One of the most memorable moments of GAFCON IV in Kigali, came at the end of a long morning. There had been two presentations tracing the recent history of the Anglican Communion. These were followed by a summary, of the state of the Church of England given by Bishop Keith Sinclair, the retired Bishop of Birkenhead,
The speakers were formally thanked, and the two MCs returned to the stage to give the ‘notices’, But they were not alone. Bishop Lee McMunn, one of the recently consecrated assistant bishops of the Anglican Mission in England, had brought Keith Sinclair back onto the stage.
Two English bishops – one serving in the Church of England, the other in the new Gafcon-sponsored jurisdiction of the Anglican Network in Europe.
Many might wish to paint these men as being on ‘different sides’; a ‘leaver’ and a ‘remainer’ in a divisive debate. But what happened next paints a much truer picture of the way faithful Anglicans in the UK relate to one another.
“Many of you may not know,” Bishop Lee began, “that in 2013 there was a report called the Pilling Report. And it was on human sexuality, and it deviated from Scripture. This man was on the Working Party. However, there was one dissenting public, not private - but public, voice. This man wrote a dissenting public statement which cost him much.”
“I thought it would be…” he continued, “ I felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to get Keith back on stage – Bishop Keith Sinclair. Could we stand together and honour this man for his commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
You can watch what happened next here:
Credit to Gafcon for video
No one who heard Bishop Keith speak that morning could be unaware of the spiritual burden he carries for the Church of England.
As Bishop Lee said, writing the dissenting statement was very costly. Keith Sinclair acknowledged as much in the opening paragraphs of his statement:
“I am supportive of many of the Report's recommendations and share many of the concerns driving the Report as we wrestle with being faithful to Christ in our changing culture. For the sake of the peace and unity of the Church I would have loved to have put my name to a unanimous report. I have no desire to see issues of human sexuality distracting us from proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. However, after much prayer and soul searching, I have concluded I cannot sign...
… Although this lack of agreement is painful for me and all of us who have been part of the Working Group, no one who has listened, as we have, to so many, can fail to be unaware of the pain of many in the whole Church. I think a unanimous report with my colleagues would suggest that the differences between us do not continue to be deep and real. By submitting a dissenting statement in this way, I pray the House and College of Bishops will continue to be able to bear the pain of the Church in our own life together, and continue to seek and trust God for his better way.”
Nearly ten years have passed since the Pilling Report was published and it seems the vast majority of the bishops of the Church of England are unwilling to "seek and trust God for his better way," and nor are they prepared to face up to the depth and reality of the divide in their own province and the rest of the Anglican Communion.
With hindsight, it is striking how similar the recommendations of the Pilling Report (2013) are to both the 2016 House of Bishops response to the Shared Conversations (GS2055) and the more recent response of the Bishops to the Living in Love and Faith process (GS2289).
And that is the real cost of such a stand. To be called to speak hard truths to those who then repent is one thing; to be called to speak to hardened hearts is another.
A couple of days after the global Anglican Communion honoured his faithfulness, Bishop Keith showed he had not given up hope:
“I am praying still for a change of heart by the English Bishops. I am praying that they recognise the need for a serious settlement if there is no change.
I wish everyone in England in the House of Bishops and General Synod could hear the pain and longing here in Kigali for the Church of England. There is such a love of the Anglican Communion rooted in the love and lordship of Jesus, longing for unity, yes, but unity that reckons rightly with truth of his word (John 17:17)”
The genuine gratitude for Bishop Keith's steadfast commitment to the unity found in the truth of God's word was shown by those at Gafcon IV. It could be felt in the warmth of the applause and the spontaneous signs of affection. If Archbishop Ben Kwashi had not led Bishop Keith off the stage, lunch would have had to be delayed - and no one would have minded - such was the desire to 'honour' this man.
As Bishop Keith retires as Director of the Church of England Evangelical Council, he passes the baton, if not the burden, to Rev. John Dunnett. Global Anglicans will be praying for them both.
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