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Towards the Conversion of EnglandThe Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has called for the Church of England to put evangelism back at the top its agenda in his most recent speech to the General Synod, which can be read here. His speech included a reference to the 1944 report, Towards the Conversion of England, to which John Richardson worked so hard to bring attention before his untimely death. Plenty of information and discussion here. Welby praises the report particularly for its ‘constant theme that unless the whole church, lay and ordained, become in a new sense witnesses, then there can be no progress in spreading the good news of Jesus.’ The 1944 report inspired many in the church to a new determination to spread the gospel, but Welby admits that its vision ‘is as yet unfulfilled. It is that, for the effective and fruitful proclamation of the good news to be made in this country, every person who is a disciple of Jesus Christ plays an essential role as a witness of Jesus Christ.’

The same applies to the Episcopal Church; we cannot be the church that arose from Christ’s charge in Matthew 28.19f until all members of the church, lay and ordained, understand themselves as witnesses, sent to make disciples of others. May God set their church and ours, and all churches, back to their work.

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Towards the Conversion of EnglandWhile browsing old issues of The Churchman, from which came the article referred to in the previous post, I came across a very interesting article on the 1946 Church of England report, Towards the Conversion of England, which was the subject of a recent book by John Richardson, and has been discussed in several conversations on this blog. During the 1930s and 40s, Evangelicals in the Church of England met for an annual conference in Oxford, and the report was the subject of the opening address at the 1946 conference, which The Churchman reprinted, and still makes available on-line here.

One of the interesting things about it was that the speaker, the Bishop of Rochester (who was also the chairman of the Evangelism Commission that produced the report), commended it to Evangelicals not only because conversion was naturally something in which they would be interested, but because the work of evangelism would do more than anything else to restore unity to the evangelical community, divided even then into conservative and liberal wings. ‘The only institutional bond that has held Evangelicals together, since their emergence in the Church, has been their great evangelising Societies. Evangelicals have have discovered their unity by engaging in active evangelism, and in no other way.’

One of the problems any revival of EFAC-USA faces is the theological as well as physical distance between Evangelicals of various stripes in the Episcopal Church. Perhaps if we were to make ‘active evangelism’ a higher priority than the protection of our particular understanding of what it means to be Christians under the authority of the Word of God, the differences would seem less important, and less likely to prevent us working together.

In a talk he gave to Church Society recently (available here) Richardson said that serious consideration was being given by the C of E’s publishing arm to a new edition of Towards the Conversion of England. ‘That tells you everything you need to know about the years since it was published’, Richardson commented. It’s also an acknowledgement that today’s Church could not produce a better set of suggestions for effective evangelism, all of which, mutatis mutandis, would be just as effective if applied in this country.

One of the recommendations of Towards the Conversion of England was the appointment of Diocesan Missioners or Directors of Evangelistic Work (p 156). Whether as a result of the influence of the book, or of the influence of the growth of Evangelicalism in the Church of England since the book, Diocesan Missioners appear to be a standard feature of many dioceses of the Church of England. The Diocese of Gloucester seems to have the most active, to judge by the amount of stuff on its website here and the number of times its different pages come up in internet searches. I also found Diocesan Missioners in Bath and Wells, Exeter, Oxford, and Canterbury before I got tired of looking, not to mention depressed that the Church of England was so far in advance of us on this. There was reference to a Diocesan Missioners‘ conference in 2011, but only in passing, and I couldn’t find information about one in 2012. There was reference to Fresh Expressions on almost all the sites, although these seem more like non-traditional church plants than evangelistic endeavors—but might be all the more appealing to Episcopalians for that reason. Anyway, lots of ideas on these sites that might spark ideas that would work here. If you get a brainwave, please advise!

The book Towards the Conversion of England suggests that a parish can put on an evangelistic mission to its own community. Apparently several of these were held in the first few years after the book was published, although I can’t find any record of how successful they were. Here are the basics:

First, plan both the preparation for the event and the follow-up to it. ‘It is worse than useless… unless the “follow-up” has been carefully planned and the promoters have answered the question, “What do you plan to do with those whose hearts are touched?”‘

The first preparation event is what we would call an every-member canvass, but for the purpose of explaining the need for an evangelistic mission rather than the need for money. ‘Every house in the parish should be visited twice, and the visitor should make personal contact with the household.’

The main preparation event is what the book calls a teaching convention, to which parishioners are invited in order to prepare them to participate in ther mission itself. Parishioners must be able to summarise and explain, in ordinary language, the main outlines of the Christian faith. The teaching convention will be spread over several sessions, and should continue until those attending feel that they can make such an explanation. ‘The convention must be prepared for and followed up both in the pulpit and in the parish.’ To the extent possible, lay people should do the teaching.

The preparation should also build up the sense of fellowship in the church. ‘It would be of little use to to hold a mission unless those who are converted by it and, perhaps, brought to church for the first time, find within the Body of Christ a warmth of welcome that breaks down the natural barriers between man and man… This intensification of fellowship will develop from the sense of responsibility in the common task.’

The mission itself should bring in someone with experience of or at least a perceived call to evangelistic preaching, and should last long enough to reach everyone in the parish. There might be five or six talks over two or three days, in different places in the neighborhood where a different audience might be found. ‘The missioner must be able to build men up in the faith and fellowship of the Church; for a Parochial Mission which ignores the intellect and relies on emotion is not likely to have lasting results.’

Towards the Conversion of England does not say more about follow-up than the above remarks about fellowship and welcome in the church. Follow-up was apparently the subject of a pamphlet published later. The book also recognises that small-group campaigns may be the wave of the future, ‘as the age of big public meetings seems to have passed, at any rate for a time’, but it seems to me that the need now is something unmistakeably associated with a local Church. Unless local churches really don’t have a future.

John Richardson’s A Strategy that Changes the Denomination (reviewed below), and the book which inspired it, Towards the Conversion of England, both contain a number of suggestions that are worth considering. God willing, they will appear on this blog over the next month or two. Richardson’s point that we need to start where the church is now is one we need to take to heart, and the Episcopal Church has its own equivalent of the C of E’s Commission on Evangelism, which produced Towards the Conversion of England: the Standing Commission on the Mission and Evangelism of The Episcopal Church (details here).

On the Commission’s web-page are links to the minutes of all meetings since the last General Convention, and some earlier reports, although there’s no detailed information about their work. But it’s one place where Evangelicals could put their energy, and perhaps a place where that might be appreciated. The minutes are detailed but not always clear, and until I’ve read them all I’m not going to say much. But its most obvious difficulty is the fact that evangelism is only half of the work assigned to it, and since the word ‘mission’ is often used to refer to all the work the church does—educational, social, political etc—it is very easy for that half of its work to consume 90% of the commission’s time, and a cursory glance at the minutes of a couple of meetings suggests that this has been the case.

Take a look at what the commission has been doing, and let’s talk about how we can encourage it to give equal time to evangelism. The report of the commission (known at that time as the Commission on Domestic Mission and Evangelism) to the last General Convention can be read in the Blue Book, downloadable from here. Don’t expect much in the way of anything Evangelicals would understand as evangelism, but do ask yourself, how could I help the commission do better?

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