The Perils of Any “Renewal Movement” Staying in an Established Church

John Richarson, the Ugley Vicar, has his doubts about the course of Anglican Evangelicalism after the “Keele” commitment to stay within in the Church of England:

When I was a young trainee clergyman (just six years on from Keele), the phrase going round was that we were ‘in it to win it’. In other words, our commitment to the Church of England was on the basis that we expected to change it — we expected it to become more evangelical. But more than that, we wanted it to be not just ‘the best boat to fish from’ but a better boat doing more fishing.

So is it?

My own answer would be ‘no’. It is not a worse boat, but it is not a better boat. More importantly, there is no greater commitment to actual fishing now than there was then. Yes, we have ‘Fresh Expressions’ — but doesn’t that say that the old expressions are a bit stale? And we have ‘Back to Church Sunday’, but then we fill our churches at Christmas anyway.

In bringing this subject up Richardson is tackling one of the most difficult issues that a church with a long history faces: is it possible to “renew” the system from within?

Evangelicals, in the Church of England or elsewhere, don’t usually consider themselves a “renewal” movement.  The word Evangelical denotes something they do–evangelise–rather than something they are.  Bring evangelism into the church, they say, and the church will grow.

But Christianity is a religion where doing and being cannot be so easily separated.  A church committed to evangelising the world around it must first be inwardly renewed.  To do otherwise turns church into a numbers game, and American Evangelicalism always wrestles with this danger.  Evangelicals must face the fact that, to get a church focused outwardly it is necessary to change the inward nature of the church, and that’s where the tricky part comes in.

When one considers “established” churches–and by that I’m referring to both those established by law (the CoE) and those with long history in the society (“Main Line” churches, and the RCC for that matter)–one realises early that the general style of mind in these churches is that the church is more of a cultural phenomenon rather than the called out followers of Jesus Christ.  Much of the resistance one experiences comes from getting the church to see itself in a different light.  To do so requires either those in authority in the church change their idea or are set out of the way.  That’s not an easy task.  Generally speaking those who engage a church to effect the change either are worn down by institutional inertia or simply leave for more receptive places.  The classic example of this is Methodism.  John Wesley never intended for his movement to leave the Church of England, but by the time of his death that’s exactly what his followers were doing.

Modern Pentecost didn’t take as long as Methodism to find its way to the door of existing denominations, but within the same century there were those who were attempting to do what classical Pentecostals said could not be done: experience the Christianity of Acts in established churches.  The result was, to say the least, an uneven experience, not without some successes (the Anglican Revolt in the U.S. is one of them, indirectly at least) but one which benefited classical Pentecostal and independent Charismatic churches more than just about anyone else with those who ended up voting with their feet.

So what’s missing from renewing a church from within?  The biggest missing human element is unqualified support of the leadership.   Without that any movement from within is doomed from the start.  And I’m not aware of a church with that kind of support from the top for any kind of renewal movement.  Liberals seem to have more success in changing churches from the top, but the change isn’t for the better in any respect.  The rest of us just have to move on and start over again, able to work with new institutions but always being accused of adding to the institutional fragmentation of Christianity.

I admire the Evangelicals in the Church of England for trying to bring new life into their church.  But they’ve committed themselves to the steepest uphill climb Christianity has to offer.

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