Fulcrum Newsletter May 2012
Why the ‘Southwark Ministry Trust’ is not the solution
by Stephen Kuhrt
It is often much easier for evangelicals to agree upon problems within the church than their solutions. This is because our understanding of such problems is usually based upon the relative consensus that evangelicals broadly possess over doctrine and ethics. Proposed solutions to these problems, on the other hand, often reveal the diversity amongst evangelicals when it comes to one particular area of doctrine: our ecclesiology or theology of the church.
Within Southwark Diocese, most of us describing ourselves as evangelicals are agreed that we are facing a major problem. A diocese of considerable diversity that has for several years maintained a balance between its different traditions has very suddenly appeared to lurch in one direction. This has come about through seven successive senior posts within the diocese all being given to liberal-Catholics. Hopefully for evangelicals in Southwark, this imbalance is temporary rather than indicating something more permanent. But it is definitely serious and has created a good deal of damage to the perception of how evangelicals are viewed and valued. At an extremely delicate time, these appointments have also created a very specific anxiety about so many of the leadership positions within the diocese now being held by those committed to a revisionist position on homosexuality. It is for these reasons that I have been among those who have criticised the imbalance within the Southwark appointments and strongly communicated this upset and dissatisfaction to our Bishop, Christopher Chessun.
At the basis of this response has been a commitment to what I see as the ‘principled comprehensiveness’ of being part of the Church of England. Part of what the ‘principled’ aspect of this involves is being prepared to make strong protest when decisions are taken that are seen as wrong or misguided and being committed to patient and ongoing pressure to reverse them. Part of what the ‘comprehensiveness’ side of this involves, however, is an equal commitment to remaining fully embedded within a diverse church partly because of the conviction that evangelicals equally need those of other traditions to tell us (just as strongly) when we go wrong as well.
This approach forms a large part of what I understand to be the ongoing ‘spirit of Keele’. The First National Evangelical Anglican Congress (NEAC1) held at Keele in 1967 was when evangelical Anglicans decisively committed themselves to ‘getting stuck in’ to the Church of England. Led by John Stott, there was a strong spirit of ‘for better, for worse’ about this commitment and the context in which it was made is very significant. Homosexuality was clearly not the major issue it is now. But in almost every other way the Church of England was far more liberal with creedal orthodoxy amongst its bishops, for instance, being far weaker than it is today. The understanding of the evangelicals who gathered at Keele, however, was that this situation would only change through their being fully committed to involvement in the church’s structures and accepting the frustrations and disappointments, as well as the successes and opportunities, that would result from this.
One of the heroes of this period was Colin Buchanan (later an evangelical bishop in Southwark) who for many years was a lone evangelical voice on the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission. Whilst doubtless a frustrating and somewhat lonely place to be, Colin’s feisty character (and formidable intellect) combined with an ecclesiological commitment to being fully involved. The result of his patient and ongoing pressure and, when needed, firm protest, was the orthodoxy of much of the liturgy with which we worship today. Another example of this was John Smallwood, an evangelical layman who worked for the Bank of England and took early retirement to apply the Keele vision, in his case primarily through deep involvement in the finance of both Southwark Diocese and the Church of England. Something similar is true of the large number of evangelicals currently serving within Southwark as Area Deans. The positive results of this have been considerable and have sprung from the determination to stay and ‘fight another day’ when battles have been lost and the recognition that giving up on that ecclesiological commitment to full involvement is never an option. Continuing to be fully involved ensures that the opportunities remain for the diocese (and not just its evangelical churches) to be renewed through the ongoing influence of its evangelical members. Just as crucially, it also keeps the channels open for evangelicals to be changed by what our brothers and sisters of other traditions get more right than us.
It is for these reasons that I regard the recently established ‘Southwark Trust Fund’ as a mistake and urge my fellow evangelicals within the diocese not to join it. The Trust involves churches paying the diocese for their clergy and some other costs but committing their excess money to a fund that will only be used for supporting those other churches and ministries regarded as ‘orthodox’. There are several problems with this. Whose evaluation of this ‘orthodoxy’ will such decisions rest upon? Will, for instance, poorer churches supporting the full ministry of women and who see social justice as intrinsic to gospel ministry be regarded by those making these decisions as orthodox? The stipulation that the Trust will provide for all those who can ‘genuinely’ sign the Jerusalem Declaration suggests further interpretation will be involved here. But the major problem with the Trust is ecclesiological rather than practical. Its organisers strenuously claim that it is not ‘separatist’ because they will officially remain within the Church of England and Southwark Diocese. But the reason many do regard this is a separatist development is because the Trust forms a clear retreat from the Keele commitment to both ‘principled comprehensiveness’ and ‘full involvement’. If widely supported, it will damage not only what evangelical Anglicans have to give but what they to receive from being full members of the Church of England.
My perspective on this is that of a vicar whose parish is being asked to pay around £300,000 for two stipendiary clergy (only one of whom is also housed by the diocese) each running a church. I have major issues with the ‘subsidy culture’ that asks for such a crippling amount and is so discouraging to church growth. Due to the recession and other factors we are actually going to find impossible to pay this amount this year. There are other aspects of being part of Southwark Diocese that I also find immensely frustrating, not least the events that have happened recently. But, like many other evangelicals I am convinced that the answer is to remain fully committed to both ‘principled comprehensiveness’ and ‘full involvement’. The problems are very real but evangelicals must remain fully embedded within Southwark Diocese, hold our nerve and battle for the changes that are needed. The ‘Southwark Ministry Trust’ will fail to do these things and is therefore not the right solution to the problems we currently face.
Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden in Southwark Diocese and Chair of Fulcrum
Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden.