Open Letter to all our FWS network
Lent is a traditional time for reflecting on our discipleship, on how we may better serve our calling. Our Fellowship of Word and Spirit has always seen our distinctive calling as promoting contemporary reformed biblical theology and ministry in the Church of England, through fellowship and mutual encouragement, particularly in our distinctive style of conference, and through timely publications. It is our desire to see that influence spread as widely as possible in the wider denomination, not least because of seeing it as the most faithful expression of Anglicanism. We are grateful to Jim Rushton, whose history of FWS is included in this mailing, for that reminder of how the Lord has used our fellowship to these ends over the years. In each generation, as we review those goals, we are called to consider afresh how best to fulfil that calling, insofar as we believe it is of the Lord. That is the reasons for this letter.
In December 2017, at a meeting of the Reform Council meeting that was reviewing their core vision and distinctive contribution to the Church of England, a proposal was brought forward to seek to draw together into unity the different groups of conservative evangelical organisations committed to working within the Church of England (ie Reform, Church Society & FWS), under one organisational structure. This led to a series of separate meetings in January and early February of all three Councils and their Trustees, who have all agreed that this seems to be something that is the right thing to do at the right time.
That a new renewed Church Society be reformed, at the AGM om May 12th 2018, following the formal dissolution of Reform and FWS as separate bodies, their members having been encouraged to become full members of Church Society, with initial new membership being offered at a discounted rate (for those not already CS members).
At that AGM it is proposed that Bishop Rod Thomas be elected as its president, and a team of nominations will be submitted to the meeting for what all three councils have agreed as a recommended new CS council, which will balance representation of the three groups. In addition an Advisory Board of Reference will be set up to provide wisdom and strategic guidance to the new council, with its members serving a five year term.
Finally the FWS conference, which has already been joint with CS for the last few years, will continue, upholding its distinct ethos through its organising ‘trustees’, who will be appointed by the existing FWS Council and Trustees. It is anticipated that conference papers or other publications may still be published through the new CS under an Orthos or FWS banner if appropriate.
Apart from the spiritual reality of our unity in Christ, our biblical imperative to be one in Him, and the obvious considerable overlap there is already between different groupings, there are several reasons that make this seem to be a providential time to consider it.
1. HISTORY – to some extent, both FWS and Reform could be seen as initiatives that arose partly because of the past ineffectiveness and dysfunctions of Church Society (CS). Some of the main concerns that dated from the past have been addressed in the new constitution coming into effect this year. CS will no longer elect all their council annually, but (after an initial ‘setting up’ phase) will elect 1/3 of its council for a 3 year term, like most PCCs, making it less prone to ‘takeovers’ at an AGM. Also its membership has been clarified now to include being ‘communicant members of the CofE’, clarifying how it stands in relation to other Anglican networks.
2. POLITICS – since the measure to consecrate women bishops, there has evidently been a significant shift in the wider church’s approach to those who hold a complementarian theology. Although there are considerable variations in how people seek in practice to be faithful to that biblical teaching, from the wider church perspective, we are already lumped together. It is true that in the past Reform has been accused of being on a trajectory to leave the CofE, however it is exactly to challenge perception that the Reform council has considered this realignment. Standing together at this time will increase our credibility, broaden our reach and strengthen our position, not least strengthening the position of Bishop Rod, in giving him a far more tangible support base.
3. EFFECTIVENESS – Our FWS vision has always been to establish and promote contemporary reformed theology through genuine godly fellowship with each other and an engaging influence with others. To some extent our recent partnership with CS in the conference has been out of a desire to communicate more widely our influence. Broadening the network of those in direct contact with us can only help us realise that wider vision. If combined, the new body would have over £3million in assets, 130 patronages, some buildings, and independent school, various trusts, lots of print and online resources, and oversight of the conference of FWS, CS, JAEC and ReNew, a significant number of members and a clearer voice in structures.
4. PROVIDENCE – We already have considerable overlap of FWS trustees & council with CS council. We share a president in Wallace Benn; and Jason Ward, Aled Seago, James Hughes, Geoffrey Firth and Paul Darlington are on both councils, and Lee Gatiss, who is also on Reform Council as well. There is the will and opportunity to establish a gracious reformed theological vision of the church at the heart of a newly realigned body.
WHAT ARE WE STILL CONCERNED ABOUT?
The renewed CS council will clearly have work to do to formulate and articulate its new ethos and priorities. There will be a memorandum of understanding that areas such as: 1. the relationship with AMiE (particularly in the new CS sharing responsibility for the ReNEw conference); mutual accountability (ie what to do if ‘big churches do maverick things’), the strategy of how to contend for the gospel (ie when to work faithfully within structures or speak out against them); branding; staffing and support for “STRetCH” churches (Small, Turnaround and Rural CHurches) and for women’s ministry.
However there are certain principles we are committed to upholding in this renewed CS…
1. THEOLOGICALLY SHARED VISION – We are committed to this new unity out of a theological vision and desire to work to together to bring the gospel to our church and nation. This gospel vision is understood to be best realised by us when we are passionately evangelical, theologically reformed and ecclesiologically Anglican. That much we share, even when emphases and strategies have differed, but we want to ensure that the renewed CS will be driven by a theological vision, not a political agenda.
2. REDEFINING OUR MEMBERSHIP - FWS and Reform exist as networks with very little ‘obligation’ on those who sign up. CS by contrast has a clearer membership structure. The networks of FWS and Reform will need to become members of the new body, following the CS model, and the new council will then be elected from the constituents of all groups. So practically, we are asking all on our FWS mailing list to join as CS members to form the new body’s membership. This will be offered at a discount rate for those newly joining, at only £2/month. Future Council members would be required to sign a basis of faith, the existing CS commitment to the Church of England Doctrine and Faith with the addition of the statement on complementarianism from the Reform covenant, which was originally formulated by Jim Packer, Wallace Benn and David Holloway.
Alongside this official membership, there are already wider and looser levels of involvement, including signing up for regular free email newsletters, podcasts and blogs, to allow dissemination of things beyond just members, for the sake of being a wider positive influence, and for enabling the FWS conference to reach out more widely.
3. DELIBERATELY RAPID PROGRESS – Rather than spend months of deliberation, the proposal is to form the renewed Church Society at the AGM on May 12th, which is at Oak Hill. That means new membership forms need to be completed by email or post for March 12th, so that applications can be approved by the CS council in consultation with the other groups. SO FILL IT IN AND SEND IT IN TODAY PLEASE! And please come to the AGM if you can.
The FWS Trustees and Council have agreed to proceed with the proposal on the basis above, trusting this to be a work of God’s Spirit and a wise step strategically. We are aware of various ongoing concerns, such as many of our mailing having struggled to join Reform in the past; however we are clear that this is not a rebranding of Reform, but a wholescale renewal of the conservative evangelical part of our denomination in a way that actually upholds the theological vision we have held in FWS as being our distinctive contribution. By maintaining the distinctiveness of our conference, with the increased access to our influence we are trusting that FWS will be able to better fulfil our vision through this renewed CS proprosal than we have up to now. In the end, we hope all our mailing will join us in bringing this new venture to birth, but even if you should choose not to join, the distinctive work of our FWS will continue through the conferences and publications that follow, an we hope you will continue to share that fellowship with us.
Feel free to email me or any of the Council or Trustees for clarifications, but please complete the membership forms included in this mailing, and come to the AGM as we join together work the work of the gospel in our nation.
Yours in Christ,
Rev Dr Rob Munro, (Chair of FWS)