Evangelical History


In the light of the recent interest in EFAC, this article in a 1962 issue of The Churchman should be helpful. The Churchman published details on EFAC activities and membership regularly from 1962 to 1967, after which it seems to have lost interest.

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Unfinished churchOne of the sights to see in Bermuda is the unfinished church in St George’s, the most westerly of the island’s nine parishes, and it is a good illustration of Jesus’s parable about building a tower without first counting the cost. The cost the builders should have reckoned beforehand, however, doesn’t appear to have been financial.

The parish church in St George, which today is called St Peter’s, is a fine low church along Virginia lines, in continuous use since 1612 (although enlarged a couple of times), with box pews, a three-decker pulpit in the center of the east wall, the original communion table off to one side and so on. By the middle of the 19th century, it had become pretty dilapidated, and there appears to have been general agreement that replacement rather than restoration was in order. A distinctly Gothic building was begun not far away, but as it went up disagreements emerged over how it was to be arranged inside—pulpit placement, altar versus table, where to put the table and so on. Why there wasn’t a disagreement about the Gothic style is the big puzzle; while one piece of literature in the church talked about theological differences, I suspect it was more a matter of ‘the way we’ve always done it’, which made the inside of the church crucial while the outside didn’t particularly matter. Anyway, these differences so divided the congregation that the new church was never finished, and it still sits there half finished, a popular place for weddings for the locals and a site to visit for the tourists. The money already given for the new church was given to Hamilton parish church, which had recently suffered a serious fire, and the people of St Peter’s raised more to repair and restore the church as they had known it. The rightness of this decision was demonstrated, for some, when a hurricane ripped off what would have become the roof of the new church, yet left the flowers in the grass outside untouched. The unfinished church is now a tourist attraction—a ready-made ruin, as it were.

‘Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?’ Jesus asked. In the 19th as in the 21st century, money is often easier to come by than consensus…

In various conversations in which I’ve taken part recently, a desire has been expressed for evangelical lay people to be involved in one project or another, but in the diocese where I serve, at least, they have been hard to find, and hard to recruit when found. One rector I approached, asking for names of such people in his parish, told me that those he knew were ‘gun-shy’—presumably a reference to what it was like the last time they became active outside their own parish.

When the English Reformation was brought to a sudden halt on the death of Edward VI, and Protestants who refused to return to Roman Catholicism were threatened with death at the stake, the vast majority of those who refused to be intimidated were lay people—men and women, some of them still in their teens. Matthew Foxe, who kept a record of all those who were put to death, said of one congregation that its members were “exceedingly well learned in the holy Scriptures, as well women as men, so that a man might have found among them many that had often read the whole Bible through, and that could have said a great sort of St Paul’s epistles by heart, and very well and readily have given a godly learned sentence in any matter of controversy”. When any controversial question arose, Anglican lay people knew that the answer was to be found in Scripture, and they knew their Bibles well enough for any of them to be able to answer for themselves. In the trials that led to the burnings, the question was constantly being asked, “Who are you, a tailor or a housewife or a miller, to challenge the judgement of the best theological minds of the Church?” The inquisitors—many of them conforming Anglican clergy just a year or two earlier—were scandalised that ordinary people claimed to be as able to “give a godly, learned sentence” as the theologians, but they did claim exactly that, because they had learned God’s word.

The Episcopal Church needs another generation of lay people who have learned God’s word so well that they are no longer reluctant to face those who would order the church according to the word of Man rather than the word of God. The cure for timidity in the face of false teaching or immoral living is a better knowledge of God’s word. When evangelicalism began to revive in the Episcopal Church in the 1960s and 70s, the means of reforming the church was the foundation of an evangelical seminary to train clergy. That doesn’t seem to have worked. It’s time for lay people to reclaim their Anglican birthright.

The Archbishop-designate of Canterbury, Justin Welby, according to the Daily Telegraph: ‘Theologically, he is unashamedly part of the evangelical tradition, upholding a more traditional and conservative interpretation of the Bible than some in the Church of England… He is also a strong advocate of more modern styles of worship.’

Of course, the Telegraph is not always correct, and has been so Catholic leaning in recent years that anyone who even opens a Bible might seem like an Evangelical to them. But it’s a nice thought.

Not a few Evangelicals in recent years have longed for some point of contact with Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, and have tried to blend one of those traditions with our own. Dewey Wallace‘s book, published last year, Shapers of English Calvinism 1660–1714 (Oxford University Press), reminds us that if we will only revisit our own tradition, this un-natural blending will not be necessary. He examines the life and thought of five Church of England Calvinists, including Peter Sterry, the Calvinist mystic. Michael Brydon, reviewing the book for the latest  Journal of Theological Studies, observes that ‘Calvinists are supposed to be hostile to mysticism, for fear that it might compromise the evangelical message of the Reformation. In fact, the tradition of Reformed mysticism can be traced back to Calvin, and Sterry continued to give it a distinct identity by setting out a mystical model that was to be lived not by solitary celibates, but within the family and community. He was also able to describe classic Calvinist emphases in mystical ways, as shown by his description of predestination as the ravishing of the soul by God.’

The idea of my soul being ravished has no appeal for me, even (especially?) when described in terms of predestination, but some readers of this blog will be glad to know. The stained-glass window featuring him is in the chapel of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Anyone willing to read up on Sterry and tell us more?

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.

Another in our series of extracts from Richard Baxter’s Cure of Church Divisions, published in 1670, in the hope of persuading presbyterians and congregationalists not to leave the Church of England after the 1662 Act of Uniformity. As long as Christians are still dividing and being divided, Baxter’s examination of the attitudes that lead to division remains relevant.

Direction IX:

Distinguish between weakness of Gifts and of Grace, and remember that many that are weak in the understanding of other matters, may yet be stronger in grace than you.

HE is the strongest Christian and the most Godly man, who hath the greatest Love to God, and heavenliness of mind and life: And this may be the case of many a one, who by some error about discipline or worship, is a trouble to the Church. He that offendeth you by his mistake and unjustifiable adherence to his own opinion rather than the judgement of the Church, though he be weak in that point, and perhaps in many other controversies, may yet be a far stronger Christian, than I who see his error: He may have more Love to God and man, more humility and self-denial, more fear of sinning, more fitness to die, more heavenly desires, and more patience in tribulation. Let us therefore value men according to the Image of God upon them, and not despise them as weak in grace, because they are weak in some point of knowledge: Though still their errors are not to be overlooked.

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