Plotting the Division of the Church of England

by Nic Tall

Nic Tall photoNic Tall is a member of General Synod and Secretary of the General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group.

In this article, first published in ViaMedia.news, Nic documents “the long-term factional planning to split the Church of England and alerts the overwhelming majority of church members committed to unity to resist it.”

If you have been paying attention to the church press recently, you will have a sense of grumblings from conservative parts of the church, disgruntled over prayers of blessing for same-sex couples. You may have noticed pronouncements about an “Ephesian Fund” or “alternative spiritual oversight” and wondered what’s going on.

To help explain current movements within the church I will carefully plot the path that has brought us to this point. This reveals a consistent plan to partition the church which stretches back over years. Does that sound far-fetched? I’d ask you to look at the evidence and decide for yourself.

This plan to divide the church, with conservative parishes refusing to share resources with the wider church and turning priests and parishes away from the care of their bishop, goes back to 2016. In the aftermath of the struggle to prevent women becoming bishops, some conservatives who opposed equality for women in the church looked to the issue of sexuality as the next place to oppose progressive values.

A discussion document titled “Guarding the Deposit” was prepared for the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) in October 2016. It considered what would happen if there were moves to support equal marriage or blessing of same-sex relationships in the church, and concluded that there would need to be “visible differentiation and division within the Church of England”. The envisaged division took the form of partition within the church, with both affirming and non-affirming Christians remaining within the church but divided into separate provinces. Provinces, in the Anglican Communion, are usually geographic: these wouldn’t be. They would overlap geographically but have separate episcopal oversight.

Following October 2016, the General Synod had a busy time debating same-sex relationships. February 2017 saw the famous “take note” debate, when a paper from the House of Bishops was rejected by Synod. This led to Archbishop Justin Welby declaring “we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church”. That response would be explored through a new project, Living in Love and Faith (LLF), producing a suite of resources available and inviting the whole church to explore the issues. LLF would take a few years to gather together these resources, but a sense that they might usher in progressive change was clearly concerning some.

It is in this context that the CEEC, following that 2016 paper, began to take those ideas about how to divide the church more seriously. CEEC began to prepare for creating conditions where they could be put into practice.

At its annual Council meeting in January 2019, the CEEC agreed to increase its capacity, seeking to raise extra funds, employ staff and refine options for “visible differentiation”. Until this point its annual income was around £35k, most of which was paid in a grant to a theological consultant. In 2019/20 income doubled to £100k and by 2021/22 it had increased to £176k. The January 2019 meeting also looked ahead on strategic and tactical concerns for the 2020 General Synod elections, another sign of long-term political planning.

Having resolved to significantly increase capacity in preparation for the debates over LLF, the next part of the plan was to expunge any moderate evangelicals who harboured sympathy for those in same-sex relationships. So, at the July meeting of General Synod, the Evangelical Group on General Synod (EGGS) amended its basis of faith to include conservative statements on marriage, sexuality and gender identity. This effectively removed inclusive evangelicals, leading to a split in the constituency.

Freed up from any internal resistance that would have come from those inclusive evangelicals, the CEEC’s Council meeting in January 2020 prepared to make bolder steps. The first priority on its plan for 2020 was “Visible differentiation for the sake of biblical orthodoxy: development of Permanent Provision options and proposals from Council; development of Principled Protest; liaison across the evangelical constituency.” It also sought to focus on the 2020 General Synod elections, organising locally through Diocesan Evangelical Fellowships (DEFs). The Report and Accounts from 2019–2020 show that further plans were developed to encourage and support evangelical bishops to “be distinctive”. The intention to create division within the church was starting to take shape, using the sexuality debate as a wedge issue and strengthening links across the evangelical constituency, through local diocesan networks and bringing evangelical bishops on board. This was the first time that “principled protest” had been seen as part of the strategy.

On 26th July 2020 the CEEC published the report “Visibly Different”, 104 pages long and expanding the themes of “Guarding the Deposit”. It spent time working in detail through the proposal for “a provincial way forward”, creating a third province which would be separate from the rest of the church but geographically coterminous. Whether liberal or conservative Christians would be deposited into this third province was a moot point; the critical part of the plan was structural differentiation, with conservatives remaining in the Church of England and enjoying all the financial benefits of doing so.

While the CEEC was drawing up detailed plans for structural division within the church, the LLF project had been steadily developing its suite of resources for the wider church to explore issues around sexuality and relationships, and these were published on 9th November 2020. Six days later, the CEEC unveiled a 32 minute video entitled “The Beautiful Story”, including content from three bishops. This video undermined the content of LLF, presenting just one perspective, and a deeply conservative one at that. It concluded with John Dunnett, Chair of EGGS, issuing a call: “the General Synod elections in summer of 2021 are massively important and evangelicals need to be thinking now about whether they might be a good candidate”. So instead of engaging in open and honest debate with LLF, the agenda was only to focus on conservative perspectives; no others were worth discussing. It was also linked directly to maximising the political outcomes of the 2021 General Synod election.

Moving into 2021, the CEEC looked to expand its capacity further to support its plans, employing paid staff for the first time, appointing an administrator in January, National Director in April and a Communications Director in November. In July the CEEC/EGGS National General Synod Elections Team published their guidance for conservative evangelical candidates in a document not intended for public release, but soon leaked. Candidates were assured that the local DEF would make sure “orthodox evangelicals” would vote for them in any case, so election statements should be aimed at another set of voters: those from the “middle ground”. Candidates were advised to conceal their views on same-sex relationships, women’s ordained ministry or abuse within the church, but instead “as much as possible, sound as if you are a practising member of the Church of England”. “Sound as if”? On sexuality the advice was “it might be that it is wiser not referred to… talk about listening positively to and respecting the views of others, even when we find ourselves disagreeing.” A further private document on how to handle hustings meetings was distributed, again maintaining the policy of concealing their true views on sexuality and women’s ministry.

Supported by the resources and organisation of the CEEC, not to mention this deliberate concealment of challenging views on sexuality and women’s ministry, conservative evangelical candidates performed well in the elections. The results saw many independent candidates displaced, along with a reduction in traditional catholic representation, although inclusive candidates supported by Inclusive Church maintained good numbers. Contrary to the CEEC campaign, Inclusive Church had a deliberate policy of transparency, publicly promoting a list of candidates who had signed up to a broad inclusion statement so voters would have clear information to base their decisions.

With the new General Synod formed in November 2021, the subject of same-sex relationships was bubbling away under the surface, but with the LLF materials out for use in the dioceses there was little coming directly to General Synod for discussion. The 2022 Council meeting of the CEEC reiterated the strategic priority linking LLF to differentiation, maintaining a policy that pursued division with sexuality as a wedge issue.

Later in 2022, the momentum for change from LLF began to build, with feedback from those having done the LLF course indicating a majority wish for liturgical affirmation of same-sex relationships. The House of Bishops held meetings to decide a way forward, with much speculation on the direction they would choose. In this atmosphere John Dunnett, Chair of EGGS and at this point Strategy Director of CEEC, issued a document outlining the CEECs position following LLF. The stance was to oppose any change whatsoever, effectively dismissing the whole LLF project and the ignoring the majority in the C of E who saw a place for some change to better accommodate LGBTQIA+ people. However, if that were not possible “differentiation will become an immediate necessity”. Three different options for visible differentiation were explained, with the preferred model involving “the rearrangement of episcopal oversight, dioceses and provinces.” Liberals would be given the option of opting into a “third province”, with conservatives retaining the remainder of the Church of England and relationships with the Anglican Communion.

Which brings us to the eventful year of 2023. In January, the House of Bishops brought forward proposals for the blessing of those in same-sex relationships and new pastoral guidance to replace Issues in Human Sexuality. On 9th February, Synod passed a vote in all three Houses to welcome these proposals, giving the House of Bishops a green light to proceed. This was the signal for the conservative plan to divide the church to move up a gear. Within a week a slick, pre-prepared video titled “We Love the Church of England” was rolled out. It voiced a hope for unity, but also stated that no compromise was possible. The solution presented was “structural rearrangement”, alleged to be desired by those liberals “preaching a false gospel”. Without such an arrangement it was predicted that “we’re going to tear the Church of England right down the middle.” At least five speakers in the video were based in churches that do not accept the ordination of women, and were therefore from the tiny minority of Church of England parishes (less than 5%) who hold to that view. The entanglement between historic opposition to the ministry of women and a wish to divide the church over sexuality was still evident.

On 16th March 2023 the CEEC issued a statement that it was “compelled to resist” the direction approved by Synod, and called on conservative clergy to sign a declaration to join them. The declaration made no mention of visible differentiation, seeking to draw in as many conservative supporters as possible without spelling out the radical plan of partitioning the church.

At the same time as stoking up fear among its conservative evangelical constituency, claiming that Synod’s decision would be “extremely distressing for evangelicals in this country”, the CEEC began to forge alliances with other groups. On 7th July, on the eve of the next General Synod meeting, a long letter raising complaints about the LLF process was published, with additional signatories from the Traditional Catholic group on synod (Anglo-Catholics opposed to the ordination of women), New Wine, the HTB Network, Church Revitalisation Trust and Myriad. Traditional Catholics coming on board was no surprise, as they had also opposed the Synod vote in February and had often sided with conservative evangelicals to oppose progressive proposals in the church. However, the inclusion of some charismatic evangelical church planting networks, particularly Holy Trinity Brompton, was a new addition. It had sometimes been assumed that HTB preferred to keep any reluctance around same-sex relationships under the radar, given the diversity of views present within its congregations, as demonstrated earlier in the year by letters to the Church Times from LGBT+ affirming Christians who were HTB members.

But the involvement of HTB and its Church Planting charity The Church Revitalisation Trust (CRT) would now go far beyond being a co-signatory to a letter. On 13th July 2023 a company called “AZ Alliance Ltd” was registered with Companies House, with a stated nature of business being “activities of religious organisations”. The two named directors were originally Sarah Jackson (Chief Executive Officer of the CRT) and Jago Wynne (Vicar of Holy Trinity Clapham, part of the HTB network of churches), with John Dunnett (National Director of CEEC) appointed as a third director in September.

The involvement of personnel linked to HTB would continue, with former HTB Vicar Nicky Gumbel joining John Dunnett, now National Director of the CEEC, at a meeting in Cairo of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GFSA) in October 2023. Gumbel (recently awarded the CBE for ‘services to the Church of England’) was recorded as attending on behalf of “Alliance UK”, while the meeting of conservative Anglicans issued a statement with the priority of “re-setting the communion according to its biblical and historic roots”. The statement went on to add “We all know and lament that our Communion has entered into a deep darkness of rebellion to the truth of God’s word.”

In spite of the campaigning by the CEEC to stir up dissent, the General Synod met again in November 2023 and once again voted in all three Houses of Synod to continue the work on LLF, including the consideration of standalone services of blessing for same-sex couples. With the CEEC having failed to derail the LLF process, two days after the vote they launched the “Ephesian Fund”, closely followed by plans to create alternative structures of spiritual oversight. These announcements were two pillars of the long-planned structural differentiation, except that they were informal in nature. The Ephesian Fund relied on the fact that payment of Parish Share or Common Fund to the diocese is purely voluntary and cannot be enforced. The aim is that any money entering the fund will only be paid to dioceses with a legal restriction attached; namely that the money can only be passed on to churches committed to a “biblical faith”, meaning those who refuse to use the Prayers of Love and Faith. It is a mechanism to begin the financial division of the church. Arrangements for alternative spiritual oversight would move all discretionary relationships with the diocesan bishop on to an alternative person, such as a retired bishop holding conservative views. While there is no way for a priest or parish to informally absent themselves from legal relationships with the bishop and diocese – such as safeguarding responsibilities – it is intended to undermine the relationship with the diocesan bishop as far as legally possible. These arrangements are currently being described as “a temporary provision which will support evangelicals until a settlement based on structural provision is made available”, a provision which is hoped would be “permanent”.

So, following two votes in General Synod affirming the PLF, and the direction of travel on LLF moving beyond the CEEC’s red line of no change, the plan for division has now been unilaterally declared, seeking to separate the Church of England as far as possible, without formal legal provision agreed through due synodical process.

And here is the most recent piece of the jigsaw, showing the extent to which the plan is being pursued. Rather than waiting for disgruntled churches to contact the CEEC and enquire about the financial and oversight arrangements now being developed separately from normal C of E practice, there is a proactive campaign seeking to recruit churches to this split. A proactive campaign with a deep involvement of The Alliance, Nicky Gumbel and the Church Revitalisation Trust (CRT; as of December 2023, renamed the Revitalise Trust).

I have been passed a document from a church leader dated 11th December which had been distributed to all of their church members. The document states that the leader and his wife had been wondering whether to leave the Church of England due to “the blessing of sin” and “allowing in false teaching”. However, the leader then tells of being approached out of the blue to be recruited to join the Alliance:

Out of the total blue I had an email setting up a phone call with Nicky Gumbel. We are not the sort of people who use our connections to position ourselves near influential people. Though he knows one or two of us from this church, we do not know Nicky Gumbel personally.

Nicky phoned to ask what we were thinking of doing post-General Synod in November, and having listened to our dismay and despair, he then shared what he is doing through the Alliance. We are going to share this with you now, but what we would also add is that following a call with Nicky, we also had an hour’s call later with further updates on some of the detail of the Alliance with the CEO – Rev. Sarah Jackson – of the Church Revitalisation Trust, which is the active agent leading the bringing together and forward motion of the Alliance.

Nicky Gumbel talked to us about his vision to open the Alliance to churches to join.

The vision is to partner nationally by gathering 3000 Anglican churches across the nation, all biblical and all committed to orthodoxy, and together probably representing more than 50% of all English Anglicans. The Alliance will seek to stand in unity as one for orthodoxy.

NG and the Alliance are working behind the scenes to develop legal protections for orthodox clergy, orthodox ordinands and training institutions, they are already working out how to offer orthodox Bishops to provide biblical oversight to clergy and churches, amongst a range of other developments.

It’s all fairly live and quite new, but it was important for us to hear that the Alliance are seeking to ensure that spiritual oversight will be offered by orthodox bishops, thereby giving spiritual safety for clergy and parishes who cannot “walk together” with false teaching and false practice.

This document was being circulated to the members of the church on the same day that The Alliance wrote to the House of Bishops, asserting that they “are committed to working together with others in the Church of England to enable a flourishing of the whole church for generations to come. We want to do all we can to avoid years of more infighting in our divided church.” However, their actions show that, far from wanting the flourishing of the whole church and a way out of infighting, behind the scenes there is proactive action to split the church, part of a plan for division stretching back years.

The revelation of the CRT as a central element in driving the plan for division is also striking. The CRT has been the beneficiary of tens of millions of pounds of central church funding, delivered through the SDF fund in various church planting schemes. In their answer to Question 32 at the July 2021 Synod, the Archbishops’ Council estimated that between 2014 and 2020 this funding amounted to roughly £50m for projects led by the CRT or for which they were a partner. That the CRT has received such large sums of central church funding to develop its network of church plants, but is now preparing to use that network to divide the Church of England, is a betrayal of the faith placed in them by the wider church.

The CEEC and the Alliance know that the formal structural changes they seek can only happen with a legal underpinning agreed by the General Synod. This is very unlikely to happen, particularly in the current General Synod where a two-thirds majority in all three Houses would be challenging to achieve on such a controversial plan. Having failed to prevent the introduction of the Prayers of Love and Faith, sought by a majority in the church, and aware that formal structural provision is not currently likely, the remaining option is to divide the church as much as possible through informal means. These informal means are designed to make the split that they seek a de facto reality as much as is possible, such that formal legal recognition will seem a straightforward way out of the impasse. The aim of proactively recruiting a quarter of parish churches and half of the church’s members shows the ambition, perhaps hubris, behind the plan.

I hope this article has documented the long-term factional planning to split the Church of England and alerts the overwhelming majority of church members committed to unity to resist it.

This article originally appeared on the ViaMedia.news website on 30 December 2023 and is republished here by kind permission of the author and publisher. The original article is to be found here:
https://viamedia.news/2023/12/30/plotting-the-division-of-the-church-of-england/.