What Would Wilberforce Do? 17 Nov 2008
by Graham Kings
Date added: 30/07/2020
What would Wilberforce do?
Graham Kings The Guardian 17 Nov 2008
The tensions between moderates and hardliners among the Church of England's evangelicals have come to a head
On Saturday the National Evangelical Anglican Consultation (NEAC) took place at All Souls' Langham Place, London. NEACs are usually held as "congresses" every 10 years over several days: this one was after five years and during a morning and afternoon. As people read reports of the consultation, it is worth remembering that evangelicalism in the Church of England is not monolithic but diverse. Our unity is organic, though not uncritical. It needs nourishing and does not respond well to impositions, as was manifest on the day.
The title of the consultation was "Shaping the Future: Anglican Evangelicalism post Lambeth and Gafcon". The Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon), held in Jerusalem in June 2008 was seen by many as the "alternative" or "shadow" to the Lambeth Conference, held in Canterbury in July and early August.
Wim Houtman, the religion editor of Nederlands Dagblad, wrote an article entitled NEAC 2008: an Evangelical Dutch Report. He begins with a quotation:
'This morning was good: an atmosphere of reflection and unity. But this afternoon things went wrong.' Bishop Keith Sinclair of Birkenhead, speaker on a conference of evangelicals within the Church of England on Saturday, could not say whether he was surprised by the outcome. 'I didn't know what to expect.' What's for sure is that the meeting ended in a slight chaos, and defeat for the leadership of the organisers, the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC).
The chair of CEEC, Richard Turnbull, is the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, which is currently being inspected by the Church of England following the controversial multiple resignations and sackings there.
He proposed a motion in the afternoon which was not on the agenda published beforehand, but merely put on the chairs prior to the beginning of the consultation, with the added note that "no amendments will be permitted". Some saw the motion, others did not. It was not mentioned at all from the front in the morning.
The motion, in effect, backed the Gafcon movement (which is about to set up a separate "province" in North America) while ignoring the process urged by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth Conference, which is supported by many evangelical Anglicans. This pursues, with patience and urgency, the Covenant for the Anglican Communion and a pastoral forum for conservatives in North America.
At the consultation, our unity was clear in that we are committed to the teaching of the communion on sexuality and opposed to the developments in North America which have caused this crisis. However, we differed on ecclesiology, the shape of the church. Some spoke up for Gafcon and others for the Lambeth process.
The difficulty of the motion was that it seemed to be trying to force this division by being sprung on us at the last minute without opportunity for amendment.
The consultation objected and passed a procedural motion (by 123 votes to 104) that the original motion "be not put". A short amended motion – had one been permitted – summarising our unity concerning the communion's teaching on sexuality and offering support for conservative Anglicans in North America would have been passed.
Wim Houtman reports what happened next:
'If you don't want a vote, fine', said Turnbull from the chair. 'In that case the Church of England Evangelical Council will take its own decision.' From the audience: 'Then why consult us?' Turnbull: 'I would appreciate if you did not interrupt me.' Someone else in the audience: 'Depends what you say.'
This was very different from the wisdom of the founders of the modern evangelical tradition in the Church of England such as Charles Simeon and the Clapham Sect (John Venn, William Wilberforce, Charles Grant and others) who in 1799 founded the Church Missionary Society, which ever since has been involved in holistic mission, campaigning for the abolition of slavery and spreading the gospel throughout the world.
It is to be hoped that CEEC as a whole will reflect on the consultation and work for a solution which unifies the evangelical constituency, allowing differences without fostering division. A failure to do so would provide more evidence that CEEC needs to be reformed, to prevent it becoming a "rump parliament" and the word "evangelical" from being further besmirched.