Pete Broadbent gives an Evangelical perspective
WE ALL HAVE our memories of the tragic events of 1988. I used to sit behind Garry Bennett in Synod, and enjoyed his dry humour and occasional asides. It came as a real shock to hear of his death, a shock that gave way to both puzzlement and anger that he should have felt so hounded for writing what he believed that he took his own life. Some months later, I was asked by the Church of England Evangelical Council to prepare a paper reflecting on the issues raised by the Crockfords Preface from an evangelical Anglican perspective. It is instructive to revisit those questions ten years further on, particularly in the light of the change that has taken place in the Church of England over that period.
Bennett’s analysis focused on the Anglican Communion, the nature of the Church of England, and some major structural and ecclesiopolitical concerns.
The Anglican Communion
Catholic Anglicans are far more preoccupied than Evangelicals with the vagaries of certain parts of the Anglican Communion. New Directions frequently carries news of the latest Spong-related horror story from the Episcopal Church in the USA, with the implicit assumption that what happens in that church today is bound to infiltrate these shores sooner or later.
Bennett devoted three pages of his preface to ECUSA, and concluded that the Lambeth Conference of 1988 would decide to resolve the American Anglican “crisis” by doing nothing. In this he was proved correct. There is, of course, an alternative course of action for those who believe that Spong and others like him are beyond the pale. It would run contrary to catholic principle, but it would be consistent with the practice of the New Testament Church. To dissociate the rest of the Anglican Communion from ECUSA until it deals with the various cuckoos in its nest would be a powerful statement that the Anglican Communion is more interested in Trinitarian orthodoxy than societally-driven liberal whim. ECUSA is anyway over-represented at Lambeth, and exerts an influence way beyond its global significance.
Evangelical Anglicans, with their more pragmatic ecclesiology, are not in any event as concerned with the unity of worldwide Anglicanism as are Catholic Anglicans. Many of us would prefer to be Presbyterian or Baptist when sojourning in the USA. Bennett’s questions about the coherence of the Anglican Communion are, for many of us, part of a bigger issue which puts a premium on Christian orthodoxy above denominational preference. This has particular implications for the UK Christian scene, and to this I will return.
The nature of the Church of England
One factor which Bennett did not anticipate was the growth of evangelicalism within the Church of England. Over the past ten years, mainstream evangelicals have come into the ascendancy at parish level, in diocesan structures, and in General Synod. Their influence is even reflected to a certain extent in the House of Bishops. Bennett was suspicious of such evangelicals, whom he saw as part of the liberalising tendency within the Church of England, presumably because of their attitude towards the ordination of women to the priesthood. I would suggest that his concern was ill-founded. What has happened over the last ten years is that evangelical clergy have found themselves operating in a diversity of parishes of varying traditions, and have moved many parishes which previously had no concept of the mission imperative from pastoral mode to mission mode. Simultaneously, a generation of evangelical clergy and laity impatient with ponderous bureaucracy and polite do-nothing platitudes has emerged within all levels of synodical government. Their agenda is clear. The Church of England must evangelise or die.
A sea-change is taking place, and alliances are being forged between mission-minded catholics and evangelicals. It is a pleasure to work with catholic Anglicans who have moved beyond preoccupation with effete catholic ceremony to the gutsy incarnational catholicism which recognises that Jesus is for everybody and is prepared to put that belief into action. New Directions could help in this process by foreswearing cynical carping from the sidelines and seeking positively to be a force to reshape the Church of England. We need a Church which is catholic, evangelical, and urgently missionary.
Bennett identified episcopacy as the focus of disunity for the Church of England. Because an evangelical ecclesiology does not assume the priority of Bishops, our problems with Bishops are essentially pragmatic ones. The financial clout now exercised by parishes means that it is no longer possible (if it ever was) for the Church of England to be ruled by episcopal fiat. The balance of power is shifting from diocese to parish, and our ecclesiology will have to be modified in order to catch up with reality. A connexional church of disparate parishes, over which the bishop presides as teacher and pastor is a more realistic model for
the next millennium than the “bishop as focus of unity” proposition that the Church of England has so uncritically swallowed.
I would want to go further, and suggest that preoccupation with “catholic order” is itself something we can do without. I’m writing this
article while working alongside Baptist, Methodist and New Church leaders at Spring Harvest. Their episcopal credentials are obvious, their adherence to the catholic and apostolic faith is unequivocal, and their equipping for service by the Holy Spirit is clear. We share teaching and eucharistic fellowship. None of us wishes to engage in bureaucratic schemes of unity. Rather, we assert the priority of our calling to evangelise, make disciples, and equip people for ministry and mission in the world, in mutual respect for the diversity of our practice. This will clearly be unpalatable to Catholic Anglicans, but the urgency of the task of evangelisation necessitates a laying aside of ecclesial concerns for the task of the Kingdom of God.
Bennett’s question was “what gives the Church of England coherence?” Ten years on, the more pressing question is “how will the Church throughout England in all its diversity reach the unchurched and reshape itself for the next millennium?” In that context, Bishops are no more than an interesting footnote to a slightly more crucial agenda.
Garry Bennett saw clearly the ineffectual nature of General Synod as a deliberative and legislative body. He recognised that the Standing Committee and its related bodies exercise little real power over the agenda of Synod, and that the “liberal ascendancy” controlled matters through the independence of Boards and Councils and through the behind-the-scenes influence of the House of Bishops.
The Turnbull process has set in place a structure which will fundamentally reshape the “centre” of the Church of England, though not perhaps in the way Garry Bennett had hoped. The Archbishops’ Council will provide a mechanism for ensuring the coherence of the work of Boards and Councils, initiate a potent
process for the greater control of the agenda and deliberations of Synod, and begin to ensure that the Church of England speaks with one voice at national level. Those who see this as a potential curia need to recognise that any centre of power is open to abuse. The important thing is to understand the nature of the power that is being exercised and to ensure that proper systems of accountability are built into the structure from the very beginning. Traditionalist catholics and conservative evangelicals who are worried about the post-Turnbull structures must get involved and ensure that their voice is heard.
What has not been tackled in the last ten years is Bennett’s concern about the liberal ascendancy. He saw quite clearly that the system of
appointments to suffragan bishoprics, archdeaconries and cathedrals lacked accountability and could in some dioceses be used to build a staff power base which moulded the character of the entire diocese. The recently-adopted code of practice on senior church appointments could theoretically produce a more open process, but sceptics will question whether the code is going to be strictly adhered to by the liberal bishop who wishes to create a diocese in his own image. The key to securing changes here lies in the power of the parishes. One could envisage a situation in which a coalition of parishes which is fed up with liberal appointments within the diocese approaches the diocesan bishop in order to make clear their concern that the next suffragan or archdeacon to be appointed needs not to be in the old mould. Such a coalition would need to flex its financial muscles and threaten not to pay towards the upkeep of the diocese if their concerns are ignored.
Legitimate concerns in the Church of England are too easily ignored by the powers that be. We need to get to an open, prayerful and shared system of senior appointments, in which clergy and laity are allowed to participate, and where the old boy network is buried forever.
Having said all that, there are more hopeful signs. Recent appointments in several dioceses have been done more openly, and the predominant ethos of those appointed has been theologically more conservative. Indeed,
there are some dioceses where you would be hard put to find an adherent of the liberal ascendancy on the diocesan staff, but this is still the exception, not the rule. More hard work and prayer is needed if we are to turn the Church of England round.
Pete Broadbent is Archdeacon of Northolt and a member of General Synod.