There was a small social media storm last week when the newish group ‘Inclusive Evangelicals’ issued a letter, with 600 signatories, supporting progress in authorising prayers of blessing for same-sex couples, rooted in the conviction that ‘prayerful reading of scripture has led us to an inclusive position on same-sex relationships.’ I infer from this that members of the group believe that the Church’s current doctrine of marriage, expressed in Canon B30, is wrong and should be changed:
The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
However, this is not stated explicitly, the preferred language being ‘affirming the dignity and relationships of LGBTQIA+ Christians before God and in the full life of the Church of England.’
The group has clearly been very important for those who have joined, creating a sense of belonging with others of similar views, and providing an emotional release valve for people who have felt unable to express their views honestly and openly in their current contexts. This is highlighted by the (minority) of signatories who have not felt able to sign openly but anonymously:
Affirming that we are evangelicals who are part of the Church of England we therefore sign this letter, acknowledging that sadly for some of us that has to be anonymously in the positions we find ourselves.
It is important to recognise the pain felt here—but also worth asking a question. What could cause this difficulty? If people here were members of churches or other organisations where it was expected to support the historical evangelical and Anglican approach to this issue, and they were not able to, is there a question of integrity about continuing in such positions?
This touches on the heart of this question, and the complex intertwining of questions around meaning and identity. I have frequently asked members and conveners of the group how they understand the term ‘evangelical’, and what aspect of the historic understanding of the term they reject. This has led to some helpful discussion, but it has often been mixed with hostility and anger that I am challenging people’s identity—if that is how they describe themselves, who am I to judge? The interface here is between whether words have meaning, and whether groups have boundaries. The difficulty is that, if there are no boundaries around the meaning of a word, then that word actually loses any sense of real content. It is sometimes claimed that words mean what people use them to mean—but if that is the case, communication becomes impossible, because communication relies on a shared sense of understanding of words between the transmitter of a message and the receiver of it. But any challenge to the meaning of this word, ‘evangelical’, is felt to be a challenge to the identity of members of this group, and the journey that they have been on in rethinking key aspects of their own faith.
This sensitivity might be related to the size and nature of the group. The Facebook group has grown quickly, and has clearly been a source of encouragement. With any online group, there is a question of how you prevent it becoming an echo chamber, and the strange thing is that I could happily join, since I too am open to continued exploration of the question of marriage and sexuality. When I attended the corresponding Synod group, ‘Evangelical Forum’, I was told that the group was not for those who had closed minds—and that I was there to listen, not to say anything. The idea that those who are confident in the doctrine of marriage ‘according to the teaching of our Lord’ only do so because they have ‘closed minds’ is curious. Can we not be confident in what Scripture teaches, and still have an open mind to explore or be corrected? I hope this whole blog is an exercise in disciplined exploration, open to any new insights from scripture, offered by anyone.
The group of those who signed is comparatively small—600 across the whole Church of England, compared with, for example, the 3,200 who signed the letter raising concerns about the bishops comments on their transgender guidance in 2018. And of the 600, 26 are members of General Synod, compared with the 150 or so who are members of the Evangelical Group of General Synod—though I think fewer than half of those were ever involved with EGGS, and the 26 include some whom most people would have understood to be liberal catholic in their outlook. Do numbers matter? If not, then why make much of the number 600 in the press release?
The question then arises ‘What is an evangelical?’ and the related question ‘Why do we need to define our terms?’ The primary reason, historically, has been to clarify the central claims that scripture makes, and use them as a guide for the continual reformation and renewal of the Church. In other words, at its best, it has not been about defining a party, but about pointing us all to what Scripture affirms. Mark Vasey-Saunders, in his IE article ‘Who is an “evangelical”? claims that:
The fact that definitions of evangelicalism (in the form of doctrinal bases of faith) are explicitly used as means of imposing certain forms of unity on a diverse constituency means that any attempt to define what evangelicalism is becomes highly political.
But I think that is a pejorative construal of what has happened. Agreeing boundaries around belief is not the same as ‘imposing unity’, and Mark’s later argument about diversity amongst evangelicals (who until recently have almost all been happy to affirm these boundaries) actually undermines his claim. The creeds, it seems to me, have functioned in a similar way to define boundaries without imposing uniformity.
The question that has then arisen for me in conversation is: at what points does this group disagree with historic evangelical understanding? In the Evangelical Forum, there was discussion about the name. Is there a better title for them as a group? Are there other issues on which they take a different stand—or is this a single issue group?
If this is the single issue on which there is disagreement, then why not adopt the CEEC/EGGS basis of faith, and simply omit the additional declaration on sexuality? Or even the UCCF basis of faith? There are terms here that I would want to discuss and debate, but for anyone who ‘identifies’ as evangelical, what is there to disagree with here? (Note there is no specification of one particular model of the atonement, which is a question that often comes up.) Daniel Heaton, a self-confessed Anglo-Catholic, makes a fascinating observation on Twitter:
Some of the conveners have pointed me to David Bebbington’s famous ‘quadrilateral’ that has characterised evangelicalism—the supremacy of Scripture, the centrality of the cross, the vital importance of personal conversion, and a commitment to activism—saying that ‘most members probably go along with this.’ Well, if so, what would have been the problem with making use of this to clarify what ‘identifying as an evangelical’ means?
I wonder if the difficulty here concerns some fairly central questions around salvation. I know from personal conversation that some who have signed the letter are universalists—believing that all people will ultimately be saved and enter the presence of God, whether or not they have turned to God in Christ. That belief is hard to square with Bebbington’s system, particular on the question of ‘conversionism’.
I am not convinced that Bebbington can actually be used as a theology guide to understanding evangelical identity as it stands. For one thing, it is more of a description of the phenomenon of evangelicalism when Bebbington wrote, rather than a theological reflection. For another, I don’t think that we can talk of the supremacy of Scripture as one characteristics amongst several. It is the defining characteristic, and from it all the others flow. This aligns with the historical use of the term, which first occurs much earlier than people realise. As I comment in my Grove booklet on The Practice of Evangelical Spirituality:
It is no accident that the term ‘evangelical’ was first used in relation to a commitment to Scripture. John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century was described by his Bohemian Hussite followers as Doctor Evangelicus super omnes evangelistas; William Tyndale and his fellow exiles in the sixteenth century were described by Thomas More as ‘evangelycall Englisshe heretykes’. Although the Reformers and evangelicals down the ages have been concerned about the role of the Bible in correcting doctrine, this has always been accompanied by a belief that in Scripture we encounter God—as we read or hear Scripture, we hear God speak to us, and not just to our minds but to our heart and will, to the whole of our being.
This then leads to a richer understanding of what it means to be evangelical. We focus on the cross—and the resurrection. We believe in conversion—and on community; fellowship and worship has always been an evangelical priority. We are active in evangelism—but also in social concerns, even if at times that has been forgotten temporarily. And personal disciplines of prayer and fasting have consistently marked evangelicals, giving us not four but seven distinctive commitments, the other six flowing from the commitment to Scripture.
The other question worth asking about this group is whether it is truly ‘inclusive’. When the IE blog first started, I offer comments as a way of seeking to engage fruitfully. Quite quickly, the comments were deleted and commenting turned off. A key member of this group, David Runcorn, reads my blog and occasionally comments—and I welcome his contribution. But he has blocked me on Facebook, as have some other conveners. It feels as the the ‘inclusion’ is strictly limited, as expressed on the Facebook group: ‘it isn’t a place for debate with those opposed to same sex relationships. it will be tightly moderated.’
The central question in all this is how we read texts. Does scripture mean something, is it clear, and does it shape our own understanding? Does it reveal God’s will and intention for us? The letter of the 600 does not inspire confidence, including as it does this claim:
Read it all in Psephizo