An Address to the Anglican Evangelical Junior Clergy Conference, Audley End, 11th-13th July 2011
Anglican Evangelism and Evangelical Anglicanism, 1945-2011 — the challenge we face
Anglican Evangelism and Evangelical Anglicanism, 1945-2011 — the challenge we face
In some respects, the Church of England actually emerged from the Second World War in better shape than the nation itself. Nationally, there was a positive and proper sense of victory. For all the moral compromises the war had entailed, German Nazism, Japanese imperialism and Italian Fascism were nevertheless things the world was better off without.
In 1943, however, the Church Assembly had called for a commission “to survey the whole problem of modern evangelism, with special reference to the spiritual needs and prevailing intellectual outlook of the non-worshipping member of the community” and to report back with plans for “‘definite action’ to meet the spiritual needs of present-day men and women.”
That commission was duly appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and its report, Towards the Conversion of England, was published in 1945.
Although it is possible to criticize the report in some of the details, its explicit desire for ‘conversion’ would be applauded by Evangelicals, as would, in essence, its working definition of evangelism itself:
To evangelize is so to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Saviour, and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His Church. (Para 1, though see Packer 1976 for a critique)
Amongst other things, the report also contained radical proposals about lay equipping and ministry deemed necessary to the ambitious campaign of outreach it envisaged.
Thus it appeared the Church was ready for the challenge of the post-war world. So what happened?
In October 1944, William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had inspired the commission and the report, died at Westgate-on-Sea. His replacement, Geoffrey Fisher, was a man of a very different temper, and what the Church of England actually did over the next two decades was to revise the Canons of 1604.
Although this revision was long overdue (note the date!), and indeed had commenced before the war, a reviewer of a recent biography of Fisher is surely right in describing it as “a glaring example of mistaken priorities” (Donald Gray, review of Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury 1945-1961, by David Hein, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History,  59:801).
And for good measure, when the revision of the Canons was completed, the next item on the Church’s agenda was liturgical revision, which took up the seventies and eighties. Only in 1988 was there a belated attempt at something similar with the declaration at the Lambeth Conference of the ‘Decade of Evangelism’. Even then, however, the Church was already immersing itself in the issues of women’s ordination and, now, consecration.
I begin here, however, in order to point out that, with good leadership, it is possible even for the Church of England to get its priorities right. But the sad truth is that we have generally had bad leadership. And that is why we are here — to consider the future leadership of the Church.
Had things gone differently, of course, then evangelical Anglicans might have found themselves playing a lead rôle in the life of the Church. As it was, they found themselves as a minority within an organization whose outward style was predominantly Anglo-Catholic and whose underlying theology was increasingly liberal.
Evangelicals were tolerated, but not taken very seriously. Nevertheless, evangelical ministry continued with vigour.
In the parishes, the Church Pastoral Aid Society provided a ‘cradle to college’ structure of youth activities — CYFA — which were definitive of evangelical pastoral ministry. CPAS also published a widely-used ‘family service’, which for many Evangelicals was the backbone of their Sunday morning gatherings.
In the universities, the Inter-Varsity Fellowship ensured that Christian Unions were effective instruments of reaching the ‘brightest and best’ with the gospel. Evangelical groups and churches were especially strong in Oxford and Cambridge.
Christian belief was also part of the public discourse. On the radio and in print, C S Lewis in particular, but others as well, ensured the continuation of a lively dialogue about faith. And in 1954 the first visit of the American evangelist Billy Graham, whilst highly controversial because of the nature of his message, brought thousands into the churches and scores, if not hundreds, into full-time ministry.
Up to the 1960s, baptisms, confirmations and vocations all remained at high levels — indeed they had somewhat increased in the post-war years. ‘Belief in God’ was naturally assumed to mean ‘belief in Christianity’, religious instruction in schools was instruction in the Christian religion, and thus most people had at least some familiarity with biblical events and Christian doctrine, through this as well as through occasional attendance at Church and via the general ‘osmosis’ of popular ideas, language and images.
Nevertheless, Anglican Evangelicals were uncertain about their place and rôle in the Church of England, particularly in the face of the advance of Liberalism.
In 1963, the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, published a small paperback, Honest to God, which exploded like a bombshell in both church and nation. Essentially, it was a popular summary of the kind of theology being advanced by the German giants Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer — men whose work dominated the theological scene well into the seventies, and was standard fare in universities and many theological colleges. What it suggested from a layman’s perspective, however, was that many in the hierarchy of the Church of England did not believe what they seemed to be telling ordinary people they ought to believe.
Honest to God thus triggered something of a national crisis of faith. At the same time, ideas like ‘situational ethics’ were challenging intellectual notions of traditional morality, with the suggestion that the only ethic was one of ‘love’, to be applied according to the particular context. And it must not be forgotten that this was an era of general social upheaval, as the austerity of the post-war years gave way to the ‘rock and roll’ fifties and then the ‘swinging’ sixties.
At the same time, and partly in reaction to Catholic and Liberal influences, Anglican Evangelicalism was somewhat austere and institutionalized. For most services, Evangelical clergy wore cassock, surplice, scarf and hood. Other than the CPAS material, services were entirely from the Book of Common Prayer and almost entirely led by the minister. The Bible was the Authorized Version, the hymnbook Ancient and Modern, and lay participation minimal.
Moreover, many Anglican Evangelicals felt themselves estranged from their parent Church. And indeed there were voices suggesting they should leave the denomination, or at least be less committed to it than to a wider evangelical fraternity.
In the face of all this, therefore, a National Evangelical Anglican Congress was convened at Keele University in 1967, to consider the future for Anglican Evangelicals.
This was a watershed, and determined the shape of the movement over the next three decades. The conference was not without its own internal difficulties. Nevertheless, the outcome was a clear and determined commitment to remain within the Church of England and to work positively with its structures. And in fact, in the next ten years, Anglican Evangelicalism flourished as the hard work of the previous two decades bore fruit.
Evangelical churches and para-church organizations continued to grow. Evangelical ordinands (all men at this stage and mostly in their twenties) represented an increasing proportion of the whole, and their colleges, especially St John’s Nottingham, were at the forefront of innovation in new styles of outreach and spiritual expression. Evangelical methods, such as the housegroup (which was still something of a novelty), gained in acceptability, and the future looked increasingly bright for Evangelicalism.
Meanwhile, the Charismatic Movement was developing from being virtually a ‘secret society’ in the sixties to mainstream in the mid-seventies, not least because of the ministry of David Watson at St Michael le Belfrey, York. Despite the theological divisions this had involved (the founder of the Fountain Trust, Michael Harper, who was then curate at All Soul’s Langham Place, left because of John Stott’s discomfort with his Charismatic leanings) it brought a much-needed freshness in music, liturgy and other expressions of church life.
The second NEAC, at Nottingham University in 1977, gave voice to all these influences and more. Evangelicalism, it seemed, had come of age — indeed, it was now a radical, cutting-edge, force to be reckoned with. NEAC 2 was attended by some 2,000 delegates. In preparation, no fewer than three books were published, each containing several essays on topics including not only the expected staples of evangelism and theology but economics, politics, international development and so on. At the end a joint statement was published which represented a new benchmark of evangelical orthodoxy, signalling an interest not just in traditional ‘spiritual’ matters, but the whole of life.
John Stott himself was at the forefront of encouraging a new understanding of Evangelicalism, where traditional evangelism and social engagement went hand-in-hand. But if controversy arose, he was always there to give a magisterial ‘ruling’ or admonition and to prevent disagreements leading into fragmentation.
So what went wrong? I must caution that what follows is a very personal reflection. Nevertheless, I would identify the following influences.
First, the Charismatic Movement created amongst evangelicals a secondary identity based on shared experience rather than theology. In the 1960s and 70s, “Do you think you are baptized in the Spirit?” was a live question in evangelical circles. And depending on which way you answered determined, to a large extent, where and with whom you felt most comfortable.
Thus in 1979, the first Spring Harvest took place, embracing theologically Charismatic styles and speakers, and the following year saw the beginnings of the New Wine network. Evangelicals who were also Charismatics now had somewhere to go for distinctive fellowship with their ‘own kind’.
Meanwhile, those Evangelicals who had most enthusiastically embraced ‘social action’ became increasingly caught up with that agenda and rather less committed to the theological style and message of traditional Evangelicalism.
In effect (though I think this suggestion would still be resisted by those who took this route) these Evangelicals became rather less committed to what an earlier generation would have recognized as evangelism. Certainly the definition given in Towards the Conversion of England would have been regarded by them as somewhat lacking.
But thirdly, Evangelicals generally were not well-equipped theologically. Indeed, in the more traditionalist circles, theology was regarded as being almost incompatible with, and certainly hardly necessary to, evangelical spirituality and ministry. One manifestation of this, for example, was that Evangelical ordinands from the big churches were encouraged to go to the Oxbridge theological colleges, not to study theology, but to engage in student ministry.
Many of the key Evangelical leaders at this stage had come through the system of Iwerne camps, started by E J Nash and ‘Bash’ was notoriously opposed to theological training and methodology. As a result, however, traditional evangelical preaching and teaching tended to be somewhat simplistic and was unable to address in depth the questions being posed about spirituality and society, both from within and without the movement.
By the mid 1980s, therefore, Anglican Evangelicalism was no longer enamoured with the traditions of just two decades earlier. When the third NEAC took place, at Caister in 1988, there was a new mood in the gathering and a new style on the platform. Even the name had been changed, from ‘Congress’ to ‘Celebration’.
This is what Colin Day, then executive officer of the Church of England Evangelical Council, wrote at the time:
... NEAC 3 ... is not a simple progression [from NEACs 1 and 2]. ‘Celebration’ reminds us that there is a new spirit of worship and confidence in the Christian world today.
Worship, always something which Anglicans have felt strongly about, is to assume a much more prominent place [...]. There will be worship in the evening Celebration and in a variety of optional morning groups. Fellowship in small groups will centre on Bible study resourced by Rev Dr John Stott ... in the morning [...].
There will be no Congress Statement. It isn’t that sort of event. The statement that will be made will be one written in the hearts and minds of those who attend, and who will return to church and community to be read by those among whom they live. It will be a bold attempt to extricate the gospel from cerebral captivity, without falling into the trap of anti-intellectualism, or worse that brand of spiritual sensuality which is increasingly common today. (‘NEAC 3: the celebration’, Third Way, June 1987, 6)
Even the list of key speakers is revealing with hindsight: Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward, Preb John Gladwin, later the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Christina Baxter, later principal of St John’s Nottingham, and Rev Dr Vinay Samuel, who at that time was chiefly known for his involvement in development work in the Third World.
Notice, though, the declared contrast between the past “cerebral captivity” of the gospel and the new “spirit of worship and confidence”. Evangelicalism had not merely ‘come of age’ but was moving on.
Many in the Evangelical Anglican constituency were therefore increasingly uncomfortable with the direction being taken by the movement, and in the mid-1980s, under the leadership of Dick Lucas, the Evangelical Ministry Assembly and the Proclamation Trust struck out in a different direction.
The Proclamation Trust aimed unashamedly, and in its own mind principally, at a recovery of preaching. Nevertheless, this inevitably entailed a recovery of theology, and so the speakers invited to address the EMA were often men of theological acumen as well as skilled communicators.
Notably, however, most of them came from abroad — it seemed that in the UK they were in short supply. Many were from America but some, and in the end the most influential, were from the Diocese of Sydney in Australia.
Two key English Evangelicals made some revealing comments about the impact of just one of these visitors, John Chapman, who then headed the Department of Evangelism in the Diocese of Sydney. First, Jonathan Fletcher speaking about ‘Chappo’s’ early influence:
We didn’t need to be encouraged in evangelism —we’ve always been flat out at that. We needed to be rescued for reformed theology.
And Dick Lucas similarly said,
When he first came to us he did a series on God and his sovereignty, and so on. I remember then being amazed at the theological nous of this man. After all, he’d come across to do evangelism and we weren’t used to travelling evangelists quite like this! (Chappo: For the Sake of the Gospel, p202)
Although these Australians sometimes gave the impression that Evangelicalism was just as much embattled in Sydney as elsewhere, nothing could have been further from the truth. Rather, in Sydney, Anglican structures and evangelical theology had reached a happy synthesis in a way far beyond the experience, or even the grasp, of most Englishmen.
The result of this synthesis, however, was to have increasingly influence on the English Evangelical Anglican scene, not least when David Peterson, previously on the staff at Moore College in Sydney, became principal of Oak Hill Theological College in 1996.
By that stage, Oak Hill was the most conservative of the theological colleges, but was in a seriously weakened position. Indeed in 1993 it had been threatened with closure by a Church commission which was seeking to reduce the number of theological colleges.
On the one hand, therefore, Peterson had to fight for Oak Hill’s survival. At the same time, however, and symptomatic of the attitude amongst conservative Evangelicals, he had to fight to get the big churches to send their ordinands to him for theological training, rather than to Oxford or Cambridge to do student work.
Since the mid-1980s, then, traditionalist Anglican Evangelicalism began its own revival. At the same time, however, other Evangelicals were moving in a direction consciously away from the traditionalist camp. The result was an increasing sense of division, which came to a head over the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1993. In response to this, one group of Evangelicals set up ‘Reform’, whose avowed aim was the conversion of England, but whose raison d’être was to bring together those who disagreed with the introduction of women priests.
Around this time, however, the term ‘Open Evangelical’ began to be used by those who wanted to distinguish themselves from the older, traditionalist, approach. In the current words of the website of Ridley Hall college, Cambridge, ‘open’ in this sense means being attentive to “the questions and the insights of” the world, recognizing “God’s work in other Christian traditions” and other countries, playing a “full part” within the Church of England and listening for God to say “new things through the Bible and His Spirit”.
In the place of the ‘Evangelicalism’ of the 1950s, therefore, we now had varieties and nuances of Evangelicalism.
In the years following 1993, however, the leadership of various Evangelical bodies — notably the Church of England Evangelical Council — began to fall into the hands of those now labelled as ‘Conservative’ Evangelicals. Partly this was the result of the latter being deliberately organized. Partly it was the result of other Evangelicals abandoning the old bodies and structures.
As a result, the fourth National Evangelical Anglican Congress, at Blackpool in 2003, was dominated by Conservatives at the planning stage. This, however, led to yet more acrimonious arguments and splits, culminating in the founding behind the scenes and launch at the Congress itself of ‘Fulcrum’, a body avowedly for Open Evangelicals and consciously opposed to the Conservatives. Since then, moreover, events at home and abroad have led to a multiplication of other groupings such as Anglican Mainstream, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans and, most recently, the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE).
Meanwhile, the Church of England itself continued the steady decline which had set in at the end of the 1960s. Outwardly, it was less overtly hostile to Evangelicals, and indeed numbers of them found preferment as Archdeacons, Cathedral Deans and even Bishops. However, the ethos of the institution remained a soft Liberal-Catholicism — middle-of-the-road in theology and fond of ecclesiastical drapery.
Moreover, the Evangelicals appointed to senior office tended to be those from the ‘Open’ end of the spectrum. Conservative Evangelicals, which now meant those opposed to the ordination of women, were much less appreciated, and it is notable that the last such Conservative Evangelical episcopal appointment was in 1997.
What, then, is the present situation and possible future for Evangelical Anglicanism generally?
Firstly, whereas in the 1950s Evangelicals were a readily-identified group, there is no longer any such thing as ‘mere evangelical’. Today, if you call yourself an Evangelical, people in the know will immediately ask, “What sort of Evangelical are you?”
Thus, secondly, Evangelical organizations in the Church of England face serious problems in trying to hold together diverse, and even mutually hostile, versions of Evangelicalism.
Thirdly, the more consciously conservative Evangelicals are increasingly uncertain of their place in the Church of England. This is not only because of their anxieties over women bishops but also because of their own growing emphasis on church planting, which is often resisted by the institution or by the parish in which a church plant takes place.
Fourthly, the younger generation of Evangelicals generally have a very tentative understanding of the Church of England. The more ‘open’ Evangelicals seem to have little experience of or feel for past tradition. The more ‘conservative’ seem to have little commitment to the institution. Both, one suspects, are hardly aware that the Church of England has such a thing as its own doctrine — not helped, I would suggest, by the cavalier attitude of the hierarchy and the casual indifference to these things on the part of many local clergy.
Fifthly, the Anglican Evangelical leaders of the fifties and sixties are dying out, and the next generation down — my own — has not thrown up any significant replacements. There is no one like John Stott to whom Evangelicals can look to hold them together and no one who seems able to tell them what to do. There is no sense of direction or coherence in terms of strategy.
Sixthly, society itself is increasingly hostile to Christian belief — certainly in its more conservative forms. And above all, the issue of homosexuality threatens not only to divide the Church even more but to exclude traditionalist Christians from full participation in society at many significant levels.
And yet — the Church of England is still viable. It still has thousands of minister and hundreds of thousands of members. Its parishes cover the entire nation and in some areas, particularly in the countryside, it is the only remaining visible Christian present.
It is worth fighting for! More than that, it could still be an instrument for ‘the conversion of England’. Our problem is not — at least not primarily — our structures. In many parts of the world, such as Australia or Sub-Saharan Africa, the same structures are enabling Church growth and driving forward evangelism.
Our problem is, as much as anything, a problem of leadership — local and national. And the need to address this is not so that Evangelicalism may thrive but so that people — locally and nationally — will hear the gospel.
In 1945 the Church of England acknowledged this challenge:
In England the Church has to present the Christian Gospel to multitudes in every section of society who believe in nothing; who have lost a whole dimension (the spiritual dimension) of life; and for whom life has no ultimate meaning. [...] But the Church is ill-equipped for its unparalleled task and opportunity. The laity complain of a lack of creative leadership among all ranks of the clergy. The spiritual resources of the worshipping community are at a low ebb. Above all, the Church has become confused and uncertain in the proclamation of its message, and its life has ceased to reflect clearly the truth of the Gospel. It is for the Church, in this day of God, by a rededication of itself to its Lord, to receive from Him that baptism of Holy Ghost and of fire which will empower it to sound the call and give the awaited lead. (Para 33)
The fact that this could have been written yesterday represents the tragedy of the last 66 years, when the Church of England has focussed its energies on almost anything except this task. But whilst we can rightly recognized the failure of the Church, we must also acknowledge the failure of Evangelicals, of all people, to hold the Church to its true calling.
It is not enough to say that Evangelicalism has improved its position in the institution — least of all when Evangelicals are so divided amongst themselves. The truth is that well-placed Evangelicals have not deliberately and strategically used their influence to equip the Church as a whole for the particular task of evangelism which might lead to ‘the conversion of England’.
Nor is it enough to hope that Evangelicals will somehow and vaguely influence the Church towards somehow and unconsciously converting the nation, without confronting the uncertainties about its message and the inadequacies in its manner of life recognized as already existing in the 1940s.
Evangelicals ought to be at the forefront of evangelism. It is only a ministry which seeks conversions that deserves the label ‘evangelical’. But they ought also to be aiming at nothing less than making the Church of England itself ‘evangelical’. If we are content to thrive in our small corner whilst the national Church remains indifferent to the task of evangelism, we truly care neither for our own beliefs nor for the people of our nation as a whole. In the words of Christ to the Church at Sardis, it is time to “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die” (Rev 3:2).
And yet we must ask, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor 2:16). The Keele generation was absorbed by the institution. The Nottingham generation was defeated by the dilution of its own theology. The Caister generation is probably still in a worship session somewhere. And the Blackpool generation was split by factions. It would be surprising if the next generation faired any better. But the Lord’s promise is to the one who has an ear and to the one who overcomes.
Let us then endeavour, now and in the coming months, to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
11 July 2011
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