Saturday, January 9, 2010

There are Evangelicals and Evangelicals

One of the things that mildly amuses and distresses me is the way in which the term Evangelical has been hijacked in the America; first by the Revivalists, and then by the modern Charismatic Movement. At the risk of "teaching Granny to suck eggs" I think I ought to point out that Evangelical simply means "of the Gospel" - i.e. a person or church that holds fast to the chief teachings of the New Testament and of the Gospels in particular. I would hope that all churches would be "small-e" evangelical, unfortunately some get diverted off into preaching Socialism via an inadequate version of the social gospel, others overlay the evangelical message with all sorts of denominational and sectarian distinctives.

So what do I mean by Evangelical? Well there is both an historical and a theological reference here.

The historical reference is to two groups of people. The first group are the sixteenth century Reformers - Luther, Bucer, Calvin, Cranmer, etc.. The second group, at least within my Anglican context, are what the Right Rev. J. C. Ryle (1816-1901) described as the "Christian Leaders of the Last Century." This group included George Whitefield, Augustus Toplady, William Grinshaw, John Beveridge, Daniel Rowlands, Henry Venn the elder, all of whom were both Evangelical and Anglican; though the intransigence of the Hannoverian episcopate sometimes forced them to stray outside the parish churches in order to preach the Gospel! Between them they began a great movement within the Church of England that soon spread to other denominations and traditions. So what was their message?

First and foremost, they preached that man was very far gone from his original righteousness, that we are in need of the Saviour, and that that Saviour is Jesus Christ. In order to be saved, you needed to repent, have faith in Jesus Christ, and follow Him. Theologically, they held to the five "solas" of the Reformation - Christ alone, Scripture alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, to God alone be the Glory - and the majority held to a moderately reformed (mildly Calvinist) understanding of Christianity; though one or two, such as William Fletcher, were mild Arminians. They all held, unlike the Finneyite Revivalists, that conversion was the work of God, and could not be stimulated by purely human means. Therefore they preached with conviction the Good News, and let the Grace of God do its work.

Although they shared their basic tenants with the Wesleys, with the exception of Whitefield, the Anglican Evangelicals were rooted within the parochial ministry, though most would occasionally go on preaching tours to collect their neighbours straying sheep, as Beveridge might have looked at the matter. As a result, their ministry was conducted within the context of the Anglican liturgy - the Book of Common Prayer. Without exception they spoke highly of its structure and content. My own belief is that that they thought so highly of the BCP because it gave liturgical form to reformation theology, and provided a balanced diet of prayer, praise and sacrament to feed the soul.

Unfortunately for both Evangelicals and Anglicans, the connection between Evangelicalism and Prayer Book liturgy has been lost, and with it the tendancy for the BCP to be a unifying force between Evangelicals and Protestant High Churchmen. Without the Evangelical impulse the tendancy of High Church Anglicanism is to either look towards Rome, which is a hostile and unscriptural system, or to become the "frozen chosen." For Evangelicals, the loss is one of objectivity. The Prayer Book, with its retention of the traditional Christian year, forces a conscientious preacher to preach the whole counsel of God, not just the bits he likes. It demands order and balance, which is one of the characteristic virtues of traditional Anglicanism.