A Study in Understatement

So where were the fireworks of previous years? And what happened to the resolutions denouncing unfaithfulness in our Church and immorality in our nation? Previous Reform conferences have had them in abundance, and some of the younger delegates were seriously disappointed at their absence this year. Surely, if Reform exists for anything, it exists to make a stand?

Fervour and substance

Well, certainly Reform still believes in making a stand, and certainly its members continue to be disturbed by trends in both our culture and our Church. Yet past Reform conferences have sufficiently demonstrated the difficulty of backing up fervour with substance. Thus although this year’s conference was disappointingly quiet to some, it could be argued that it is a potentially more effective body which is beginning to take shape as Reform emerges from organizational adolescence into something like maturity. And although Reform may be in danger of losing its reputation for ranting, it is potentially a greater threat to the status quo today than it was even three years ago.

The conference theme this year was Unity that Helps, Unity that Hinders, and the principal speakers were the former lecturer in Old Testament from Moore Theological College, Revd Dr John Woodhouse, who is now rector of St Ives on Sydney’s North Shore, and Revd Paul Perkin, vicar of St Mark’s Battersea Rise.

Slipshod diversity

In a nutshell, Dr Woodhouse’s message was that the famous Anglican ‘Unity in Diversity’ consists of an unhelpful and enforced unity regarding things that don’t matter and a slipshod and unacceptable diversity regarding things that do. Unity always has the potential to reflect the divine truth found in God or the human arrogance found at Babel, just as division may sometimes be godly and sometimes ungodly. The true unity of the Church comes from its Lord who is the builder of his Church through gospel preaching. But this Church is most clearly visible in the local congregation, not the theoretical ‘body’ of the denomination.

Dr Woodhouse acknowledged the value of the denomination in expressing something of the unity of the Spirit which transcends the local church. But he also acknowledged the dangers of denominational centrism, not only administratively but theologically. Dr Woodhouse reminded the conference that the Church of England has habitually enforced unity on its members and expressed the view that it was past time for the English Church to resist this trend. If not, he said, there would be many more Kidderminsters – referring to the situation in the Worcestershire diocese where the Revd Charles Raven and his congregation are being marginalized and manipulated by various institutional groups. Like Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, Dr Woodhouse advocated breaking the power of the denomination to impose or refuse the ministry chosen by the local congregation.

Tilting at windmills?

Yet although Dr Woodhouse certainly stirred and stimulated the conference, there was no demand for a motion or statement that would curdle the blood of Reform’s opponents. Indeed, beyond a resolution in clear support of Charles Raven, the conference avoided making any newsworthy pronouncements. Instead, there was a thoughtful and theologically reflective review of his past year’s activities as Chairman by the Revd David Banting. Particular stress was laid by Mr Banting on how important he had felt it was to listen to others in order to understand how Reform was itself being heard. Clearly, one or two were concerned that listening to their opponents was no way to overcome them. But the majority seemed appreciative of the suggestion that by such listening Reform put itself in a better position to tilt at real targets rather than the windmills of misperception.

My own view of Reform in the past was that it was strong on theological resolve but weak on political astuteness. Like many others in the Conservative Evangelical camp, I have despaired that Reform would ever accomplish anything since it seemed determined to avoid marrying practicality to passion. I therefore came away from this year’s conference encouraged that Reform at last seemed to be coming to terms with the nature of the struggle ahead. Like the ‘war against terrorism’, this will not be a matter of a few weeks bombardment followed by a victory parade. Moreover, the battle is on two fronts since, as its own ‘strapline’ says, the overall aim of Reform is effective evangelism, not just Reform of the Church of England. And whilst the weapons of our warfare in the first case are the well-tried resources of proclamation and prayer, those in the latter are much less familiar. But the less-volatile Reform of 2001 is clearly also totally committed to remaining Anglican whilst totally uncommitted to ‘Anglicanism’. And as such it is much more of a force to be reckoned with.

John Richardson is Assistant Minster somewhere near Stansted Airport.

Pull Quote: The true unity of the Church comes from its Lord who is the builder of his Church through gospel preaching. But this Church is most clearly visible in the local congregation, not the theoretical ‘body’ of the denomination.