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The Rusty Anglican Auto: A Lesson for Every Denomination

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

You’re driving along one day, when you overtake a car in the same model and make as yours. But it’s moving slowly. The engine is coughing. Black smoke is pouring out of the muffler, and it’s covered in rust. What do you do?

You might feel grateful that your car can still accelerate. You may wonder how that other car was allowed to get into such a state.

But when you get home, you check your own wheel arches for the smallest sign of rust.

A rusty car is a pretty negative analogy to use for a church denomination that numbers more than a million worshipers. But when it comes to the Church of England, it’s perhaps a fair one. Declining numbers, massive money problems, increasingly marginalized, and tearing itself apart over the issues of homosexuality and women bishops.

Today marks the appointment of a new archbishop of Canterbury, who will lead both the Church of England, and also the 80-million-member worldwide Anglican communion (including The Episcopal Church in the United States).

And so today seems a good day to ask: What will Archbishop Justin Welby’s church be like? And, for those of us who aren’t Anglicans, what can our own churches learn from his?

Rusty Car

There’s no doubt that the Church of England is, well, rusty. But it still moves. Many godly, Bible-teaching pastors and congregations sit in this car. But for years, centuries in fact, they’ve been passengers, not drivers. Evangelicals have struggled to grasp the reins of power, or to at least significantly influence the decision-making processes of the denomination. It’s come a long way from the 16th century, when Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s prayer book established the Church of England as a Protestant church with a gospel heart and a missional outlook.

What has caused the rust? The easy answer: the church lost the gospel. Waves of pragmatism, liberalism, and “Anglo-Catholicism” (a blend of Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism) have swept through the church, leaving wreckage in their wake.

But the actual cause is slightly more subtle. Anglicans still talk about the gospel, a lot. And mission. And even about being evangelical—-the new archbishop self-identifies as an evangelical, though he certainly wouldn’t recognize the definition of the term Don Carson and Tim Keller give in TGC’s Gospel-Centered Ministry booklet.

The denomination never lost the words. But it lost the biblical content. In order to keep unity among people who differ over essentials, Anglicanism has increasingly emptied key concepts of their content. So you can sit in a room with 10 Anglican ministers and talk for half an hour about “the gospel” without ever defining the term and always knowing there are probably ten (or eleven!) different views.

Once the biblical gospel is no longer a church’s raison d’etre, it looks for another one. And almost always the reason becomes the church itself. Sadly, it is unlikely that Archbishop Welby’s time will be spent renewing the vision of the church, or plotting the evangelization of a nation. It will be spent managing an institution in (probably terminal) decline.

The key concern is financial. The Church of England owns more than 12,000 buildings—-many of them dating back over 500 years. Each has the capacity to seat hundreds, but now have congregations of a dozen, who can sustain neither the building nor a pastor. It is facing huge pension liabilities for retired clergy. It has an enormous, top-heavy bureaucracy. So the new archbishop’s experience in business—-he was in the oil trade for more than a decade—-will serve him well. He will be the manager of an institution, keeping the rusty car chugging along the road.

How’s Your Car?

Anglican evangelicals will go on doing what they’ve done for years. They’ll preach the gospel, hold fast to Scripture, and do their best to ignore the hierarchy. Some will leave. Many more will stay. We should pray for them. The Anglican Church is, historically, their church. They are seeking to witness not just to a lost world, but to an increasingly lost denomination. That requires God-given wisdom, patience, and love.

Non-Anglican evangelicals in the UK and the United States might respond a little differently. We might look at our own wheel-arches to check for rust, and ask how we can prevent our own denominations from corroding and sliding slowly to a halt like this one. What lessons can the Anglican experience teach the rest of us? Here are three suggestions:

1. Don’t assume the gospel, and don’t stop showing that it’s the biblical gospel.

It’s easy to think, among evangelical brothers, that we all know the gospel. Even when we talk about not assuming it, we often assume that we all know what it is we shouldn’t assume! Or we talk about it, describe it, explain and love it, but though there’s a Bible in our hand, it isn’t open. Though there are Bibles on people’s laps, they’re not being pointed to look at it.

Assuming the gospel leads to losing the gospel. One generation loves the gospel; the next assumes it; the third doesn’t know it, but thinks it does; the fourth leaves the church.

2. Don’t prize unity over truth. 

It’s easy to be overly divisive, to split off from a denomination because we disagree over secondary matters (or because we disagree over what the secondary matters are). Presumably, the apostle Paul would have been horrified by our casual attitude to the existence of multiple Bible-believing denominations.

But there’s an equal and opposite error, too, that Anglicanism teaches us. Unity has been prized above truth. Keeping the car on the road has been all that’s mattered. The biblical gospel gets thrown out in order to keep the church together. But real unity, as the regular crises within Anglicanism show, can only ever be in the truth. Put another way, what matters in The Gospel Coalition is the Gospel, not the Coalition. If ever the Gospel is downplayed to preserve Coalition, the show is over.

3. Remember that times change, and churches must change with them. 

Many aspects of the Anglican church have been wonderful motors for real mission. Which denomination wouldn’t love to have a church in every single town and village where people look for guidance and consolation in times of trouble? That’s what the Church of England’s parish system has provided. But it’s stopped being a benefit, and become an albatross. Evangelical church plants have been opposed . . . because they cross parish boundaries. Empty churches cannot be closed . . . because it’s the parish church.

Cranmer gave the English the Book of Common Prayer—-biblical, relevant worship in their own language. That was 500 years ago, but many Anglican churches still use it, dotting around the pages at dizzying speed and reciting antiquated language most people no longer understand, let alone use. Healthy churches don’t hold fast to what used to work; to how we used to be; but instead hold a Bible in one hand, a newspaper in the other, and work out how to show and communicate the eternal gospel in this particular time and space.

New Cars

If your denomination can still accelerate, can change direction as necessary, and has godly leaders who are passionate about the biblical gospel in the driving seat, give great thanks to God for his mercy. And pray to God for your brothers and sisters who sit in rustier cars. After all, God can restore rusty panels, and build new cars out of old ones.

And just for a moment, why not check your own wheel arches. Are you in danger of assuming the gospel? Or of preaching the gospel but not clearly from the Scriptures? Are you beginning to prize institutional unity over truth? Looking back over your shoulder to a distant decade instead of out at the harvest field the Lord has given you?

It’s worth remembering: if ignored, rust spreads fast.