A couple of days ago, Justin Taylor published an interview with the Rev Dr Andrew Atherstone, upon the fiftieth anniversary of a pivotal event in English evangelical history. At the National Assembly of Evangelicals on October 18, 1966, two of the biggest figures among British evangelicals in the day, the Welsh minister of Westminster Chapel in London, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and John Stott, rector of All Souls Church, had an important dispute about the future of evangelicals within the Church of England.
Lloyd-Jones gave an address calling for evangelicals to pursue visible unity with other evangelicals, accusing Anglican evangelicals of schism for their failure to unite with evangelicals outside of the Church of England, and of serious compromise for their continued involvement in a mixed denomination alongside doctrinally and spiritually unfaithful persons. Although he was the chairman, Stott publicly responded to Lloyd-Jones’ remarks, resisting his claims and appeal to Anglican evangelicals.
This proved to be a turning point in British evangelicalism in various ways, sadly straining relations between evangelicals within and without the Church of England. These tensions between the ecclesiologies of Anglican evangelicals and independent evangelicals brought about a breach between the two groups and probably shifted the balance of Anglican evangelicals’ identity towards one that was more firmly rooted within the Anglican tradition and the Church of England.
It is important to understand Lloyd-Jones’ position against the background of the many compromises, yet considerable ambition, of the ecumenical movements of his day. He was far from unjustified in his concerns about evangelicals’ involvement in mixed denominations, especially if those denominations were driving towards one ecumenical world church. Fifty years on, it seems fair to say that the evangelicals who remained within the Church of England have not escaped untouched by the wider doctrinal and ethical failures of their communion.
However, Lloyd-Jones’ overwhelming concern for doctrinal purity may well have meant that he wasn’t sufficiently able to perceive the importance of other dimensions of the Church’s life: its institutions, traditions, polity, and its many bonds to the identity of communities and the nation more generally. Perhaps such a weakness in his ecclesiology was also reflected in the fact that, as many have suggested, Westminster Chapel functioned less as a church and more as a preaching centre. The quest for a pure church can result from a failure adequately to reckon with the existence of the church as simul justus et peccator, and with the functioning of the church as a flawed human polity among other human polities.
Both the ecumenical movement and Lloyd-Jones’ positions arose from dangerously flawed ecclesiologies. My purpose is not to get into a discussion of their respective flaws within this post, however. Rather, I wanted to highlight one specific area where I believe that the legacy of Stott’s stand is still being felt today and, through it, to identify the value of revisiting the debate between him and Lloyd-Jones.
Looking back to Stott’s struggle with Lloyd-Jones, on balance, I am immensely grateful that Lloyd-Jones didn’t win the day. Had Lloyd-Jones won, the achievement of visible evangelical unity would in all likelihood have been a Pyrrhic victory, one that would have left us a radical marginal and insignificant group. As Matthew Cresswell wrote in the Guardian a few years back: ‘without Stott there would be fewer evangelicals in the Church of England today, and those in it would be brash, old-fashioned and a little like the church’s version of the US Tea Party.’ The state of evangelicals in the country more generally would probably have been more marginal still. Perhaps you could argue that Stott and others like him saved evangelicals in the UK from becoming fundamentalists.
The significance of evangelicals in the UK today is in no small measure due to our presence in Anglican institutions and the influence that we can exert through them. If we hadn’t fought for the institutions and legacy bequeathed to us by former generations of evangelicals in the established church, we would be a much less weighty force today.
As one particular and important example, the place that conservative voices still have in theology departments in universities around the UK is due in large measure to the fact that evangelicals didn’t abandon the Church of England. I am one of a very great number of evangelicals—both British and North American—who have benefited from the academic space for conservative Protestants that was likely maintained in no small measure by the stand of people like Stott in their refusal to leave the Church of England.
When you list the leading evangelical theologians of the last couple of decades, the majority of them will have received their post-graduate education in theological or academic institutions that were established and are maintained primarily by mainline denominations—in the UK, by the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The fact that evangelicals did not abandon the Church of England has kept some key academic institutions open to more conservative voices.
Such a large number of the leading evangelical and conservative Protestant theologians of recent years are English or were educated in the UK—Carson, Beale, Wright, O’Donovan, Leithart, McGrath, Trueman, Vanhoozer, Thiselton, Holmes, Poythress, Witherington, Begbie, Green, the Wenhams, Webster, etc, etc. I don’t believe that this is an accident. Rather, evangelicals’ place within the academy was preserved because Anglican evangelicals refused to heed people like Lloyd-Jones’ appeal to abandon mixed denominations and pursue a purer church. Instead, they fought for the soul of and their place within crucial elite institutions. We are all so much better off for their struggle.
The influence of the thinkers I’ve just mentioned isn’t merely found in the spread of the specific theological positions that they have taught, but also in the calibre of theological discourse that they maintain by their presence and the weight that they give to evangelical voices and thought by their activity within the broader theological discourse.
The strength of evangelicalism as an academic and ecclesial force within the UK is overwhelmingly due to Anglicans and Anglican institutions (evangelical Anglican training colleges also deserve a mention here). This strength is one that thankfully benefits all evangelicals to some degree or other, whether they are within or without the Church of England. Many North Americans also benefit from the institutional struggles that evangelicals fought here.
Where robust elite academic institutions do not exist, thought goes relatively unhoned, and unhealthy personality cults can develop around smart theologians. One only has to contrast the profile that someone like N.T. Wright enjoys in certain US evangelical circles with that which he enjoys in the UK academy and the Church of England to see the difference. In the UK academy and the Church of England there simply isn’t the same sort of cult following, as his voice is institutionally held in balance with the voices of many other brilliant thinkers and critics. It seems to me that evangelicals tend to produce their best work in such contexts and, when they retreat into narrowly evangelical contexts, their work often suffers in its rigour.
There are huge storm clouds gathering here in the UK and we will need to fight new battles for and in these institutions. However, many of these institutional fights are far more important in the long run than many evangelicals might think. If there is one thing that I think we should take away from Stott’s position in his dispute with Lloyd-Jones, it is that imperfect institutions are still worth fighting for. Pure ecclesiologies can be a deep threat to the development of a rigorous evangelical theological tradition.
Many of us as evangelicals have benefited immensely from institutions that evangelicals in mixed mainstream traditions fought for and within. I came to Durham University as an independent evangelical. However, the fact that there was a place for me to deepen my understanding here as an evangelical is largely due to faithful conservative Anglicans. I, and many others like me, owe these brothers and sisters an immense debt of gratitude.