Evangelicals on the rise in the Church of England ?

Are evangelicals taking over the Church?

Something has changed in the Church of England. It is a radical change, but one that has
not attracted much comment. I was alerted to it when Martyn Snow was announced as the next Bishop of Leicester. A diocese with a long tradition of liberal leadership, most recently under Tim Stevens, has appointed someone with an evangelical outlook, and the youngest diocesan in the Church to boot. And this is not an isolated example.Amongst the five senior diocesans, Canterbury, Durham, Winchester and York are clearly evangelical, and in London we have a traditional (rather than liberal) catholic. In the next tier we find Chester, Bristol, Birmingham, Coventry, Sheffield, Carlisle, Peterborough and Leeds, and then include at least Blackburn, Bath and Wells, Guildford, Southwell and Nottingham, Rochester and Europe, and you have a formidable representation of evangelicals in the House of Bishops—one without precedent in modern times.It is important both to qualify and to clarify what this means. Bishops are famously reluctant to own theological ‘labels’, and for understandable reasons. They are, after all, there to function as a focus of unity around the Church’s teaching, not to serve as point-scoring for particular traditions or signs of shallow triumphalism. And the presence of so many evangelicals will not satisfy the extremes. Liberals worry about a threat to the ‘broad church’; conservatives will wonder why it remains so broad—apocryphally asking of consecrations, ‘Is that the point in the service where they remove your backbone?’

The reasons for this change are deep and historical, and we need to understand why we have got here in order to see where we are going.

Within the evangelical tradition itself, the reasons reach back at least 50 years. At the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress (NEAC) at Keele in 1967, a major question was whether evangelicals, still with a sense of being a beleaguered minority, should stay within the Church of England at all. Martyn Lloyd Jones of Westminster Chapel had said no—they should ‘come out from among her’ and form a pure, uncompromised, evangelical church. John Stott, of All Souls’ Langham Place, urged evangelicals to stay, engage, and effect change from within. Stott won the day—though his position then still does not convince everyone now. Evangelicals are not always good at compromise.

At the second NEAC in Nottingham in 1977, Anthony Thiselton (later Professor at the university there) urged a second kind of engagement by evangelicals—with scholarship, and in particular with the developing discipline of hermeneutics. He was opposed by my then-hero David Watson, who at one point in the Congress openly mocked him—but Thiselton won the argument (and I ended up doing a PhD in exactly this area).

This commitment to engage has borne remarkable fruit. In 2007, Gordon Kuhrt (who had been the first Director of the newly formed Ministry Division of Archbishops’ Council) analysed what was happening to theological traditions in ordination training and found something remarkable. 30 years previously, evangelicals accounted for around 30% of ordinands entering training. By the time of his writing, this had changed to 70%. This wasn’t because the numbers of evangelicals coming forward had increased, but because the numbers of catholics and liberals (to use the three broad categorisations) had dropped off. It is not difficult to understand that, all other things being equal, the tradition of ordinands in one age will become the tradition of the Church’s leadership in the next.

Following Thiselton’s urgings, evangelicals have also been active in engaging with theology. I was in the first cohort experimentally to move straight to doctoral study from ordination training, and many other evangelicals have done the same. As a result, there are evangelicals in every tradition of residential college, and (significantly) teaching on courses as well as in context-based training. Evangelicals no longer stick doggedly to parish ministry—their traditional remit—but are also now area deans and archdeacons and involved in sector ministries. The one area largely untouched is that of cathedral deans. The large number of evangelical bishops is just the episcopal tip of an ecclesiastical iceberg.

Within the Church itself, Mission-Shaped Church (which came to Synod when I was last a member in 2004) marked a watershed. It was now possible, credible and even desirable to talk about mission explicitly as an Anglican, in a way it wasn’t after Towards the Conversion of England(1945) nor even after the Decade of Evangelism. This explains why evangelical episcopal appointments are not the result of a conspiracy; Vacancy in See committees are asking for a credible commitment to mission, and evangelical candidates are giving plausible answers.

51GuzBqRMuLIs this situation likely to continue? To answer that, take a look at the youngest diocesans, since they will be around for some time to come, and are the most likely to occupy senior positions in the future. They are (in age order) Leicester, Southwell and Nottingham (both 48), Gloucester (53), Guildford (54), Europe (56), Coventry, Chichester, Chelmsford (all 57), Winchester, Ely, Leeds, Truro, Sheffield, St Albans and Manchester (all 58). Of these 15, 10 look evangelical, and another two ‘traditional’ catholic, and only three more liberal. And the high proportion of evangelical ordinands looks set to continue; a major route is through youth work, and 90% of youth workers are employed by evangelical churches. Any tradition diversifies as it expands, and debates will continue about who are ‘true’ evangelicals. As Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden point out in the excellent Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century (Boydell Press, 2014) that debate was as lively in the earlier lean years as in these years of plenty.

Martyn Atkins, when General Secretary of the Methodist Conference, reflected on how we could go about Resourcing Renewal (Inspire, 2007). Renewal comes, he argued, when an institution rediscovers its ‘founding charisms’ and, paradoxically, this is what is needed to face an uncertain future. I wonder whether the presence of evangelicals, at every level of ministry, might aid this process for the C of E—that we recover what it means to be a reformed catholic church. This means not being reformedand catholic (and liberal), living in different silos, nor executing an evangelical ‘takeover’—but that our diversity is held together by means of a reflective biblical theology shaped by insights from previous generations (tradition) and informed by responsible intellectual engagement (reason).

Whatever its pros and cons, this new configuration of the Church is likely to be here for some time to come.


If this sounds like the GAFCON conservative evangelical Trumpet Call – from Ian Paul, “Associate Minister, St.Nics (sic) Nottingham, U.K.” then it probably is. An avid campaigner, against the current trends of liberalism in the Church of England, the Reverend Ian Paul has much to say on his blog @psephizo about what he sees as the declining standards of biblical faithfulness among the Western provinces of the Anglican Communion.

In this way, and from this article about the predominance of conservative evangelicals being appointed to the House of Bishops in the Church of England, Ian Paul  discerns a movement back to a traditional evangelical leadership in that Church, which he attributes to the reaction of the young people of the Church – against the tide of liberalism that had seen even the fusty old State Church questioning the culture of homophobia and sexism that had, hithertoo, remained un-challenged.

It would appear, now, that Mr. Paul ( self described ‘Assistant minister’ – rather than the traditional title of ‘Assistant priest’ – an indicator of his evangelical provenance)  sees a gathering momentum of evangelical conservative reaction against the inevitable tide of popular acceptance of LGBTQI people in the outside world and in parts of the Anglican Communion – especially in North America.

What has recently happened, according to Ian Paul, has been an emergence of young evangelicals, modelled on the lines of the latest Archbishop of Canterbury’s – Justin Welby’s – theologically-conservative, charismatic church-growth phenomenon that inspired the ABC’s entry (after a career in the oil industry) into the ministry  of the Church of England.  Mr. Paul compares the latest emergence, under ++Justin’s leadership, of the appointment of more theologically conservative candidates to the espicopate. Here is part of his analysis.

(speaking of the youngest newly-appointed diocesan bishops) :

“They are (in age order) Leicester, Southwell and Nottingham (both 48), Gloucester (53), Guildford (54), Europe (56), Coventry, Chichester, Chelmsford (all 57), Winchester, Ely, Leeds, Truro, Sheffield, St Albans and Manchester (all 58). Of these 15, 10 look evangelical, and another two ‘traditional’ catholic, and only three more liberal. And the high proportion of evangelical ordinands looks set to continue; a major route is through youth work, and 90% of youth workers are employed by evangelical churches. “

Will this conservative evangelical trend continue to dominate in the future Church of England? This is a question that ought concern the more liberal among us in the Anglican Communion. There is no doubt, though, that the preponderance of a more evangelical type of clergy-person will help to reverse the tide of exit of young people from the Church of England. But will that necessarily mean the revival of the Gospel values of justice and peace-making that are at the heart of Jesus Christ’s liberating ministry?

One only has to wonder what the paucity of Anglo-Catholic spirituality, with its emphasis on Eucharist and Sacraments will do to the image of a State Church that seems set to militate against the more liberal outlook of ordinary people in the street, whose lives are more concerned with matters of social and economic justice that public piety. The real question may be: Will people be newly drawn to a God they have come to believe is primarily interested in judgement, rather than mercy and loving attention to the sinners that Jesus Christ came into this world to redeem? 

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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5 Responses to Evangelicals on the rise in the Church of England ?

  1. Ron, the bishops recently appointed in the Church of England are not Conservative Evangelicals. The last Conservative Evangelical bishop in the C of E was Wallace Benn.

    Also, if Anglo-Catholics want to change this trend the solution is in their hands. As Ian Paul points out, evangelicals now account for 70% of ordination candidates in the C of E, and this is not because their numbers have risen but because the numbers of catholic and liberal candidates have dropped off dramatically. Apparently Anglo-Catholic spirituality is not inspiring vocations to ordination the way to once did. It seems to me that this fact should inspire some soul-searching amongst Anglo-Catholic and liberal folks in the C of E. Surely God is still calling some of their number to ordination. Why aren’t they listening, while the evangelicals are?

    • kiwianglo says:

      Tim, it’s Ian Paul’s thesis, not mine. However, the women suffragans appointed are mostly puppets for the more conservative bishops, so not much help from them for LGBT people in the Church. The dearth of Anglo-Catholic theologs may just be because they are not encouraged by the trend of conservative evangelicalism in Church of England theology.

      • Ian’s thesis describes simply ‘evangelicals’, not ‘Conservative Evangelicals’. Justin Welby may be an evangelical but his theology, as far as I can see, is not like that of well-known Conservative Evangelicals like John Stott, J.I. Packer, Maurice Wood, or Rod Thomas, recently appointed Bishop of Maidstone and a self-confessed ‘Conservative Evangelical’ who is opposed to the ordination of women. Justin Welby is interested in monasticism and has a Roman Catholic spiritual director – two things you would not find among Conservative Evangelicals. And Ian Paul may be conservative on the subject of homosexuality but he is far closer to the ‘Open Evangelical’ label on many others.

  2. kiwianglo says:

    Dear Tim,
    You are right, I think, about the ABC and maybe, Ian Paul, being ‘Moderate Evangelicals’, but still Ian Paul does seem to lean more toward the Ould brothers in his rooted objection to the presence of Gay people in the Church. I agree, too, that Justin Welby is a more ‘Thinking Evangelical’ than most. Having been through the charismatic phase myself I realise where his basic enthusiasm comes from and I do not see that as a problem – except that he seems inclined to go along with the culture of appeasement of the conservative GAFCON-ites regarding his reluctance to openly embrace the inclusivity of a fully open-door to LGBTI people in the Church. His association with the monastic ideal (the young Ecumenical Community at Lambeth) and having a Catholic Spiritual Director, I actually applaud. At least that keeps him closer to the culture of Pope Francis’ ideal of ‘Mercy’.

    Incidentally, Tim, how long have you until retirement from full-time ministry up there in Canada. We are still enjoying the eirenic ministry of your old diocesan Bishop, ++Victoria. She Addressed our parish of SMAA on the subject of Gratitude, Conservation and Stewardship after Mass on Sunday.
    Agape, Ron

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