Are evangelicals taking over the Church?

ImageGen.ashxSomething has changed in the Church of England. It is a radical change, but one that has not attracted much comment. I was alerted to it when Martyn Snow was announced as the next Bishop of Leicester. A diocese with a long tradition of liberal leadership, most recently under Tim Stevens, has appointed someone with an evangelical outlook, and the youngest diocesan in the Church to boot. And this is not an isolated example.

Amongst the five senior diocesans, Canterbury, Durham, Winchester and York are clearly evangelical, and in London we have a traditional (rather than liberal) catholic. In the next tier we find Chester, Bristol, Birmingham, Coventry, Sheffield, Carlisle, Peterborough and Leeds, and then include at least Blackburn, Bath and Wells, Guildford, Southwell and Nottingham, Rochester and Europe, and you have a formidable representation of evangelicals in the House of Bishops—one without precedent in modern times.

It is important both to qualify and to clarify what this means. Bishops are famously reluctant to own theological ‘labels’, and for understandable reasons. They are, after all, there to function as a focus of unity around the Church’s teaching, not to serve as point-scoring for particular traditions or signs of shallow triumphalism. And the presence of so many evangelicals will not satisfy the extremes. Liberals worry about a threat to the ‘broad church’; conservatives will wonder why it remains so broad—apocryphally asking of consecrations, ‘Is that the point in the service where they remove your backbone?’

The reasons for this change are deep and historical, and we need to understand why we have got here in order to see where we are going.

Within the evangelical tradition itself, the reasons reach back at least 50 years. At the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress (NEAC) at Keele in 1967, a major question was whether evangelicals, still with a sense of being a beleaguered minority, should stay within the Church of England at all. Martyn Lloyd Jones of Westminster Chapel had said no—they should ‘come out from among her’ and form a pure, uncompromised, evangelical church. John Stott, of All Souls’ Langham Place, urged evangelicals to stay, engage, and effect change from within. Stott won the day—though his position then still does not convince everyone now. Evangelicals are not always good at compromise.

At the second NEAC in Nottingham in 1977, Anthony Thiselton (later Professor at the university there) urged a second kind of engagement by evangelicals—with scholarship, and in particular with the developing discipline of hermeneutics. He was opposed by my then-hero David Watson, who at one point in the Congress openly mocked him—but Thiselton won the argument (and I ended up doing a PhD in exactly this area).

This commitment to engage has borne remarkable fruit. In 2007, Gordon Kuhrt (who had been the first Director of the newly formed Ministry Division of Archbishops’ Council) analysed what was happening to theological traditions in ordination training and found something remarkable. 30 years previously, evangelicals accounted for around 30% of ordinands entering training. By the time of his writing, this had changed to 70%. This wasn’t because the numbers of evangelicals coming forward had increased, but because the numbers of catholics and liberals (to use the three broad categorisations) had dropped off. It is not difficult to understand that, all other things being equal, the tradition of ordinands in one age will become the tradition of the Church’s leadership in the next.

Following Thiselton’s urgings, evangelicals have also been active in engaging with theology. I was in the first cohort experimentally to move straight to doctoral study from ordination training, and many other evangelicals have done the same. As a result, there are evangelicals in every tradition of residential college, and (significantly) teaching on courses as well as in context-based training. Evangelicals no longer stick doggedly to parish ministry—their traditional remit—but are also now area deans and archdeacons and involved in sector ministries. The one area largely untouched is that of cathedral deans. The large number of evangelical bishops is just the episcopal tip of an ecclesiastical iceberg.

Within the Church itself, Mission-Shaped Church (which came to Synod when I was last a member in 2004) marked a watershed. It was now possible, credible and even desirable to talk about mission explicitly as an Anglican, in a way it wasn’t after Towards the Conversion of England (1945) nor even after the Decade of Evangelism. This explains why evangelical episcopal appointments are not the result of a conspiracy; Vacancy in See committees are asking for a credible commitment to mission, and evangelical candidates are giving plausible answers.

51GuzBqRMuLIs this situation likely to continue? To answer that, take a look at the youngest diocesans, since they will be around for some time to come, and are the most likely to occupy senior positions in the future. They are (in age order) Leicester, Southwell and Nottingham (both 48), Gloucester (53), Guildford (54), Europe (56), Coventry, Chichester, Chelmsford (all 57), Winchester, Ely, Leeds, Truro, Sheffield, St Albans and Manchester (all 58). Of these 15, 10 look evangelical, and another two ‘traditional’ catholic, and only three more liberal. And the high proportion of evangelical ordinands looks set to continue; a major route is through youth work, and 90% of youth workers are employed by evangelical churches. Any tradition diversifies as it expands, and debates will continue about who are ‘true’ evangelicals. As Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden point out in the excellent Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century (Boydell Press, 2014) that debate was as lively in the earlier lean years as in these years of plenty.

Martyn Atkins, when General Secretary of the Methodist Conference, reflected on how we could go about Resourcing Renewal (Inspire, 2007). Renewal comes, he argued, when an institution rediscovers its ‘founding charisms’ and, paradoxically, this is what is needed to face an uncertain future. I wonder whether the presence of evangelicals, at every level of ministry, might aid this process for the C of E—that we recover what it means to be a reformed catholic church. This means not being reformed and catholic (and liberal), living in different silos, nor executing an evangelical ‘takeover’—but that our diversity is held together by means of a reflective biblical theology shaped by insights from previous generations (tradition) and informed by responsible intellectual engagement (reason).

Whatever its pros and cons, this new configuration of the Church is likely to be here for some time to come.

A revised version of this article was published in the Church Times on 19th February 2016.

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35 thoughts on “Are evangelicals taking over the Church?”

  1. What makes you think the Archbishop of York is an evangelical? He has many fine qualities, including courage and a love of justice, but surely he is a liberal. Obviously he is a liberal from an African background, so his language is different, but that doesn’t affect his core convictions.

    • I don’t know enough about ++York to state any view on the matter, but your post raises and interesting point; define evangelical. There are people who are culturally evangelical (they can sing Tim Hughes, they attend the summer festivals gladly, they don’t know when to ring the bell during the Eucharist) and there are people who are doctrinally evangelical (they hold to penal substitution, are happiest with expository preaching, and when explained as to why some anglicans ring the bell during the Eucharist get very angry). Often these two groups overlap, but not always. It is possible to be culturally evangelical and doctrinally liberal.

      The confusion comes I think, when people don’t define what they mean by Evangelical. I suspect it’s becoming a useless term. Especially in the states where Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans claim the evangelical term for themselves just as much as the Southern Baptist convention do. (I wrote about this on my oft-neglected blog last year

      • Mark, your Venn diagram works well as a rough-and-ready tool for describing the point that some people find themselves in as they journey through life. Steve Chalke has been raised elsewhere on this page as an obvious example of someone who is culturally, but not doctrinally evangelical, in your model. But a slightly deeper cultural analysis shows that it’s an unstable situation. One common definition of culture (from a 1956 edition of UNESCO Journal) says it is “the total accumulation of beliefs, customs, values, institutions, and communication patterns that are shared, learned, and passed down through the generations in an identifiable group of people.”

        So you can’t draw a clear line between doctrine and culture: doctrine is Christian jargon for the beliefs which are always part of the shared inheritance of a culture. Declaring your rejection of historic evangelical doctrine means that you are either in the business of creating a new cultural group (as, for example, the Mormons have done) or you are going to shift the shared norms (which sooner or later means leaving behind people who stick to the old paths). We can translate this cultural factor into theological terms by saying that the gospel always divides people: as we see in Acts, the apostolic preaching sometimes shifted community norms and sometimes created a new community, but it always divided.

        That is why Mr Bell and Ms Held Evans want to keep the “evangelical” label: they still have hope that they can shift evangelical culture’s beliefs and bring the community with them. That does not mean the label is useless, it just means it is contested. The debate will not necessarily end in total victory for one or the other side, but sometime soon it will end. To take the most dramatic example, Catholics and Protestants largely read separate books, attend separate gatherings, and have notably different ethics: we all want to follow Jesus, but we split centuries ago into separate communities. In my judgement, US Evangelicalism is big enough and healthy enough that Bell and Held Evans are likely to find themselves of a small new community.

        In the British example, we can have a good guess at what the outcome is likely to be, because the evangelical culture faced these issues within living memory, with the liberals of the early 20th century and the self-declared ‘liberal evangelicals’ of the 1940s. We know that if you stop believing that Scripture provides a norm that overrides wider society, then the next generation will adopt the values of that society. You get a photocopy effect, with each generation carrying a weaker imprint of the community they came from. There are individuals who walk a fine line throughout their lives, weaving in and out of the community’s boundaries (like Max Warren in the ’30s and ’40s), but they don’t leave successors. Mr Chalke’s bid to reshape community thinking has failed, and his distinctive points are simply assimilation to wider society, so his (spiritual) children find their natural home in the wider community. Thirty years from now, Oasis staff will find Keswick or Soul Survivor just as alien an environment as the average RSPCA inspector or Barnado’s worker does. And this, too, is just as Scripture tell us: you can only be transformed (from wider society) by the renewing of your minds. Beliefs shape behaviour; the gospel leads to godliness.

  2. I can only dream that our dying, mainline denomination would be revitalized by evangelicalism. As a liberal for most of my adult life, I have seen my beloved faith wither in the face of secularism. If evangelical renewal is what it takes to bring back the faith, then so be it.

    • Dan that’s an interesting and theologically generous position. I think it is also coherent; if it is secularism which has made faith wither, then more secularism isn’t going to renew it.

      • “Secularism” is, in its true sense, just the separation of church and state: a devout Christian can be a secularist, and in America, many are. (The U.S. rebuts any claim that secularism leads automatically to irreligion.)

        This is a fascinating and well-researched article, and I especially liked the reference to Keele ’67, where evangelical Anglicans committed to a long march through the institutions. In England, they’ve now succeeded beyond perhaps even their wildest dreams.

        That success will change the Church of England irrevocably: as you say, “Evangelicals are not always good at compromise,” and that tendency’s on display in all the recent hot-button issues. Given their belief in biblical authority, I can see why, and I don’t think it’s a bad tendency: I wish far more liberals were likewise willing to stand up and be counted. But it’s not compatible with a broad church; or, at least, a church anything like as broad as the one evangelicals inherited.

        Evangelicals absolutely deserve the fruits of their victory: there’s nothing wrong with promoting your beliefs, and they’ve the passion, the numbers, and the money. Would that other traditions acted with equal vigor!

      • Can you clarify a bit here, please? Are you suggesting that anybody who doesn’t identify as Evangelical is a secularist or gives scope for secularism ?
        Also at the end of your piece you say ‘whatever its pros and cons’ the Evangelical ascendency is here for a good while. I’d love to know what the pros and cons are.
        I recently fell into an innocent conversation on a train journey with someone who turned out to be an Evangelical assistant curate serving in a group of churches that range from conservative Evangelical through MOR to properly Anglocatholic. She told me that she and her incumbent don’t mind donning the ‘robes’ (as she called the vestments) but went on preaching the Evangelical doctrines. This may seem to be ok, but the inauthenticity shocked me – as the fool says in Twelfth Night, would I were the first to have guys in this garb – because it evidently had not occurred to the curate (or to the congregation) that the maint enhance of Catholic tradition involves more than playing with the dressing up box. If that is what catholic tradition and the Oxford Movement and its ritualist expression is reduced to, I guess that might be one of the cons.

  3. do you not realise jesus the man you proffess to follow was the first evangelican man here he took out the fact you needed money to get into a synogoge before jesus people were suffering he went out and brought the people out of there pits of destruction which the jewish church left them he was also jewish but after his time came to spread the word of god he left knowing they were doing wrong to the needy forgotten the unknown sinners that were taught cant see dont beleive theses evangelicals are doing the same as this world will end up split in two if people like this dont bring us all together in the name of jesus we can beleive and get along with anyone and forget wat our neighbours did previous because seeing is learning

  4. So, evangelicals – don’t mess it up!! Of course, if the Church continues to show decline, guess where that particular buck is going to stop? Or is this a set up – the Evangelicals being the patsy to blame if things are not turned around?

  5. Thank you for the history, Ian – always good to know how the iceberg came into existence! I would also be interested in hearing your perspective on the effect of the charismatic renewal on all this, since that’s very much the same timescale, and has disproportionately affected evangelicals.

    Side question: Are you aware that Justyn Terry is returning to England this year, after leading Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh? I can’t imagine him as anything other than a future diocesan bishop, of very much the sort you are identifying. Is it only Oxford and Lichfield that are vacant at present?

  6. I rather think that such evangelicalism is the consequence of moving in a sectarian direction, not a revitalising. The disconnect between the Church of England and contemporary society is becoming more clear, not less, and it will with this development. I am an unabashed liberal in religion, but I don’t think there is much future for a liberal Christianity. Troeltsch long ago identified religion as a category called ‘Mysticism’ by which he meant the authority of the individual, and this authority does not privilege or limit itself to any one sacred book or its content, or any one Church tradition, or its insights. Today people will take from Buddhism and Paganism, in particular, so the liberal path is something different altogether.

  7. Hi Ian. You have noted the discussion about “what is an evangelical?” Which is very interesting when somebody when takes a theological position similar to Steve Chalke & still wishes to be labelled ‘evangelical’. I also wonder how many ordinands, curates & incumbents change tradition or at the very least “broaden” during training and ministry to a point which they can no longer in any honest way be regarded as evangelical. In addition my IME group in a Diocese which I’m told is evangelical has very little evangelical representation amongst either lecturers or curates, so it is interesting to read that the stats say otherwise.

  8. I suggest there is a need to define those three labels, Evangelical, Catholic and Liberal. I have been described as a ‘ liberal evangelical’ because I have ceased to hold fast to the penal substitution theory of atonement and all that suggests about the nature of our heavenly father. Steve Chalke is regarded by many Evangelicals as a heretic for similar and other related statements, yet he, like me, still wants to class himself as evangelical.

  9. The Bebbington quadrilateral’s a good working definition of evangelical, but to rejig it slightly: biblical authority; PSA; spiritual regeneration (being “born again”); evangelism.

    Evangelicals can take different stances on hot button issues, but the underlying framework has to focus on the saving work of the cross and the centrality of the Bible, or it’s strayed from the tradition so far as to snap the link altogether. Ditto evangelism, although plenty evangelicals appear to be more devoted to seeking converts in theory that in practice!

    • PSA = “Penal Substitutionary Atonement”. While this is certainly in the Bible it’s debateable if it should be one of four key points. Having counted 18 sermons in the book of Acts I have found no references to PSA – or one reference if you count Acts 8:32-33, which while not itself teaching PSA, cross-references to the overall context of Isaiah 53 which certainly does teach PSA.
      If we can find a definition of “evangelical” that prioritises a physical Resurrection of Christ over PSA, there will be more evangelicals.

      • I agree that the Bible doesn’t mandate PSA (which’d be hard, since the doctrine wasn’t invented until the 16th century!), but as shown by the Steve Chalke firestorm, it’s now an evangelical shibboleth. As too is a physical resurrection, but then, that goes for many other kinds of Christian. PSA is distinctively evangelical.

        • Hi James. I know you are from a different tradition, but a physical resurrection is not an evangelical marker, it’s a Christian marker. If someone doesn’t believe in that they are not a Christian.

          • What on earth (or in heaven) do you mean by a “physical” resurrection ? – in the light of what scientists (e.g. David Suzuki in The Sacred Balance) tell us about the human body ?

            For me (an evangelical, i.e. “good news” unitarian Anglican), a Christian is anyone who seeks to be, by God’s grace of course, a follower of Jesus of Nazareth – the “Christ”, i.e. the one anointed by God to bring good news to the poor…etc (whatever else one may believe about Jesus).

          • Does Paul’s explanation of soma pneumatikon really mean immaterial, non-physical existence?

            Nothing in the NT suggests that St. Paul’s understanding of Christ’s resurrection was in marked distinction from the NT testimony of physical resurrection to which the other apostles attested.

      • Jamie,

        I guess that puts my own evangelical credentials in question.

        My own exploration of the Greek word, dikaiosunes (translated righteousness) has led me to believe that it is not an exercise in averting criminal penalty, but a process of dissipating grievance by publicly resolving the dishonour and injury caused, instead of allowing it to be ignored or trivialised.

        The cross of Christ is the horrific reminder that, despite God’s desire to forgive, offense against God is neither ignored or trivialised. The indignities and butchery that the transcendent Father’s ‘out-shining’ faultlessly endured in his body on the cross conclusively defeats the slanderous satanic accusation that redemption involves an ongoing dishonourable connivance at wrongdoing.

        • An interesting synthesis of the sin-as-crime and sin-as-debt views, both of which can be supported from Scripture and which probably reflected the fact that imprisonment and slavery were contemporary penalties for both.
          Justice must come first, as without a crime or debt there is nothing TO forgive: redemption and mercy follow, giving forgiveness practical effect.
          Whatever the particulars, I thank Christ for rescue and remember the price He paid.

  10. As an observer rather than participant in CofE (I live in Egypt), I’m interested by this analysis. Before his death, I used to read Rev. John Richardson (Ugley Vicar) complain about the lack of evangelicals in the bishops. Perhaps he meant conservative evangelicals but it’s interesting you are noticing such an increase in evangelical bishops.

  11. Hi David. I agree the need to define evangelical. Ian did a piece on this a while back. With regards to Steve Chalke it is his whole hermeneutic rather than his stance on PSA which persuades me he is no longer an evangelical. (See his debate with Andrew Wilson on the Old Testament).

  12. Like you Ian I was at the Nottingham NEAC. Thistleton made a positive, transformative impact. I remember David Watson making quite a funny joke about ‘Herman Neutics the German theologian’. But I recall no mocking.

  13. A ‘founding charism’ worthy of the close attention of all is the theology of Richard Hooker. Hooker expounds what it is to be Reformed and Catholic without silos better than any other in my judgement. His writings ought to be front and centre in the the theological curriculum.

  14. Very interesting article. Like MisterDavid I would love to trace the incluence of the charismatic movement, though it seems to me to have become more of a part of evangelicalism rather than the movement among many strands of Christianity that it was back in the 70s (presumably it has left its mark across the other strands too though).

    Slightly off the subject I know, but I would also like to comment on “Towards the conversion of England” which according to the history of Lee Abbey (Anglican but broad in approach) seems to have been an influence on the founders, especially its comment about the problem of the “half converted” within the Church of England. I think that addressing this problem was part of the thinking behind the founding of Lee Abbey as a centre for mission and renewal. [I haven’t read the more recent book about the history of Lee Abbey – this comes from an earlier book]. The comment about the decade of evangelism interested me too, because I have thought for a while that though it didn’t seem to make much difference at the time, it is perhaps significant on a spiritual level that the influential alpha course got going during that decade. It would be fascinating to trace the background influences on the individual evangelicals now in leadership, and see how they fitted together.

  15. I, like one of your other respondents, wonder what is meant by “evangelical “these days. I fear the word is becoming so broad in its usage that it no longer means someone who holds to the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation of Himself and His holiness, as well as His love in salvation. Do all these bishops really believe this? If so, why are they not speaking out about the wilful refusal to accept the Bible’s teaching on marriage and relationships on the part of many who would call themselves evangelical? If all the bishops mentioned did this, surely it would make a big difference to the ongoing debates on the subject? People get the impression that the main thing is not to give offence, whereas St Paul had no such fear, yet look how effective was his ministry.

  16. So now that +Michal Ipgrave is due to replace the evangelical +Jonathan Gledhill at Lichfield, does this balance things out vis-a-vis an evangelical appointment to Leicester?

    OK, a serious question (as well as the less serious one above) – if there have never been so many evangelicals on the bench of bishops, why was there a need to resurrect the see of Maidstone so that (a certain subset of) evangelicals are adequately represented on the bench of bishops?

  17. The elephant in the room? Am I the only one here to see that the overwhelming majority of evangelicals appointed to bishoprics have taken place since ++Justin Welby has been in Canterbury? To me it seems part of a deliberate, intentional, and not very subtle strategy by the ABC to “renew” the Church of England with a modern ecclesiology not fit for a postmodern society. It saddens me that evangelicals – and I count myself as one – take pride on ecclesiastical maneuvers that favour them over ‘the others’. Not the greatest example of gospel generosity and celebration of alterity.


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