Avoiding the Ecclesiology of Liberal Protestantism

Fulcrum Newsletter April 2012 - One of the many interesting things about being part of the leadership team of Fulcrum over the last nine years has been the experience of being shot at by both liberal Anglicans and conservative evangelicals. Sometimes on t

Fulcrum Newsletter April 2012

Avoiding the Ecclesiology of Liberal Protestantism

by Stephen Kuhrt

co-published with the Church of England Newspaper, 13th April, by permission

One of the many interesting things about being part of the leadership team of Fulcrum over the last nine years has been the experience of being shot at by both liberal Anglicans and conservative evangelicals. Sometimes on the same day! In one sense it is never pleasant to be attacked. On the other hand having opposite extremes bitterly opposed to what you are seeking to promote and preserve can also bring with it a strange degree of reassurance.

This has certainly been the case recently in regard to the Anglican Communion Covenant. Over the last few months Fulcrum has sought to give energetic support to the Covenant. During this same period this support has not only received strong and sometimes vehement opposition from liberals but an extremely lukewarm response from many conservative evangelicals. This has then created the curious spectacle of liberal and conservative opponents of the Covenant having to rubbish each others’ concerns about what it might lead to. No one on either side has yet been able to say how ‘a centralising strait jacket that will impair freedom and innovation’ can simultaneously be ‘a toothless proposal designed to produce constant dialogue and no action’. The Covenant cannot be both but whilst many liberals have presented it as the former, many conservative evangelicals have presented it as the latter. So what, if anything, do both of these very different opponents of the Anglican Communion Covenant have in common?

The answer is an ecclesiology (theology of the church) that owes more to liberal Protestantism than many evangelicals would care to recognise. One of the ironies of Pauline biblical scholarship that Tom Wright has drawn attention to in recent years has been the similar treatment that liberals and evangelicals have given to the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. Liberal biblical scholarship has generally denied Paul’s authorship of these letters and offered a number of different reasons for this. But underlying these reasons and supplying much of the motive for this case, Wright suggests, has been the strong tradition within liberal Protestantism to marginalise ecclesiology in favour of a more existentialist approach to the Christian faith. More controversially, Wright has also claimed that, in reality, evangelicals have often done something very similar through their insistence on making Romans and Galatians (and then only selected sections of these letters) primary for reconstructing Pauline theology. Whilst very few evangelicals have questioned the Pauline status of Ephesians and Colossians, a similar neglect of their message has resulted from a similar fear of the ecclesiology they contain. Both liberals and evangelicals have therefore failed to recognise the utter centrality that the one church possesses within God’s plan of salvation for the earth. Missing this, they have allowed an essentially functional or pragmatic ecclesiology to replace that found within the Bible.

And herein lie the roots of the instinctive resistance that liberals and conservative evangelicals have shown to the vision of an Anglican Communion where decisions are taken collaboratively and with full awareness of how they will impact upon one another. Within both traditions, the preference has often been instead is for understanding Anglicanism as a loose federation of churches where everyone is essentially allowed ‘to do their own thing’. The alternative ‘confessional’ structures proposed by the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA) may appear, at first sight, very different from this. However, in reality, they will accelerate such fragmentation since they will be used to sanction any amount of separatism that is needed for conservative churches to pursue their own agendas. Despite the orthodoxy of the statements within the Jerusalem Declaration that will be used to justify this, and FCA’s stated aim of advancing the gospel, such an outcome will be far from biblical.

Where a genuine understanding of ecclesiology should, of course, be strongest is within the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. And to some extent this is true. But, if truth be told, the significant gay sub-culture within this tradition has often been enough to trump this ecclesiology when it has come to supporting the Covenant. Particularly within the clergy votes in Diocesan Synods (though not among the Bishops), a fear of the Covenant’s implications for homosexuality has been enough to scare many away who would otherwise have supported its ecclesiology. When involved in discussions about the Covenant with Anglo-Catholic colleagues I have sometimes asked the following question: ‘Since many evangelicals believe in lay presidency at Holy Communion, should they simply go ahead and implement this?’ ‘Certainly not!’ such clergy have usually responded before tailing off as they recognise that they have started to make a case for the Covenant.

The result of all of these factors is the current danger of a biblical ecclesiology that is both Catholic and Reformed being seen off by one drawn from liberal Protestantism. If ‘low church’ describes those for whom vestments, excessive liturgy and ritual ‘don’t do it’, I would gladly count myself as such. But all Christians should be ‘high church’ when it comes to recognising the extremely ‘high’ view that the New Testament has of the united people of God and the crucial nature of our oneness in advancing God’s purposes for the world. Intrinsic to such an ecclesiology is the commitment to staying together and acting as one body rather than ‘doing our own thing’. Recognising and accepting such an ecclesiology represents as much of a challenge to evangelicals as it does to the liberals of TEC.

It is for this reason that Fulcrum continues to strongly support the Anglican Communion Covenant and the biblical ecclesiology upon which it is based. The narrow defeats that the Covenant has suffered in a number of the 25 dioceses in which it has been rejected and its acceptance in 15 others shows that is far from ‘dead in the water’. The Church of England is also, of course, only one small part of an Anglican Communion in which other provinces have already endorsed it. The Anglican Communion Covenant will survive, and remains the best way of ensuring that a biblical ecclesiology that is both Catholic and Reformed is not replaced by a parody of this ecclesiology drawn from liberal Protestantism.


The Revd Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden and Chair of Fulcrum

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