Friday, 21 August 2009

Liberals and Evangelicals: with friends like these ...?

The Modern Churchpeople's Union has published a lengthy critique of recent pronouncements by both Archbishop Rowan Williams and Bishop Tom Wright on the present position of The Episcopal Church.

In the light of the latest developments —or non-developments in the evangelical wing of the Church of England —it raises two interesting challenges.

The first is whether the apparent alliance between Williams and Wright is as ‘opportunistic’ as Stephen Kuhrt, a prominent Open Evangelical, suggested was the alliance between Conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics in the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.

According to Kuhrt:

[...] FCAUK’s temporary ‘alliance’ with Forward in Faith suggests a willingness to combine with those with whom they have deep theological disagreements, so long as they have a current objection to authority.

According to MCU,

Both Williams and Wright show themselves to be dogmatic authoritarians. [...]

The current alliance between these two theologies cannot be stable: they disagree with each other about too much.

Of course, both Kuhrt and MCU may be right. It may be that neither the FCA nor the Williams-Wright alliance can survive. However, it is notable that MCU has itself joined an alliance which includes at least three evangelical groups with whom they would doubtless take issue over matters like the atonement, judgement, Christ’s physical return (or maybe even his physical resurrection) and so on. It is all very confusing.

The other challenge, however, is the clear perception within MCU that Open Evangelicalism belongs in the same camp as themselves —which may be why they have no embarrassment about their own alliances. Thus their critique of Williams and Wright continues,

Neither position is characteristic of Anglicanism. Other Anglicans, calling themselves open evangelicals, or liberal catholics, or broad church, or radicals, or liberals, have not been part of this programme to condemn the Americans and introduce an Anglican Covenant.

Now I am sure there will be many Open Evangelicals who would rightly reject this suggestion of comparability as far as they are themselves concerned. However, the perception must be regarded as significant. The problem is that Open Evangelicalism is, by its own definition, a diverse and diffuse movement, and it is clear that it contains —and more importantly is willing to contain —both those for whom the traditionalist view of sexuality is correct and those for whom it is not.

And the very fact that Open Evangelicalism is not split by contradictory views on human sexuality suggests that the MCU is right. The old ‘orthodoxy’ is now optional. There is therefore no reason to split with TEC over this issue, even whilst one may (as a private individual) hold opinions that disagree with the prevalent view within TEC.

I write this not to pick a fight with Open Evangelicals —there are enough of those going on already —but because I find it increasingly difficult to see how we can talk about one ‘Evangelicalism’ with two (or three) ‘aspects’: Conservative, Open and Charismatic. It all depends whether a particular understanding of sexuality is viewed as necessarily Evangelical. Fifty years ago, it would undoubtedly have been so. Today it is undoubtedly not —at least, not by all who regard themselves as ‘Evangelical’.

Yet when orthodox sexuality becomes optional, it is perhaps significant to note who emerges as one’s new bedfellows. Dr Williams is now clearly regarded by his erstwhile friends as little more than a traitor, whilst Dr Wright is described as being Puritan and Calvinist (but in a bad way). Open evangelicalism, however, is embraced as being true to the ‘inclusivity’ of real Anglicanism —along with TEC and so on.

If I were an Open Evangelical, I would be more worried about this than I was about the possible depredations of FCA. It is a fine mess to have been gotten into. The question is, how to get out of it.

John Richardson
21 August 2009

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  1. From what I have seen recently, Open Evangelicalism is not open to and inclusive of those who preach traditional orthodox sexual ethics. I wish I was allowed to be more specific.

  2. Peter,

    I am intrigued by your comment. Are you referring to Fulcrum? Despite it's aversion to CE's I would have thought that the Fulcrum leadership's stance on sexual ethics was fairly orthodox - at least it is at the moment, considering it positions itself as the showcase of Open Evangelicalism.

    If you are referring to groups like Accepting Evangelicals or Courage who claim 'Evangelical' in their description then - yes. But would they be classed as OE's by Fulcrum?

    Chris Bishop

  3. Chris, I am not referring to any of these groups, but to a particular case where people calling themselves Open Evangelicals and inclusive were not in fact open and inclusive towards an individual. John probably knows who I am referring to. But I am not allowed to discuss this publicly.

  4. It's plain from the tenor of those who contribute to the 'Fulcrum' blog that many if not most of them are liberal in their sexual ethics, as well as antsy about penal substitution, inerrancy etc, while WO is treated as indisputable doctrine, beyond question.
    It looks more like a watering hole for people leaving evangelicalism, as more and more traditional evangelical beliefs are problematized.
    Maybe this isn't what the leadership intended, but the blog comments are the public face of a site. I think this is really a rerun of 1940s/50s 'liberal evangelicalism' - the kind once associated with the old Holy Trinity Brompton, but now remodeled to fit 21st century thinking on sex and gender roles.
    'Accepting Evangelicals' doesn't make itself evangelical by having the word in its name, anymore than the Justice Department of the Soviet Union necessarily dispensed justice.

    Mark B.

  5. Mark, blog comments don't always reflect the views of the owner of a blog. My comments here don't always reflect John Richardson's views. And many of the comments on my blog are completely opposed to my own position. So don't take the commenters at Fulcrum as representative of Open Evangelicalism either.

  6. Peter, I understand that. But one difference is that John's postings are really 90% of this site, whereas the comments thread (ISTM) is about 90% of the 'Fulcrum' site.
    Actually, most of it seems to be 4 or 5 non-evangelical posters battling with one indefatigable old-schooler called 'nersen'!
    As for the 'pure' 'Open Evangelical' position: I find this increasingly harder to identify, as the hermeneutical goalposts keep shifting. I've long thought of myself theologically as a liberal conservative (e.g. I'm not a YEC-er), and I wonder if 'Open Evangelicals' are not really conservative liberals?
    Mark B.

  7. The label "Conservative Evangelical" is limiting and fraught with political connotations in ways that "Open Evangelical" is not. I think those who think of themselves as falling under the category "Conservative Evangelical" should come up with a different label and start using it.


  8. All titles are 'limiting' - that's the point of them, to delimit what is considered true from false. 'Conservative' has political connotations, but so does 'liberal', 'radical' and 'progressive'. Whichever one sounds toxic at the moment changes from year to year. I like to think of myself as 'liberal' (i.e. free and generous) and 'progressive' (who doesn't?), but my ideas of 'freedom' and 'progress' won't be the same as a secular humanist's. But in contemporary parlance, 'progressive' seems to mean one who believes that the truth is still out ahead of us and we can ditch ideas previously thought central with no essential loss.
    And radical means 'getting to the roots' - but would you prefer radical surgery or conservative surgery?
    Jim Packer said he liked to speak of himself as a 'conservationist Christian' rather than a conservative - keeping the good deposit of faith and practice.
    But I take your point, Dave, so I think I'll just call myself 'Correct' and 'True'! :)

    Mark B.

  9. Dave, I note your point, however this is partly a 'transatlantic translation' issue. In the UK a 'Republican' would be very radical politically. I think that is not true in the USA. However, with the best will in the world we can't really expect that to change for our sakes here!

  10. Peter, it seems Open Evangelicalism is increasingly characterized by a kind of doctrinaire 'theological multiculturalism', which means that its 'openness' does not include those who fail to share the same outlook. Thus, you can be included as a 'Conservative', eg on sexual ethics, only so long you accept the right of others to their, contrary, opinion.

    However, as I know you are aware, this effectively demands that the Conservative not be authentically Conservative. At the same time, it imposes an 'inclusivist' metanarrative which is by its nature favourable to Liberalism.

    I honestly don't know whether, as a result, the evangelical camp can hold together. It gives me no pleasure to say I suspect not. Meanwhile, Lk 8:17.

  11. I agree with the comments of Mark B about the Fulcrum blog. I strayed on to it several months months ago when Patrick Soohkdeo was being attacked and participated for awhile on the threads dealing with penal substitution, women in (ordained) ministry, etc. I didn't think, with a couple of exceptions like nersen that I was debating evangelicals.

    'evangelical' has clearly become a debased term. Personally I prefer to identify myself as a Calvinist or use terms such as 'confessional Christian', 'orthodox Christian' or 'reformed Christian' - this particularly so when working with fellow orthodox Christians whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox in the public realm on ethical and religious freedom issues.

  12. RE previous post

    My names is David Palmer and I'm an Australian Presbyterian minister

  13. A difficulty exists in that other church identities are heading down the tubes so fast that 'evangelical' is a label which attaches to almost everything in the Church of England which isn't clearly moribund, in terms of numbers in congregations, numbers of ordinands, etc. ('Anglo-Catholic' is a partial exception to this observation.) Therefore people (including clergy) describe themselves as 'evangelical' for the sake of having a label which doesn't also mean 'obvious loser' (I mean e.g. 'broad church', 'liberal Catholic').

    As to Fulcrum, many contributors evidently aren't evangelical, except perhaps as 'defined' in the last paragraph. My theory is that they go to Fulcrum because they get bored with Thinking Anglicans. Who wouldn't?

  14. ...emmm, so am I a conservative but open, charismatic, progressive, radical evangelical...dunno...but I do know I'm a Christian!

  15. Any so-called "alliance" between "conservative" Evangelicals and "conservative" Anglo-Catholics is a farce at best. No true Evangelical worth his salt would DARE to compromise the Gospel of justification by faith ALONE or any of the other Protestant distinctives simply for the sake of opposing immorality. The problem is not immorality. The problem is doctrinal. The rejection of biblical authority and the doctrine of sola scriptura go hand in hand. Anglo-Catholicism has one foot in Rome and the other in Athens, which leads to the pelagian position faster than any liberal mainline Protestant denomination could possibly go.

    Selling out the Gospel for a false unity is not a "confession," it is an "apostasy." The "Confessing Anglicans" organization is failure from the start and so is the Anglican Church in North America. Both are dominated by Anglo-Catholics.

    If Anglo-Catholics wish to be in unity with Evangelicals, then they ought to repent of their papist idolatries and become Evangelicals who confess the Protestant confessions of the Reformation: i.e. the 39 Articles, the Lambeth Articles of 1595; the Westminster Standards; the Three Forms of Unity, etc.