A report from the most recent REFORM one day conference

It was just a week before Synod met in York that I was in a large suburban church praying in a small group for the Church of England.

As the Reading crisis was coming to the boil, we prayed for Canon Jeffrey John, for the Bishop of Oxford and for the Archbishop of Canterbury. We prayed for the ministry of the many churches represented from ten dioceses in the south east of England.

The occasion was one of the Reform Regional Conferences. It was a timely gathering and an opportunity to take stock of the fundamentals of our faith. It was a time of encouragement and refreshment and it was a time of clear thinking.

Biblical authority

There were two addresses from Mike Ovey, a lecturer in systematic theology at Oak Hill, the first covering authority and the Bible, the second covering authority in the Church. On reflection it became clear that there are many in the Church who sit uncomfortably with Christianity being a revealed religion. They want a hand in the synthesis of the faith and dispute the biblical claim that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever.

Indeed, though they read the Bible, they seek an interpretation of the words that sits easily with a contemporary secular mindset. If necessary they are ready to believe that the Bible’s meaning today may be the opposite of its original meaning and if such mental contortions are too much there is always the possibility that Jesus, Peter and Paul never actually said the things they are quoted as saying.

Further, arguments from silence abound. If Jesus did not explicitly comment on, say, cloning or space travel, then he obviously had no views on the subject and everything is permissible. The only authority that is recognized is our own intellect.

It is therefore inevitable that orthodox Christians and liberals will disagree on a whole range of issues simply because we have no common basis of authority to which we can appeal.

Parish planning

The conference divided into seminars. One looked at how PCCs could be galvanized to play their part in contending for the gospel at a local level. A second considered issues surrounding the oath of canonical obedience.

The one I attended was about finance and specifically setting up church trusts. These trusts are an increasingly popular way to finance mission in the parish, as many have found that every effort to raise extra funds is frustrated by dioceses siphoning off a substantial proportion of additional moneys raised in quota demands.

The very existence of such funds makes possible principled opposition to a church determined to spend money on causes to which a parish may take great exception. For many this may seem a remote possibility, but recent events in the Dioceses of Worcester, New Westminster, New Hampshire and Oxford served to demonstrate that issues of substance can arise very rapidly and very close to home.

Praying for conversion

A session on mission strategy and initiatives after lunch helped us to focus on the practical implications of praying for the conversion of England. Even getting ten per cent of the population to church would require a massive increase in the number of congregations and hence a dramatic increase in ordinands.

Jesus told James and John that they did not know what they were asking for. It was good to face up to the implications of where our prayers for church growth might lead. It appeared unlikely that the leadership of the Church of England would have much inclination to gear up for growth and so a broad based ecumenical partnership seemed the most promising way ahead.

Superseded by events

There were briefings on the unfolding situation in the Diocese of Oxford. Many were deeply concerned at the looming crisis – both the financial one and the serious pastoral breakdown between most of the thriving parishes in the diocese and their diocesan bishop. Many of us from outside the diocese listened with a mixture of incredulity and resignation as we heard how intransigent and out of touch with the reality on the ground some of the major players appeared to be.

So, despite heavy hearts, we prayed with fervour that wiser counsels might prevail and that the Holy Spirit would change hearts and minds. It is strange in retrospect how we often pray without a great deal of faith that God will intervene. In human terms, the situation seemed pretty dire, with little hope of an outcome that would serve the cause of the gospel well.

But how little faith we had; even as we prayed meetings were taking place at Lambeth. Soundings were being taken and it was being realized that the diocese had seriously misjudged the situation. Within forty-eight hours would come the announcement that our prayers had been answered and the Bishop designate of Reading had stood down.

A holy man

That announcement on the Sunday was surely the best possible (or least worst) outcome for the Church and for the gospel in this land. Canon Jeffrey John had behaved with admirable restraint throughout the crisis which was not of his making. In the end, he unselfishly put the interests of the Gospel and the unity of the Church above his personal ambition and his natural desire to serve as a bishop. His standing has been enhanced to the extent that the standing of his sponsors has been diminished. Sadly, such selflessness is rare amongst senior clergy.

It reminded me of a visit I made four years ago to another province of the Anglican Communion. I met one very saintly bishop who, I was told afterwards, had not drawn his stipend for the previous eighteen months because he judged his impoverished diocese could not afford it. I remember thinking that I could not imagine that happening in any of our 44 dioceses, but I came away with a renewed respect for the episcopate.

So Evangelicals are in good shape. They will gather at Blackpool in September for the National Evangelical Anglican Congress. The Archbishop of Canterbury will bring his greetings on the first evening and I hope he will absorb some of the enthusiasm, dynamism and exuberance of this part of the Church of England which is growing apace and finds the Anglican ethos of ‘managed decline’ quite irrelevant in the twenty-first century.

Gerry O’Brien is a member of the General Synod, the Church of England Evangelical Council and Reform.