A foot in many camps – a reply to Stephen Kuhrt

by Chris Sugden in the Church of England Newspaper November 21 2008

In his CEN article last week, Stephen Kuhrt argued that the 57 member CEEC is not representative because 28 members belong to what he defines as one, conservative, stream.  Stephen argues, as does Graham Kings in a parallel article in the Church Times last week, that there are three streams in the Evangelical Constituency and any organization claiming to represent that constituency needs to reflect them in proportion.

PROPORTIONALITY

Arguments about proportionality encourage a particularly narrow view of ‘representation’. Like MPs and Bishops, CEEC members – drawn as Stephen’s piece shows from different types of ‘constituency’ – are there to represent the whole constituency.  That should be common ground about how we understand the ‘Evangelical Constituency’ to be made up.

Stephen speaks of ‘three streams’:  but why (only) three?  How do we know their relative strengths?  The usual way is by elections – to see which groups win support. Even accepting the argument for proportionality, applying it in the evangelical constituency is problematic. The categories overlap. Many, but not all, conservatives are charismatics. There are different kinds of charismatics and conservatives, just as there are different kinds of points of view in Fulcrum.  Fuclrum itself illustrates the difficulty. Its strap-line refers to ‘The Evangelical Centre’.  But what is the ‘centre’? Identifying the centre requires an agreed definition of the limits of the range – the meaning of ‘Evangelical’.

DEFINING IDENTITY

A representative organization like CEEC needs some means of establishing what makes it distinctive so that it can be seen who and what it represents.  When an organization consists, as many do, of a number of viewpoints, defining its identity is difficult. This is particularly so when some who agree on some points but disagree on others find allies with those on the outside who are in fundamental disagreement with the view of other members of the first organization.

This has been vividly illustrated by the way in which differing attitudes to the UK’s relationship with “Europe” divided the Conservative and Labour Parties. For Anglican Evangelicals the equivalent is perhaps the issue of the ordination of women. Some evangelicals are in favour, some against, some hold that both views are legitimate for an evangelical position. We live with this tension. In both cases, part of the dispute is about how to define the issue and the result has been multiple overlapping debates. There are more than two ( or three) options.  Trying to find one centre in such debates is logically incoherent.

As a further illustration of this problem of identity, consider the  public meeting on July 12 in the Rochester Diocese arranged by Affirming Catholicism, in which Fulcrum took part. The aim of the meeting was  “Exploring what Diocesan and National Groups have to offer to the life and work of the Church of England at this present critical time”.  Questions to be considered were: Why so many groups that encourage us to belong? What do they stand for? Where is the unity . . . and the diversity?   Half hour presentations were made by:  Fulcrum (Graham Kings); Inclusive Church (Erica Wooff); Modern Churchpeople’s Union (Richard Hall); Changing Attitude (Sue Brewer); Affirming Catholicism; WATCH – Women And The Church  (Charles Read); Society of Catholic Priests (Michael Skinner).    What do these groups have in common and what differentiates them?

The meeting was reported in the Rochester Diocesan Link (October 2008) thus: “The debate ranged across subjects such as the ability to talk to one another across difference and to explore what binds us even when we are sharply divided. This includes debates about Covenant and questions around sexuality, ascertaining the right balance and looking at points of controversy, and having regard to the Gospel, the Bible, the Church and the Communion; it also means affirming the Church’s mission, in obedience to Holy Scripture, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ afresh in every generation. Most groups did not want to advocate a slavish reading of Scripture; some groups were clearly campaigning groups, others saw themselves as support organisations, yet others as doing the research which campaigning groups could use – but why not look them up on their varying websites?” ENDS

I could find no report of the Conference on the Fulcrum website so do not know if Fulcrum agreed with any or none of these statements, nor whether all supporters of Fulcrum would share the same view of them. So there may be varieties of the Open Evangelical stream: some having common ground with the Modern Churchman’s Union which that same month had hosted Gene Robinson as a speaker. And some who do not.

DIVIDE AND RULE

Who decides which streams are to be included and which not? Imposing pre-set categories was used by the British Raj to divide and rule their Indian subjects and separate them from each other.  Is this same strategy being used to undermine the legitimacy of CEEC by imposing categories upon particular groups?
Stephen wants CEEC’s membership to be categorized in his terms, rather than those carefully developed over the years to bring together all the committed and confessional evangelical institutions and networks which formally endorse the CEEC statement of faith. Most people recognize that CEEC in common with many organizations faces a problem of mobilizing its constituency effectively. CEEC and its executive have been working at this for many years, are continuing to do so, and would welcome constructive suggestions to develop this process.

This argument for three streams is being suggested by those who, as well as wanting to be part of NEAC and CEEC, want to share commonality and strategic discussions with those who deny our theological distinctives and even Anglican formularies.  Is Fulcrum wanting a foot in many camps?

What happened at the NEAC consultation revealed the challenge posed by the Jerusalem Declaration. Is the situation in the Anglican Communion a difference of emphasis and attitude which can be resolved by pleas for reconciliation and unity? Or is it that orthodox Anglicans are being hounded out of parts of the Anglican Church and need support, fellowship and clear affirmation that they are loyally Anglican?  Those who support the Jerusalem Declaration think the latter.

There was no theological dispute at NEAC. So what was in dispute?  The Jerusalem Declaration and Statement makes clear doctrinal commitments, repeating Canon A5 of the Church of England.  It affirms orthodox Anglican identity. It charts no definitive path for the future, save asking for a Primates’ Council to guard orthodoxy in the communion and establishing a fellowship to support orthodox mission and those experiencing various degrees of marginalization. This fellowship is a renewal movement within the organic Anglican Communion.  GAFCON repudiated any notion of leaving the Communion and was anxious to distance itself from any idea of federal Anglicanism.

GAFCON charted out space to maintain orthodox Anglican commitments based on a prior loyalty to revealed truth in the scriptures.  Were such orthodoxy not under challenge in the wider Communion there would have been no need for it.  So at GAFCON we did not simply repeat old formulations, but rather took time to study, reflect, meet, go on pilgrimage together, returning to our Christian roots in the Bible and the Holy Land. GAFCON is building on the past to provide fresh resources for today’s crisis: a new movement, yes: but emphatically not a new church.

Some are uncomfortable with such structural and institutional lack of definition and unsettled by such openness to the future. They feel more secure in the diminishing space the orthodox are given by the dominant liberal culture in church and society.  The experience of Anglicans in the USA and Canada over the last decade shows how false that security is.

Over the summer Fulcrum leaders have been seeking diversity in unity with other groups called by Affirming Catholicism, and in leading optional seminars at the Lambeth Conference.   Some of their voices at NEAC seemed to be arguing that a greater diversity could be allowed with linkages with non-evangelical organisations than they were willing to see in CEEC itself, in spite of the openness of the second half of the motion, eventually not put, which encouraged Evangelical Anglicans to pursue “a variety of strategies, support our brothers and sisters in their strategic decisions including those set out in the GAFCON Statement.”. Thus, in the name of evangelical unity, these voices excluded the legitimate diversity that some evangelicals might follow the GAFCON approach.

So the questions Stephen’s article really poses to English Anglican Evangelicals are: “What is meant by “open” evangelical, and the evangelical “centre”?   Can pragmatism that seeks commonality with disparate viewpoints replace a coherent set of beliefs and arguments?

At NEAC a strong appeal was made for CofE Evangelicals actually to take public action to express support for those orthodox Anglicans in the US and Canada who are being harassed out of their churches by intolerant national church leaderships claiming to act in the name of ‘inclusiveness’. In the face of such a determined challenge to the Communion’s orthodoxy, what is needed is a firm and clear witness to the truth as it is in Jesus, and a willingness to pay the price that witness may entail. They have. Will we?

Chris Sugden is executive secretary of Anglican Mainstream and a member of General Synod but writes here in a personal capacity.

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