A group of parishes is preparing what could be the first step towards a formal split in the Church of England over issues such as homosexuality, with the creation of a new “shadow synod” vowing to uphold traditional teaching.
Organisers, drawn from the conservative evangelical wing of Anglicanism, say they have no immediate plans to break away – but are setting up the “embryonic” structures that could be used to do so if the established church moves further in what they see as a liberal direction.
The new alliance will be viewed as a “church within a church” but founders have not ruled out full separation if, for example, the Church of England offers blessing-style services for same-sex unions – a move expected to be considered by bishops in the next few months.
Differences over sexuality have already triggered a major rift in the 80 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion and formal splits in the US and Canada after the ordination of openly gay bishops, which traditionalists say goes against the teaching of the Bible.
Congregations from three dioceses – Rochester, Canterbury and Chichester – are to become founder members of the new grouping, which does not yet have a name, but they expect others to join.
They claim the Church of England’s leadership is progressively “watering down” centuries-old teaching, not just over the issue of sexuality but many core beliefs including the authority of the Bible.
Top of their agenda will be discussing founding new “Anglican” congregations in England – with or without the blessing of the Church’s hierarchy.
Crucially, they may decide to withhold money from the offering plates in their dioceses, instead channelling funds towards finding their own “missionary” plans.
And they are likely to consider joining forces with an existing network of congregations outside the Church of England with links to a powerful alliance of Anglican bishops overseas, particularly in Africa.
It came as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby spoke of being “constantly consumed with horror” at the Church of England’s treatment of gay and lesbian people.
During a session at the Greenbelt Christian festival over the weekend, a gay audience member asked the Archbishop when, if ever, the church would be in a position to bless their civil partnership.
He replied “I don’t have a good answer to it,” but admitted the issue kept him awake at night.
The Rev Dr Peter Sanlon, Vicar of St Mark’s Church in Tunbridge Wells, who is hosting this week’s meeting, said: “If senior leaders of the Church of England water down the teaching of the Church of England on key issues like homosexuality, then this synod could easily evolve in to a new Anglican jurisdiction in England.
“The Archbishop of Canterbury has signalled that he is aware of the possibility that a significant proportion of the church will not accept a change in the church’s teaching.
“This could be the beginning of that playing out.”
He added: “I am not leaving the Church of England – but in order to stay, I need new partnerships and structures to discharge the mission of the Church of England, which is to bring the message of Christ to every postcode in England.
“We have set these structures up in a very small embryonic form across three dioceses.
“My only problem now is coping with the number of clergy contacting me wanting to know how they can join in.”
The Telegraph understands that so far 11 local Parochial Church Councils (PCCs) have scheduled debates on a motion upholding a traditionalist creed-like statement known as the “Jerusalem Statement” and taken part in a new “Anglican synod of churches” committed to upholding it.
Of those, five have passed the motion, and six others are due to.
Some evangelicals believe the Church is moving away from its Christian foundation itself. Eyebrows were raised earlier this year, for example, when it emerged that York Minister had introduced a Zen Buddhist meditation group.
Dr Sanlon added: “Clergy like me are not going to just leave the Church of England. However, we need new structures to establish new churches to fulfil the mission that the Church of England ought to be discharging.
“My overriding concern is to see the mission of the Church of England effectively discharged: the partnerships to do that are not possible between churches which promote ambiguity about teaching on sexuality.”
The Rev Canon Dr Gavin Ashenden, a royal chaplain, said: “The energy behind this new jurisdiction comes from a growing perception that the CofE is so desperate to remain chaplain to a country that is turning its back on Christian ethics, that there comes a point when it fails to be faithful to Christ and in particular his teaching on marriage.
“At that point, and it may already have arrived, there will be a rupture and the orthodox will make arrangements to safeguard the integrity of the Church for the future.”
A spokesman for the Church of England said a recent process of “shared conversations” involving bishops, clergy and laity would lay the foundations for “further formal discussions” about sexuality in the Church of England.