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Angela Tilby: Threat from ‘Momentum’ Evangelicals

22 February 2019

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TODAY, the General Synod will debate the next steps in the Church’s strategy for evangelism. This includes a call to “motivate our million” regular worshippers to become more confident in articulating their faith.

The proposals mark the success of influential Evangelicals in ensuring that what was once a well-tolerated but distinctive ideology of faith has become the accepted norm.

There is a curious political parallel here. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have been unable to contain their more partisan wings, which now largely determine policy. Momentum and the ERG now threaten to destroy the integrity of the parties that have sheltered them.

The same could be becoming true for the Church of England. The language of faith has been colonised from within. There is a superficial aspect to this: anyone familiar with “Evo-speak” will recognise the alliterative rhetoric of today’s reports. Dioceses are encouraged to “envision, equip, and enable . . .”, etc.

But the reports also show how far narrow Evangelical pressure has diminished the Church of England’s ability speak to wider constituencies. Not only is reversing decline the only item on the agenda, but regular “attendees” are apparently regarded as useless unless they are moved, motivated, and mobilised (sorry — I have caught the habit) into being busy advocates for the one version of the faith considered acceptable.

Many Evangelicals are content to be a part of a diverse Church. But the restless, pushy strategies that will be debated today strike me as inauthentic when seen against the broad orthodoxy that the Church of England has traditionally cultivated. I could have coped with smiling welcomes and (to me, rather scary) “warmth” if I had not ultimately found the theology so suspect.

It just seems wrong to insist that only those who claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus are real Christians, and that their priority should be about converting others.

I am sorry, but this simply is not the faith of St Athanasius, St Augustine, St Anselm, or even of Hooker and Temple. Authentic faith surely begins with God, and is expressed in a concern for the well-being (material as well as spiritual) of society as a whole. It is wrong to diminish normal Christians as mere “attendees”, as though the contemplative worship that sustains them were a sign of weak faith.

I suspect that it would not take much more of this stuff to drive them out, possibly leaving them with nowhere else to go. Perhaps ardent Evangelicals won’t regret this “purification”, any more than Momentum regrets losing Labour moderates.

My deepest worry about the agenda being pushed relentlessly by certain Evangelicals is that it can lead to scepticism and the abandonment of faith. I have seen evidence of this. Nowhere in today’s report is there any theological reflection on the nature of the current church decline. It is at least possible that this agenda is a cause, not a solution.

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