Fulcrum was launched at the 2003 National Evangelical Anglican Congress, somewhat to the chagrin of the organisers who said that it “undermined their attempts to build evangelical unity”. Indeed, the launch was preceded by private consultations amongst some of those in the Evangelical constituency who felt concerned at the way the Congress was being managed, and the decision to go ahead was taken behind closed doors two and a half weeks before the Congress began.
The claim of Fulcrum has always been to represent the ‘middle ground’ of Evangelicalism — inclining neither too far towards the ‘left’ of Liberalism nor the ‘right’ of Conservatism. However, as events, and comments on the Fulcrum website, have shown, if this is ‘Open Evangelicalism’ it cannot entirely live up to its name.
The problem for Open Evangelicalism is that those who adopt this position agree primarily on just one thing, namely that they are not Conservative Evangelicals. And this inevitably means that the ‘Open’ label is misleading, both to others and, perhaps more significantly, to themselves.
Moreover, many Open Evangelicals have come from a Conservative Evangelical background, which exacerbates the problem even further.
The ‘Open’ in Open Evangelical is supposed to indicate openness to other Christian traditions than that of Evangelicalism. Thus Open Evangelicals may feel there are things to be learned from Anglo-Catholicism as regards the liturgy or the nature of the Church, from Charismatics as regards the work of the Holy Spirit or freedom in ‘worship’, and from Liberals as regards intellectual rigour or engagement with the world.
At heart is the realization that Evangelicals don’t know everything, and that therefore what others claim to know may be worth listening to, particularly at the point where they differ from Evangelicals.
The problem is, at the point where Open Evangelicals differ from Conservative Evangelicals, there is no willingness to listen or to change. In reality, where Open Evangelicals differ from Conservative Evangelicals, they think the latter are wrong and, understandably, they are not prepared to change.
Unfortunately, the ire of Open Evangelicals is thus reserved for, and directed almost entirely at, their Conservative ‘brethren’. Indeed, one only has to read the comments and articles posted on the Fulcrum website to realise that Open Evangelicals scarcely regard Conservatives as brethren at all. One is tempted to say that if there is a Hell in the Open Evangelical universe, then Conservative Evangelicalism is in its ante-chamber.
And thus Open Evangelicalism, for all its claims to the ‘middle ground’, is neither truly open nor in the middle. It is not open, because it is closed to Conservative Evangelicalism. And it is not in the middle because Conservative Evangelicalism is, in its distinctives, beyond the pale.
By contrast, and somewhat ironically in the circumstances, true radicalism in the Evangelical camp is represented by the Conservatives, for although their theology reflects that of the 16th century Reformers, both English and Continental, and (they would argue) the correct understanding of the gospel that they represented, as regards ecclesiology they are revolutionaries.
Hence it is typically amongst Conservative Evangelicals that you will find the most radical application of the notion of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ (both men and women), expressed in the principle of the ‘lay’ celebration of Holy Communion. Again, it is amongst Conservatives that you will find a widespread tendency to be liturgically flexible, dispensing with robes and re-casting services according to local need. Admittedly these provisions are not without their problems, but the basic stance certainly would reflect that of Martin Luther, regarding his emphasis on the freedom of the local congregation, and Thomas Cranmer regarding the comment in the Preface to the Prayer Book that nothing has been devised in the past which can’t sometimes be improved on in the present.
It is also Conservative Evangelicals who are at the forefront of planting churches, even at the expense of the institutional conflict, and who are prepared to act irregularly regarding matters like ordination.
Of course, these things cause problems. Moreover, it may be admitted that they are not always done out of a good heart. There are those amongst the Conservative Evangelicals who enjoy a fight rather too much. But the history of the Anglican Church shows that the way it changes is via radical principled action, not by common consent and abiding by the rules.
It is no coincidence that one of the definitive histories on Anglo-Catholicism is titled Glorious Battle. And reading it, one finds example after example of outright disobedience and rebellion against authority, both in the state and in the Church. How else do people imagine that several Anglo-Catholic clergy wound up in prison? Yet the result was that within fifty years what the Anglo-Catholics introduced as illegal acts became the Anglican norm.
Or again, consider the ordination of women. The Anglican Communion did not wait for common consent before women were ordained. On the contrary, in America and in Australia, bishops acted against the will of the Communion, and sometimes against the constitutions of their own churches. Open Evangelicals are adamant in their support for women priests and in their rejection of those who do not agree with women’s ordination, and often fierce in their criticism of those who break the rules. Yet the first women priests were ordained illegally.
The truth is, we are all liable to appeal to the law when we are opposed to the lawbreakers, and to criticize the law when it holds us back against our will. It is human nature, and to some extent human sinfulness. But what we cannot do is overlook, as if it never happened, the fact that an institution like the Church of England will never behave both radically and collectively.
It is the true radicals who lead the way. And in the present-day Anglican Communion, whilst the radicals on the left are pushing ahead with an agenda on human sexuality, it is the radicals on the right - the so-called ‘Conservatives’ — who have an agenda to express gospel living in church practise.
Revd John P Richardson
25 May 2007