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.

Advertisements

I’m an evangelical Christian because…

I get a little tired sometimes of evangelical Christianity being identified by what it’s against. “You know, they’re the ones who hate gays, and bomb abortion clinics, and oppose teaching evolution in schools” (For the record, none of those three describes me). I’d rather define ‘evangelical’ by what I’m excited about.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about Jesus. To me he really is the light of the world; his life and teaching shine a brilliant light on what God is like and what human life is meant to be like. ‘Like father, like son’; I feel in my gut that if there is a God, God has to be like Jesus. As someone once said, ‘In God there is no unChristlikeness at all’.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love the story of the Cross: it shows us how God treats his enemies – with love and forgiveness – and so becomes the the way of reconciliation with God for all people. I also love the story of the resurrection, which tells me that love is stronger than death (love wins!), and that God has made Jesus Lord of all.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about grace – God’s unconditional love poured out on all people, the good, the bad, and the ugly, not because we deserve it but because God is love. Grace is the hope of the world; if there’s no grace, we have no hope. For me, this is bedrock; because God is graceful, I don’t need to be afraid.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about the Bible, in all its mystery and wonder. Evangelical Christianity wants to get back as close as possible to the original story of God’s grace in the life of Jesus and the early church, and we believe that the books of the New Testament are the best window we have into that exciting and foundational time. I love the Bible, even though I often don’t understand it and it regularly infuriates me, because when I take it as a whole and understand it through the lens of the story of Jesus, it is indeed ‘a lamp for my feet and a light to my path’.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about evangelism. Jesus continues to make a huge difference in my life, and as I talk to people who are spiritually curious, I love helping them come closer to the light of God in Jesus. And I love the fact that I can relax and enjoy this process, because at the most fundamental level it’s God’s work, not mine.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about conversion. I have a conversion story of my own – the time when the light of Jesus first flooded into my life – and I’ve seen other people get converted too. To me, it’s a beautiful miracle, and there’s no thrill like being a part of it in the lives of others.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love the vibrant community of people who know Christ and want to know him better, and who want to meet to learn more about him and to share his love with each other and the world around them. Small group learning and larger gatherings for worship with these folks are awesome experiences for me!

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love a simple approach to worship. I’m not against a written liturgy (I’m an Anglican, after all!) – in fact, I love the way a written liturgy gathers all the different elements of worship together in a way that all can participate in. But I don’t like it when it’s too wordy and too full of rituals. I don’t like crowded worship services; I love worship services that leave me lots of room to sense the touch of the living God.

I don’t think evangelical Christianity has everything right, and I don’t think there’s nothing we can learn from other Christian traditions. But at the end of the day, this tradition is my spiritual home, not because of what it’s against, but because of what it’s for. I’ve been blessed to be part of it, and it continues to bring great blessing into my life, and for that I’m very grateful.

Still happy to be an evangelical Christian

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 daly 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.

Roger Olson on how to renew ‘mainline’ churches

This quote comes from the end of a piece on Roger’s blog called ‘Is There Vitality inRoger Olson Mainline Religion?’

So what are my prescriptions for revitalizing old-line Protestantism? First, I suggest they rediscover generous orthodoxy (a good phrase coined, so far as I know, by Hans Frei) and enforce it within their denominations. Most of them have confessional statements that have been largely ignored or allowed to be used so flexibly that they are virtually meaningless. That’s because they contain doctrines that modern Christians cannot stomach (e.g., the double decree). I suggest separating those out and affirming (with teeth) basic, historic, broadly orthodox Christian doctrines such as the deity of Christ, his resurrection, the Trinity and salvation by grace alone through faith. The flip side of this is expelling leaders who join Buddhist sects (etc.).

Second, I suggest they rediscover and encourage living Christian spiritual experiences—conversion-regeneration by means of personal repentance and personal faith in Jesus Christ, sanctification through discipleship including infillings of the Holy Spirit, devotional life using Scripture and classical devotional literature.

Third, I suggest they discover blended worship with lively singing, worship teams and bands, and decrease their commitments to high liturgical worship as their sole style of worship.

Fourth, I suggest they rediscover the supernatural—belief in and experience of God actually answering prayers in ways beyond natural explanation—and encourage people to share their stories of that without embarrassment.

Read the rest here.

Texts of Terror – UPDATED

Roger Olson’s blog is one of my favourites. He writes from a moderate evangelical viewpoint, is a first-class theologian, and he makes me think. And now he’s taking on the ‘texts of terror’:

The phrase “texts of terror” usually refers to stories in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible that describe God as commanding his people to slaughter groups of men, women and children and “show them no mercy” (to quote on such command).

Here I will lay out all the theistic approaches to interpreting these texts I am aware of. Every “other” approach I know about seems to me to fall under one of these—as a version of it. You may be aware of others. Feel free to post them here.

As you can see, in my opinion, all have serious problems. This is almost certainly a question that will have to wait for answer until paradise or the eschaton.

If you have ever struggled with these texts. I strongly recommend that you read Roger’s whole post. Warning: he will not give you easy answers. Every approach he mentions has its strengths and weaknesses. But he will make you think, and that’s always good.

UPDATE: Please do read the comments to this post on Roger’s blog, and especially his replies, some of which are real gems. Here’s his answer to a question about what he actually teaches his students on this issue:

I offer them all options and their strengths and weaknesses and tell them I willingly await the eschaton for the definite answer to this and many other seemingly insoluble problems of theology. I make no secret of the fact that I think much theology is simply far too speculative. We need to label our speculations just that–speculation. My problem with many people who claim to have a definite answer to this and many other problems that have plagued theology for centuries is that they don’t admit the problems their views have and that their answers contain elements of speculation.

There are some views I cannot personally accept. I’m more than willing to tell students that. One is that the God of Jesus Christ really willed and commanded the merciless slaughter of thousands upon thousands of innocent children in ethnic cleansing “holy wars.” I don’t consider my rejection of that belief speculation because of my firm commitment to Jesus Christ as the full revelation of the character of God. People who claim to believe that God literally commanded ethnic cleansing in Israel’s history are, in my opinion, choosing to believe that and not to believe that Jesus is the full revelation of God’s character. They accuse me of not believing portions of the Bible; I accuse them of the same.

The Holy Club

(This is the third post in a series. The previous post is here).

In the year 1729 a very strange society began to meet in the rooms of John Wesley, a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. It became known as the Holy Club, and its members included John’s brother Charles, George Whitefield, and a number of other young men, all of whom were ordained clergy of the Church of England (ordination was required in those days for Fellows at Oxford and Cambridge).  These young men began to meet regularly to study the Greek New Testament and the works of the Church Fathers, to pray and to encourage each other. They made strict rules of life for themselves, celebrated Holy Communion together regularly, and did work among the needy and destitute.

This disciplined way of life attracted much ridicule from other members of the university, and their methodical lifestyle gave the group the name which would stick to them in the future: ‘Methodists’. It would be a mistake, however, to see them at this period in their history as being a type of proto-evangelical; they had not yet come to understand either the Gospel of grace or the nature of Christian conversion. It is said of John Wesley at this time that, on being asked to go to speak to a man who was about to be hanged, he refused. His reason was that the man would not have adequate time for the amendment of life which was necessary for anyone wishing to become a Christian. Looking back on this period later in his life, Wesley described it as ‘the faith of servants, but not of sons’.

Eventually John and Charles Wesley, along with George Whitefield, volunteered to go to the American colonies as chaplains. While he was in Georgia, John attempted to enforce a church discipline which was far beyond anything the colonists had ever experienced before, a discipline based on his reading of the early Church Fathers. This aroused great resentment among the colonists, and there was also a badly managed love affair which did great damage to his ministry. After only a few years, John returned from Georgia in despair; he is said to have remarked “I went to convert the Indians, but who will convert me?”

On the journey home across the Atlantic, John encountered some Moravian Christians, and was deeply impressed by their sense of peace and serenity. When he arrived back in London he continued his conversations with the Moravians. His spiritual search came to a head on May 24th 1738. Let’s listen to his description of that evening:

‘In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death’.

Wesley soon began to preach this message, but it aroused great opposition in the Established Church, and very quickly he found church doors closed to him. Then George Whitefield, who had experienced a similar conversion, invited Wesley to join him in Bristol where he was preaching to huge crowds of miners in the open air. Reluctantly at first, but soon with growing enthusiasm, Wesley joined him, and so began his life’s work.

It is estimated that John Wesley rode over 250,000 miles during his lifetime, preaching many times a day in fields, marketplaces, and village squares. Crowds of people were hungry for this message of personal faith in Christ, and thousands were converted up and down the length and breath of England. He organised these new believers into small groups known as ‘class meetings’, where they would experience fellowship, teaching, and accountability. Members of these meetings had to agree to strict standards of personal prayer, Bible reading and Christian service. From these class meetings came the lay preachers who soon joined John in the work of travelling evangelism. John’s brother Charles was a talented poet who wrote thousands of hymns for the new movement. Hymn singing, by the way, was a radical idea in those days, at least as controversial as was bringing rock music into church in my youth!

The movement encountered a great deal of opposition, some of it, sadly, from the Established Church. There are stories of local clergy hiring drunken mobs to attack Wesley and break up his meetings. The Church didn’t know what to do with the movement; there is a famous quote from a meeting between Wesley and Bishop Joseph Butler in which the good bishop remarked ‘Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing – a very horrid thing’. There is not time in this post to go into all the sad circumstances which led to the break with the Church of England; suffice it to say that eventually the Church lost the Methodist movement, which became a new branch of nonconformity in England.

However, not all of those who believed as Wesley believed left the Established Church. Many stayed, preaching and living the message within the structures of the Church of England. At first, they took for themselves the description of ‘Gospel’ people, but later they became almost universally known as ‘evangelicals’. To their story we must turn in the next post in this series.

Early Evangelical Anglican History – the Backdrop

This is a follow-up post to ‘What is an Evangelical Anglican?‘ which I posted in May 2011. In the earlier post I defined historic evangelical Anglicanism in terms of four convictions: (1) the supreme authority of Scripture, (b) justification by faith, (c) a belief in personal conversion, and (d) a love for simple forms of worship. I ended the earlier post by promising to say a bit about the condition of the church in England before the eighteenth-century evangelical revival. So let me now try to give a picture of church life in general in the eighteenth century as the evangelical movement began.

The seventeenth century had been a time of violent and often bloody conflict in Christian Europe, much of it fuelled by the theological controversies of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. The eighteenth century reacted to all this with a deep suspicion of controversy and of what it referred to as ‘enthusiasm’. The spirit of the age was one of moderation and of what is sometimes referred to as ‘sweet reasonableness’. The eighteenth century Church was gifted with people of fine intellect and deep piety. One thinks of Bishop Joseph Butler, of William Law, and even of old Doctor Samuel Johnson. But despite the quality of people such as these, there were enormous problems in the life of the Church.

The Church of England was in many respects an instrument of the English establishment. Bishops were appointed by the government, and were expected to repay the favour by spending much of their time in the House of Lords voting in support of the government which had appointed them. There was enormous inequality in the level of income received by both bishops and clergy. The Archbishop of Canterbury was paid £7,000 a year, the Bishop of Winchester £5,000, but Oxford only £500 and Bristol £450. The only way of earning a translation to a wealthier diocese was by faithful political service. Clergy incomes reflected a similar inequality. Over half the livings in the country paid less than £50 a year; many smaller churches paid between £5 and £20, and in Colchester there were two churches that paid respectively £3 and £1 1 shilling a year (figures taken from Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789, pp.123-126).

Another, and perhaps a related, problem was pluralism: that is, the practice of clergy holding more than one living at the same time. What often happened would be that the rector might hold a living, for which he might receive perhaps £300 a year, but because he was also the dean of a cathedral far away, he might pay a curate perhaps £20 a year to actually do the work. Gerald Cragg quotes the example of John Hoadly, who was at the same time chancellor of the Diocese of Winchester, a prebendary in another cathedral, master of the Hospital of St. Cross, and rector of six widely flung parishes! (Cragg, p.125)

Obviously this situation had a negative effect on the quality of pastoral care offered in the parishes. It’s also fair to say that few clergy of the time had much sense of a divine call to their work. Holy Orders were seen as a secure source of income, and there was little sense of obligation to do much actual work beyond leading Sunday worship. Standards for ordination were very uneven; a man who had taken a degree from a university might never have studied theology, but could still be ordained on the strength of his degree, and there was very little real supervision after ordination.

Parish life at the local level would seem to us today very non-sacramental. In Essex in 1763 only 20 of the 310 churches had a monthly communion service; the most common frequency was three or four times a year (G.R. Balleine, A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England, London, 1906, p.3). Morning or Evening Prayer was the standard fare for Sunday worship. Most of the music consisted of the singing of the parts of the service, with perhaps a metrical psalm. Sunday Schools were unknown, and sermons, as Cragg says, were ‘rational rather than mystical in tone, ethical rather than dogmatic in content’ (Cragg, p.116).

Beyond the doors of the church there was much immorality and scepticism in the country. Gin drinking was the curse of the working classes and drunkenness was so common as to be for the most part unremarkable. Among the educated classes, as Thomas Secker, subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote, ‘Christianity is now railed at and ridiculed with very little reserve, and its teachers without any at all’ (Cragg, p.127). This is the background against which the early Anglican evangelicals did their work.

In the next post, I’ll turn to the strange story of the ‘Holy Club’ that started at Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1729.