Keeping the Issues Open

The Reformer column in this journal has (or should have!) the reputation for pointing the finger at non-evangelical absurdities in the Church of England. This month, however, it is the turn of the three fingers pointing in the other direction.

The cause for complaint is that when it comes to church politics, conservative evangelicals are as incapable of organizing the proverbial p*** up in a brewery as they are of bringing themselves to say the words. Reform has ruffled a few feathers, a handful of conservative evangelicals have got themselves elected onto General and Diocesan Synods, and a member of Reform is now a suffragan bishop. But apart from that, to quote an American political slogan, “Where’s the beef?”

Conservative Catholics may feel they have their backs to the wall, but at least they are in that position collectively and relatively efficiently. They have a thriving organization in Forward in Faith (which has 8,000 members compared with Reform’s approximately 1,400), their own journal (this one) and three bishops to represent their viewpoint. The conservative evangelicals have … well, not much really.

Partly, this is for understandable reasons. Much of the infrastructure of Anglican evangelicalism is now run by non-conservative evangelicals, so that there has been a loss of traditional resources and influence. Again, conservative evangelicals are constitutionally more interested in ‘coal face’ ministry than ‘back room’ politics.

However, conservative evangelicals have failed to acknowledge the illogicality of their own position. Although often (with some justification) accused of independency, they have, for whatever reasons, opted into a wider organization. Yet they have almost entirely opted out of the way it is organized! The result has been that although evangelicals (of all persuasions) have grown in proportion to other groups in Anglicanism, their influence above the local level has increased hardly one iota. The Church of England is still run by a liberal establishment, even if there is a ‘happy clappy’ face under the mitre. (And the sheer fact that the mitre is worn by the majority of evangelical bishops shows how effectively they have been seduced by liberal influences.)

Many conservative evangelicals have complained that involvement in church politics since Keele has got them nowhere, but the truth is that they have never really done the politics properly. In this respect, they would do well to learn from their heroes in the Diocese of Sydney. Those who have admired that Diocese from afar and half-listened to Phillip Jensen will imagine it is evangelical solely by the grace of God and the faithful preaching of the gospel. Those who know the Diocese (and Phillip) better will be aware that in reality the Anglican Church League, which is described in Judd and Cable’s history of the Diocese as having “a well oiled party structure”, has done much to establish and maintain Sydney evangelicalism. And fans of John (Chappo) Chapman should read his biography, where they may be surprised to discover how thoroughly that well-known evangelist became involved in church politics during his time in the Diocese of Armidale. Indeed Chapman contrasts his approach with the ‘leave it to the Spirit’ attitude of his fellow evangelicals as follows:

… what I thought was a godly and pious thing to do, they thought was ungodly. And I thought what they were doing was too stupid for words.

Evangelicals have great power. They are increasing in numbers and, moreover, just as the Americans now largely bankroll the Lambeth Conference, so evangelicals increasingly bankroll the Church of England. But it is only conservative evangelicals who have the will to use that power. However, their opting out of church politics whilst opting in to church structures leaves them at the mercy of a system that actually seeks to silence their voice and stifle their influence. It is, to quote Chappo, “too stupid for words”.