A Strategy for Reform

THERE’S NO SHORTAGE of advice at the moment on what Reform should be doing. This reformer, for one, is rather glad because for the most part the advice is offered by those keen to promote the gospel rather than to have a dig at Reform. However, much of the advice misunderstands what Reform is in business to do.

Generally speaking, critics of Reform want one of three things. First, there are those who want Reform to become fully involved in the bureaucracy of the church and its synodical structures. They point both to the success of liberals in the USA and that of evangelicals in Sydney. They look admiringly at the lead being given to many Anglicans in the Southern Hemisphere by various Primates, and long for evangelicals in this country to organise themselves with equal vigour and coherence.

But what was it that brought Reform into existence? Its very first discussion paper made clear that Reform intended to be a grass-roots movement, working not through the centre but through action taken at parish level. The decision taken at Keele in 1967, that evangelicals should ‘enter’ the structures of the church, was felt by the founders of Reform to have failed in key respects. The radical path chosen by Reform was to emphasise the congregation as the fundamental ecclesial unit, rather than the diocese. This meant that rather than leaving matters such as training or the funding of smaller churches to dioceses, parishes should themselves take action – as has happened with the development of alternative post-ordination training schemes, and the provision of funds for some inner-city and rural churches by a number of the bigger quota-capping churches.

Secondly, there are those who would like to see Reform turning itself into a more concrete body of like-minded evangelicals. They think this would make it easier to liaise more effectively with reforming elements in other denominations, as well as to embark on national evangelistic initiatives. In other words, it would stop Reform being so ‘reactive’, and enable it to take positive action.

This falls into the trap of thinking in an outmoded denominational way: if only we could provide the organisation, everything else would come together. However, as David Holloway showed at the last Reform conference, denominations are no longer capable of providing a clear identity for many churches or of motivating them. Even if Reform were to avoid being seen as a mini denomination, to set up as some sort of para-church organisation is the last thing most parishes want. We’ve got quite enough of those as it is.

Finally, those at the sharp end of debate and action invariably ask of Reform more than it can give. Synod members would like extensive briefing; churches facing suspension of livings would like legal help; those standing up against heresy would like to see shows of strength – the list could be a long one. The difficulty here is that if Reform is to be a grass- roots network, then it is inevitable that action has to be generated and sustained at the local level. Where Reform can play a strong part is in making sure that churches do not get isolated and intimidated. This is partly a matter of helping people think clearly about the issues facing the church, so that they recognise when to come to the aid of others. The range of very readable publications produced by members of Reform as well as the production of its recent ‘tabloid’ are designed to do just that. Partly too, it’s an organisational matter – being able to alert members to the needs of others. As Reform heads towards changes in its Council, it probably now needs to ask if it is properly resourced to make the most of the network it has.

But couldn’t Reform – whatever its strategy – make a bigger splash? That depends on whether individual churches are willing to do so. My guess is that if Archbishop Maurice Sinclair and other orthodox leaders win the day at Lambeth, then Reform churches will bide their time. If, on the other hand, orthodoxy has a bad time at Lambeth, then more and more churches will follow the route of Jesmond and St Oswald’s.