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  • Writer's pictureDavid Runcorn

Recovering the evangelical heart

David Runcorn in one of the convenors of Inclusive Evangelicals* and the author of Love means Love - same-sex relationships and the Bible (SPCK)

The Times newspaper recently carried an article by the journalist Matthew Parris entitled, ‘Church is risking rule by illiberal evangelicals’ (1).

His concern was the influence of conservatives in the process of appointing the next Archbishop. He writes as a interested outsider and admits to struggling to understand the workings of the church. ‘The structure of power within the Church of England is complicated, antique in form and opaque in language, and though I’ve wrapped a wet towel around my head, read a range of densely worded documents and consulted friends within the church, I do not claim familiarity with the machine.’

He is not alone in this.

The article attracted several letters in response. One noted ‘a large number of Inclusive Evangelicals who are working hard to change the perception that evangelicals are holding the church back.’ Another repeated the familiar claim that conservatives are ‘merely reminding the church of its responsibility to observe biblical teaching [that] remains constant and unchanging throughout the ages and is not influenced by changing views of different times’. So, the letter claims, if evangelicals are illiberal, it is because scripture is.

Parris is right. There is an issue. More than he is aware, conservative evangelicals have been steadily filling key posts and committee places in all areas of the Church of England for some time, driven by a single concern to oppose any movement towards acceptance of same-sex relationships. I must stress they have broken no rules. They have simply been more alert to opportunities and effective in finding people willing to stand.

This was not always so. During the years I taught at Trinity Theological College in Bristol the then Chair of Council, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, always spoke with pride of the college’s reputation that its ordinands could be ‘placed anywhere in the church’. I found the same spirit when teaching at St John’s Nottingham. This never diminished with the strength of evangelical convictions. There was an understanding that ministry vocation was to service in the whole church, not simply to further the interests of one party/tradition/tribe within it. It is that conviction that feels to be missing in these times. We are now close to a point where the determining factor in every decision or appointment in the church will be solely on an organisation or candidate’s views on ‘that issue’.

As if the Church of England as a whole is not complex enough, understanding the Evangelical tradition within it is a further challenge. For this task, Mark Vasey-Saunder’s recent book Defusing the sexuality debate - the Anglican evangelical culture war (2023) is required reading. He explores the history of this tradition, traces its particular cultural features, and shows how its approaches to scripture have brought us to the expressions of evangelical faith we meet today.

In his careful presentation three things are immediately clear:

  • evangelical faith has never been ‘one unchanging thing’ – agreed everywhere and by all. It has always been developing, responsive and, therefore, often conflicted and prone to divide over scripture and belief.

  • evangelical teaching on marriage and sexuality varies, even among its own scholars today.

  • debates about homosexuality today are based on very modern assumptions about identity and orientation. ‘The position which asserts strongly that no one should be condemned for their same-sex orientation, and that homophobia is wrong, relies on a distinction that would be incomprehensible in the ancient world’ (p7). A truly unbroken, unchanging, historical, biblical tradition on same-sex relationships would be a homophobic one. As no conservative evangelical today would support homophobia, conservatives are, in this respect, revisionists.

By contrast, public pronouncements from conservative leaders permit no room for the possibility of other interpretations of the same scripture texts. One view is presented as the true, orthodox, biblical, evangelical one following an unbroken historic tradition. Inclusive evangelical views are variously held to be ‘liberal’, an abandoning of scriptural authority, and based on a decision to ‘walk away from an historic biblical understanding of sex and marriage’. (2)

Vasey-Saunders’s study of John Stott’s approach to scripture is particularly revealing in this respect. This is significant, for John Stott is the undisputed Founding Father of contemporary CofE evangelicalism. Under his leadership at the 1967 conference at Keele, evangelicals in the Church of England were called back from the brink of breaking away, repented of a ‘tragic reputation for narrow partisanship and obstructionism’, and committed themselves to full participation in the life and mission of the whole Church (3). To unite and co-ordinate this re-focused tradition Stott founded the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC). It is the present leadership of CEEC that is now insisting on separation.

Drawing on Stott’s book, Issues facing Christians Today, Vasey-Saunders finds four guiding principles that underpin Stott’s approach to scripture and faith (4).

A spirit of humility.

Stott’s humility was a quality evident to all. He frankly admitted that he, like all evangelicals, have blind-spots which we may, in all likelihood, be unable to recognise for ourselves.

The possibility of being wrong.

Stott was clear that faithful Christian believing must always be open to the possibility that interpretations of scripture and understandings of issues of faith could be wrong, or at least significantly incomplete. He warned we may not be correctly evaluating our culture and discerning truly where God be speaking to and through it. We may be misled as to what scripture is saying in the first place and so unable to hear how it speaks to the questions and issues we are facing today. This finds gracious and practical expression in the example of an evangelical New Zealand Bishop who, while disagreeing with the blessing of same-sex couples, fully supports his clergy who wish to. When challenged, Peter Carroll replied, ‘I lack conviction that I am completely right and those who wish to conduct blessings are completely wrong.’ (6) This reminds me of a saying I keep in my journal. ‘My confidence is not in the certainty of being right, but rather on the grace and mercy of God, before whom I have sought truth as best I can’ (anon).

Modernity and scripture.

A familiar accusation against those holding progressive views on sexuality is that we are simply going along with prevailing liberal norms. ‘Modernity’ and scripture are presumed to be incompatible. Stott would not agree. Summarising his view Vasey-Saunders writes, ‘Far from being a period in which the West has drifted ever further from the truth of the gospel, modernity has in some key areas been the period where Christian tradition itself has been exposed as resting on a misreading of scripture’ (p142) Stott warns of the possibility of God’s people ‘blinded by [their own] tradition’, viewing the world through a particularly narrow biblical lens and suspicious of insights from outside their own world view.

Double listening.

Stott insisted on the need to be open to engage in genuine dialogue with society and culture. They must listen and talk to each other. He had no place for dystopian views of the world and the separation this leads to. Both conservative and progressive views face the challenge of this, of course. Progressive approaches to scripture may be misled by the claims of contemporary culture, while ‘conservative interpretation of scripture may be overly influenced by the historical traditions of a homophobic institution’ (VS p144).

To these I would add one more.

Respectful dialogue within a theologically diverse church.

One example illustrates this more clearly than any. Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (1988) was an extended in-depth conversation between John Stott and David Edwards, a leading theologian in the liberal tradition at the time. The engagement was marked by deep mutual respect, honesty, careful enquiry of each other’s views, theological rigour, and an evident commitment to a church embracing significant theological differences. Here is a gracious generosity that stands in sharp contrast with the tone and content of recent engagements in these debates in General Synod and elsewhere. A conversation in the same spirit is urgently needed among evangelicals at this time.

Inclusive Evangelicals aspire to all these qualities. We believe they are the foundation of authentic Anglican evangelical leadership, faith and biblical method. So, it is a matter of concern that in the IE network stories are frequently shared of evangelical churches where open discussion has not been encouraged, of leaders imposing a particular viewpoint upon communities where a variety of convictions are to be found; of alternative viewpoints not being listened to; of ‘certainties’ being asserted over humbly offered convictions; and where the need and faithful desire to explore understanding and scripture is being frustrated. Something is seriously wrong when leadership is found controlling, excluding and standing in the way of the journeys of faith and belief of the people of God.

Inclusive Evangelicals* all have friends and colleagues who, while holding differing convictions on the subject of sexuality, do not support calls for separation. We hold each other in mutual respect as we journey together. Our conversations continue in the love of Christ. We are united in seeking our part in unfolding life and mission of the whole church of God.

1. December 2nd, 2023. Letters on December 4th, 2023.

4. ‘Issues’ was first published in 1988. Vasey-Saunders traces the developments in Stott’s thought across all the subsequent revised editions.

5.The following material draws on Vasey-Saunders, chapter 2: ‘Evangelicals talking about scripture’.


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