Church Discipline - a Mark of Doctrine Either Way
Exacting church discipline is a vital part of the life of the church, both in the congregation and in the wider denomination. Calvin famously regarded discipline as the third mark of a healthy church (Institutes IV.12) alongside the preaching of the word of God and the administration of the sacraments.
The Biblical demand for this practice and the outlining of the ways in which it is to occur are well known and I don’t intend to rehearse them here. For those who are uncertain then a great place to start is Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew 18:15-20, Paul’s injunctions in 1Corinthians 5 and the countless calls to deal firmly with false teachers. I take it that these are beyond argument.
To their credit, most denominations have a disciplinary procedure. Within the local congregation it is often informal, although increasingly regulated or aided by the denomination. For example, here in Sydney there is now a system of complaint and review in place to help with breakdowns of relationship within a congregation. It’s not quite a discipline thing but it serves to buttress some of those procedures.
At the wider level, dioceses and national churches have their own procedures. Here in Australia every diocese has a Professional Standards Unit with it’s own procedures for dealing with disciplinary matters. In the Church of England there is the well-established Clergy Discipline Measure which provides a robust framework for these matters to be settled. My own experience is that those procedures are wide-ranging and open enough to ensure that the right result is achieved almost all the time. They also serve as an excellent means to carry out Jesus’ command that a matter that is not settled by direct application to the offender be “taken to the church” (Matt. 18:17).
Almost always there are matters of doctrine involved. In cases the doctrinal relevance is obvious - there is a clearly stated repudiation of doctrine on the part of the one accused. But matters of morality are also matters of doctrine since they reveal what all involved understand what Christian truth is in a certain moral issue. As one example, a disciplinary procedure that upholds a complaint of slander against someone is implicitly stating their doctrine of speech and slander.
And so to my thesis - the complicated procedures of church discipline are a necessity that demonstrates our doctrine, whether the right outcome is achieved or not. By “the right outcome” I mean that outcome which is consistent with Biblical (and therefore orthodox) doctrine. Let me make my case with one famous historical example and then turn to it’s application in the current Anglican debates.
The non-trial in the 1960s of Bishop James Pike on charges of heresy was a profound turning point in the life of the Episcopal Church in the USA (ECUSA).
Pike’s theology was profoundly challenging to the Church, involving the rejection of central Christian beliefs. His writings questioned a number of widely regarded theological stances, including the virginity of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the doctrine of Hell, and the Trinity. He famously called for “fewer beliefs, more belief.”Heresy procedures were begun in 1962, 1964, 1965, and 1966, each growing in intensity; but, in the end, the Church decided it was not in the denomination’s best interest to pursue an actual heresy trial. However, he was censured in 1966 by his brother bishops and resigned his position shortly thereafter.
That Pike never went to trial was a good thing. It was, of course, not good in that ECUSA should have put him on trial - the man was quite clearly a heretic. But then that is my point made for me. The non-trials were a good thing in that they demonstrated the actual position of the church. They quite obviously crystallised the doctrine of the church - a supposedly “Christian” denomination that had decided that the doctrines of Mary’s virginity, Hell, and the Trinity - the very essence of God’s nature - were not important enough to defend vigorously. An appointed leader in the church could deny them without full and proper rebuke. Yes, Pike was censured but the censure was given in order to avoid the embarrassment of a trial. A trial which would, no doubt, have revealed quite how widespread some of Pike’s heresies were in the church. Yet that truth could not be avoided. The very act of not having a trial spoke the truth (or the truth about the lies) quite clearly; Elements in ECUSA had embraced heresy and she was not prepared to deal with it since she did not consider the matter important enough. Going through with the trial would force her to be honest about where she really stood on matters of key doctrine and, friends, we ought to be very clear that theological liberals will often move mountains in order to have to avoid doing that. Confessing that you reject what the majority have long-believed to be true is very often the kiss of death for your claims to be authentic members of your denomination. Far better to pretend otherwise and never have to come out and say it.
Now to contemporary matters…
This principle is being played out right now as I write in the Church of England. A disciplinary procedure is going to test where the Church of England really stands on the issue of the day; human sexuality.
An openly gay priest who defied Church of England rules by continuing to officiate at a church in Sussex has been stopped by diocese officials.
St Thomas the Martyr of Winchelsea asked the Reverend David Page to preach even though he had refused to disclose whether his relationship was celibate.
He has now been stopped after again seeking official permission to preach.
The Diocese of Chichester said strict rules governed who officiated. Mr Page said the church was being homophobic.
The Church of England allows for the ordination of gay priests as long as they are celibate. The Diocese of Chichester said that Mr Page did not have the necessary permissions to preach and the matter was now the subject of internal disciplinary proceedings.
The facts of the matter appear not to be in dispute. Rev. Page was a prominent activist in Changing Attitude and served in Southwark Diocese where his lifestyle was overlooked by the liberal diocesan leadership. Moving to Winchelsea on his retirement he sought to continue ministry in the local parish church and applied for a license from the bishop to do so. The local bishop was Wallace Benn, a conservative evangelical who knowing Page’s activism and openness about his sexuality asked him to disclose whether his relationship with his civil partner was of a sexual nature.
This is what has caused the stink but it is entirely in line with current Church of England policy and doctrine, in particular that,
because of the ‘distinctive nature of their calling, status and consecration’, the clergy ‘cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships’ (Some Issues 1.3.19-20).
The question which Page and the Priest at Winchelsea, Rev. Canon Howard Cocks, have raised is whether the bishop is entitled to make such “intrusive” enquiries. Again, the Biblical mandate is quite clear; a minister’s life is fundamentally important, not least his home and personal life - it is a model to the flock of orthopraxy and has salvific implications:
1Tim. 4:12,16 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. ... Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
Titus 2:7 In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness
Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
For a minister to be asked about the conduct of his life, particularly in such serious matters, is not just allowable but necessary
At the time, 3 years previously, Page refused to answer Wallace Benn’s questions and so a license was refused. The parish appealed and the appeal was denied. So what did Cocks and Page do? They continued as they wished, claiming that the need for Page to “exercise his gifts” was far higher than any obedience to the Bishop (or to the Scriptures, it seems). Now, 3 years later, this persistent disobedience has come to light and Page and Cocks are find themselves in the official disciplinary process of the Church of England.
And quite rightly too.
Now, with regards to my thesis I want to say that this is an entirely helpful thing for it will establish where we really are on this matter. If the complaint is upheld then we will see the Church upholding it’s standards, not just with respect to due canonical obedience but in this most controversial of issues, human sexuality. If the compliant is not upheld then we will see a striking statement that in reality there is no orthodoxy on human sexuality. And my point… either way we will have clarity.
Which brings us to matters closer to home and the shocking state of affairs in Gippsland Diocese where the Bishop, John McIntyre, has licensed a man in a homosexual relationship. Not only that but he has openly repudiated an orthodox protocol on the matter issued by the House of Bishops that he is a member of. Just as in the CofE, the Diocese of Gippsland has it’s own standards on sexuality (and other matters) known as Faithfulness in Service (Fis). I’ve already written on how Rev. Head’s license is a clear breach of FiS but he remains in his post.
He remains in his post because no-one has tested the matter. Yes, the bishops have issued the Protocol but protocols don’t change things until they’re acted upon. It’s very hard to see anything being done at the episcopal level (let’s face it, no-one’s going to begin that procedure) so all that remains is a complaint to the Diocese of Gippsland Professional Standards Unit. It would have, I suspect, be somebody inside the diocese - and somebody who’s prepared to take a lot of flak over it. But it seems to me that nothing else will really test the issue properly. That Head is in breach of FiS is surely indisputable. The question is whether the Diocese, through it’s Professional Standards Unit, is prepared to uphold FiS.
Consider the possible outcomes, given the clarity of Rev Head’s breach:
- He is found “guilty” of this serious breach. He would therefore have to (if he had integrity) conform his life or resign his position (assuming he were not removed from it). Questions might also be raised about the Bishop’s decision to uphold as holy this lifestyle that breached FiS. We would have clarity.
- He is found “not guilty” of this serious breach. The diocese would effectively be saying that FiS doesn’t count and can be openly breached by clergy and bishops without any recourse. We would also have clarity, but of a different sort. Helpful clarity nevertheless.
Either way, the disciplinary process would serve it’s purpose - the provision of clarity. And remember, the liberals hate clarity (not least on doctrine) - it boxes them in and exposes their positions for what they truly are.
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