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 RichardsonPlease give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.
3 August 2011
3 August 2011