The eclipse of the gospel

ET staff writer
ET staff writer
01 October, 2011 5 min read

The eclipse of the gospel

The Church Society met Friday 1– Sunday 3 July at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, for its annual conference. The aim was to examine the past and present impact of Anglo-Catholicism on the Church of England.

David Phillips, General Secretary of Church Society, opened the conference on Friday afternoon with an exposition of 2 Peter 1. Following a short break, he then spoke about the origins of Tractarianism and the evangelical response to it.


Tractarianism’s roots can be traced to 1833 when the Irish Bill, which abolished two archbishoprics and eight bishoprics in Ireland, stirred into action a group of men, including John Keble, J. H. Newman and R. H. Froude, who had become increasingly resentful of state interference in church affairs.
In 1833 they issued the first of their Oxford Tracts, which set out their concerns on such issues as apostolic succession, separation of church from state, personal holiness and theological liberalism. Tract 90, published in 1841 by J. H. Newman, argued that the 39 Articles actually support Roman doctrine.
David Phillips outlined the evangelical response to the Oxford Movement. From the outset, evangelical Anglicans could see the Tracts’ errors. In 1833 the evangelical paper The Record described them as ‘melancholy and wicked popish delusions’ and William Goode’s writings helped assure evangelicals that they were the true Anglicans.
However, the evangelical cause was weakened by the bishops’ failure to discipline the Tractarians and the Gorham case showed evangelicals that they could not take their understanding of the Articles for granted.
In 1865, the Church Association was formed to ‘educate, suppress, assist parishioners and take legal action [i.e. help launch test cases to clarify the law]’.
The Tractarians continued to break the law and eventually were imprisoned, but this only gained them public sympathy. Later evangelicals such as J. C. Ryle and Henry Wace moved away from prosecution for ritual offences.
David concluded his talk by explaining how Tractarianism had been a disaster for the Church of England and our nation, because it undermined church discipline, damaged simplicity in worship and led to many evangelicals leaving the Church of England.

Earl of Shaftesbury

Richard Turnbull, Principal of Wycliffe Hall, then spoke about the Earl of Shaftesbury and his opposition to Anglo-Catholicism. Shaftesbury opposed it for several reasons, including his Protestant upbringing and his friendship with C. H. Spurgeon.
He had witnessed at first hand the spiritual damage caused by Roman Catholicism whilst touring Rome and Milan in 1833. He admired Roman Catholic piety, but described Roman Catholic services as ‘tedious and ceremonial’ and performance-orientated, like opera.
Richard described Shaftesbury’s extensive political campaigning to uphold national Protestantism, including his attack on clerical vestments. Shaftesbury claimed he was acting in defence of the laity, because of the failure of the bishops to uphold biblical church practice.
David Phipps ended the day by discussing John Henry Newman’s concept of authority. He said the story of Newman is of how ‘a good lad could go wrong’. Newman’s early faith was founded on biblical doctrine and he resisted liberalism. However, his doctrine of the church gradually changed.
Even before the Oxford Movement, Newman believed that grace came through the church and truth is to be found where the church is. Newman was able to justify Roman doctrines not held by the early church by claiming that the doctrines had always been there.
David Phipps concluded by saying that the main thing we can learn from Newman is that if we don’t teach the whole truth, a vacuum will form and be filled by error.
On Saturday, Gillis Harp, Professor of History at Grove City College, PA, spoke about the collapse of Anglican evangelicalism in North America. Gillis explained that there was much to learn from what had happened to the sizeable evangelical party of the nineteenth century Episcopal Church.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Episcopal evangelicals constituted roughly fifty per cent of the House of Bishops and one third of clergy. Protestant stalwarts such as Bishops Charles P. Mcllvaine and William Meade were active in opposing the Oxford Movement. But, by the end of the century, evangelicals had declined dramatically.

Justification by faith

Gillis explained the main reasons for this were the failure of the evangelical party to replace evangelical bishops, the impact of liberalism on theological seminaries, and the appeal of medieval aestheticism to the middle classes.
He contrasted the collapse of evangelicalism in the Episcopal Church to the preservation of Protestantism in the Canadian Anglican Church.
After the Church Society AGM, David Phipps gave his second talk on Newman, this time examining Newman’s doctrine of justification. He explained how the works of Aristotle, which had become available in the west during the twelfth century, had influenced theologians.
Previously, the church had generally held to justification by faith — it was cited by fifteen Church Fathers, but Aristotle taught that ‘one becomes good by doing good.’
At first, the church rejected Aristotelian teaching, but it was gradually assimilated by the Dominicans and then by Thomas Aquinas, until eventually it dominated the universities and church. Martin Luther was the first person to attack this teaching in his 1517 Disputation against scholastic theology. But the Church of Rome continued to follow Aristotle.
In his early days, Newman held to the doctrine of inner conversion as a ‘scriptural doctrine’. But this gradually changed, culminating in Tract 90. By 1841, he had rejected justification by faith alone, partly because of his dread of antinomianism. By denying that justification is of grace, Newman sold out to Rome. David concluded his talk by challenging evangelicals not to embrace similar errors.


Rob Desics, Vicar of St Timothy’s, Hemlington, in Middlesbrough, closed the day’s sessions by giving his testimony of how he had been delivered from Anglo-Catholicism to the biblical gospel. After becoming a Christian in 1993, at the age of 16, he studied theology at Lincoln.
Whilst at Lincoln he became involved in the Cathedral Guild of Servers — carrying the processional cross and enjoying the splendour of cathedral worship. He then studied at St John’s Nottingham and, following this, was placed at Anglo-Catholic churches in Ilkeston and Potters Bar.
He continued to ‘climb up the candle’ and in 2002 became an aspirant of the Society of the Holy Cross. He attended its 150th anniversary in 2005 at the Royal Albert Hall (with 1100 priests and 6 bishops).
In 2005 he was appointed to Hemlington and by now was using Roman rites, incense, statues, candles, etc. However, things began to change.
One morning he was reading through Jeremiah 44:17, ‘we will certainly … burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her’; and the following Sunday during procession to the statue of the Virgin Mary this verse in Jeremiah, in his own words, ‘hit me like a train’. After this he gradually stopped engaging in ritualistic practices.
Rob described other changes in his ministry — starting a Bible study group, running a Christianity Explored course and preaching longer sermons; and the opposition he had encountered — three PCC members resigning, opposition from some parishioners, excommunication from the Society of the Holy Cross.
He described too how several members of his parish had come to a saving faith and the great sense of gospel fellowship that ensued.
On Sunday, after a service in the chapel, David Phillips closed the conference with an overview of the implications of Anglo-Catholicism for us today.


In recent years evangelicals have been prepared to work in co-belligerence within the Church of England with Anglo-Catholics, to resist the growing influence of theological liberalism. GAFCON, FCA and AMIE have arisen partly from this co-belligerence.
David Phillips discussed the positive aspects and theological weaknesses of these bodies, and concluded that ultimately we are in danger of conceding the Reformed, Protestant and evangelical nature of the Church of England.
During the conference, John Richardson gave two Bible expositions from Galatians, showing how Anglo-Catholicism, by adding ceremonial rituals to the gospel, is spiritually dangerous, because it obscures Christ.
The gospel is eclipsed and people are led into slavery. He also spoke on how his upbringing in an Anglo-Catholic church had led to anxiety and a lack of peace with God, and how we should view Anglo-Catholicism today.
In summary, this conference reminded us how Anglo-Catholicism eclipses the gospel and how many issues it raises which are still alive today. We were reminded too of the nature and power of the true gospel in changing lives.
There were also opportunities, during informal times and over meals, for fellowship with friends and other attendees whom we had not met before; and to talk informally with the speakers. CDs are available of all the talks.

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