Sunday, 10 July 2011

Evangelicals and the Church of England during the Twentieth Century


I spent Thursday and Friday last week at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, attending a conference on Evangelicals and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century. The conference explored the range of evangelical Anglican identities, but was specifically designed to explore the accuracy of the traditional interpretation of the fortunes of twentieth-century Anglican evangelicalism - that for much of the century evangelicals were marginal figures within the national Church, before the 1967 National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Keele, the brainchild of John Stott, coaxed them out of their ghettoes, and encouraged greater engagement with the life of their church.

The gathering opened with a paper from David Bebbington (Stirling) on the Islington Clerical Conference, which first convened in 1827 and continued uninterrupted until 1983. The Islington conference was the main event at which Anglican evangelicals came together during this period. The paper took ten snapshots of key conferences, a super way of showing the changing fortunes of evangelicals within the Church and the different expressions of evangelical Anglican identity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Islington, according to Bebbington, was a barometer of evangelical Anglicanism. He also argued that the Islington gathering played an important role in keeping evangelical Anglicans together, the face to face meeting of colleagues every year acting as a check against bitter disagreements and fallings out. But Islington, he argued, also resembled an evangelical Anglican magisterium, at which the evangelical attitude or response to various issues and events was propagated and then taken back to the parishes. In a sense this paper set the agenda for the conference, and many of the other papers explored in more detail some of the points that it raised.

For me perhaps the highlight of the conference was Mark Smith's paper on the development of the evangelical parish in the twentieth century. Charting new ground, Smith attempted to sketch in the narrative development of evangelical parish ministry across the century, something hitherto not attmepted, at least not in such a joined-up way. He took two examples as well to illustrate some of the broader points, Christ Church, Chadderton in Oldham, and St Andrews in north Oxford. Beginning in the eighteenth century, he argued that the evangelical parish in that century was a reaction to the post Restoration parish. The prevailing eighteenth century model had been dominated by baptism and holy living as the key routes to heaven, but evangelicals reacted against this; the parish for them was the theatre or mission field for conversion. By the nineteenth century Thomas Chalmers' influence was key, as was John Bird Sumner who argued that the clergy were ambassadors, who should adopt every scheme possible to encourage conversion. The proliferation of gospel agencies of every kind and description became the norm for the Anglican evangelical parish. Challenges to this model, came from Christopher Chavasse's report, Towards the Conversion of England (1945) which argued for the mobilisation of the laity in the evangelistic endeavour. This was a theme picked up by the Keele Congress in 1967, but it was a combination of the wider availability of higher education and the Charismatic renewal from the 1960s, that shifted the focus in most parishes away from the clergy and very definitely in favour of an articulate laity.There was lots of important new work here; hopefully there'll be a book!

Other highlights included: Matthew Grimley's (Oxford) paper on Evangelicals and Anti-Permissiveness during the 1970s, focussing in particular on the Festival of Light. Andrew Atherstone (Wycliffe) spoke on the Cheltenham/Oxford Conference of Evangelical Churchmen, 1916-76, collating evidence for evangelical engagement with the Church well in advance of the supossed watershed of the Keele Congress. Also excellent was Peter Webster's (Institute of Historical Research) paper on evangelical relations with Archbishop Michael Ramsay. While Martyn Lloyd-Jones might have been reluctant to regard him as a Christian, and Webster begun with Iain Murray's similarly dismissive estimation, there were actually far more similarities between their theological stance than at first appeared, and Ramsay enjoyed good relations with a number of prominent evangelicals.

My own paper was on the evangelical resurgence in the Church in Wales from the late 1960s onwards, providing a comparative perspective. The focus of the paper was the Evangelical Fellowship in the Church in Wales, the brainchild of John Stott and Bertie Lewis, a fellowship which stimulated the remarkable growth inthe number of evangelicals in the Church. Anyway, the paper went fine, but there's still lots more research to do on it yet . . .

1 comment:

Hannah Joy said...

Interesting Dr, am looking forward to your book...