Friday, 12 December 2014

The 'Bad' and 'Good' News of 50 Years

Such a lot of to-ing and fro-ing these days between conservatives, charismatics, ‘open’ and reformed evangelicals! On October 14th 2009 I was listening to Fulcrum’s Stephen Kuhrt at the residential conference of the Church of England Evangelical Council (at which I was present - as a former CEEC Chairman). I found myself wandering down Memory Lane. For it was fifty years back - September 1959 - when old Bishop Chavasse ordained me in Rochester Cathedral. 

Richard Bewes on holiday in August 1959, shortly before ordination

Why, Stephen Kuhrt is still a babe - ordained in 2003! Yet I could no more have given a talk on his level to CEEC at that stage than have driven the BRM racing car.

Do you know, life was altogether more simple when I was ordained! The evangelical intake in September 1959 numbered about seven percent of the total. Who were we? What were we? Nothing, in the minds of the wider church. It was Backs to the Wall for us despised evangelicals. Charismatic evangelicals? They were a non-breed. Reformed evangelicals? Forget it. If I had a label at all it was Evangelical. That was enough – and it ought to be enough today! True, in those early days there was a group who called themselves Liberal Evangelicals, who had problems over Bible infallibility and penal substitutionary atonement. But with Stott around they were a dying breed. And then there was Billy! Our numbers and our confidence grew. 

Billy Graham in the 1950s (PHOTO BGEA)

It was really in 1962 – with Honest to God – that true battle began. Even so - in that still comparatively stable era morally - it would have been completely unthinkable that the Richard Baxter-style dismissal of 1685 could have repeated itself at Kidderminster, as it did in 2002 with a brave colleague, Charles Raven, whom I admire for his stance against his bishop’s blatant defiance of the Lambeth 1998 resolution on homosexuality. Charles, though banished from St John’s Kidderminster under threat of police arrest, has never renounced his anglicanism, and - for his consistent placing of Faith and Truth above Order – has, to my mind, every God-given right to continue speaking to us as an anglican evangelical.

As do faithful sisters and brothers across the Atlantic who, in these last momentous years, find themselves out of their rectories, the objects of lawsuits, their congregations frequently locked out of their own churches, through the wilful blindness of a number of their bishops - fundamentalist in their liberal overthrow of creedal and moral orthodoxy.

This is why GAFCON had to happen, and so did the ensuing Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. As an American bishop
said to me in Jerusalem (who is still in TEC), “Half of my diocese urge me to lead the charge out of TEC and into a safer and purer haven. The other half plead with me not to leave them.

The launch of FCAUK in London, July 2009 (PHOTO: Stephen Sizer) 

I say to them all, ‘We are in the thick of a storm – but Jesus is with us in the boat. If we keep our eyes upon Jesus, He will show us what to do. But if we have our eyes on the storm, it will destroy us.’” This bishop – and others like him – were weeping with relief and gratitude at GAFCON as the reading- out of the Jerusalem Declaration came to its close. The rest of us were on our feet.

GAFCON delegates visiting the Mount of Olives (PHOTO: Richard Bewes)

  Was it uncalled for that Stephen Kuhrt has expressed words of concern for the future, in regard to the formation of FCAUK? Not at all. We should always stay humbly on the watch; errors of judgment can overtake even the best of Christian leaders. Not for nothing was the Collect for Whit Sunday included in the Book of Common Prayer, with its plea for ‘a right judgment in all things.’ A reliable judgment is pretty much the top priority for every bishop, for every leader. Never mind the brain power! You can be a brilliant person – but still possess an uncanny ability to get decision after decision wrong.

Ultimately it’s the degree of hold that the Scriptures have upon the Church that determines its future course. The last fifty years – while undoubtedly featuring a remarkable rise in Evangelical academic learning – have also witnessed a decrease in Biblical confidence generally. At college during the ‘fifties, many of us members of the Christian Union would carry pocket Bibles as a matter of course. Today, you can give a well-publicised Bible study at a public gathering – with nobody holding a Bible at all. Asked, “Do you believe in the authority and inspiration of this Book?” the answer will invariably be “Oh yes.” But actions prove that the confidence has waned.

A massive issue – as raised byAndy Symes during question time at the CEEC conference – related to that of theological attitudes to divine Revelation – and hermeneutics. Today in popular thinking it will cheerfully be maintained by liberals and modernists, “Oh, I certainly believe in the authority of the Bible, and in the Creeds. I said so at my ordination! Of course my interpretation may be different from yours.” Then the fallacy begins to gain a hold that you can take any text of Scripture – and that there are as many interpretations that can be placed upon it as there are interpreters. This mindset has taken over.

Destructive? Very – and also highly degrading to the Bible writers. If I write an email to my friend, and say, “I’ll see you at the courts next Wednesday,” there is one meaning, and one meaning only that I intend by my message. And if my friend has done his research on me properly, he will know that I am referring to the tennis courts – not the law courts! I would feel highly insulted if he were to place on my words an alternative interpretation. There can only be one basic meaning to a passage of Scripture, and it is the task of the Bible student and scholar to discover what the intention was in the mind of the writer. Then we have clarity – and a message that is unequivocally from heaven!

True, there are, as Stephen Kuhrt and our friends at Fulcrum point out, a number of different theological strands that - it is maintained - we evangelicals should be ‘open’ to.

Actually, we should not be too surprised at the different ‘tribes’ that have opened up in evangelical life. Colin Buchanan forecast such a development. “As our numbers grow,” he said at an earlier NEAC, “we shall find that we will become more diffuse – and somewhat fluffier at the edges.”

For myself, I think that over these past decades – like it or not - I have indeed been well-exposed to the different theological emphases in the church. I may have been critical of certain aspects of the Charismatic movement, but there are plenty of sides to it that have been beneficial to my soul and my ministry. And then, I have had to look at the liberals; there was no other option, for they have been so vocal. Without doubt, my exposure to their claims – from Hewlett Johnson ‘The Red Dean’ of Canterbury, through J.A.T. Robinson, Don Cupitt (my own Dean at Emmanuel College Cambridge), David Jenkins, Gene Robinson and the rest – has helped me to sharpen up my own operation.

And our own operation needs to be kept razor sharp, if it is to make any lasting contribution to the general scene. Years back, while I was CEEC chairman, we invited Nick Page of Radio 2 to interview on video David Hope, former Bishop of London. The video was played at one of our larger conferences. At one point, Nick put the question, “Bishop, would you agree that anglican evangelicals would do well to take into their account and thinking the findings and emphases of the various other viewpoints within the Church; Catholic, Liberal and so on?”

The bishop’s reply was interesting. “Not at all,” he remonstrated. “Right now you evangelicals are not nearly evangelical enough. You seem, if anything, to be departing from your earlier roots. What has happened to your doctrines – and to your preaching of them? And why are you slipping from your Quiet Times? What has happened to your prayer meetings and to your former great missionary drive? We need you to be faithful to your own true evangelical identity if you are to have a hope of challenging and building the rest of us in the church!”

My long-time next-door neighbour John Stott puts it in a different way. Every generation of Gospel men and women, he
insists, has to go through the same operation repeatedly – namely to fight afresh all over again for the unchanging apostolic truths that remain the platform for the church, in every age and crisis that it inevitably faces; we cannot opt out.

John Stott, world traveller (PHOTO: Richard Bewes)

Well, they had to fight – and die in flames – for the mighty truth of Justification that swept Europe 450 years ago. A new solemnity and awed confidence in the death of Jesus was to be evoked by the words at Holy Communion; that the Lord had made, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world. Christians saw afresh that in an historic moment of ‘propitiation’ God had intercepted his own judgment; that the Cross actually did something - not only to our sins - but to God Himself in the ‘satisfaction’ and averting of His holy wrath – why, to hold onto these convictions is to be truly anglican in our belief.

Wherever there has been a great historical movement of the Spirit in the awakening of thousands of people, the hymn books are a dead give-away. Hymn after hymn on the Cross, on the miracle of forgiveness, on the gift of resurrection life in Christ, on discipleship and service, on the missionary imperative, on the final Eschaton!

It is no bad thing to have Stephen Kuhrt’s hesitations and concerns about FCAUK - and about us all - put on paper. We must believe that if they do nothing else, they should harden our resolve that we are indeed staying, not quitting, and that we have every right to stay - on centre ground! 

Meanwhile, however, we must reach out in support of the increasing numbers of anglican pastors internationally who – in one way or another – have been obliged and even forced to leave their anglican home, and yet are firm in their convictions that We are still anglican. FCAUK will – and must – through a faithful and generous network of Gospel churches, continue to assist that to happen, God being our helper.