Come out from among them and plant your Evangelical lay-led churches

There has been a bit more handwringing in some Anglican quarters (plus ça change I hear you cry!) Only this time, it’s not mainly coming from the evangelicals. This time it is coming from almost every other wing of the church toward evangelicals.

One of the key issues is summed up in the following tweets:

Among the apparently more offensive comments from the bishops are those quoted in this tweet:

So, one big issue that is exercising many is the suggestion that the Church of England might decide to have ‘lay led churches’. For this Baptist, who believes in the priesthood of all believers, it smacks of the old clericalism. The ‘lay people’ leading churches will simply lead to ‘anarchy’. The Holy Spirit, apparently, can’t constrain his people; he needs parish priests to do it for him. It is the rather depressing language of the Roman Catholic Church, who were more than happy to put as many barriers between ‘lay people’ and Christ as they could muster. Far be it from any of us to actually use the language of scripture and allow everybody with the Holy Spirit – that is, all genuine believers – to function as the very priesthood that Peter says they are.

Then there are the comments from Giles Fraser. He considers the problem thusly:

The latest Great Leap Forward for the C of E looks like this. Get rid of all those crumbling churches. Get rid of the clergy. Do away with all that expensive theological education. These are all “limiting factors”. Instead, focus relentlessly on young people. Growth, Young People, Forwards. Purge the church of all those clapped-out clergy pottering about in their parishes. Forget the Eucharist, or at least, put those who administer it on some sort of zero hours contract. Sell their vicarages. This is what our new shepherds want in their prize sheep: to be young, dumb, and full of evangelistic… zeal.

So what are the fundamental issues getting some hot under the collar? A patronising view of the laity (how could the plebs possibly lead anything?), an over-commitment to ancient bricks and mortar (how could God possibly be worshipped other than a church building?) and a desire to keep parish priests in situ where those in the locality have shown, by voting with their feet, that they are not wanted (why should we not keep vicars in churches that nobody attends?) It is hard not to construe this as proposing that ordinary church members are simply unworthy, or unable, to lead churches, that church buildings are especially important despite the early church having none of them, and parish priests being so special a class of persons that even parishes in which they aren’t really serving anyone, because nobody attends their church, ought to be maintained for reasons that are entirely unclear.

As ever, Giles does put his finger on certain key issues of note. He is right that the move is not really being driven by any sort of biblical principle on the part of the CofE hierarchy. I suspect his suggestion that this is merely a cost-saving exercise is about right. That doesn’t, of itself, make it wrong. Even a drunken darts player might hit the bullseye every now and then. I can, however, understand why such a cost-saving exercise rankles when it apparently removes what one holds dear only to find large sums of money being poured into what one considers a colossal waste.

I have even more sympathy with Fraser’s concern over the use of the term ‘passengers’. This would concern me too, if I were an Anglican. It concerns me because it apes the kind of language that has been seen in a lot of Acts 29 churches. It is the ‘get on board or get run over’ school of church planting proposed by Mark Driscoll. It is the very same sort of phraseology employed by Steve Timmis at The Crowded House. Not welcoming ‘passengers’ in the church is a model that has been tried and failed within fairly recent memory. When these planters employed a ‘modified presbyterianism’ – which is not wildly different, so far as one can tell, from the monarchical presbyter model, given how well that polity and model have gone together so far does not bode well in this instance either.

Unfortunately, Fraser’s answers to these things are either lacklustre or somewhat self-defeating. He recognises the church is in decline but doesn’t seem to think evangelism is any part of the answer. I would agree with him ‘evangelism first’ is not right. Any church should be about Jesus first. But if we are about Jesus first, we can’t ignore the fact that Jesus calls us to go into all the world and make disciples. That begins with evangelism. If we are going to be faithful to Jesus it necessitates going out from our four walls – not in a bid to try and make ourselves particularly attractive – but in an effort to make Jesus known and show him to be attractive. As Giles rightly notes, ‘The way you make yourself attractive to others is by being fully yourself, and having confidence in what you are’. But if we are not CHRISTians, confident in Christ Jesus, then what exactly are we and what is the church even for?

The other solution Giles offers is certainly true: ‘the church is not called to be successful. It is called to be faithful.’ But, of course, the statement comes with no little irony. It follows immediately from his claim that the church doesn’t really need to be about the work of evangelism, which is an interesting view of what it means to be faithful. But it also comes from a man who is currently cheering on those who would change the official teaching of the church – a teaching that has stood throughout its history and existence – and would change the very gospel that it proclaims. This, too, seems an odd position from someone now deeply concerned about faithfulness. Even odder still that he wants to change traditional doctrine but calls for faithfulness arguing, ‘I would prefer for us to die with dignity, being faithful to our calling, rather than to turn ourselves inside out trying to be superficially attractive, thus abandoning the faith as we have understood it.’ He states, ‘we must be more of what we have been called to be – more thoughtful, more prayerful, less fearful, more obedient to God’s call.’ Frankly, I couldn’t agree more but, physician, heal thyself.

Some of those objecting to these plans see them as some sort of evangelical-led conspiracy. I don’t know how true that really is. There are growing calls from these quarters for the evangelicals to pack their bags and leave. Here, at least, we can agree. I think everyone would be better of if the evangelicals left the Church of England and made common cause with their evangelical brethren in different denominations and none. As Jesus said, ‘come out from among them and be ye separate’. In so doing, those who loathe the evangelicals will be left to decline yet further still – insisting on the propping up their already failing churches with money that simply isn’t there – whilst those evangelicals who do think church planting is a godly pursuit and that ‘lay people’ are not some lower caste of believer, but those equally indwelt by the Holy Spirit who perfects us and makes us fit for spiritual service, can get about that work without the hindrance of those who preach another gospel and hold them in contempt. It is surely time the evangelicals called their bluff and left.