According to Archbishop Foley Beach, the primate of the Anglican Church of North America, the Anglican Church of the future must be a repenting church. The Gospel itself begins with repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). In his address at the 2023 Global Anglican Futures Conference, the archbishop highlighted personal repentance, exemplified in confession within the Anglican liturgy. But he also specified the need for ecclesiastical repentance.
Ecclesiastical repentance is scary because it requires admitting that the church, the visible source of authority and truth we look to in this world, has failed. Dying to one’s self, repenting, and seeking forgiveness are the normative patterns of the Christian life, but we often shun this pattern as a church body because of its implications—because of our fear.
In considering ecclesiastical repentance, we must acknowledge that in all the most trying ages of the Church’s history, the questions which were most defining and dividing were questions of God and Christ (theology and Christology). Today, as we muddle our way through the sexual revolution, the questions that divide are those of anthropology. But we need to unwaveringly assert that because Christ became man, questions of anthropology are intrinsically questions of Christology. The man Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of the father. Yes, he is fully God; but we cannot forget that he also remains fully man. Christian anthropology participates in Christology. Thus questions of human sexuality, gender roles, and biology cannot be confined to the realm of adiaphora. This is not because Christians only care about sex, but because Christians only care about Christ.
Unfortunately, within Anglicanism, we have behaved as though anthropology does not matter, and in doing so, we have lost the Christological center. No one can deny the immense success of the sexual revolution within Western culture. Our cultural anthropology has been turned upside down. Christ is nowhere present in it. As a church, we cannot allow the culture to dictate our anthropology; however, if we are to successfully restore Christological anthropology to the center, we need to rightly understand where we went wrong and repent of that failing.
St. Peter reminds us that judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). Within God’s household, we opened the doors that paved the way for revolution in our midst. As an Anglican priest, I can only speak for my own tradition, and in my tradition, the call for repentance is clear. In 1930, the Anglican conference of bishops at Lambeth undermined the purposes of Christian marriage by allowing a limited use of contraceptives within the marital union. This synodical act opened the door for the modern sexual revolution to enter the church; thus, we are complicit. Christ himself shows us that from the beginning, human sexuality was only properly ordered within the covenantal union between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:8). Moreover, this union was ordained for fruitfulness (Genesis 1:28). In essence, the unitive and the procreative belong together. This was God’s intention from the beginning, yet the Anglican bishops severed these two. From this floodgate, the waters rushed into the torrential chaos of the modern sexual morass.
St. Paul teaches us that the union of man and woman in marriage reflects Christ’s union with his Church. This union is fundamentally and intrinsically life-giving and reproducing. The entire Gospel message is about bringing about new life, everlasting life, abundant life. God designed sex to be ordered toward creating new life, and the past century has shown us that when that act becomes divorced from God’s purpose, the whole structure comes crashing down.
God has an ordered and lovely design for humanity. Disordered anthropology brings disorder. In my own experience, I learned these truths from Humanae Vitae and Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. However, fellow Anglicans and other Protestants need not look as far afield to be catechized in these truths. Recently, at the Formed Conference within the Anglican Diocese of the South, the moral theologian C. Ben Mitchell also pointed out that Anglicans are complicit and must repent. Furthermore, in his book We Cannot Be Silent, Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler demonstrated the same. The concession of allowing birth control into the marital union—spearheaded by the Anglican bishops at Lambeth 1930—allowed the entire Christian understanding of marriage to erode.
As an Anglican, this is cause for shame. The mother church of my communion recently capitulated on many questions of human sexuality and gender roles, for which she has rightly been called to repentance. But in my own sphere, we who claim to be conservative or traditional Anglicans must also repent. We have allowed the unitive and the procreative acts to be separated within marriage, thus opening Pandora's anthropological box.
But there is hope. As Archbishop Beach noted, the modern Anglican Church is called to be a repenting church. We may not be able to put the cat back into the bag (so to speak), but we can ask God’s forgiveness, and through his absolution and grace, nothing is impossible.
The road ahead is fraught, but Christ promised that his church would undergo both trials and persecutions. Therefore, we need not fear the cultural repercussions. Fear will only cripple us; the Gospel of repentance frees us. May the Church repent, turn from her sins, and then move forward in the liberty of the Gospel that beckons each of us into the abundant life of grace.
Jay Thomas is the rector of St. Mark's Anglican Church in Moultrie, Georgia.