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FIRST-PERSON: If only they were Baptists

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–This summer, I got to talk with some Brits who were members of the conservative, evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. They were understandably appalled at the recent nomination of Jeffrey John as bishop of Reading (pronounced “Redding,” as in Reading, Pa.). Though he claimed to be celibate, John was for 20 years, and as a cleric, an active homosexual — and he didn’t apologize for it. The new archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had been a theological liberal and pro-gay clergyman for years (he had even ordained a homosexual priest), but when he was appointed as head of the worldwide Anglican body, he promised not to push the homosexual agenda. Then he betrayed that trust; though John withdrew in the furor, Williams had shown his true colors.

(The American branch of Anglicanism, the Episcopalians, are trying to be as openly liberal as their English “parents.” Bishop Shelby Spong of New Jersey has been spreading his toxins for well over a decade. I remember Southern Baptist pastor Bailey Smith reminding him, on Larry King Live back in the 1980s, that the Bible said, “Adam and Eve,” not “Adam and Steve.” Now we read that a homosexual, Gene Robinson, is being approved by the Episcopal General Convention as the bishop of New Hampshire.)

So why should Rowan Williams have to promise to behave? In a word, Lambeth.

Lambeth is the name of the decennial worldwide conference of Anglican bishops (representing 70 million members), which now meets in Canterbury. In 1998, they voted to repudiate homosexuality and cling to the church’s historic position on these matters. But how could they do this when the English and Americans were against it? After all, “Anglican” just means “English.” The problem was that some “backward” bishops (of Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Congo, Sudan, South America, and Sydney, Australia) never got the word that the Bible was false.

Since liberal churches are dying, it’s not all that surprising that on a given Sunday, more Anglicans worship in Nigeria than in all the Anglican churches of England, the United States and Canada put together. These Nigerians and their other conservative brothers have the numbers, and the “mother church” must listen — or at least act as if she is.

One interesting sidelight of this theological divide is the fact that a number of American Episcopal congregations are forsaking the American system and linking with an Anglican diocese in Africa. We have one in a neighboring town. The priest is a Wheaton College graduate who could no longer tolerate the pro-gay agenda of the American Episcopal leadership.

Things are terribly out of whack, so what do biblically conservative Anglicans do about it? Now there’s the rub. Their leader is selected by the English government, and Tony Blair and his ilk show no signs of being warmly evangelical. Under their system, the prime minister picks the chairman of the less-than-totally-orthodox Crown Appointments Commission and then selects the new archbishop from their short list of nominees. The results were predictable.

My British friends had heard of the Southern Baptist “conservative resurgence,” and they wanted to know how it happened. How could a large denomination replace leaders willing to accommodate and defend professors and staff who questioned the miracle accounts, preached the finite God of process theology, advocated abortion, disparaged male pronouns for God, and flirted with universalism? As I tried to retrace the steps, I felt more and more helpless. I finally had to say (with a smile) that they needed to start by becoming Baptist.

Here’s what I meant. First, a state church is a dying church. Without the First Amendment or something like it, a denomination becomes so entangled with the culture that it loses its vitality. I had just read a cover article for the European edition of Time, one which talked about the plight of Christianity on that continent. In country after county, according to Time, monthly attendance hovered around 10 percent of the population, all where the state church once or currently reigned — whether Anglicans in England or Lutherans in Denmark.

Second, our Baptist polity makes it much easier to, when necessary, “throw the rascals out.” Our annual meetings can be a bit messy, what with a dozen, relatively open mikes situated in the midst of thousands of opinionated Baptists. By our system, any messenger from No Hope Baptist Church can dress down an agency head in front of everybody, and then vote ag’in that agency’s budget. That can make things a bit tense for leaders, and not everything said against even the worst of them is edifying — but the people speak. And as long as the Bible is read and preached in the churches, the people will keep their leaders honest. They don’t have to catch the attention of a liberal or secular prime minister to make a change. They just have to load up a van and head for the convention center. It’s so Baptist. Amen.

So let’s pray for our Anglican friends and cheer for those who are fighting the good fight. And let’s give thanks that we’re Baptists, warts and all.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger