A review of Gerald Bray's book 'Heresy, Schism and Apostasy'
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: ‘The concept of heresy is lost today because there is no longer a teaching authority. This is a terrible decline. … There can be no creedal confession without the saying, ‘In the light of Christ, that is true and this is false!’ The concept of heresy belongs necessarily and irrevocably with the concept of a creedal confession. The teaching of a Confessional Church must stand in opposition to a false teaching. The Augsburg Confession says quite clearly' “The Church condemns”.’
This quote was shared by Bishop Henry Scriven, General Secretary of EFAC (the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion) and my old boss from SAMS/CMS days, in his reflection on the recent Lambeth conference held in Kent last month. The conference shows how relevant Gerald Bray’s little booklet (exactly 100 pages long) Heresy, Schism and Apostasy is fifteen years on. It provided a prophetic voice then which has sadly been ignored and it’s thesis has only been accentuated by events since.
Bray looks at the ‘current’ crisis in the Anglican Church springing from the actions of TEC (The Episcopal Church of the US) which has spread throughout the Anglican Communion. He spends some time looking at how theological orthodoxy has developed within Anglicanism and how it is truly ‘Catholic’ when it represents what C.S.Lewis denominated: ‘mere Christianity’. Bray makes no apology for saying: ‘At the heart of Christianity lies the Bible, which dominates our thinking and influences the Anglican inheritance to an extraordinary degree’ (39).
Indeed, after defining and giving examples of ‘heresy, schism and apostasy’ he returns to the issue of Biblical interpretation and hermeneutics - or its misuse - as a key element that has led to our current perilous situation. He warns: ‘we must be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that Scripture is essentially a springboard for mystical reflection about God’ (87) - an approach that was much in evidence at my diocesan Lenten retreat this year!
Given the absolute relevance of this booklet to where the Church of England is currently, what solutions does Bray give? His key emphasis is that of theological renewal (‘with few exceptions, no department in Evangelical theological colleges is weaker than the theological one, or in greater need of a thorough overhaul’) - beginning with a rediscovery of the theology of the early church, a recovery of the rich tradition of the Reformation period and a minimising of drinking from the well of modern untested theology.
One paragraph which hit home hard was the following: ‘… too many theoretically orthodox lay people and clergy are intellectually lazy and unwilling to engage with serious theology, which often strikes them as esoteric and unconnected to real life. They relate to the Bible and to public worship in an emotional, non-reflective way, which is not so much wrong as inadequate’ (10). As a vicar, one big question I have is: how should we theological train our congregations so they are truly equipped to take the true gospel of Jesus Christ to our needy world?
Bray’s ambitious desire for the church is three fold:
the creation of an Anglican Communion in which doctrinal orthodoxy, as defined by the Catholic creeds and the historic formularies of the Church of England, is the norm for Anglicans and not merely a tolerated option.
The creation of an expectation in the church that it’s accredited preachers and teachers will be well-instructed in its beliefs and committed to upholding them.
The creation of a climate of opinion which will accept that those who fail to meet these standards ought to resign their offices or failing that, be dismissed from them. (97)
Has the C of E boat sailed on this one? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Might ABC Welby’s recent admission that he couldn’t impose discipline on those who have moved away from orthodox Christianity have left other instruments of the Anglican communion free to do so? Might the orthodoxy, passion and numbers of the Anglican Church in the global south (and their diaspora in the West, especially the UK) swing the tide? Only God knows - but he is a good God who is still on His throne.
I’d like to conclude with Bonhoeffer again: ‘It must be here noted that the concept of heresy emerges from the fellowship of the Church and not from an absence of love. Only when man does not withhold the truth from his brother, does he deal with him in a brotherly way. If I do not tell him the truth, I treat him like a heathen. When I speak the truth to one who is of a different opinion from mine, then I offer him the love I owe him.’ This disturbing booklet is Bray speaking truth in love to the Church of England and beyond.