Caught in the Matrix
The Tardis in the Matrix
OK, I agree, Dr. Who has nothing to do with the Anglican church. Mind you, as an old fan I still describe my eternal reign with Christ in Tardis terms. Anyway, here we have the Tardis in the Matrix and there is always the danger that it will get caught there, locked in time. This is the problem with the Anglican church, so they say. Not so, I say. The Matrix can't hold the Tardis. We Time Lords transcend matter and time.
In the Anglican church, Evangelicals are those who follow in the tradition of the Wesleyans who, at the time of the Great Awakening in the 18th century, decided to stay in the Church of England while their brothers and sisters left to form the Methodist church. Most of the revivalists left because the Church of England was anything but pure and anything but practical. In their eyes the gospel could not succeed in a church which happily accepted godless Bishops and archaic ritual. The Evangelicals stayed because they believed that God is a sovereign God and that the gospel is not hindered by human foolishness, certainly not in a church grounded on Biblical truth.
For some reason or other, we Evangelical Anglicans have forgotten our roots.
The Sydney situation
In place of the sacramental (High Church) and social-gospel/liberal (Middle Church) battles of the past, Anglican Evangelicals have turned in on themselves to contend for the high ground. The battle is between doctrinaire Evangelicals (puritans/presbyterians), pragmatic Evangelicals (church-growth/semi-charismatic-baptists), and traditional Evangelicals (Low Church). As traditional Evangelicals drifted into oblivion, the battle was left to the puritans and the pragmatists. Both affirmed change and worked to drive change in the church. Both claimed the mantle of "Evangelical gospel ministry". Both claimed to be the true inheritors of the reformation. At the present moment, the puritans have come to the ascendancy, although they have absorbed much of the technique-driven methodology of the pragmatists (Church Growth methodology) - an interesting amalgam of in-house and open-house. This amalgam is becoming the dominant Evangelical style in the diocese of Sydney.
In truth, the doctrinaire piety/purity cause, and the Church Growth accessing/management/marketing/pragmatics cause, simply move to the fringe with the social justice cause, sacramental cause, etc. The main game rests with the proclamation of Biblical truth, as it always has.
The Sydney Evangelical experiment
The diocese of Sydney was founded by Evangelical English clergy and against all odds it has retained its Low church character. There is a small group of High and Middle church parishes, but the vast majority remained Low church. In most other dioceses throughout the Anglican communion the opposite is the case.
In the past, the Evangelical clergy in Sydney, as with Evangelicals throughout the Anglican communion, sat lightly with the institution, using it as a vehicle for nurture and evangelism. While happily remaining loyal to the Prayer Book, the focus of their Sunday ministry was the preached Word, and where the Word is faithfully preached, there is spiritual growth and sometimes numerical growth. As for the business of evangelism, an open door policy was applied to occasional services, and these along with Parish events (fetes, parish dinners, organizations....), a monthly Parish Paper, visitation...... all served to confront the people of the parish with the gospel. Where the gospel is proclaimed, people are converted.
It was some 30 years ago when we Evangelicals in Sydney embarked on our present experiment in diversity. There are two elements to this experiment, and often the two elements combine to form an amalgam of both.
The Evangelical party has always had its puritan/presbyterian wing, but it was not historically a dominant element in Evangelical ministry. Puritan Evangelicals are usually hard-line Calvinists, congregationalists and above all, pietists. Pietism, a sanctification by obedience stance, prompts a suspicion of religious form. Catholic trappings are seen as less than holy. Cranmer might have argued that it was proper to retain elements of tradition that were not against scripture, but puritans tend to feel that if it is not supported by scripture then it should be discarded.
The growing influence of puritanism has undermined both evangelism and nurture in Evangelical Anglicanism:
Institutional evangelism in the Sydney diocese is a mere shadow of its former self. Take for example the request for a Christening by a nominal Anglican. This was once welcomed, with the only requirement being an interview with the minister. The interview served to explain the substance of the gospel. With the growing puritan influence in the diocese, people in the community seeking baptism for their new baby were either refused, forced to come to church, forced to accept a "Naming Ceremony", or do a course on Christianity. The general community quickly gave up on us. Weddings got a similar treatment and even with Funerals some non attenders are now refused the use of the church building. Confirmation was similarly devastated. Expectations of commitment and a minimum age of 14 did not fit well with the changing values in society. Although not widely known today, Evangelicals, up to 30 years ago, "christened", confirmed, married and buried all comers.
Confirmation serves as a perfect example of how this new Evangelical piety served to undermine gospel access. Up to the 1960's we had healthy Confirmation numbers and used the classes as a basis for youth evangelism. Since those days numbers have plummeted. Although secularization is partly to blame, we would do well to look to our own house. Instead of recognizing that today's children in 6th class Primary School are socially comparable with year 8 children pre 1950's, we retained a 14 year old minimum age, even pushing it higher, and at the same time looked for commitment in the young person. A holier-than-thou piety has disengaged us from secular society. We closed the doors rather than adjusted to our changing environment. During my sabbatical I was amazed to watch the local Anglocatholic Priest using good old Evangelical methodology with regard Confirmation. He got his whole Anglican 6th class scripture form (11/12 year olds) from the local Public School in his Confirmation class, and after they were confirmed, he had them in his Servers Guild. We once played the same game, except that we evangelized them. Now we never see them.
Nurture has similarly been undermined through the influence of Evangelical puritanism. Its most notable affect upon believers is in that vital area of Christian assurance. The apostle may claim that a confession of Christ as Lord affirms a believer's status as a Christian, yet such a confession is often not acceptable to a puritan. God's grace in Christ, appropriated through faith and not of works, may be all encompassing to the apostle Paul, such that the believer stands totally and eternally approved in the sight of God, but it is never enough for the puritan. Constant preaching on faithfulness, obedience, purity (particularly sexual purity), increasingly leaves the laity anything but approved, assured or free.
ii] Church Growth *.
A fixation on numbers is not historically a focus of Evangelical ministry. In the wider Anglican communion, Evangelicals were often placed in rundown parishes where it was felt they could do little harm. Filling the church was never their brief. Nurturing the two or three, and evangelizing the locals, was what they were on about. Yet, for some reason we began to worry about numbers. Was it vanity (accolades - "my favorite sin")? Whatever the motivation, Evangelicals began to speak of "bringing people under the sound of the gospel", rather than taking the gospel out into "the highways and byways."
The first flirtation with a home-grown form of Church Growth came in the 1950's when most Evangelical parishes embarked on a program to access nominal Anglicans. The Sunday School was moved from the afternoon to a slot between the 8am Holy Communion and 11am Morning Prayer. A new morning service was then introduced for the parents of the children attending Sunday School. This soon became the dominant morning church service, and therefore, the children of believing parents were never churched. These were boom years for Sunday School attendance, but the experience of church for these young people was of an informal Sunday School assembly. Anglican liturgy was foreign to them for we had churched them as Baptists. Unwittingly we were undermining the founding principle of uniformity, even uniformity at the parish level. We have ended up with age-specific services. So much for "all one in Christ."
Our second flirtation with number-crunching came as the Church Growth movement slipped into Sydney during the 1980's. Although Evangelicals traditionally lean toward Calvinism, the zeal for gospel outreach often absorbs Arminian methodology. The historic stance of an Evangelical was to remain loyal to Anglican order, given that "the gospel is the power of God unto salvation", not worship form. With the decline in attendance due to a shrinking middle-class, a reduced nominal base, and the inroads of the Charismatic movement, many Sydney Evangelicals turned to Church Growth methodology to boost congregation numbers. The evidence is that this methodology, often euphemistically called "gospel ministry", can actually succeed in building numbers. It attracts believers from other churches along with middle-class nominals. This "success", although often ephemeral, further drives change.
The practical consequence of this bums-on-seats exercise is that the focus moves from a simple nurturing (sermons and Bible studies) and evangelizing (local contacts, nominal or otherwise) ministry, to a group dynamics exercise which is inevitably nothing more than the socializing of middle-class eschatological thinkers (religion gives confidence in the future to those who are financially secure enough to be worried about the future). So, getting people to church for the Sunday event is what is important and for this intention, "the ends justify the means." Be assured, "the means" demands our all.
The nub of the problem
Over the last 30 years, we Evangelical Anglicans have shifted ground theologically. The shift has to do with our understanding of the sovereign grace of God, or as the Weslyans called it, "a full understanding of the doctrine of justification."
We have moved, ever so slightly, from the notion that justification is achieved and sanctification progressed by the same mechanism, namely a gift of God's grace appropriated through the instrument of faith.
The shift involves a move toward a sanctification by obedience theology. Instead of seeing our sanctification as wholly a work of God's sovereign grace appropriated through faith, we move toward a reliance on effort, on doing rather than receiving. We tend toward the view that effort applied to the law (the moral law and the law of Christ), both confirms our standing in the sight of God and progresses our sanctification. So, whereas both our actual state (justification: just-if-I'd never sinned; standing perfect in the sight of God in Christ) and the process of becoming what we are (sanctification: the progressive realization of the person we are in Christ) are integrally linked by grace through faith, the pietist tends to shift the "process" from faith toward obedience, while limiting the "state" to conversion, or at best, an arbitrary holiness (eg. Wesley's "moment-by-moment non-transgression of the known will of God"). The apostle makes the exposure of the heresy of sanctification by obedience his central task in Galatians and Romans.
The inevitable result of a sanctification by works approach is a tendency toward guilt-dissipating piety (pietism, legalism, pharisaism). Guilt dissipation usually takes the form of judgementalism, "speck" removal, and this develops where a believer fails to understand the extent of God's grace. As a consequence, the "catholic" trappings of our church offend the sensibilities of those pursuing purity. The puritan believes that the removal of "ritualism" will bring blessing, in the sense of God's affirmation. Also, a gulf develops between "born again" believers and "sinners", the clean and the unwashed. For example, it is not uncommon to hear the comment made concerning people wanting to be married in their local parish church as, "they are just using us." Pietism fosters a them and us attitude such that barriers are placed in front of the unwashed to protect the purity of the washed. So, for example, where clergy were once expected to seek out the unbaptized and baptize them, we now refuse baptism unless the parents can demonstrate their Christian standing. This barrier extends to members of other denominations who are often viewed with suspicion.
A helpful "heresy" test for the pietist virus is easily available to all believers. All we need to do is assess how we handle the Sermon on the Mount. If we think it's about ethics, about doing; if we think we have heard these words of Jesus and done them (well! mostly done them), that we have built our house on the rock, then we are a pietist. If, on the other hand, we think the Sermon on the Mount is the law above all laws serving to expose our state of sin and drive us the cross of Christ; if we think we have heard these words of Jesus, but not done them, that we have built our house on the sand and need to find someone who has built his house on the rock, knock on his door and get in quickly before the great flood, then we are a child of Luther, reformed, cf. Gal.3:23-25.
We Evangelicals should never forget that we are rooted in the rediscovery of God's grace by Luther and later Wesley. God's total acceptance of us, the totality of his favour toward us, is by grace through faith, and is not of works.
As we have shifted from "full justification", from "receiving" to "doing", we have exposed ourselves to the Arminian virus.
In the Sydney diocese most Evangelical clergy lean toward Calvinism. Yet, it seems many have moved from the all-encompassing notion of the sovereign grace of God. When it comes to gathering the lost, to "gospel ministry": technique, innovation, and methodology subsume the clear communication of a Word that is itself a "two-edged sword". Relevance has become our master and everything the subject of change.
The most noticeable consequence of this theological shift is the move away from a straightforward communication of the gospel, toward a reliance on technique - the application of socializing methodology, management, marketing, the building of bridges... Where once Evangelicals simply communicated the gospel through a Parish Paper, articles in the local paper, occasional and special services, visitation ...., the main Sunday service is now the focus of evangelism (the evening service for youth evangelism). The methodology employed involves getting people along to the service and then presenting the gospel in a carefully crafted group dynamic environment. Those who respond to this experience are then moved into a small support group. The fact that the results are far better than just a straightforward communication of the gospel, should fill us with fear.
So yes, theological shift is the motivating force promoting change, rather than a presumed need for "purity" or "relevance".
The great lie; "without change there is no growth"
The present destruction of the ritual and order of the Anglican church in Sydney is a major diversion from the gospel. There is no evidence that this drive for purity and relevance will in any way improve gospel effectiveness. The drive for purity, under the "reformed" banner, is anything but reformed. Grace has become a word rather than a gift. The drive for relevance, under the banner of "gospel ministry", is anything but gospel ministry. It is little more than pragmatic number-crunching. In fact, all we are growing are weeds. As far as the wider Anglican communion is concerned, our drive for change is isolating Sydney Evangelicals. What Bishop outside of Sydney would trust us to serve under the Anglican banner these days? Worse still, we may be damning ourselves and our congregations. "After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" Gal.3:3.
Our Evangelical forebears ministered in the Anglican church, remaining loyal to its peculiar "reformed catholic" traditions, because they believed in the sovereign grace of God. They understood that the "Kingdom of God is not of this world" and therefore human structures, relevant or not, are neither here nor there. The "gospel is the power of God unto salvation", not robes or civies, Prayer Book or extempore prayer, organ or band, hymn book or power-point presentation,..... They understood that the Kingdom of God is realized through the preaching and teaching of the Word of God, for it is "not by might, nor by strength, but by my Spirit says the Lord Almighty." They understood that marketing, management, human dynamics and all the other paraphernalia of the secular city, does not grow the church, for Christ grows his church by grace through the confession of a true faith, such that "the gates of Hades will not overcome it". The stuff of the secular city only grows Babel. This they knew well, but do we now know it?
The preaching and teaching of the Word of God is the business we Evangelicals are in. Some 40% of attending Australian Anglicans can be found in the Sydney diocese. This growth was achieved at a time when Evangelicals were loyal to the Prayer Book. Yet, what secured our position was a reliance on the Word proclaimed, and certainly not liturgical correctness. The frame was a minor matter. If the frame has no bearing on the realization of the Kingdom of God, then for each of us to "do our own thing" is next to stupid. Devising paradigms of purity and/or relevance to gather and build the lost is surely nothing less than heresy. Such ignores the sovereign grace of God.
When it comes to pragmatics, the Anglican church is a grand old fishing boat and sheep fold, and although the present generation of middle class yuppies seem to favour an RSL club cabaret-style of worship, as generation x and y mature they may well drift toward magic and mystery. Yet relevance aside, It is sad to see the "grand old lady" set upon by a new breed of Evangelicals who look to purity or pragmatics, and often a strange mixture of both, to build the Kingdom of God, rather than a gospel that is the power of God unto salvation. The emerging narrow pop version of Evangelicalism (Baptist Presbyterianism) has little to commend it. To this day, traditional Evangelicals (Anglican Wesleyians) simply do not understand why their brothers and sisters, who no longer feel any loyalty to Anglican polity, have not left the Anglican church and joined a church that best reflects their Baptist or Presbyterian leanings. The grand Evangelical experiment (Anglican Wesleyism) did make a difference way back when ...... and would make a difference today if Evangelicals were to rely again on the sovereign grace of God rather than a misplaced purity and/or secular pragmatics. Will the Anglican church survive through this new millennium? Sadly, we Evangelicals are not helping in the survival game. Yet this we all do know and can affirm, Christ's kingdom will survive and that through the proclamation of his Word.
* Bill Hull in an essay on Church Growth writes, "The evangelical Church seems to have become like the child with a new toy. As Churches and pastors expect more clever gadgetry from the marketing wizards, the latter are encouraged to become increasingly creative until the methods eventually bury the message in obscurity. For that reason, Church Growth should not be a primer for building effective Churches; it has a sociological base, it is data-driven, and it worships at the altar of pragmatism. It esteems that which works above all and defines success in worldly and short-sighted terms. It offers models that cannot be reproduced and leaders who cannot be imitated. The principles of modern business are revered more than doctrine; the latter, in fact, often being perceived as a detriment or at least a distraction to church growth. Yet churches are supposed to be driven by scriptural teachings, not by the latest marketing surveys or consumer trends. In short, theology before sociology, please."
Evangelical Anglicans: Published articles
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons