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Lessons from the Decline of Anglo-Catholicism in Australia
reprinted from the Autumn 2004 edition of Essentials

   Peter Corney's insightful address on Anglo-Catholic decline in Australia, which appeared in the December 2002 edition of Essentials, is a must-read for anybody interested in understanding the current circumstances of the Anglican Church in Australia. Peter has served us very helpfully by giving us a clear summary which brings together theological, historical and practice analysis. Adrian Lane lectures in evangelism, preaching and pastoral care at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia.
   It would be easy for those from an evangelical tradition to adopt a triumphalist position in response: a worldly smugness. But there are serious lessons in Peter's article for all Christians, calling for a prayerful self-searching humility. In particular, there are lessons for evangelicals, for there are some disturbingly similar parallels between Anglo-Catholicism and the evangelical movement. Peter reminds us that the Anglo-Catholic movement was characterised by men and women who sought to please God and grow his church in a highly disciplined and sacrificial manner. They "were concerned about personal holiness and committed discipleship and the recovery of the spiritual disciplines in the Christian life". Furthermore, as distinct from those of a more liberal persuasion, most who call themselves Anglo-Catholic would consider themselves theologically conservative. Indeed, on some issues such as divorce and the ordination of women, many Anglo-Catholics would hold more conservative positions than a number who call themselves evangelical. Evangelicals would thus be fools not to make humble and considered application of the lessons from the decline of Anglo-Catholicism in Australia to their own movement, lest we too decline and God's kingdom suffer.
   Peter's primary assertion is that Anglo-Catholicism "lost touch with its theological and ideological core – the very things that had produced its energy and passion. … It drifted away from the credal and biblical orthodoxy of its founders and gradually embraced a reductionist liberal theology. Most people in ministry now who have been influenced by this movement could be more accurately described as 'liberal catholic'. They have retained some of the outward expressions of the movement but departed from its core theological ideas."   
   I wonder if a parallel process is not occurring in evangelicalism. While most evangelicals espouse credal and biblical orthodoxy, my concern is that our operational theology is "leaking", to use Peter's analogy. For example, I rarely hear people speaking publicly or privately about the serious state of the lost who are currently in darkness, needing rescue (Col.1:13). The Bible clearly states they are facing judgment and destruction (Rom.2:8; John 3:18,36). I fear we have been conformed to this world and shaped by the agendas of political correctness, so that to warn of judgment is considered anachronistic and, ironically, judgmental – a judgment in itself. Furthermore, I fear we have adopted an incipient, if not effective universalism – perhaps because of a misunderstanding of the democratic commitment to tolerance, perhaps because of a lack of boldness or experience of gospelling in a post-Christendom society. Rather than declaring that Jesus is "the way, the truth and the life" (Jn.14:6), he has become an option, an interest, or a community. Thirdly, the commitment of evangelicals to the inspiration and authority of Scripture seems to have lost its cutting edge. This may be due to the increasing difficulty we as Australians have with submission per se, or to our inability as a movement to resolve the Scripture's teaching on the roles of men and women, which inability has led to a loss of confidence in the perspicuity of Scripture. Fourthly, the Christian hope. Our focus and longing for the new heaven and earth seems to have been displaced by the opportunities God has blessed us with on this earth. Lack of theological clarity about eschatology and a reaction to Dispensationalism may have contributed to this change of focus. Together with the issues already raised this change of focus has seriously blunted our commitment to evangelism. Evangelicals have for centuries been passionately committed to these core doctrines amongst others: the serious condition of the lost who face judgment, the uniqueness of Christ, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and the Christian hope. They are wonderful truths which need to be operationally reintegrated into our very beings – individually, and as a movement.   
   Peter goes on to argue that as Anglo-Catholicism went "down the theologically reductionist pathway", its highly symbolic and formal liturgical expression became "form without substance." Traditionally, evangelicals have not been committed to symbol and formal liturgical expression. Rather, our theological commitments have been expressed in a number of practices and disciplines which have diminished or been devalued, partly as a result of the erosion of our own theological commitments. For example, we do not have the same commitment as our forebears to the daily reading of Scripture and organised personal prayer; to the memorisation of Scripture; to Prayer Meetings; Bible Studies; to the Sabbath; to missions "at home and abroad"; to public worship (as compared to "meeting", "fellowship", "celebration" or "experience"); to congregational singing; and to personal holiness. This is in some measure due to a correction of perceived evangelical legalism, and no doubt to plain laziness, but it also reflects a softening of the former rigour and discipline evangelicals have operationally held in their theological commitment – in a manner strangely parallel to Anglo-Catholicism. This trend should ring urgent alarm bells.   
  The second trend Peter identified which has contributed to Anglo-Catholic decline in Australia "was to allow a recovered incarnational theology to become unbalanced." "Presence" overpowered the importance of proclamation. Peter notes that "confidence in preaching was eroded and the link between word and deed fatally weakened." Peter's acknowledgment of renewed interest amongst evangelicals in social justice heightens the parallelism between Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism in Australia. In my circles, there exists a lack of confidence in the gospel to convict and save, and a subsequent shying away from "proclamational" evangelism. Despite some budgetary provision and evangelical leadership, we still have not restored the Diocesan Department of Evangelism or appointed Diocesan Evangelists in Melbourne. In some churches there is an overcompensation to the perceived sensibilities of outsiders in our meetings so that we appear embarrassed or defensive about the good news, especially about its particularity and uniqueness, its call for commitment and the consequences of its rejection. We are often a long way from the clear and bold evangelistic messages in Acts, despite operating in similar multi-religious contexts. In many of our aid agencies, hospitals and school chaplaincies "the link between word and deed" is unexpressed, sometimes as a clear policy direction related to funding and/or real or perceived legal issues.  
   Peter argues that further consequences for Anglo-Catholicism of this imbalance between presence and proclamation were a poorly taught laity, an incipient Pelagianism, boutique churches that were alienated from Australian culture, and a pastoral maintenance model of ministry which did not grow churches and was far from challenging or prophetic. We would do well to check our own churches and ministries against this list.   
   A particular issue Peter addresses is liturgy, arguing that Anglo-Catholicism failed to address the contemporary and informal styles preferred by the "Boomers". However, having adopted "contemporary" and informal styles, could we as evangelicals now be evidencing a similar liturgical inflexibility and lack of contemporaneity? The Boomers are older, and many of them are reassessing their characteristic iconoclasm. The ensuing generations have not lived through the Vietnam years, are not as anti-institutional and are curious about other approaches. They are longing for connectedness and are interested in their roots. Evangelicalism has a rich and inspiring history and mission. It is committed to theological rigour, engagement with the world, evangelism, social justice, the ministry of all Christians, dynamic congregational life and worship, and personal godliness, testimony and sacrifice. It is simultaneously strong in its commitments to God, to the individual and his or her personal faith, the Christian community, and the world. It is international in its scope, yet sensitive locally. It is a story full of heroes, heroines and God's wondrous acts. Our public worship therefore needs a richness, a thoughtfulness and a rigour which reflects our history and mission. Instead, we often find a liturgical reductionism. Informality is used as an excuse for sloppiness or lack of preparation. Alternatively, in some contexts there is such a commitment to a "personal experience" of worship that the focus on God is virtually reversed. Unfortunately we are fast moving to a gutted evangelicalism expressing itself in liturgical minimalism. This is not glorifying God, feeding His people or equipping them for daily life in our secular materialist world, with its smorgasbord of spiritualities. Unfortunately many are voting with their feet, easily finding excuses not to attend.   
   Peter also draws particular attention to how "the issue of women's ordination created a crisis in the Anglo-Catholic movement." Our situation is strikingly similar. We too are divided, and the implications are enormous. For example, numerous excellent candidates for Bishop or Archbishop are not even considered because they hold a conservative view. In Melbourne, our strongest fellowship and support comes from Sydney evangelicals, the Reformed Church, the Presbyterians, and a number of "ethnic" and charismatic independent congregations – all of whom hold a conservative position. We are fools (and unchristian) if we do not work hard at maintaining this fellowship, so we need to find a way forward lest we too be further disunified.   
   Finally, the edited version of Peter's address only touches on one of the key causes of Anglo-Catholic decline: the loss of theological colleges with strong links to congregations. The lesson can be further drawn by examining the corresponding strength of Sydney evangelicalism and Moore College, and the discouraging circumstances of the Uniting Church. Some would argue that Crafers' demise was not so much the result of the fire, but a lack of support from Diocesan Bishops who preferred to send candidates to more Liberal institutions. Episcopal support for evangelical theological colleges is essential, both in terms of finance and candidates. Colleges do much more than train leaders and teachers for ensuing generations. They provide an indispensable theological and ministry resource for their local area. The issues of distance constrain us considerably in Australia, although unlike the US our populations are relatively agglomerated. If we are to grow as a movement, we need to plan now for an evangelical College in each of the capitals and in North Queensland and Newcastle. We need to have big vision, pray with faith and fervour, transfer our resources, and seek out and train highly gifted men and women to staff these Colleges, so that new generations of evangelists, teachers, pastors and leaders will be trained, and Australians can come to know the truth, are saved, and learn how to please God. What a privilege to participate in such a glorious enterprise.   

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