What is The Church of England Evangelical Council Up To? Some Autobiographical Reflections
Updated: Jun 24
Charles Read is a priest in the Diocese of Norwich and a former member of General Synod who works in theological and ministerial education across East Anglia and continental Europe.
This blog was first posted in https://viamedia.news. March 2023
In its response to Living in Love and Faith (LLF), The Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) has said that evangelicals need separate structures in the Church of England. This has puzzled many people, including many evangelicals.
CEEC was set up in the 1960s by John Stott. The evangelical wing of the Church of England had been in decline for some time. You might trace this back to the very negative and reactionary response of evangelicals to the later Oxford Movement in the 19th century but certainly by the 1920s the future in the Church of England was Anglo-Catholic with great congresses and Prayer Book revision which leaned in a clearly Catholic direction.
The evangelical resurgence came after the Second World War and by the 1960s was growing, but evangelicals remained a minority voice in the Church of England. John Stott, rector of All Souls Langham Place in London, was acknowledged as the leader of this growing section of the church. One of the things which Stott was good at was organising and putting in place structures of support. He founded CEEC to bring different evangelical groups together for networking and support. It was not a campaigning group in those early days, and has only become so quite recently.
I was born in the 1960s in a single-parent family in a fairly prosperous village in Staffordshire, although our family was not at all prosperous and we lived in some of the very small amount of rented accommodation in the village. The only religious options in the village were the Methodist Chapel and the Church of England church. This latter was evangelical in its tradition with strong evangelical patronage from the Martyrs’ Memorial Trust. However, like most evangelical Anglican churches at the time, it had a clear vision of being there for everybody in the community. So although my family were not churchgoers on a regular basis, apart from my uncle and his wife who were Salvationists, I was duly baptised in this local church.
When the vicar introduced a Family Service once a month, my mother took me along. (It was evangelicals who invented family services in the 1960s.) She sent me to Sunday school on the other Sundays but by the time I got to secondary school I had lapsed out of this. I started going to the school Christian Union because it was somewhere warm to go during the long lunch break! It was run by the head of RE who happened to be a Reader in the village church where I lived. He persuaded me to go to the church youth group (Pathfinders) on a Sunday morning and it was through the ministry of this group that I became a Christian in 1973.
Growing up in this kind of evangelical Anglican church, I recall that we did not expect a bishop to share our theological convictions. We were only three miles from Lichfield but did not see the Bishop of Lichfield very often. We welcomed him warmly when he came and we took people off to the cathedral for confirmation, including me. We assumed that bishops would be theologically liberal and liturgically Catholic and we had no problem with that – it was just how it was. When Maurice Wood became Bishop of Norwich in 1971 there was much rejoicing that an evangelical had become a diocesan Bishop. (People did not generally think back to Ryle in Liverpool some decades earlier or to the 19th century evangelical bishops.)
From this sketch of my early experiences of church life as a child and teenager, I hope you might see the fact that evangelicals like us were happy to be who we were in a church where we were a minority, and where we did not expect to find bishops, archdeacons or diocesan staff who shared our theological views. We just got along with such people, and in the parish we got on with preaching a message of God’s love and salvation open to all, if they would simply turn to God and accept Jesus as their saviour. I was never aware of being rejected because I came from a single-parent family and my unmarried mother was never rejected by the local church either. This is a far cry from the judgmentalism of the first CEEC video which was produced in response to LLF where, in passing, at least one participant speaks about children growing up in single-parent families ending up in a life of delinquency and crime because of the absence of a father. I am afraid that I did not get the memo and so, rather than enter a life of crime and anti-social behaviour, I became a Christian and ended up in full-time Christian ministry as a priest. I can only apologise to CEEC that I missed my preordained vocation. I am too old now to embark on a spree of delinquency but I am doing my best to cause disruption at Diocesan Synod and I hope that will do.
We did not, in those days, want or ask for separate structures in order to flourish. Gradually, we learned how to work within the structures of the Church of England and to bring some evangelical witness into things. Many of us learned to appreciate things in other parts of the Church of England which we evangelicals did not have. It’s true that evangelicalism was probably more united then than it is today, even within one denomination. When Anglican evangelicals met evangelicals from other denominations we found we might disagree over things like infant baptism but we put such disagreements to one side. (With the re-emergence of Charismatic Christianity in the 1960s, a fault line did appear amongst Anglican evangelicals.) Nowadays it is common to think that there might be several different tribes of Anglican evangelicals and often they are not speaking to each other very much.
The CEEC was supposed to bring these different tribes together but in fact has become increasingly associated with the conservative evangelical tribe. It has long since ceased to represent the breath of evangelicalism within the Church of England. As such, its claim to speak for evangelicals in the Church of England is difficult to take seriously. Very few evangelical bishops are associated with it (and there are a lot more of them now than there were in 1971!).
We managed with bishops who were theologically and liturgically different from us and we never thought it would be appropriate to insist on a Bishop who thought and worshipped in the way that we did. This was all part of being committed to being part of the Church of England. In more recent years, evangelical Anglicans have not needed separate structures over such issues as divorce and remarriage and very few have opted into the provision of a ‘flying Bishop’ – largely because most Anglican evangelicals support the ordination of women. The suggestion from CEEC that we have separate bishops and separate structures in the light of LLF is truly puzzling, not least to those of us who have grown up evangelical. Is this an attempt at setting up a pure church? Who knows – but it is a novel move within Church of England evangelicalism. I am glad to have come to faith and grown up in the welcoming, inclusive and truly Anglican evangelicalism of my youth. I do not recognise myself or this type of evangelicalism in the pronouncements of CEEC.