A Strategy that Changes the Denomination

John Richardson

John Richardson was inspired to write this book when he read a book published by the Church of England in 1945, Towards the Conversion of England. He was rightly impressed that the Church could consider a national evangelistic strategy of such scope as that book contained, and in his book he examines why such a strategy was not pursued, and urges a renewal of that strategy today.

The strategy was not pursued in 1945, he argues, because of the trajectory that has characterised evangelical movements in the Anglican Church ‘for over a century’: expansion, confrontation, division, recrimination, dissipation and regeneration. Regeneration, he says, typically comes after ‘the old battles are forgotten and the old warriors retire’, but this book is an attempt to begin regeneration without waiting for that, since he assigns 2011 to the period of dissipation. I hope and pray that his book achieves this result in the Church of England, for whom he wrote it, and the purpose of this review is to commend the same strategy to Evangelicals in the Episcopal Church, dissipated to an extent Richardson can scarcely imagine.

The key to the evangelical failures of the past is that what follows expansion has been confrontation, which leads to division not only between Evangelicals and the rest of the Church, but among Evangelicals, not all of whom are ready to confront to the same extent or at the same time. If there is to be a different future, Richardson suggests, Evangelicals must try participation rather than confrontation, and he suggests two principles which Evangelicals need to absorb if participation is to be possible. The first is to accept that the starting point is the way the Church is now, even if it violates every evangelical principle that ever was. ‘We can choose either to detach ourselves from, or involve ourselves in… denominational life. Involvement certainly risks compromise. But detachment simply abandons the institution and society and accepts the creation of our own ghettos. To affirm the denomination is not at all to approve everything for which it stands, or everything it does now or has done in the past. It is a “warts and all” willingness to recognize, despite its imperfections, that the Anglican way of doing things has a place and that we have a place in it. Only with this attitude, however, do we have the possibility, and the right, to seek deep change in the institution’ (p 44). Richardson gives several examples of ways in which Evangelicals in the C of E can engage the wider Church positively, all of which have their counterparts in the Episcopal Church, even the Patron and the Crown Nominations Commission and the Vacancy in See Committee. Confrontation is sometimes necessary in such bodies, but Richardson says rightly that it is more likely to be effective when done by a participant than someone criticising from outside (p 33).

The second principle Evangelicals must absorb is that their ecclesiology has worked against them. People from other traditions in the Church have been saying this for generations, but what they usually mean is that Evangelicals don’t see the institutional Church as essential for salvation in the way that the more Catholic among us do. The heart of Richardson’s case is that Evangelicals have been content to be a party within the Church with evangelism as their specialty, when in fact evangelism is the purpose for which the whole Church exists. Mission societies, the means by which Evangelicals have pursued the goal of evangelism for generations, actually undermine the evangelistic enterprise, because they don’t involve the whole Church, which was founded by Christ as a mission society: ‘God’s mission work to the world flows from Christ through the Church… the Church is the missionary organisation seeking people’s conversion’ (88f). Evangelism is not part of but the heart of all the Church’s mission (pp 30, 90).

Many argue that participation was tried in the C of E in the 1970s and 1980s, when many Evangelicals began to engage it positively, serving on its committees and commissions and getting appointed to the episcopate, and since this policy hasn’t led to an evangelistic Church, it should be abandoned. Richardson admits that the efforts of Evangelicals have not had the results hoped for, but argues that this is because Evangelicals had defined their goal as creating place for evangelicalism rather than recalling the whole Church to its evangelistic task. Their strategy assumed that evangelism would be done by the Evangelicals rather than the whole Church. A new approach to participation, therefore, must be tried, one which has as its goal not creating a place for Evangelicals but restoring evangelism to its proper place in the life of the Church.

The Episcopal Church had a revival of Evangelicalism beginning in the 1960s and 70s, and what has followed has been a confrontation far worse that anything yet seen in the Church of England, although the story there isn’t finished yet. It’s time for us to try participation, too, not in order to create a safe place for ourselves, but in order to set the Episcopal Church to the task Christ gave it, that of bringing those who do not know Christ to the knowledge and love of Him. An impossible task for anyone except God, but since it is what God wants, we’d better make ourselves available for it.

Richardson says that Towards the Conversion of England did not achieve its goal, but it may have helped more than he thinks. It’s true that the national program for which it called was never adopted by the Church of England, but the book itself sold like hot cakes. According to one history of the post-war Church of England, the first edition sold out overnight, and altogether it went through seven editions in its first year of publication, and at least two more the year after that. It may not have been read in the corridors of power in Church House, but it was certainly read elsewhere. It ‘prompted diocesan, deanery and parochial missions in many parts of the country’, and one of the diocesan missions, the Mission to London, attracted three quarters of a million people to the various events held in the city, and paved the way for the first visit to London by Billy Graham in 1954 ( Paul Welsby, A History of the Church of England 1945–1980 [OUP 1984] pp44 –50).

Richardson’s book may not attract much interest at the highest level of the Church of England, or even of the power structures of contemporary evangelicalism, but I pray that it will be read by others, especially in the Episcopal Church, and will one day be looked back on with the same respect with which Richardson describes Towards the Conversion of England. It’s not expensive. Order one for yourself here, and one for someone you know in the Episcopal Church.

John Richardson is the Vicar of Elsenham and Ugley in Essex, England, and there is a link to his blog on the list to the right

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