Conservative Evangelicals – standing up and being counted

Andrew Presland presents the calls for adequate provision from Evangelicals

New Directions front cover strapline reminds us that it is ‘serving Catholics and Evangelicals seeking to renew the church in the historic faith’. While much attention is focused on views of traditional catholics with regard to the likely impact of the current draft legislation on the Church of England, less prominence is given to conservative evangelical concerns. Many conservative evangelicals believe that having women in positions of authority in the Church is contrary to the Bible’s teaching on headship, so what practical concerns does this lead to? This article provides a chance to hear from some such conservative evangelicals.

No definitive statistics exist on conservative evangelicals’ strength within the Church of England, because official church forms do not ask about such things. Church statistician Peter Brierley comes as close as anyone, in projecting figures from three English Churches Censuses to estimate that 40% of Church of England attenders currently go to evangelical churches – up from 26% in 1989. He also says that 83% of the estimated 175 churches with a Sunday attendance of over 350 are evangelical, although these figures overshoot what we are looking for, in that they include all types of evangelical.

Looking elsewhere to paint a pen picture of conservative evangelicalism reveals that:

Particularly in the Southern Province of the Church of England, there are probably more conservative evangelicals in pews than traditional catholics. Conservative evangelical churches have a high proportion of the very large churches and ofen impressive numbers of committed Christian teenagers, students and young adults. Their churches also typically attract an unusually high proportion of men. (Ven Norman Russell, Archdeacon of Berkshire)

Of the hundreds of conservative evangelical churches in the Church of England, about 300 were recently contacted by researchers. Of the 142 that have so far provided information, 38% of congregations are aged under 30; over 425 women are considered to be part of the staff team or are working for para-church organizations and attending the church; just over 345 ordinands have been sponsored in last 10 years (an average ofthree per church); and most churches have reported signiificant growth in the last 10 years, with at least 55 plants or grafs mentioned and similar numbers of new congregations within the original church structure. The average weekly attendance reported is 209 (compared with a national average of 53) and there is an average of 200 electoral roll members (compared with a national average of 75). (Susie Leafe, General Synod)

Conservative evangelicals are also active in some other aspects of church life which Archbishop Rowan has recently identified as being particularly positive: Anglican involvement in relief and development and the Anglican Communion. For example, at the time of writing, Anglican International Development and St Helen’s Bishopsgate were holding a week of Bible teaching for 50 pastors in Juba Cathedral in South Sudan.

Conservative evangelical churches also lead the way in providing young ordinands, another of the Archbishop’s priorities. Reform has calculated that some 70% of all male ordinands aged under 30 come from conservative evangelical churches.

Bringing the wrong type of diversity to the Church of England?

Many conservative evangelicals have less than positive views of the Church of England’s ordination selection process. They have, for example, noted the unevenness of the playing field whereby conservative evangelicals are deemed to require ‘broadening out’ (e.g. by being expected to complete a placement at a church of another tradition), with no similar requirement appearing to apply to liberal catholic candidates. The following observation is fairly typical:

‘I trained for ministry at Oak Hill. My DDO said that the bishop did not like Oak Hill because ‘it did not serve the whole churc’, which is an allegation that could be pretty much made against any theological college – they all have their constituency.’ (Revd Jim Charles, Vicar, St Peter’s, Bexleyheath)

While such barriers have not deterred large numbers of conservative evangelicals from being ordained in recent years, the current flow of ordinands might turn to a trickle if the women bishops legislation goes through unamended, given that potential ordinands may think (at least) twice before deciding that God has a future for them within the ordained ministry of the Church of England. There is, in fact, some evidence that the ecclesiastical equivalent of ‘planning blight’ already exists: ‘The proposed move to elevate women to the episcopate and the lack of thorough provision associated with this alarms me greatly, as well as many of my contemporaries. As a young man who is currently embarking upon the selection process to be ordained in the Church of England, I am leef t feeling rather distressed and torn. Seeing as I would consider myself to be thoroughly Anglican and thoroughly evangelical, I am caught in a diiffcult position as I think about pursuing ordination. I love the Anglican Church, the historic formularies of the Articles and the Creeds, and there is no place that I would rather be. I love the Scriptures and seek to obey them in all matters of life and conduct. I cannot, in conscience, see this motion carried through without proper provision provided. What then am I to do?’ (Andrew Smith, Cornhill Training Course and Church of England Youth Council)

‘Our female youth worker/Cornhill student was and is very able, but understood that she would not get into the CofE as a deacon because she would be unwilling to be ordained priest. We had no funds to employ her at the time so she took a job in Manchester as a youth worker and eventually had to earn some real money, so returned to nursing. She is still actively involved but lost to paid ministry.’ (Revd Russell Moul, St Paul’s, Harold Hill, Essex)

While this does not point to an immediate exodus from the Church of England if the unamended draft measure receives the necessary support from General Synod, a couple of prominent conservative evangelical clergy have come up with the following prognoses:

‘Unless the proposed legislation is changed, it is likely to mean the gradual removal of conservative evangelical witness through the Church of England over a generation.’ (Revd Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s, Oxford)

‘The way this legislation is framed is going to make a huge diifference to our ability to promote the gospel through the Church of England: changes are vital.’ (Preb Rod Thomas, Chairman of Reform; Vicar of Elburton, Plymouth; General Synod) Similar views are held by a range of other conservative evangelicals, including women:

‘I was ordained deacon in 1994 and have remained part of the distinctive diaconate since then, being persuaded theologically that it is not appropriate for women to lead churches. If the provision for those who in all conscience cannot accept women bishops does not protect them

adequately then they will have no alternative but to seek alternative episcopal oversight from elsewhere in the Anglican Communion.’ (Revd Carrie Sandom, Associate Minister for Women and Pastoral Ministry, St John’s, Tunbridge Wells) ‘There is a range of women’s ministry carried out in conservative evangelical churches in the Church of England and one of my concerns is that if those churches are not supported by women bishops, neither will that range of women’s ministry. Since 1992, formally recognised women’s ministry within the Church of England has been focused on being ordained presbyter/priest, with the result that there is little opportunity for those seeking to fulfil other ministry roles to do so withencouragement and training from the Church of England’. (Annabel Heywood, staff of St Ebbe’s, Oxford)

‘Having been on General Synod for over 16 years I am dismayed by the lack of proper provision for those, including evangelical women Readers like me, who do not agree with women bishops. I am also concerned that those who do -want thechange have not listened carefully to their brothers and sisters in Christ whose needs will not be met by the presently proposed Measure. If legal provision was necessary, and generally worked -well, from 1992, then it is certainly needed now. I would urge the Archbishop of Canterbury to take a lead and bring forwardamended proposals for us to vote on in July.’ (Ruth Whitworth, General Synod – Ripon Diocese until 2010; now of Chelmsford Diocese)

Other conservative evangelicals have particular practical concerns that do not appear to be widely recognized:

‘The issue of conservative evangelical churches is the issue of the succession of ministers trained for them. We will not leave; we will find alternative ways of staying Anglican. Can the CofE aafford to lose us? Even many of the ‘liberal’ leadership are people converted through evangelical Anglican ministry.’ (Revd Canon Dr Chris Sugden; Oxford Centre for Mission Studies; Anglican Mainstream; General Synod)

‘The Bishop of Lewes retires in August and at the moment this means there will be no serving bishops in the Church of England who are evangelical and who do not ordain women. The House of Bishops seeks to reassure us – in the preface to the illustrative Code – that they will seek to maintain a supply of bishops to minister among parishes of our integrity – but given that there will shortly be none currently in post, it’s diiffcult to feel any great sense of confidence about this.’ (Preb Rod Thomas, Chairman of Reform; Vicar of Elburton, Plymouth; General Synod)

To conclude, the view expressed below is by no means a lone voice among those evangelicals who personally support the consecration of women as bishops:

‘Unlike many readers of New Directions, I believe that the time has come for the Church of England to be prepared to consecrate women as bishops. However, I do continue to have a number of concerns. First, I am uneasy about the way I have heard some argue for the consecration of women in terms -which aremuch too close to the proliferation of secular ‘rights’ agendas. Following that, I am concerned that some women clergy I have heard speak seem to have little understanding of, or frankly even generosity of spirit towards, brothers and sisters in Christ who take a traditional view. This is obviously not true of all, but it is quite widespread. The Church has acknowledged that the Measure will change aspects ofthe doctrine of the Church of England and surelyit cannot be right for an inclusive church to exclude faithful members for continuing to believe what the Church has historically believed.

‘For these reasons, if I were still on General Synod, I could not vote for the consecration of women on the basis of the Draaf t Measure due to come to York, unless amendments are made by the House of Bishopssuffcient to enable traditional catholics and conservative evangelical Anglicans to remain in the Church of England with a good conscience. Where there’s a will there’s a -way. I hope and pray that it will be found.’ (The Ven Norman Russell, Archdeacon of Berkshire and former Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury) ND