Review of Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden, eds., Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth century: Reform, Resistance and Renewal

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 2 (June 2015)

Review of Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden, eds., Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century: Reform, Resistance and Renewal, Studies in Modern British Religious History, Vol. 31 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2014), 325 Pp. ISBN 978-1-84383-911-8.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

For nearly five centuries, the Church of England has prided itself on its comprehensive character, and has refused to allow any single uniformity to be imposed on its doctrinal, liturgical or political expressions. Evangelicalism has thus remained one of the main pillars of English religious life, drawing on the legacy of the Puritans in the seventeenth century, the pietistic impetus of the Wesley brothers in the eighteenth century, and the social and missionary zeal of men like Wilberforce in the nineteenth. These collected essays, written by a group of scholars from within this tradition, now provide a survey of Evangelicalism in the twentieth century, analyzing its struggles for reform, resistance and renewal over the past hundred years. Readers should be aware that, although two of the contributors are based in the United States, apart from David Cerl Jones’ short chapter on Wales, almost no mention is made of conditions in other English-speaking countries, and no attempt is made to place English Evangelicalism in its wider setting of world Protestantism.

Atherstone-MaidenThe opening chapter, written by two Oxford scholars, examines the taxonomy of recent English Evangelicalism, describing the various strands within this spectrum of belief, which share common features in their adherence to the key truths of justification by faith alone and the supreme authority of Holy Scripture as the word of God. Nevertheless each of these strands places its emphasis on different aspects of the faith. Conservative Evangelicals stress the inerrancy of the Bible and refuse to accept the scientific evidence for evolution. More “open” Evangelicals have accepted both the modern theories about the world’s origins and many of the findings of biblical criticism, while most recently the contribution of the charismatic movement, drawn from Pentecostalism, and found in such London churches as Holy Trinity, Brompton or St Paul’s, Onslow Square, has reinvigorated and popularized Evangelicalism among young people. The rivalries—and sometimes the acerbic criticisms of these groups of each other—have meant that English evangelicalism often seems to have been in a constant process of reconfiguration.

Nevertheless, there are many signs of lively renewal, and we can be grateful to these scholars for analyzing both the successes and the failures of these movements during the course of the last century. Undoubtedly the twentieth century has been more testing for all branches of the English Church than was the nineteenth. The catastrophic effects of two world wars and the consequent loss of confidence in God’s benevolent providence eroded Christian faith in wide sections of the population, while more recently the impact of secularism, the sexual revolution, feminism, and political radicalization, have poised challenges which Evangelicals have sought to meet using the resources of their rich and vibrant traditions of personal faith. In some circumstances, Evangelicals have mobilized resistance to social changes, such as the toleration of homosexuality, but in other cases, such as the ordination of women priests and even bishops, they have welcomed the abandonment of long-standing Anglican traditions as a sign of faith-induced reform and renewal. The tension between institutional loyalty and biblical truth has been an ongoing preoccupation.

Within the Church of England’s witness, the Evangelical party has undoubtedly lost ground. For example, a hundred years ago, the usual Sunday morning worship consisted of Mattins, with a heavy emphasis on preaching, while the Holy Communion was an occasional, if prized, event. (In Queen Victoria’s court, Holy Communion was celebrated only twice a year, after considerable personal preparation). But in recent decades, the Holy Communion, along with an enhanced view of the importance of sacraments, has become the normal Sunday service, while Mattins has been relegated to a few odd Sundays in the month. So too, the Evangelical adherence to the doctrine of penal substitution has been softened, as has their resistance to the claims of Roman Catholicism. Leading Evangelicals have led the way in arguing against the kind of biblical fundamentalism or doctrinal rigidity which still prevails in some of their United States counterparts. On the other hand, Evangelicals have sought to play a more constructive role in national affairs, and have placed much more emphasis on the role of the laity in parish leadership. These signs of renewal mean that Evangelicals are no longer content to embrace the kind of reserved personal piety of their elders, but are engaged in social reforming movements of many kinds at many different levels. In the view of these authors, Evangelicalism in the Church of England is now much more diverse, no longer tied to its former rigidity of doctrine or to its defensiveness towards other branches of the church.

Subsequent chapters, written by various authors, give us brief histories of Evangelical groupings in England throughout the century, many of which demonstrated buoyant ambitions but disappointing results. The conservative wing of English Evangelicalism was successful in recruiting younger members through such organizations as the Oxford and Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Unions, but its more liberal counterpart suffered from a certain diffuseness of theological proclamation and a theology which appeared to many as “vague, ephemeral and unsatisfactory”. There was a constant and recurring tension between adaptation to changing circumstances and fidelity to traditional evangelical faithfulness.

Readers unfamiliar with the details of developments in the Church of England and its Evangelical sections over the past hundred years will learn a lot. A great many names of prominent clergymen are dropped, which leads to considerable repetition in successive chapters. Fortunately the contributors avoid self-congratulatory tendencies, and adopt a suitably critical approach both to the subject and its practitioners. Their evaluations are balanced and well researched. In the latter half of the century, as John Maiden notes, younger evangelical leaders, such as John Stott of All Souls, Langham Place in central London, or Jim Packer of Larimer College, Oxford, demonstrated a greater openness to dialogue and liturgical flexibility. Packer called on evangelicals to renounce obscurantism, isolationism, pessimism and party spirit, and to adopt a warmer relationship with other branches of the church. They were horrified by the extremism of their so-called Protestant brethren in Northern Ireland. As Packer wrote in 1981, “It is a fact and a happy one, that within the past thirty years the previously felt convictional and kerygmatic gap between the more conservative evangelicals and the more conservative anglo-catholics has shrunk.” At the same time, there were also evangelicals who felt that they continued to be treated with reserve by the Church of England hierarchy, and passed over for suitable preferment. John Stott was never offered a bishopric, and Jim Packer left to join the new evangelical Regent College in Vancouver. Tom Wright, although appointed in 2003 to the prestigious See of Durham, only stayed for seven years before retreating to a much less conspicuous professorship at a Scottish university.

The final chapter, by Alister Chapman, looks at how much Evangelicals in England learned from the world in recent decades. The answer is: not much. This chapter is more introspective than outward-looking, but reveals the limited extent to which English evangelicals responded to outside influences. For example, the early Billy Graham crusades met with considerable resentment to the idea that English evangelicals had much to learn from such brash American presentations, even if well-organized. So too with the loss of the British Empire, the very considerable evangelical engagement in colonial missions faded away and was not brought back to England’s shores. Evangelicals continued to think of themselves going abroad to teach, rather than learn, so the reverse flow was minimal. Or, as in the case of evangelicals in Australia, the influence was perceptibly reactionary. To be sure, the sources of the charismatic movement among evangelicals came from abroad, but had to be suitably “anglified” by such groups as Michael Harper’s Fountain Trust before becoming popular. The original Pentecostals from the Caribbean too often found that they were rejected in local white churches, and so founded their own black assemblies. Their spiritual influence was therefore handicapped by English social conservatism. As Chapman remarks, old habits die hard. And it is doubtful that they are dead, even in this post-imperial generation.

It is a pity that no one was found to give a forecast of Evangelicalism’s place in the twenty-first century. In view of the massive changes in Britain’s social composition with the arrival of so many immigrants from Asia, Africa and the non-Protestant parts of Europe, the impact on all branches of the Church of England has to be far-reaching, and the priorities for evangelism very different. Attempts to integrate and assimilate these newcomers have found strict barriers against religious proselytism. Most of these communities have brought their own religious leaders with them, hampering social intercourse. For the first time in English history, violence and riots have broken out in English towns, spurred on by religious and racial antagonisms.

Evangelicals are therefore confronted with new and often demanding assignations. But these will have to be left for future analysis in a subsequent volume.