Can British Anglicanism reinvent itself as a counter-cultural movement?

Mar 12, 2019 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

The idea of a national church, represented in every settlement, with concern for and influence in politics and culture, theologically and liturgically aligned to the worldview of the bible, apostles and early creeds, clearly ‘reformed’ ie steering clear of contra-biblical accretions of medieval Catholicism, but generous in its distinguishing between essentials of the faith and ‘adiaphora’ – this is all part of what has been described as “the genius of Anglicanism”. The English church of the 16th and 17th centuries grew out of bitter controversies of the time to become a way of doing church which has successfully taken root in many nations and cultures around the world.

While its lack of detailed confessions of faith or a Magisterium has made it susceptible to syncretism (the mixing of Christian worship and ideas with pagan and secular influences), the same is true of other Protestant denominations, as well as Roman Catholicism itself. Anglicanism remains bible-based in its foundational documents, especially the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies, and so in theory it should be a good vehicle for faithful worship and mission. But in practice in recent times, a failure of leadership in the institutional church, a capitulation to theological liberalism and secular pragmatism, and relentless decline in numbers of those who attend, means that genuine questions are being asked about the future of the Church of England, even if Anglicanism in other contexts is thriving around the world.

This was the subject of the annual Jesmond Conference which took place in Newcastle on 11-12 March. The Conference format has been the same for the past five years: bible expositions, a series of four talks by veteran vicar of Jesmond Parish Church David Holloway, and opportunity for round table discussion. Holloway has long been a proponent of radical action within the C of E, testing the boundaries of the law: this has included declaring his church to be in impaired communion with the Diocesan Bishop, facilitating “irregular” ordinations under the auspices of a South African Anglican denomination, planting new churches outside Diocesan control, and even in 2017 supporting the consecration of his associate minister, Jonathan Pryke, as missionary Bishop, to symbolically kick-start an experimental new model of being the Church of England.

It was Jonathan Pryke who delivered two excellent expositions from Revelation 2, clearly setting out the apostle’s challenging and relevant prophecies, and making applications for today’s church. These talks contained an important devotional focus on the authoritative origin of the messages, the glorious risen Christ himself, the Lord of the Church. Pryke highlighted the contemporary feel of the letter to Thyatira, with its condemnation of “Jezebel” and her followers, church members who celebrate sexual immorality, and others who turn a blind eye to blatantly false teaching; the promise of judgement if there is no repentance.

But this was not just finger-pointing at others from a self-congratulatory conservative evangelical point of view. The letter to the Ephesian church warns about the loss of the “love you had at first”, where the Christian life becomes a duty-driven, joyless drudgery rather than motivated by love for the person of Jesus and excitement about the good news of salvation. I was particularly struck by the conditional promise given to those in Thyatira remaining faithful but weary and perhaps doubting whether continued contending for truth and goodness has any impact: “to the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations”. The idea of a small group of faithful believers who are a minority without much influence even in their own corrupt church having a global impact seems absurd, just as it does when we read the context of the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel. But the history of Christian mission shows it to be true. Here in Revelation 2:26 the promise of gospel influence for the church is specifically conditional on continued obedience to Christ by individuals in the small, often unseen areas of life.

David Holloway’s four talks were entitled ‘The genius of Anglicanism’, ‘The reality of the present’, ‘Law and courageous leadership, and ‘Future possibilities’; they can be accessed in full on Clayton TV. The series began with the historical origins of the C of E and Anglicanism, and then moved to the contemporary contrast between the biblically orthodox foundations (enshrined for example in Canon A5) and endemic theological liberalism, or put another way, a complete loss of confidence by much of the current leadership in the original tenets of Anglicanism. Holloway spoke from experience of decades of observation when he described liberalism as mutating to accommodate the spirit of the age, with ultimately no integrity or credibility.

The implications are serious not just for the church, but for the nation, as there is clearly a link between church decline, the breakdown of sexual morality, marriage and family life, and dangerous threats to civil order such as we are seeing in some urban areas. The responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of Church of England Bishops, many of whom are guilty of ‘conduct unbecoming’ by overtly supporting pagan ideologies and practices such as gay pride. However the situation is not helped by an increasing tendency towards pietism among many evangelicals, who rationalize non-involvement in issues such as abortion, free speech, and sex education driven by the LGBT agenda, claiming that any attempt to influence society for good outside a narrow evangelistic focus is “Christendom thinking”. There were useful inputs from representatives of the Newcastle-based Christian Institute as well as London-based Christian Concern on this point.

Another issue of disagreement among evangelicals is whether we should be optimistic about the possibility of the reform of the Church of England for the evangelisation of the nation (Holloway’s view), or more pessimistic in view of the scale of apostasy in the church, lack of interest in the gospel in society, and hostility from government. This latter view envisages a return to faithful, often small communities preserving the faith for future generations; teaching children at home, articulating a radically counter-cultural worldview, linked to orthodox international movements. Whatever we think, it’s important to preserve unity, and also to remember Burke’s dictum that “nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little”.

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