FIFTY years ago, in early April 1967, the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress (NEAC) met at Keele University, in Staffordshire, for three days of intense debate.
Almost 1000 delegates from Evangelical parishes, mission(ary) societies, and theological colleges hammered out a remarkable new strategy for engaging with the Church of England. The congress chairman, the Revd John Stott, Rector of All Souls’, Langham Place, in central London, declared that “nothing comparable has been attempted within living memory, if ever before.” He welcomed the event as a turning-point in the history of Anglican Evangelicalism; and the Keele Congress legacy still continues today.
It was the age of revolution: the Beatles and James Bond, student riots and civil-rights marches, psychedelia and sexual liberation. Bills to decriminalise abortion and homosexuality were being hotly debated in Parliament, while across the Atlantic the “Summer of Love” was soon under way. Apartheid, Vietnam, and Che Guevara were often in the news.
Evangelicals in the Church of England were eager to demonstrate that they, too, could move with the times, and engage with real-world problems in the 1960s, by throwing off their old-fashioned reputation. One observer likened the Keele Congress to the Second Vatican Council, breathing a spirit of aggiornamento through the Anglican Evangelical movement.
In January 1967, at the Islington Clerical Conference, Stott warned Evangelical clergy that they had “a very poor image” among their fellow Anglicans. Evangelicals were associated with “narrow partisanship and obstructionism”, he said, but it was time “to repent and to change” by eschewing the old party shibboleths.
The Keele Congress was to catalyse this new attitude. No longer “irresponsibly inward-looking”, immersed in their own parishes and networks, Evangelicals would begin to play a constructive part in wider Anglican affairs. “We want now to emerge from our ghettos,” Stott announced. In an article for the Church Times, he admitted: “I frankly hope that the Congress will gain us greater respect in the Church as a whole. Not that we hanker after respectability, that snare of middle age and of the bourgeoisie. But we are a little tired of being so widely ignored, scorned, and smeared.”
THE congress brochure promised that its purpose was “emphatically not just to beat old Evangelical drums, or shout old Evangelical slogans”, but that it would “grapple with live issues”, and do “some serious up-to-date thinking”. This promise was thrown into doubt, however, when it was discovered that there would be nine extended keynote addresses from carefully selected senior Evangelical spokesmen.
There was a groundswell of unrest, especially among younger clergy. What they wanted was not a reassertion of standard Evangelical doctrines, but the formulation of practical Evangelical policy for the 1960s.
One young clergyman complained in the Church of England Newspaper (CEN) that: “If this Congress passes resolutions affirming the deity of Christ, and saying that sex outside marriage is wrong, it will be a waste of time.” The CEN worried that it would simply churn out “platitudinous generalities”, producing “bland answers to questions nobody is asking”, like so many Evangelical conferences in the past.
Philip Crowe, then a tutor at Oak Hill Theological College, said that he wanted to clear away “the dead wood of excessive conservatism”, and hoped that the congress would venture beyond “the well-marked roads of Evangelical theology to the footpaths and the jungles of policy and practice”.
There was rebellion in the ranks. The Eclectic Society, a forum for younger Anglican Evangelicals, demanded that all Keele delegates must be allowed to determine the outcomes of the congress rather than submit obediently to the Evangelical magisterium. In particular, they called for a democratic “statement of findings”, an idea borrowed from the 1964 Faith and Order Conference, in Nottingham.
The Principal of Clifton Theological College, Basil Gough, was alarmed at the restless mood of the junior Evangelical clergy, rebuking these “vociferous angry young men” who “want to lead before they have learnt to follow”. The CEN prophesied a traumatic split between “radicals” and “conservatives”, because it was impossible for the congress to “sufficiently satisfy younger go-ahead clergymen without outraging those of traditionalist views”.
Stott himself was nervous of ceding control. He insisted that the reassertion of classic doctrine must never be “dismissed as platitudinous or irrelevant”, because there could be “no Evangelical policy without Evangelical belief”. None the less, he bowed to the protests, and promised that “delegates will not have the bore of listening in silence to endless papers.” Participation and policy were guaranteed.
WITH the senior keynote speakers sidelined, authority for drafting the congress statement was given to three up-and-coming young clergymen: Philip Crowe, Gavin Reid, and Colin Buchanan, all under the age of 33. Their document was debated in small groups and sub-plenaries, intended to be a fully collaborative process. One layman was happy to report that “we kept our rubber stamps in our pockets, but really wielded our pens, scissors, and paste.”
The final 10,000-word Keele Congress Statement was to shape Anglican Evangelical agendas for the next generation. The historian Adrian Hastings called it one of the most important ecumenical documents of the 20th century.
Some of the congress organisers worried that public debate would reveal Evangelical divisions to a watching world, and thus damage their witness. The established leaders stood shoulder to shoulder. One commentator joked that the only divergence between them was that Stott famously enjoyed watching birds, while Michael Green famously enjoyed shooting them. But the theological opinions of the 945 delegates were unpredictable. Stott promised “free and unfettered” debate — a risky strategy. As a result, the myth of monolithic Evangelical unity was quickly shattered.
The journalist John King celebrated: “Suddenly, Evangelicalism came alive. From being a dull, inert, old-fashioned conformity to a received pattern it turned into a questioning, self-critical search for sensible answers to questions before Christians today. Submission to patriarchal authority melted as young Evangelicals looked at the received answers (or evasions) and found them wanting. It was as though Evangelicalism had come out of the tunnel and men had begun to breathe again.”
In the midst of these centrifugal forces, Stott battled to hold the movement together. He celebrated the near-unanimity of the Keele Statement as a token of the Holy Spirit’s blessing, but Trevor Beeson (later Dean of Westminster) observed that Stott’s chairmanship was “as ruthless as anything likely to be encountered this side of the Iron Curtain”. Evangelical dissentients, mostly conservative, were ridden over roughshod.
Those displeased by the new Evangelical enthusiasm for weekly celebration of the eucharist, or by friendly overtures to the Pope and the World Council of Churches, were “laughed out of court”, Frontier Magazine stated in its summer 1967 issue. The Keele consensus was a political triumph, due in no small measure to Stott’s managerial genius, but the fractures in the movement were beginning to deepen.
THE most significant legacy of the Keele Congress was its insistence that Evangelicals must engage constructively with other Anglican traditions. This involved a revolution in their ecclesial mindset. Stott asserted, as late as February 1967, that “Evangelical” and “Christian” were “virtually synonymous”. In other words, other Anglican theologies were an aberration from the true gospel. This exclusivist position was very popular among Evangelicals, but it melted away after Keele. Loyalty to Anglicanism began to take precedence over loyalty to Evangelicalism.
At the congress itself, a handful of non-Evangelicals were invited as observers; they included representatives from the Mirfield Fathers, the Cowley Fathers, the Student Christian Movement, the Church of Rome, and Eastern Orthodoxy. This wide embrace was too much for some. One Evangelical minister sarcastically asked why the Seventh- Day Adventists, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses had not been invited, too.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey graced the platform, and attempted to build bridges with his audience, by referring to “our Evangelical calling”. But he also exhorted Evangelicals to learn from their fellow Anglicans that sacramental confession and eucharistic sacrifice were good ways to keep the cross of Christ central.
He urged them to face up to questions of scientific and historical criticism “vigorously and fearlessly”, as theologians such as Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann had done.
In a private letter of thanks, Stott politely applauded Ramsey for this “splendid biblical study . . . which illumined our minds and warmed our hearts”. But such cosying up to the Archbishop was obnoxious to many. The Nonconformist Evangelical Times chastised Anglican Evangelicals for their partnership with “an avowed enemy of fundamentalism, and a man who is a committed advocate of harmony with Rome”.
This newfound ecumenism was a remarkable volte-face. Senior churchmen were hostile. J. I. Packer, then Warden of Latimer House, Oxford, derided “the pathological state sometimes called ‘ecumania’ — the uncontrolled urge to merge”. Likewise, Professor Philip E. Hughes asserted that the “distinctives of the Christian faith cannot be bartered for the blandishments of a fashionable bonhomie”. He believed that uncritical ecumenism was “a corrosive that eats away the foundations of the Church of Christ”, and predicted the rise of a “vast and immensely powerful church of Antichrist, embracing any and every form of pseudo-Christianity, paganism, and heathenism”. This was classic Evangelical rhetoric.
But the Keele Congress Statement struck an altogether different note. It urged Anglican Evangelicals to throw themselves into ecumenical dialogue, and spoke of a desire to “shake free” from anti-sacramental and anti-intellectual attitudes. The diplomat and writer Sir John Lawrence summed up the paradigm shift neatly: “Pietism is out, ecumenism is in.”
Another observer, Michael Harper, the founder of the Fountain Trust, likened the congress to “a ‘coming-out’ party, and a very breathless one at that. Evangelical Anglicans, like coy self-conscious debutantes, were launching themselves into the orbit of ecclesiastical society.”
Many welcomed the shift in emphasis. Bishop Savage, of Southwell, told the Church Pastoral Aid Society that Anglican Evangelicals needed “to leave the touchline and get into the game”. Soon, books such as Ministry in the Seventies (1970) were urging Evangelicals to abandon their entrenched positions and begin collaborating with other Anglicans — even in pulpit sharing and mission partnership.
THE Keele Congress legacy remains highly contested. Many celebrated it as a triumph, a sign of a new dawn for Anglican Evangelicalism as it entered the modern age. Others, however, had a growing sense of alarm that the old ship had lost its moorings. While exciting new friendships with non-Evangelical Anglicans were forged afresh, older friendships with non-Anglican Evangelicals were neglected and broken.
Morgan Derham, of the Evangelical Alliance, warned in the CEN that Keele’s advocacy of ecumenism, and its loose definition of Christianity, were seen by Nonconformist Evangelicals as “something near to treachery”. Some Anglicans felt the same way, though only a small minority.
Between 1967 and 1976, a dozen clergymen seceded from the Church of England for various forms of independency, heeding the call of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a minister of Westminster Chapel, for Evangelicals to leave doctrinally mixed denominations. In parting, these seceders often blamed the Keele Congress for propelling the Anglican Evangelical movement on a novel and disastrous path.
Another fruit of Keele was that Evangelicals were rewarded with invitations to the top table in Church of England affairs. At the congress itself, Anglican dignitaries were conspicuous by their absence: they could muster only two diocesan bishops, one elderly suffragan, and two retired missionary bishops. Among nearly 500 clerical delegates, only 16 held honorary canonries.
But, when the Evangelical David Sheppard succeeded the notoriously doctrinally avant-garde John Robinson as Bishop of Woolwich, in 1969, it was hailed as proof that the Keele policy was working.
The Church of England was slowly being “Evangelicalised”. By the 1980s, it was no longer unusual to meet an Evangelical bishop, a trend that has continued to gather pace.
This, too, is a contested legacy. A vocal critic, David Holloway, one of the founders of Reform, suggests that Evangelicals at Keele sought to participate fully in Anglican structures in order to “capture the Church of England” for the gospel, but, instead, they became ensnared by the institution and rendered ineffective (Reform Discussion Paper No.1, 1995).
Whether celebrated as a godly revolution that forced Evangelicals to escape their ghettos, or mourned as “a sign of doctrinal declension”, as described by D. A. Carson in The Anglican Evangelical Crisis (1995), all are agreed that the 1967 Keele Congress was a watershed moment. It stimulated a significant shift in attitude and outlook which transformed Evangelical engagements with the wider Church of England.
Even half a century later, the Keele Congress continues to dominate Anglican Evangelical narratives and self-understanding. That contested history still determines many Evangelical policies and strategies for influencing Anglicanism today.
The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone is Latimer Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and co-editor of Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century (Boydell, 2014).
An outsider’s perspective
Margaret Duggan recalls concern for her soul when she covered Keele
EVEN after 50 years, and several decades of reporting national and international church conferences, I remember the Evangelical Congress as the most hard-working of gatherings and obsessed with its subject-matter. Not only were the sessions unrelenting, but conversations in the endless queues for the refectory, over meals, and late into the night were all about the Evangelical agenda.
The hard-line factions, with their views on bishops and vestments and the authority of the clergy, kept largely to themselves. I don’t actually remember the issue of headship being raised significantly. But, among the less contentiously minded, there was real friendliness to outsiders like me. All seemed to have their own conversion story to tell with time, date, and place; and utter confidence that their salvation was assured.
There was much talk of gifts of the Spirit, speaking in tongues, and acts of healing. I was cross-examined time and again about the state of my own faith, which was — and is — of the woolly, always hoping, always doubting liberal Catholic variety. It was difficult not to start feeling a sense of acute inferiority. One Kenyan ordinand spent a whole lunch hour pulling my theology to pieces, and almost convinced me that I was for ever lost.
I came to accept spontaneous outbreaks of prayer that, in any other context, I would have found acutely embarrassing. Even Michael Green, then Senior Tutor at the London College of Divinity, and one of the leading speakers, spent more than an hour late one night trying to explain to me what it was like to accept Jesus into my life as a single life-changing event — but left me still uncomprehending.
It was probably the only conference I ever attended where members were concerned for my soul, and didn’t just see me as a vehicle for possibly getting their pet views into the Church Times; but it left me with the conviction that the different certainties of Evangelicals and Catholics, and the more typical uncertainties of Anglicans like me, are fundamentally matters of temperament.
There are those fortunate people who can be convinced in their own mind that they have the truth, and those of us who perennially ask: “What is the truth?