Wisdom in times of confusion and frustration?
“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. ….. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” 2 Corinthians 4:7&10
I confess I didn’t attend one of the Reform consultations held recently, but I noticed that at Chester it began with a reading from 2 Corinthians 3&4. It is a glorious description of Christian ministry. All FWS supporters are troubled as we seek to minister in 2011, and we long to have answers to the challenges we face. Well let’s begin by agreeing that the definition of Christian Ministry here is normative for the church in all generations, and in all situations.
I want to underline two realities from this passage. The first is that we have been given the greatest treasure to proclaim. Paul’s perspective is all the revelation of God’s grace, up to, and including, the glorious work of the Cross. The treasure is His answer to all that was lost through the Fall; the means whereby the creation relationship, of perfect harmony and fulfilment, could be restored, through God’s great covenantal love. i.e. this treasure is more than just knowing your personal sins have been forgiven and that Jesus is in your heart, great as that is. It is the whole of salvation, the length and breadth and depth and height.
The second point I want to emphasise is the way Paul describes how this treasure is experienced and revealed through those who preach it; namely through death. If we wish to stand in the apostolic tradition we mustn’t complain about our lot, whether it’s unpopularity, isolation, being misunderstood, or knowing persecution in one form or another. Paul’s willingness to face death all day long was the key to his effective ministry. And so it is with us.
I have been asked to comment on Rob Munro’s paper: ‘Should I leave or should I stay?’ I’m happy to do so. He and I spent a morning, walking round Worden Park in Leyland, chewing over how FWS could speak into the political situation facing Evangelicals in the Church of England, so I guess I had a hand in what he wrote, though it was all his own work! In doing so I want first briefly to sketch what I see is the unique significance of our FWS fellowship.
Two people played major parts in its beginnings; Paul Gardner and Peter Cook. Paul was the son of an Evangelical Vicar who seceded with others at the outset of the 1960s. After a difficult time he eventually became a Presbyterian minister in the States. Paul
studied theology at the Reformed Seminary in Jacksonville before coming to Cambridge to continue his Ph.D studies. His vision was to enter the Anglican ministry having learned the lessons from his father’s past. He immediately looked for Anglican Evangelicals who shared his Reformed world-view, and was shocked to find how few there were. But he did meet Peter Cook. Peter studied at St. John’s Durham during the era of Iain Murray and others when the Puritans were re-discovered. It led to Peter making a life-time study of Calvin. He was elected to Church Society Council and had me co-opted just at the time the Churchman editor was sacked for his alleged openness to liberal evangelicalism . David Samuel was appointed Director and, to cut a long story short, Peter and I were voted off the Council as we didn’t believe the BCP and AV were the only vehicles for Anglican worship. Our view was that PRS conservatism was a hopeless strategy for Christian witness in a rapidly changing culture.
The background to both Paul and Peter is important because both had clear views on biblical truth, but wanted to apply it in contemporary terms. As I understand it, that’s the ethos that unites us as we meet today. We went public as a fellowship in Birmingham, and the figure, who best epitomised what we were striving for at the time, was Francis Schaeffer. The title Word & Spirit is taken from Calvin himself who saw these two gifts as fundamental to everything we have from God. We went forward by creating a group of Trustees, whose job was to safeguard the vision; they in turn appointed a Council to plan a programme of activities to promote it. Today we are inheritors of how this has worked out. From the outset we aimed to make our fellowship open to all who found it attractive, whatever their background, and we encouraged genuine openness of debate. At our best we stand for theological rigour, and willingness to be challenged, as we seek to be faithful in ministering to the culture in which we are set. It’s a high ideal, and of course, we don’t always succeed.
Now let’s consider some of our besetting sins as Anglican Evangelicals. Our reputation is to be divisive, independently minded, and defensive when criticised by others. We come from various clans the most influential of which is Public School Evangelicalism. Ian Mainey could speak about his experience of these different clans from his time in UCCF. I confess I’ve often been critical of groups that have made me feel an outsider, but I wouldn’t want to denigrate the effectiveness people from the ‘Bash’ background. The rise of charismatic theology has only added to these clans. But as ministers we are often laws to ourselves. Having retired it has come home to me just what power an Anglican
minister has, and Evangelicals can exploit that power. However the main point I want to make is that Anglican Evangelicals have generally had a weak view of the visible church, and a pragmatic reason for belonging to their denomination. Just think how many Evangelical para-church organisations there are, and how much significance we attach to them, over against the work of the Church of England. When I was made an Area Dean and had to work with senior staff in the diocese, I became acutely aware that non-evangelicals genuinely believed I didn’t have a real theology. I once took the opportunity of raising this at a Senior Staff meeting but was careful to admit that it was a weakness within Evangelicalism. The phrase that has long summed up the position is – ‘The C of E is the best boat to fish from.’ There are good reasons for saying that this is true, but that’s no justification for being an Anglican. The perception that we are just using the establishment for our esoteric ministry is one of the reasons why we are not taken seriously in the major councils of the church.
Keele was meant to address this issue, and to some extent it did. Sadly, however, it happened at just the time when liberal theology began to influence Anglican Evangelicalism, leading to the breadth of the term Evangelical today, and its loss of any real meaning.
It’s against all this background that Rob wrote his paper. As a senior incumbent in Chester diocese, and a member of General Synod, he wanted address the unease expressed by Conservative Evangelicals, through bodies like the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, Reform and Church Society. Rob is involved with all these organisations. His desire was to set out a justification for the Anglican view of the visible church over against the Independency model. It is local, regional and national, as expressed through parishes, dioceses, and Archbishops in Council. The argument is that if all of these were working effectively and faithfully through the Spirit, then the best possible witness to the whole nation would be made.
Of course the ideal is not achieved and we’re living in a particular time when, in Philip Giddings’ words, ‘the Church of England is close to being dysfunctional.’ But the ideal is not achieved in independency either. I’ve spoken of the power an incumbent has. Compare that to having to live with deacons who can dismiss their minister at a whim. Reformed Evangelicals understand the power of sin and its corrosiveness at all levels. That’s why the watchword ‘semper reformanda’ is absolutely crucial to our thinking. In every generation we have to live and die for God’s truth. This is what Rob is calling for. The question for us is, is it realistic?
I commended Rob’s paper to a longstanding clerical friend and was saddened to receive a very negative reply. He compared being an evangelical in Chester diocese to being in his particular patch. It wasn’t a notorious situation like Southwark or Chelmsford, but he spoke of how evangelicals were treated by his diocese. I take his point seriously. Under Ian Harland in Carlisle I knew what it was to be despised and consciously worked against when standing against David Jenkins’ views on the resurrection, and even more so on the Women’s Priests measure. Stuart Casson was mocked by the College of Canons in the diocese when Richard Holloway came to address them. It isn’t easy, and I’m sure we’ll talk about this when I draw to a close shortly.
I would want to argue that greater are those who are for us, than those who are against us. And by this I mean in the greatest spiritual dimension. I’ve always supported my home football team, Oldham Athletic. I’ve had to suffer some wry humour for my passion. They were for many years the biggest supporters of the football league, being at the bottom of the old Fourth Division! To the amazement of all Oldhamers the day came when they gained promotion to the First Division, and were founder members of the Premier League. Of course it didn’t last. We’re the classic under dogs. Sadly I fear that Conservative Evangelicals in the C of E often have the same mentality as the long-suffering supporters of the Latics. But that is not our standing. Our historic admired Reformed leaders lived and worked in the least promising of circumstances. But their mentality was not separatist. They longed for a reformed Catholicism. Sadly that was not to be their experience and we are the inheritors of the Reformation, the greatest division in the visible church in history. We can see how God raised them up and upheld them through all the battles of their day. Why can’t the same Lord do the same for us?
To conclude, R T Sproul was a formative influence on FWS in the early days. Somewhere at St. James Carlisle there’s a pile of VHS tapes from his Ligonier ministries. I confess the congregation couldn’t make head nor tail of Sproul! They were bought by a retired businessman who had a son in James Boice’s congregation in Philadelphia. He allowed me to select a particular tape on the theme of the fine line of Christian discipleship. In it Sproul sought to show just how demanding the way of godly obedience is. We can so easily fall off into fruitless negativity, or into compliance with the world’s agenda. Rob and I were seeking to discover that fine line for godly Anglicans today. It’s now open for you to say whether we succeeded or failed. That’s what FWS fellowship is all about. Should I stay or should I leave? I am more for staying now than at any time in my Christian journey.