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Angela Tilby: Honour for Gumbel is fine, but. . .

19 January 2024

I DO not begrudge the CBE for the Revd Nicky Gumbel in the New Year Honours (News, 5 January). He has been, and is, a significant figure in our national life, not only because of his many years at Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), but also as the entrepreneur behind the Alpha course, the internationally acclaimed introduction to the Christian faith. I met him once and found him heart-flutteringly charming and compelling.

But the citation attached to the honour is “for services to the Church of England”, and it is here that I find myself less certain, not because he has not served the Christian cause well over a long period — he has — but because recent controversy over the prayers of blessing for same-sex relationships suggest that he is now part of an alliance that is considering how to split the Church of England over what many of us regard as a fairly minor issue (News, 12 January). (Small note to reader: same-sex blessings have taken place discreetly and not so discreetly in the Church of England for more than 50 years.)

HTB and its satelite churches have played a cautious game over their attitude to same-sex relationships. Mr Gumbel has been reticent about his views, emphasising HTB’s inclusive welcome. But some of those in same-sex partnerships who have joined HTB churches have found themselves being quietly marginalised and excluded from positions of responsibility. There also tend to be fewer women and black people in leadership positions than might be expected. There seems to be an unspoken preference for young, white, male, heterosexual role-models.

I suspect that Mr Gumbel and others have seen their true mission as infiltrating and then replacing the C of E as a historic, national, inclusive, parish-based institution with their own version of the Church as a nationwide, tightly led organisation for the propagation of Charismatic faith. After all, HTB has already succeeded in taking over much ministerial training, besides bidding successfully for church funding for new ventures.

One of the secrets of Mr Gumbel’s success has been a certain ambiguity about his aims. To encourage some kind of formal separation from the C of E on grounds of disapproval of same-sex relationships is a potentially risky move, which seems likely to alienate more liberally minded Charismatics and Evangelicals. Yet it seems that plans for some sort of formal separation are now quite far advanced, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hopes of bringing everyone on board are being undermined by some of those who once saw him as their man.

So, Nicky Gumbel CBE? Yes, for entrepreneurship, and even for challenging the form and content of English Christianity. But for services to the Church of England? I am not so sure.

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