Still Happy to be an Evangelical Christian (repost)

I’m reposting this piece from November 2013, because I have recently been told by a good friend (who is not an evangelical) that we ‘nuanced, tolerant evangelicals’ (her phrase) need to keep explaining our brand of being evangelical. OK, here’s my explanation!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the Anglican circles I move in, it’s not uncommon to hear people make snide comments about Holy Trinity Brompton (home of the Alpha Course) or All Soul’s, Langham Place (where John Stott was rector for many years) being ‘only barely Anglican’. This, of course, is because these churches are part of the evangelical tribe, and their worship and theology doesn’t pass the particular litmus test that the joker (usually a person of the ‘liberal catholic‘ tribe of Anglicanism) sees as essential to being ‘mainstream Anglican’.

I find this sad. You see, I grew up in the evangelical tribe of Anglicanism, and I found Christ there.

My Dad was an evangelical priest. His ministry was centred on preaching the gospel of Christ and helping people commit their lives to Christ, and there are many people in different parts of England (and even Edmonton!) today who are Christians because of his ministry. He taught people how to have daily ‘quiet times’ for prayer, he led small group Bible studies, he visited people and had personal conversations with them about their faith. His preferred style of worship was low church (although he had sung in a church choir and could sing Evensong better than most high church clergy I hear today), without a lot of extra bells and whistles. He was about Jesus, the Bible, conversion, faith,  commitment, the work of the Holy Spirit, and community.

But he was never anything other than Anglican. He believed the doctrines taught in the Book of Common Prayer, he celebrated the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, he wore his clerical collar during the week (far more than I do!) and his robes on Sundays. To suggest that somehow my Dad was less than Anglican because he was an evangelical would have been insulting in the extreme.

It seems to me, from some of the conversations I see on the Internet, that a lot of people who make loud noises about Anglicanism being a ‘big tent church’, with lots of room for different points of view, are a little shy to acknowledge that evangelical Anglicans are an integral part of that big tent. In this they are very different from a previous generation of Anglo-Catholics. My bishop in my Saskatchewan days, Vicars Short (of blessed memory), as high an Anglo-Catholic as they come, was once having a conversation with me about a particular subject (I forget what). I ventured an opinion (he was very brainy, so this was always a little scary) and then said “But of course, I would take that point of view, being an evangelical”. Bishop Short replied “You don’t need to apologize for that; that’s a perfectly respectable Anglican position”. A very long way from the snide, dismissive talk about ‘Con/Evos’ that is so common in the blogosphere today.

I’d say these days that ‘evangelical’ isn’t the whole truth about my Christianity, but it’s still the tribe I belong to, and I’m still happy to do so. Why do I say that?

First, because I still love the Bible, although I find it difficult to subscribe to the belief of many evangelicals that it is inerrant, and I acknowledge that most of us are selectively literalist in interpreting it. Nonetheless, I believe that in sum total these books are smarter than I’ll ever be, so I read and study them daily and find that as I do so they lead me to Christ over and over again. And I particularly enjoy making their prayers my own.

Second, because I still rejoice in the evangelical teaching of ‘justification by grace through faith’ – in other words, the gospel idea that I don’t have to wait until I’ve achieved fifty percent plus one in the holiness exam before I can come to God. On the cross, Jesus stretched out his arms and forgave sinners, and that includes me. So God’s love embraces me wherever I am and whatever I’ve done, and accepts me and welcomes me into God’s presence.

Of course, Anabaptist friends have challenged me to include discipleship in my understanding of grace: the idea that although God loves us so much he accepts us just as we are, he loves us too much to leave us there! The call of Jesus is to follow him and to put his teaching and example into practice in our daily lives. But still, when we fail (as we always do) the rock on which we stand is not our shaky and imperfect obedience, but Christ’s infinite and unconditional love for us.

Third, because I still believe that a simple liturgy, without a lot of ceremonial additions, is the best and most biblically faithful way to worship God. And although I have appreciated the challenge of catholic-minded Christians to put the service of Holy Communion at the centre of my worship, I do not buy the argument that it needs to be the main service every Sunday (although it certainly should be available every Sunday). The simple reason for this is that we are still expecting Sunday worship, rightly or wrongly, to be the front door through which unchurched people will come within sound of the gospel and come to know Christ. Is a service at which we talk about eating someone’s body and drinking his blood – and then proceed to exclude those who are not baptized – the best way to communicate the gospel to unchurched people? Not always. So I appreciate the old Anglican tradition of services of Morning Prayer, centred on the word and on music, that give the unchurched and the seeker and the questioner a way in to Christian worship without asking them to participate in a blood feast they don’t yet understand (which many of them instinctively know demands from them a commitment they can’t yet reasonably accept).

Please note once again: I fully accept that at least once on a Sunday we ought to celebrate the Holy Communion and that at least half of the time it ought to be our main service. Also please note, I do not advocate the abandoning of liturgy at non-Eucharistic services either. We Anglicans have a great tradition of excellent non-sacramental liturgies, and I don’t think we should join the wholesale rush to abandon them.

Fourth, I’m still an evangelical because I appreciate the call to personal holiness I find in my tribe. Historic Anglican evangelicalism includes not only a call to be sexually pure (which people tend to be rather obsessed with today – either for it or against it), but also to live a simple life and to beware of the lure or wealth, to avoid worldliness, to be either moderate or abstemious when it comes to potential addictions, and to love Christ and draw close to him in prayer and Christian service. Granted, I question some aspects of this today (how does it work for gay people, for instance?) and I think that it tends to be overly individualistic (what about structural evil in society, and how we as Christians react to it? And what about the issue of war and peace, on which Jesus and the early church appear to have been largely pacifistic?). Nonetheless, I appreciate the fact that in a Christian world that has largely abandoned talk of holiness because it’s seen as too negative, evangelical Christianity has continued to call for us to repent of our sins and learn to live a holy life.

Fifthly, I’m still an evangelical because I believe that the gospel needs to be shared and people need to be called to conversion. All four of the New Testament gospels end with a version of the tradition in which Jesus sends out his disciples as missionaries to spread the good news and to call people who are not yet Christians to become his followers. The entire New Testament assumes that this matters supremely: God has not sent his Son into the world so that the world can ignore him, or see him as one possible option among many. I am a Christian today because a Christian evangelist (my father) shared the gospel with me and challenged me to give my life to Christ. I do not believe that i would have picked this up by osmosis, even though I was taken to church every Sunday by my parents. My institutional relationship with the church needed to become a personal commitment to Christ, and that happened because of someone’s personal witness. My greatest joy as a Christian is to pass that on.

As I said, ‘evangelical’ is not the whole truth about my life as an Anglican Christian, nor should it be. From the writings of C.S. Lewis I learned a broader approach to Christianity, a strong natural theology, and a common-sense approach to personal devotion that has been vitally important in my Christian living. From Anglo-Catholic friends I learned to appreciate the place of the body in Christianity, and the rich history of spirituality found in the various monastic traditions, especially the Benedictines and the Franciscans. And from Anabaptist friends I heard the call to a more faithful practice of the teaching of Jesus, especially simplicity of life, truthfulness, nonviolence and love for enemies.

So I’ve picked up good things from these other traditions, but they have modified my evangelicalism, not replaced it. To use another illustration, I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of other Christian homes, and have brought some of their traditions back to my home, but I haven’t moved house. I might get angry with evangelicals sometimes, and some of them might look askance at me from time to time and ask if I’m really still one of them, but the evangelical tradition is still my spiritual home; it’s where I was first nurtured in Christ, and it continues to feed me, challenge me, inspire me, annoy me, and provoke me to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). And for that, I am thankful.

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Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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