Can you be Evangelical and not agree with the CEEC?
- history, definitions, identity and the bible -
Paul Roberts lectures in Worship and Church History at Trinity College Bristol and is one of the convenors of Inclusive Evangelicals. He writes here in a personal capacity.
When the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) made a modification to its basis of faith, adding the statement about ‘the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman’, it was seeking to clarify (or, redefine, depending on your stance) the definition of ‘evangelical’ within the Church of England. This had proved necessary due to a growing number of evangelicals who have parted company with the traditional line on marriage being defined as being between a man and a woman. The change was brought about through a democratic process within the council itself.
"a growing number of evangelicals have parted company with the traditional line on marriage"
There seem to have been at least four responses that I have come across from evangelicals within the Church of England as a result of this:
a) Evangelicals who approve of the change, as it brings a clarity and a clear definitive position that defines evangelicals within the CofE and to provide a uniting point to argue against the LLF proposals.
b) Evangelicals who, whilst they take a traditional position on marriage being between a man and a woman, are uncomfortable with the way such a definition seeks to “de-evangelicalise” other evangelicals who differ on this issue.
c) Evangelicals who disagree with CEEC’s view because they believe the prior version of the CEEC basis – with which they agreed – allowed discussion and disagreement among evangelicals on this issue.
d) Evangelicals who ask the question, ‘Who are the CEEC’? - those were unaware of the organisation, that it claims to represent them, and therefore had no opinion for or against its doctrinal basis, either in its earlier or latest forms.
Following that move, the CEEC have been steadily seeking to establish alliances with other groups, those which represent charismatics, including the leadership of New Wine and the HTB group of churches and church plants. Politically, this move is attempting to provide an opposition block, where it becomes possible to say ‘all evangelicals (and charismatic evangelicals) in the Church of England disagree with…’ How convincing or effective this will prove will only become clear in time.
As a theological teacher who falls into category c) above, I have been asked many times what the implications of this are, and whether CEEC are simply re-inventing the definition of ‘evangelical’ to suit the changing circumstances. What follows is a reflection in the light of these questions.
"Scripture, as the supreme authority over Christian faith, is at the heart of evangelicalism."
Scripture, as the supreme authority over Christian faith, is very much at the heart of evangelicalism. Evangelicals see themselves as inheritors of the reformers. Key to the reformation was the principle of sola scriptura – which essentially means that scripture is the ‘bottom line’ when it comes to Christian doctrine. This was the point of unity against which the reformers ‘protested’ (hence, Protestant) against the doctrinal and spiritual degeneration of the Catholic church in late-medieval Europe. Evangelical heritage comes from this moment in history, via the emergence of conversionism in both the Puritanism of the New England colonies and in European Lutheran pietism, then down to John Wesley and John Whitefield in the Evangelical revival the 18th century. In the early 20th century, evangelicalism in the Church of England split into two groups: the conservatives and the liberals, with the latter group essentially being absorbed into low-to-central churchmanship in the CofE during the mid 20th century. What caused this early 20th century split among Evangelicals was the emergence of the challenges to the Bible by geological dating of the earth, evolutionary theory and historical criticism of texts. The liberal evangelicals went along with these changes, the conservatives stood against them. As a result, the ‘family tree’ of contemporary evangelicalism in the Church of England flows through the conservative, rather than the liberal line.
The strength and weakness of evangelicalism has been a pragmatic desire to root an accessible faith in the pages of the Bible. This is a strength, because it takes the intellect of the hearer seriously and encourages them to root their faith in the pages of a book which they can read for themselves. In so doing, evangelical Christians have access to a vital source for faith: the living Word of God written. It means that most evangelical Christians have their personal faith deeply empowered from this source. By comparison, many other traditions tend to foster Christians who, while respecting the Bible, generally don’t use it as much, and are not therefore nurtured and fed from the scriptures to the same extent.
But this pragmatic focus on the Bible, besides empowering individual believers, is also a weakness. The early reformers believed in the perspicuity of scripture – this is the belief that the scriptures are clear on matters that are important, to the extent that all reasonable persons will arrive at agreement over core matters of the faith. It has been this belief which leads to a hope that the scriptures will provide a source of common unity among Christians on all essential matters, and that those matters upon which they are not clear are not essential. (This contrasts with the Roman Catholic view which places the Church structures in a vital role in determining what the scriptures say, what matters of faith are and are not essential, and then in mediating the results of this process to the rank-and-file faithful with full divine authority.)
Of course, in practice, it wasn’t as simple or happy as that. Early in the reformation, a very significant disagreement broke out between the reformers Martin Luther and Huldrich Zwingli over Christ’s presence in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Politically this was bad news, as the Roman Catholic armies were then threatening the existence of the early Protestant communities. A conference gathered in the city of Marburg in 1549. Luther and Zwingli failed to reach agreement over the four days they met. However, a communiqué was issued at its conclusion, which stated fourteen points of agreement, leaving the final point of disagreement to the end. It concluded, ‘And although we have not been able to agree at this time, whether the true body and blood of Christ are corporally present in the bread and wine, each party should display towards the other Christian love, as far as each respective conscience allows, and both should persistently ask God the Almighty for guidance so that through his Spirit he might bring us to a proper understanding.’ This decision to recognise each side in the debate as fellow Christians, worthy of one another’s love and prayer, remains an important example. So, too, the belief that in the course of time, the Holy Spirit will bring all ‘to a proper understanding’. The belief that Christians, who submitted themselves to scripture, could still disagree on that scripture was an important triumph for the Protestant cause, even if, at the time, it may have felt more like a defeat. Prior to this, the tendency in Christendom was to condemn and persecute the other side, with executions and burnings.
"The belief that Christians, who submitted themselves to scripture, could still disagree on that scripture was an important triumph for the Protestant cause."
Despite having a shared ‘bottom line’ authority with the scriptures, evangelical Christians have continued to disagree over some important matters, including infant baptism, whether conversion to Christ is a human or a divine act (Arminianism vs Calvinism), the nature of Christ’s second coming and so on. Evangelicalism has managed to hold together these disagreements, rooted in the ambiguity of the scriptures on these subjects. They have coped with the lack of unity in the meantime, holding to the belief that the Holy Spirit can, indeed, work over a protracted time to resolve differences. For most (but not all) Evangelicals, these matters of contention are not key to the essential Good News of salvation, even though in some ways they directly bear on the right response to that Good News.
Another potential weakness has been the tendency for Evangelicals to under-play the ambiguities found in the scriptures, particularly where these ambiguities arise from the diversity of the various writers and theologies within the Bible (yes, there are multiple theologies in the Bible – a point upon which many evangelical scholars would agree). Likewise, they have under-played the fact that some of these ambiguities arise more from theological interpretation of and reflection upon the biblical text, than what the Bible does or does not say. (For example, the divide between believer’s baptism and infant baptism comes into this category.) Lastly, there has been a rather coy silence from the main evangelical voices over a gradual abandonment of literalism by evangelical scholars in the Church of England, and in British evangelicalism more widely. When did you last hear a sermon defending the historical truth of a six-day creation, or the accuracy of the Bible’s genealogical dating of the creation of the first human being in, say, Luke 4:23-38? The fact is, the point about the truth of the Bible being fundamentally theological rather than strictly historical – which formed the basis of the divide between conservative and liberal evangelicals in the late 19th century – has been quietly ceded, at least among evangelicals in the traditional mainline denominations. Such matters are no longer seen as essential to the truth of the gospel, and indeed are regarded by some as potentially in conflict with it, as they could place an immovable barrier of intellectual credibility in the way of its reception. You no longer have to believe that God created the world in six literal days to be an evangelical.
"We recognise that the Bible was written by people of their time, and that their own understandings are weaved into the fabric of God’s revealed word. It therefore needs to be contextualised and interpreted into our own age."
We recognise that the Bible was written by people of their time, and that their own understandings are weaved into the fabric of God’s revealed word. It therefore needs to be contextualised and interpreted into our own age. This conclusion is not so simple as - but much more credible than - literalism. It also takes the original people and ages of the Bible much more seriously.
If I were alone in this conviction among evangelicals, then I would understand that my evangelical credibility would be under reasonable question. However, I know that I am not – most Anglican evangelical scholars would agree with me on the above point and its implications. Most evangelical ordinands emerging from English theological colleges to be ordained probably would too. But evangelicals have been very reticent about speaking of this publicly: partly this is to preserve unity with more literalist evangelical Christians, and partly because it poses challenges for some over-simple views held in the evangelical pews (or, more likely, chairs).
"The debate over sexuality has forced many evangelicals to re-think their understanding of how the Bible speaks to us today."
The debate over sexuality has forced many evangelicals to re-think their understanding of how the Bible speaks to us today. I have met many perplexed, intelligent evangelical laypeople who feel completely under-resourced to do necessary hard, personal thinking over the issues. They have had to learn to engage constructively with colleagues, friends and family members who are LGBTQI+ but in their evangelical church they are faced with a line which has not budged. They find themselves straddling a day-to-day context where they accept, mix with and socialise with active and practising gay friends and family, and a church context which states that to be such a person is sinful, disordered and in need of healing from a particular manifestation of the Fall. This position is so difficult that it’s understandable that being told what ‘the Bible’s answer’ is (and to make acceptance of that as a condition of continuing evangelical identity) simply will no longer wash. They are looking for some creative engagement between the Bible and their context and not merely being told to go away and read so-and-so if their questions get too tricky. It is a great shame that many evangelical and charismatic churches in the Church of England failed to get thoroughly enmeshed with Living in love and faith: the need to help all Christians, not merely the clergy, to engage with, and to explore a range of opinions and experience about this matter in an open, rather than a prescriptive way is an urgent pastoral, as well as theological, issue.
"It is a great shame that many evangelical and charismatic churches in the Church of England failed to get thoroughly enmeshed with Living in love and faith: the need to help all Christians to engage with opinions and experience about this matter is an urgent pastoral, as well as theological, issue"
The saddest part of this is the number of believers who now have felt they should abandon their evangelical inheritance because they were not helped to engage in this way. Too many are no longer reading a Bible which they believe is condemnatory of their loved-ones. This is a tragedy because the Bible is the Word of God written, and it was written to bring Good News and to enrich and nourish faith. It is not toxic, but many former evangelicals believe it to be so. There are many ways of relating it to life’s difficult questions – it’s just that these have not been properly taught, encouraged or explored, partly for fear that a set of party lines may cease to be followed, resulting in congregations which are diversified, rather than just unified. Perhaps the most tragic of all is that this approach, which can sometimes border on ‘the vicar knows best’, is a denial of one of the core strengths of evangelical practice and spirituality: the open Word of God, to be read by anyone, available to everyone, for guidance and the nurture of their faith in today’s world.
It is against this background that we have to see that decision by CEEC. Rather than walking alongside the changing experiences of members of congregations, they have chosen instead to circle the wagons and speak from on high by defining the correct way of interpreting the scriptures on a new (and contentious) set of subjects. Essentially, by amending the basis of faith, they (and those who have joined with them) are saying that it is impossible to ‘be an evangelical’ on this matter and have a different view. The book is closed.
The existence of groups like Inclusive Evangelicals therefore have two important roles. One is to say that there are evangelicals who have come to a different view on the subject, and not by abandoning their evangelical convictions; and, also, to encourage a genuinely evangelical spirituality among those who share those convictions – the Bible is not toxic, it is the Word of eternal life. As evangelicals, our lasting obedience is to scripture alone, sola scriptura, if not to the CEEC.
"there are evangelicals who have come to a different view on the subject, and not by abandoning their evangelical convictions."
Whatever our view of the recent change in the CEEC basis may be, the challenge will be for evangelicals (however defined) to continue to recognise genuine Christian faith and integrity in the group from whom they now feel separated. And of course, being scriptural Christians, this should lead to ongoing bonds of friendship, affection and the actions of mutual respect. In this, it would be worth remembering words from a time when very grave, life-threatening matters were at stake:
‘And although we have not been able to agree at this time ... each party should display towards the other Christian love, as far as each respective conscience allows, and both should persistently ask God the Almighty for guidance so that through his Spirit he might bring us to a proper understanding.’
(Marburg Conference 1549)
That way, the Book remains open.