Repentance and the Church of England
By Lee Gatiss
This talk was given at a joint Reform London - London Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship meeting on October 1st 2008.
I’ve been preaching on Hebrews for the last month or so, and it’s struck me how penetrating some of the application of this book is for us today in the Church of England.
So a few weeks ago we looked on a Sunday morning at the great warning in chapter 2 verse 1 that “we must pay more careful attention to what we have heard (from Christ) lest we drift away from it.” For if we do drift, we will not escape God’s judgment. How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?
And as you will know, this theme of warning continues throughout the Sermon to the Hebrews. So the preacher reads out Psalm 95 in chapter 3 of Hebrews.
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, "Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, 9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works 10 for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, 'They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.' 11 As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall not enter my rest.'"
And then there are some great warnings to us about the deceitfulness of sin, which hardens our hearts to God’s voice. But then he urges his hearers in chapter 4 verse 11, in those famous words beloved of all evangelicals who are passionate about God’s word:
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
God’s word seeps down into the deepest recesses of our inner beings, as individuals and as a group. It gets right in there where nothing else can reach. It exposes what’s really going on, and shines the light of truth on us.
It may not make us comfortable. But whoever said being a Christian was about being comfortable?! Comfort was what the Israelites wanted back in the desert when they started pondering all the sinful pleasures of Egypt, rather the much greater godly delights that lay ahead.
Comfort is what keeps us quiet at work when people start to laugh at Christians, or use Jesus as a swear word, or just carry on their lives without realising who Christ is and what he’s done for us. Comfort keeps us quiet, while we’re gradually deadened to the nagging, deafening sound of God’s voice.
That happens in individuals. It happens in churches and denominations, and nations. It has certainly happened to the Church of England of late. Though the general drift into an easy-going liberalism started long long ago in the Church of England.
Perhaps we were deceived by the promise of earthly power, seduced by the lure of the secular agenda. We stopped listening with child-like devotion to the voice of God and turned instead to pop-psychology, and the pseudo-Christianity otherwise known as liberalism, with its anti-supernaturalism and its outwardly impressive exterior. And then the petty squabbling began.
If 30 years ago you could deny the resurrection of Christ and still be a bishop, who is surprised when today you can believe almost nothing of classic Christian doctrine, live a life indistinguishable from the world, and advance up the ranks of the Anglican hierarchy quicker than you can say “institutionalised apostasy.”
God spoke on all the issues we’ll be discussing tonight, everything facing the Church of England, but we didn’t listen. And so the deceitfulness of sin has led us further and further away from the living God.
That probably means that it won’t be long before simple superstition takes over in the upper echelons on our Church. Anglican bishops will be going on pilgrimages to Lourdes and praying to Mary or something daft like that next. And then they’ll think they’re serving God when they kick godly people out because they refuse to kow-tow to the ruling elite’s liberal agenda.
That sort of thing has already started on the other side of the Atlantic of course. And over here it is becoming harder and harder to persuade men and women to offer themselves for ordained ministry in the Church of England because of the success of the liberal cause. Almost impossible to persuade women holding to a conservative theology that their ministry will be valued.
But the Holy Spirit says to us: “Today if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts.” We need to repent in the Church of England. As a denomination. I see that an official C of E report a few weeks ago calls on us to apologise to Charles Darwin for not believing in his theories. I don’t know what you think about that and about evolution. Christians disagree about what to make of it.
But it seems odd to me that we have to apologise to a man who’s been dead for well over a century, and yet institutionally we’ve been ignoring the voice of the living God for longer, without a word of regret or acknowledgement.
I know it won’t be easy. But we need to repent, come back to God, and say sorry. Or else we can expect to wander around in the desert for 40 years, or die a slow painful death. If we think that can’t happen to the Church of England, then I wonder if we’ve really learned the lessons of church history?
The only thing keeping us alive as a church is the gospel, and the living voice of the living God in his word. When that disappears from the C of E, the C of E will eventually disappear too. And if the gospel itself disappears from England, then we’ll only have our hardened hearts to blame.
It’s not all our fault – those of us in this room. The church has drifted over generations. Though as evangelicals we ought, I think, to bear some of the responsibility, for where we have not been clear enough or strong enough in our opposition when the heart of the church has gone astray.
Maybe we’ve kept our heads down too much in the past, even though we’ve claimed to have the two-edged sword of God’s word in our hands, which alone can address our divisions and heresies. We’ve not always clearly taught God’s way, the hard and controversial bits. So it’s no wonder evangelicals are confused and bewildered in the current crisis, without a clear way forward.
So we may have drifted as a denomination. The only way to arrest such a development is to listen to the Holy Spirit. He says, “Today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts.”
So let’s make sure we hear today. Because one day, how we have reacted and behaved in the current crisis will be, as Hebrews says, “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.”
Let’s pray... It's not the right day, but let’s pray the very appropriate collect for June 24th, when as Anglicans we remember John the Baptist:
Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born and sent to prepare the way for your Son our Saviour by preaching repentance, make us so to follow his teaching, and the example of his holy life, that we may truly repent, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth's sake, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
To win London for Christ through the Church of England we will
Educate ourselves about the issues at stake in the Church today
Build effective partnerships between churches at the local level
Act together in the Diocese to achieve real reform