Reforming the church of England

All Souls, Langham PlaceI’m currently on holiday in London, and one of the great things about holidays is that it gives you an opportunity to worship with Christians that ordinarily you wouldn’t meet. On this holiday, we worshipped at All Souls Langham Place, and Grace Church, Hackney (a plant from St Helen’s, Bishopsgate).

It was particularly good to be able to worship with evangelical anglicans. Both of the churches we visited are firmly at the centre of true evangelicalism, and are fully committed to the authority of Scripture, and a biblical understanding of justification by faith alone. In both, the sermons were helpful, and (as you’d expect) expounded the Scriptures clearly. Rico Tice’s powerful preaching on the plagues in Egypt was a particular highlight – I could happily have listened for several minutes longer.

Unfortunately, however, the most significant impression left on me from the two services was the contradictions that seem inevitable within evangelical anglicanism. Welsh evangelicalism and evangelical anglicanism have not exactly seen eye to eye, particular since John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones very publically disagreed on how evangelicals should respond to the liberal denominations they find themselves in (oversimplifying, Lloyd-Jones said they should get out, Stott said they should stay in). It is only recently that those barriers are beginning to come down, so I welcomed the opportunity to express that unity, albeit in a very small way.

Since 1966, most evangelical anglicans have been committed to reforming anglicanism from within. The statement of the 1967 National Evangelical Anglical Congress (heavily influenced by Stott) says, ‘We are increasingly anxious to play our part in the Church of England… it is reform we desire, not separation’.

But the fundamental debate in 1966 was not really on whether evangelicals should secede from their denominations. The differences really centred around the question “What is a church?”, and even more fundamentally, “What is a Christian?”. Christianity Explored (written by Rico Tice during his time at All Souls) answers this latter question brilliantly. But (tragically in my view), evangelical anglicanism typically fudges the answer to that question in many of rituals and services. This was demonstrated in both churches I visited last Sunday.

At Grace Church, Hackney the service included a liturgical prayer of confession. In it the congregation were encouraged to “turn back to the Lord”, then prayed for forgiveness. These prayers were concluded with the priest saying “I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ that you are forgiven.” This is an extremely bold statement to say the least, carrying with it the great danger that the congregation will assume that confession (without either repentance or faith) is all that is required for salvation and forgiveness.

If anything, the situation in All Souls was worse. The particular service we joined happened to include a baptism of an infant. There is always a danger that baptismal services (of unbelievers or believers) can be misunderstood, and therefore clarity is paramount.

Sadly, there was no clarity at All Souls, instead ambiguity was the order of the day. During the service, the tiny child is encouraged by the congregation to “continue as a faithful soldier” (implying the child is already a solider of Christ). The minster later pronounced that “God has received you by baptism into his Church”. This was followed by this declaration from the congregation:

We welcome you into the fellowship of faith in Christ. We pray that you will grow up in this Christian family to trust Christ with us. We are all one in Christ Jesus. We belong to him through faith, heirs of the promise of the Spirit of peace.

This illustrates perfectly the failure of evangelical anglicanism to grasp the nettle, and ensure that their correct beliefs of what a Christian is are seen in all the rituals and liturgy they proclaim. How can it be helpful to declare that an unbelieving infant is in “the fellowship of faith”, “in this Christian family” and “in his Church”? How does this square with the wonderfully clear teaching of Christianity Explored, or the clear gospel preaching of Proclamation Trust stalwarts such as Dick Lucas?

On the day after these two services, I read of Griffith Jones, a Welsh evangelical of the early eighteenth century, who was also very much committed to anglicanism. Griffith Jones was criticised by many Welsh non-conformists for remaining within the anglican church, and criticised by many anglicans for being too evangelical! One anglican clergyman published a leaflet condemning him. Among the criticisms directed at him was that “he secretly corresponded with the Methodists” and that he believed “there were many precious lambs of Christ among the various denominations”. But more relevant to our discussion are two other criticisms:

  • That he explains away the precious doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and insists that neither baptism, nor any other thing can make anyone a Christian, without saving faith in Christ.
  • That he made changes to the litany and ommitted large sections of the Service, in order to have time for his own prayers and sermons.

I know that I have many brothers and sisters in the Church of England. I know that there are many with whom I would agree on all the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. But I long to see those doctines expressed in every area of church life – not just in the preaching, not just in Christianity Explored courses, but also in the rites and rituals, and in the liturgy of every day church life. Frankly, like Lloyd-Jones, I am not convinced it is possible to do this within anglicanism. Others disagree. But, for once, I would be delighted to be proved wrong. If I am, then it will be possible to achieve both dreams: genuine unity between non-conformists and anglicans, and reformation of the church of England.

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