One of the most interesting (and by that, I mean exasperating), things about the social media echo chamber, is watching people support an article or editorial, and seemingly ignore its potential flaws, simply because it supports their already established view. I do it myself, so I know how annoying it is.
I was reminded of this again last week, when Giles Fraser published his latest article on UnHeard. For your edification it is available here. The gist is that, in Canon Fraser’s opinion, the Powers That Be (mostly it seems Evangelicals) within the Church of England have for the last decade or so, been merrily asset stripping the parish system and investing its resources in parachurch organisations (Fraser’s words), that they can shape in their own image. Now you might wonder why they have chosen to do that. Fortunately, Fraser provides the answer:
For years, perhaps even for centuries, the wider evangelical movement has looked on the Church of England with a certain amount of envy as a very convenient perch from which to fish for souls. It would like its money, its embeddedness, its position in the heart of the nation, but it doesn’t like the very ancient church structures that locate a great deal of power at local level.
Now this would be a fascinating argument if it weren’t, (if you’ll excuse my French), utter bollocks. Here Fraser has constructed a history of the evangelical – specifically the Anglican evangelical – movement that bears no relation to its actual lived history. Now I give a basic breakdown of why this is here, but let me go into some more detail.
Fraser suggests that evangelicals have been anti the parish system for “centuries”. As someone who has recently been reading up on the Evangelical leaders of the eighteenth century this was a surprise. While granted characters like Wesley did operate outside of the parish structures, others like William Grimshaw of Haworth and John Newton, based out of Olney were devoted parish ministers. Charles Simeon the great white knight of early Anglican Evangelicalism spent his entire career as minister of Holy Trinity Cambridge. All of these figures recognised and appreciated the missional potential of the parish system. In fact, it seems unlikely that Simeon would have spent money and effort establishing a patronage society for evangelical ministers if he hated the parish system.
In fact for most of its existence the Evangelical groupings within the Church of England have thrived because of and within the parish system. Large independent parish churches like St Mary’s Islington and All Souls Langham Place in London, HTC and the Round Church in Cambridge, St Ebbes and St Aldates in Oxford, and St Nics Durham and Jesmond Parish Church were the bedrock of the Evangelical movement. Far from resenting the structures that located a great deal of power at local level, the Evangelicals thrived because of it, as it allowed them to tell unsympathetic Bishops where to go. As NT Wright puts it when it came to Bishops in the 60’s and 70’s, “most evangelical Anglicans didn’t worry much about Bishops. They were out there somewhere but they didn’t interfere in parishes.” One of the central planks of the 1967 Keele Congress was encouraging Anglican evangelicals to come out of the “parish ghetto” and engage more with wider church structures.
So it seems from even a cursoury look at Church history, that far from disliking the power of the parish, Evangelicals loved it. In fact without the independence of parish ministry the Church of England might not even have an Evangelical party. So if Fraser’s point (which is really the very foundation of his argument) is wrong, what are we left with? We find ourselves left with the curious idea that at some point in the late 90’s/early 2000’s Evangelical leaders in the Church of England – many of who’s faith and ministry would have been nurtured in strong parishes – suddenly turned around and said “the parish system sucks. Let’s replace it.” I think we can all agree that this is unlikely.
This is not the only problem with Fraser’s article. He conflates Church planting with Fresh Expressions, while in fact many Fresh Expressions are parish based. He also seemingly ignores that Fresh Expressions was one of Archbishop Rowan William’s babies and Rowan can hardly be described as an Evangelical. In fact the whole column reads rather like Fraser started with a conclusion and then constructed an argument to back it up.
I suspect – and perhaps I’m being uncharitable – this might be because Canon Fraser isn’t actually that interested in having discussions about the future of the parish system and where we go from here. At best he’s interested in lobbing grenades into the air and stimulating explosive discussions. At worst he’s simply interested in staking ground and laying claim, dividing the church even further into, in his view ‘proper’ Anglicans who agree with him and those who don’t, who aren’t really one of us. And its interesting that once again the convenient strawman is built in the shape of the Evangelicals.
In many ways I actually agree with Canon Fraser and share his concerns about the future of the parish system. I don’t agree with a church planting concept that has no respect for those already at work in that field or transplants a church franchise into an area with no understanding of its history. But simply blaming it on the opposite churchmanship to you is too easy. We need to have honest debates about where the Church is going in the new few decades. But they have to be debates based on facts and on our churches actual lived history, not on the history that Fraser has invented in order to fit his own narratives. All this type of article does is further entrench the divides in our church and that stops us from moving forward. More importantly it distracts us from our real objective. Helping people learn more about Jesus Christ and the joy of a relationship with him.