Next week sees the annual conference of Reform. Established in 1993, in the wake of the decision by General Synod to ordain women, Reform describes itself as, “a network of individuals and churches within the Church of England ... committed to reforming the Church of England from within according to the Holy Scriptures.”
Reform was founded in an outburst of concern and enthusiasm, and in the early years its membership grew, its meetings attracted considerable numbers and they generated lively interest and debate.
In all the years of its existence, however, it is arguable that although Reform has kept the Conservative Evangelical flag flying, it has not, as an organization, achieved a single specific ‘victory’. (One only has to look at the list of recent highlights to see that this is so.)
Unsurprisingly, some early members have given up on Reform entirely, and numbers had been in decline. Apparently, however, the next conference is fully booked, and with the twentieth anniversary of its founding hoving into view, it is a good time to ask why Reform has not succeeded in the past and how it might succeed in the future.
The first problem is quite simply the nature of Reform itself: is it a political body, a club, a pressure group, a mission society, all of the above, or none?
I have personally been, and remain, a member of Reform because it is the only Conservative evangelical group with which it is possible to identify. But even I am unclear about exactly what we exist for. It is all very well having high aims, but there need also to be clear goals and distinct and definite steps in place to achieve those goals.
The nearest the Reform website gets to defining this is the following:
Reform members are working to identify practical ways of reforming the Church of England to enable the clear proclamation of the gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Given almost seventeen years of existence, we ought by now to have some idea what those “practical ways” are. Yet it seems that at every opportunity, Reform as an organization has failed to adopt any practical measures or in any effective way to commend them to its own constituency.
One of the problems here is the nature of Reform’s leadership. At one level it is constructed along completely standard organizational lines. There is a central Council which does the official business, which invites people to join its ranks and which determines who will be the Chairman. And then there is a membership which looks to the Council for a lead. But unfortunately, to quote a well-known advert, it doesn’t quite work like that.
On the one hand, the Council is not only self-selecting but quite select. Members are required to sign the Reform Covenant, the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and since it matters to the thrust of this article I will simply point out that I personally fell at the first hurdle (but that is another story).
The problem is not really with who is on the Council, but with how the Council relates to the agenda of the organization. For in terms of ‘management style’, Reform likes to describe itself as a ‘network of networks’, such that effective action is devolved to the local level.
Now that is all very well, provided that such effective local action is given priority and the central body encourages this both in word and deed.
Unfortunately, what actually happens is that the Council does not direct and the local groups do not initiate, whilst (seemingly) each looks to the other for a lead.
Some of my more depressing moments at Reform gatherings have been when someone on the platform has announced, along with the latest suggestion for a course of action, that it will be entirely up to individuals to decide whether they want to go along with it or not. It mystifies me that a body with so many ex-military personnel does not grasp that if you are going to shout ‘Charge!’ it is no good adding, ‘When you’re ready.’
But it is not all the fault of the Council, for at the local level things are no better. In fact, after seventeen years, there are only eleven diocesan Reform groups in the whole of England. Here, the difficulty is that people do not see their local Reform group as a means to getting things done. Instead, the prevailing Anglican parochialism, combined with clerical busy-ness, conspire to push Reform into second place (if that). Nor, which is surprising given that we are supposedly a ‘network of networks’, is there any coordination with, or awareness of, other local groups.
This lack of local organization and leadership is surely another reason why Reform has made so little impact. But we need to ask serious questions about why an organization that claims to be decentralized in principle has so manifestly failed to decentralize in practice.
A further problem is, not surprisingly, Reform’s lack of a coherent ecclesiology. The clearest instance of this is its collective failure to mandate its own membership to pass ‘Resolution C’, the petition for provision under the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993. In my view, this is simply incomprehensible, and the failure in this regard has been culpable.
Of course Reform comes from that Anglican evangelical stable that disregards both bishops and episcopacy and relies on the local congregation as the key unit of organization. But we belong to an episcopal church, and we only have to look around the global Anglican communion today to see the significance of bad and good bishops. In England, our appointments process means that the mass of the Church can have very little impact on the selection of bishops. To have passed up the opportunity to have a closer relationship with bishops of our own convictions was just mad.
But again, the passing up of the opportunity is itself symptomatic of an endemic problem in Reform, which is the conviction of many in leadership rôles (not just on the Council) that they can ‘go it alone’, that they do not need the wider Church or the other congregations. And this manifests itself in a not-very attractive adulation of outward success, whereby to be a ‘senior’ clergyman equates to being the leader of a big congregation.
In short, our ecclesiology is defective — not in the way that is often alleged, in terms of ministry and sacraments (although some of the latter is bad enough) — but in terms of existing and acting effectively within the institution to which we all belong.
Reform is not about to fall apart. It is too well-established for that, and in any case there isn’t any other game in town at the moment for Conservative Evangelical Anglicans. But it is time that a serious look was taken at its failure to achieve anything of note, despite the strengths of its membership and its commitment to such laudable goals.
Perhaps it is time for repentance, as well as for renewal.
John RichardsonAnonymous 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.
13 October 2010
13 October 2010