David Banting discusses 25 years of Reform

Reform is 25 years old this year. Such an anniversary warrants reflection and review, if not celebration and thanks. The C of E is properly the Reformed Catholic Church of England. If so, then a network committed to the principle of ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (a reformed church is in need of continual reform) is perhaps necessary and to be welcomed. The current programme before the national Church of renewal and reform is entirely appropriate, so long as it is renewal by the Spirit of God and reformation according to the word of God. Article XXI soberly reminds us that Councils (of the Church), being human assemblies, may err, ‘whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God.’

So, Reform is a survivor. It was launched with a big vision of the evangelization of the nation through the national church, and to that end the reform of the Church of England. The backdrop in the late 1980s was a combination of issues: mission and money, issues in human sexuality, the ministries and ordination of men and women, the centrality of marriage, the shape and ethos of episcopacy—all reflected in the five key topical issues that Reform published in its Covenant in 1993. The immediate occasion was the vote to permit women to be ordained to the presbyterate. To be accurate, the issue was whether the headship or oversight of women was biblically permissible and appropriate or not, as was revealed writ large in the later debate over women in the episcopate. Since the outset, Reform has often been misunderstood and misrepresented as simply not valuing the ministry of women and being against their ordination, and has accordingly been disliked. However, the preamble to Reform’s Covenant is careful and clear: ‘Reform affirms the unique value of women’s ministry. While we believe in the divine order of male headship, we actively support the inclusion of women in the ministry teams of local churches, and are often seeking ways to create new posts and to make more training and funds available.’

Five topical issues were originally highlighted in Reform’s ‘understanding of God’s way of life for his people’ in its Covenant. After restating its overall aim was ‘to win the nation for Christ’ and setting out its doctrinal basis, the five topics were articulated as:

  1. The special teaching responsibility of ordained leaders within the every-member ministry in the body of Christ, and the need to provide for its continuance.
  2. The unique value of women’s ministry in the local congregation, but also the divine order of male headship, which makes the headship of women as priests-in-charge, incumbents, dignitaries, and bishops inappropriate.
  3. The vital importance of monogamous life-long marriage for the care and nurture of children and the well-being of society.
  4. The rightness of sexual intercourse in heterosexual marriage and the wrongness of such activity both outside it and in all its homosexual forms.
  5. The urgent need for decentralization at national, diocesan and deanery level, and the need radically to reform the present shape of episcopacy, to enable local churches to evangelize more effectively.

After 25 years of relentless debate and revisionist trajectory, these seem remarkably prescient and central to the core doctrine and morality of the church. Reform began its Covenant by stating its unequivocal intention to ‘bind ourselves together in fellowship to uphold, defend and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ according to the doctrine of the Church of England. We affirm the definition of this doctrine is set out in Canon A5 as follows: “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures, in particular such doctrine is to be found in the 39 Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.”’

My training incumbent, Keith Weston, always used to say that ‘unvarnished Anglicanism was evangelical Anglicanism,’ and my father-in-law, Philip Hacking, would add that ‘evangelical Christianity is evangelistic Christianity.’ Certainly, as I first became an incumbent (in Oldham in 1990, ten years after my ordination), I found Reform such a breath of fresh air when it proclaimed its existence for the salvation of the nation, not necessarily the salvation of the national church. Such a call had not been heard since William Temple’s posthumous Report Towards the conversion of England (1945). I was envisioned and galvanized.

I wish always to be delivered from parochialism and be given a ‘divine discontent’ with my own and the church’s spiritual state (hence semper reformanda) so that I may keep the main thing the main thing, that is ‘to hold on to the Word of Life and to hold it out to others’ [Phil. 2.15–16]. Yes, Reform has often been accused of ‘getting the tone wrong’ and being more contentious than ‘contending for the faith’ [Jude 3], but, as Socrates found, a gad-fly may be necessary for a horse, but rarely popular. Yes, Reform can sound (or be made to sound) as though it is against women’s ministry, but the numbers of women that signed up to the ‘Better Provision’ appeal during the debate on the legislation for women bishops gave the lie to that. Its theology and actions may be robust, whether in the integrity of complementarian principles, or the need for episcopal accountability, or the conscientious use of money, or the vital centrality of the Bible’s only definition of marriage and human flourishing, but these are held and exercised with as much conviction and good conscience as we can. Even when accepted or granted, they are hard won and hard held. Personally, I accept that I and Reform may get things wrong in tone or emphasis or even understanding, but I always hope for a reciprocal humility and striving to understand from others.

Those who find themselves in a theological or cultural minority often find it also hard to retain some necessary nuance or appearance of empathy, since the debates and ‘battles for the soul’ seem to rage so fierce and strong. Even within Reform, we have had to work hard to accept that in some areas we will differ from each other in the application of a principle or the choice of strategy to respond to situations or to achieve our aims. For example, in the women bishops debate, the description ‘conservative evangelical’ was typically used, but the term ‘headship evangelical’ had to be coined. However, among such evangelicals there is still a range of which, where and when lines are to be drawn in applying the principle of male headship. I for one am grateful for the judicious wording of the Reform Covenant which only points to the issue of oversight, and therefore the biblical appropriateness of men to be in the roles of ‘head of the family’ as incumbents locally or bishops in the wider church.

Another example—it is now many years since Reform agreed that, for the reform of the church, we would be ready to accept a twin-track approach and not to off-side colleagues who adopted ‘the other track.’ For some, the way would lead them to leave (or be obliged to leave) the existing structures of the church and seek to pioneer and reform from outside, usually prioritizing the big vision of reaching the lost. For others, they felt able more or less to remain, even if rather on the margins by their own choice or that of others, and to maintain their contending for the faith from within, often prioritizing the call to faithfulness in the decision-making bodies of the church. These are two different responses and strategies, but they are both seeking (in the words of the ReNew Conference’s aim) ‘to pioneer, establish and secure healthy local churches for the evangelisation of the nation.’

So I thank God for Reform. If it did not exist, something similar would be needed. It has given me great partnership in the Gospel right across the country. It has supported me in low times. It has nerved and focused me to keep faithful and maintain a sense of purpose, momentum and integrity… ‘till Christ returns or calls me home.’

The Revd Canon David Banting is Vicar, St Peter’s, Harold Wood, a Reform Trustee (national chairman, 2000–07), and a member of the General Synod (2000–05 & 2010–present).