Sunday, 11 July 2010

On the strategic possibilities of pulpit exchanges

What are conservative Evangelicals to do about the new shape of the Church of England which is likely to emerge from the current debate on women bishops? That, it seems to me, is an increasingly urgent question, and yet it is one to which very few practical answers have been offered.
We could battle on through the Synodical process, but the problem with this tactic is that it relies too much on other people doing what we want. We could leave (or threaten to), but the problem there is that we would be doing exactly what other people want from us. Yet we cannot afford simply to carry on as we are.
I want to suggest that an important course of action presents itself when we consider the nature of episcopal ministry itself. What bishops can do, amongst other things, is give local congregations a sense of belonging to a larger and coordinated whole — a network of congregations which care about one another and which are mutually supportive.
Unfortunately, such networks are entirely lacking amongst conservative Evangelicals, with the result that our people are often unaware of the wider issues in the Church, whilst the clergy are battling on isolated and unaided.
Yet if we had the kind of bishops we would prefer, this is surely one of the impacts we would want them to have — strengthening the bonds of fellowship between congregations and encouraging ministers in their local work.
This is not, of course, how our existing bishops currently operate, but it is, I would suggest, part of the nature of ‘episcopal’ ministry. And although there is increasingly little chance of conservative Evangelicals being appointed to the bench of bishops, there is no reason at all why they should not develop networks of mutual support which supply what is lacking in the current situation.
One of our problems, for example, is that we do not have networks of congregations. Ministers get together. They join various organizations and see one another at conferences and so on, but our people have almost no awareness of this. For them, the parish boundary, or the local congregational membership, is the limit of their entire world.
Why not, therefore, invite those we know from our clergy networks to preach in our own pulpits? That way, our people would become aware of these other clergy and their congregations. They might hear some of the news from these far-off places and they might, incidentally, begin to appreciate that the doctrines preached by their own ministers are not just personal eccentricities.
This might be particularly important with respect to the larger churches. I have heard it suggested that ‘when the time comes’, conservative Evangelicals ought to create new episcopal structures centred around the senior ministers who staff these ‘flagship’ congregations.
That may or may not be the best approach, but it is worth reminding ourselves that episcopal ministry ought, first and foremost, to be a teaching ministry. Therefore, if these senior ministers are to exercise an ‘episcopal’ role, they ought to be released from their local pulpit to go and preach in other congregations in order to create and sustain the necessary networks.
At the same time, it would be very good if some of the ministers in the smaller congregations were invited to speak from the ‘flagship’ pulpits. It would be a great encouragement to them, and it would also be a great opportunity for those larger churches to be less insular and inward-looking than they often currently are.
It has been observed more than once that trying to organize conservative Evangelicals is like trying to herd cats. The ethos amongst the clergy is summed up in the words of the old song: “You in your small corner, and I in mine.” And that is how we often prefer things, not least because we are protective and defensive. (It reminds me of the person who jokingly said, “There’s only me and Dick Lucas left, and I’m worried about Dick.”)
The pulpit exchange could be a very powerful force for the good of our constituency, if only we will make the effort to start organizing along these lines. In particular, it has the advantage of being based in what we claim to value most, namely the ministry of the word. It would not ‘solve’ all our problems — nothing ever will. But it would certainly address our isolationism and, not least, our sheer unfamiliarity with the idea that there is a wider church out there.
So who is up for it?
John Richardson
11 July 2010
Anonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.


  1. I am not sure about my label. But I think you have had a brilliant idea.

    I would love to see it taken even further. Evangelicals invited to Preach in Middle of the Road or even High Church environments and reciprocal arrangements in place for their Ministers to Preach in Evangelical Churches.

    While it might be contentious, it might help people to get perspectives and to listen prayerfully and with love being operative to each other.

    But that is my idea of the a Church living together with differences, respecting the differences and pursuing the mission of making Jesus more relevant today in peoples lives.

    I just wonder if we have the courage to be a little radical.

  2. I second Ernest's suggestion! I think it is a little foolish to be nursing 19th century quarrels between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals while the liberals works systematically to undermined what is the foundation for faith of both.

    Perhaps this might be a time for reconciliation, seeing that both parties are loyal to the faith once received?

  3. I would also second Ernest's suggestion. We need more mutual understanding (especially where we diagree) and less reinforcement of already well-rehearsed argument.

  4. Are these networks and pulpit exchanges you envisage just between evangelical Anglicans, or would you see this happening between us and evangelicals outside the Church of England?

  5. Very good thinking, but I think pulpit exchanges would be only the beginning. Networks should also create educational materials, and stimulate congregations into other types of cooperation. Digital media provide a great deal of potential in this area. Small groups in congregations can also get to know small groups in other congregations in online meetings and shared fora for Bible studies and other studies.

  6. A number of problems here.
    First, Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics don't share common ground. As an evangelical I believe in the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice made once-and-for-all-time on the cross. I believe both in the priesthood of all believers and that we have but one high priest in heaven. As an ordained man, I am not a priest. I do not stand in a mediatorial role between the congregation and God, offering again the sacrifice of the 'Mass'.
    Second, I would not entrust the congregation for which I am accountable before God to someone who I cannot trust to faithfully expound the scriptures. That means I could not invite "open" evangelicals etc.
    Third, as vicar of a medium-sized church, I am fed up with the assumption that the "senior" clergy are necessarily vicars of larger churches. Certainly, I would hesitate at the suggestion that they are automatically the best choices to become evangelical bishops: when I ask them to come and preach to my ordinary congregation (because I have no-one else to share the burden) they excuse themselves. But when they're asked to preach at a 'prestigious' church or a conference, they're quick to accept - even when these larger churches have countless able preachers. Where's the pastoral care in that?
    Yes a network would be great. And I've tried hard to network with these so-called senior ministers. They're just not interested. If we're to appoint our own CE bishops, we must look to the 'ordinary' pastors of 'ordinary', 'insignificant' churches if we're to get the quality we need.

  7. A couple of clarifications are in order, I believe.

    First, I put forward this proposal to address the issues facing conservative Evangelicals, where I believe one of the pressing needs is to create an identity that extends to the laity.

    Realistically, such exchanges will necessarily be with other, similarly evangelical, ministers. If others want to see other kinds of exchanges organized for other purposes, they are, of course, welcome to put forward their suggestions, but that is beyond my scope.

    Secondly, I am not personally supportive of the 'big church, 'senior minister'' principle of 'episcopal' organization. However, I have seen this advocated, and there is some enthusiasm for it. What I have said in this respect is that those ministers would need to be prepared to move around and be seen in other places - otherwise they would just be perceived to be 'dictating from on high', and I think we have enough of that already.

    True 'episcopal' ministry must depend on, and be expressed through, the ministry of preaching and teaching Christ, but I am suggesting we could have something of an episcopal ministry without necessarily having 'official' bishops exercising it.

    But thirdly, the important thing is to act. We are very good at agreeing 'something should be done', very bad at actually doing something. I'd be interested to know if others would be interested in taking this up practically.

  8. "Secondly, I am not personally supportive of the 'big church, 'senior minister'' principle of 'episcopal' organization. However, I have seen this advocated, and there is some enthusiasm for it"

    Which sort of assumes that these ministers see any role for episcopal ministry. I suspect they rather complain about them than actually be them.

  9. I am looking for this kind of blog. What I really love on this kind of blog is the good things that I am learning. And I want to thank all who comment. You make the blog more interesting.

  10. Is EFAC the right organisation to make this kind of network happen? It tends to be a bit clergy centric in Australia (not sure about the situation in the UK), but with a bit of work it could be broadened to work with the congregations themselves. Its advantage is that it is a well-respected organization, which could help to foster networking between evangelicals both nationally and internationally. Let's not revert to standard evangelical practice and create a new organisation for every crisis. Let's find one that can be used to do what we need.
    Andrew Reid

  11. Fascinated by the earlier comment that 'I would not entrust the congregation for which I am accountable before God to someone who I cannot trust to faithfully expound the scriptures.'

    I think it means you don't trust the congregation. If you have encouraged them to think for themselves, assess, weigh-up, ponder, pray and listen to the best expressions of the argument of those with differing views then what harm can it do to invite someone whose faithful exposition is different to your own?

  12. John This is all very well and good but what it amounts to is a private arranhgement between evangelical clergy. What we need is structural legal provision otherwise all our efforets will wither before the force of the law. If we cannot secure this we will need to think of ways of securing oversight outside of the structures of the Church of Engalnd. Anyone up for this kind of fight?? So far evangelcials have been less than courageous - even when the authority of Scripture is under such blatant attack.

  13. Nigel, two comments in reply.

    First, by this kind of arrangement we can develop exactly the sort of structures we need on the ground to establish real gospel centred networks. It is the kind of thing we ought to have been doing anyway, but now seems a very good time to do it.

    Secondly, it is worth noting that the force of law will not be against us if no legal provision is made - it is simply that we will not have the straightforward and statutory recourse necessary when the code of practice goes the way of other 'grace and favour' arrangements.

    This is not to underestimate the iniquity of the situation, but I think we must not overstate the difficulty either.

  14. 1. I'm with Mike on Anglo-Catholicism - there is no true sharing that can be done there.

    2. Such openness needs to be extended to those of us in small groups such as the "Evangelical Connexion of the Free Church of England" and the "CofE Continuing". We retain Anglicanism and Protestantism, as well as remaining conservative Evangelicals. Until this time we have found ourselves rather ignored - maybe our temerity in actually leaving the CofE (the "EC" in 1844 and the "CofE Cont" rather more recently) is either too much of a challenge or maybe we are just "too small" to be of interest.

    Either way, our ministry seeks to be genuinely reformed, protestant, evangelical, whilst at the same time (certainly speaking for the EC-FCE) our episcopacy is exactly what John is looking for. I am the presiding bishop of the EC-FCE and my role is to encourage the other congregations to know and support one another in fellowship, as well as to run my own congregation. The latter ensures that I am primarily a preacher and teacher of the Gospel of salvation in Christ alone.

    Interestingly, the only time we looked for help for one of our congregations from evangelical CofE's we only got it 'through the back door', because the local minister who was also the official (and yet evangelical) dean of the area was more worried about the procedures and about providing churches in his local CofE area with some ministry, when the ministry wanted by them did not include preaching God's Gospel of grace.

    3. We are already here, we have bishops, why create a new structure which promotes men on congregation size? Join us!!!

  15. My first thought on reading this was of what Richard Baxter wrote in his 'Autobiography' about his and Archbishop Ussher's ideas about 'episcopacy' according to Ignatius of Antioch and the desirability of English (etc.: 'Anglican' had not been coined, yet) 'diocesan' reform in that direction.

    This sounds like a 'de facto' or 'effective' move in that direction, treating 'priests' as 'presbyteroepiskopoi' or whatever, without a distinct 'episcopal' consecration.

    I have not paused, yet, to go internet-searching for EC-FCE: is this what they/you mean by 'bishops', or have they/you gone the way of the birth of a 'Wesleyan Church', historically? (That is, no 'Apostolic succession' any more, in the sense of 'distinct' bishops consecrating bishops.)

    I wonder if Baxter would agree with Mike and Dominic?: as I recall, he assumed that if he somehow came to live in a land where the 'Greek' Church predominated, he would simply take part in their services.


  16. John
    You write "that the force of law will not be against us if no legal provision is made." You are quite wrong on this. As soon as the legislation is voted through Canon A4 is in force in its entirety. At the moment it is suspended due to the Act of Synod but once that is gone all orthodox clergy will be open to charge under the Clergy Discipline Measure.

  17. Nigel, that is an important observation, and I don't think I'd really taken on board that Canon A4 is 'in abeyance'.

    Nevertheless, I was aware that the new provisions will require an acceptance in future that ordained and consecrated women are "truly bishops, priests, or deacons" according to that Canon.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I take it that when you say that "orthodox clergy will be open to charge under the Clergy Discipline Measure", it would be because they could not accept this principle.

    I am not sure, however, that this is necessarily the case for everyone in the traditionalist camp.