The ‘merger’ of three Anglican evangelical groups in England: some questions

Feb 21, 2018 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

After a long period of discussion and, I’m certain, lots of prayer, three organizations which have had overlapping membership, leadership and aims have agreed to merge, or in reality Reform and Fellowship of Word and Spirit will cease to exist, and a new, beefed-up Church Society will be created.

Church Society has a long history dating back to the mid-19th century and itself is the result of previous mergers of voluntary Societies within the Church of England. Its focus has always been on preserving reformed, bible-based evangelical ministry within local parishes, and in doing so, maintaining the presence of this theological position in the C of E as a whole. It’s probably fair to say that in the past, Church Society sometimes has had an image of being fairly staid, old-fashioned and lacking in wider influence – this has certainly been changed by the dynamism of the current leader Lee Gatiss.

Meanwhile Reform and FWS were created more recently to reflect a less ‘churchy’ style and different strategic agenda. Reform in particular brought together conservative evangelicals in the 1990’s to campaign against theological liberalism in the C of E (rather than anglo-catholicism, the previous focus of Church Society’s opposition), to be involved in the ecclesiastical politics of Synod, and to be more creative in promoting mission.

So given that Church Society has significantly modernized under Gatiss’ leadership, and one of the key battles for Reform, namely the introduction of women Bishops, is now over with a significant concession in the form of the official C of E commitment to valuing conservative evangelical ministry through the ‘Five Guiding Principles’ and the concept of ‘mutual flourishing’, in the eyes of many it seems sensible for the organizations to merge. They now become, in effect, a Society for conservative evangelicals, similar to that offered to Anglo-Catholics, with their own Bishop, Rod Thomas; and the prospect of more in future.

Gatiss’ statement on the merger can be found here. No doubt more will be said on behalf of the new organization; much is being said on social media. For the moment I would like to offer some comments and questions in a hopefully friendly spirit.

How big is this news?

Lee Gatiss says of the merger: This is the biggest thing to happen in the Anglican Evangelical world here for 25 years.” He has at a stroke given an enormous boost to the organization he runs, and it will shortly be unrecognizable from the struggling institution he took over, so one can make allowances for a certain amount of hyperbole! But I’m sure many people, for example some of those theologically orthodox evangelical Anglicans in England who aren’t members of CS or Reform, who might take issue with him and put forward other ‘big things’ which have happened. One hopes that this overstatement doesn’t build up expectations on which the leaders can’t deliver in future.

Do different views on strategy threaten evangelical unity?

Lee also sees the new merger as a bulwark against ‘fragmentation and dispersal’. This seems to be a reference to the confusing proliferation of overlapping networks and organizations, often reflecting different views that evangelicals have on various issues. Of course unity is good, and so is leadership with clear vision. But some readers may detect here a slight danger of appearing to say that anyone who agrees with the theology of Church Society, but sees a different way forward with regard to the state of the Church of England and the various kinds of ‘differentiation’ that are being proposed and enacted in response to the trajectory of theological liberalism, is somehow guilty of ungodly division.

So it would be good to know what will be the approach of the new organization to working with other evangelicals who share the same understanding of the Gospel and the authority of Scripture, but who might differ on other secondary issues? For example, the Church of England Evangelical Council (of which Reform, FWS and Church Society are members) has recently produced a document robustly re-stating the historic biblical position on sexual ethics, saying that some kind of separation from the Church of England structures will be inevitable if changes to church teaching are enacted. In a previous CEEC document, ‘Guarding the Deposit’, a clear warning was given about the limitations of a Society operating under the auspices of the C of E to guarantee the long term future of evangelical belief and practice within the denomination. Is this kind of thinking to be viewed as damaging to evangelical unity? It would be better if the different perspectives could be discussed from a position of recognizing that unity already exists, rather than seeing diversity of opinion on strategy as a threat to fundamental unity.

How to contend for the faith?

There are also a number of references in the Press Release to ‘contending for the faith’; mentioned by Lee and in quotes from representatives from Reform and FWS. Again, many will be fully supportive of the need to challenge false ideas, and bring congregations and hopefully more of the governance of the Church as a whole under the direction of God’s word. But there needs to be further explanation on what kind of ‘contending’ will be envisaged? Is it just a familiar phrase designed to ‘rally the troops’, while in fact Church Society plans to operate very diplomatically and in peace with the C of E structures? Or are they really planning to kick up a fuss about revisionist theology, heretical Bishops and so on? By committing fully and unconditionally to remaining in the Church of England, have they perhaps given away a key bargaining chip in contending for orthodox Anglicanism in England?

What about Gafcon?

Then there is the absence of any mention of relationship with orthodox Anglicans in the global Communion. It could be argued that the development of Gafcon is in fact the ‘biggest thing’ to happen to the church in recent years! This is because, perhaps, the presence of a united, biblically faithful group of Primates around the world who have already demonstrated their willingness to act against heterodoxy in the US, has been the main factor in preventing more rapid moves towards revisionism in the C of E. Though ‘contending’ by English Anglican evangelical groups such as Reform has been strong and clear at times, Gafcon’s influence has been more significant.

The Gafcon leadership have repeatedly expressed concern about the state of the Church of England. They accept that there are many theologically conservative folk remaining in the C of E and carrying out gospel ministry through its structures, and want to support them. But because of the secularization in the culture and the general theological slide in the Western church as a whole, they have acted to consecrate a missionary Bishop to provide oversight for some British Anglicans outside the official structures now, and in preparation for what may be needed in the future. It is not inconceivable that at some stage in the near future, Gafcon Primates could declare themselves in impaired communion with the mother Church. Again, where would this leave members of an evangelical society within that church who have not given themselves flexibility in terms of future strategy?

Meanwhile, membership of Gafcon, enjoying fellowship with the multicultural global mission movement based around shared understanding of faith as expressed in the Jerusalem Declaration, does not require signing up to any particular ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ strategy. I hope that the new Church Society will not see a contradiction between commitment to operating within the Church of England for the moment, while at the same time being part of Gafcon, and supporting other expressions of Anglicanism outside the C of E such as the Anglican Mission in England and Free Church of England.

Read also:  Why should Reform spell disunity? by Julian Mann, VOL

Securing a future or stockpiling whitewash? By Peter Sanlon, Anglican Mainstream

Anglican Unscripted: Ashenden and Kallsen comment



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