For the last forty-eight hours, with a brief break for a Deanery Synod meeting, I’ve been at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hertfordshire, first for the Reform annual conference and then for the residential meeting of the Church of England Evangelical Council.
As I said at the Synod last night, I have reached that stage where the words of Psalm 27:35 apply, “I was young and now I am old.” (This was especially borne in on me when looking at the twenty or thirty theological students who turned up for the Reform meeting today.) I am thus in the position to reflect on the past and the present, and right now what I am feeling is a great sorrow at the missed opportunity for our church and nation resulting from the loss of unity amongst evangelical Anglicans.
This afternoon, the CEEC organized a joint presentation by Stephen Kuhrt and Vaughan Roberts on the benefits or otherwise of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. As it happens, I found myself agreeing with much of what Stephen Kuhrt had to say —at least insofar as I felt they were cautionary words that I could readily echo.
However, in a not-always-good-tempered question time, it became increasingly clear to me —and I suspect to others —that evangelical unity is a façade, and a very poorly-preserved one at that. Of course, even thirty years ago things were not perfect, but they are at an undoubtedly low ebb, from which I wonder if they can recognizably recover.
What, then, are the problems?
First, there are serious personal hurts, caused by things which have been said and written. One person this afternoon, for example, pressed the point as to whether he was regarded as ‘unbiblical’. Now I doubt that the individual who put him in this position ever meant to imply that he was truly an ‘unbiblical’ person. Nevertheless, that was the term which had been used, publicly and forcefully, and it had clearly stung. I also know that he is by no means the only one to feel wounded in such a manner, and the response that we must expect ‘robust’ engagement in debate does not solve the problem!
Is it asking too much that Christians refrain from saying about someone what they would hesitate to say to them? Paul’s warning to the Galatians surely applies to us as a constituency: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” In recent years, I suspect far more damage has been done to evangelicals by evangelicals that by all the Jack Spongs or Richard Dawkins’s in the world.
Secondly, there are fundamental doctrinal divisions. Topics specifically aired this afternoon included the ‘New Perspective’, penal substitution, judgement and hell, and the sufficiency of God’s grace. Doubtless others could be mentioned, but all of these touch on areas where thirty years ago there would have been almost universal evangelical agreement. One of the tragedies is that some of these issues have been worked over (and, one would have hoped, worked out) at the Reformation, but of course one of the features of ‘new’ evangelicalism is a readiness to critique the Reformation as fundamentally mistaken. Thus we are not only divided amongst ourselves but increasingly cut off from our past heritage.
Thirdly, there are simply too many issues being swept under the carpet, despite the fact that they are major causes of division. One of the most important is, it has to be said, the ordination and consecration of women. The difficulty here is not simply that totally different views are held on such a fundamental point, but that those who disagree are often held in little short of contempt. Thus, despite frequent protestations that this is a ‘second order’ issue, in terms of relationships it has become effectively ‘first order’.
Now I scarcely need to point out that thirty years ago the evangelical Anglican constituency was also largely united on this issue. We had a healthy evangelical disregard for institutional priesthood, but we regarded the apostolic teachings of St Paul and St Peter as ruling out women as overall leaders of congregations. And the problem we now experience is because the tension has not been resolved between those who still see an apostolic injunction at this point (and therefore do not trust the exegesis or, in some cases, the biblical commitment of those who disagree) and those who believe this is more than a matter of good exegesis, but is rather a matter of inherent ‘gospel’ values. This is not a disagreement, it is a gulf!
And then there is the ultimate question of the urgency of the gospel. Just what are we trying to do, and why are we trying to do it, and what should we do when, as often happens, man-made institutional structures get in the way of doing it? Evangelicals have always agreed it is a good thing when people become Christians. But there no longer seems to be the same agreement that it is a necessary and urgent thing that people should do so in order to be saved from an imminent and impending danger.
So as I sit here in the lounge at High Leigh, I think back to other evangelical gatherings, some here, some in other venues, to the old sense of unity and opportunity, and I wonder what went wrong, and what, if anything, can be done to put it right.
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.
14 October 2009
14 October 2009
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