Reforming The Denomination

Wallace Benn

Reforming The Denomination

Working (in) the system!

Taking responsibility for the Church of England as a whole

The Best of Time; The Worst of Times

Wallace of Benn

Bishop of Lewes

A Vision to Reform

Michael Lawson

Archdeacon of Hampstead

The Perfect Denomination

Simon Vibert

Vicar, St Luke’s Wimbledon Park


This Orthos has been produced with an eye on the difficult and strategic days in which Anglican Evangelicals find themselves. The three sections of this booklet are transcripts of talks, the first two came out of the October Fellowship of Word and Spirit conference: “Working in the System. Taking Responsibility for the Church of England as a Whole.”

Wallace Benn evaluates his perspective on the current state of the Church of England. He gives five main areas for encouragement, and five areas of concern. Michael Lawson looks back at the Early Church, described by Luke in Acts; and then at the 16th century Reformation and finally challenges us to take up the Reformation rallying call for today.

That conference concluded with a fresh sense of realism about the problems faced by the Church of England. However, there was also a genuinely positive feeling that God had not abandoned the Church of England yet, so neither should evangelicals!

The third talk, by Simon Vibert, was given at the London Week, hosted by the Proclamation Trust. The intention of this week is to help new graduates think seriously about a vocational call to full-time Christian work. In this talk Simon concludes that, whilst the Church of England faces many problems, at the moment it is not far enough removed from the perfect denomination for us to leave! Or, more positively, its foundation and historic documents allow for biblical churches to be born and to grow.

We hope that these talks will provoke thinking and further reflection on being Church at the beginning of the 21st century.

“The Best of Times; the Worst of Times”

Is there still a place in the Church of England for conservative evangelicals? Can we work within the existing structures? How can we use the denomination for the cause of the Gospel in this land without being frustrated by administrative, doctrinal or ecclesiological encumbrances?

These are some of the questions raised by the following three recent talks. FWS have reprinted them for your reflection in the hope that they will help you to work out your role in the denomination in which you serve.

Please be aware that the opinions expressed are those of the speaker and were originally private communications to a small audience.

What follow is a personal evaluation of our position in the Church of England at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Areas for Encouragement

1. The Decade of Evangelism

Could you have dreamed that evangelism would be high on the agenda for the whole church, for a whole decade? Undoubtedly it has been more talked of than done, but it is still on the agenda.

There was a strong feeling 25 years ago that mainline churches were being strangled by liberalism. But now, thousands are going to Alpha; J John, speaking on The Ten Commandments, is filling cathedrals; Springboard is seeing a huge response. There are lots of opportunities for us, and inside the Anglican church! It is said that

* A third of churches are growing those which are sure of their faith and reaching out meaningfully

* A third of churches are marking time including some evangelical churches

* A third of churches will die with the grey-haired people currently there

Graham Cray comments that he has never known a time when it is easier for young people to become Christians than today. Yes, they are leaving the church in droves, but if you can reach them in their world, they are responsive. If you get across the cultural bridge, you find it relatively easy for them to come to Christ. There is real spiritual hunger post the Decade of Evangelism and post 11th September 2001.

2. The Lambeth Conference in 1998

Ahead of the Lambeth Conference, there were many prophets of doom who assumed the end of The Anglican Communion, especially from the radicals in America. In fact, Lambeth resolution 1.10 on sexuality was good and there were also very good resolutions on the Bible, on evangelism, and on world debt.

The reports were not published until over a year after the event, which is unfortunate and may have been deliberate. So, we need to talk up the Lambeth resolutions. We have been ‘sold the lie’ by liberals that conservative evangelicals are at the extreme of the church. The truth is that evangelicals are the centre of the Church.

At one extreme is liberalism; at the other extreme is liberal Anglo-Catholicism. Evangelicals are mainstream, and creedal orthodoxy is at the centre of the church.

The missionary endeavours of the 19th century have come borne fruit in the form of Asian and African bishops. They thank God that we brought them the Gospel, but they then go on to say that they can not understand why this church does not always seem to believe it anymore!

There is a subtle marginalizing of Lambeth in progress. Some argue: ‘It isn’t the way to solve our problems’. On the contrary, we need to talk it up, remembering that it does have moral force than legislative force. We should get our PCCs and deaneries to discuss the resolutions.

3. The House of Bishops is better than it was a decade ago

There are more evangelicals in General Synod too, and an evangelical ethos is more prevalent. However, there is a danger of sociologically converted evangelicals replacing evangelicals by conviction. Gavin Reid stated in the 1950s that 7 percent of clergy in the Church of England were Evangelical. Now is it probably around 40 percent. We have grown broad, yet with the danger of shallowness.

4. An Increase in Ordinands

Comments by the secretary of the ABM indicate that, since 1992, evangelical vocations have increased gradually. Centre and liberal churches have gone to the wall in terms of providing ordinands. Following 1992 (The admission of women to ordination) Anglo-Catholics did not provide ordinands, but that is now recovering.

There is progress in theological education. For conservative evangelicals, it was sad when Alec Motyer and Jim Packer left Trinity College, but Oak Hill has now filled that gap, which is very encouraging. There are too few women training there, but it has the second highest number of male ordinands.

5. Personal reflections on the Opportunities for Evangelism they are Considerable

This has been my experience as a bishop. I open the Bible everywhere, whether I have two minutes or 20 minutes. In the Lent course expositions in Chichester Diocese, 2000 people came for five weeks. Philippians 1 encourages us to seize positive opportunities, whatever the motivation of the hearers (or preachers) of the Gospel. Half the congregations in the Church of England have probably never heard the Gospel clearly, but, for my part, I have given out 2,000 evangelistic tracts in recent months. There is a youth mission in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings for teenage evangelism in the context of parties and I have asked every church to run a mission by 2003, and have been greatly heartened by the response.

So, there are many grounds for encouragement.

Areas of Concern

1. We are not Winning in the Nation

Despite these encouragements, when you look at the Christian Research Survey only 8.4 percent of the population are going to church and 1000 young people a week stop coming.

The main group that is growing is the 64 percent growth in mainstream evangelical churches but, against the huge neo-pagan tide, we are not winning. Even our most credible youth services are a culture away from our young people. We need to be more serious about evangelism.

This may be in the form of church planting, which in some areas is necessary, although not in over-churched areas. But we must also include serving in the existing system, and making transplants into churches which are having a hard time.

2. Worries about Common Worship

There are theological concerns about Common Worship, but, even apart from those issues, it is too wordy. I find that when I visit a congregation because I am a bishop the church feels obliged to ‘do all the liturgy’. We do have a book of common order, but if the service it too wordy we loose the missionary context. The structures of liturgy are lost in the mass of forest. There are many catholic gains at our expense, particularly with the baptism service. The ‘Service of the Word’ is sufficiently flexible to allow us to make it a gospel-centred service.

3. Concerns about the Archbishops Council

My main anxiety is that it is foolish to adopt structures now which have a detrimental long-term effect. The budget for the Archbishops Council has gone up from £8.9million to £9.6m, despite other cutbacks. The Archbishops Council is the administrative arm of the Church of England the church in the parishes. We must be aware of the danger of centralization and we must not let the tail wag the dog. There also the danger of unaccountability.

In Chichester, the diocesan team are called ‘The support for parishes team’ to emphasize the fact that the parishes are the coalface of mission.

4. Major Problems on the Horizon

a) Women Bishops

The removal of the Act of Synod would mean that there would be no safeguard for conservative evangelicals, and will result in the removal of creedally orthodox Catholics from our denomination. Will a woman bishop ordain someone who cannot accept her oversight?

b) Homosexuality

Despite the Lambeth 1998 conference resolving the issue, you would not know this from the way in which it is talked about in the Church of England. The only concession made by the conference about homosexuality was that they would be listened to, but the lobby has been given the impression that, if they talk long and hard enough about it the position will be changed.

Every congregation has the right to oversight from a bishop who is creedally orthodox.

Beware of a ‘tainted hands’ view of Bishops. Where there is a problem, if alternative episcopal oversight is offered, take it.

c) Marriage issue

The Winchester proposals look as though they will not get through, but we must not underestimate the implications concerning the ‘right of remarriage in the local church’. Michael Lawson’s principled alternative is coming to Synod in the summer.

d) A lack of grip on our heritage

Here is the Esau syndrome; we are selling our birthright. We do not know who we are ? creedally/confessionally ? although it is there in our ordination and institution promises.

e) The uniqueness of Jesus and the erosion of that belief

Think, for example of the Melvin Bragg programme which including Jack Spong and the previous Bishop of Durham. One professor (unchallenged) concluded: ‘It won’t be possible in our modern world to claim the uniqueness of Jesus’. This will be the prime issue at the next coronation.

5. Money

A number of dioceses are bankrupt, or near it. However, I do not believe this to be a pessimistic thing. In the 1980s we discovered the biblical view of lay ministry because of the shortage of clergy. Similarly, now we find mercy in God’s judgement, and a money crisis will bring us to our knees and help us to reassess priorities.

Would it not be good if the money crisis became the catalyst for renewal and revival in the church? Our churches must be places of generosity. Do you want to be known as the church which does not pay its quota, or as the church which gives generously. We need to make the link between money, manpower and mission.

Canterbury Document

This is a document which proposed that a Church which cannot pay its way should be supported by a common fund for a period of five years if it puts a mission strategy in place. It would then be designated as a mission church, and if it showed life, the support could be continued. But if after five years, there is no sign of concern for the lost, the church ought to be allowed to die.

I do not want to leave the denomination, and at the moment I certainly do not need to do so. We must stand up for Christ and live for the Gospel. We need to build relationships with others in order to win the church for Christ, so that our church will win the nation.

My advice is that you should get on to your Bishop’s Council (elected from Diocesan Synod), and on to the Board of Finance. The subcommittees can be quite influential, and it is worth serving on them. Diocesan Director’s of Ordinands are strategic positions. In other words, you could be in an administrative job for the cause of the Gospel.

“A Vision to Reform”

by Michael Lawson

Ecclesia Reformata - Ecclesia Semper Romanda

Acts 2:4247

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.

44 All the believers were together and had everything in common.

45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.

46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,

47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

How is your Latin? And your church history? Ecclesia Reformata, Ecclesia Semper Reformanda the great and final imperative of the Reformation.

The Reformed church, Ecclesia Reformata, is a church which must always be reforming itself. Ecclesia Semper Reformanda. Is that not wisdom? There is never perfection in the church. Like my computer at home, it needs constant fixing: The church, once reformed always needing reform.

This powerful watchword of the Reformation is in a sense the most challenging of all its imperatives. How easy it is to romanticize the age of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and their spiritual successors. A golden age is just a myth. Who ever claimed a finished work of reformation? There is no such thing. There was huge progress, valiant discipleship, a signal movement of God. But from their graves the reformers speak this cautionary, urgent word today.

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda: the church must always be reforming itself. To proclaim the gospel afresh, reformation is always required. It is a dynamic for God’s people throughout the Scriptures. It was lost, then recovered, in 16th-century Europe. It’s still urgently required today, especially in the Church of England of which we are a part.

That’s what we’re going to look at now. We are going to extend our perspectives to three big pictures, to broaden our view of the task of reformation today.

1) The big picture of the early church - in Scripture. 2) The big picture at the Reformation. 3) The big picture in the church today.

So first we go to the big picture of the early church in Scripture


Web content composed with the free wysiwyg HTML editor. Please subscribe for a membership to remove promotional messages from the edited documents.

The reason I read Acts 2:42-47 was for the theological reason that I believe Luke wrote these words. Before we look at the text, I think it’s worth explaining this point.

I guess we are all aware of the way that critics commonly divide the gospels. We speak of the synoptics and John. We place Matthew, Mark and Luke in one bracket and John in the other. That is alright for exams, but It is a distinction the New Testament does not make. In fact, effectively the New Testament makes a different distinction: that Matthew, Mark and John belong in one bracket with the other bracket containing Luke-Acts, the only two-volume work among the gospels. This, if you think about it, makes Luke-Acts almost a different genre. It certainly gives a broader perspective, a quite distinctively different big picture. Alone among the gospels, Luke records not only all that Jesus began to do and teach, but what happens next: the sending of the Spirit, the birth of the church and the beginning of witness and disciple-making to the ends of the earth. Now I mention this because the cameo of the early church at the beginning of Acts 2, works not only at the level of description the level of journalism but also at the level of analysis.

This is Luke the theologian, saying to Theophilus, to his community, and to us today, ‘Here is the big picture. Here is how the Holy Spirit propelled the church off the starting blocks. the kingdom life principles, taught by Jesus, embraced by the apostles, practised by these early followers of the Way.’

So if the Bible speaks today, I suggest that we would be foolish to take this cameo as description only. Here is the kind of analysis which enables us to ask, on the basis of what we see then, how should we live now? What difference should this make? My suggestion is that we turn the spotlight on some of Luke’s applied theology, and as we do, tune in to some of his implied analysis.

These words come as a footnote to the day of Pentecost. Pentecost ends at verse 41, as three thousand were added to the disciples’ number. But notice that it is those three thousand who are the subject of verse 42: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’

Now we could profitably pull out the detail on that, particularly noting the priority Luke gives to the apostles’ teaching, and the interaction between, Bible, fellowship, worship and prayer. But remember that we are looking for the big picture. Where is the big word here? It is devotion. They devoted themselves, proskartereo a word meaning that they were assiduous, diligent, gave unremitting attention. It is the same word used in verse 14 of chapter 1, where the NIV weakly has ‘they joined together constantly in prayer.’

Look at verse 43: ‘Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles’. The big word there is obvious: It is awe. The Greek is phobos literally fear, but meaning a deep sense of God, expecting him to act – as he did. They were filled with awe. I guess Luke has in mind the fulfilment of Proverbs 1:7, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’, which is what we see here.

Verse 44: The big word is together epi to auto. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Church was perceived, not at the level of buildings, liturgy, or meetings, but shared lives. Together. And there’s an even bigger together word in verse 46 They met together with one accord. The NIV is outrageously weak. In Greek, it’s homothumadon one of Luke’s soaring themes, and it comes ten times in Acts. It is a special kind of oneness, like a symphony orchestra with all its varied instruments together in one glorious, harmonious whole.

Then back to verse 45. ‘Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need’. It is not in the text but the big word is care. They cared as vigorously as they proclaimed, and proclaimed as vigorously as they cared. Here are the great commandment and the great commission all in one.

Verse 46: now the big word is aggaliasis, translated ‘glad’, its meaning is a very deep joy. ‘Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts’.

Their hearts were in the grip of the Gospel. And in the first part of verse 47: ‘Praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people’. The big thought there is that word ‘favour’. It is charis. Such was the impact of these early Christians, that the surrounding community were full of charis towards them, full of favour, gracious in their response.

These Christians must have been impressive. When you take the big words into account, it is not difficult to see why. They were devoted, (proskartereo), full of awe, (phobos), a deep, expectant sense of God. They were together (epi to auto). They played as one (Homothumadon). When the people saw church, they saw shared lives and practical care, and deep joy in the gospel (aggaliasis).

This is an outward looking mission: People in live relationship with each other and the Lord, held in charis, in favour and esteem. The result is that the Lord adds to their number daily those who are being saved. Now do you see what Luke is doing? He is laying out his theology of mission. It is a pneumatic theology: the giving of the Holy Spirit, and the en-spiriting of the believers, go hand in hand. He sets all this in clear juxtaposition with Pentecost.

There is a lot here for us to learn. Luke’s theology is about much more than the role of the Spirit. If you read Acts that way, you’ll miss the plot. The Spirit is central, but Luke wants to draw attention to co-operation with the Spirit, what Paul later calls ‘keeping in step with the Spirit’.

The key then is in these six verses, because the Spirit has inspired what we would now call a spirituality: not private spirituality the stuff of hundreds of devotional paperbacks but big scale, big picture spirituality, which is what I think Alistair McGrath is referring to in Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity. He says there ‘If there is any long term threat to the future of evangelicalism, it may well be its lack of attention to spirituality. Unless we can develop or rediscover forms of spirituality which are thoroughly evangelical in their roots and outlook, today’s evangelicals may be tomorrow’s ex-evangelicals. This is one of the most urgent tasks facing us today.’

I would go further and say that of all Christians, evangelicals are the best placed channel for the Gospel to make in-roads into our secular culture. But what about crossing cultural barriers within our own denomination? How are we to reform our own church? Do we not in fact have two mission fields the unchurched, and what I would guardedly call the partly churched?

That deserves some thought. But on spirituality, Luke paints the big picture: the evident devotion, awe, togetherness, care, joy, favour, of those of the Way. There, says Luke, is your clue to the mission of Acts. They did all this in the power of the Spirit, because their lives were open to the Spirit all three thousand of them, and growing.

So I think the church we see in Acts, especially Acts 2, is the church as the integrity structure for the Gospel. That is Luke’s mission theology. My suggestion is that we reflect on how it was that they were held in such esteem. Such high esteem indeed, that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Let me leave that hanging for a while, while we look more briefly at the second big picture.


Do you know the life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton? In it he records Luther’s famous trip to Rome in 1510. In search of peace with God, Luther climbs the so-called Santa Scala, the Holy staircase, the stairs of Pilate, upon which Jesus stepped in his trial before the Procurator. These stairs were transported to Rome by an early Pope, and are still there today. In Luther’s time, by ascending on your hands and knees, rosary in hand, ‘Hail Mary’ on your lips, the summit of your pilgrimage brought the church’s precious grant of a plenary indulgence, the pearl of great price. So one day in 1510, it is said, brother Martin, the tormented Augustinian, began his quest for peace with God. The stairs were climbed, the prayers repeated. At the very top of the Santa Scala, there came to Luther the words of Habbakuk and Romans, ‘The just shall live by faith’. Bowled over by this revelation, Luther careers down the stairs, knocking pilgrims higgledy, piggledy in his path. And with that, they say, the Reformation was born.

Roland Bainton comes clean. It is just a legend, though Luther did climb the stairway. But there are other legends to do with the Reformation. Another concerns the 95 theses on indulgences, posted seven years later on All Souls Day, the 31st October 1517, on the church door at Wittenburg. What is true is that Luther and Pope Leo X were chalk and cheese. What is also possibly true is Leo’s first reaction. ‘Luther is a drunken German. He’ll feel different when he is sober.’ Beyond that it was not Luther who left the church. That is the legend. It was the church which left Luther. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther was excommunicated and declared a political outlaw.

There was a huge row over the 95 theses. Imagine the pressure placed on Luther. But Luther was not persuaded to break away from the church, because schism was anathema to him. Here is Luther writing in 1519: ‘If, unfortunately, there are things in Rome which cannot be improved, there is not – and cannot be – any reason for tearing oneself away from the church in schism. Rather, the worse things become, the more one should help her and stand by her, for by schism and contempt nothing can be mended.’

Now there is an echo of an earlier controversy between the Donatists and Augustine. In the early fifth century the Donatists broke away from the North African Church, because of compromise in relationships with Rome. You may remember that Augustine argued from the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13, that the church on earth is heterogeneous: a mixed bunch, wheat and weeds, the just and the wicked, coexisting until Jesus returns as judge, destined for final purity. For the Donatists, the church is homogenous, one body of the just the rest must be expelled.

In Luther’s time, who inherited the mantle of the Donatists? In the sixteenth century it was the radical reformers, known by their detractors as the Anabaptists, though they eschewed the term. The Anabaptists, eventually had a very rough ride. But they issued the call to believers to separate both from a godless society, and from the unreformed church, to form new communities of the truly faithful. We know that their discipleship was impressive, but did their passion for holiness blind them to the call to reform the church from within? Ecclesia Semper Reformanda, reforming the church from within – that was the burning vision of the Magisterial Reformation, the vision of Luther and Calvin. It was a passion for reformation of structures, doctrine and spirituality along biblical lines, a vision of reform within the church, not the creation of a new church.

Let’s ask ourselves. Who are we descendants of today? Are we children of the Donatists or of Augustine. Of the Anabaptists, or the Magisterial Reformers? If we believe that reform should happen within the church Ecclesia Reformata, Ecclesia Semper Reformanda that the church must always be reforming itself, then there are some big issues to be tackled.

Which brings us finally to Big Picture No.3. Big picture No.1 was the early church in Scripture. Big Picture no.2 was at the Reformation. Big picture No.3 is quite simply reformation in the church today.


You remember that in Galatians 3:1 Paul momentarily loses his temper. ‘Oh you foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you (? an?aytoi galatai)?’ ? Literally ‘You Galatian idiots’. No doubt Paul had good reason to be frustrated. The Galatian gospel had lapsed into formalism and law keeping. Spiritually, they were miles from where they had begun.

But what is Paul actually doing? He does not unchurch them, does he? Is he no reforming the church from within? It is the same in 1 Corinthians 1:4 ‘I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.’ This church is the most comprehensively wayward and wacky in the whole New Testament, yet Paul still thanks God for them. Does not this give us guidance on how we should work within the wider, often wayward world of the Church of England? Have you ever felt frustrated, like Paul was frustrated? In church, in a chapter meeting, or a Synod: ‘Oh you foolish Galatians. You foolish Anglicans. You idiots.’ But of course we are Anglicans, some of us reluctantly. Maybe God has placed us where we are, because he agrees about the ongoing need for reformation, and he wants to use us for it.

So what then are our tasks, and how are we to achieve reform from within? Specific questions need further discussion, but, still sticking to the big picture, what is as important as a manifesto for reform, is gaining the opportunity to implement it. I have to say that by nature and conviction I am a pretty unchurchy person. I serve Jesus Christ in the institution because I am driven by the Gospel. I am convinced that God made Him who had no sin, to be sin for us, because lost people matter supremely to God. I believe that Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God. I believe that we are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. And I say that because the Gospel is an urgent task.

When I said this at a deanery chapter meeting a little while ago, most heads nodded. ‘Yes, Archdeacon, it’s urgent’. The area dean said to me afterwards, ‘Don’t be fooled, they only nodded to keep you happy’. One of our gravest problems is some of our friends do not share this sense of gospel urgency. It is not difficult to see why. It is theology. If you are wobbly on the need, you will be reluctant towards the solution. If do not buy into the Fall and judgement, if alongside the love of God, you do not fear the state of sinners before the wrath of God, if you cannot see deeply that on the cross God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, well, it is not surprising that our church is weak on mission and evangelism.

What do we believe as leaders in God’s church? We believe in constant, ongoing reformation, don’t we. Do you nod? To keep me happy or out of conviction? We do have some essential things to share, like the authors of the Magisterial Reformation, like the group of Christians Luke wrote about to Theophilus. So let us go back to what we noted earlier.

The Christians in Acts were held in unusually high esteem ? such high esteem, that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Look at their devotion, their awe, their commitment to each other, their care, their deep joy, how they were held in a respectful favour and esteem. If we could reform our congregations in that way, we would really be in business.

Luke makes the point that what is so impressive about the early church is its outward looking stance. For me, the main tension for leadership in a local church is managing just that. How can you become an outward looking mission, where there is the ever recurring tendency to be an inward looking club? When you are involved in what Bill Hybels calls ‘transitioning a church’, that is what we have to do ? in the power of God, to transform an inward looking club into an outward looking mission.

But what about mission to the nation? I started my present job two years ago. Since then I have been exposed to all kinds of things which call themselves ‘church’. Some are brilliant, some are awful. I could tell you stories which would make your hair stand on end, and stories which would thrill your heart. And they are not stereotypical. The evangelicals are not the goodies, and the others the baddies. When you begin to see the bigger picture, it does not seem to work like that.

What really pains me, again and again, is the bad press which some Evangelicals are getting. I believe that some of the time, it is our fault. We are ducking out of the responsibility for reformation from within. Part of the problem is that we are simply not gracious enough ? and I do not mean that we should keep smiling under all circumstances. I mean a whole life approach to graciousness, in regard to Christians of other shapes and sizes. It is something to do with Luke’s theme-tune word, homothumadon, literally ‘being of one mind’, getting onto the same wavelength, playing in harmony with each other.

I learnt a lesson on this years ago. Someone asked to see me to discuss a problem. I groaned a bit, because he was one of those people whom I found quite difficult. However, once I had heard his story, and realized the tough times he had been through, my feelings changed. I saw him in a quite different light. It taught me a lesson: to listen more deeply, not to demonize those who are different, to see people as Jesus sees them.

No wonder that some whom we may think are write-offs, are as they are. If we had been to their theological college, we might be too. If we had heard the ten-minute homilies they had been fed on, we also might be struggling. Personally I am slowly learning to listen better, to understand where people are coming from.

I remind myself of Jesus’ words, ‘I have called you my friends’. So I guess a whole-life approach to graciousness means making friends with those with whom we would not normally feel at home. If they are Jesus’ friends they have to be our friends too. That means turning up to meetings, even the dull ones. It means being relational, building friendship, encouraging: ‘How are things going? How are you getting on?’ And listening to the reply.

That is the spirit of how Luke saw mission. His friends were homothumadon, united, harmonious ? for the sake of the Gospel. We ca not reach our country for Christ on our own. Thank God for other denominations, but we need to work with our wider Anglican friends, as hard as that can be. Pray for them, and with them, and gain their trust. Who then are our spiritual ancestors?

If our reference point is the Magisterial Reformation, our mission is as much to and within the Church of England, as anywhere else: ecclesia reformata, ecclesia semper reformanda. The reformed church must always be reforming itself. It is the big, wise, urgent picture. It is about mission. I believe that if we embrace this imperative, for the Gospel, in the power of God, this is his way forward to reach our country and our world for Jesus Christ.


by Simon Vibert

Words used by the church can be tricky: for example, you may have heard about the lady who left her ancient parish church because she found the agnostics so difficult that she couldn’t hear the sermon, and I grew up believing that an Epistle was the wife of an Apostle!

What is a denomination? It sounds as though ‘demon’ is in there somewhere. On balance, though, we must neither demonize nor deify the denomination. Dictionary definitions range from ‘a grouping of people having a distinct religious faith’ to ‘an organisation of faith groups’. Consequently our discussion needs to focus on some practical questions about what function the denomination fulfils and how it can be best used for Gospel purposes.

We approach the topic with the following questions:

1. Why have denominations? Denominations often started in order to correct misunderstandings or heresies of a previous generation (C of E), or because there are theological issues over which Christians disagree (adult versus infant baptism).

2. What would a perfect denomination look like? Surely it would be one where the invisible church (the church known only to God) is reflected fully in the visible church?

3. What can we live with? The denomination has to be a true church: i.e. as defined by what the Bible regards as church.

We begin by asking: ‘What is a true church?’ From there we will consider the relationship between the church and the denomination. Finally, we compare the main advantages and disadvantages of belonging to the three main paedobaptist denominations: Church of England, Presbyterian and Congregational.

A. What is a True Church?

We are talking here about Reformed churches: in other words, those churches who see the Gospel, defined by the Scriptures, as shaping everything (solo scriptura was the watch-word of the Protestant Reformation).

1. Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s rallying call was the phrase ‘Justification by Faith alone’. His ecclesiology stemmed from this conviction about the path to forensic righteousness before a holy God: ‘The true treasure of the Church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God’.

Whilst people like Zwingli taught that the true church is not the visible church (which is always mixed) but the invisible church without spot or wrinkle, Luther asked himself: ‘What is the relationship between the invisible church (known only to God) and the Church of which the New Testament speaks mostly, namely, the gathered congregation (ecclesia)?’

In other word, how do the invisible church and the visible church relate to each other?

One popular illustration which was used was that of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation we can see the perfect Son of God in the frailty of human flesh. In an analogous manner, the invisible church is incarnated in the visible body of Christ. The analogy is imperfect, but nonetheless helpful.

2. John Calvin

Calvin saw the relationship between the invisible and visible church in this way:

* The church is externally the covenant between God and his people.

* The church is internally the union between Christ and his people by his Spirit.

‘Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according the institution of Christ. There we cannot have any doubt that the church of God has some existence.’

‘The Holy Spirit pronounces that the church is principally to be discussed by this sign: whether the simplicity of the doctrine handed down by the apostles flourishes within it.’

This definition of church concurs with the 39 Articles of the Church of England (Anglican) the Westminster Catechism/Confession of Faith (Presbyterian), and the Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (Congregational).

Article XIX : Of the Church (Anglican)

The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.

Westminster Larger Catechism (Presbyterian)

Q.61 What is the visible church?

A. The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children.

Q.62 What are the special privileges of the visible church?

A. The visible church hath the privilege of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the Gospel, testifying that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excluding none that will come unto him. (See also WCF Chapter 25 - Of The Church)

Savoy Declaration (Congregational)

The Lord Jesus calleth out of the world unto communion with himself those that are given unto him by his father.... To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his Word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe with commands and rules, for the due and right exerting of that power.

2. What is the Relationship between a True Church and a Denomination?

In this section I wish to outline the main advantages and disadvantages associated with belonging to the three main paedobaptist denominations. Given that I am an Anglican, I concede that I may well have more to say about this denomination!

A. As an Anglican

i) I appreciate the following in my denomination:

a) It is the national church. It is the church to which people would go if they go at all. The occasional offices and parish system present us with a lot of Gospel opportunities. The local parish church is a part of the community in a way that other local churches often are not.

b) It is Reformed (39 articles, Book of Common Prayer, Ordinal)

c) It is liturgical: a liturgy which (in the BCP at least) is Bible-focused and Gospel-oriented

d) I am free! Free to preach, train, teach and pastor

e) It is the best boat to fish from

f) It is episcopal: there is a form of oversight (see further below)

g) It has hosted some good men!

J.C. Ryle, former Bishop of Liverpool, saw no discrepancy between his episcopal role and his Reformed convictions. In Knots United, he defined evangelicalism by the following points:

Evangelicalism does not despise learning, research, or the wisdom of days gone by. We value the history of tradition, but refuse to put anything on the level of revelation.

Evangelicalism does not undervalue the church, or think lightly of its privileges. But the Church is not to be placed above Christ.

Evangelicalism does not undervalue the Christian ministry. But we do not admit ministers as mediators or priests.

Evangelicalism does not undervalue the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The visible signs are effectual, but they do not convey grace ex opere operato.

Evangelicalism does not undervalue the English Prayer Book, but does not place it above the Bible.

Evangelicalism does not undervalue episcopacy, but do not believe Bishops to be infallible.

Evangelicalism does not object to handsome churches, good ecclesiastical architecture, a well-ordered ceremonial and well conducted service, but maintains the simplicity of buildings because of the danger of the human heart towards idolatry.

Evangelicalism does not undervalue unity. But we maintain that there is no unity without oneness in Christ.

Evangelicalism does not undervalue Christian Holiness. We desire to promote spirituality of heart and life in the Christians. But we refuse to call everything ‘holy’ in religion.

ii) I struggle with the following:

We would have to concede that things have moved a long way since Ryle’s day:

a) Liturgy

The Book of Common Prayer is largely not used. Common Worship no longer gives a ‘common’ liturgy for all, and in many places is decidedly unreformed.

b) Misunderstandings over the role of Bishops

The official denominational line is that issues of church polity are at least secondary (if not indifferent, adiaphora). The Church of England makes a distinction between the pastoral role of bishops (first among equals, a presbyter like us) and their authority over church order.

The Reformers believed that the authority of the bishop derives not from the monarch, nor from the Pope, nor from apostolic succession. Rather, because the Protestant Church is constituted by the preaching of the Gospel, all the leader’s authority is subject to the authority of Scripture. Bishops and presbyters are equal in power of ministry but unequal in power of jurisdiction and order. This concurs with Richard Hooker’s view of the church (our finest Anglican ecclesiologist!).

Richard Hooker believed that because doctrine is unalterable and church polity is alterable the role of bishops in ordering the affairs of the church is never to be on the same footing as the exposition of Scripture. So, my problem with the Church of England’s modern view of episcopacy is when bishops, presbyters and members of congregations do not understand Hooker’s distinction and put a wrong and unconstitutional weight of authority on their bishops.

c) Is it the best boat to fish from?

‘The best place for the boat is in the sea, but woe betide the boat into which the sea gets’ (D.L. Moody).

At the EMA a few years ago, Australia Vicar, Philip Jensen challenged the popular view of the C. of E. as being ‘the best boat to fish from’. The problem with the argument, he said, is that the boat from which we fish is so full of holes that there is no distinction between the sea and the boat. And should you catch a fish, you drop it in the boat and it continues swimming around as if it were still in the sea! We may be catching fish, but we are never taking them to dry land. And all the time we are slowly sinking!

The very strength of being a national church and having lots of opportunities is that we lose (and have lost) our cutting edge. The church loses its distinctiveness from the world.

d) Practical issues

Money/clergy shortage (see more on this in Wallace Benn’s paper above).

Establishment. New tensions between the role of the monarch and the role of the head of the church have arisen in recent years, particularly over Prince Charles statements about ‘faith’. Moreover there is pressure, coinciding with moves to reform the House of Lords, to rethink the role of the national church.

Homosexuality and Women Bishops. The issue of homosexuality is still live (and coming up again in Synod next year). If women were to be ordained to the episcopate creedally orthodox clergy (who are by far the majority) would have major problems with their oversight.

Power of General Synod.

In my opinion, the first two issues may (of money and of establishment) well lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England ahead of the more serious doctrinal issues we face.

B) As a Congregationalist

i) I would appreciate the following in my denomination:

a) The denomination has a very high view of the priority of the local church.

An inextricable link is made between union with Christ and membership of the church.

John Owen’s definition of church is helpful, namely, that the church is made up of the ‘chosen, called and faithful people of God’.

b) Heavy stress on the privileges and responsibilities of church membership congregational covenants.

c) Adherence to principles of Church Discipline

d) Desire for a congregation made up of people of faith.

Martyn Lloyd Jones and John Stott clashed in 1966. In his book Evangelicalism Divided,

Iain Murray summarized Lloyd Jones’s concern about the apparent vacillation of evangelical Anglicans as follows: ‘For evangelicals to want to retain secondary denominational differences in denominations where the very essentials of the gospel are no longer maintained, is to give denominations an importance which no appeal to Scripture can justify.’ (Evangelicalism Divided, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000).

ii) I would struggle with the following:

a) Isolationism

The strong congregational emphasis can miss the primacy of the Covenant of grace overarching the Church.

b) Church-governing politics

The congregation model seems to go against the divine authority given to pastors/elders/presbyters (see further below).

c) Emphasis on ‘separation’

This can lead to the mistaken belief that a pure church is possible here on earth.

As a Presbyterian

I would appreciate the following in my denomination:

In the middle of the seventeenth century, nonconformist Puritan pastors were being ejected from their pulpits in London. The Westminster Confession of Faith was completed during the period 1st July 1643 and 25th March 1652, during which time, notes B.B. Warfield, the assembly recorded no fewer than 1163 minutes as it met in Westminster Abbey

(The Westminster Assembly and its Work, New York: Oxford University Press & Baker Books, 1981, p.3).

Puritan thought, culminating in the Westminster Assembly, is characterized by the glory of God as the overarching theme of the Bible and theology.

a) Presbyterians are close to the New Testament view that the titles bishops and presbyters are synonymous.

Each congregation is governed by a session, which consists of one or more ministers (teaching elders) and a number of ruling elders (depending on the size of the congregation). Elders must meet the scriptural qualifications for the eldership. They are ordained for life and installed to office. Ministers are licensed and ordained by regional presbyteries and are called by congregations; ruling elders are elected by congregations. Deacons are elected by congregations to oversee their ministries of mercy. They are ordained, but they do not exercise spiritual rule alongside elders.

The General Assembly oversees the ministry of the whole Presbyterian denomination. It meets annually and is made up of ministers and ruling elders representing each presbytery. It provides training and educational materials for the churches. It arranges internship training for prospective ministers. It co-ordinates the planning, funding, and prayer support for the efforts of presbyteries and local congregations in establishing new churches. It resolves matters of conflict in regional and local churches, and administers judicial discipline as a court of final appeal.

b) A more uniform agreement on the role of ministers

A presbyter is the teaching elder, and in some quarters also, the ruling elder, in the local congregation.

c) The denomination stresses the biblical foundation of the Church:

John Calvin puts it like this:

‘Although they put forward temple, priesthood, and the rest of the outwards shows, this empty glitter which blinds the eyes of the simple ought not to move us a whit to grant that the church exists where God’s Word is not found’.

d) Adherence to principles of church discipline

Whilst this is not contrary to the theology of the BCP (see the exhortatory sections prior to the General Confession in the Holy Communion liturgy), in practice the church often seems to mean ‘The visible gathering’ in C of E circles, and discipline is rarely practised.

ii) I would struggle with the following:

a) Problems of “purism” similar to the congregational view of ecclesiology

The Westminster Fellowship included a sentence, stating terms of membership in 1967, which read: ‘We see no hope whatsoever of winning such doctrinally mixed denominations to an evangelical position’.

b) Local church autonomy

The authority of an episcopate in the Church of England where it conducted by godly ministers is not only advantageous but is similar (although not the same as) the role exercised by Paul, Timothy and other NT leaders in their roles with churches in Asia Minor.

Episcopal oversight, whilst of a different order to that of the apostles, could be justified from the New Testament appreciation of direction and authority outside of the local congregation. Where the oversight is exercised by godly Gospel-oriented men, this enhances and support the work of the local congregation and helps prevent the problems a congregational form of government alone can create.

Perhaps I should let Spurgeon, a Baptist, have the last word on this matter!

You cannot, by Presbytery, or Independency, or Episcopacy, secure the life of the Church I find the Church of God has existed under an Episcopacy a form of government not without its virtues and its faults. I find the Church of God can flourish under a Presbytery, and decay under it too. I know it can be successful under an Independent form of Church government and can decline into Arianism quite as easily. The fact is that forms of government have very little to do with the vital principle of the Church. The reasons why the Church of God exists is not her ecclesiastical regulations, her organisation, her formularies, her ministers, or her creeds, but the presence of the Lord in the midst of her.


a) Work towards the unity of Gospel-believing churches (see Ephesians 4:3-6; John 17:21).

b) Enjoy the diversity among God’s people.

c) Strive for purity in the church, but appreciate that we await heaven for that.

d) Do not let pragmatism override your theology, but, also, do not let the quest for purity override your Gospel generosity.

I have found, Paul D.L. Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, London, 1981 very helpful in preparing this talk.