A quiet revolution, not an Evangelical takeover

by
19 February 2016

Evangelicals now dominate senior clergy posts; they can be a force for renewal, argues Ian Paul

SOMETHING has changed in the Church of England. It is a radical change, but one that has not attracted much comment. I was alerted to it when the Rt Revd Martyn Snow was nominated as the next Bishop of Leicester.

A diocese with a long tradition of liberal leadership has appointed someone with an Evangelical outlook, and the youngest diocesan in the Church. This is not an isolated example.

Among the five senior diocesans, Canterbury, Durham, Winchester, and York are clearly Evangelical, and in London we have a traditional (rather than liberal) Catholic. In the next tier we find Chester, Bristol, Birmingham, Coventry, Sheffield, Carlisle, Peterborough, and Leeds, and then include at least Blackburn, Bath & Wells, Guildford, Southwell & Nottingham, Rochester, and Europe, and you have a formidable representation of Evangelicals in the House of Bishops — one without precedent in modern times.

It is important to qualify and clarify what this means. Bishops are famously reluctant to own theological labels, for understandable reasons. They are, after all, there to function as a focus of unity around the Church’s teaching, not to serve as point-scoring for particular traditions, or signs of shallow triumphalism.

The presence of so many Evangelicals will not satisfy the extremes, either. Liberals might worry about a threat to the “broad Church”; conservative Evangelicals will wonder why it remains so broad — apocryphally asking of consecrations: “Is that the service where they remove your backbone?”

 

THE reasons for this change are deep, and, within the Evangelical tradition, reach back at least 50 years. At the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress (NEAC) at Keele, in 1967, a significant question was whether Evangelicals, who still had a sense of being a beleaguered minority, should stay within the Church of England at all.

The Revd Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the pastor of Westminster Chapel, had said no, they should “come out from among her”, and form a pure, uncompromised, Evangelical Church. The Revd Dr John Stott, Rector of All Souls’, Langham Place, urged Evangelicals to stay, engage, and effect change from within. Dr Stott won the day — although his position then still does not convince everyone. Evangelicals are not always good at compromise.

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At the second NEAC, in Nottingham, in 1977, the Revd Dr Anthony Thiselton urged a second kind of engagement by Evangelicals: with scholarship, and, in particular, with hermeneutics.

 

THIS commitment to engage has borne remarkable fruit. In 2007, the Ven. Gordon Kuhrt analysed what was happening to theological traditions in ordination training, and found something remarkable. Thirty years earlier, Evangelicals had accounted for about 30 per cent of ordinands entering training. By the time of his writing, this had changed to 70 per cent.

This was not because the numbers of Evangelicals coming forward had increased, but because the numbers of Catholics and liberals (to use the three broad categorisations) had dropped off. All other things being equal, the tradition of ordinands in one age will become the tradition of the Church’s leadership in the next.

 

FOLLOWING Dr Thiselton’s urgings, Evangelicals have also been active in engaging with theology. I was in the first cohort experimentally to move straight to doctoral study from ordination training, and many other Evangelicals have done the same. As a result, there are Evangelicals in every tradition of residential college, and teaching on courses, as well as in context-based training.

Evangelicals no longer stick doggedly to their traditional remit of parish ministry, but are also now area deans and archdeacons, and involved in sector ministries. The one area largely untouched is that of cathedral deans. The large number of Evangelical bishops is just the episcopal tip of an ecclesiastical iceberg.

 

IN THE Church, Mission-shaped Church (CHP, 2004) marked a watershed. It was now credible — and even desirable — to talk about mission explicitly as an Anglican, in a way it had not been after Towards the Conversion of England (1945), nor even after the Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s.

I believe that this explains why Evangelical episcopal appointments are not the result of a conspiracy: Vacancy in See committees are asking for a credible commitment to mission, and Evangelical candidates are giving plausible answers.

To work out whether this situation is likely to continue, look at the youngest diocesans. They are (in age order) Leicester, Southwell & Nottingham (both 48); Gloucester (53); Guildford (54); Europe (56); Coventry, Chichester, Chelmsford (all 57); Winchester, Ely, Leeds, Truro, Sheffield, St Albans, and Manchester (all 58). Of these 15, ten look Evangelical to me, another two traditional Catholic, and only three more liberal.

The high proportion of Evangelical ordinands looks set to continue: a significant route is through youth work, and 90 per cent of youth workers are employed by Evangelical churches.

 

ANY tradition diversifies as it expands, and debates will continue about who are true Evangelicals. As Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden point out in the excellent Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century (Boydell Press, 2014), that debate was as lively in the earlier lean years as in these years of plenty.

The Revd Dr Martyn Atkins, when General Secretary of the Methodist Conference, reflected on how we could go about “resourcing renewal” in his book of that title (Inspire, 2007). Renewal comes, he argued, when an institution rediscovers its “founding charisms”; and, perhaps ironically, this is what is needed to face an uncertain future.

I wonder whether the presence of Evangelicals, at every level of ministry, might aid this process for the C of E: that we recover what it means to be a Reformed Catholic Church. This means not being Reformed and Catholic (and liberal), and living in different silos, nor executing an Evangelical takeover, but holding together our diversity by means of a reflective biblical theology, shaped by insights from previous generations (tradition), and informed by responsible intellectual engagement (reason).

Whatever its pros and cons, this configuration of the Church is likely to be here for some time.

 

The Revd Dr Ian Paul is Honorary Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham, and a member of the Archbishops’ Council; he blogs at www.psephizo.com.

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