Leader: Church parties within parties

19 November 2008

WHO SPEAKS for Anglican Evangelicals? It is a question troubling Anglican Evangelicals more than anyone else. Indeed, it is above the heads of most journalists, for whom the different parties in the Church of England are complication enough, without attempting to distinguish parties within parties. That is why we often hear that “Evangelicals” or even “Evangelists” are doing this or that, but are unable to recognise our Evangelical friends in the description. Nevertheless, there is much to be said for having the measure of those who occupy platforms as well as pulpits, and for knowing whether a talking head set up on the BBC’s Newsnight, for example, is the voice of a substantial body of church opinion or merely that of a small group of highly successful self-publicists.

There is certainly a diversity of voices. The rumpus at the National Evangelical Anglican Consultation in London last Saturday showed merely that the surest way to get them all speaking at once is to appear to be trying to stitch up the debate. The article by Dr Kings — one of the Fulcrum persuasion — in our Comment pages last week set out to describe the main divisions. A spectrum runs from Anglican Evangelicals in whom a sense of Anglican identity is strongest, and others who “sit light” to everything from liturgy to episcopal authority, despite the continuous insistence on both by the Church of England. There are Evangelicals who see themselves as picking up the torch from 16th-century Calvinists against whom the tide of history soon turned. That faction has become more prominent lately, offering the allure of a solid point of reference in the shifting sands of complex debates. It is most strongly represented in a distinctive form by the rulers of Sydney diocese. There, clergy and congregations of a different stripe have a reputation for being embattled which is far from auspicious for Sydney sympathisers’ hopes of prevailing in the Church of England.

Evangelical divisions are not unique. High Anglicans have long fallen into two factions prone to sharp exchanges, often marked by misrepresentation or incomprehension: talk about “tainted hands”, and so on. It may be that the liberal ideas of the 1960s and since, bolstered by perceptions of Vatican II, made further inroads in Catholic citadels than among the Evangelicals, so that the latter still understand each other rather better. That may, too, give Evangelical debates their sting; but it is also a strength. For Anglicans who do not call themselves Evangelicals, it can be oddly reassuring to see a party so confident in its shared convictions marching out of step. This phase in Evangelicalism may indeed resemble the triumphalist period of the Catholic movement between the wars, when, behind the razzmatazz of the Anglo-Catholic Congresses that alarmed English Protestants, there were theological and ecclesiological differences that emerged to have a vitiating effect on high-church dominance in due course. If so, it is worth remembering that the gospel is not about coming out on top.

Dave Walker's blog

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