Boundaries, dangers and ways ahead: Anglican evangelicals and the edited collection

In the first chapter of my forthcoming little book on a neglected aspect of British academic life, I examine the recent history of British theology through an unaccustomed lens: the role of the edited collection of essays. These have worked in several ways: as a means to take stock of the state of a discipline (for example, Lux Mundi, or Soundings) or to address the nation on matters of social and political import (such as the essays from William Temple’s now famous Malvern conference of 1941.) There were also a plethora of volumes on very specific issues of doctrine and practice. But there is another purpose that such volumes played (which I don’t pursue in the book for reasons of space): of both policing the boundaries and assessing the health of the different parties that are a constant feature of Anglican history. In this post, I look at Anglican evangelicals in particular.

Within the groupings or parties in the Church of England, and the networks of theologians in both universities and theological colleges that tended to speak to and for them, the edited collection has often provided an opportunity to take stock at times of particular opportunity or danger. Though I’m particularly interested here in evangelicals, the late 1960s were just such a time for the Anglo-Catholic constituency, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and concrete moves towards reunion of the churches in England. The party had in the nineteenth century been a ‘a militant minority, feared, vilified’; now, instead it had been accepted – had enjoyed, indeed, a period of some dominance between the wars – but as a result Anglo-Catholics ‘lost their definition as a party’. Catholic Anglicans Today (edited by John Wilkinson in 1968) was an attempt to articulate that distinctiveness afresh.

In Anglican evangelical history, one particularly tenacious interpretation of the fortunes of the party has been one of inter-war obscurity, followed by gradual revival from the Sixties (centred around John Stott) ending in simultaneous dominance and diversification by the late 1980s. The recent collection of essays edited by Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden did much to revise and qualify that narrative, and I don’t intend to defend it in fact. But it is possible to see that story both articulated and made normative in the several edited collections of the period, some of which I examine here.

Take for instance, the volume Evangelicals Today (Lutterworth Press, 1973). Where Catholic Anglicans Today was defensive, Evangelicals Today was bullish, a sign that Anglican evangelicals saw the balance of power within the English church shifting in their direction. The editor John C. King placed particular importance on the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1967, the event that became universally known by its venue, Keele University; the Keele conference came to be seen as the moment at which the evangelical constituency decided to engage positively with the wider Anglican church. (The conference itself was prepared by a set of essays, published under the title Guidelines.) King took as his point of comparison another volume, published in 1925 with the title Evangelicalism: ‘a vintage expression of a type of evangelicalism which has all but passed away’: narrow in concern where Keele had been wide-ranging; defensive where King’s contributors were open to new directions of thought. Though King had a normative point to make, the 1925 volume was indeed defensive in character, a response to a general ‘theological unsettlement’ made yet more acute by the effect of the First World War. In its turn some of its contributors engaged directly with two other collections of essays, as representatives of the theological modernism against a defence was required (the two were Foundations (1912), and – from within the evangelical stable – Liberal Evangelicalism: an interpretation (1923).

Twenty years later, the balance of power had shifted even further, such that Michael Saward could declare in 1987 that evangelicals were ‘very firmly in the driving seat of the Church of England.’ Energetic and outward-looking, the future for the party was bright since more than half of the new clergy in training were in evangelical theological colleges. Even though a sense of crisis could be detected in the wider Church of England, Gavin Reid (later a bishop) could in 1986 assemble a group with the common conviction that the answer to the question Hope for the Church of England? (published by Kingsway) was a positive and an evangelical one. And in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a slew of volumes that attempted to make sense of the new state of affairs. Evangelical Anglicans: their role and influence in the Church today (SPCK, 1993) was the product of one of those busy theological colleges – Wycliffe Hall in Oxford – many of the staff of which were also members of the university’s theology faculty. Their mood was one of ‘a settled confidence, reflecting a sense of belonging and purpose which is becoming increasingly typical of evangelical Anglicanism today.’

Not all Anglican evangelicals were so sanguine, however. Restoring the Vision: Anglican evangelicals speak out appeared in 1990 (MARC/Monarch), edited by Melvin Tinker. ‘Many fear’ argued Tinker, ‘that evangelicalism in the Church of England has become so broad that it has become thin, compromise has replaced conviction and the once crusading spirit has been tamed into a conforming spirit.’ It was under Tinker’s guidance that The Anglican Evangelical Crisis appeared in 1995 (Christian Focus), addressing many of the same themes.

The confidence of the Wycliffe authors was misplaced, Tinker argued in the later volume; just as had been the sense of the editor of Catholic Anglicans Today in 1968, the evangelical movement out of isolation after the Keele conference had come at the cost of a loss of identity and theological distinctiveness. The contributors to The Anglican Evangelical Crisis, all linked to the newly formed conservative organisation Reform, were a more mixed group than the Wycliffe authors, with stronger links to theological colleges and seminaries in the USA and Australia. Its final chapter, by Don Carson, takes the form of a review article on the divergences between the two volumes, works that were ‘so divergent that a complete outsider would find it hard to believe that they emerge from what is widely assumed to be more or less the same camp’. The two ‘camps’ were distinct enough to bring representatives of both together to debate the issues in general, and the existence of Reform in particular. The question was asked: Has Keele Failed?, a volume edited by Charles Yeats, chaplain to University College, Durham, and published in 1995 by Hodder and Stoughton.

It is not a straightforward task to assess the precise impact of these books, especially when sales figures are hard to obtain, and when the culture is not one in which there are citations to be counted. But Anglican evangelicals, like others in the Church of England and the other churches, were often to be found coming together in collections of essays to assess the state of the party, to check its boundary markers, to warn of looming dangers and to suggest ways ahead. The impact these collections had was of a particular kind, distinct from books by individual authors. Historians of evangelicalism have much to gain from a fresh look at its publication culture.

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