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HTB’s allies alarmed by bid to resist same-sex blessings

12 January 2024

Alliance formed by network’s leaders creates unease

Facebook/HTB

The Revd Nicky Gumbel, a former Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and one of the leaders of the Alliance

The Revd Nicky Gumbel, a former Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and one of the leaders of the Alliance

THE involvement of the leaders of Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), in a movement to resist the recently introduced Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) for same-sex couples has alarmed members of the HTB network, the Church Times has been told.

A priest at one of the HTB church-plants spoke this week about the leaders’ unexpected foray into church politics on the issue of same-sex relations. “Not all ‘plants’ sit happily in this new environment, and many are keeping quiet out of fear of repercussions,” he said. “In all reality, people are scared, and keeping their heads down.”

The priest’s response was one of just six to a Church Times request for comment sent to more than 50 members of the clergy in charge of churches in the HTB network last week. They were asked their views on the Prayers, and the response of the new anti-Prayers coalition, the “Alliance”. Only two were willing to comment on the record.

Last July, the Alliance — a group of leaders from 11 C of E organisations, including the HTB network, as well as New Wine, Forward in Faith, and the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) — wrote to the College of Bishops to argue that the Prayers of Love and Faith for same-sex couples should be subject to the Synod’s authorisation under Canon B2, a process that requires two-thirds majorities in each of the three Houses of the Synod at final-approval stage (News, 7 July 2023).

Signatories included the former Vicar of HTB and President of the Revitalise (Church Revitalisation) Trust (CRT), the Revd Nicky Gumbel; the current Vicar of HTB and head of the HTB network, the Revd Archie Coates; the chief executive of CRT, the Revd Sarah Jackson; and the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Clapham, and vice-chair of the HTB Network on the General Synod, the Revd Jago Wynne.

A second letter was sent on 11 December to the House of Bishops. It reiterated concerns about the legality of the process pursued to commend the prayers: “We are compelled to resist the current direction of travel of the Church of England. It looks to alter what we stand on. It hinders our vision for the future.” The Prayers were “a departure from the doctrine to which the Church of England has always held fast”. The letter was critical of the Bishops for not having made public the legal advice that they had received.

The letter warned: “Our networks increasingly find themselves in impaired relationships with the bishops who are pursuing this departure from the received doctrine and practice of the Church of England.” The “formal legal structural provision” under consideration needed to be decided now, it said, to “allow those of us who hold on to the received Anglican heritage to have oversight, training, licensing and appointments that are aligned with current doctrine and practice”.

Despite the letter, which urged the Bishops to delay commending the Prayers “until the complete package of the Prayers, the full Pastoral Guidance and the Pastoral Reassurance are all presented to Synod”, the House approved their experimental use (News, 15 December).

This second letter was signed by Mr Gumbel, Mr Coates, and Mrs Jackson. Both letters were signed by individuals in “personal capacities, recognising they cannot claim to speak for everyone that they lead”. The matter was not put to the PCC of HTB or the trustees of the CRT. All three were approached for comment for this report.

Their intervention represents a shift in HTB leaders’ approach to long-running debates in the Church of England. For many years, HTB has sought to avoid public comment, seeking common ground, emphasising the importance of unity and evangelism, and steering clear of divisive questions. This stance also reflected awareness of differing views among leaders and members. HTB’s 10,000-strong congregations include people in gay relationships, it says.

It remains unclear to what extent the churches in the HTB network share the concerns expressed by the signatories to the Alliance letter. Responses to the Church Times email this week indicate that some undoubtedly do.

In the 6 December letter, the Alliance referred to “a growing number of parishes and clergy that wish to come under our umbrella of partners whilst not being linked to any of the main networks that are represented by the Alliance”.

The Church Times has seen evidence that at least one church has been approached by Mr Gumbel and Mrs Jackson with a view to joining the Alliance. They have reportedly expressed hopes that 3000 churches will eventually sign up.

Within the HTB network are more than 100 congregations, plus 30 larger resource churches (Features, 21 April 2017).

The priest who spoke this week of colleagues’ “keeping quiet” reported wider concerns about the way in which organisations had responded to recent developments. He asked not to be named.

Facebook/HTBThe Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and head of the HTB network, the Revd Archie Coates

“In the network and friendship group I trained with, there is increasing unease at declarations, made by CPAS especially. Even though they/we may still have a conservative view on issues of marriage, we are staggered by ill-judged, badly written, mistimed statements which do nothing for us who serve and work day to day in parishes.”

He spoke of “growing frustration and real annoyance at time, money, and focus this issue is causing”, “people feeling very alienated and not listened to”, and “a reality on the ground that there are differing views on this issue”. He said: “There are many in this ‘camp’ who don’t think sexuality is a first-order issue but still have a conservative reading of it — and what they don’t like is how organisations like CEEC etc. are actually dealing with it . . . and ‘seemingly’ representing all ‘Evangelicals’.”

The Alliance letters also raise questions about the extent to which congregations in the HTB network are aware of the PLF and the position of their leaders on the prayers’ introduction, or broader questions of sexuality. Many plants have young congregations, having been established and funded with a specific remit to reach this demographic.

In some instances, churches originally planted by HTB — some of which were planted in the mid-1980s — have moved into different spheres, including that of the CEEC. In 2013, groups from HTB and St George’s, Holborn, joined the existing community St Sepulchre without Newgate, now known as Holy Sepulchre London, in a new partner­­­­­ship, as part of the diocese of London’s church-planting strategy. Controversy ensued after a vote by the PCC to stop hiring out the church, recognised as the National Musicians’ Church, to outside organisations (News, 29 September 2017).

This week, the Revd Nick Mottershead, who became Priest-in-Charge of Holy Sepulchre in 2021, said that the church was no longer part of the HTB network: “There was no requirement for me to necessarily end the HTB relationship, there wasn’t one.”

He described work to “rebuild a reputation around being the Musicians’ Church and to redefine and communicate that this is a place that is welcoming to all. Faith or no faith, meeting people where they are — all that language is super-important to me.” While supportive of the church remaining “broad”, he suggested that, “what is uncomfortable for people is that that the broad church isn’t transparent and visible to all.”

The church was committed to finding common ground, and focusing on meeting the growing needs of the city, he said. It had also been important to make the church’s position on same-sex relationships “very clear”, partly because of the perception that it remained connected to HTB.

A statement on the church’s website says: “We look forward to the continued progress by the Church of England of the proposals which would enable same-sex couples to come to church after a civil marriage or civil partnership to give thanks, dedicate their relationship to God and receive God’s blessing.”

Mr Mottershead said that he was personally “thrilled about the introduction of prayers and opportunities to bless same-sex couples, and will continue to pray for the day that I can marry them.”

 

THE Alliance maintains that its concern is to hold the Church together and avoid a split: “We 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. Our purpose is to be part of the solution to the crisis facing us all.”

The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard, Tutor in Ethics at Ridley Hall, a member of the CEEC and of the co-ordinating group of LLF and the sub-group looking at pastoral guidance, has defended the Alliance from accusations that it is propagating a split.

Writing for the Psephizo blog last week, he argued that it was “seeking to find ways to reassure and keep within the C of E those church leaders and congregations who are so concerned about what the bishops are doing and how they are doing it that they are seriously considering leaving”.

The Alliance, and others, were asking “that they are not deprived of being overseen by bishops who continue to uphold, in their own teaching and ordering of their ministries, the teaching of the C of E which they promised they believed. It is not immediately obvious that this is an unreasonable demand that can legitimately be described as plotting or engineering division.”

Facebook/HTBThe chief executive of CRT, the Revd Sarah Jackson 

This week, the Revd Richard Moy, an NSM of Christ Church, Turnham Green, in London, who has spent more than seven years researching the HTB network for a doctorate at Durham University, suggested that the Synod meeting of February 2023, at which members welcomed the Bishops’ proposals to provide prayers of blessing (News, 10 February 2023), had been a “turning point” for “orthodox Charismatics”.

“Up to that point, Charismatic leaders, like many of the leading Evangelical bishops, felt they had a place at the table, were being listened to, and could not believe that senior church leaders, including Archbishop Justin, who was still seen as ‘one of our own’, would be willing to shoot the body of Christ in the foot.”

Private meetings and correspondence had “yielded no shifts”, he said, producing the sense that, when it came to the Archbishop, “people he had formerly had a key relationship to, such as HTB, were no longer being listened to.

“For Gumbel, the problem is as much about the unity of the Church — universal — as it is about the presenting issue of human sexuality,” Mr Moy said.

“By changing doctrine through changing liturgy . . . a fundamental unity with the Church Catholic has been broken, stretching across denominations Gumbel has worked so hard to bring together for Alpha and other matters, and across the Anglican Communion itself.” But the concern was also around “core teaching”, he said, “which Gumbel and leaders of the network remain committed to”.

In November, Mr Moy attended a meeting of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches in Cairo, at which Mr Gumbel was also present as a representative of the Alliance (News, 24 November).

“Charismatics have successfully buried their heads in the sand on almost every issue of controversy, while pragmatically progressing over the past 25 years,” Mr Moy said. “However, that option is no longer available now the Bishops have abdicated the locus of decision-making to the parish priest/PCC. This means Charismatic networks are poorly equipped for both controversy and contending for the faith on culturally difficult matters. Nevertheless, there is a sense that, while no one would choose to live in these days, these days are now inevitable.”

Background: HTB’s growing influence

THERE has been a deepening of ties between Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), dioceses, and the national church institutions in recent years.

The rapid expansion of church-planting entailed partnerships with dioceses, and, after the launch of the Strategic Development Funding (SDF) programme, millions of pounds were allocated by the Church Commissioners to fund HTB plants, many of which are led by clergy who have served curacies at HTB. An independent review of SDF recorded that 14 per cent of all funds had gone to projects exclusively run by Revitalise (Church Revitalisation) Trust (CRT), and a further 29 per cent to projects in which CRT was involved along with churches of other traditions (News, 10 November).

In 2015, Dr Ric Thorpe, then Rector of St Paul’s, Shadwell, in east London (an HTB plant), was appointed Bishop of Islington — a revived see — and established the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication (CCX) (News, 6 March 2015; 10 July 2015).

In 2017, the CRT was incorporated as a charity “to further the church-planting activity which was previously undertaken by Holy Trinity Brompton”, with Mr Gumbel as its chair. It set a target of planting 100 city-centre resource churches by 2028. Among its activities is a 12-month “Accelerator Programme” to train leaders.

In the same year, £3.9 million in SDF was secured by the diocese of London to train 15 “planting curates”, who, at the invitation of diocesan bishops, would be deployed to 15 “strategic cities, in terms of size and student population”, between 2020 and 2022 (News, 29 March 2018). Most were to be trained at HTB: a diocesan spokesman said that HTB was experienced in training curates for this position, and “there is demand from bishops from different dioceses for curates from HTB.”

HTB was also a founding partner, through its St Paul’s Theological Centre, of St Mellitus, now responsible for training a large percentage of Church of England ordinands.

HTB’s influence extends also through the running of the Alpha course for new Christians and enquirers. In his recent history of the course (Books, 9 September 2022, Podcast, 22 July 2022), the Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone writes that, in contrast to his predecessor, the Rt Revd Sandy Millar, Mr Gumbel (who became Vicar in 2005) adopted a strategy of “studied silence” on the topic of homosexuality. “On contentious questions, he refused to be pinned down.”

For the 2013 edition of his book Searching Issues (Alpha International, 1994), the chapters on homosexuality and sex before marriage were deleted, and previous editions were withdrawn: “the subject had become toxic and was injuring the Alpha brand and its ecumenical appeal,” Dr Atherstone writes.

Dr Atherstone continues: “HTB and Alpha’s attitude to the rights and wrongs of homosexuality was now a deliberate silence. Gumbel was often interrogated on the question, but worked hard to change the focus of debate. He argued that Alpha guests were not much interested in the furore over sexuality that obsessed the media and internal church divisions.”

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