Christopher Smith considers the catholic/evangelical divide

A retired priest came to mass here at St Alban’s recently, as retired priests often do, and told me about the Angela Tilby/Church Times debacle. Needless to say, this had all passed me by, but he told me that she had given the evangelicals what-for in an article ostensibly about a campaign to get people praying for more bums on pews which is called Thy Kingdom Come. She said it was all part of the evangelical takeover of the Church of England, and she was going to pray that it (the takeover, that is) would stop. I, rather ungraciously, responded to the priest that it was too late now, and that the Angela Tilbys of this world only had themselves to blame for rolling over every time a new liberal idea came along, thus leaving a vacuum that was filled by the very people she was now complaining about. And then I swept off to deal with some other pressing matter like controlling the biscuit supply as the children came down from their Sunday Club.

You may have heard Angela Tilby on the radio: she was a producer in the BBC’s religious affairs department, and became a clergy person in 1997, going on to teach at a theological college in Cambridge. She is worth listening to and, I suspect, in spite of my flippant comment, I would rather like her if I met her. So I looked up her article and saw that her point in the first instance was about the widening ‘communication gap between the church and the rest of society,’ noting that people are much more likely to seek help about non-medical problems (‘existential distress’) from their GP than from their parish priest. The doctor, it is assumed, will speak their language, and the clergy will not. ‘The culture of Thy Kingdom Come is that of transatlantic evangelicalism filtered through the public-school system, Holy Trinity Brompton, New Wine, and the other familiar networks. This is a heritage familiar to both our archbishops. It will soon simply be the Church of England, thanks in part to the mixture of innocence and gullibility which characterises its appeal.’

Ouch. A glimpse at the Thy Kingdom Come website reveals a bald bloke in a faded denim jacket singing a bit of evangelical soft rock, so she may have a point. And the Church Times, realizing it was onto a bit of controversy, recorded an interview with Canon Tilby to put on its website. Once upon a time, evangelicals dealt with facts not feelings, she said, but there had been a change to a much more emotional way of speaking about the faith, using a language that was ‘clubby’ and like that of a ‘sect.’ Ouch again. She said she wanted to see something deeper and more connected with people who were ‘hurting.’ And she lamented the loss of a common liturgy in this post-Prayer Book age, and what she called hooking people in ‘under false pretences’ where you can invite them to ‘do’ church by offering coffee and the Sunday papers; oh, and tacking a few prayers on at the end. Indeed, she said she had spent quite a lot of time in the course of her ministry mopping up people who had been ‘led into a place of oppressive control.’ Thrice ouch.

So, welcome to the contemporary version of party politics within the CofE. The tension is not between catholics and protestants, it is between fuzzy liberals and fuzzy charismatics. It’s difficult to know what we can do in relation to this debate, having been so effectively marginalized within it. The Church Times podcast put Angela Tilby on the air with a young, recently-ordained non-stipendiary minister who described himself as ‘Anglo-Catholic to the core of my being,’ but I could find no evidence to support that self-definition, except that I suspect that, for many clergy nowadays, ‘Anglo-Catholic’ has become a term they use of themselves to signify that they are not evangelicals.

Their idea of catholicism is often skin-deep and, it seems to me, relying more on a desire for some kind of liturgical worship than a deep knowledge and love of the doctrine of the church catholic and a desire to share that doctrine with others. Indeed, I suspect that sometimes in those circles ‘doctrine’ would be regarded as a dirty word, and certainly ‘dogma’ would be. I recall an occasion when a clergyman protesting the dizzy heights of his churchmanship boasted to me that, in his chaplaincy, he ‘dressed up, swung the incense and did the whole **** Anglo-Catholic thing’—as any respect I might have had for him drained away. ‘Orthofroxy,’ my curate calls it. Give me the evangelicals any day.

So here’s a suggestion. Given that we seem to like organizing conferences, why don’t we try to organize one with some of our friends in the evangelical movement, those at the traditional end of it, both charismatic and non-charismatic? Perhaps it would be good to remind ourselves of how much we have in common in terms of doctrine, and to have honest conversations about the areas in which we have less in common, like eucharistic theology. Before we put on a joint Alpha Course a few years ago, I sat down with my lovely evangelical neighbour from the other half of Holborn and we talked about the theology of the Holy Spirit, because we knew we would need to work out how to deal with that element in the course. In many ways, it was one of the most fruitful theological conversations of my priestly life.

‘Too often in church,’ said Angela Tilby, ‘people in distress are patronised by the saved and the certain, infantilised by a faux inclusivity that has them playing with tea lights and cutting out little paper flames.’ We can do better than that.