Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Anglican Evangelical Corrective

As well as being a rich, historic, and honorable tradition within Anglicanism, rooted in our catholicity as well as our Reformation heritage, Anglican Evangelicalism is also a significant corrective. When Evangelicalism is weak, dysfunctional, or sidelined, then Anglican Christianity in that area of the world suffers. On the other hand, when Evangelicalism is in a position to dominate, a pugnaciousness tends to emerge, and with it there is often an element of pharisaism. The truth is that Evangelical Anglicans need the balance of the other traditions just as much as the other traditions need to listen with care to what Evangelicals are saying.

My whole adult life and ministry has been exercised as an Evangelical. I am what they would call in the Church of England an Open Evangelical, an adjectival clarification that probably speaks for itself. The Fulcrum movement in England best expresses the hopes and aspirations of this particular group of Evangelicals on those shores ( I am profoundly grateful that I have been nurtured and formed in this particular school of Christian believing and being, for I believe that there is no better way to be a follower of Christ than as an Evangelical Anglican.

However, because I have been an Evangelical for so long I am acutely aware of Evangelicalism's weakenesses, failures, and shortcomings. No incarnation of Christian faith is perfect, and Evangelical Anglicanism is certainly incapable of making claims to perfection! But as I have said already, even if it is not perfect it is very much a corrective. The thing about correctives is that they are not necessarily comfortable to be around -- do you remember what it felt like to have braces to correct the alignment of your teeth and the nature of your bite?

I believe it is part of the genius of Evangelical Anglicans to be prepared to ask the difficult questions, and not to give up until those questions have been adequately dealt with and answered. Because evangelical Christianity gives such great weight to the place of Scripture in believing, then Evangelicals are unlikely to be satisfied with trite answers, or answers that try to finesse or avoid the thrust of what God has revealed in his Word.

The truth is that Scripture itself is not a comfortable set of documents to live with, for through it God is always challenging us to address our sins and fallenness within the context of our redemption by the shed blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the indwelling Spirit. Those who live under the authority of Scripture, therefore, will ask of church and culture the questions that they might often want to sidestep, and should stubbonly keep asking those questions.

This is not something new. While historians may argue about the precise roots of Evangelicalism, it certainly came to its first English-speaking fruition in the 18th Century. At that time all sorts of social and political evils bestrode the world as industrialization began taking root in Europe, and then later in North America. For example, it was Evangelicals who determinedly called church and society to rethink their attitude toward slavery and the slave trade, and on the basis of Scripture's overall teaching about the nature of God and the nature of humankind.

When William Wilberforce and his colleagues set out on this noble crusade, they did so not with the backing of the entrenched leadership, but with the backing of priests like John Wesley and John Newton. As they worked on this project for year after year, being constantly rebuffere, they were not exactly the most popular people in either church or state. But Scripture's teaching about human dignity and its implications ultimately prevailed.

The same is true today. Being an Evangelical is still not popular because if we are faithful to the calling of the Word Incarnate through the Word Written, we are not prepared to be rolled over by the culture and the manner in which the values of postmodernity and a post-Christian culture are invading the church. The whole debate about human sexuality is an example of this. Evangelicals tend to believe that what is happening in the church has little to do with prophetic faith and much more to do with the invasion of the church by the prevailing culture. In such circumstances biblical principles are made subservient to other agendas and worldviews.

What is the task of the Evangelical in this situation? It is to keep on asking the difficult questions and pressing for answers. I honestly have to say that although in the last few years I have probably read several thousand pages on all sides of the sexuality debate, I have yet to see those who are advocating innovation even attempt to adequately respond to the fundamental thrust of Scripture, or to defend the hermeneutical tools that the bring to this work.

Ian Douglas in his conversation with Paul Zahl about the Windsor Report says, "I am not arguing that there is a mandate in the Bible for same-sex relations. I simply do not see such." Ian is not alone among those on the theological left having to admit such a thing, but then he goes on to say, "On the other hand I do not see the prohibitions as strongly as you do...." (Ian Douglas and Paul Zahl: Understanding the Windsor Report. Church Publishing, New York. 2005. Page 34). Here we see the divergence between Evangelicals and others -- Ian Douglas wants to put other categories alongside Scripture to modify the plain thrust of the words, while the avowed Evangelical, Paul Zahl, affirms what Scripture says with great clarity from Genesis 1 onward.

So then, what is our mission as Evangelicals in a broken church? It is to be that corrective, hard as it often is. Whoever said following Jesus and being true to his Word would be easy?

Our task is to put the church's feet to the fire and say with Article XX of the XXXIX Articles or Religion that The Church hath power to decree the Rites and Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity to Salvation.

I love Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 10:4-6: The tools of our trade aren't for marketing or manipulation, but they are for demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture. We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity.

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