Wednesday, 13 August 2008

NEACs past, present and future

My post about Open Evangelical attitudes to the 2008 mini-NEAC has prompted some interesting responses, but also sent me back to look at the history books.

There is an interesting 'brief history' of NEACs, CEEC and Evangelical division from an Open Evangelical perspective by Andrew Goddard, a frequent contributor to the Fulcrum website, available here on the website of the 2003 NEAC 4. Interestingly, this must have been written just about the time the decision was being taken to launch Fulcrum at that NEAC!

NEAC 4 is often seen by Open Evangelicals as itself suffering from Conservative bias (see here). What is often forgotten, though it is reflected in Andrew Goddard's piece, is that Holy Trinity Brompton staff (specifically, as far as I am aware, Nicky Gumbel and Sandy Millar) were involved in both the planning and the platform, but withdrew at the last minute. Sometimes attempts to create breadth are made, but are frustrated for various reasons.

However, Andrew Goddard's article also makes reference to the previous NEAC, at Caister in 1988, which he describes as "a wasted opportunity" in that "the apparent unity previously marking Anglican evangelicals was, as their numbers grew and the world changed, being overtaken by their plurality."

Others saw it as itself expressive of a negative shift in Evangelicalism, symbolized by the change of title from Congress (1967, 1977) to 'Celebration'. They, too, perceived a bias in platform and programme, but at that time away from traditional Evangelical doctrines and values into something else. The emphasis in the 2003 NEAC 4 was a conscious reaction to this, as well as a reflection of the influence of Conservatives on bodies like the CEEC.

Andrew Goddard attributes this to the possiblity that "so many of the other evangelicals who had previously been active in CEEC were now too busy running the Church of England" in new-found senior posts. (Five years on, one might be forgiven for wondering where they, and their influence are now.) Certainly this is a recognition of the kind of 'disengagement' of Open Evangelicals of which I wrote previously.

Assessments of the 1977 NEAC vary, but as Andrew Goddard points out, it is interesting to look at the history of past NEAC participants to where they are today. I cannot help observing that one of those who wrote a paper for NEAC 2 was our very own John Gladwin!

However, I note also, with a wry smile that not only was John Gladwin a key platform speaker at NEAC 3, but that alongside him as a workshop leader was a certain Canon Chris Sugden (both of whom get some stick in this negative review here (pdf file).) At what point, and for what reason, I wonder, did those two cross in different directions?

I was actually present at NEAC '77 and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I do remember an address by Alec Motyer which seemed quite at odds with the upbeat mood of the Congress as a whole. Years later, I obtained a tape of the talk, curious to wonder why he had seemed so out of step. What I discovered was that many of his concerns about the trajectory being taken by Evangelicals were later ones which I came to share.

And that takes us back to the first NEAC, at Keele University in 1967. That was a very different occasion at a very different time, when Evangelicals were called to consider whether they had a place at all within the Church of England. As is well known, the answer, robustly supported by John Stott, was that they did. Looking at the Statement itself, however (currently buried somewhere in my books), I have been struck by its theological 'thinness' - a problem which has bedevilled Evangelicals ever since.

Anglican Evangelicals, of whatever persuasion, are pragmatists first and theologians second. Understandably we put a 'relationship with Jesus' at the top of our priorities in ministry. But often that relationship and its subsequent development, are treated, quite unbiblically, as if they were independent of our doctrines and dogmas. Thus, at worst, Conservative Evangelicals act as if the 'truths' we need to know could be jotted down on the back of a napkin, whilst Open Evangelicals act as if truth itself were a suspect concept, especially when we are speaking about the claimed 'truths' of Conservative Evangelicalism.

Preparing a talk for tonight on the history of Evangelicalism, I am struck by how often the same cycle repeats itself: Evangelicals preach the gospel, plain and simple, people get converted, Evangelicalism rises in influence in the Church and country, Evangelicals fail to consolidate their gains and divide amongst themselves, some other group rises to prominence, feeding off the invigorated Church created by Evangelicals, Evangelicals are marginalized and go back to preaching the gospel, plain and simple, people get converted.

They do say that those who don't learn from history are destined to repeat it. I wonder why?

John Richardson
13 August 2008

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  1. Interesting aside you mention but don't major on. Some OE are now in senior Church positions. CE are not.

    Does this explain the problem you're explaining?

    CEs value these things as they will always see the problems and even though a majority are still under represented.

    OEs get fed up with CEs seeing the problems, see CEs as the problem in Evangelical groupings. BUT are infact holding the balance of the C of E! Why do they need a group to talk about reforming the Church, when they have their men in the white house... or house of Bishops, which is bound to make them more pro-Synod, Arch Bsp of C, etc. etc.

    Darren Moore

  2. Perhaps the issue is whether people consider themselves first evangelicals and then Anglicans or first Anglicans and then evangelicals. While I don't want to promote a "Christ" party as in 1 Corinthians 1:12, I wonder where the people are who consider themselves first of all Christians - perhaps not in the C of E at all?

  3. John
    Its possible that the lesson evangelicals should learn here is not from the cycle of history of evangelicalism but from the history of the church we like to distinguish ourselves from, viz. the Roman Catholic Church. That church, we might observe, has come through the Enlightenment, modernism and now post-modernism with its doctrine and ethics more or less unchanged, while finding a way to adapt the style of its liturgy to changing times.

    Is it possible that there is indeed great difficulty in the theology of evangelicalism, noted in your piece, and that this is resolved by becoming 'Catholic' rather than (say) becoming 'more Protestant' or choosing once and for all the 'Open' or the 'Conservative' way of being evangelical?

    (In posing this question I deliberately leave alone the rather large answer required to the question of what 'catholic evangelicalism' might look like!)

    Peter Carrell
    Nelson, NZ

  4. John,

    Thanks for this post, and all your recent commentary. Uniformly informative and insightful. And congratulations on getting married, you sly old dog (that's an Australian compliment!)

    Thanks in particular for your final two paragraphs. How very true! Here in Sydney, evangelical Anglicanism has maintained a somewhat stiffer theological backbone over the past 30 years, but I do detect a growing neglect of systematics/doctrine in our circles more recently. It's partly the ever-present allure of pragmatism (as you point out); it's partly an interest in the historical background and veracity of the New Testament (as if we can separate out the theology and get back to the history); and it's partly our great historical strength in biblical theology (which leads some to think that you only need lay out how a theme has developed in the Scriptures to have 'done theology').

    We are all, of course, driven by a theology. It may be assumed and unexamined, but it is there. For the health and growth of evangelicalism, our systematics need to be constantly examined, restated and proclaimed, and the alternatives refuted.

    Let's get to it.

    Tony Payne, Sydney

  5. They do say that those who don't learn from history are destined to repeat it. I wonder why?

    Well, sure, and I like your summary too in the previous paragraph. I suppose the question is whether or not you fight against it, or just recognize it and keep doing what evangelicals have always done, which is to preach the gospel.

    It's nice if the structures are on your side from time to time, but it makes precious little difference. What does make a difference in the eternal scheme is gospel preaching.

    Gordon Cheng
    Kingsford, Sydney, Australia.

  6. Dear John,

    whilst LOL to Peter's comment, it does flag up one issue. Conservative evangelicals in the CofE need to recognise that they will share more in common with brethren in non-conformity that with some 'evangelical' groups in the CofE. Perhaps there would be more gospel fruit if as much effort went into creating supportive structures between denominations with other CEs as goes into internal CofE church politics with non-CE evangelicals.

    I'm not calling for a pull out from the CofE by CEs but merely to call for greater engagement with non-conformity.

    In Christ,

    John Foxe (Hertford)

  7. John (Foxe),

    Don't you see that happening already? Regional partnerships, Proc Trust, New Wine, New word alive etc. have all been good on that front and of course informally at a local level.

    Certainly some conversations with Fulcrum I've thought "what would a non-conformist make of this" - bewilderament. Many gripes they have with us is lack of Anglicanism (founded or not - bit of both). My thought often is if this wouldn't bother a non-conformist - why is it bothering them? - especially if we're Christian first.

    Darren Moore

  8. Peter, I think you make a very good point - certainly one I have pondered myself: "[The Roman Catholic Church] has come through the Enlightenment, modernism and now post-modernism with its doctrine and ethics more or less unchanged."

    Why not so with Protestantism? One reason, I think, is that the lack of a magisterium, whilst addressing some problems, invites others.

    Another problem though, in my view, is that Rome has been wise enough to keep the authority in the hands of Conservatives, whereas Protestants have tended to allow it into the hands of Liberals.

    The former approach allows Liberals to function (if applied with a light enough touch). The latter is the ruin of the Church.

    Part of the problem is that whoever gets power tends to perpetuate the power 'in their own image' - see the debate about the bias of mini-NEAC. However, it is worth asking when and how traditionalist denominations let things go the wrong way.

    The book The Churching of America has some interesting observations about the way that Protestant denominations have gone into decline, but again these factors don't seem to have affected Rome.

    Is Richard Neuhaus right in saying that, in the end, Catholic Orthodoxy can only be sustained by being Catholic or Orthodox? The question is worth considering.

  9. Tony,

    Couldn't agree more. I worry about Sydney sometimes! It is so easy to think you're safe from 'problems', only to find that the problems sneak up on you from behind.

    History teaches that Evangelical divisions are what kills Evangelicalism - and that could be just as true for Sydney Anglicans as anyone else.

  10. Gordon,

    Thanks for your comments. I am, however, going to disagree with you somewhat.

    As someone who studied at Moore College (1993) and has had considerable experience with the Diocese, I think it is as hard for people there to appreciate what they've got as it is for people here to appreciate what they haven't.

    I remember addressing one of the regional clergy conferences, for example, and being struck by the fact that I didn't have to worry about people's attitude to the Bible, the gospel or the Church - very different from here!

    Take, again, the relationship between mission and training. Here, training courses for clergy studying part-time are notoriously Liberal. In Sydney, the college feeds the mission and the mission feeds the college.

    Or again, bishops. What would Sydney be without its bishops, past and present?

    Part of the problem here is persuading people that diocesan and Church structures can work to make mission so much easier and more effective.

    Part of the problem with Sydney is persuading people not to take it for granted.

    Sydney is a great place, but this is not least because things which are good for the gospel run from top to bottom in the structures.

  11. John Foxe
    As an evangelical Anglican who appreciates the Anglican eucharist as a means of celebrating the death of Jesus I find I have more in common with Roman Catholics than many of my non-conformist evangelicals whose eucharistic celebrations are too thin theologically for my liking!
    Peter Carrell
    Nelson NZ

  12. John Richardson
    Neuhaus' question re Catholic Orthodoxy is a profound one - certainly more difficult to answer in the midst of the Anglican Communion becoming a many-splintered thing!

    I think a magisterium is something we do well to ponder. De facto it has always existed in evangelicalism. For a time it was the likes of Stott, Packer and (noting Australian correspondents on this thread) Leon Morris and co. Potentially today it could include Bishop Tom Wright but some lines in his thinking are not commanding universal assent. But a magisterium requires submission to the decisions they promulgate, and the mood in evangelicalism today is one of suspicion rather than submission to any ecclesial authority!

    I agree that a strength of RCism today is its choice to appoint conservatives rather than liberals (except in England, apparently, if one follows Damien Thompson's unsubtle campaign in favour of the Latin Mass)!!

    Peter Carrell
    Nelson NZ

  13. I'm going to have to disagree with Gordon as well, partly because I'm in the middle of preparing a sermon on Titus 1. Titus faces the problem of corrupt teaching in Crete: but Paul doesn't tell to just keep preaching the gospel (although of course he has to do this- see 2:1). Before that he tells Titus to complete the task of putting everything in order, and in particular to appoint elders (1:5). In other words, put in place structures that will ensure that the truth is taught and error opposed (1:9).

    Steve Walton
    Marbury, Cheshire

    PS Do people in Australia still say "sly old dog"? It makes you sound like Terry Thomas in an Ealing comedy!

  14. As someone who studied at Moore College (1993) and has had considerable experience with the Diocese, I think it is as hard for people there to appreciate what they've got as it is for people here to appreciate what they haven't.

    I understand what you're saying, John, and I'm sorry I didn't get to meet you while you were in Sydney (I was in Melbourne from '89-'99, so I do have some sense of what it is like to be outside Sydney looking enviously in!)

    My diagnosis of what has gone 'right' in Sydney differs a bit from yours, in that I want to put it down to the tenacious preaching of the gospel by Broughton Knox as principal of Moore Theological College. Under God, his teaching influenced multiple generations of Bible teachers.

    Of course he had friends, and of course he was not alone in his preaching. He surrounded himself with gospel teachers on the faculty of Moore, and taught others to follow his and their example.

    And of course this flowed through to the political institutions these people were all involved in. They worked in good, smart, and strategic ways.

    But they would have done this anyway, because human beings are intrinsically political beasties. That they did it in the service of the gospel is right and proper, but I feel we mustn't confuse root and shoot.

    And Tony Payne, what's got into you? This is the second blog comment I've read of yours in the space of two hours. Good comments but.

  15. Dear Darren,

    I take your point that there are some encouraging signs of new found cooperation. I guess I'm challenging the orginal NEAC hopes of evangelicals fomenting positive change in the CofE and putting their energies into that rather than into working with like-mind nonconformists. I think the NEAC strategy was always doomed to failure and current conditions in the CofE make it even less credible.

    In Christ,

    John Foxe (Hertford)

  16. Dear Peter, (Carrell rather than Kirk),

    and is 'celebrating the death of Jesus' an adequate or Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord's Supper? I don't think it's either.

    A Reformed understanding of the sacraments as a means of grace provides much more to chew on.

    In Christ,

    the Reformed Foxe. (Hertford)

    PS I'm not denying there are plenty of non-conformist churches fail in their understanding of the sacraments: but I'm calling you to the best of nonconformity, not the worst of it.

    PPS Noting you are in New Zealand you can find the Reformed view alive and well in the Grace Presbyterians, Reformed Church and even the Free Presbyterians.

  17. Peter (Carrell)

    I think your comments about the 'personal magisterium' of past Evangelicalism are very interesting.

    We did indeed look to figures such as Stott, Packer, Motyer and so on - and also to the IVP Bible commentaries - to provide 'the line' for Evangelicals.

    I wonder if one of our problems wasn't the 1970s rejection of 'the line' per se (ie pride and arrogance) rather than the fact that there was demonstrably anything wrong with it, or that we had anything (or anyone) to put in its place.

    I would emphatically not put up the Bishop of Durham's theology as a possible successor. One reason is that by his personal comments he has alienated pretty much the whole Conservative constituency - sorry to say that, but it is a fact. And secondly, there is much to question about his theology - which I hope to post on shortly.

    Not unconnected with this, one of the constant complaints within Conservative ranks at least is that we have no substitutes for the old 'giants'. Nor do we have any 'lead personalities'. Consequently everyone rather does what is right in his own eyes.

    Might this be a challenge to our ecclessiology, in that we underrate the importance, and sometimes therefore the necessity, of leadership by 'office', rather than personality? Specifically, isn't this where having 'good enough' (if not brilliant) bishops would be helpful?

  18. John Foxe

    Part of my analysis of the failure of the Keele project (the transformation of the Church of England by Evangelicals from within) is that whenever Evangelicals were given the opportunity by means of their office, they have shied away from using it.

    Evangelical bishops did not promote Evangelicalism, whereas Liberal bishops were quite prepared to promote Liberalism. Look at the previous Bishop of Durham, for example. You could say their problem was they were too honest! The result is, though, that the opportunities were wasted.

    I do believe the Church could be transformed, but it would take deliberate and unpopular action to do so.

  19. A 'biblical theology' that is basically a 'narrative' (ie a story line abstracted from the Bible) may not survive for too long because (a) someone will come along sooner or later with a different 'narrative'; (b) a 'narrative' can't stand apart for too long from the atemporal truths it must depend on (eg the eternal character of God). This is the criticism that Paul Helm makes (in 'Helm's Deep') of Tom Wright's idiosyncratic understanding of 'justification'. I have to wonder, too, if Wright's 'exile/restoration' and 'Kyrios Jesus vs. Kyrios Caesar' schemata can stand all the weight he wants to put on them.
    Which means that a biblical theology and systematic theology msut stand together. Which means you have to learn historical theology to understand the issues. Which means you have to have at least a dash of philosophy in your education....

    I agree that Wright couldn't be a uniting figure in the way that Stott, Packer and Green were from the 1950s onwards. He's been altogether too polemical and personal in a way that Stott has never been, preferring to play the ball rather than the man.

    As regards RCs and magisterium, it's notable that for hundreds of years, the papacy was locked up in Italy (and Italian politics), in a largely Protestant-free zone. The papacy maintained its hostility to every kind of modernism from the French Revolution onwards. It was only in 1978 that the first non-Italian pope appeared, by which time Roman Catholicism was a truly global phenomenon. The Archbishop of Canterbury is no pope, but if the office is to continue to lead world Anglicanism, it must be sundered from English church politics. That can't happen, so it seems to me that world Anglicanism needs an elected (fixed term) leader.

  20. Dear John,

    indeed. I've always thought that I would believe a bishop was evangelical if he refused to ordain Anglo-Catholics and Liberals.

    I'm still waiting...

    In Christ,

    Bishop Foxe (Hertford)

  21. John Fox and John Richardson

    Thank you for each of your replies.

    Agreed that a truly Reformed eucharistic theology is something to chew on, and it is present in NZ - but there is pretty thin gruel here in many churches - we are more influenced by American and Australian pentecostalism than by the best of Calvin's descendants!

    Agreed that we do not have the magisterial evangelical giants of yesteryear and that might mean we should pay more attention to office than to personality!