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Vigour in a mythic dark age

27 March 2015

Evangelical history is in process of revision, says John Wolffe

Evangelicalism in the Church of England in the Twentieth Century: Reform, resistance and renewal
Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden, editors
The Boydell Press £60
Church Times Bookshop £54

THIS excellent collaborative volume, edited by two leading younger scholars, and including contributions from eight other prominent researchers, does much to redress previous neglect of 20th-century Anglican Evangelicalism by historians.

G. R. Balleine's History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England (1908) terminated at the beginning of the century, and, in any case, only acquired definitive status because of the absence of serious competitors. Much more recently, studies by Randle Manwaring (1985), Kenneth Hylson-Smith (1989), and Roger Steer (1998) have sought to establish a narrative.

These books, however, lacked grounding in sufficiently systematic research, and have hence perpetuated misleading impressions. In particular, they portrayed Evangelicals as marginal to the Church of England throughout the first half of the 20th century, from the death of J. C. Ryle in 1900 to the appointment of John Stott as Rector of All Souls', Langham Place, in 1950.

This new book demonstrates that early-20th-century Anglican Evangelicalism was much more vigorous than has hitherto been recognised. It does so by moving away from the "great man" approach implicit in an over-emphasis on the careers of Ryle, Stott, and other leading figures to focus attention rather on grass-roots parish life, and regular events such as the Islington, Cheltenham, and Oxford conferences, and the Keswick and Cromer Conventions, which showed considerable vitality in the interwar period.

Vigour of a different kind was apparent in confrontations with Anglo-Catholics, culminating in the defeat of the 1928 Prayer Book. Only in Wales, where the bishops of the disestablished Church sought to achieve unity through imposing liberal Anglo-Catholicism, were Evangelicals truly marginalised.

Atherstone, Maiden, and their colleagues also do much to enhance understanding of the place of Evangelicals in the Church in the three decades after 1945. While there was indeed resurgence during this period, it had deeper roots in the past than has hitherto been recognised.

Some older attitudes were slow to disappear, notably the mutual suspicion of Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, and an imperialistic attitude to the wider world. Nevertheless, the 1960s were something of a watershed. Archbishop Ramsey is shown as surprisingly sympathetic to Evangelicals: and, in general, relations with Anglo-Catholics improved substantially. Evangelicals began to secure a firm foothold in the Church in Wales.

The cautious attitudes to American and African influences apparent in the 1950s gave way to a greater awareness of Evangelicalism as an international and interdenominational movement. There were also endeavours to engage more purposefully with moral and social challenges at home, although an assessment of the activities of Festival of Light in the 1970s also points up the limitations to their influence.

This book is rigorously academic in approach, thereby convincingly supporting its arguments against earlier more superficial accounts. Consequently, it will not be readily accessible to a general readership. The editors' substantial introduction, however, provides a valuable overall analysis of Anglican Evangelicalism in the period, which is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the subject.

It is to be hoped that the research in this book will in due course be developed into new synthesis that will make contemporary Evangelicals and others more aware of their historic roots.

In the mean time, there are still significant gaps in our knowledge of Anglican Evangelical history. In particular, there needs to be more research on the changing place of women in the Church, on ministry for children and young people, and on developments since the early 1980s. Moreover, well-informed re-evaluation of the Evangelical wing should prompt some rethinking of our understanding of the development of the Church of England as a whole. Now that the 20th century is "history", but its legacy is still very much with us, this important book is a great stimulus to the continuing endeavour to understand it better.

John Wolffe is Professor of Religious History at the Open University, and co-author of A Short History of Global Evangelicalism (Cambridge, 2012).

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