Reform Reborn?

John Richardson on recent developments

When it was founded in 1993, Reform attracted a great deal of initial interest. Within a few years, however, many felt it had rather lost its way. Perhaps the low point came when proposals to set up an alternative episcopacy were rejected by the annual Conference, leaving several key members angered at an apparent lack of willingness to act. After this it seemed that once again the Conservative Evangelical tendency to congregational isolationism would prevail. Rich and successful churches would increasingly do their own thing, whilst those lacking the power or the money would be forced to accommodate to the Anglican system.

In the following years, however, significant changes took place. The leadership of Reform learned from the disappointments and began to look for alternative strategies. At the same time, the establishment of local groups meant that Reform became not so much a ‘power bloc’ as a network of activists. Yet still Reform seemed a long way from the heady days of its birth. What had begun with a bang seemed to be facing a potential whimper. That was until the announcement of the appointment of Rowan Williams.

Media

Even prior to that announcement, Reform had been active in response to rumours of candidates’ names, and a letter had been sent to the Prime Minister warning that Williams would not be acceptable to many Conservative Evangelicals. The protest was, of course, unsuccessful, but instead of acquiescing Reform went further onto the offensive and, in an unprecedented move, Rowan Williams was publicly urged not to accept his own nomination as Archbishop of Canterbury.

At this point, Reform was propelled into the spotlight and this year’s Conference enjoyed considerable media attention. Having been organized months earlier, the Conference was not about the appointment of Anglican Archbishops – in fact its theme was religious pluralism. But there was a neat dovetail between this and the concerns about Rowan Williams, and the Conference Statement focussed on that issue.

Inevitably, a higher media profile has made little practical difference to the Canterbury appointment. Nevertheless, from being merely an irritant Reform has become an unignorable, and thoroughly loathed, thorn in the flesh of the Anglican establishment.

Evangelical Drift

Just as significantly, however, Reform is unpopular with many other Evangelicals. Since the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Nottingham in 1977, the Evangelical world has gradually drifted into three camps. The Charismatics, once almost an underground sect, are now established as mainstream, not least through the Alpha Course. The largest numbers, however, are to be found in the ‘Open’ Evangelical group. Yet this group also represents a significant shift within evangelicalism. Moreover it is this group which most deeply dislikes what Reform represents.

Open and Closed

‘Open Evangelical’ is the preferred label of those who wish to distance themselves from other, traditional, types of evangelicalism. Significantly, almost all the Evangelical bishops belong in this group and at least two theological colleges (Trinity and Ridley Hall) describe themselves as ‘Open’. Yet Open Evangelicalism is actually quite hard to define. It claims to hold on to all the things Evangelicals have always believed but also to be ‘open’ to insights from other ‘traditions’. Yet even this is not really a ‘distinctive’, since Evangelicals have generally been willing to learn from those of other traditions. However, Open Evangelicalism subsumes a traditional Evangelical theology under a postmodern ecclesiology whereby everyone must be accepted even when their beliefs and practices are radically at odds with biblical teaching.

There is (of course) one exception to this ‘all will have prizes’ stance, and that is classical Evangelicalism itself. It is this, particularly as represented by Reform, which is perceived as the fly in the ointment of the Church of England. Not only have these people criticized the appointment of Rowan Williams, they have also (as Christina Rees alleged when she resigned from the Church of England Evangelical Council) ‘taken over’ many of the traditional Evangelical bodies in the Church of England. In fact, Open Evangelicalism defines itself most distinctively by its ‘closedness’ to the Evangelicalism from which it was born.

Developments

Meanwhile, however, Evangelicalism itself has not stood still. When Reform was founded, it would be fair to say that it was isolationist in ecclesiology, upper-middle-class in culture, old-school-tie in its leadership ethos and lightweight theologically. Those elements have not entirely disappeared, but shifts have taken place.

The most promising in the long-term is the shift in emphasis on theological equipping. And this is largely down to the work of the Proclamation Trust, which put Bible preaching and teaching back at the top of the evangelical agenda. However, the English Evangelical approach to these had traditionally been like the English approach to sport – practising beforehand spoilt all the fun. Thus for decades ordination candidates from Evangelical churches were encouraged to go to Oxford or Cambridge, not because they would get the best theological training there, but because it would enable them to do follow-up work amongst the boys from the ‘Bash Camps’. But the Proclamation Trust also promoted links with Sydney Anglicans, and they were to challenge English amateurism. Jonathan Fletcher wrote of the first visit of John Chapman, the evangelist from Sydney, ‘We didn’t need to be encouraged in evangelism [...]. We needed to be rescued for Reformed theology. [Chapman’s] theological input has been more important than his evangelistic input.’1

Two results followed from this. One was that Evangelical churches began encouraging theological development. No longer was it enough to study the Bible – people were encouraged to learn how to study the Bible. The other result was that when the post of principal became vacant at Oak Hill Theological College, it went to David Peterson, a member of the faculty at Moore College in Sydney.

A ‘PR Problem’

It would be hard to deny that Oak Hill is now the ‘college of choice’ for Evangelicals who wish to gain a good theological training. Wycliffe Hall is not embarrassed by its links with traditional Evangelicalism, but Oak Hill has become the college towards which ordination candidates tend to be steered by the most conservative incumbents. But it is precisely in this that we see the potential difficulties facing Reform-minded Evangelicals, for Oak Hill is also the college from which Diocesan Directors of Ordinands most wish to steer students away.

Battles within the Church of England are fought with smiles above the table, whilst the most vicious kicking is being delivered below it. Contrary to foreign opinion, the English do say what they mean, but you have to be English to understand that (for example) ‘deeply felt pain’ can mean ‘scarcely concealed glee’ in certain contexts.

Thus the Anglican establishment cannot say outright that it wishes Reform members would get out, but it can say, as Michael Turnbull recently did in a radio interview, ‘you need to question whether you’re in the right communion within the Christian families.’ And hence Oak Hill were recently told by a DDO that they have ‘a PR problem’ within the Anglican Church.

Evangelical Integrity

The situation is further compounded by proposals to replace the current ‘confessional’ theological colleges with local centres training people of all theological ‘traditions’ under the same ‘Anglican’ ethos. This would, of course, be a triumph for Liberalism, but it would be the death-knell of traditional Evangelicalism. Yet in spite of evangelicals being told for the last twenty years that ‘the ball is at your feet’, the Church of England belongs to the Liberals. And so the dilemma for Reform and like-minded Anglican Evangelicals is not whether they wish to stay in the Church of England – the vast majority do – but whether they will be able to continue in it with integrity.

The Liberal hegemony has resisted both its own decline in numbers and theological imagination and the rise in Evangelicals of every type both numerically and theologically, and only two reasons for this really suggest themselves. One is simply sin. Drifting from the gospel is as old as the gospel itself, and the ranks of Liberals have always been filled largely from the recruits of Evangelicalism. The antipathy felt by traditional Evangelicals towards their ‘Open’ brethren is because history teaches that the next stage for them will be ‘Post-Evangelicalism’, before they finally arrive at convinced Liberalism. The battle to hold on to the gospel is a spiritual battle which many, tragically, lose.

Structures

The other explanation for the power of Liberalism, however, is structural. A Puritan once wrote of brethren who had enjoyment preferment in the Elizabethan church, ‘I see such worldliness in many that were otherwise affected before they came to cathedral chairs, that I fear the places alter the men.’2 In one sense, it is reassuring to know that ‘things were ever thus’. Nevertheless, we must ask in all seriousness why promotion in the English church draws so many away from their ‘first love’.

The problem surely lies not primarily with the ‘men’ but with the ‘chairs’ – or rather, with the structures within which those chairs operate. In England, Anglican episcopacy demonstrably stifles gospel people and gospel ministry. And thus until the structures are reformed the Church will not be renewed.

The Finish

Ultimately, of course, it should not be necessary for Christians within the Church to band together to promote what Christians have always believed. Some years ago I was explaining to a Muslim friend that many of our bishops do not believe the Bible to be a word from God. ‘So why are they bishops?’ she asked innocently. I still have no answer. But worse than that, I have no answer as to why the Church accepts them as bishops.

In openly questioning the appointment and the theology of Rowan Williams, Reform has started something which it must finish. It is not just Archbishops who must be called to account for theological waywardness, but every bishop! Yet if Reform’s current protests come to nothing, then Reform will have shown that it stood for nothing. Reform cannot afford to fail. But more importantly, the Church of England cannot afford for Reform to fail.

Revd John P Richardson is Senior Assistant Minister, Henham, Elsenham and Ugley. The views in this article are entirely his own.

 

End Notes:

  1. M Orpwood, Chappo: For the Sake of the Gospel (Russell Lea: Eagleswift Press, 1995), 202, emphasis original

  2. Lord Burghley (William Cecil), quoted in P Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), 49

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