Recently this blog has addressed two issues which, at first glance, may seem to be unrelated. One is the state of Evangelicalism. The other is the significance of the Vatican’s recent manoeuvres vis à vis the Anglican Communion. As far as Evangelical Anglicans are concerned, however, these issues are much more closely connected than might appear.
On the one hand, the divisions within Evangelicalism raise the question of exactly what is an ‘Evangelical’. On the other hand, the Vatican’s offer may, as a Guardian editorial observes, leave Evangelicals isolated within the Church of England, since, unlike the Anglo-Catholics, they have “nowhere to go”. Certainly one scenario being envisaged is that this development will purge at least some of the ‘bigots’ from the Church, leaving the ‘unbigoted’ majority free to introduce women bishops and, ultimately, to embrace same-sex relationships.
If this scenario is correct, then the prospects within the Church of England for the Evangelicalism of our forebears is bleak. Open Evangelicals, virtually by definition, favour the ordination of women and will welcome the consecration of women bishops. But as a ‘party’ they are defined less by their adherence to traditional Evangelical doctrines than their sitting light to them.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Evangelical response has been to close ranks and, at the same time, to look for help in the form of overseas links, such as those forged in the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. Some even hope that such support would extend to episcopal oversight. Should it be offered and accepted, however, this would not merely isolate Conservative Evangelicals within the Church of England but might effectively remove them from it.
One is mindful of the lines from Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem:
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The situation seems beyond desperate. Our Evangelical unity is gone. Rome, which was for so long the antithesis of English Christianity, is offering English Christians a home. Have we not reached the time warned of by Bishop JC Ryle?
... so long as the Church of England sticks firmly to the Bible, the Articles, and the principles of the Protestant Reformation, so long I advise you strongly to stick to the church. When the Articles are thrown overboard, and the old flag is hauled down, then, and not until then, it will be time for you and me to launch the boats and quit the wreck. (Needs of the Times, in Holiness)
Maybe. But perhaps in Ryle’s warning lies the key to our problem. I may be quite mistaken, but desperate times call for desperate measures —and these seem to be desperate times. In the light of this, therefore, I want to suggest the abandoning of the Anglican Evangelical project and the consideration of an alternative.
By this ‘project’, I mean the notion that there is a primary thing called ‘evangelicalism’ which unites Evangelical Anglicans within their denomination and with others across denominational divides. That, I believe, is an understanding which no longer serves us well.
Crucially, as I have argued elsewhere, the notion of ‘Evangelical’ is too broad to be helpful when we move much beyond the shared goal of ‘seeing people become Christians’. When John Piper and Tom Wright can both rightly be regarded as Evangelicals, there is clearly a limit to the usefulness of the term ‘Evangelical’ as the basis for an identity. That is surely why we have seen the emergence of labels such as ‘Open’ and ‘Conservative’. If it ever was, it is no longer enough to be ‘merely’ Evangelical.
This is not to say that evangelicalism is an illusory concept, or that Evangelicals have nothing in common, but it is to say that evangelicalism is an insufficient basis for unity.
Furthermore, there have been two negative effects within the Church of England itself of this adopting of an ‘Evangelical’ identity. First, it has allowed Evangelicals to be isolated within the Church —indeed, they have encouraged this isolation themselves. Secondly, it has allowed the idea to take hold that the identity of the Church of England is properly broader than the ideas represented by this ‘Evangelicalism’. By buying into the Evangelical project, Anglican Evangelicals have actually encouraged the idea that the Church of England can define itself in non-evangelical ways.
At this point, however, it might easily be assumed that I am about to suggest the Church of England should be made evangelical. After all, many Evangelicals today say that they represent the ‘true Church of England’.
That is not, however, what I have in mind.
Historically, the Church of England was once exactly what it says on the tin: ‘the Church of England’. Anglo-Catholics often point out that the Church of England did not come into being at the Reformation. Rather, it was the Church in these isles before and after that event. When the term first began to be used, the only special thing about the ‘Church of England’ was its being in England (hence the Book of Common Prayer generally prints England with italics). Being a ‘particular or national’ church automatically allowed certain variations of outward practice. Variations of belief, however, were positively discouraged.
This contrasts radically with the Church of England today, even though it is often asserted that the ‘genius’ of Anglicanism lies in its comprehensiveness. The modern Church assumes a plurality of beliefs, even within its own ranks. But the broader this comprehensiveness becomes, the less the institution is able to take theology seriously.
What is taken seriously at the institutional level are the structures and regulations of the institution itself. As John Owen once complained, the typical bishop seems “zealous for the discipline and so negligent of the doctrine of the church.” And in case anyone should think this is simply a problem for some bishops, I would point out that the Clergy Disciplinary Measure, passed in 2003, does not cover any matters relating to doctrine, ritual or ceremonial. These were supposed to be the subject of a further Measure, but six years down the track it shows no signs of appearing.
Again, the lack of theological seriousness is seen in the training provided to Anglican ordinands. A key principle is that candidates for ministry in the Church of England should not be too theological ‘narrow’. The courses thus encourage ‘exploration’, but rarely seem designed to inculcate truth. Above all, perhaps, there seems to be almost no emphasis on the idea that there are received Anglican theological understandings. (How many ordinands have even read the Articles of Religion?) The justification for this is that ordinands are being trained for ministry in the Church of England as a whole, not one section of it, but the presumption is that this means being able to cope with theological variety. Yet such variety is possible in theological matters only to the extent that it is assumed not to matter very much.
It is within this framework that Anglican Evangelicalism as we now know it has taken shape. Hence Evangelicals today regard the institution as at best a place where their views must take their seat alongside other, non-evangelical, views and at worst as a lost cause.
In recent decades, this has increasingly impinged on Evangelicalism itself. In many areas, the old Diocesan Evangelical Fellowships are virtually defunct, as members look to other networks or to the structures of the institution for support. Some meet with like-minded groups, such as New Wine or Reform, though these themselves represent divergent theological views. Others, however, are happy to rely on official groupings, such as the Deanery Chapter for clergy, untroubled by the fact that their own theology may well be in a minority, or in formal conflict with the theology of many other Chapter members.
In the face of this, the natural response of traditionalist Evangelicals has been to withdraw both physically and mentally from the Church of England. The more they have done this, however, the worse —oddly enough —the problem has become. The answer advocated by most is increasingly to formalize this distancing from the institution. The answer I am advocating is that we reverse the process entirely.
I remember once listening to George Carey, before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, describe himself as a Christian first, an Anglican second, and an Evangelical third. At the time I was distinctly unimpressed. I now want to suggest he was right, albeit for the wrong reasons. I now want to suggest that those who currently think of themselves as ‘Evangelical Anglicans’ should see themselves as Christians first, Church of England second, and Evangelicals only as a distant and carefully nuanced third.
How can I, as a hitherto-dedicated Conservative Evangelical, make such a suggestion?
The first reason is that, at the time of the Reformation, the Church of England committed itself to the principle that Scripture is its final authority in matters of faith. The formularies of the Church of England (to which incidentally it is bound by the law of the land), declare that the Scriptures are sufficient for salvation (Article 6), and that whilst the Church itself has “authority in Controversies of Faith” it cannot “ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written”. It is this commitment, above all, which makes me glad to be a member of that body which bears the name ‘the Church of England’.
In his magnum opus, Bishop Stephen Neill wrote that the theological essence of Anglicanism is this:
Show us anything clearly set forth in Holy Scripture that we do not teach and we will teach it. Show us anything in our teaching or practice is clearly contrary to Holy Scripture, and we will abandon it. (Anglicanism, Pelican Books, 1965, p 417)
Yet, as some will point out, this is exactly what Evangelicals would claim for themselves. Why not, then, go on being Evangelicals within Anglicanism?
The answer lies in the fact that evangelicalism no longer has —if it ever had —a unifying theology. The Church of England, however, has at its core precisely that, for it is still (by the grace of God!) tied to the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal and the Thirty-nine Articles. It is bound to these by law, and it is rooted in them historically via the Reformation itself.
Contrary to what might be assumed from Neill’s quote above, therefore, the Church of England is not a Church which operates by ‘Scripture alone’ in the sense that it gives people the Bible and nothing else to represent its core beliefs. Rather, there are many points of potential theological controversy where the formularies of the Church of England take a settled view —on infant baptism, for example, or on the nature of bread and wine at Communion.
The Church of England has therefore set itself under the authority of Scripture, but via its formularies it also offers at certain critical points an interpretation of Scripture. And this allows it to be a dynamic, rather than a static body. In particular, it does not require us to be committed to the formularies as if they were infallible and beyond criticism.
We may compare this with the way that most Christians still use the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds. There are indeed those who are willing to question even these, but there are far more who regard them as, in some sense, having settled certain theological disputes, if not beyond question, at least in a way that means questioners must acknowledge they are departing from certain historical ‘norms’.
Those who know their Thirty-nine Articles, however, will know that the (three) Creeds, “ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.”
Initially, however, the same was clearly felt to be true of the Articles and the Prayer Book. They were not ‘Scripture’, but they were to be received as being ‘Scriptural’. That being the case, therefore, whilst people may wish to disagree with them, they should only do so on the grounds that a better Scriptural case can be made for an alternative point of view. And in the meantime, it should be acknowledged that what the objector says is in disagreement with where the Church of England officially stands.
Such an approach, then, would not commit anyone to ‘believing in’ the formularies. They remain, like the Creeds, a human effort to express divine truth. But it would be to acknowledge that there are standards from which we should start, and from which we should only depart after careful consideration and consultation, and with clear Scriptural justification.
Within this understanding of the Church of England, I am these days rather more ready to call myself ‘Anglican’ than ‘Evangelical’.
Revd John P RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select the 'Anonymous' profile, then type in a couple of letters, select 'preview', then close the preview box and delete these letters.
27 October 2009
27 October 2009
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