(Yesterday was a nightmare, not least because I drove to Manchester and back to deliver this talk to the local branch of Forward in Faith. Thanks to delays, it took me 5 hours to get there. However, I gather it was well received, so here it is.)
Until very recently, I took the view that in the present difficulties facing the Church of England, evangelicals and catholics could and should simply work together. Part of my work involved editing New Directions, and that was our strapline on the front page.
I now think circumstances demand that evangelical and catholic Anglicans both look at themselves carefully, and that any questions of cooperation can only be addressed in the light of that self-examination.
Let me explain what I mean.
The evangelical identity crisis
The first issue that brought this home to me was the evangelical identity crisis. This is something I have been trying to address for some time, but it is nothing new. On the contrary, evangelicals have a long-running problem over their identity.
As long ago as 1971, Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote a book titled, What is an Evangelical? John Stott addressed the same issue in 1977, as did Mark Thompson as recently as 1995 in a book titled Saving the Heart? subtitled, What is an evangelical?
However, in recent years the evangelical identity has become even more diffuse, even within Anglicanism. Do you mean Conservative, Open, Liberal, Charismatic, New Wine, Emergent or what?
When the Bishop of Durham is prepared to describe a book on penal substitution authored by members of one our most conservative evangelical theological colleges, as ‘hopelessly un-biblical’, and yet expects to be received as an evangelical by evangelicals generally, you know you’ve got a problem. If someone introduces themselves to me as an evangelical, I no longer say ‘Great’, I think, ‘What sort’?
The catholic identity crisis
But then we come to October 20th and the Pope’s offer to Anglican catholics. The significance of this still has to be assessed, but I think it says something about Rome’s view of Anglicanism.
To me, it suggests that the period of formal ecumenical discussion is over for the foreseeable future.
It also suggests that Rome views Anglicanism as desperately weakened —and it is a weakness which Rome is not particularly bothered by.
It should also hearten Anglo-Catholics, because it clearly implies that Rome does take them very seriously indeed.
But at the same time, it raises a difficulty, because it confronts Catholic Anglicans as never before, and in a way that has never before been available, with the need to decide whether to go or stay.
The implications for both
In the light of these two apparently unrelated issues —the evangelical identity crisis and the offer of the Personal Ordinariate — evangelicals and catholics need to take a look at themselves, and I think both need to admit that for a long time they have not taken their church very seriously.
Indeed, I would go further and say that by our attitudes and actions we have exacerbated the problems which we blame for our lack of seriousness.
By calling ourselves ‘evangelicals’ or ‘catholics’, for example, we show that we regard our core identity as lying elsewhere than in the Church of England.
At the same time, though, we have colluded with the public perception that the Church of England doesn’t really stand for anything.
We have distanced ourselves from the ‘Derek Nimmo’ image of Anglicanism, by distancing ourselves from the ‘middle ground’, but we have left that middle ground open for others to occupy.
The offer of the Personal Ordinariate more directly impinges on catholics, but evangelicals face the same question. If we are to stay in the Church of England, we have got to start taking it more seriously before we can consider how we work together.
Amongst evangelicals, it is surprising, even to me, how many of them have almost no awareness or experience of their own theological and liturgical heritage. And the more Conservative the Evangelical, the more this is true.
One reason is that those who do have a regard for this heritage are often regarded as —and indeed sometimes are —dusty and fuddy-duddy.
As one recent correspondent put it to me, people would rather join Reform than Church Society because they believe that in the end Reform would choose the Bible, whereas Church Society would choose the BCP and the Thirty-nine Articles.
Yet as a constituency, they seem to be remarkably unaware of how vulnerable this makes them. You may not be aware, but Oak Hill College, which was painstakingly improved through the work of David Petersen as its principal during the 1990s, was recently deeply affected by a theological fad brought in from Presbyterianism in the United States, known as the Federal Vision Movement.
I cannot go into great detail, but what struck me about this, though, was that the real damage was being done not by the Federal Vision advocates, but by supposed Anglican Evangelicals who had a completely un-Anglican baptismal theology.
When someone says at a baptism service, as I was quoted, “We’re not doing anything here, just making the baby wet,” they have ceased to be recognizably Anglican. But worse than that (because that is not the worst thing one can do), they have left the door open to exotic views of baptism which, as Oak Hill has found, can readily divide evangelicals who think that the Bible alone is a sufficient rallying point.
Evangelical Anglicanism, and I would say especially Conservative Evangelical Anglicanism in this country, has no idea how theologically thin and weak it is. Our great failing is that we do not do systematic theology. And the great shame is that Anglicanism provides just the sort of systematic theology we need.
When it comes to Anglican catholics, however, the picture is not much better. Bishop John Broadhurst said at the recent FiF Conference that the Anglican experiment is over. What perhaps needs to be acknowledged is that the Anglo-Catholic experiment is over —by which I mean the idea of sitting over against the denomination of which you are a part.
Reading John Shelton Reed’s Glorious Battle, subtitled, ‘The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism’, one thing that struck me was that there was something rather enjoyable about being the ‘bad boys’ in the then-Church of England.
Perhaps most importantly, it must be acknowledged that Anglo-Catholics of the time paid scant attention to their bishops, even whilst upholding the importance of episcopacy.
Reed writes of an English Church Union speaker who asked rhetorically, “When will the clergy obey their Bishops?”, answering his own question thus: “My lords, when the Bishops obey the Church.” (145)
But as Reed points out,
... for an English churchman, determining when episcopal opinions were unepiscopal required something that looked very much like private judgement. (146)
And, of course, private judgement was something which Newman went on later to attack as the very bane of Protestantism.
Regard for the fundamentals
The truth is that Anglo-Catholics have had a good deal less regard for the fundamentals of their own church than they have had for the fundamentals of the Church of Rome.
Of course, that does not prove they are wrong to do so, but the Pope’s offer of an open door does raise the question of how seriously that difference should be taken. And as I have indicated, if catholic Anglicans decide not to take up that offer, they cannot simply going on being what they have become, which is effectively an exile group in their own denomination.
I am rather reminded of a story told by a friend of mine who was for some time a supporter of a dissident Romanian group. Just after Ceauşescu was killed, this group held a meeting in London. My friend could not help noticing the difference between the rejoicing in Romania and the gloom in London —gloom because this group had lost their raison d’etre.
Catholic Anglicans may be facing just that moment themselves. If there is no reason to be embattled, what reason is there to be Anglican?
Questions we must face
And so I want to pose a number of questions which I think both catholics and evangelicals must face, and the first is this: do we believe that the Church of England is what it says on the tin?
For evangelicals, the question is whether we believe the Church of England even exists. Do we believe there can be a manifestation of the body of Christ at a level that transcends the purely local?
And this does mean we need to ask whether we believe in the office of ‘bishop’ —do we believe in an ‘oversight’ which is not only congregational?
Actually, though I won’t go into the details here, there is a possible Anglican argument for a more congregational arrangement should other things change.
For catholics, the question must be, at very least, whether the Church of England is right about some things which Rome has got wrong. One of my good Anglo-catholic friends says, for example, he believes Rome is wrong when it demands belief in certain dogmas which he says may or may not be true.
If that is so, then, like him, you may feel you have good reason for not going over to Rome, no matter how generous the offer. If, however, you feel there is no significant area in which Rome is wrong, whereas there are some areas in which Anglicanism is indeed wrong, then I think the logic of that position is clear.
Then again, I think both evangelicals and catholics need to ask what they make of the core theological documents of Anglicanism which remain enshrined in law.
Newman took a very post-modern view, that interpretation was the key, not the author’s intention. That, I think, is open to the same challenge as the whole of post-modernism, and I think Newman eventually realized that.
But what about evangelicals, who believe that their commitment to Scripture equally allows them to be revisionist on some of the controverted issues dealt with in the Articles. There are many evangelicals today who would be much more comfortable with the Arminianism of Methodism than the Calvinism of Articles X and XVII.
There is not time here to go through a whole list, but I do not believe catholics or evangelicals can afford to go on being ‘Anglican-lite’. Events are now confronting us with the need to choose.
The good news in all this is that evangelicals and catholics do have a good deal in common, and that, relative to many in the Church of England nationally and the Anglican communion internationally, they are conservative and orthodox in many essential areas.
The breadth of churchmanship in the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans is one illustration of this.
However, in our own context, there is a need for reappraisal of their own position by catholics and evangelicals alike.
Currently, both groups look on the Church of England as essentially a structural entity, whilst they regard themselves as theological entities. Alongside Charismatic and Liberals, they regard themselves as members of the Church of England organizationally, but differing from, and sometimes overlapping with, one another theologically.
For evangelicals, however, this theological identity is increasingly hard to sustain. For Anglican catholics the identity is challenged by the offer from Rome.
The Anglican identity
What I am suggesting is that both groups need to recognize that Anglicanism can validly claim to be a theological entity. And that being the case they could begin to regard themselves as much more defined by outward forms of expression, and much less by theological divergences.
In fact, the theological identity of Anglicanism ought to be the rationale for evangelicals belonging to the Church of England in the first place.
We do not need to worry about whether there is a ‘trans-local’ church comparable to the local church made visible in the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments.
What binds us together as evangelicals at the trans-local level is (or ought to be) the recognition of a shared core doctrine. At the same time, however, we ought to acknowledge that this doctrine is not ours to define —it is a ‘given’ of the Church of England.
Catholics similarly need to come to terms with the ‘given’ theology of the Church of England. It is no longer enough simply to disagree with it, or diverge from it, even on grounds of conscience.
No ‘middle ground’
Before I conclude, however, I must clear up one easy misconception. I am not arguing that we all need to agree on a ‘middle ground’, as distinct from our own supposed ‘extremes’.
This is not a suggestion that the essence of Anglicanism is a balance between Protestant and Catholic, Liberal and Orthodox, Charismatic, contemplative, activist and so on.
Emphatically I am not saying that a true Anglican is a person who takes a moderate view of everything. Equally emphatically, I am not saying that theological ‘inclusivism’ is the Anglican way.
All of that is, I believe, a false view, which at various times has dominated the Church, but at no time has been true to the spirit of Anglicanism.
Moreover, where such a view is taken, it is not just that the gospel suffers, but that so does individual liberty. I’d like to quote the words of John Woodhouse, now principal of Moore Theological College:
Parallel denominations provide for liberty of conscience. The alternative to parallel denominations is one denomination which could only be maintained by persecution ... To allow freedom of conscience on certain matters requires parallel associations. These are not necessarily the most important matters, but they are the matters in which disagreement makes practical co-operation of some kind unworkable. (Unity that Helps & Unity that Hinders, p. 45)
Whatever else it is, the Church of England is a undoubtedly a denomination. Its usefulness as such depends on whether it is held together on the basis of matters over which Christians may validly disagree, but which are essential in terms of practical cooperation.
But if all that holds the denomination together is its structures, then. as Woodhouse identifies, it will only hold together through persecution. That persecution may be subtle or unsubtle, but it will involve applying rules and regulations, the giving and withholding of support and favours, the promotion of some individuals and the denial of promotion to others, all on the basis of loyalty to the institutional, rather than the theological, ethos —in fact, just what we see in the CofE.
By contrast, where there is unity in essentials, there is fellowship in the gospel, just as I am sure you enjoy here.
The Church of England has a theological identity. It is established in its formularies and in its historical development. Above all, it is established in its commitment to test all things by Scripture. Surely none of us can object to that. The question we face is how we come to terms with it, and how we come to terms with the disregard of these principles by so many in our church today.
Where, in conclusion, do I think this leaves us? When I asked an Anglo-Catholic friend a few days ago how he rated the Vatican’s announcement on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), his answer was ‘on a par with an atomic bomb’.
Although he was quick to affirm that we would need to see the offer itself, and see how people reacted to that, he clearly felt it was highly significant. And I share his view that it has indeed changed the landscape.
The challenge of the hour, as I see it, is for us to recover the vision of being theological Anglicans. Some of us will find we cannot do that —I think that is as true for some evangelicals as it is for some catholics. If that is so, then we must face the facts honestly and courageously.
But many —hopefully most —of us will discover that being a member of the Church of England is what we want. If that is the case, then we do not need to ask what we have in common — we will discover what we have in common.
Our challenge will be, having these things in common, and truly being members of the Church of England, we call our church back to its proper theological roots and to its true mission.
3 November 2009
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