From time to time someone in the Anglican evangelical movement, at least here in the USA, will argue that the term ‘evangelical’ is of such ill repute that we’d be better off not using it. I’ve certainly been tempted that way myself in recent years, and have sometimes thought ‘Protestant’ would be a better choice, although I don’t remember it finding much support in previous discussions.

A recent study by Peter Marshall (the professor at the University of Warwick, not the inventor of the ‘kirkin’ o’ the tartan’), however, has caused me to reconsider. Writing in the most recent issue of the journal Past and Present, Marshall presents some pretty convincing evidence that ‘Protestant’ was a term that the earliest Anglican Evangelicals were not keen on. It didn’t become the standard term for members of the Church of England until close to the end of the Elizabethan era, and then possibly because they didn’t like the term ‘puritan’ that was increasingly being used of that church by its Roman Catholic opponents. Prior to this, when used in England the word ‘Protestant’ usually meant someone from the other side of the channel, recognised as having the same faith as that taught in the Church of England, but not quite capable of being referred to in the same manner.

The term ‘evangelical’, however, was in use even during the reign of Henry VIII as a way of referring to those who considered Scripture the only yardstick by which to measure their doctrine, discipline and worship. It was not considered insulting by those using it or by those of whom it was used. Curiously enough, though, their preferred words for themselves, even during the heady days of Edward VI, were ‘Christian’ or ‘catholic’. That’s how convinced they were that they were not adhering to some new branch of the faith, but restoring the original.

Given the way people use the word today, we can hardly go back to calling ourselves ‘catholics’, and to call ourselves Christians as though others in the Episcopal Church weren’t Christians is to mete a measure we may one day prefer not to be meted against us. So I suppose we remain Evangelicals (traditionally capitalised when used as a noun).

But we might consider more frequent use of words that describe what we would like to bring about, rather than what we are like. Words like ‘reform’, ‘improve’, ‘restore’, even (I’d argue) ‘rationalise’. If Marshall is right, it’ll be at least fifty years before anything we begin now becomes common currency. All the more reason to begin at once.

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