Oldest FCE Church Leaves Free Church of England: FCE Called to Repent

Oldest FCE Church Leaves Free Church of England
FCE called to “repent of its departure from the historic Protestant faith”

The oldest extant Free Church of England (FCE) congregation has left the denomination. Christ Church, Exeter, founded in 1844, posted the announcement on social media: “On Good Friday 2023, the church membership voted to leave the FCE. We had called on the denomination to repent of its departure from the historic Protestant faith upon which it was founded and repent of its behaviour to former ministers including Revd Arthur Kay (St. John’s, Tottington), Jonatas Bragatto (St. Stephen’s, Middlesbrough) and Bp. Josep Rosello (Christ Church, Exmouth) but our calls went unheeded. We have not left hastily. We know there are good folks within the FCE and we wish them well but sadly we cannot remain there ourselves. We believe God is honouring us and that He will continue to do so. We have good news to share and we  will continue to do so too.”

The Free Church of England, which is also called the Reformed Episcopal Church in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, was itself formed in 1844, in response to growing Anglo-Catholicism within the Church of England. One of its foundational documents, the Declaration of Principles, substantially follows the 1870 Preamble and Declaration of the Church of Ireland in identifying itself as a “Protestant and Reformed Church,” reaffirming “its constant witness against all those innovations in Doctrine and Worship, whereby the primitive Faith hath been from time to time defaced or overlaid, and which at the Reformation were disowned and rejected.”

The FCE Declaration also condemns and rejects the following teachings as contrary to God’s word: that the Church of Christ exists only in one order or form of ecclesiastical polity, that Christian ministers are ‘priests’ in another sense than that in which all believers are a ‘royal priesthood’, that the Lord’s Table is an altar on which the oblation of the body and blood of Christ is offered anew to the Father, that the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is a presence in the elements of Bread and Wine, that regeneration is inseparably connected with baptism.

The Free Church of England accepts an amended version of the Thirty-Nine Articles, although through its membership of GAFCON it also approves the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles. The FCE website describes the Articles as “a brief and condensed statement of what Anglican Christians believe and teach. These carefully summarized statements of biblical theology were compiled by the English Reformers (Thomas Cranmer and Joseph Ridley [sic]).” It also states, “These theological principals [sic] remain relevant for our spiritual health and maturity as we follow Jesus Christ today.”

The Thirty-Nine Articles drawn up by the FCE are similar to the genuine Church of England Articles, with modifications (e.g. condemning ‘consubstantiation’ alongside ‘transubstantiation’), and three major alterations. In Article VI, the books of the Apocrypha are not listed and indeed are not to be read in churches, Articles XXXIII and XXXV are omitted, and replaced with articles opposing auricular confession and tactile apostolic succession. The omitted Articles may have offended the Protestant instincts of the FCE founders, as they mention ‘penance’ in relation to a restored communicant (albeit not as a sacrament), and commend the second Book of Homilies, whose contents are not as universally received as the first. There can be little doubt that historically and theologically the Free Church of England was intended, not merely to halt a Rome-ward drift in English Anglicanism, but to be more explicitly Protestant in doctrine and practice.

There have been concerns in recent years that the FCE is itself currently experiencing a Rome-ward drift. Members and clergy are styling themselves Evangelical Anglo Catholic, largely influenced by a 2016 book, Renewal of a Vision by FCE Presiding Bishop John Fenwick. Bishop Fenwick’s writings seem to hold a de facto official status within the FCE, and have been criticised for moving the denomination towards Anglo-Catholicism. In 2019, a Pastoral Letter and Statement appeared on the FCE website, signed by Bishop Fenwick and his fellow-bishop, Paul Hunt, together with similar Bishops world-wide, including those of the Reformed Episcopal Church in the USA. This letter is impressed upon the FCE as a reinterpretation of the Declaration of Principles for the twenty-first century, despite never having been approved by the Church’s Convocation. It overrides some of the FCE Founding Principles, suggesting that the Holy Table might indeed be called an Altar, and advocating a particular understanding of the Real Presence in the sacrament.

The Evangelical Connexion of the Free Church of England was set up in 2003 in opposition to the introduction of High Church practices, and since then other FCE churches have left to become independent congregations.

Despite this recent emphasis on Catholic tradition within the FCE, questions have been asked about the legality of a recent ordination. In October 2020, Bishop Fenwick received special permission from Manx authorities to make a one-day trip to the Isle of Man to ordain lay reader Sir Laurence New as presbyter in the FCE. The FCE website tells the story: “After careful discussions permission was given for the ordination to take place in a facility at Douglas harbour, without Bishop John technically entering the island. The full rite was conducted in the timescale allowed, then Bishop John had to return to the UK and the newly ordained Sir Laurence had to quarantine for a fortnight before he was able to meet his flock.”

Revd Sir Laurence New was eighty-eight years old at the time of his ordination to serve as the sole FCE presbyter on the Isle of Man. In the same month Bishop Fenwick, a former advisor to Lord Carey during his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, told the Daily Telegraph, “a presbyter can be invited to lead worship for as long as he is fit and able, but he would not normally be expected to be in charge of a parish after the age of 70.”

Age considerations aside, it is unclear how this ordination was valid under under FCE rules. The Church’s Canon D4 states that one must be a reader for at least six months before one’s ordination (as deacon). Canon D3 further states: “None shall be ordained Presbyter, unless first ordained a Deacon, or received as a Deacon into the Ministry of this Church; and none shall be ordained Deacon and Presbyter upon one and the same day.”

There is no indication that Bishop Fenwick had made any other trip to the Isle of Man beforehand for a diaconal ordination. One correspondent to this paper asked at the time, “There is no mention in the news page of Sir Laurence having been ordained deacon during 2020, so I wonder if someone from the Church might clarify when this took place, given the difficulty of travel to the Isle of Man during the past year.” The FCE has not yet issued a clarification.

It must be noted that FCE orders are recognised by the Church of England, so the validity of this ordination is not a issue for the FCE alone. It is ironic, given this new fondness for Catholic tradition, that there are questions about the maintenance of Catholic order within the FCE. It is also ironic, given the FCE’s membership of GAFCON, which has called upon Canterbury to repent, that the Free Church of England also faces a similar call to repent for departing from its own historic teaching.