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The Church of England (1967-2017)

February 2017 | by Lee Gatiss

It is difficult in only one page to sum up five decades in the life of an institution as large and diverse as the Church of England. But here goes!

Irreversible decline?

One of the most obvious facts we must note to begin with is that the Church of England (CofE) has in many respects shrunk since 1967. From around two million regular worshippers after the War, we now see regular Sunday attendances dipping under one million.

This has held steady at about a third of all church attendance across the denominational board, but the overwhelming trajectory for all of us over the last 50 years has been downwards.

In 1975 around 50 per cent of all babies were baptised in the CofE. This has declined to around 10-15 per cent today, although we still baptise three times more adults on profession of faith than the entire Baptist Union of Great Britain! We may remain (in a sense) the elder statesman amongst UK churches, but managing decline and reduced circumstances seems to have become a serious preoccupation.

Inspiring growth

That being said, there have also been some astonishing and encouraging signs of growth over the last generation. The electoral rolls of Anglican churches in London rose over 70 per cent between 1990 and 2010, for example, bucking the national trends.

Given the high turnover in metropolitan congregations (which means they have to work hard simply to remain the same), and the natural influence of the capital over the rest of the country, this should be cause for a certain level of optimism.

Church planting and ‘fresh expressions of church’ have been partly responsible for new growth in the Anglican arboretum. To take a snapshot, between 1985 and 1991 there were about 40 new church plants a year in the CofE. These were not centrally organised, but sprang up organically.

In 1991, there were around 15,000 people attending new church plants in the CofE, and the Archbishop of Canterbury (the evangelical, George Carey) spoke to 700 people at the Anglican Church Planting Conference.

Well over 230 churches were planted in 1990-1998, not to mention hundreds if not thousands of so-called ‘fresh expressions’ (387 of them in Sheffield, for example, in 1999-2005). See the book Church growth in Britain, edited by David Goodhew (Ashgate, 2012), for more on these positive stories. In some places and in some ways we became what an official report called ‘a mission-shaped church’.

Increasing division

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a mood of ecumenism pervading the churches. Congregationalists and Presbyterians were getting together; Anglicans and Methodists were exploring unity; Charismatic renewal was blowing in to many denominations, including Roman Catholicism; and, famously, Martyn Lloyd-Jones called for evangelicals both within the CofE and outside it to unite in some kind of fellowship or association with other evangelicals. Yet there was increasing division amongst us.

There was a trickle of secession from the established church as a result of Lloyd-Jones’ call. Around 20 ministers left Anglicanism for independency between 1964 and 1974. But after the Keele Conference of 1967, most evangelicals within the national church chose to stay ‘in it to win it’.

Many were alienated from their nonconformist brethren over the subsequent years for a variety of reasons, not least because some emphasised their Anglicanism over their evangelicalism; and some, no doubt, did not work sufficiently hard (on either side) to maintain the unity of the Spirit.

Evangelicals within the CofE were also split among themselves over this period, and not simply over the Charismatic movement, which caused ructions in many places. There was a bust-up over a series of articles in the journal Churchman on biblical inspiration, by J. D. G. Dunn, in 1982-1983. This led to the formation of a new journal  Anvil, and eventually to a more liberal, or so-called ‘open’, evangelicalism becoming the norm in many places.

As women’s ordination became a reality in 1992-1993, it deeply divided the evangelical constituency and led to the formation of ‘Reform’, a pressure group to oppose this new development.

At the National Evangelical Anglican Congress of 2003 in Blackpool, which should have been a moment of unity around ‘the Bible, cross, and mission’, a new splinter group called ‘Fulcrum’ was formed for people who wanted to ‘open up’ evangelicalism to further promote women’s ordination and to learn from other traditions and religions.

Improving influence?

This latter group has been more successful at influencing the wider Church. However, St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, All Souls, Langham Place, and Holy Trinity, Brompton, all grew tremendously over these years.

Their successes also brought with them a certain factionalism and party spirit within the movement as a whole, but they certainly strengthened the cause within the CofE and beyond. The Alpha Course may divide doctrinal opinion in some areas, but it has been undoubtedly influential, as has the more conservative Christianity Explored course — both developed by Anglican evangelicals.

Many of the leading bishoprics today (including the historically most significant sees of Canterbury, York, Durham and Winchester) are held by men with evangelical convictions of one sort or another, although it has been much more difficult for those of a conservative, complementarian persuasion to be nominated for preferment.

Many of the breaches in evangelicalism post-1967 have been, to a large extent, healed in the last 20 years. This is due in no small way to the unifying influence of the Proclamation Trust (begun by the Anglican, Rev. Dick Lucas) and the many regional Gospel Partnerships (which began in the wake of encouragement from Archbishop Peter Jensen from Sydney, after his visit here in 2003 to speak on mission strategy).

Cross-party unity and understanding has also been fostered by the success of parachurch organisations such as UCCF and Oak Hill Theological College (only a third of whose students are today Anglican ordinands).

Meanwhile, Anglicans have played a leading role in evangelical publishing endeavours, such as the bestselling Bible Speaks Today series of commentaries, edited by John Stott and Alec Motyer; and with individual volumes of huge influence, such as Jim Packer’s Knowing God and John Stott’s Cross of Christ. Although he was not an evangelical per se, the works of the Anglican writer, C. S. Lewis, have also exercised a major influence on Christians of all kinds around the world since he died in 1963.

The theology journal Churchman continues to thrive in an era when many such journals have died or become entirely online affairs. As well as providing such intellectual leadership and resourcing, Church Society (which publishes Churchman) has continued to exercise significant evangelical patronage over appointments in churches all over the country. It now also runs several annual conferences and has more members than at any time in the last few decades.

Inevitable failure?

These positive signs must be placed alongside the increasing secularisation of our society as a whole. The much talked about ‘death of Christian Britain’ since the 1960s has not made it any easier for the CofE or for evangelicals within it to reach the nation for Christ.

Some see serious threats to free speech and the prohibition of any opposition to gay marriage looming large in the future. They think the CofE’s official doctrinal position on sex and marriage — bolstered by the 1998 Lambeth Conference and a majority of the Anglican Communion — is soon set to be undone, and that we will inevitably lose the battle to maintain orthodoxy.

It is far from clear what will happen, but, if evangelicals disengage from the structures of the CofE, they could make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are signs that a more sanguine stance might be justified. Why should we buy the revisionists’ rather Marxist ‘inevitability’ view of historical development?

Inescapable call

It is not easy to maintain robust views on the secondary issues which divide us as evangelicals while maintaining unity in gospel essentials. But that is the prize we must contend for, both inside and outside the established church. God calls us to contend together for the gospel, without losing integrity of conscience or clarity of vision.

As Anglicans, evangelicals have too often been content to think, act, and be seen as marginal rather than as mainstream. But the CofE was never intended to be merely the religious expression of changing English culture; nor was it designed as a pluralistic melting pot of various contradictory persuasions.

As John Stott rightly asserted, ‘According to its own formularies, this Church is Reformed and evangelical’. If we can recover confidence in this solid foundation, there is great hope for the future. And so, as Bishop Ryle encouraged us in the nineteenth century, we ‘stand firm and fight on’ into the twenty-first.

Rev. Dr Lee Gatiss is director of Church Society and lecturer at Union School of Theology. He is the editor of Stand firm and fight on: J. C. Ryle and the future for Anglican Evangelicals, available from churchsociety.org

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