Understanding the Anglican UK evangelical tribes

anglican-communion-logo-1In my last blog post, I discovered myself describing two levels of power abuse among evangelicals. There is the abuse suffered by individuals. (I will have much more to say about this in the next post.) This can happen in almost any church and will depend on a number of variables, including the personality of the leader and the theological system that he or she preaches. Then there is the abuse of power that occurs at an institutional level, the attempt by a group within an institution to take over the whole thing. It happen within politics, as when the Militant tendency tried to take over the Labour Party in the late 70s. It also happens within churches. This is in fact what took place in the States within the Southern Baptism Convention from around 1979. Previous to this date the denomination had not been particularly liberal or progressive, but from that point on an influential fundamentalist clique set out to oust those who did not adhere to an extreme conservative point of view. The particular sources of opposition to this ‘takeover’ were the teachers in the SBC seminaries. One by one these professors were forced to resign and replaced by individuals who followed the hard Calvinist line taken by the plotters. Strict inerrancy of Scripture has become a line which no minister or officer in the church was allowed to cross. Stories of the heartbreak that this shift in the official SBC line caused are awash on the Internet and it is clear that there is still a great deal of unhappiness within that denomination.

I do not believe that I am being a conspiracy theorist when I see a desire on the part of some Anglicans to do something similar within the Anglican Communion. The group of Primates who met under the banner of GAFCON in 2008 and 2013 would like to think of themselves as standing for a mainline historically faithful form of Anglicanism. This seems to be the position of a number of African bishops who, because of the large numbers of Anglicans in their countries, now constitute the majority of Anglicans throughout the world. The number of Anglicans in Nigeria, 18 million, for example, vastly exceeds the active numbers in Britain, America and Canada. The Western advisers to GAFCON, many of whom are Australian from the Diocese of Sydney and the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, but funded from the States, are apparently committed to pursuing this path of global dominance for Calvinist Anglicans. GAFCON arguably has a strong Australian flavour and much of its energy and finance can be traced back to Sydney. The task of these ‘political’ advisers is to influence a majority of Anglican African bishops that this ultra-conservative path is the true one for all Anglicans. The Lambeth Conference in 1998, when the notorious resolution on homosexuality was passed, was the object of intense lobbying from these groups. African bishops, in particular, were persuaded, some would say bribed, to speak and vote the ‘correct’ way over this vote. The expense of bringing young men all the way from Australia to help in this task of ‘persuasion’ was met by the Diocese of Sydney. All of them were staying at the Franciscan centre in Canterbury and the campaign was run, according to some reports, like a well organised presidential campaign. No expense was spared. It is interesting that this Lambeth resolution, in spite of all the ‘dirty tricks’ through which it was conceived remains part of the weaponry of conservatives whenever Anglican authority is to be challenged as with Southwark Declaration.

The interesting issue about these attacks by conservative Christians in Britain on the liberal establishment is that it is not a universal evangelical position. The numbers of people nationally who take what I call the political Calvinist line are fairly few. The vast majority of evangelicals are easy going on the women’s ministry issue and, while they do not in any way condone same-sex marriage, they are not prepared to be heavily political about the issue. The three groups that are ‘political’ in the UK are those associated with REFORM, the Church Society and Anglican Mainstream. I have not done a recent internet survey of these groups, but the grass-roots support for them is fairly thin in England. They do however have a number of spokesmen who can speak eloquently to the press whenever their voice is required. Theologically this group of conservatives are not in the place where most evangelicals are found. Most evangelicals within or outside the Anglican fold owe much to various manifestations of the charismatic movement.

A recent story in the church press concerns the desire of the Bishop of London to appoint a bishop of Islington to oversee church plants, mainly those set up by Holy Trinity Brompton. While I have many theological and practical reservations about what goes on in this church, I can say that, so far, this group has shown little appetite for political in-fighting and power games. There were no clergy or theological students from HTB at the Franciscan Centre during Lambeth 1998 and while there are not yet any women clergy at the church, no one seems to have an issue about it. Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, has so far kept the energy and influence of HTB firmly on-side and though there are conservative hot-spots in the London diocese in the Sydney Calvinist mode (St Helen’s Bishopsgate and Oakhill Theological College), they do not seem to be such a threat as that faced by Bishop Chessun in Southwark, the other side of the river. Political power games will go on being fought in this country, but the Anglican establishment in Britain will remain for some time to come, even if the Anglican Communion world-wide falls apart into a North-South axis. There will be colonies of Anglicans from the ‘South’ in this country but not many.

Dramatic changes to the Anglican Communion will occur across the world in the next ten to twenty years, including the probable crystallisation of a North-South split. If this happens it will probably rightly be laid at the door of those in the evangelical world who see the advancement of a dominant Calvinist conservative agenda as the way forward for the Communion. But in spite of the rhetoric of Sydney Anglicans, the Anglican Communion is rooted historically in a Christianity broader and deeper than the insights of one manifestation of the Reformation, John Calvin’s Geneva. Anglicans know that no one church, certainly no one man, can possibly encompass the richness and depth of the mystery of God. The Anglican Church has always, and will continue to look beyond itself for a sense of the sheer variety of insight and experience required for those who wish to have a rounded picture of God and his self-revelation. Anglicans in the future may not be world-wide, but they may still witness to a Christianity notable for its sheer variety and richness of insight.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

3 thoughts on “Understanding the Anglican UK evangelical tribes

  1. Just a quick comment: there are ordained women at HTB: Sue Colman, Jo Davies and Emmy Wilson are all described as Curates. There is also a woman LLM, D.r Margaret Hodson. I also note that the Chief Finance Officer, the President of Alpha and the Group Chief Executive (titles from the HTB website) are also women.
    Some time ago you would have been right, but the climate is changing and as you can see above, there are woman in significant leadership roles at HTB.

  2. Thank you Anne for your correction. My personal encounter with HTB is now very old but my main point stands. HTB are prepared to work with the Communion in ways that some other evangelicals are not. That needs to be said rather louder than it is. It is not good enough to lump everyone evangelical together. HTB can also be congratulated for a very robust child protection policy which puts other churches to shame. You might like to go back and read what I said positive about evangelicals. It will be in the February posts. I do not have it in for them indiscriminately, just where they bully and control the weak in the name of the Bible. My list of abuse categories has risen to eight! You will be able to help me further refine the list.

  3. Thanks Stephen for responding so quickly. I couldn’t agree more with you about the climate for abuse which exists with some of the groups you mention, though I always feel uncomfortable when naming groups or people. I learned long ago from Canon Eric James that when we exclude people, Jesus is on the other side of the line, with those we have excluded. I did not know EJ well, but was introduced to him when I first went to work in London, aged 21. He decided I had had a very sheltered upbringing…… and took me around to show me another side of life which I had not only never encountered before, but had never even heard of. He was very good to me and I am sad I did not make contact with him again before he died.
    I come from a deanery where we have representations from the full gamut of the church spectrum including an Incumbent who is a Council member of Reform, the founder of Anglican Mainstream, and at one time one of the head quarters of the Third Province Movement. The previous Bp of Ebbesfleet also lived in the Deanery. It should have made for interesting conversations, but sadly did not because few people were prepared to engage with each other. Which is my great sadness. We must keep talking to each other, or possibly more importantly, keep listening to one another.
    I am very impressed with HTB and the way they handle things, especially the way they have been able to incorporate a parish with a very different tradition, with very real understanding. There is humility, prayerfulness and godliness in the leadership team of HTB. Wish more people were like them!
    The points you make in your post are very good ones. At his funeral my father (a Presbyterian) was described as the last Calvinist in Britain. Sadly I don’t think his minister was right!
    I don’t think your comments are limited to conservative evangelicals. There is also power abuse and political manoeuvring from the other end of the spectrum with Forward in Faith and the Society of Saints Wilfred and Hilda. And I am sure other groups too.
    You make a very important point about institutional abuse. Graphically illustrated by the various sex abuse scandals within the churches, not least our own Anglican church, where protection of the church seems to have been more important than admitting their is a problem and where pastoral care of the abused was hardly on the radar. Thank God we are now realising how culpable we all are in allowing institutional abuse to thrive.
    I look forward to hearing more about the abuse categories you have come up with!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.