Although he now lives in Canada, J.I. Packer, 81, has been named one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the U.S. by Time magazine and is generally considered one of the most important theologians of the modern era. He was previously regarded as an informal arbiter among diverse evangelical churches after the publication of his 1973 book Knowing God, which outlined a conservative Christian theology deeper and more embracing than many Americans had encountered to that point. He has also served as executive editor of the influential Christianity Today magazine.
Born in England and following the Calvinistic Anglican tradition, Packer currently serves as board of governors’ professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver. He attended university at Oxford, where he met C.S. Lewis, whose teachings became a major influence on his life. A prolific writer, Packer has contributed to the book Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission and served as general editor of the English Standard Version of the Bible.
Packer recently waded into the controversy over the blessing of same-sex unions within some dioceses of the Anglican Church of Canada by appearing and speaking at the Building on the Solid Rock conference in Burlington, Ont. Nov. 22-23. He addressed the topic of a theological perspective on the “global realignment” within the worldwide Anglican communion, which is witnessing some disaffected North American dioceses seeking ecclesial oversight from outside their geographic localities.
That was also the subject of the Burlington conference, which attracted almost 300 Canadian Anglicans from across the country to plot alternative ecclesial oversight by a diocese in South America. This new arrangement will apply in those dioceses that are straying from scriptural fidelity, especially through the blessing of same-sex unions, and whose congregations vote in favour of departure.
The Interim sat down with Packer during a break in the proceedings in Burlington and asked him about the conference, why the North American Anglican church has descended to the point it has and what might be the way forward.
The Interim: Why are you here at this conference?
J.I. Packer: I am a delegate from my own home church and was asked to give a major address, which I did yesterday. I am in full sympathy with the agenda of this conference, which is an extended briefing on a realigning of a group of churches calling themselves the Anglican Network in Canada. We are realigning, or attempting to realign, by accepting an invitation from the primate of the Southern Cone, in the south of South America. He has invited us to come under his jurisdiction.
What has prompted his invitation is the fact that we in our diocese – and, in fact, in some other churches increasingly in other Canadian dioceses – are being penalized by our own bishop for the views that we hold contrary to his. (They are) views that we hold on one particular issue; namely, whether it is right to see any form of same-sex union, (or) homosexual partnership, as a mode of holiness and to bless it in church on that basis. I am one who cannot accept that policy. I can’t accept that view of gay unions.
The Interim: You’re a theologian. How has it come about that other learned people in the Anglican church somehow feel that this is scriptural or according to God’s will?
J.I. Packer: In the Anglican world, liberal theology of a particular type has taken over pretty much theological control of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the States. North America is more radically committed to this form of liberalism than any other part of the Anglican communion anywhere.
Now, the basic principle of liberalism is two-fold … On the one hand, the Bible is regarded only as human religious expression – fallible, uneven, plain wrong on certain matters. On the other hand, the human judgement – that is, the judgement of religious persons today – is regarded as definitive in telling us what to believe and what to do.
In this particular case, homosexuality was decriminalized throughout the English-speaking world in the 1960s. The culture of the West, from that time onwards … is very much committed to affirming minorities. Gay folk form a minority and liberal Christian leadership wants to affirm them. The way to affirm them, so these leaders believe, is to accept their partnerships as equivalent to heterosexual marriage – marriage as, I believe, God instituted it.
So that’s the presenting issue that has caused the upheaval in our diocese and is causing an upheaval in many more Canadian dioceses now. It’s like the tip of the iceberg that breaks surface. The nine-tenths that is under the surface has to do with the fact that we don’t regard the Bible as authoritative teaching from God, but we do regard contemporary human religious judgement as an expression of the mind of the Holy Spirit.
This kind of liberalism, I think, goes further than any kind of liberalism has ever gone in the Roman Catholic church.
The Interim: Catholics are watching this very closely, because these kinds of things can have a ripple effect and it’s best to deal with them as soon as you can.
J.I. Packer: I understand and can appreciate that. I think, if my observations are right, there are two factors operating within the Roman Catholic church on this matter. Factor number one is that still, a number of Catholic exegetes believe that what the New Testament says in ruling out homosexuality doesn’t apply across the board. They think it applies to certain types of homosexual behaviour … but not to committed homosexual partnerships of the modern type. Therefore, you can’t quote any of those Scriptures against these modern homosexual partnerships.
Factor number two, I think, is that the church is believed to have tolerated homosexual partnerships in the past. In the Catholic tradition, I know that where there were precedents in the past, people are reluctant to rule them out in the present. But I don’t think, in fact, that any of the arguments that purport to establish that homosexual partnerships were accepted in the past are valid arguments historically.
This is a debate between scholars, of course, but I have to dabble in it, because after all, my profession is to teach theology.
The Interim: What is the way forward here? What are you hoping to accomplish with this conference?
J.I. Packer: The archbishop of the Southern Cone … has invited us to leave the jurisdiction of our own bishop and come under his jurisdiction and pastoral care. Before this conference, we knew there was one Canadian bishop, technically retired, who is prepared to come out of retirement and be the representative of the archbishop of the Southern Cone as our bishop – confirming our confirmation candidates, ordaining our ordination candidates, giving general oversight to our clergy in their ministry. In other words, fulfilling a full episcopal ministry. We now know there are two such bishops. It was announced yesterday …
The bottom line, as far as the conference is concerned, is that we ask all the bodies represented here – which is 15 parishes and a whole series of private individuals who are not representing their churches, but are committed to the cause of separating from the approval of gay unions … to make decisions by April of next year … (when) there will be another Canada-wide gathering at which the archbishop of the Southern Cone will be present. The inauguration of the new relationship between him and this set of Canadian parishes will be proclaimed as a fact and ratified. That meeting is going to be in Vancouver …
We are, as you expect, being accused of schism because we are separating from our existing diocesan organizations. My reply, and the reply of others, is that this is not schism. If there is schism in the situation, the guilt of it applies to the people who have forced us out of our own dioceses by violating our consciences. We are only seeking to be Christians in the historic mould, believing what the church has always believed about the Bible and its authority and what the church has always believed about the moral teaching of the whole Bible with regard to homosexuality.
This is no part of the order of creation. It’s not something that God accepts under the order of grace and redemption. It is something off-limits. The way to help homosexuals, therefore, it to affirm them as human beings with particular besetting temptations and by friendly support, as you would do in the case of heterosexual people with a different sort of besetting temptations. You try to stand by them and help them not to yield to their besetting temptations. That’s what it’s all about.
The Interim: What can you do about the Anglicans who have this view? How can you bring them back onside? Are any efforts being made to bring those blessing same-sex unions back into the fold?
J.I. Packer: Short answer: by debate, by stating our position and the reasons for it and by stating their position and the arguments against it. It’s a matter of theological debate, as in so many other matters in the history of the church where opinions have differed.
The Interim: We wish you the best for a successful conference.
J.I. Packer: Thank you so much. God, so far, has been blessing us and I trust he will continue to do so. We recognize that in taking the Bible-based stand we are taking, we are challenging the Canadian government, the state, which has already legitimized gay unions and treats and celebrates them as marriage. It won’t be the first time the Christian church has had to stand against the state. The Book of Acts is full of it.