jQuery Slider

You are here

The domestication of Church of England evangelicalism

The domestication of Church of England evangelicalism

By Andrew Symes,
August 6, 2019

As conservative evangelical Anglicans move tentatively towards a necessary review of their structures, culture and practices which have come under the spotlight in the wake of testimonies about controlling and abusive leadership styles, is it possible to maintain unity in the search for truth and better practice? Can a boldness to challenge 'sacred cows', to strongly criticise accepted but not necessarily biblical 'orthodoxies', and change received thinking be accompanied by somehow avoiding destructive conflict, either personality clashes or outright power struggles? In the debate, for example, about whether to leave the Church of England and if so at what point, can different points of view be put forward with conviction, but without calling into question the integrity and intelligence of those who share the same theological foundations but hold a different opinion on strategy? Can genuine grievances be addressed without being weaponised for the furtherance of church-political agendas?

I'd like to put forward four areas where ways of thinking ingrained among English Anglican evangelicals are perhaps unhelpful and contribute to our current problems. In doing so I'm aware that I'm part of the culture I describe, so I'm very much saying "we" rather than "you" or "they". Here are four simple statements of advice that I've heard being given to young clergy or those considering full time paid ministry -- there is truth in them which has been helpful for gospel mission, but they reveal underlying assumptions which has hindered it.

1. "The only real ministry is parish ministry". This advice was given to me when I was first considering leaving a role pastoring a local church to engage in parachurch work. It's good advice in the sense that it affirms the value of the centuries-old model of pastor-teacher, patiently and faithfully looking after a local Christian community with ministry of word and sacrament, service and example. Over-visionary clergy can be tempted to "despise the day of small things" and ignore what God is doing in a humble small group while searching for the key to rapid church growth and subsequent fame on the speaker circuit (as explained in this article).

But it can be taken in the wrong way. It could mean: there's no room for the unique calling of the individual with special gifts, for the entrepreneurial and the prophetic; rather, we've all got to do the same job of managing a local branch of the existing structure. Clergy in being encouraged to focus on the individuals in the locality where God has placed them, shouldn't worry themselves with the big picture, the realm of ideas and trends in society, according to this view. And of course, what about the ministry of the laity in the workplace? There remains an unconscious clericalism among many evangelicals -- a belief in the priesthood of all believers in theory, but in practice the primacy of the pastor-teacher operating in and from the Church of England building.

2. "You must get a collar". A gifted young evangelist was informed with these words that he would never get a platform unless he was ordained. Fortunately in his case he didn't allow himself to be squeezed into the parish vicar mould, but he did have to undergo what was probably for the most part unsuitable academic training and placements in churches with no interest in gospel outreach. The assumption of the well-meaning advice was that respectability by the establishment in terms of ordination credentials is essential for fruitful mission.

Until 1870 non-Anglicans were not allowed to attend university and were barred from certain professions as a result. This was a profoundly unjust restriction of freedom. But paradoxically, the Methodists, Baptists and other nonconformist groups thrived despite their pastors' lack of approved higher education, and the churches' lack of respectability. As they rushed to take advantage of the new access to the social high table, that may have marked the beginning of their decline -- especially the Methodists. From Wesley and others preaching to fervent crowds in streets and fields, with farm and factory labourers studying the bible intently in grassroots classes, the movement became respectable, with ornate buildings and gowned preachers with multiple degrees -- but less supernatural power. The "collar" can be a passport to audiences, or restriction to which the establishment's leash can be attached.

3. "The church pays". A young professional couple are exploring the possibility of a major change: the husband is considering applying for selection for Church of England ordination, but also is interested in options with other Anglican expressions, or denominations. The vicar's response as I overheard it was definite: the Church of England option is a no-brainer. Even given valid concerns about the theological direction of the organisation and its leadership, the C of E provides, and takes away any concerns about finance.

Again, while there is much to be thankful for in the current system, the dangers should be obvious. Ministry will be seen as belonging to he who pays the piper, rather than to the God who provides, to the Holy Spirit who equips, and the local community who receives and partners. There is little incentive to live by faith, dependent on the Lord, when the institution takes full responsibility for finances; an attitude to mission can arise whereby no local initiative can be considered unless those further up the chain have approved funding for salaries, housing, equipment etc. Perhaps more importantly, it becomes very difficult for faithful clergy to challenge wrong theology and practice in the institution when they are effectively employees (despite the language about stipends etc).

4. "Prioritise bible teaching" (or "worship"). Of course both these things are vital for the health of the church. How could they possibly be a trap? When the focus becomes less on the dynamic activity of teaching and learning from Scripture and praising God together, and more on a static "club for the like-minded" mentality, where "we're a bible teaching church" essentially describes a particular kind of white, upperish middle class congregation who are comfortable with a particular way of doing things. I remember once asking a gifted lay person why he and his family had travelled by car 25 minutes to the same church for over 20 years. "Because of the bible teaching" came the reply. So after I pointed out that he had already received a far better training than most full time pastors in the global south, I asked him whether it might be time for him to consider taking some of that wonderful teaching he had received, and using it in a ministry to people who hadn't had the same privilege. He didn't seem to understand the question!

If challenging and inspiring biblical teaching leads to developments in evangelism and mission, and helps people care for one another in radical ways, understand current events in the nation and take a stand in intercession and action against evil, that is wonderful. But without a strong commitment to being changed by God's grace and being agents of transformation, a risky operation which may not be 'respectable' and may even lead to unpopularity and suffering, a superficial commitment to 'bible teaching' can reinforce a secular/sacred divide. Here, the assumption is that in church we think about religious things, we get clear on doctrines and/or enjoy God's presence with others, but in a way that is essentially an escape from the world rather than interpreting the times and acting as God's agents in the world.

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top