For the Sake of the Gospel
That is the title of the annual Reform Conference at Swanwick March 11th – 13th (details elsewhere). All our publicity talks about our main aim, winning the nation for Christ. That can be an easy slogan, but we mean it. Recent upbeat comments about the Decade of Evangelism at the half-way stage talk optimistically about the Church of England having halted the decline in numbers. At best that is hardly a cause for great enthusiasm and even that statistic may be somewhat doubted. Reform believes fervently in the gospel of Jesus and its relevance to our age. But we believe that to be truly evangelistic you must be unashamedly evangelical. It is impossible to have enthusiasm to spread a message about which you have lost confidence.
At Swanwick we shall not be celebrating three years of existence. We shall be looking forward with some trepidation, but also with excitement. There will be much debate about evangelism with seminars and discussions. But we shall also be looking seriously at some of the issues which make it difficult to evangelise. There was an old slogan that even if your Anglicanism was somewhat diluted the Church of England still remained “the best boat to fish out of’. I have always had a higher view of my Church of England connection than that. But it was true that the opportunities for evangelism were tremendous from the local church to which people came for all sorts of reasons. Now the tag of C of E is not so popular and several times recently I have been in the embarrassing position in parish evangelism of finding that Church of England connection has actually been a liability rather than an asset.
I personally came to Christ through a local Anglican church in Lancashire. My call to the ministry was clearly within the Church of England and although I have been very happily involved in many interdenominational ventures, not least as Chairman of the great Keswick Convention, my heart has been truly Anglican. I love its liturgy, I believe in the parochial system and I am happy that its formularies until now at any rate have been thoroughly evangelical. Indeed under pressure I would want to say that a good Anglican will be an evangelical. I find it hard to be involved in church politics but I have been drawn inextricably into it, particularly since the vote on the ordination of women in November 1992. I felt that to remain silent would be guilty, hence my involvement in Reform and then my willingness to take on the position of Chairman of the Council.
Historically one of the strands which led to Reform was from a group of us as evangelicals who had expressed unhappiness about the ordination of women because of headship issue in the New Testament. We have some very real affinity with our friends in Forward in Faith, but come from a slightly different perspective, and equally on the issue of episcopacy we may not be quite so absolutely sure that a church needs to have bishops. We recognise that they could be for the well being of the church, but in the New Testament there seems to be much flexibility. However, we are concerned that those who do stand firm on these issues are being marginalised, that very soon we shall be asked to think in terns of women bishops and certainly Reform does not believe that there is any bishop on the bench who represents us in this particular matter. Yet there has been no success thus far in a flying bishop from an evangelical background.
It has been my responsibility with other members of Reform to represent our position in public in many ways. In the early days I found many people unwilling or unable to see the link between the hermeneutic which allowed the ordination of women and that which will allow for the ordination of practising homosexuals. Several times people commented that they could see no connection. I find no joy in the fact that I have been proved right and the recent book by Michael Vasey wants to make scripture stand on its head. He would claim to be evangelical and even to believe in the infallibility of scripture. Such a statement makes us doubt the meaning of that word evangelical which many of us have worn with pride over the years. That battle is still very much with us. We have argued against the Bishops’ report “Issues in Homosexuality” which allowed for laity to engage in a physical homosexual relationship and still be church members, but not for the time being for clergy. The New Testament does not admit two different moral standards for clergy and laity and sadly the recently publicised Church of England Evangelical Council report on homosexuality while expressing basically what we believe, still would support that Bishops’ report. We do believe that we have reached very critical days on this particular issue which is ultimately a gospel issue because it hinges on the final authority of scripture. It is not possible to preach with conviction a biblical gospel while at the same time demolishing stone by stone the fabric of biblical authority.
There are very many other issues with which Reform is engaged and we have a whole series of booklets on some of these. For example it could well be that in future we shall be wrestling with the whole matter of multi-faith and the uniqueness of Jesus. The Turnbull report has reminded us afresh of the increasing bureaucracy of the church with great financial implications. Evangelical Christians take seriously Christian stewardship and that is true not only of the individual, but of the local church. More recently the problem of the monarchy and the relationship to the church brings yet another strand, all of these challenging us to have the courage of standing firm by biblical truth both in doctrine and morality.
For some of us in Reform these last few years have seen quite a sea change in our lives. The media happily recognise that Reform will speak out clearly on these issues and for a young movement we have been very much in demand to bring our views to the public notice. We may not always have done it with the right blend of truth and love. There are times when battling for the truth means a willingness to be seen to be abrasive. The apostle Paul did not always seems to be gentle when dealing with error and ungodliness. Reform has grown numerically to well over a thousand clergy and laity representative of many churches up and down the country. We realise that we have come to very a significant crossroads and the Conference at Swanwick could be very important indeed. The last Swanwick sent us out to look seriously at the future and we shall be reporting back to our constituency with radical proposals.
Reform is very much a Church of England movement. We are increasingly depressed at the state of our church and many of us find it hard to be optimistic of seeing reform within the established structures of the church. But our convictions are that we are thoroughly Anglican and wish to remain so. But ultimately we are Anglican evangelicals and not evangelical Anglicans. We look forward to sharing with Bible loving Christians of other denominations while at the same time holding true to the traditions of a great denomination which has always been firmly based on scripture. For the sake of the Gospel we need courage as we move into 1996 believing that God has called us to this nation for such a time as this.
Philip Hacking is Vicar of Fulwood, in the Diocese of Sheffield, and National Chairman of Reform