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  • Daniel Kirk

A fascinating insight into the diverging identity of evangelicalism

It is not often that I pick up a book and read it at one sitting but that was the case with this book. Alright, it is only eighty pages long, but it’s a fascinating insight into the growth and diverging identity of evangelicalism within the Church of England. It helps in a small way to understand more fully the state of play in this wing of the Anglican Church today.

Andrew Atherstone studied the primary sources around a crisis in The Churchman theological journal which led to the foundation of rival evangelical journal Anvil. This echoed the growing division between different strands of post-Keele Anglican evangelicalism as they re-emerged from being on the back foot within the Church of England and sought to take greater prominence within their church.

As the editors attempted to widen the appeal of the Churchman, which had been the leading Anglican evangelical journal for over a century, and as evangelicalism itself grew beyond its traditional base both theologically and ecclesialogically, its owners -the Church Society- found themselves unable to rein them in. This led to growing tensions and finally the firing of the whole editorial board. Most of them went on to found a new journal called Anvil which struggled to get off the ground, but once it had the support of the majority of the evangelical bible colleges it took off and became the leading journal of what would become ‘open evangelicalism’. The new editor of the revamped Churchman, though taking a more Reformed Evangelical line, also increased the diversity of authors and reviewers and especially gave it more international flavour.

The main issue behind this ‘affair’ was the understanding of how evangelicalism should really be defined. Peter Williams the sacked editor stated in one editorial that ‘the term evangelical has ... become 'a nose of wax which may be moulded to suit the fancy of the wearer' and there was much tension, as there is now, over what the label meant. J.I.Packer’s six fold definition of evangelicalism ('the authority of the Word of God', 'the finality of the Gospel of Christ', 'the priesthood of all believers', 'the primacy of evangelism', 'the necessity of conversion', 'the lordship of the Holy Spirit' [quoted in the editorial of vol. 97.2, 1983]) appeared to cover the whole constituency but there was disagreement on definitions, such as what the authority of scripture really meant and who should be invited to contribute to the Churchman. Though not apparent at the time, looking back it seems amazing that there was only one leading evangelical journal (there had been several for much of the nineteenth century), and though heart wrenching, the division only mirrored the eventual multiplication of evangelical identities which has continued until this day.

I particularly enjoyed seeing well known Evangelical leaders whose part in the debate helped flesh out their churchmanship and characters more. The second appendix is a real Who’s Who of significant Evangelical Anglican leaders and their biographic details. It was good to see the man who discipled my father (Dick Lucas), one of my postgraduate supervisors (Steve Moyter), my previous bishop (Pete Broadbent), some old family friends (such as John Stott & Maurice Sinclair) and a visitor whom we had in Chile (key player Gerald Bray), as well as many others whose books and lives have influenced me.

This book reminded me of the important role evangelicals have played within the Church of England and how division should be avoided for the sake of the gospel of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. This especially in these complicated days where deep divisions within the wider Anglican fold threaten to tear apart the established church just when our country needs a clear prophetic evangelical voice to challenge all to come under the Lordship of Christ. This book may seem to touch upon a forgotten, and for some, an irrelevant historical issue, but I warmly recommend its reading because there is much in it for our contemporary church to learn from. As the old aphorism goes ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.

About the author: Rev. Daniel Kirk was a SAMS & CMS mission partner in Latin America for 14 years and is now vicar of St. Michael’s Gidea Park

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