Friday 25 May 2007

Why “Open” means closed and “Conservative” means radical

Amongst my sources of internet information is the Fulcrum “Open Evangelical” website. Not only does it occasionally get hold of a good story early, but it is a valuable weathervane for Open Evangelical opinion.

Fulcrum was launched at the 2003 National Evangelical Anglican Congress, somewhat to the chagrin of the organisers who said that it “undermined their attempts to build evangelical unity”. Indeed, the launch was preceded by private consultations amongst some of those in the Evangelical constituency who felt concerned at the way the Congress was being managed, and the decision to go ahead was taken behind closed doors two and a half weeks before the Congress began.

The claim of Fulcrum has always been to represent the ‘middle ground’ of Evangelicalism — inclining neither too far towards the ‘left’ of Liberalism nor the ‘right’ of Conservatism. However, as events, and comments on the Fulcrum website, have shown, if this is ‘Open Evangelicalism’ it cannot entirely live up to its name.

The problem for Open Evangelicalism is that those who adopt this position agree primarily on just one thing, namely that they are not Conservative Evangelicals. And this inevitably means that the ‘Open’ label is misleading, both to others and, perhaps more significantly, to themselves.

Moreover, many Open Evangelicals have come from a Conservative Evangelical background, which exacerbates the problem even further.

The ‘Open’ in Open Evangelical is supposed to indicate openness to other Christian traditions than that of Evangelicalism. Thus Open Evangelicals may feel there are things to be learned from Anglo-Catholicism as regards the liturgy or the nature of the Church, from Charismatics as regards the work of the Holy Spirit or freedom in ‘worship’, and from Liberals as regards intellectual rigour or engagement with the world.

At heart is the realization that Evangelicals don’t know everything, and that therefore what others claim to know may be worth listening to, particularly at the point where they differ from Evangelicals.

The problem is, at the point where Open Evangelicals differ from Conservative Evangelicals, there is no willingness to listen or to change. In reality, where Open Evangelicals differ from Conservative Evangelicals, they think the latter are wrong and, understandably, they are not prepared to change.

Unfortunately, the ire of Open Evangelicals is thus reserved for, and directed almost entirely at, their Conservative ‘brethren’. Indeed, one only has to read the comments and articles posted on the Fulcrum website to realise that Open Evangelicals scarcely regard Conservatives as brethren at all. One is tempted to say that if there is a Hell in the Open Evangelical universe, then Conservative Evangelicalism is in its ante-chamber.

And thus Open Evangelicalism, for all its claims to the ‘middle ground’, is neither truly open nor in the middle. It is not open, because it is closed to Conservative Evangelicalism. And it is not in the middle because Conservative Evangelicalism is, in its distinctives, beyond the pale.

By contrast, and somewhat ironically in the circumstances, true radicalism in the Evangelical camp is represented by the Conservatives, for although their theology reflects that of the 16th century Reformers, both English and Continental, and (they would argue) the correct understanding of the gospel that they represented, as regards ecclesiology they are revolutionaries.

Hence it is typically amongst Conservative Evangelicals that you will find the most radical application of the notion of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ (both men and women), expressed in the principle of the ‘lay’ celebration of Holy Communion. Again, it is amongst Conservatives that you will find a widespread tendency to be liturgically flexible, dispensing with robes and re-casting services according to local need. Admittedly these provisions are not without their problems, but the basic stance certainly would reflect that of Martin Luther, regarding his emphasis on the freedom of the local congregation, and Thomas Cranmer regarding the comment in the Preface to the Prayer Book that nothing has been devised in the past which can’t sometimes be improved on in the present.

It is also Conservative Evangelicals who are at the forefront of planting churches, even at the expense of the institutional conflict, and who are prepared to act irregularly regarding matters like ordination.

Of course, these things cause problems. Moreover, it may be admitted that they are not always done out of a good heart. There are those amongst the Conservative Evangelicals who enjoy a fight rather too much. But the history of the Anglican Church shows that the way it changes is via radical principled action, not by common consent and abiding by the rules.

It is no coincidence that one of the definitive histories on Anglo-Catholicism is titled Glorious Battle. And reading it, one finds example after example of outright disobedience and rebellion against authority, both in the state and in the Church. How else do people imagine that several Anglo-Catholic clergy wound up in prison? Yet the result was that within fifty years what the Anglo-Catholics introduced as illegal acts became the Anglican norm.

Or again, consider the ordination of women. The Anglican Communion did not wait for common consent before women were ordained. On the contrary, in America and in Australia, bishops acted against the will of the Communion, and sometimes against the constitutions of their own churches. Open Evangelicals are adamant in their support for women priests and in their rejection of those who do not agree with women’s ordination, and often fierce in their criticism of those who break the rules. Yet the first women priests were ordained illegally.

The truth is, we are all liable to appeal to the law when we are opposed to the lawbreakers, and to criticize the law when it holds us back against our will. It is human nature, and to some extent human sinfulness. But what we cannot do is overlook, as if it never happened, the fact that an institution like the Church of England will never behave both radically and collectively.

It is the true radicals who lead the way. And in the present-day Anglican Communion, whilst the radicals on the left are pushing ahead with an agenda on human sexuality, it is the radicals on the right - the so-called ‘Conservatives’ who have an agenda to express gospel living in church practise.

Revd John P Richardson
25 May 2007

Now read, What's really wrong with English Conservative Evangelicalism


  1. John, a good piece. Why not ask Fulcrum to post this, then invite a reasoned debate? I worry about OE's selective openness - I don't think any catholic would consider the essence of catholicism really to lie in liturgy or even in ecclesiology but rather in this sacramentalism and understnading of grace at work in the world. Similarly, there is a *conservative tradition of intellectual rigour (not rigor mortis, I hope!) which Wycliffe and Oak Hill are seeking to recover - possibly missing from the notorious '+four' colleges.

  2. B.O., thanks for your comments. I'd agree with your addendum regarding the 'catholic' position, though as I'm sure you recognize I'm pointing to what I think OEs seek to take from the 'catholic' view. (They don't have much time for the Forward in Faith view of women's ministry, nor, of course, for the understanding of ministry which lies behind it.)

    I'm rather hoping Fulcrum folks might respond. I've found debating on the Fulcrum site itself rather wearying, though I'm happy to see others (eg David W) doing that. Once again, I think there is the same lack of self-awareness on Fulcrum as on Thinking Anglicans. Oddly, for people committed to 'liberalism' (with a small 'l'), both sites show no liberalality of spirit towards Conservative Evangelicalism, which seems to be the one real enemy, with Oak Hill, Sydney and the like forming the theological 'Axis of Evil'!

  3. Well, I suspect that there is a chicken and egg situation here. To be honest, most of us who would call ourselves "open evangelicals" would say we thus self-describe beacuse we're fed up with being called liberals by the ultra conservative evangelicals, and we've been prevented from calling ourselves "mainstream" becasue the ultra conservatives have nicked that label. But, in order to keep the debate going, here's my go at exploring what I think Open Evangelical means...

    Towards a definition of "Open Evangelical"

    "Open evangelical" is a term that has emerged in the context of evangelical Anglicanism in the UK. Broadly speaking it is those who see themselves as heirs of the Keele Congress of 1967, when evangelical Anglicans committed themselves to work in the mainstream of the Church of England, who would want to wear that label. "Open evangelical" is usually defined over against "conservative evangelical", although open evangelicals would claim to be conservative on scripture and radical on everything else.

    What are open evangelicals in the Church of England open to ?

    1. Biblical scholarship
    (Believing scripture to be inspired, but not wishing to wear the inerrantist label, and content to accept that theology is a positive gift to the church, and that hermeneutics are essential to the task of understanding an inspired scripture).

    2. Cultural change
    An unchanging gospel must be proclaimed in a variety of cultural contexts, and to be open is to be culturally aware and adaptable.

    3. Other theological traditions
    Open evangelicals would accept that others not owning the evangelical label are also Christians, and would want to learn from them.

    4. Holistic mission
    Most open evangelicals are convinced that evangelism and social action go hand in hand, and that the motivation for social and political engagement is God's activity and calling to people and churches, and not merely a means of pre-evangelism.

    5. The Church of England
    A majority of evangelical Anglicans would want to wear the label that way round, with "evangelical" as the adjective that defines "Anglican". This entails a commitment to the structures and ecclesiology of the Church of England.

    6. The full ministry of women in the church
    Open evangelicals supported the ordination of women to the priesthood (the conservatives didn't), and would argue from scripture that women can be both priests and bishops, and take their full part in the Church of England's ministry.

    7. Evangelism
    To be an open evangelical is to believe that every structure in the church must pass the acid test "does this further the mission of God?" There is no point in the church being there for its own sake. It is only there as sign of the Kingdom.

    8. The World
    Open evangelicals are basically world affirming. They believe that the role of the Church of England is to be the church for the whole country, and that to be committed to that view entails working with the grain of society rather than against it.

    9. New patterns of worship, prayer, and liturgy
    Experiment in the area of worship is a hallmark of open evangelical Anglicanism. They have been in the forefront of devising new liturgy, writing new songs, and encouraging new patterns of worship.

    10. God
    It is probably the case that open evangelicals have a view of God that sees him more as an agent of change than as a defender of the status quo...

  4. Well a link has been made to this post from the Fulcrum website. And as though your words were prophetic, it is accompanied with some highly personalised vitriol against yourself.

    I note your comments about how wearisome it is posting on such sites. Under Fiancee's advise I nolonger post on "Thinking Anglicans" and in the face of highly offensive and potentially libellous attacks on Oak Hill's male students and financing, I cannot be involved in meaningful discussion on that site. I have posted rebuttals but that is all I am prepared to do.

    I am always willing to discuss privately and publically with peope of all theological pursuasions providing reasonable rules of debate are observed

  5. pete b - I am glad you have responded here. I would like to offer a surrejoinder to your remarks, in order to suggest that the issues are not as clearcut as any of us would probably like, but maybe some knowledge of history as a well as constructive biblical theology would keep us from repeating some mistakes.
    1. biblical scholarship: it's boringly obvious that 'hermeneutics' (interpretation) must be used, & everyone has a hermeneutical approach. But which one(s) does OE employ and why? If you dissavow inerrancy, can you specify what the mistakes in the Bible are? Do you critique postmodern tripe?
    2. cultural change: you think conservative don't understand this? surely you've read the Lausanne covenant? who do you think wrote it?
    3. other theological traditions: what do OEs "learn" from them & what governs their selection? e.g. do you learn from Orthodox on theosis? RCs on Mary? Methodists on church structure? Baptists on sacraments?
    4. holistic mission: where do you differ from consevos here? Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Booth?
    5. C of E: if you insist that you are an Anglican before you're an evangelical, then you need to insist on the superiority of being an Anglican before being a Roman Catholic or Orthodox (or Baptist or Methodist or other lesser breeds). Do you understand what it means to be an Anglican better than historical scholars Jim Packer or Gerald Bray? & how do you feel that consevos are systematically excluded from 'the structures' of the C of E - from being bishops and archdeacons? It's politics, Pete - something you know about.
    6. 'The full ministry of women in the church': & how would you feel about 'lay celebration' of communion? This is something much better founded in Scripture than women in the presbyterate, which OEs have raised to the matter of dogma (when 20 years ago it was only self-described liberals, with little respect for St Paul, who did this). You don't like being called a liberal (even if you were once a socialist); but aren't you really a liberal in slow motion? How long can you sustain your opposition to homosexuality? Many of the posters on Fulcrum don't seem to any longer. Are you really being consistent in your (liberationist or whatever)hermeneutic? Wake up & smell the incense!
    7. Evangelism: 'structures of the church'? Who was dumping the most on Richard Coekin?
    8. The world: now you sound like a conservative! What do you do when the grain of England has grown decidedly pagan?
    9. New patterns etc: I don't like the demise of liturgy. But what standards will you use to critique CW? The BCP? I dislike the lyrics (& sublimated eroticism) of a lot of modern 'worship' songs. But I don't blame OEs for these; pop psychotherapy is rampant in charismatic circles.
    10. God: Ah, l'esprit de soixante-huit! Pete, YOU are the status quo!

  6. Hi Pete,

    Thanks for posting. I found your ten points interesting, but if they are meant to delineate Open Evangelicalism from the Conservative variety, I think they are problematic, since most of them are actually shared with Conservatives.

    I suggest looking for comparison at the Diocese of Sydney, because there we see a thoroughgoing Conservative Evangelicalism developed in a total Anglican context. (Too much English Conservative Evangelicalism, in my view, remains ‘immature’ insofar as it has little chance to engage with ecclesiological structures above parish level.)

    When we apply the ten points to the Sydney situation, however, we find general agreement on points 1, 2, 4, 7, 9 and 10. The essential differences come down to the following:

    On point 3 (Other theological traditions), Sydney Anglicans would generally accept that others not owning the evangelical label are also Christians. However, they might doubt that there is much to learn from them where they differ significantly from Evangelicalism.

    On point 5 (The Church of England), Sydney Anglicans would probably want to describe themselves as ‘Evangelical Anglicans’, not the other way round. However, they are generally committed to the structures and ecclesiology of the Anglican Church in their context.

    On point 6 (The full ministry of women in the church), Sydney Anglicans have not accepted the ordination of women to the priesthood, on the basis of arguments from scripture that women should not lead congregations. With this proviso, however, they do believe that women can take their full part in the Anglican Church’s ministry.

    On point 8 (The World), Sydney Anglicans, though perhaps not ‘world affirming’, are certainly ‘life affirming’. They do believe that the Church has a responsibility for the whole country, but they would probably say that often involves going against the grain of society.

    In reality, therefore, the ten points are really one (point 6) and three nuances.

    However, if this is so (and I believe it demonstrably is), one wonders at the level of friction between Open and Conservative Evangelicals. Certainly, in the English context, there might be more problems over ecclesiological structures, but this still is surely not enough to delineate two ‘theologies’ or to explain the current friction.

    My own suggestion is twofold. First, that there are some theological differences that your ten points do not cover, and secondly that there is a difficulty arising out of perceptions, not just of the other but of the self. In particular, Open Evangelicals seem to perceive Conservatives as an ‘enemy’, and fail to perceive their own ‘closedness’ towards one ‘tradition’ above all.

    One feature of this is a lot of ad hominem argument. I couldn’t help noticing, for example, the individual on the Fulcrum website who referred in his comment on my initial post to “JR’s own perception that he alone is the truth.” Apart from the grammatical slip (surely it should be “that his alone is the truth”), it is merely a personal jibe that has no basis in what I wrote. There is no point attempting a rebuttal. I simply wonder what prompts someone to say such a thing — and can only conclude it is a fair degree of anger.

    Enough for now.

  7. Not sure if anyone's going to read this, but I noticed on the Fulcrum website Graham Kings wrote, "It is interesting that the reactions of both Chris Sugden (Anglican Mainstream) and of John Richardson (Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream) today clearly aim at my comments on the Sunday programme this morning ... but neither of them names me."

    Actually I missed Graham on the Sunday programme - I was having brekky! Also my initial post was made on the 25th May, almost twenty-four hours earlier.

    Why not post this on the Fulcrum website? Because my blood pressure isn't up to it!

  8. It does become more interesting. From Pete's post it looks like Open Evangelicalism is essentially an in house Anglican issue. As a non anglican I actually find it alarming that someone would define themselves by their denomination first. Personally I see Evangelical as the adjective for Christian. Christian first, Evangelical second, Baptist third...

    Regarding Graham's comments on the Fulcrum website.

    1. I thought that the issue was to get down to a sensible discussion about what we mean by the labels. I find the idea of "He said, she said" quite unhelpful towards this. Don't we need to depersonalise the debate first. There seems to be a lot of "so and so is this, so in so is that" going on.

    2. Graham then goes on to get personal with the ascertion that I am not prepared to consider OEs to be Evangelical at all. What he should have noticed was that my letter simply thanked Colin Craston for a clarification about what Open Evangelicalism was meant to be (mind you I'm not at all convinced that he really did clarify the situation) and then went on to comment on the specific things that he said in his article. In my opinion the things he said were not Evangelical (others may disagree). However there is a world of difference between saying that someTHING is not Evangelical and saying that someONE is not Evangelical.

    I think part of the problem is a confusion over whether we are talking about types of people, a specific tribal/political grouping in the CofE or a specific doctrinal position.

  9. I've given an answer on my blog:

  10. In the light of Jody's comment (linked above) I did find myself wondering whether the 'hell's ante-chamber' remark in my original post was over-egging the purple prose a bit too much. Nevertheless, a quick trawl of the Fulcrum website produced the following, which I offer for consideration. Perhaps it is the 'drip, drip' effect of such statements which makes them wearing:

    Reform-theology (to give it a working title) is essentially modernist, symbiotic with liberalism because both tend to ahistorical universalising.

    You can remain friends [with a mulsim] because your different beliefs have no negative consequences for the other. The position with CE's opposed to women's ordination and women is a little different.

    It is deeply telling when conservative evangelicals critique Desmond Tutu's "liberal" Christianity or Martin Luther King's marital infidelities as a way of avoiding the prophetic witness that they gave against structural oppression.

    Conservative men know that women are instinctive liberals, i.e. easily deceived like Eve, because of their soft feminine natures and nuturing instincts and so accordingly they must step in to point us in the right direction. (said as eirenically as irony can get)

    I am always amazed that conservatives love to draw this future Wrath of God into the present whilst at the same time ignoring and even denying the present In-Breaking of Christ's Kingdom.

    The other is the Conservative Dream, the more modern idea that the conservative churches of the South would cling to fundamentalist readings of the Bible and help restrain liberal trends in the North, especially in matters of gender and sexual orientation. My argument is that both expectations, liberal and conservative, are substantially wrong.

    The issues common to Anglican CE and Pentecostalism are in my view these - deification of the Scriptures; controlling pastorates; creation of worldview; love of money; subjugation of women.
    If I as an evangelical woman were to train for ordained ministry what are my chances of being accepted as a minister in charge of an evangelical parish? Minimal because of the increasing power of ultra conservatives in our church.

    What are the churches represented by the covenant drafters like? Are their congregations monochrome? Ours include some with a (hopefully curable) Reform tendency , others with a New Wine perspective

    T..., your post of Wednesday re: the victims of torture and climate change votes on resolutions by conservative Christians. God help us.

    How would conservative evangelicals advise southern Christian Sudenese enslaved by their Islamist fellow-countrymen? Would they recommend their fellow Christians regard their Islamist masters as "worthy of all honour"? Is it 'unbiblical' for Sudanese Christians to resist being enslaved?

    Conservative Evangelicals: an old public schoolboys' network whose members only talk to each other, restrict the Spirit's work to expository preaching, keep their hands firmly attached to their sides during worship, and believe that salvation is about where you go when you die -- those who get their biblical doctrine right go to heaven, those who don't roast everlastingly (see Eternal conscious torment).

  11. 1 thing worth pointing out about Pete's 10 points about being "OE", is that it is Exclusivly Anglican. CE's are Anglicans who are Evangelical (or vice versa), so naturally see our unity with Evangelicals who are not Anglican. It is hard to see what Fulcrum offers non-Anglicans.

    It is also defined quite negativly. It is anti-CE, where CE groups despite negative publicity are usually positive. Take the group with most -ve publicity, Reform, "To win the nation for Christ". Now we may criticise them for how they go about it, but Fulcrum's aim is merely to exclude brethern.

    Also Mainstream isn't hi-jacked by CE's. It seems to fit with historical definitions. And that, as CEs would affirm, allows for a fair bit of movement.

  12. Interesting that this starts to come down to which organisations or networks we are or aren't in (and which are or aren't in the mainstream.) As a life-long evangelical (well at least since the mid 70s) my rule of thumb definition of the evangelical mainstream (which encompasses plenty of variety) would be Scripture Union, Evangelical Alliance and Spring Harvest. Does that get us out of an anglican ghetto?

  13. My (slightly cynical) working definition is that

    Conservative evangelicals are evangelicals who find it easier to love those inside evangelicalism than those outside.

    Open evangelicals are evangelicals who find it easier to love those outside evangelicalism than those inside.

  14. Having started off in UK CE, then going to a reformed free church in the UK for 3 years, then living in the reformed community in the USA and now being in Southern Cone Anglicanism, I find it touchingly parochial when people say that UK CE or even Sydney is "ultra conservative". It is not. Within global evangelicalism it is center or just left of center. If you compare with world Christianity you get one view, if you compare with the Unitarians you get another.

  15. James, great comment & matches my more limited experiance of majority world Christians. You should cut & paste that & stick it on the Fulcrum Forum on "Defining Evangelicalism".

    Paulg, it is great to take the discussion away from Anglicanism, but I don't think we can do orthodoxy by association. Rather by a few cental truths, which is what CE-ism is about, ironically OE-ism adds on (& negotiates others) so in some respects has a higher bar (you MUST agree with ordination of Women) which is why open means closed.

    Custard - your comment is ubsurd and doesn't exactly ooze with love & understanding. If we didn't love those outside our walls why do we spend so much time there telling people about Jesus?

    A generalisation, but an interesting one, is that OEs have a subcutulture, read Christian novels, listen to Christian radio & music. CEs generally are more affirming of art/media of non-Christians, but at the back of our minds knowing that this isn't going to always be God affirming.

  16. I wonder if the difference between "Open" and "Conservative" Evangelicals is in large part to do with what we see as our greater danger for us to avoid: is it an unthinking, legalistic fundamentalism? or is it the dangerous doctrinal and moral looseness of liberalism?

    Or, to put it in terms of Stott's The Contemporary Christian, where he calls for a "double listening" to the Word and the world, Open Evangelicals fear that we will fail properly to listen to our culture and so inadequately and inappropriately contextualise the gospel. Whereas Conservative Evangelicals fear that we will so listen to the world that we will no longer hear what the Word has to say to us that is distinctive.