The Free Church of England (FCE) has 24 congregations in two dioceses, North and South. Its Declaration of Principles and 39 Articles (slightly amended from those of the national church) mark it out as thoroughly Protestant and Evangelical.
In most services a prayer book almost identical with the 1662 Book of Common Prayeris used, but with some of the ambiguities and problems removed. The word ‘priest’ is never used of a minister and the Infant Baptism Service does not refer to the baptised child being ‘born again’ as a result.
The official history, first published in 1936, told the story of the denomination with little or no analysis and interpretation of events. John Fenwick – one-time lecturer at Trinity College, Bristol, and later Assistant Secretary for Ecumenical Affairs to Archbishop George Carey – has here produced a much-needed analysis of the history and prospects of the FCE.
The author is anxious to show that the church is far more than a reaction against tractarianism. He sees it as an attempt to create an Anglican church that was purified and free, yet essentially one with the Church of England.
The first strand of the Free Church of England is the eighteenth-century revival and the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, where a gospel ministry was preserved within the framework of prayer book worship.
To this first strand was added a second – congregations that separated from the Church of England in the nineteenth century in reaction against high church practices and episcopal behaviour and then joining the Connexion.
The first of these was the Bridgetown Chapel in Somerset in 1844 – generally regarded as the first Free Church of England congregation. A resolution passed by the Conference of the Connexion in July 1863 led to the legal formation of the FCE later that year.
Conflict and splits
The third strand in the denomination’s history is the foundation of the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC) in the United States. This began when Bishop George Cummins resigned from the Protestant Episcopal Church following the furore that arose when he took part in an Evangelical Alliance Communion service with ministers who had not been episcopally ordained.
The REC formed a British branch in 1877, which was joined by nine FCE congregations. Conflict and splits followed within the British REC, until eventually it merged with the FCE in 1927 to create the present denomination.
In this union the more strictly Anglican influence of the REC predominated (the united church’s first bishop, Frank Vaughan, had been a bishop of the REC). The Declaration of Principles and Constitution of today’s FCE are largely those of the REC.
Is there a future?
The book then tells the story from 1927 to the present day, including the decline from 49 congregations at the beginning of World War 2 to 24 today. It proceeds with chapters that give both a history and an analysis of the denomination’s constitution, doctrine, worship and ministry.
It ends with an analysis entitled ‘The final chapter?’ in which the author offers reasons for the denomination’s decline – including a negative ethos (founded to be against something); its attraction for odd and discontented people; ministers who are ill-equipped for the work; and a failure to address contemporary issues.
Throughout his book John Fenwick expresses serious doubts about whether the FCE has a future. Yet in this closing section his enthusiasm for Anglicanism makes him overoptimistic.
We still await a book that deals adequately with the life of local congregations and why so many of them have left the denomination. Nothing is said about the way in which the FCE has been inconsistent in observing its constitution.
Nevertheless, this is in many ways an honest history and analysis ‘warts and all’ – even if the full extent of the warts remains hidden. What is clear is that the FCE is no haven for disaffected Anglicans today. Read this, and you will learn much of a failed vision.
There are necessary health warnings. First, the author has an ecumenical bias. He sees the FCE as ‘England’s best-kept ecumenical secret’. He writes as though Bishop Cummins’ commendable desire to have fellowship with fellow Evangelicals is the same motivation that brings denominations together in the modern ecumenical movement.
He laments the failure of conversations between the FCE and the Church of England in the 1990s designed to bring the two churches closer together.
Second, John Fenwick enthuses about the historic episcopate being transmitted through the laying-on of hands. He claims that the FCE has orders that ‘derive directly from Canterbury, ecumenically enriched by Old Catholic, Swedish, Moravian and other successions’.
This is a strange ‘enrichment’ indeed from an evangelical point of view. The issue of a ministry that is ‘valid’ in episcopal terms surfaces in a number of unofficial and historical documents, but not, thankfully, in the constitution of the FCE.
Third, the account John -Fenwick gives of recent conflicts – and the split that currently faces the FCE – is highly inaccurate at some key points.
The story of the Free Church of England is a warning of the danger of being founded to be againstsomething rather than forChrist and the propagation of his gospel. It reminds us that trying to be distinctive by maintaining an external tradition can lead to spiritual stupor.
It shows us that breakaway groups tend to continue to split and to experience struggles for personal power and influence. There is a message here for Independents as well as Anglicans.
The book is published by T. & T. Clark International (339 pages, £40, ISBN 0-567-087433-7)