Wednesday 13 October 2010

Why has Reform failed?

Next week sees the annual conference of Reform. Established in 1993, in the wake of the decision by General Synod to ordain women, Reform describes itself as, “a network of individuals and churches within the Church of England ... committed to reforming the Church of England from within according to the Holy Scriptures.”
Reform was founded in an outburst of concern and enthusiasm, and in the early years its membership grew, its meetings attracted considerable numbers and they generated lively interest and debate.
In all the years of its existence, however, it is arguable that although Reform has kept the Conservative Evangelical flag flying, it has not, as an organization, achieved a single specific ‘victory’. (One only has to look at the list of recent highlights to see that this is so.)
Unsurprisingly, some early members have given up on Reform entirely, and numbers had been in decline. Apparently, however, the next conference is fully booked, and with the twentieth anniversary of its founding hoving into view, it is a good time to ask why Reform has not succeeded in the past and how it might succeed in the future.
The first problem is quite simply the nature of Reform itself: is it a political body, a club, a pressure group, a mission society, all of the above, or none?
I have personally been, and remain, a member of Reform because it is the only Conservative evangelical group with which it is possible to identify. But even I am unclear about exactly what we exist for. It is all very well having high aims, but there need also to be clear goals and distinct and definite steps in place to achieve those goals.
The nearest the Reform website gets to defining this is the following:
Reform members are working to identify practical ways of reforming the Church of England to enable the clear proclamation of the gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Given almost seventeen years of existence, we ought by now to have some idea what those “practical ways” are. Yet it seems that at every opportunity, Reform as an organization has failed to adopt any practical measures or in any effective way to commend them to its own constituency.
One of the problems here is the nature of Reform’s leadership. At one level it is constructed along completely standard organizational lines. There is a central Council which does the official business, which invites people to join its ranks and which determines who will be the Chairman. And then there is a membership which looks to the Council for a lead. But unfortunately, to quote a well-known advert, it doesn’t quite work like that.
On the one hand, the Council is not only self-selecting but quite select. Members are required to sign the Reform Covenant, the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and since it matters to the thrust of this article I will simply point out that I personally fell at the first hurdle (but that is another story).
The problem is not really with who is on the Council, but with how the Council relates to the agenda of the organization. For in terms of ‘management style’, Reform likes to describe itself as a ‘network of networks’, such that effective action is devolved to the local level.
Now that is all very well, provided that such effective local action is given priority and the central body encourages this both in word and deed.
Unfortunately, what actually happens is that the Council does not direct and the local groups do not initiate, whilst (seemingly) each looks to the other for a lead.
Some of my more depressing moments at Reform gatherings have been when someone on the platform has announced, along with the latest suggestion for a course of action, that it will be entirely up to individuals to decide whether they want to go along with it or not. It mystifies me that a body with so many ex-military personnel does not grasp that if you are going to shout ‘Charge!’ it is no good adding, ‘When you’re ready.’
But it is not all the fault of the Council, for at the local level things are no better. In fact, after seventeen years, there are only eleven diocesan Reform groups in the whole of England. Here, the difficulty is that people do not see their local Reform group as a means to getting things done. Instead, the prevailing Anglican parochialism, combined with clerical busy-ness, conspire to push Reform into second place (if that). Nor, which is surprising given that we are supposedly a ‘network of networks’, is there any coordination with, or awareness of, other local groups.
This lack of local organization and leadership is surely another reason why Reform has made so little impact. But we need to ask serious questions about why an organization that claims to be decentralized in principle has so manifestly failed to decentralize in practice.
A further problem is, not surprisingly, Reform’s lack of a coherent ecclesiology. The clearest instance of this is its collective failure to mandate its own membership to pass ‘Resolution C’, the petition for provision under the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993. In my view, this is simply incomprehensible, and the failure in this regard has been culpable.
Of course Reform comes from that Anglican evangelical stable that disregards both bishops and episcopacy and relies on the local congregation as the key unit of organization. But we belong to an episcopal church, and we only have to look around the global Anglican communion today to see the significance of bad and good bishops. In England, our appointments process means that the mass of the Church can have very little impact on the selection of bishops. To have passed up the opportunity to have a closer relationship with bishops of our own convictions was just mad.
But again, the passing up of the opportunity is itself symptomatic of an endemic problem in Reform, which is the conviction of many in leadership rĂ´les (not just on the Council) that they can ‘go it alone’, that they do not need the wider Church or the other congregations. And this manifests itself in a not-very attractive adulation of outward success, whereby to be a ‘senior’ clergyman equates to being the leader of a big congregation.
In short, our ecclesiology is defective — not in the way that is often alleged, in terms of ministry and sacraments (although some of the latter is bad enough) — but in terms of existing and acting effectively within the institution to which we all belong.
Reform is not about to fall apart. It is too well-established for that, and in any case there isn’t any other game in town at the moment for Conservative Evangelical Anglicans. But it is time that a serious look was taken at its failure to achieve anything of note, despite the strengths of its membership and its commitment to such laudable goals.
Perhaps it is time for repentance, as well as for renewal.
John Richardson
13 October 2010
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  1. "and since it matters to the thrust of this article I will simply point out that I personally fell at the first hurdle (but that is another story)".

    Could you tell us what it was in the Reform Covenant that caused you to fall at the first hurdle John?

    Chris Bishop

  2. In an ideal world, John, what would you like to have seen Reform 'achieve'? What are the indicators of success?

  3. I have started attending a "conservative" evangelical anglican church closely connected with reform members and your comments dont surprise.

    The preaching at this church can be very good but what I am really struggling with is the fact that although the teaching is very biblical and we are we always told to do what the "bible says" but it seems that this gives a licence to be very critical and not always being fair or at least trying to understand their position of those who disagree.

    It depresses me because is it possible to know the bible so well yet to have an attitude so far from what must be a christian one…. and this is displayed amongst those who have huge influence…. What about working out our salvation and surely our understanding of it "in fear and trembling".

    Maybe the "conservative evangelical" needs to some how think about even the label "conservative". What does this mean anyway… why not just "evangelical"…what about using the evangelical alliance as a vehicle of solidarity? After all should we not be seeking support from all of our christian brothers and sisters.

    I know battles have to be fought but if hearts as well as heads are to be won a wholesale attitude change has to occur. We kind of need an evangelical leader where the cross is as evident in their life as their words.
    Helen James Cardiff


  4. John Percival - location, location, location.

    Sorry to be a pain, but in principle I do prefer comments to give one, even though you've also been good enough to provide a photo.

  5. Chris, since you've asked, and since others are interested, it is this bit of the Reform Covenant:

    "Our understanding of God's way of life for his people includes:

    b. The unique value of women's ministry in the local congregation but also the divine order of male headship, which makes the headship of women as priests in charge, incumbents, dignitaries and bishops inappropriate."

    My problem is not with "male headship", which it seems to me is taught in Scripture, but with its application to the Church.

    Quite simply, Ephesians 5 says Christ is the head of the Church, which is his body, and the husband is the head of his wife in a corresponding 'one flesh' relationship where she is to him as his body. That much, I think, is unexceptionable and undeniable.

    What I do not see in Ephesians, but I do see in that statement from the Reform Covenant, however, is the implication that the role of priests in charge, incumbents, dignitaries and bishops of the Church of England directly involves 'headship' with regard to the Church.

    Christ is the head of the Church. The ministers are all part of the body, and none of them stands in relation to the others as their 'head' in this regard.

    Headship, in other words, applies only to the husband-wife relationship, not to the minister-congregation relationship.

    Now this may seem like a small quibble, but if you ask me to sign something, I want to make sure I agree with it first.

    I have actually raised this with a key Council member. In fact I was actually once invited to join the Council. But he (understandably) observed it was too late to debate that particular issue and might be impossible to persuade the others who had signed that I was right.

    So that is the history.

  6. Helen, you are quite right that this is about hearts as well as heads.

    Preaching is not just about 'accurately teaching the Bible' (as I have heard said too often for me to count). Rather, preaching is about changing lives so that they conform to the image of Christ. Now you can't do that unless you teach the Bible accurately, but it is not simply a matter of accurate Bible teaching!

    And a critical attitude to everyone else is hardly going to win anyone else.

    Unfortunately, the label 'evangelical' has become contentious and, at the same time, unreliable. I know people who would describe themselves as evangelical whose understanding of salvation is no different, in the final analysis, from that of the Church of Rome (both at the time of the Reformation and since).

    There are other 'evangelicals' willing and eager to be revisionists on sexuality. And so the list goes on.

    In short, the old alliances no longer apply, and (sadly) there is a lot of suspicion out there on all sides.

    I also have to say that, in my view and experience, the ordination of women has done much to make things worse. Sorry - but there it is.

  7. John,
    Thanks for your explanation explaining the distinction between 'headship' being between husband and wife and not a principle that applies to the church. I see your reasoning and I agree with it.

    My next question to you would be that in view of what you have just stated, do you support the appointment of women ministers in the church such as priests and bishops?

    And in the stipulations that the Reform council puts on it members, can you explain why (according to its website, the Reform council has at least one female priest (the Rev Caroline West) on its council if its holds to the principle of women priests being inappropriate?

    I am assuming that the Rev West is a fully ordained minister of the CofE who is in charge of some things.

    Chris Bishop

  8. Thanks for your acknowledgement of my message.

    I suppose I would want to draw a slightly wider circle than the "reform" camp on what constitutes issues for debate. I dont think the Evangelical Alliance is an unreasonable "circle" to use.

    I remember listening to a fantastic L'Abri tape on the whole issue of women and the church...

    There was a wonderful sense of intellectual engagement with the issues from a biblical position even though everyone doesnt agree on every jot and tittle. Its a bit like your example above about headship .... any organisations that insists on such precision seems flawed where there are genuine different options available.

    I think a serious question has to be asked as to how we are handling the truth if it potentially seems to have such ugly fruit. Sorry but I think this really needs to be considered more carefully by those within say the reform camp who potentially have ears to hear this kind of message.

    Helen Cardiff

  9. Hi - sorry, my bad. There is now a location in my profile!

    Chris, I think I am right in saying that Caroline West and a number of other ordained women involved with Reform have been ordained as permanent deacon, rather than as presbyter.


  10. I would tentatively suggest that Reform has circled its wagons too closely, and thus alienated many of its natural allies.

    Evangelicals are not always good at recognising who their friends are. When I was at Oxford in the early years of this decade, the OICCU, influenced by UCCF, defined itself by a narrow Evangelical sectarianism, which excluded not even just Catholics and non-Evangelical(but theologically conservative) Protestants, but even some Evangelicals! On one memorable occasion, they refused to have anything at all to do with a mission and outreach week organised by the Catholic Chaplaincy, as though Catholicism was as big an enemy as the debauched pagan culture that surrounds undergraduates!

    Evangelicals have to learn to prioritise their concerns. Yes, to the Evangelical mind, the Anglo-Catholic down the road, with his sacramental theology, his Marian devotions and his "works-based theology" is in error. But he is not radically contradicting the Gospel in the same way as the modernist down the road who stands for nothing at all and views Christianity as a religion of niceness and social justice.

    The great battle of our time is against paganism, modernism, sexual disorder and rebellion against God. Conservative Christians cannot hope to win this battle if they refuse to work with their natural allies, i.e. fellow believers in revealed, not relative, religion.

    Just my two penn'orth.

  11. Yes I very much agree with that Niall especially that last paragraph!

    Considering that evangelicals really do have so many resources in the UK to embark on the larger battles of our day....together with the catholics where possible...

    But it can only be the enemy who is pleased when this potential is wasted.

    Helen, Cardiff

  12. John (Percival), I think Reform's last seventeen years could be evaluated in terms of the its own 'mission' statement and its response to the 'presenting issue' in its own establishment.

    Has it reformed the Church of England from within, according to the Holy Scriptures? (And is this a clear enough goal to be measurable - remembering the SMART acronymn?)

    And has it managed to argue persuasively for its own position on women in ministry?

    I think it would be fair to say that the Conservative Evangelical constituency continues to survive within the Church of England, and in some areas to thrive. But I doubt this is down to the efforts of Reform as such.

    It is surely time for a radical self-examination.

  13. Helen and Niall, thank your for your contributions.

    It is interesting that Niall has picked the example of OICCU/UCCF, and I am not surprised, in this regard to note that Niall is obviously a lot younger than me.

    I absolutely don't want to 'talk down' to either of you, but this is really a matter of knowing history and having experience.

    Could I refer you to an article article I wrote a long while ago, which refers to what happened just short of a century ago regarding the Student Christian Movement and CICCU?

    It is difficult to believe now, but 130 years ago the body which was to become the now almost-redundant Student Christian Movement was a global movement of young Christians intent on evangelizing the world, whereas the body which became the now-global UCCF was the tiny Christian 'club' at Cambridge.

    It was the global movement which sought to embrace the widest possible number of members, and the local 'club' which insisted on a narrow definition, even at the cost of separating from the global body.

    Yet between 1910 and 1980 - in the space of a mere lifetime - the one shrank to insignificance and the other grew to global proportions. More importantly, SCM abandoned any real intention to evangelize anyone with the intention of converting them, whereas CICCU/IVF brought tens of thousands to know Christ.

    The lessons are there, though they are painful. And as I enter my sixtieth decade I find myself reminded of Stuart Turner's poetic line (as I recall it): "History repeats itself. It has to. No one listens."

  14. Thanks for that article post John I have enjoyed this mini discussion .

    I suppose the debate is about which piece of history is repeating itself. I dont think your
    example applies in this case... I think in terms of Reform it is a story where a different historical analogy would be appropriate ...

    I understand your concern but there are counter examples that could disprove your point...I just dont think we really get anywhere in this fashion.

    I will sign off for now. But God bless!

    Helen Cardiff

  15. Reverend Sir,

    Are we here permitted the same sorts of pseudonymity that the Reformatores et sui permitted themselves?

    If not, why not?

    Smectymnuus Smith
    Europa Infelix

  16. Smectymnuus, no, because our lives are not in danger and it encourages us to say what we would not say openly for public record.

  17. Revd John:

    Thanks for the historical context.

    I still think, however, that there must be a way to open up Christian Unions - and bodies like Reform - to a wider range of serious believers without yielding to universalism and liberalism.

    Think of what unites, say, Evangelicals and Catholics: theologically, the fundamentals of the faith once delivered to the saints - Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, bodily Resurrection, the reality of hell etc., and in the area of ethics a strong commitment to being pro-life, pro-family, and in favour of social justice.

  18. Niall, thanks for this - and it is a good question. The problem is there can be many points of unity, but what matters are the key points of diversity.

    As you will have recognized, at the Reformation no one on either side was questioning or denying any of the points you have made - and indeed, for my own part it is the common understanding of similar points that keeps me in touch with Anglo-Catholics of very different persuasions to my own.

    Why, then, did the Reformation happen? The fact is, the Church of Rome saw very clearly the implications of what was being taught by the likes of Luther and others, and rejected it emphatically.

    They knew very well that what was proposed was incompatible with what was maintained by themselves. Sometimes we, for our part, are not so clear-sighted.

  19. "Evangelicals have to learn to prioritise their concerns. Yes, to the Evangelical mind, the Anglo-Catholic down the road, with his sacramental theology, his Marian devotions and his "works-based theology" is in error. But he is not radically contradicting the Gospel in the same way as the modernist down the road who stands for nothing at all and views Christianity as a religion of niceness and social justice."

    As an Evangelical, I naturally disagree. The Anglo-Catholic is preaching a false gospel - a gospel of works - and is, therefore, accursed. All false gospels are the work of the antichrist and we can have no fellowship with those who promote them.

  20. Anonymous, please don't be, especially when posting such strong statements.

  21. Anonymous:

    I doubt that Revd John wants to turn this thread into a debate about the theology of grace(!), but to characterise all non-Evangelical theology as a "gospel of works" betrays a certain lack of understanding. What specific part of Catholic theology do you consider to be a "gospel of works"?

  22. Your "sixtieth decade"? Wow.

    Assuming you meant to say "sixth", I am well into my sixth decade and I am fairly sure you're still older than I am.

    (Thoroughly agree with your line of argument by the way).

    John, Chadderton

  23. John, you're quite right. I put it down to a very nice glass of wine.

  24. Just to revisit the parallels between the situation faced by Reform and the historical comparison of the SCM/CICCU.

    Whilst I think Revd John is correct and Niall on this point is wrong; I would also note that it is possible to adopt different strategies in holding to orthodoxy. The circle the wagons approach has been tried before, and has ended up creating its own subcultures with all the problems that that brings in terms of passing on the faith.

  25. It seems to me that Reform has focussed on driving a wedge between itself and the rest of evangelical anglicanism (as well as the wider CofE). That includes anglican evangelicals like myself, who consider that the Bible requires all forms of Christian ministry (ordained or not, includes priests and bishops) to be equally open to men and women. Whilst I respect their different interpretation on this topic, it has nothing to do with proclaiming the gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus. Have they really come up with a theology where the validity of an evangelistic message is determined by sex of the person preaching it?

    Reform has become a organisation that is defined by what it is against, rather than what it is for. Compare it to New Wine, another evangelical anglican organisation. New Wine seems to be growing continuously, because they're not a protest movement - they exist to promote a school of churchmanship which doesn't involve constantly disparaging others. You don't see New Wine people publicly knocking those who don't share their charismatic beliefs, nor do they want exceptions to be made for them. All Reform does is retreat into a corner shouting "you are wrong" at everyone else and insist that they get special consideration by the rest of the church.

    The sad thing is that I don't see anyone in Reform refusing to accept the authority of a liberal bishop who denies the inspiration of the Bible, and saying that they must have alternative episcopal oversight. But they'd take a completely different line if the bishop happened to be a woman, even if she was a card-carrying evangelical. Something is very wrong there.

    My own church actually shares many of the distinctives of Reform - evangelism, bible teaching, conventional views on sexuality, and a desire to see the Church of England become focussed on bringing the gospel to the nation. But you wouldn't have us because we disagree on women's ministry. What a waste.

    If Reform does not want to work within the Anglican system and constantly refuse to accept the decisions of synod, perhaps it's time for them to leave.

  26. Pres(by)ter John,

    Thank you for your answer. I believe the first clause to be naive - not only with respect to livelihoods but possibly (if obviously not always imminently)to lives (though allowing that perhaps no subtlest cyber-precautions would prevail against the sufficiently skilled and determined hunter-down)- and do you not recall the case of Father Bennett and his critical Crockford's article? In any case, not all of us are Archdeacon Grantly's, some are more like the Warden (if I may wax Trollopean).

    I believe your second clause ("it encourages [...]") to be unjust and inaccurate. For example, Lemuel Gulliver, among others, teaches us there may be many and varied good reasons for pseudonymity.

    If I must be, to your comments-posting, as you are to the Reform Covenant and so Council, (alas) so be it: but I beg you in the bowels of Christ to reconsider!

    Smectymnuus Smith
    Europa Infelix

  27. The trouble with Reform is that it doesn't know what it believes.It claims the perspicuity of Scripture and its sole authority, and yet it can't agree on divorce and re-marriage and has to disguise this in its Covenant!

  28. I allowed my own membership in Reform to lapse but continue to be a member of both Church Society and the Prayer Book Society. I'd have liked to see both the Church Association and the Protestant League revive, but that is quite unlikely. Perhaps I will renew my membership in Reform. There are some of us in the U.S. Who use the 1662 BCP and have been seeking oversight for some time, but have had no success. My own congregation has been without a bishop for seven years. We have been in contact with the Church of England in South Africa, but the no longer reply to our appeals for oversight. If there were one bishop in the C of E to whom we could apply we certainly would, but I know of none who would grant us any pastoral oversight. The situation for us is quite desperate. If any of you in the U.K. Know a good Protestant bishop please let me know how to contact him.