Sunday, 15 January 2012

This week at the CEEC

I spent much of Thursday this week on a meeting of the Church of England Evangelical Council.
The train journey down (as my Facebook friends will know) was a delight, travelling in the new Stansted Express rolling stock and getting free WiFi in second class — plus an entire section to myself. It was far better than working from home. They even brought coffee round!
However, the CEEC, which meets at the All Souls Clubhouse, frankly struggles to meet its aims.
As I have said in my book, this is partly because we are expected to express the views of an evangelical community which cannot get on with — or in many cases even bother to meet up — with one another on the ground.
Twice in the past few months I have heard of diocesan evangelical groups which have voluntarily shut down, first in Manchester then in Rochester, and one has to ask how the late, lamented John Stott would have viewed this situation.
Stott did probably more than anyone, in his own lifetime, to hold evangelical Anglicans together and unfortunately, this has long been a necessity. Twice in the last century or so, evangelical Anglicanism has gone through a kind of ‘super-nova’ outburst, whereby internal divisions have been followed by the departure of an ‘outer shell’ into theological liberalism, leaving behind a diminished, though more conservative, core.
This happened once following the ritualist controversy of the nineteenth century and the second time in the era around and shortly after the Second World War. The book to read on the former is James Whisenant, A Fragile Unity: Anti-ritualism and the Division of Anglican Evangelicalism in the Nineteenth Century (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2003). The book on the latter is probably Oliver Barclay, Evangelicalism in Britain 1935-1995: A Personal Sketch (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1997).
As was reported at the meeting, vacancies on the CEEC are being filled by default, without any contested elections (indeed I myself was re-elected in just this way). In recent years, the CEEC has been accused of being unrepresentative — a ‘rump parliament’ of conservatives — but the sad truth is that people do not step up at the local level to revitalize evangelical fellowships. Indeed a young evangelical of my acquaintance who tried to interest others in one of the now-defunct fellowships was told it wasn’t really worth it.
In recent weeks we have heard a lot about the ‘John Stott legacy’, which by common agreement is that he left evangelicalism generally, and evangelical Anglicanism specifically, much stronger. And regarding the intellectual calibre of some of the movement I am sure that is right. But ‘politically’ I am not convinced. In fact, I believe we are about two-thirds of the way through a third evangelical ‘super-nova’.
The trick is, though, how to avoid history simply repeating itself. This is one of the motivations behind my book: A Strategy that Changes the Denomination. I firmly believe that evangelicals have partly sown the seeds of their own division by consistently failing to have such a strategy and a proper vision for the church. This is a problem today for both ‘conservative’ and ‘open’ evangelicals.
Contrary to what someone told me at the CEEC, I do not believe I have all the answers. But I do believe that better answers are available than the approaches we have used so far. It is not sufficient for evangelicals to accept being either a ghetto (bounded by signs saying “Bishops Keep Out”) or an enclave (where we do our ‘evangelizing’ thing and let the rest of the Church of England get on with their respected tradition of not evangelizing).
I also firmly believe that God’s instrument of evangelism is the church, international, national and local — mission agencies are (as someone once called the cults) the ‘unpaid bills’ of the church. They are the evidence that God’s instrument of witness to the world, the Body of Christ made visible where the pure word is preached and the sacraments duly administered, is currently not up to the job.
And there is a job to do! I just doubt that we are yet getting down to it.
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  1. Thank you so much for your blog, John. This is my first post but I regularly read with interest.

    Speaking as a younger evangelical clergyman, who identifies in some way with all three 'streams' of evangelicalism, CEEC comes across as irrelevant at best and indeed almost embarassing at worst, given the debacle of the Turnbull chairmanship.

    If its true that signs outside a church give a good indication of what's going on inside, then CEEC's website, with its parade of elderly gentlemen, is a total PR disaster, showing it to be self-absorbed with little interest in representing a diverse consituency. This isn't a theological issue as such - rather it's basic cultural literacy in the 21st century UK, at least among the under 50's.

    More positively, however, I don't see the fading of CEEC as a 'supernova' - more an acceptance that in relation to the macro political scene as it affects the Church of England that on the key issue of women's bishops the evangelical constituency is divided. The danger as I see it is if the different sides enter a 'we're sounder than you' game, and fail to move on when the dust settles. There are plenty of evangelicals on both sides of the women's ministry argument who are pretty theologically conservative.

    The energy for evangelism and mission, to me, seems to come from more grass-roots movements such as New Wine, Alpha, Spring Harvest etc (and maybe the fantastic Explore bible reading notes!), which tend to cross divides rather more. That's why there's much more interest in them than CEEC.

    One further point - I don't see mission agencies by any means a failure. To me the NT clearly shows both local churches and mobile missionaries and evangelists working in relationship. The history of missions backs this up, showing that when a church loses its itinerant mission groups (whether that's mission agenciess, Whitefield & Wesley, or the Jesuits) then mission expansion stalls. Yes local churches have a job to do, but it's not either/or - both aspects are vital.

    Best wishes,
    Peter Kay, Letchworth GC

  2. I think Peter hits the nail on the head here. The crucial comment is: 'showing it to be self-absorbed with little interest in representing a diverse constituency'.

    The meeting on Thursday was a disaster, but for completely different reasons than the ones you mention. Despite Glyn's plea for precisely this interest in the constituency, instead we had a series of defences of the 'conservative' position as the only way ahead, and from two different quarters (one I expected and one I did not) the idea that we don't need to make the case for our position to the Church or to the world, but we simply declare that this is God's word, his revelation, and anyone who disagrees with it (or more particularly our reading of it) is a sinner.

    We are no further on than two years ago, and in the meantime evangelicals in the Church, let alone the Church, let alone the wider world, has simply stopped listening.

  3. The solution? Congregationalism.

  4. Peter and Ian, thanks for your contributions. I don't always have time (or energy!) to respond to every comment, but as I was hoping to stimulate some discussion on this subject I will try to pick up a couple of things.

    Peter, the "parade of elderly gentlemen" simply represents those who have been key leaders in the evangelical constituency and, indeed, the founding of CEEC (back when some of them were young clergy like yourself!). If you follow this link you'll see the webmaster tried to do something about it back in 2010, but I think he's still waiting for replies.

    Which brings me to where I think the problem lies. Ian, you said the meeting was a "disaster" - I think more a disappointment, but it can only be as good as the constituency, and that is where the problem lies.

    As Peter says, there are 'initiatives' out there - New Wine, Alpha, Spring Harvest, to which we might add the London Men's and Women's Convention (the Explore bible notes come from that stable), the Co-mission initiative, etc.

    The problem is, they are not talking to one another - that, and the fact that they are not transforming the Church of England. Instead, they represent ghettos or enclaves of evangelical 'tribes'. It is hardly surprising that the poor old CEEC can do little more than reflect this reality.

    The question is, 'what is anyone going to do about it?'. As I observed in my article, people have complained about the CEEC being unrepresentative. So where are the election candidates for vacant posts? And what is happening at the local level? Why are broad evangelical bodies - the DEFs and DEUs - unsupported and dying out?

    I am going to the Nottingham DEF later this year, but I have been warned about the likely low attendance, and I know that this already caused some problems last year with a visitor who was very disappointed that his efforts were not met with a decent turnout.

    The trouble there is evangelicals at the diocesan level treat these meetings like we wish people wouldn't treat church - turning out when it suits them for the subjects they fancy, and not out of a duty to "stir one another up to love and good works".

    I am suggesting in my book that a different agenda would help - one that looked to denominational transformation in the spirit of the 1945 report "Towards the Conversion of England". (Follow the links down on the left side if you want to get a flavour of the report.)

    But it is a lonely battle. The evangelicals in ghettos want to keep aloof. The evangelicals in enclaves don't want to disturb their neighbours. Either way, most of the Church of England, and therefore most of the unevangelized nation, looses out.

  5. Rt Rev Dominic Stockford16 January 2012 at 14:40

    In my humble view, when I read the comments about the young clergyman ("a young evangelical of my acquaintance who tried to interest others in one of the now-defunct fellowships was told it wasn’t really worth it") my instant thought was that he should be told to, or rather, encouraged to get on with it anyway.

    Too often I think that some evangelicals operate on a 'people turn up it must be good, people don't then let's not bother' principle - which is quite unbiblical. If he sees a need for it, and believes it is worth doing, then he should do it, and pray for its success. Then if anyone does join with him support and encouragement of true Gospel work in the CofE is furthered.

  6. John,

    As one who ought to know more about the CEEC, I went to the website, especially to see who was involved. It might be an obvious suggestion, but there are rather a lot of people on the Council, many of them representing other bodies (pressure groups? minority interests?). I would suggest that getting all this lot to do something together might be the theological equivalent of herding cats.

    I also had a look at a 2010 report about Bishops, based on an opinion-gathering exercise of some sort. All very sensible conclusions, but when I looked at the numbers of opinions gathered it looked as if only the Council had voted. 5 responses only from the entire diocese of Chelmsford - even the DEF can turn out more members than that at a meeting.

    As for the 'parade of elderly gentlemen', I noticed the mugshot of the Bishop-elect of Winchester on the site, but no other references. Perhaps he has come and gone - a pity not to have a serving diocesan involved.

    We are, truly, split into tiny pieces. There was a time, when, every few years, we could all bury our differences and unite behind Billy Graham. Not any more. The church seem to have given up trying to change people with the Gospel in favour of sitting on committees.

  7. Could it be that DEFs should be set aside in favour of a broader FCA gathering? It's something we've been trying to encourage in our area?

    Ed, Lincolnshire

    1. The trouble, Ed, as others will be quick to observe, is that the FCA (Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans) is not the 'broad gathering' but yet another line of division.

      Bishop Nick Baines described FCA as "a self-indulgent distraction from the real stuff of Christian mission in a fractured world that cries out for reconciliation" adding, "FCA is not needed, is a distraction and offers the world yet another example of Christian fracturing".

      Similarly, Fulcrum forum discussion of FCA at its launch and the second big meeting in London was a mixture of open evangelical criticism and conservative support.

      Sadly, therefore, your suggestion isn't going to fly if it is intended to bring together the factions present at CEEC.

  8. This is really interesting stuff, Revd John... Not, from a Christian point of view, but from my own academic corner of the social scientific study of religion. In my PhD thesis I note that many so called ‘faith based’ social welfare organisations are little more than heavily state subsidised voluntary organisations, where religion has little if any tangible expression – except in the Christian media, the hearts and minds of their supporters and (to a lesser degree) the public imagination and that of trustees and senior management, who have a rather idealistic picture of the hands on nature of the work of many of these organisations. The question I set myself to answer was whether these organisations can really be seen as ‘faith in action’. I conclude that many (tho’ not all!) large faith based organisations are little more than voluntary organisations with ‘God’ thrown in as social and symbolic capital.

    However, I add an alternative conclusion; that is that religion often reflects the systems and structures of its host society. e.g. we live in a society with a strong reliance on a democratic system of government and hence it is no surprise that the Cof E likewise has adopted a parliamentary style government – despite being ‘One Catholic and Apostolic Church’... Therefore if we live in a society with heavily bureaucratic, institutionalised and differentiated systems of service provision, it should come as no surprise that religiously inspired philanthropy, similarly becomes enshrined within large, bureaucratic and institutional structures. Likewise, I think what you describe here could be seen as evidence of the continued privatisation of Western life and the ongoing eschewing of personal involvement and responsibility in various aspects of life. More and more, in societies such as our own, individuals frequently see themselves as ‘customers’ of services and institutions, with less and less participation and personal responsibility and accountability in the institutions and organisations that govern our lives. When there are problems then we look to the government to fix them. A salient example being the financial crash of 2008 – again and again, this is presented as either a failure of government or of big business; little or no mention is made of the nation’s love affair with debt, cheap credit and living beyond its means.

    The above paragraphs may not appear to have much to do with the CEEC, but I would suggest, whereas ‘the next generation’ should be now taking up the baton and involving itself in the organisation and leadership of many voluntary organisations, the net effect of an overt ‘consumer’ society (and here I don’t just mean in terms of consumerism, but the manner in which many view their relationship with institutions and organisations) is that fewer and fewer people are interested in volunteerism. I must stress, I don’t think this is an endemic state of affairs, because volunteerism still exists and will continue to exist – however the present desire of many to let others do the work (but more importantly this eschewing of personal responsibility and accountability) is having an impact upon the structures of our society.

    As an aside, I think this is one of the major reasons why issues around sexuality have come to a head in Christian thinking at present. For many, parroting a ‘conservative’ stance (or the reverse) gives a semblance of belonging and presenting a common voice – a high yield, low investment issue. Whereas if one were to dig around a little – as the above post demonstrates – it is not hard to see that such solid bulwarks of conservatism are probably built on rather flimsy foundations.

    Peter Denshaw

  9. P.S.: ‘We are, truly, split into tiny pieces. There was a time, when, every few years, we could all bury our differences and unite behind Billy Graham. Not any more. The church seem to have given up trying to change people with the Gospel in favour of sitting on committees’ From RB’s comment – I think this echoes with the last paragraph of my comment. Yet it is not a Billy Graham convention that is proving the unifying force; but a reactionary and politicised conservatism, that is in effect saying the failures of the Church are rooted in the structures and systems of wider society (i.e. secular liberalism) – when the truth could be a little nearer home. Off the top of my head I can’t think of anywhere in the Gospels or wider New Testament, where secular (or more truthfully non-Christian) government is blamed for the failures of the nascent Church – yet today such a ‘blame culture’ seems endemic, as a cursory (or even a detailed) reading of many conservative Christian blogs, websites and other media suggests...

    Peter Denshaw

  10. I think you need to be careful with your analogies to supernova events John - depending on the mass, what can be left behind is a black hole...

    Chris Bishop