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Does the Church of England need Evangelicals?

Canterbury Cathedral, England.
Canterbury Cathedral, England. | Getty Images

Does the Church of England need Evangelicals? The question is now a pressing one, given that the last few months of chaos over the issue of gay marriage seem finally to have done what decades of doctrinal indifferentism and even the advent of women priests failed to achieve: an Evangelical rebellion among the Church of England’s most committed Evangelical congregations. 

Theo Hobson in The Spectator is confident of the answer: No, the C of E does not need Evangelicals. To quote his reasoning:

Evangelical dynamism cannot renew the Church as a whole. Its energy is too counter-cultural; it presents Christianity as an identity in sharp contrast to the surrounding culture, it insists that a true Christian is marked out by brave dissent from liberal views on sexual morality ... an established Church cannot foreground such energy.

The argument is interesting: An established national church cannot ultimately oppose the culture of her nation. Some (including myself) would argue that this is precisely why no church should be established, since such politically motivated alliances always have a dominant partner, and history makes it very clear who the dominant partner always is. Hobson’s vision, while short on details, shows no concern for this particular outcome and seems to envisage the Church as the rightly submissive handmaiden of the cultural Zeitgeist, existing to offer a religious and liturgical gloss that legitimates the liberal state and whatever its current moral tastes happen to be. In short, the Church is there to express in religious idiom the values of the dominant class, in this case, urban progressives. Since Evangelicals will not do this, they are now surplus to requirements. 

Hobson’s article stands in stark contrast to another article published last week on the dissident website UnHerd by the feminist writer Mary Harrington. In “The Death of Christian Privilege,” she raises a far more significant question than Hobson: Does the decline of Christianity also signify the liquefaction of meaning and the descent into the kind of moral chaos into which the West has descended, with its demolition of sexual taboos and its long war against the authority of the body? Her answer is yes, it does. 

This point reveals the shallowness of Hobson’s analysis. Indeed, both he and Harrington cite the case of Kate Forbes as demonstrating the incompatibility of Christian faith with holding public office today. The difference, however, is that Hobson sees this as a reality requiring Christians to accommodate their views to public taste. Harrington sees it as a moment of significance, even tragedy, indicating how far our society now is from the universe of meaning within which Christianity operates. It is not simply the death of Christian privilege she is observing; it is the death of meaning itself. 

The difference between the Christianity described by Harrington and that espoused by Hobson is therefore fundamental. In times past, the fault line in Western Christianity tended to run between the anti-supernatural and the supernatural: Did Jesus really heal the sick? Was the resurrection a real, historical, physical event? Today the line is more subtle but just as important: Is there such a thing as human nature? The issue of our day is anthropology. What does it mean to be human, if it means anything at all? Does being human mean that there is a moral framework to which I must conform, lest I dehumanize myself and others along with me? Traditional Christianity says yes; the modern world says no, at least when it comes to matters of sexual morality and sexed bodies.

Ironically, Hobson’s apparent objection to Anglican Evangelical views on these matters makes absurd his claim that “unless attempts at innovation are rooted in the fullness of Anglican tradition, they will wither, and cause division.” Innovative views of sex, gender, and marriage are inevitably repudiations of the fullness of Anglican tradition, as even the briefest glance at the Book of Common Prayer or the Homilies or the 39 Articles will reveal. That is precisely why they are so divisive. 

Hobson will likely have his wish, not merely in England but on the worldwide Anglican stage as well. Traditional, orthodox Anglicans are about to meet in Rwanda in order to assess the global situation and further attenuate, perhaps even completely sever, links with the Church of England. One reason is that the African bishops see the West’s attempt to foist this liquefied anthropology upon the global Church as yet another act of Western colonialism. As I argued in my last column, LGBTQ-affirming churches are simply doing what the pro-slavery churches of the 19th century did: giving specious blessing to the values of the world in which they find themselves.

It is depressingly gratifying that Theo Hobson seems to have proved my point with almost indecent haste. 


Originally published at First Things. 

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is an esteemed church historian and previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Rise and Triumpth of the Modern SelfThe Creedal Imperative, Luther on the Christian Life, and Histories and Fallacies.

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