Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Evangelism cannot be enough for Evangelicals

Last month saw the departure of a man who, for many people, was Anglican evangelicalism. John Stott was already a venerated figure when I became a Christian at the age of 21. For me, therefore, as for many others, it is as if one of the great landmarks has disappeared.
Stott was particularly renowned, however, for making evangelicalism ‘respectable’ (or at least, a bit more respectable) in the Church of England, which he achieved via a combination of personal graciousness, intellectual calibre and an exemplary lifestyle.
It was Stott around whom the 1967 National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Keele revolved, and which committed Anglican Evangelicals to a future within the structures of the Church of England. And it was Stott again who at the 1977 NEAC gave unity and final expression to the deliberations of an increasingly diverse constituency.
Yet the place won for Evangelicals came at a price — and not only to the constituency but to the institution.
Politicians since before the days of Machiavelli have known the importance of promoting their enemies. The Elizabethan Puritan Lord Burghley reflected on the effect this had on some of his companions:
I see such worldliness in many that were otherwise affected before they came to cathedral chairs, that I fear the places alter the men. (Quoted in Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, [London: Jonathan Cape, 1967] 49)
Write large, that could be the verdict on Anglican Evangelicalism since the second world war. We have an ‘honoured’ place in the institution, but the price exacted from us is to identify ourselves as a ‘tradition’ — one amongst the many different traditions which make up the all-embracing comprehensiveness of the Church of England.
But, as I have indicated above, at least from our own perspective, this is a betrayal not only of ourselves but of everyone else. To accept this definition of ‘evangelicalism’ is to cease to be Evangelical.
Let us consider, for a moment, the meaning of the term. There have been endless books and articles written about the nature of evangelicalism. I believe it was Stott himself, however, who said that evangelicals are ‘gospel people’. And that is surely right. The word ‘evangelical’ derives from the Greek word for the ‘gospel’, which in the New Testament refers to the message from God about his Son Jesus Christ.
So an evangelical is a person with the message of God for the world. Please note — not ‘a’ message, but ‘the’ message. There is not an ‘evangelical’ message of God sitting alongside a whole selection of ‘non-evangelical’ messages, but one message, which is ‘the evangel’.
To be an evangelical, therefore, is to claim that you are in possession of God’s message to the world — not because you have cleverly worked it out before you proclaim it. You must have received the message first. But that is itself the biblical tradition: “For what I received,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians, “I passed on to you ...”
Evangelicals, then, may accept that there are different styles and emphases in the church throughout the world, different ways of presenting and of living out the gospel message, but they can never accept that there are different ‘gospels’.
This is also why Evangelicals are actually open to change. We want to make sure that we have got the message right. It is no good us saying, “This is our tradition and our version of things, and that’s what matters.” If we are wrong, we need to change. But that will not stop us being ‘evangelicals’ — it will simply (though significantly) mean that we got things wrong in the past, and now we have (hopefully!) got them right, or at least more right than previously. Evangelicalism ought, therefore, always to be self-critical.
But by the same token, this means we cannot accept as ‘traditions’ versions of supposedly Christian living or discipleship which are not ‘evangelical’. And this is not for our sakes but for the sake of the world.
In 1945, the Church of England produced a report titled Towards the Conversion of England (highlights from which are reproduced on this blog). One of the things the report recognized, however, was the need for the transformation of the Church:
... the really daunting feature of modern evangelism is not the masses of the population to be converted, but that most of the worshipping community are only half-converted. The aim of evangelism must be to appeal to all, within as well as without the Church, for that decision for Christ which shall make the state of salvation we call conversion the usual experience of the normal Christian. (Para 81)
The problem for post-war Anglican Evangelicalism is that the more it has accepted its place within the institution, the more it has forgotten the institution’s own assessment of itself delivered in the war years. Evangelism is demanded not just in our evangelical parishes to the unconverted masses, but from evangelicals towards the unconverted Church. Our message ought to be that of our Lord to the church at Ephesus: “You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” (Rev 2:4-5).
The reason for this, though, is not our own superiority, nor even the failings of those sections of the Church, but rather the needs of the lost world covered by parishes which have forgotten the ‘evangel’:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Rom 10:14)
Unfortunately, the Evangelical Anglican response has either been to quarantine its message within the institution, by accepting it as a ‘tradition’, or to isolate its message from the institution, by marginalization and non-involvement, focussing on its own small ‘corner of the Lord’s vineyard’. Either way, the world loses.
The true Evangelical, however, must always be working not just for the proclamation of the gospel but the transformation of the Church.
John Richardson
3 August 2011
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13 comments:

  1. Yes.

    I always resist talk of the "evangelical tradition" - better, surely, to say that we are people of "evangelical conviction."

    Lot of difference!

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  2. Canon Andrew Godsall4 August 2011 at 09:12

    Interestingly John Stott moderated some of his views as time went on - notably on women in ministry and hell. Cranmer's Curate expresses himself bemused by that and it would be interesting to know whether that was part of the price that was paid.
    The other notable movement of evangelicalism in the last couple of decades or so has been the alliance that conservative evangelicals have made with conservative anglo catholics in an attempt to stop the ordination of women. It feels a slightly uncomfortable one....

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter

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  3. Canon Andrew - It is uncomfortable, especially in the US where the evangelicals are much smaller in number than the UK and most American Episcopalians, or ACNAs, or whatever grouping you like, are simply ignorant of evangelical distinctives, doctrines, practices, etc. Most, like me, are lonely and move to reformed churches and denominations.

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  4. "It feels a slightly uncomfortable one...."

    Liberals certainly fear any rapprochement or alliance between evangelicals and anglo-catholics. They have made many of their gains in the church over the last 20-30 years by playing off one against the other.

    Mind you, the problem with this sort of analysis is terminology - "anglo-catholic" has as many shades of meaning as "evangelical", "calvinist" or "charismatic". As an evangelical in Sydney, I find the theology of some anglo-catholics quite alien to mine. Yet there are other anglo-catholics who seem more truly evangelical than those who bear the name.

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  5. Canon Andrew Godsall5 August 2011 at 09:20

    MichaelA - the alliance between conservative evangelicals and conservative anglo catholics is the one I was referring to - and it is an alliance forged for one reason only, which is to keep women out of any positions of leadership within the church. There is nothing to be feared in it because there is nothing of any depth to it.
    The C of E is fortunate in always having had a good mix of liberals, evangelicals and anglo catholics of all shades. Any attempts at upsetting that balance seem, historically, to be self correcting.

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter

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  6. I'm encouraged by your final words, Canon Andrew - because if you're right it means that the last 17 years of heavy discrimination in preferments (as John has noted more than once here recently) will also turn out to be self correcting.

    However, I rather fear you'll be proved wrong, and that next year will see a true disaster for 'balance' in the CoE.

    Dan Baynes
    Barton Seagrave

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  7. Andrew, I note your assertions and predictions.

    It will be interesting to see what actually happens!

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  8. Canon Andrew Godsall8 August 2011 at 10:41

    Michael, Dan
    17 years is not a very long time in terms of C of E history.
    The discrimination is towards the appointment of open evangelicals isn't it? I guess that's simply because there are more of them around.
    The conservative evangelcials don't help themselves when they set up a society like AMiE. There is no future in it because it is just very un English. Conservative Anglo Catholics are also very confused about what they really want in the future.

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter

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  9. Andrew, you seem to be suggesting that the last 17 years' blatant sectarianism (which you finally admit, however you try to spin it down) doesn't matter because it's set to be reversed before long.

    Can you point to any indication that this is about to happen?

    Dan

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  10. Canon Andrew Godsall8 August 2011 at 17:06

    Dan

    I don't think I'm admitting any 'blatant sectarianism'. I am just saying that I agree that there have been more 'open evangelicals' appointed recently, but that's where there are most candidates. And I don't think any change is 'about to happen' - I simply think that in the longer term (i.e a few decades) the whole thing balances out.
    From my point of view I hope there will be a few radical liberals appointed as that group is not well represented - but I don't see that happening very soon either.
    My other observation is that bishops tend to move towards the 'centre' once they are appointed anyway.

    Andrew Godsall

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  11. Andrew - unfortunately your last two posts suggest that you haven't really grasped what discrimination means. If a party represents say 60% of the whole, they may feel entitled to 60% of preferments over time, give or take a few %. But not to 95%!

    How many episcopal appointments have there been since 1994? Say a hundred? And as John noted, just one was a conservative evangelical, and that a suffragan, and that was 14 years ago and he'll retire soon. Andrew, there's no way that CEs are only 1% of CoE attendance, let alone 1% of overall financial contributions that keep the whole denomination going.

    However you're quite right in suggesting that CEs don't seem perfectly clear on where to go. That, partly, is a function of the uncertainty regarding what will happen next year; I recently heard from one clergyman that a number of younger men are deferring deciding whether to apply for ordination until they see the lie of the land at that time.

    But that's not all. Impolitic though it may be to say this so soon after John Stott's passing, I really think that the critical events of 2012 will force many Anglican CEs to rethink an issue they may have thought closed in 1966 and at Keele I, and wonder whether on balance DML-J has been proved right after all....

    Dan

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  12. Canon Andrew Godsall11 August 2011 at 10:19

    Conservative Evangelicals are a pretty tiny number Dan. They just have a disproportionately noisy voice.
    Whether Women Bishops goes through next year is not really an issue. It will go through. Provision is being made for those who will find it difficult and the only real debate is about what that provision will look like. And I am well aware of some conservative evangelical clergy who are changing their mind on the issue. Most of the CE laity I know don't really think it is a big issue - they are simply doing what they are told by their ordained leaders aren't they?

    Andrew Godsall, Exeter

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