THE WORD ‘P’
ONE OF THE BESETTING problems of English evangelicals is that the best of them don’t believe in church politics. Simply ring-fencing your parish and preaching the gospel is held to be the way to transform (or at least preserve) the church. Yet this overlooks the fact that politics is about the way the members of a community relate to one another and, as Acts 15 shows, the church community is more than individual congregations. Moreover, politics goes on whether you choose to be involved or not. And, as many Germans discovered in the 1930s, to ignore blatantly bad political developments may be to invite your own destruction.
In their book Sydney Anglicans, Ken Cable and Stephen Judd say this about a body called the ‘Anglican Church League’:
The idea of a consensus party which welded all sorts of Evangelicals into a happy coalition was a very attractive one. It certainly was an important factor in the electoral appeal of the A.C.L. However, the conversion of that appeal into political success in synod was due to the effective structural organization of the league. (p 167)
Two phrases stand out from this for the English conservative evangelical reader: “political success in synod” (which most seem to regard as an oxymoron) and “effective structural organization” (which most seem to regard as unnecessarily time-consuming).
The contrast is emphasized when we consider a recent article by a current member of the ACL. In ‘Is Politics a Dirty Word?’ (ACL News, September 1996), Ian Carmichael makes the following observation:
ACL functions in a ‘political’ environment. That is, our Diocese is governed through a semi-democratic political process (Synod). Though ACL did not choose that method of governance, it seems to me an appropriate process, and certainly better than some of the alternatives (eg. dictatorship or anarchy).
Carmichael’s outlook is thus thoroughly realistic. His part of the Church of England, like ours, is governed synodically. It is not an ideal arrangement, but things could be worse. His assumption, therefore, is that evangelicals should get involved because in that way they will further the cause of the gospel. However, synodical government has its drawbacks, as Carmichael points out:
The Synodical process is not based on truth but on numbers. Decisions in Synod are made on the basis of majority opinion. Furthermore, Synod members are not always elected on the basis of their godly discernment and wisdom. Unfortunately, this means that part of the [role of] leadership involves not only fighting for the truth, but fighting for the numbers. It is possible to win the war for truth and yet lose the battle.
Here Carmichael is refreshingly open (even if he actually means “win the battle and lose the war”). Politics is the ‘art of the possible’, which includes the ability to compromise in order to get a ‘better’ result when the ‘best’ is not possible. Yet in case English evangelicals should dismiss this as an unprincipled, Carmichael draws the following conclusion:
Sydney is one of the few dioceses in the world where evangelicalism can exist and flourish, and other evangelicals around the world look to Sydney for leadership. Would this be the case today if it were not for the faithful struggles of godly men and women who worked with and for the good of the Church through the structure of the ACL? God alone knows, but I suspect not.
When we look at our own ranks, we see few leading evangelicals on General Synod, or even on Diocesan Synods. The message seems to be “Those things are a waste of time”. Yet evangelicals simultaneously look to Australia for support and even manpower, without apparently recognizing that the Diocese of Sydney did not drop out of heaven. Sydney is the way it is because men and women of vision used the structures of the institution to push key people in key posts. It is a horrifying thought to those as gentlemanly as the English! But it is one we would do well to note.