English Anglican evangelicals: five areas of disagreement

Jan 14, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Evangelicals share the same core theological beliefs, often expressed in a Confession or Basis of Faith statement (eg here). But evangelicals have historically been divided on a number of issues. In the past, these included: whether evangelistic speakers should call listeners to publicly indicate a decision for Christ; whether genuine believers should smoke, drink or go to the cinema, whether tongues, prayers for healing and other expectation of supernatural phenomena was appropriate for worship; whether women should hold leadership positions and preach. These and similar issues are certainly not trivial. They elicit strong feelings, cause ‘tribes’ to form as associations are made with those of similar convictions. Sometimes relations are strained, even broken; but convictions around shared understandings of the gospel always creates fellowship even if there are major disagreements.

What about today? While differences over the ministry of women, and style and emphasis on the charismatic scale still exist, there are other issues which dominate in the current context, sometimes causing division, always showing the breadth of evangelical opinion which often is spread on a spectrum between two (or even three) poles. Here are five questions which illustrate this diversity among Anglican evangelicals in England in 2020:

  1. Church of England: hope or despair?

At one end of the spectrum, some will point to the tremendous opportunities for evangelicals: the resources being released for church planting, the numbers of Bishops who self-define as evangelical, new initiatives such as ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, the historic advantages of the parish system and the theologically orthodox formularies. Others are much more pessimistic. They see the parish system as a straitjacket and a breeding ground for nominal Christianity. Entrenched liberal theological education means more and more clergy and Bishops don’t believe the theology of the original English reformers. Cathedrals have become centres for entertainment and heresy. Evangelical Bishops do not defend orthodoxy and even vote against it in Synod; clergy with conservative doctrinal and ethical convictions find it more difficult to get posts, while laity with similar views are no longer bound by loyalty to their local parish church, and increasingly look elsewhere for worship, teaching and fellowship.


2. Church of England: leave or remain?

The large majority of clergy are committed to staying in for the foreseeable future, even those who take the pessimistic view of the C of E’s current state and future trajectory. The advantages of the denomination outlined in 1. are still true, while loyalty to the institution and more importantly to the local flock, together with the practical realities of a need for employment and housing, do battle in the conscience and in social media debates with a temptation to consider ministry outside the C of E. Every time another story of the progress of revisionist theology hits the headlines, the potentially purer air of AMiE, the Free Church of England, perhaps a new Anglican group linked to Gafcon, or even independent evangelical churches might seem alluring to some, while for others there are no “red lines” which if crossed, would cause them to consider leaving the C of E.

But of course the liberal drift of the C of E leadership is not happening in a vacuum. It reflects the values of secular society. The differing views of evangelicals towards their church follows on from a spectrum of understandings about the culture in which we live.


3. The church and culture: victory, exile, or not relevant?

  • “Yes it’s true that there are some problems in our country which need sorting out. But I believe we’re on the cusp of seeing God doing something amazing in the land. People are so open to the gospel – if only the church can show love, communicate better, and pray, revival is just around the corner!”
  • “Secularism, cultural Marxism, LGBT ideology, idolatry of money, Islam – these are now dominating our culture. The church isn’t making an impact – it’s now too small and compromised. Christians need to ‘strengthen what remains’ and prepare for increased persecution.”
  • “We shouldn’t be surprised or alarmed at what happens in the world outside the church. It has always been like that. We have no business trying to influence secular society – we should focus on planting churches and making disciples based around the local church.”

These three approaches are sometimes linked to temperament, ministry preference and perhaps even ‘gifting’ in terms of prophet, evangelist or pastor-teacher. The three are not necessarily always mutually exclusive, but it may be that objective assessment of which one reflects a more accurate of the situation is tempered by considerations of what ‘sells’ best to a congregation or conference audience.


4. The renewed church: English or global?

A feature of evangelical churches is connection with the global church through supporting mission partners in other countries, giving financially to projects, and praying for churches around the world in contexts of poverty, persecution and paganism. But evangelicals are divided on the extent to which we in England can learn from the church in the global south, and even be led by them.

For the majority, whether optimistic or pessimistic about church and culture, leadership and future solutions to problems must be found in England. Some evangelicals in the Church of England are embarrassed by what they see as Gafcon’s history of confrontation with the Archbishop of Canterbury and its portrayal in the media as anti-LGBT. Others appreciate the existence of Gafcon, its spiritual life and its courage in standing for biblical truth, but do not envisage it as playing a role in giving assistance or even leadership to the well-educated and well-resourced churches of the global north.

A small but growing minority see Christianity in England as it is statistically and spiritually: a remnant surviving on the fringe, even a backwater, while the centre of God’s work has moved to the vibrant and numerically strong Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Some Anglicans, losing confidence in the Church of England, are beginning to look to Gafcon not just for inspiration and vision, but for oversight, just as small groups have done in Scotland, New Zealand and Brazil, and much larger groups, in fact a whole new Province in North America.


5. The renewed church: who’s in charge?

While optimistic evangelicals have been happy in the inherited system, others have always struggled with the idea of episcopacy if the theological orthodoxy of Bishops can’t be guaranteed. They have even come up with theories which assign temporal administrative authority to a Bishop, and spiritual authority elsewhere. Leaders of large churches and networks may inspire more confidence than Bishops and find themselves with more influence as calls for ‘differentiation’ increase, but a question presents itself: who are they accountable to, and is such an an ecclesiology Anglican? Again, as fellow evangelicals take differing views, tension and disunity can occur.

Can a solution be found in encouraging all evangelicals to follow the same strategy, or would this involve an enforced uniformity, requiring subscription to one approved position on all five of the issues highlighted above? Such an approach will just cause further division: respecting different Anglican evangelical groups finding their own solutions might be better.

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