What on earth is going on in contemporary Anglicanism? Most of us are completely disinterested. Some of us are just perplexed. And we’re all fed up with the unseemly politics that makes its way onto the pages of our national newspapers. The labels applied to the sides are especially unhelpful. And it all gets a little confusing. This is an attempt to simplify what you read in the press. It’s obviously written from someone on the evangelical side of the argument who has been ‘on the edge’ of institutional Anglicanism for some time!
Essentially there are two sides in the current disagreement.
There’s a coalition of evangelicals, charismatics and anglo-catholics known as ‘traditionalists’. It’s not a great label. It doesn’t really do justice to who we are. You’d be hard pressed to describe most evangelicals and charismatics as traditional! What the people that use this label mean is that we’re morally traditional. We hold to the old fashioned things like gender distinction, gender roles, sexual abstinence outside of marriage and so on. Still, I think its better than being called ‘hardline’, which is what Ruth Gledhill called us in the Times on Monday. This ‘traditionalist’ coalition is made up of groups like Reform, Forward in Faith, Anglican Mainstream Church Society and New Wine. We disagree on some things, which is why we don’t join each other’s networks. I’m not in agreement with Anglo-Catholics on lots of things. I’m in agreement with charismatics on nearly everything. But I’d probably be described as a conservative evangelical. Again, ‘conservative’ is not a label I’m that keen on. I’m not massively conservative. I guess I’d be described as doctrinally conservative. But I like to think that I’m missionally innovative. I digress. The point is that within the ‘traditionalist’ camp there’s a fair degree of diversity. But each group would argue that they are what they are because of scriptural interpretation; we justify our position scripturally. So what they believe is governed by trying to understand and apply the Bible. William Taylor explains the ‘traditionalist’ coalition using the example of a convoy of ships. For an ex-Army man this, no doubt, is a journey into the unknown. But he gets it right. Evangelicals, charismatics and anglo-catholics have decided that though we’re on different ships, nevertheless we’re a convoy heading in the same direction. We’re heading towards biblical orthodoxy and away from biblical heterodoxy! Simply put, we’re trying to steer towards biblical obedience and away from biblical revisionism.
On the other side of the argument are the liberals. What they believe is governed by trying to understand the culture. This group is known as the ‘revisionists’, at least by me. I’m certain that they’re not a monolithic group. But I’ve not invested a lot of time in working out which groups they belong to. But Inclusive Church would be one.
The key leaders amongst the traditionalists are world wide leaders like Peter Jensen, the Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Akinola, the Primate of Nigeria and Greg Venables the Archbishop of the Southern Cone. These are the ‘good guys’. There are so many of them it’d take an age to name them. Their names can be found in close proximity to the Jerusalem Statement, which was the product from last year’s Global Anglican Futures Conference, known as GAFCON. In the UK we look to people like Paul Perkin, Vicar of St Mark’s Battersea Rise, Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s Oxford, Wallace Benn, Bishop of Lewes and now Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester. These are the guys at the forefront of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, known as FCA.
The ‘traditionalists’ have the gospel. And so our churches are growing because wonderfully, by God’s grace, people are being converted. And we preach the truth and so people are generous and sacrificial with the money that God has entrusted to them. And so we’re able to appoint staff quicker than ‘the system’ allows. We’re not going to wait around for Diocesan approval when there’s so much urgent gospel work to be done. And so we’ll just go ahead and appoint staff and seek ordination. In some cases, parishes are withholding their quota. Good on them. Why would you give money to a corrupt central administration that’ll use it to fund ministries which we oppose? Contention needs to have teeth. Of course, if we’re taking money from the establishment we ought to pay our dues. But we shouldn’t fund heresy. That’s disgraceful.
But the liberals have the positions of power. The vast majority of the college of Bishops, the Archdeacons, Rural Deans and so on will either be liberal or will be happy to work with those of a liberal theological persuasion. The ‘traditionalists’ are massively under-represented. That’s not true across world wide Anglicanism. The vast majority of world wide anglicans are orthodox. That’s why the shift in power has begun to move away from Canterbury to the Southern Hemisphere. Faithful Anglicans across the globe are dismayed at what’s originating from the birthplace of Thomas Cranmer. Though ‘revisionists’ have the power in the Church of England, it doesn’t actually belong to them. It belongs to the ‘traditionalists’. The ‘revisionists’ are like a cuckoo that has moved into another bird’s nest, kicked out the incumbents and made itself at home. The ‘traditionalists’ are simply doing nothing more than reclaiming what’s rightfully theirs.
The situation is further complicated by a group of evangelicals who claim to agree with the traditionalists on biblical ethics, the importance of mission and on many aspects of the gospel but disagree with their methods. This is a split amongst evangelicals. It’s sometimes ugly and always regrettable. Often the family fights are the worst. This one gets pretty bad and it’s played out in the blogospehere. Broadly speaking, on one side there are the conservative evangelicals and on the other there are the liberal evangelicals. The liberal evangelicals can’t stomach the ways in which conservatives seek reform within the denomination. They think we bully people that don’t agree with us by calling their evangelical credentials into question and insensitive proactivity in our church planting. They really don’t like it when evangelicals disregard Episcopal authority. Ruth Gledhill calls them moderate evangelicals. I’m loving these labels! They’re reasonable, restrained and sensible. They don’t cause issues. And so many of them get ‘promoted’. Why would you ‘promote’ a ‘conviction’ evangelical whose conviction has teeth when you can appoint a ‘concession’ evangelical who can accommodate his convictions without causing a problem. And so, Graham Kings, one of the main voices at Fulcrum has recently been recently appointed as the Bishop of Sherborne. He may well agree with the ‘traditionalists’ on many things, especially on sexual morality. But for him the conservative disregard for church order is unforgiveable. For the liberal evangelicals the important thing is to maintain unity. I think I’m being fair in saying that, in effect, they place church order above gospel convictions. They’d dispute that because they want to be regarded as evangelicals. I just think that’s the obvious conclusion to draw from their actions.
Everyone thinks the big issue between the two sides is homosexuality. But it’s not. That’s just the presenting issue. It’s over the place of the Bible. ‘Traditionalists’ believe that you should do something because the Bible says it, even if the culture doesn’t approve of it. ‘Revisionists’ say that we should do what the culture says because that’s the prevailing view, even if the Bible says that we shouldn’t. Homsoexuality just happens to the issue over which the culture and the Bible currently disagree. In the past it was women’s ordination. In the future they’ll be other things. But as long as both these sides seek to reach a conclusion on these matters from different perspectives there’s no hope of agreement. We’re talking about two different religious systems that are implacably opposed. I can’t see this ending well.
Of course, being a liberal evangelical is an inherently unstable position! I don’t mean to be rude. Not this time anyway! But at some point these guys, and I count a few as friends, have got to realise that their liberalism compromises their evangelicalism and their evangelicalism tarnishes their liberalism. They’ll have to decide. They can’t have it both ways. They can’t play both sides. And when they end up siding with the ‘revisionists’ and attacking the ‘traditionalists’ you’ve got to wonder whose side they’re really on.