I have mixed feelings about Sydney Anglicans. They belong to the largest evangelical Anglican diocese on the planet, and one of the two wealthiest.
When I served as a Staffworker/evangelist with the InterVarsity Fellowship (later The Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students – AFES) for three years (1968-70) I often spoke at their churches and youth camps. I was impressed that over 20 of their churches saw at least 100 young people a week attending Bible Study groups -something you could not say about any other denomination in Australia at that time.
We’d been privileged to attend an Anglican church – St. Thomas’ Kingsgrove – for a whole year in 1963. It was led by an energetic and very gifted pastor-evangelist, Dudley Foord, who at the end of the year invited me to be his church’s youth leader. But I’d already determined to enter the Baptist Theological College in Sydney, and on a memorable day at Cronulla Beach when our two families were enjoying a picnic, I had to share that news with Dudley.
Dudley Foord was an excellent model of a conscientious Evangelical leader. Around that time he probably spoke to more University missions throughout Australia than anyone (see the references to his doing that in Timothy Dudley-Smith’s biography of John Stott), and there were many Bible study groups, neighbourhood evangelistic groups etc. operating from the church. Those neighbourhood groups encouraged church members to invite all their neighbours into a someone’s home, and Dudley or someone else would come and talk to them about the Christian faith, answer questions etc. The Sydney diocese’s statistics for this mode of evangelism were, if I recall correctly: on average 20 invitations would result in 14 individuals or couples saying they’ll come; 8 individuals/couples attended, and of these one would begin attending church and/or make a faith commitment. Not bad!
That’s the sort of evangelistic zeal which impressed me then, and does still. We used to say there were two ‘enemies’ within the Anglican fold – theological liberals who were (and are) too ‘wishy-washy’ and have no idea what Jesus and Paul meant by the ‘lostness’ of people without faith in God; and the ‘smells and bells’ Â Anglos who were ‘high church’ and whose sacramentalism bordered on the magical. Soon after these years charismatic Anglicans were a bit ‘off’ too.
That year with St. Thomas’s commenced my journey along ‘The Canterbury Trail’. I’m an ‘ordained’ Baptist clergyperson, but Jan’s and my church-of-choice on holidays etc. is usually Anglican. William Temple, Rowan Williams, John Stott and many other Anglican leaders – including two converts to Anglicanism, John Claypool and Matthew Fox – have had, and still have, an enormous influence on my thinking.
However, there’s been a sea-change in the flavour of Sydney evangelicalism since those days: it has become deeply influenced by a harder ‘Reformed’ theology, fueled from St. Matthias’ Paddington, and this has become pervasive among AFES groups and students at their seminary, Moore College.
Sydney Diocese’s unique brand of evangelicalism probably goes back to T C Hammond, but the two ‘godfathers’ were undoubtedly Dr. Broughton Knox (principal of Moore for many years) and Director of Evangelism John Chapman – together with the Jensen brothers (Archbishop Peter, and Dean of the Sydney Cathedral Philip), Dudley Foord, Paul Barnett et. al. In 1984 I wrote a little book – Recent Trends Among Evangelicals – which David Penman, the Archbishop of Melbourne – a much broader evangelical – liked, wrote the Foreword, and launched. At one stage it was made required reading for AFES staff for them to study (and refute).
I’ve had the privilege of speaking to about 20 Anglican diocesan/ clergy conferences around Oz, three of them (Armidale, Canberra-Goulburn, Tasmania)Â twice – from Perth/Sunbury in the West to North Queensland. They included clergy of all theological and ecclesiological persuasions. One experience – in two parts – stands out in terms of evangelicals. I was twice invited to speak to the clergy conference of the purest ‘evangelical’ diocese – Armidale: they were/are (?) all Evangelicals, with the exception of the broader-church Tamworth. At the first of these, about 15 years ago, a little group of young recently-graduated Moore College boys sat in a huddle at the back of the room muttering to each other and flipping through their Bibles – to the annoyance of everyone, including the good bishop. I ignored them then, but ten years later when I was again their speaker, after a quiet word to the bishop, I reminded the group of the previous experience, and wondered if any of those people were still around, and would they like to share their subsequent journey with me privately? Two or three did, and actually apologized for their previous ‘know-it-all’ attitude. It’s nice how life-experience often rubs the arrogant edges of us eh?
So what’s the problem? Put at its simplest, it’s Pharisaism – the doctrinaire and arrogant ‘We have nothing to learn from anyone else’ rejection of diversity within the broader Church. This brand of evangelicalism is easily spotted: their mantra is an incessant ‘The Bible says!’, there’s a lack of commitment to radical social justice, an emphasis on ‘receiving the Lord Jesus Christ – they like to use the full name of our Lord – as your personal Saviour’, diligence in Bible Study (thousands attend the Katoomba conferences), affirmation of ‘male headship’, abhorrence of the theology of Bishop John Spong, and a commitment to (their brand of) ‘evangelism’.
Now not every Sydney Anglican fits this narrow stereotype. I would exclude two friends, among others – (ex-Archbishop) Harry Goodhew and my fellow-Lausanne-traveler Bishop John Reid. And of course the three interesting churches – the Anglo-Catholic Christ Church St. Laurence, and more liberal St. James’ King Street and St.John’s (?)Darlinghurst-Kings Cross which do not fit the mould.
And whilst a narrow evangelicalism eschews social justice, there’s still a significant emphasis on social welfare. I once spoke to the annual conference of their welfare arm (I’ve forgotten its name – the predecessor to Anglicare) at the Sydney Town Hall. Churches’ representatives sat at tables for dinner in the lower Town Hall with banners, and at the rally upstairs it was proudly mentioned that only seven parishes (I think) were not represented. The archbishop (Don Robinson) and the bishops sat behind me as I spoke on a biblical (!) view of mission – which must include justice, mercy and calling people to faith, ie. evangelism: in that order, I said, ‘cos that’s the order of Micah (6:8) and Jesus (Matthew 23:23). The archbishop was underwhelmed: I got the briefest letter – a couple of lines – of thanks from him I can ever remember receiving from anyone!
(Interesting: I had a Sydney-Anglican-type student in a graduate class recently, who in an assignment tried to impress me by talking about ‘justice, mercy and truth’. These Evangelicals are Very Big On Truth.)
Oh, that’ll do. I’ll post this on to some Usenet newsgroups and will certainly get a reaction. Best book to give to these people? I’ve bought Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination for a few (and never once got a response to indicate they’d read it). Although John Stott is viewed as ‘suss’ by the most rigorous, his two-volume biography (Dudley-Smith) and Issues Facing Christians Today is likely to open a few windows. I still have some copies of Recent Trends Among Evangelicals if anyone wants one (email me).
See what happens when we separate what God has put together? When we over-emphasize any of the four ‘canons of authority’ (Bible, reason, experience, tradition) we’ll become theologically lopsided; as will also happen if we don’t give equal weight to all three of the dimensions of every God-honouring relationship in the universe – justice, mercy, faith.