This is a critical time for evangelicals in England. Apart from the dilemma confronting those in all four churches who for theological reasons disagree with the proposed Anglican-Methodist and Congregational-Presbyterian mergers, legislation is pending in the Church of England that undesirably will at once legalize the hitherto illegal and erect further barriers against non-Anglicans who seek occasional communion in a parish church. Here indeed is paradox in an ecumenical age.

But these are not the only reasons for disquiet. The clerical official on Archbishop Ramsey’s own staff at Lambeth Palate who has just announced his conversion to Rome could have found little to dissuade him in the primate’s own ecclesiastical tendencies. Just as his response to his fellow bishop of Woolwich was lamentably weak, Dr. Ramsey’s failure to give the country a clear lead generally in spiritual and moral matters has disappointed many in an age when the British crime rate has risen alarmingly.

The archbishop and his episcopal colleagues not long ago came out strongly in the House of Lords in favor of that section of the Wolfenden Report which would legalize homosexual acts carried out privately by consenting adult males (the government is resisting such legislation). While withholding comment on that vexed issue, one might wish that the hierarchy was prepared to stick out its collective neck on more spiritual occasions also. Lest any imagine, however, that church and state have reversed roles, we should note that Sir Edward Boyle, Minister of Education, two years ago told the House of Commons that he did not regard it as part of his job to prescribe what moral teaching should be given in schools. With the state opting out and the church’s leading trumpet sounding an uncertain note against the new moralists, evangelicals (in common with many decent godless folk) are not unnaturally concerned.

That many of them are at present rethinking their position within their own denominations was apparent at the recent National Assembly of Evangelicals held at Westminster (see “British Evangelicals Map Cooperation,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, News, October 22). The possible formation of a United Evangelical Church was seriously considered, and the matter referred to a study group. The unrest is not confined to the Church of England (from which several clergymen had previously seceded). A Baptist speaker said: “Our position in the mainstream denominations is becoming untenable”: a Methodist: “We cannot therefore continue forever in the denominations”; a Congregationalist: “Many will have to come out from the denominations.”

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In this connection some significant points were made by the Rev. Gilbert W. Kirby, secretary of the Evangelical Alliance and the original moving spirit behind the assembly. “The evangelical is the loyalist in his denomination,” he pointed out. “Our denominations owe their origin to the very things that we hold dear; we want them to continue as they began.… There is good historic evidence for staying in until we are thrown out.” He called for prayer, humility, care, and restraint.

If I may digress for a moment, striking support for this view was given in a new Catholic Truth Society booklet by David Woodard entitled Our Separated Brethren. Speaking of the different parties to be found in the Church of England, Father Woodard declares that it is the modern-day successors of Cranmer, Parker, Grindal, and Whitgift who “must be regarded by us as the party most loyal to the Anglican formularies.” (This I take to be more than a devious divide et impera!) Moreover, he adds about these evangelicals, “they teach the doctrines that agree with their ministry.” That is an eloquent testimony.

Even level-headed men like Gilbert Kirby who know their history and the often bitter fruits of past secession agree that such action may become necessary. All this reflects the tension and strain that current ecumenical maneuverings are imposing on many earnest and devoted men of God. The conference disclosed how deeply they are disturbed, how truly they desire to avoid any open breaks, but how strongly they feel about a situation in which they are convinced that the Gospel itself is being betrayed in the quest for outward unity.

Another cautionary note was rightly struck when the Rev. Paul Rees urged the delegates (there were nearly 1,200 of them) to get their definitions clear and to stop regarding “evangelical” and “ecumenical” as mutually exclusive concepts. The emerging churches of Asia, Africa and Latin America simply would not tolerate the export of Western denominationalism. We should, he urged, be seriously concerned about authentic ecumenicity. He told of an Indian brother he knew who described himself as “an American Dutch Reformed Indian Christian.” We should address ourselves to the living issues of the hour, said Mr. Rees; we are “evangelistically immobilized when we ought to be on the march.”

A major address was given by Dr. J. I. Packer, warden of Latimer House, Oxford, the Anglican evangelical research center. Speaking on “The Idea of Religionless Christianity” (an analysis of the kind of theology found in Honest to God), he said it reminded him of an advertisement put around in his schooldays: “For Sale—A Bladeless Knife Without a Handle.” After tracing the historic roots of the radical movement—“reactionary” he suggested would be a better word—Dr. Packer affirmed that in many ways “Bishop Robinson appears as Christian as Bonhoeffer, while taking up the sub-Christian ideas of Bultmann and Tillich.” When the test question “What think ye of Christ?” is asked of Bultmann and Tillich, he said, the answer is unsatisfactory.

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But Dr. Packer is not merely a demolition expert: he had something positive to say on what evangelical response ought to be in this situation. Four points: our faith should be proclaimed as exposition and application of the Word of God; our ethical teaching should be in terms of “keep his commandments”: our evangelism must be forthright, not afraid to label the secular world as an apostate world and emphasizing the doctrines of God the Creator and Lawgiver: and we must trust the Holy Spirit, who is the real answer to the so-called problem of communication.

It would be pointless to pretend that evangelicals in Britain are united doctrinally—the Calvinist-Arminian controversy, for example, is still very much of a live issue—but circumstances are compelling them to get things into true perspective. As Peter Johnston pointed out in his presidential address at Westminster, Wesley preached at Whitfield’s funeral and paid glowing tribute to the God-honoring labors of his brother in Christ. It comes back to fundamentals. That inimitable Victorian, Jerome K. Jerome, evolved the principle when his three men were preparing to embark that they should take with them, not what would be useful, but what they couldn’t do without. It might not be profound theology, but it gets priorities right.

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