This month’s Anglican Update is a significant one – for me, anyway!
For, amazingly, it is now ten years since I started writing this column. But, before you rush to hang out the bunting or indeed to send congratulatory gifts of whisky or cheeses, I thought it would be worth taking a moment to review where we are now – one decade on.
In terms of the Church of England, in some ways little has changed. I could have cut and pasted most of the first column I wrote for EN in 2004 and reproduced it now – and probably few would notice, except, I am sure, the editor!
Ten years ago
In that edition I wrote: ‘At its heart, the battle over homosexuality is a battle between those who continue to believe, as Christians generally have, that because of humanity’s sinfulness and limited capacities, God must reveal himself to us – ultimately through the Word of God both written and incarnate – and those… who apparently believe that the Christian faith is primarily a matter of human cultural construct’. To all this we might say – plus ça change!
And what of Anglican evangelicals? Sadly it is fair to say that among those who claim the label ‘evangelical’ in the Church of England there has rarely been less harmony and understanding. The future of the Church of England Evangelical Council seems unclear. Different groupings – representing open evangelicals, conservative evangelicals and charismatic evangelicals – seem to regard one another with suspicion, sometimes hostility and often mutual incomprehension. Are we saddened by this?
When it comes to conservative evangelicalism specifically, my observation – for what it’s worth – is that in terms of doctrine it is strong, but in terms of devotion sometimes rather weak. Some of today’s conservative evangelicalism is a reaction against the evangelical pietism and charismatic excesses of earlier generations. But I often wonder whether, in seeking a better balance, some conservative evangelicals have become so suspicious of experience, so distrusting of emotion, so wedded to one particular way of preaching, and so committed to doctrinal purity that what we sometimes have is more akin to an ideology than a fully-rounded Christian life.
Such problems are not new, perhaps. Bishop J.C. Ryle wrote in 1879: ‘Cease to regard the gospel as a mere set of abstract propositions… Look at it as the introduction to a glorious personal Friend. This is the kind of gospel that the apostles preached. They did not go about the world telling men of love and mercy and pardon in the abstract. The leading subject of all their sermons was the loving heart of an actual living Christ!’
And J.I. Packer wrote in Themelios magazine in 1996: ‘The great Puritans were as humble-minded and warm-hearted as they were clear-headed, as fully-orientated to people as they were to Scripture, and as passionate for peace as they were for truth. They would certainly have diagnosed today’s fixated Christian intellectualists as spiritually-stunted, not in their zeal for the form of sound words but in their lack of zeal for anything else’.
As for me, I’m with the Puritan Thomas Goodwin who wrote: ‘I never yet took up party religion in the lump… I have found gospel holiness where you would little think it to be, and so likewise truth. And I have learned this principle, which I hope I shall never lay down till I am swallowed up of immortality, and that is, to acknowledge every truth and every goodness wherever I find it’.
Now you may hang out the bunting and send me whisky and cheese! Glory be to God.
Rector of the churches of East Dean with Friston and Jevington, East Sussex