Should evangelicals stay in the C of E? These reasons aren’t good enough!

Oct 23, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Should evangelicals consider leaving the Church of England? This question has been asked ever since the middle of the sixteenth century. In every generation the arguments to “stick with the ship” (Ryle’s phrase) have prevailed; most have stayed and only a few have left. More recently, John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones clashed in 1966 over whether the time had come for faithful, bible-believing evangelicals to leave the mainline churches and form a new denomination. Stott’s call to ‘stay in’ again carried the day with all but a small group of Anglican evangelicals, and paved the way for more intentional evangelical involvement in the Church of England.

A direct result of this is that today, according to Joshua Penduck in a recent article in CEN (23 October)“Never before has evangelicalism been as institutionally well represented within the Church of England as now. We have an Archbishop, a multitude of Diocesan and Suffragan Bishops, a flurry of Archdeacons, burgeoning theological colleges, and key figures sprinkled like salt invarious committees and boards.” And yet the same question remains. Evangelicals in the C of E are “close to the cliff edge of schism” over how to relate to the institution of the C of E.

Penduck is a West Midlands vicar who is also the Chair of Fulcrum and a prolific blogger on recent church history – he’s currently writing a series on different evangelical ‘tribes’ in the Church of England. In this piece in CEN his arguments for evangelicals to ‘stay in’ briefly analyse the contemporary scene before turning to a historical example not well known by English evangelical Anglicans.

Global Anglicanism, he says, is now “an evangelical denomination”, defined more by the charismatics of Singapore and the reformed conservatives of Sydney than by English liberal catholics.  “Glossolalia is more likely to be encountered than incense. In Uganda, the Anglican Church presents itself as the bible-based and Protestant via media between Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism”. But in England, debates around gender and sexuality are threatening evangelical unity. While canons and liturgy have not changed, they are blatantly ignored in some Dioceses, says Penduck without elaborating – (I hope he provides some examples if the article is posted on the Fulcrum site).

In response, some evangelicals are talking about separation from the Church of England (again, he doesn’t explore the various more popular options for differentiation from within, being considered by CEEC, for example), while “for others of the ‘open evangelical’ persuasion, there may be the mischievous thought that it is conservative forms of evangelicalism which are the dead weight” – in other words, some open evangelicals are “making peace with the new cultural paradigm” and would find this easier if the conservatives left the church.

The historical parallel, says Penduck, is 19th century American episcopalianism. While today’s TEC is the “foremost example of liberal high church Anglicanism”, in the mid 1800’s, before the “siren sounds of Oxford and the Tractarians began to take hold”,  perhaps two thirds of clergy and bishops were evangelical. Moderate evangelicals over time were assimilated into the liberal high church culture which developed. Conservatives were divided between those who stayed and formed “societies”, and those who left, notably to form the Reformed Episcopal Church. However neither of these groups grew or had influence; the REC fell “into fundamentalism and obscurity..because it sheltered itself from the fresh air of Anglican debate. Rather than make the case for conservative evangelical Anglicanism, it retreated into its own world and shrivelled away.”

Penduck concludes that conservative and moderate evangelical Anglicans need each other and should “stay put and stay together”. The lesson for evangelicals in the Church of England today is this: a split would lead the moderates into revisionism influenced by secular culture, and conservatives into becoming an irrelevant fundamentalist sect.

The arguments are familiar, emphasising the distinctive Fulcrum position of seeing merit in both positions and being the balancing point between liberal and conservative, providing the best of both worlds of biblical faithfulness with enriching engagement with the world. Are the arguments convincing?

Penduck’s piece shows awareness of Anglicanism as a global denomination, and even mentions “the might of Gafcon”, although without elaboration. This is certainly less ‘England-centric’ than other conservative advocates for the same “remain” position: one leader argued in 2018 that the merger between Church Society and Reform was “the most significant development in Anglican evangelicalism in 25 years”ignoring the emergence of, for example, Gafcon and Alpha. And a recent 100 page document from CEEC (so far not published) about options for evangelicals in the current dangerous situation in the Church of England does not mention Gafcon once.

But Penduck lets his own England-centrism show when he refers to global evangelical Anglican expression as “within the household” of the Church of England. Surely it’s the other way round – English Anglicanism is now a small part of the global household? And his good points about Anglican growth and influence in Uganda, Singapore and Sydney are not explained. Could it be that their strength is precisely because of strong commitment to a biblical position, and a refusal to be a ‘fulcrum’ between biblical faithfulness and liberalism as he advocates?

The parallels between the current situation and 19th century American episcopalianism are interesting, but ultimately unconvincing. Penduck doesn’t explain why the Oxford movement became so attractive so quickly to US Anglican evangelicals. Then, the turn of the 19th/20th centuries was a time of revivals and explosion of new evangelical and Pentecostal movements – these are not mentioned but surely this was more of a factor in drawing evangelicals away from ECUSA than the secession of REC?

But the most serious flaw in Penduck’s analysis is his contention that American Anglicanism today consists of TEC as a large liberal catholic denomination, and REC as a tiny, disengaged,  evangelical one. He must know about the formation of ACNA in 2009 of which REC is a founder member; that ACNA is a broad churchnot of conservative and liberal ‘evangelicals’ as per his Fulcrum ideal, but of biblically faithful reformed and charismatic evangelicals and anglo catholics; that ACNA is growing while TEC is shrinking. Many of his readers may not know this. I have to ask: is Penduck ignorant of ACNA despite his erudition in other areas of recent church history, or is he being frankly dishonest and deliberately trying to mislead his readers, ignoring key facts which don’t fit in to the Fulcrum narrative, in particular airbrushing out the development of ACNA as a significant alternative Anglican jurisdiction under Gafcon, and a possible positive model for what could happen in England and even in Europe? 

Penduck says that conservative evangelicals should not leave the C of E as REC left ECUSA, but rather “make a case for” their views within the institution which has many evangelicals among its leadership. But this is what evangelicals have been doing with energy since the famous Stott call if not before. Has it worked? If there are so many genuine ‘evangelicals’ involved in the governance of the C of E, why is the institution becoming increasingly aligned to secular culture as he admits? He assumes that the presence of conservatives will prevent progressive ‘evangelicals’ from abandoning biblical faithfulness – really? Approval by the cultural elites is surely a far greater draw than fellowship with the bigots! Penduck admits: “Moderates, despite their current evangelical passion, could drift into liberalism and revisionism, becoming indistinguishable from old-style low-church liberals.” It’s not just conservatives who would point out that this is not something which could happen, but has been happening for years among open evangelicals and is increasing, despite the presence of conservatives in the denomination.

From the perspective of orthodox Christian theology, we must question the lazy assumption that only in friendly dialogue and “walking together” with heresy will evangelicals avoid drifting into obscurity and irrelevance. Rather, it is the shrinking revisionist church, desperately trying to plead its worth to the world, which is increasingly irrelevant. If evangelicals are true to the Lordship of Christ, the foundation of Scripture and a commitment to planting churches and prophetically influencing culture among all types of people, as we see in those sections of global Anglicanism aligned to Gafcon, we will see growth of the Kingdom of God. What is clearly essential can never be “irrelevant”.

Penduck speaks warmly of “the mother church”  in a way shared by many C of E evangelicals, as if it somehow inherently corresponds to the true church. That’s perhaps why he believes that staying in it is always a virtue, of ultimate importance, even if the mother church becomes ritualistic and hostile to the gospel, as he admits TEC has done. The US Anglican story is not as he recounts it, but rather one of faithful Christians leaving a heretical national church and aligning with a global coalition of the faithful who can confer Anglican authenticity. This is better by far than evangelicals staying in but not having any impact and simply legitimising the secular drift of the organisation, as “Communion Partners” appear to do in TEC.

Many evangelicals will no doubt be relieved to read another piece by an influential evangelical, advising that all will be well if the various tribes of evangelicals commit to staying in the C of E and learn to get on with each other. His arguments fail to convince, not just because of very selective and in some cases false historical analogies, but also a superficial analysis of the complex contemporary scene, an unrealistically optimistic view of the state of the church and the culture, and a lack of faith in the simple value of taking action to stand firm for the gospel.

See also:

English Anglican evangelicals: five areas of disagreement, by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

“Don’t abandon the flock” – command from the Lord, or excuse for inaction? by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

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