely lost the plot? Or is he on your side seeking to strive for biblical truth in the church? Why do you think he is calling for another Primates Meeting while refusing to impose the very sanctions he agreed to in the first place on The Episcopal Church of America?
SL: Archbishop Justin has a strong commitment to reconciliation and Church unity. When he was chosen as Archbishop of Canterbury he knew his brief was to keep the Anglican Communion together. Is he sincere in his efforts? I think so. Is he doing that in a way that I, and many others, think is helpful? Not at all. The way he has continued to spin the decisions of the Anglican Communion Primates to suggest that they all agreed to ‘walk together’ is wrong. The only part of their Communique that was written and agreed by all the primates were the Addenda—‘It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However…’ and they went on to describe the consequences TEC (Episcopal Church, USA) should face for their fundamental departure from the faith. And as you say, these “consequences” have not been fulfilled in any meaningful way.
There are people from all sides of this debate, who for very different reasons think the content of the House of Bishops’ Report to be discussed at Synod deplorable. The lack of a proper debate this week seems designed to minimise the scope for episcopal embarrassment rather than advance the cause of the gospel. Without a clear commitment from the Bishops that they will not do anything that is perceived to undermine the teaching of the Bible, as set out in the 1998 Lambeth resolution 1.10, it is perfectly possible that conservative members of General Synod will wish to vote against the ‘take note’ debate in order to register their very deep concern that the report is designed to lead the C of E into an unacceptable compromise.