Wednesday 14 October 2009

What hope for Evangelicalism?

For the last forty-eight hours, with a brief break for a Deanery Synod meeting, I’ve been at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hertfordshire, first for the Reform annual conference and then for the residential meeting of the Church of England Evangelical Council.
As I said at the Synod last night, I have reached that stage where the words of Psalm 27:35 apply, “I was young and now I am old.” (This was especially borne in on me when looking at the twenty or thirty theological students who turned up for the Reform meeting today.) I am thus in the position to reflect on the past and the present, and right now what I am feeling is a great sorrow at the missed opportunity for our church and nation resulting from the loss of unity amongst evangelical Anglicans.
This afternoon, the CEEC organized a joint presentation by Stephen Kuhrt and Vaughan Roberts on the benefits or otherwise of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. As it happens, I found myself agreeing with much of what Stephen Kuhrt had to say —at least insofar as I felt they were cautionary words that I could readily echo.
However, in a not-always-good-tempered question time, it became increasingly clear to me —and I suspect to others —that evangelical unity is a façade, and a very poorly-preserved one at that. Of course, even thirty years ago things were not perfect, but they are at an undoubtedly low ebb, from which I wonder if they can recognizably recover.
What, then, are the problems?
First, there are serious personal hurts, caused by things which have been said and written. One person this afternoon, for example, pressed the point as to whether he was regarded as ‘unbiblical’. Now I doubt that the individual who put him in this position ever meant to imply that he was truly an ‘unbiblical’ person. Nevertheless, that was the term which had been used, publicly and forcefully, and it had clearly stung. I also know that he is by no means the only one to feel wounded in such a manner, and the response that we must expect ‘robust’ engagement in debate does not solve the problem!
Is it asking too much that Christians refrain from saying about someone what they would hesitate to say to them? Paul’s warning to the Galatians surely applies to us as a constituency: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” In recent years, I suspect far more damage has been done to evangelicals by evangelicals that by all the Jack Spongs or Richard Dawkins’s in the world.
Secondly, there are fundamental doctrinal divisions. Topics specifically aired this afternoon included the ‘New Perspective’, penal substitution, judgement and hell, and the sufficiency of God’s grace. Doubtless others could be mentioned, but all of these touch on areas where thirty years ago there would have been almost universal evangelical agreement. One of the tragedies is that some of these issues have been worked over (and, one would have hoped, worked out) at the Reformation, but of course one of the features of ‘new’ evangelicalism is a readiness to critique the Reformation as fundamentally mistaken. Thus we are not only divided amongst ourselves but increasingly cut off from our past heritage.
Thirdly, there are simply too many issues being swept under the carpet, despite the fact that they are major causes of division. One of the most important is, it has to be said, the ordination and consecration of women. The difficulty here is not simply that totally different views are held on such a fundamental point, but that those who disagree are often held in little short of contempt. Thus, despite frequent protestations that this is a ‘second order’ issue, in terms of relationships it has become effectively ‘first order’.
Now I scarcely need to point out that thirty years ago the evangelical Anglican constituency was also largely united on this issue. We had a healthy evangelical disregard for institutional priesthood, but we regarded the apostolic teachings of St Paul and St Peter as ruling out women as overall leaders of congregations. And the problem we now experience is because the tension has not been resolved between those who still see an apostolic injunction at this point (and therefore do not trust the exegesis or, in some cases, the biblical commitment of those who disagree) and those who believe this is more than a matter of good exegesis, but is rather a matter of inherent ‘gospel’ values. This is not a disagreement, it is a gulf!
And then there is the ultimate question of the urgency of the gospel. Just what are we trying to do, and why are we trying to do it, and what should we do when, as often happens, man-made institutional structures get in the way of doing it? Evangelicals have always agreed it is a good thing when people become Christians. But there no longer seems to be the same agreement that it is a necessary and urgent thing that people should do so in order to be saved from an imminent and impending danger.
So as I sit here in the lounge at High Leigh, I think back to other evangelical gatherings, some here, some in other venues, to the old sense of unity and opportunity, and I wonder what went wrong, and what, if anything, can be done to put it right.
Revd John P Richardson
14 October 2009
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  1. John,

    The person accused of being "unbiblical" wasn't by any chance one of the authors of Pierced for our Transgressions was it? And did the accuser (NT Wright) acknowledge that such language can appear hostile and narrow minded rather than open and welcoming? :o)

    Dave W London

  2. I wonder if the term "evangelical" really has any meaning as it can describe those with such different perspectives on issues such as women's ministry and sexuality.

    Really to be evangelical should be to wish to evangelise and proclaim the good news. Maybe if proclaiming that good news to all could be the ONLY "first order issue" and all the others could be second order, then divisions might count for little?

  3. Sad though it is to say it, I wonder if evangelicalism (of the form that was so strong in the late twentieth century, at least) has any hope of surviving at all. I am, however, confident that the gospel will survive and that Christ will continue to build his kingdom here and around the world. Those who love the Lord will continue to serve him in the places to which they are called, as faithfully as they can manage. And if new labels are found and new alliances formed, will it matter too much if 'evangelicalism' dies, so long as the gospel goes on?

    Ros Clarke

  4. I must say I am beginning to feel considerably less coy about naming names regarding what was said in the meeting today, given that I've just discovered Stephen Kuhrt's address is to be published as an article in the Church of England Newspaper tomorrow (see here). It does seem to me that this is not in the spirit of what Stephen had been invited to do, which was to help the CEEC explore some of the difficult issues in evangelicalism, not to give a 'party political broadcast'. I am waiting to see whether Vaughan Roberts's contribution will similarly appear in the CEN. I am not, at present, holding my breath.

  5. My comment was really meant to be a bit mischevious (I must admit I wonder now if even that was helpful) rather than a real temptation to publish.

    On a more serious note, there does need to be a recognition that careless name calling has happened on all sides (I've just read an article on an other subject which uses suprisinlgy explosive language about the commitment to Scripture and the Gospel of CEs).

    CEs like me need to remember that our own language can at times be unhelpful.

    We need to do better at distinguishing between You are not a Christian, you are not an Evangelical, that particular thing you was saying was not Biblical).

    Sometimes of course strongly descriptive negative language is needed.

  6. You have identified the problem without realising that you've done so.
    You say:
    'One of the tragedies is that some of these issues have been worked over (and, one would have hoped, worked out) at the Reformation, but of course one of the features of ‘new’ evangelicalism is a readiness to critique the Reformation as fundamentally mistaken.'
    As far as I can see, you, personally, have adopted a single view of faith, and a very late one at that, as the only possible understanding of what the gospel is. You are stuck in a very limited and particular place. There is no room in your theology for new understanding, for critical appreciation of your position, or for a reappraisal of that. It's as though God waited for the Reformation in England to make a final revelation of TRUTH.
    It won't do, and, in some frightened corner of your heart, you know it won't do.
    Frank, Merseyside.

  7. "one of the features of ‘new’ evangelicalism is a readiness to critique the Reformation as fundamentally mistaken."

    One of the most serious failings of the old evangelicalism is a refusal to critique the Reformation or to allow for the possibility that it might even in part be fundamentally mistaken. This presupposition that the Reformers must have been right is an abandonment of the principle of Sola Scriptura, which has rightly been addressed and reversed by what you call "‘new’ evangelicalism".

    (I see Frank has written much the same, but I want to second his point.)

  8. Peter, and to some extent Frank (though I think he is making a fundamentally different point), it is fine to say sola scriptura. In fact, as you are well aware, that is a Reformation principle which stands over against the existing understanding of authority and which could also be called into question. However, what I am asking is how it is possible to reach evangelical unity. You may want to say, let us hold onto sola scriptura, but reject the conclusions that the Reformers reached on that basis, including much Anglican doctrine. But how, then, do we achieve unity - by what principles or process?

  9. John, I would say that the only hope of achieving unity on doctrine is to go back to the Bible and seek to understand it, without presupposing that any historic interpretation of it is correct.

    Maybe that kind of doctrinal unity is not possible. But at least we can maintain some kind of unity if everyone involved renounces condemning and demonising others who call themselves evangelicals for coming to conclusions based on Scripture which are not the same as those of the Reformers, or of any other past or present interpreters. We should accept that it is possible to come to different conclusions on these issues, and when we disagree we should do so politely, without questioning the integrity or spirituality of others.

  10. John, I should add to the previous comment a response to your point about "much Anglican doctrine". Clearly those of us who choose to remain Anglicans cannot simply abandon Anglican doctrine - although of course almost all Anglicans have abandoned some parts of the Reformation doctrine expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles. If sola scriptura leads an evangelical to reject large parts of Anglican doctrine, I would expect them in all integrity to leave the Church of England.

  11. Peter, it can't be done. Even if we agreed to abandon the historical creeds and start from scratch, we don't have a 'from scratch' from which to start. On the contrary, we come with our understandings and our history. Even our rejection of historical conclusions is conditioned by those conclusions.

    As a project it is both unnecessary and unachievable. If you want to try it, I could only say, "Good luck, let us know when you get where we are after 2,000 years."

  12. John, you may be right that it can't be done, but that does imply an abandonment of sola scriptura, and its replacement by Scripture plus "our understandings and our history". That sounds to me like abandoning evangelicalism in favour of relying on tradition. Is that what you want? It's not what I want.

    I certainly cannot accept as fellow evangelicals those who try to impose on me their particular tradition, calling it "our understandings and our history", especially if they also condemn others as "unbiblical" for having different "understandings and ... history".

    Do you mean to proclaim the death of evangelicalism? Because that's what it sounds like you are doing.

  13. Peter, there are so many problems with what you're saying that the only way I feel I can address them is to upload the talk I did for this year's Oak Hill School of Theology on Unity and Schism, titled What I Also Received: Scripture, Truth and Division. You're welcome to read it if you want.

  14. If one can no longer be in good conscience an evangelical Anglican as this is reflected in the Prayer Book and among the heirs of Cranmer, Whitefield, Simeon, Stott, Green and Packer, then he or she should be honest enough to drop the name 'evangelical' - as Dave Tomlinson has done - and then decide whether to go Catholic (RC or Orthodox), properly liberal, or radical-Anabaptist, or something else.
    Unfortunately, groups like 'Fulcrum' have only debased the currency by claiming the name while continuing to alter the content.
    Mark B.

  15. I never thought this would happen, but I am starting to have a serious problem with the use of the term 'evangelical'. Does it refer to our lack of smells and bells, informal services and relative indifference to apostolic succession, or is it a theological statement, classifying me as one who sits under the Authority of Scripture and nothing else?
    Traditionally, we've viewed ourselves as both of these things, but I'm not so certain both now apply to all who would use the term 'evangelical', as Mark B has just pointed out.
    That causes us to qualify the term with something else, such as Open or Conservative. What exactly is an Open Evangelical? I once asked for a definition from someone I was interviewing to be our next Vicar, and received an answer I regarded as anything but straight.
    However, in appealing to the traditions of the Church, we are going against the ethos of evangelicals up and down the years - it might be something we have to swallow if we are to counter a tendency to believe that 2000 years and more of Biblical scholarship is completely irrelevant in the current context of Biblical debate. Are we really so arrogant as to believe that the Reformers really got it all wrong - that Calvin and Luther really had no idea of what Scripture actually means?
    And if we can't agree these things, what chance is there for the people we preach to Sunday by Sunday? What understanding should they have? Theology? Bad thing - it ruins your faith and increases your doubts.

  16. PS I'm glad to say that Vaughan Roberts's piece does seem to have appeared in the CEN (see here. I do also know, though, that Michael Walters, who had arranged this debate at CEEC, was unaware that Stephen Kuhrt's piece was appearing - and I do wonder whose idea it was therefore to go with it at the CEN.

    Of course, what the CEN doesn't have is the subsequent questions and debate which took place at CEEC.

  17. Richard, as far as I can tell for John it is "none of the above", but more like "one who sits under the Authority of the Reformers' interpretation of Scripture". Of course I cannot accept that definition. I am by no means saying that "the Reformers really got it all wrong", just that the Reformers were not infallible, and their teachings, like those of every other Christian teacher since the close of the canon, need to be judged according to Scripture. That has been the consistent position of evangelicals over the centuries, and that is what John now seems to want to abandon.

  18. I find it interesting you say that there is no evangelical unity. I was at a passion for life prayer meeting just this tuesday and we seemed pretty united - I found it really encouraging to meet up with 80 other christians from 5 local churches (South London - Balham, tooting, Streatham). Praying for the spread of the gospel and the lost. I loved it!

  19. Peter, of course I do not mean that an evangelical is ""one who sits under the Authority of the Reformers' interpretation of Scripture". Nor do I "want to abandon" the final authority of Scripture. If you read the article to which I gave you the link, you'll see what I am saying. In case you or anyone else missed it, it is here.

    What I have said there is that the passage of time provides a test of our traditions: "Seeing the teacher as the recipient of a tradition ... suggests that one important way in which we can settle questions of interpretation is to read Scripture in the context of Church history and give preference to those understandings which have stood the test of time. Bray writes, 'No doubt there were just as many bad theologians in the middle ages or during the Reformation period as there are now, but over time they have faded into the background and been forgotten, whereas the good ones have survived and proved their worth from one generation to the next.'"

    This, however,is by no means the same as sitting "under the Authority of the Reformers' interpretation of Scripture", not least because, as my next paragraphs observe, this principle is not confined to the Reformation.

  20. Anonymous, there is, of course, unity amongst evangelicals, but this is not the same as "evangelical unity". I'm sure that if you go to a conference of members of Fulcrum, or of New Wine churches, you will find a great sense of unity, just as there was a palpable unity at the Reform conference on Tuesday and Wednesday. The problem comes when you try to blend these groups, all of which claim to be 'evangelical'. Then you discover that they are not united by 'evangelicalism', and in fact are often bitterly and deeply divided. Just try following this search of the Fulcrum (Open Evangelical) website.

  21. John, thanks for your further reply. I am working on my own post on this matter. I could respond to Bray's remarks that no doubt the same kind of argument was put to Luther and the other Reformers, but they refused to bow to the argument that "the theologians promoted by the church and so are well known are right, and it is only ones who are wrong who have been rejected and (we hope) forgotten".

  22. John, from my consideraton of your blog you think that a Christian is 'one who sits under the Authority of the Reformers' interpretation of Scripture', not just evangelicals. More, you need to tell us exactly what that interpretation is in case we get it wrong and stop being Christians. There's room for more than way way of being a Christian than yours, room for TEC and for Gene Robinson.
    Frank, Merseyside.

  23. Frank, I'd be interested to know which articles on the blog give you that impression. However, as with Peter Kirk, if you want to know my more considered opinion on truth and unity (something for which Anglicans pray regularly), I can only suggest you read the article I posted as a downloadable pdf. I doubt you'll agree with it, but it does set out my 'stall' on this more thoroughly.

  24. I tend to find that those who say women's ordination isn't a first order issue (striking directly against the clear teaching of scripture) are those who support it. Doesn't that say something about them? Not about Scripture's plain meaning.


  25. Dominic, where do you find in Scripture that women's ordination is a first order issue? Does your translation of 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 include something about a male-only ordained ministry as part of "the gospel ... which you received and on which you have taken your stand"? Instead what I see in Scripture is a variety of pictures of ministry in the church, some male-only and some including women. Such variety is the classic signature of a second order issue on which different Christians and churches may take different views while remaining genuinely evangelical.

    My post in response to John is here.

  26. Can I pick up another track from your excellent analysis, please?

    If/since we're evangelicals, we are called to the gospel of reconciliation - calling people to be reconciled to God, and one another, through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross (and all around that - I don't just limit it to his death).

    So I read with sadness your comments about the personal hurt that is a characteristic in many relationships within evangelicalism.

    I'm not so naive as to think this is not a profound problem, exacerbated after years of hurt upon hurt.

    But now is surely the time for us to start thinking of those relationships we know are damaged, and to seek to work towards reconciliation in them.

    Since by God's grace and the work of Christ we are going to be spending eternity together in astounding joy and deep love for one another, with no grudges to bear and no pride to weigh us down, how's about we work towards that now?

    I guess we all know of some churches or colleges where this is needed, but that is for others: the gospel says I begin with myself, which means I say I am sorry for the wrong words and things I have done against others.

    If you know me, and you have something against me, please be kind to me and remind me how I've offended you. I am sorry for it. Please forgive me. Perhaps email me at: lest the whole world knows how much dirty linen I have?

  27. John,
    You state that you

    'think back to the ... old sense of unity and opportunity..'

    However did it really exist or was it only an appearance of unity and opportunity? I think there may be a sociological explanation to 'where it went wrong'.

    At the times in which Evangelicals were gathering momentum and organising in the CofE in the mid-1960's with the creation of NEAC and so on, they were regarded as small fry and largely inconsequential in the Anglican galaxy.
    As time has gone on, they have become much more influential and confident and affect the CoE at many different levels.

    As a result the 'tribes of evangelicalism' have emerged. Before, the tribes counted it a luxury to be recognised as 'evangelicals at all, so these tribal differences were not so pronounced - but they were still there.

    Now that evangelicals are fully accepted and are a major influence in the CoE then this latency has been given its full expression so they can afford to be a bit picky and tribal.

    Running parallel to this is the decline of authoritative "Father figures" that spoke for them. Previously people like Stott and Packer may have done so. Nowadays many would say that NT Wright has the mantle but he does not command the same kudos that Stott and Packer had.

    Then there is the advent of mass communications on an unprecedented level. Ideas opinions and beliefs and every shade of evangelical thought, can be freely shared among evangelicals in a way not possible before.

    Instant pundits are created- some good - others with dubious credentials all putting their half pence worth in. You can get your theology instantly downloaded 24 hours a day and make your own judgement creating you own blogs to advance your own views. A veritable paradise for tribalism.

    All this is not necessarily bad of course but sociologically, it makes it hard for unity to be achieved.

    There is also pastoralism. Many evangelicals take issue with 'Reformed Theology' because they think it fails to engage with peoples pastoral needs. Simply quoting the Bible at someone who is in deep need and who has complex problems is not the way to minister to a needy world. Pastoralism requires other skills in addition to theology which in my experience many CE's lack.
    Not all conservative evangelicals do this of course, but I have seen too many cases of crass pastoral counselling by CE's to know that there are some very poor exponents about.

    Incidentally, I have personally found that Roman Catholic priests are very good at pastoral ministry even though I find myself at fundamentally odds with many aspects of their theology!

    Many CEs I have met simply refuse to acknowledge that there is a pastoral issue with Conservative evangelism yet it is I believe, one of its greatest weaknesses.

    And finally there is worship. Many evangelicals feel that Reformed theology engages the mind but not the spirit. When they come to church they want to meet with God. not theology. There is a sense among many that Reformed theology is arid and for them, fails to facilitate an experience of God. I do have some sympathy with this although I do not think it is true.

    So perhaps these fault lines have emerged because evangelicals have been successful in making their voices heard. This is a sociological phenomena that occurs in any group that comes from relative obscurity to prominence. I would imagine it happens among liberals also.

    Perhaps if we wanted the old sense of unity and opportunity back, then what we need is a bit of persecution and marginalisation like what TEC is doing to the conservatives in the Episcopal Church!

    So maybe nothing was really lost in the first place?

    Chris Bishop

  28. John,

    Excellent post - this something very close to my heart.

    I think the main problem with evangelicalism (of which I am a part) is that we don't have a theology of difference. We place so much emphasis on "truth" and take the approach that there must be a single correct understanding of scripture. But, even if this concept is correct in theory, in practice it is useless because we have no way of knowing which understanding is correct (sorry to those who now feel I'm a heretic).

    It all comes down to the fact that the Bible can be interpreted in different ways. The divisions in the church (both within evangelicalism and generally) result primarily over who has the power to interpret the bible and tell others what to believe.

    In the past, divisions have often been along denominational lines, so didn't really come to a head. Here's an example: As you said, once upon a time, evangelical anglicans may have been united in seeing women's ordination as "unbiblical", but they've always accepted infant baptism. However many Baptists had been ordaining women for years before then (and it's largely a non-contentious matter to them), but have always seen infant baptism as "unbiblical". So our theology comes from our church traditions, not just the bible.

    But once people within denominations start thinking outside the party lines, then all these issues come to a head, and what results is a theological power struggle.

    I don't know what the answer is, other than more division. Maybe a bit of humility would help.

  29. Chris, I appreciated your comments and found them helpful. Just an extra thought from me:

    Whilst it is true that evangelical anglicans were more united 40 years ago, the evangelical world as a whole was not. The year before NEAC 1967 saw Stott and MLJ publicly clash at the NAE. The cause of their dispute, "separation", is still a divisive issue today.

    Another interesting question is whether events like Spring Harvest brought about an increased mixing of evangelicals from different denominations which caused a blurring of theological boundaries.

  30. We never will be, nor can be: "united by 'Evangelicalism'" [John P Richardson, 23:20, 15.10.09]. Indeed, there is only one unity of any consequence and that is the Unity of the Spirit which we are called to maintain in the bond of peace.

    A lot less politicking, less reliance on earlier interpreters of Scripture [who themselves were doing their reasoning in an "over-against" kind of way as we are today] and a lot more humility before the Word written allowing The Holy Spirit to illuminate it for us and we might begin to close the gaps. Not that I want to denigrate earlier contributions to our understanding, nor am I bothered by diversity but many clearly are to the extent of antagonism and outright unarmed-combat. It is ugly, unbecoming, unedifying and brings our Lord into disrepute.

    We must let it go for the sake of the Gospel.

    L'Chaim! Ifan Morgan