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Leader comment: Wider vision of unity

10 May 2024

IN ST LUKE’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, read during Morning Prayer this week, Christ emphasises the radical nature of his gospel. “Love ye your enemies. . . Judge not, and ye shall not be judged. . . Condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned.” Essentially, Christ is preaching here against the human tendency to associate with like-minded people, and to consider oneself favoured by God because living in agreement with one’s neighbours. This brings us to the Primates’ Meeting and the embarrassment of witnessing the warmth of relations with Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church — a violent enemy in past centuries — when comparing it with the frosty exchanges between different parts of the Anglican Communion. Once again, the Primates who met in Rome were confronted by those who preferred gospel truth to unity, as if those elements could be held in opposition — or, rather, were not confronted. Several of the conservative Gafcon Primates had chosen to disengage

In his defence of this distancing, the chairman of Gafcon, Dr Laurent Mbanda, quoted the 19th-century Evangelical Bishop of Liverpool, J. C. Ryle, who said: “If people separate themselves from teaching which is positively false and unscriptural, they ought to be praised rather than reproved.” But other sentiments can be found in Ryle’s works, such as this description of Christ’s love of Christians: “That he should never be tired of their endless inconsistencies and petty provocations — that he should . . . never be provoked to cast them off and give them up, — all this is marvellous indeed!”

The Church Times enjoyed provoking Dr Ryle. In 1900, the year of Ryle’s death, it defined Evangelicals for him: “Those who assumed the name did not preach the fulness of the Gospel of Christ. They delivered some poor remnants of the everlasting Gospel, orthodox in a narrow groove, pious after an easy fashion, ‘very concordant with wealth,’ as the late Archbishop of Canterbury [Benson] shrewdly said; their individualising religion knew nothing of the broad, free Gospel of the Kingdom. They raged against all whose vision was wider than their own.”

Dr Mbanda and the other Gafcon members are capable of defending themselves against this description of a brand of Evangelicalism. They might well choose Dr Ryle’s interpretation over that of a predecessor of ours. But, if they do, they may wish to bear in mind that other teaching of Dr Ryle: “No mother watching over the waywardness of her feeble babe, in the days of its infancy, has her patience so thoroughly tried, as the patience of Christ is tried by Christians. Yet his longsuffering is infinite. His compassions are a well that is never exhausted.” It is natural, even healthy, to be in a Church with people with whom one disagrees — however exhausting this can be at times. Efforts to secure it should never be exhausted.

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