Today, October 15, I attended a meeting of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC). And very challenging it was, too.
Founded in 1960, the Council draws together representatives from various evangelical bodies, the evangelical theological colleges and area representatives from the diocesan fellowships. At least, that is what it used to do, and that is still the theory today. Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat different, since the Council increasingly reflects the divisions — and indeed weaknesses — of Anglican evangelicalism.
When I became a Christian, back in the early 1970s, evangelicals in the Church of England instinctively sought one another’s company. When you moved to a new diocese, you sought out, and were sought out by, the diocesan evangelical fellowship. Anglican evangelicals not only knew what they stood for, they knew what other evangelical Anglicans stood for.
What a change from today (and I do mean literally ‘today’) when the divisions and ill-feeling among evangelicals would surely amaze their forebears. Much blame was being laid at the feet of the CEEC itself by some of those present, but we can hardly expect a council of evangelicals to exceed the qualities of the constituency from which they are drawn. And a quick trawl round the internet and blogosphere will reveal an atmosphere of tetchiness, mistrust and ill feeling.
Sometimes this has found expression in explicit doctrinal disputes. Tom Wright’s musings on justification have been seized on by some evangelicals as not just a way to understand the economy of God, but as a badge to distinguish themselves from other evangelicals. The same seems to be true of the ‘penal’ element of substitutionary atonement, which is also now regarded as optional by some in the constituency.
The problem in these disputes is that, under the guise of reading Scripture more closely or refusing to be bound by traditions of the past, new ‘positions’ become a rod with which to beat those maintaining the old. The arguments quickly descend from differences of doctrine to the ad hominem, where the person holding the doctrine is treated as inferior in ability or imagination (this has certainly happened to me). And, in such an atmosphere, godly dialogue becomes almost impossible.
Personally, I feel the problem is still partly the result of the inherent poverty of the Anglican evangelical theological tradition in England. Recently I asked for the names of contemporary Anglican evangelical theologians (as distinct from students of biblical studies or historians) so as to invite one to a conference. The lack of response was telling. Evangelical Anglicans are strong on handling the Bible, but they have long been weak on putting together ideas. And, in the end, evangelicalism is an ‘idea’.
A theological core
Many years ago, the venerable Anglican leader, Harry Sutton, said to me that the revival of evangelicalism in this country would require a theological core, and a theological college at its core. This was before I spent a year at Moore College in Sydney, Australia, and I did not quite appreciate what he meant.
Having been there, and having reflected on my own past training and the present evangelical reality, I understand what he meant. Our divisions are not a matter of ‘rich variety’ but poor comprehension of God’s truth. The best thing we could do right now is declare a period of repentance. After that, we might be able to rebuild not just the CEEC but Anglican evangelicalism. And the result would be good not just for that constituency but for the kingdom.
John Richardson, associate minister of the churches at Henham, Elsenham & Ugley, near Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire
This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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