The week Evangelicals began to take over the Church of England 

By Joshua Penduck

The Evangelical Movement has a long, established place within the life of the Church of England. Although it emerged at a similar time as the Methodist movement, it seems to have had a relatively independent genesis, through figures such as Samuel Walker of Truro, William Grimshaw of Haworth, and William Romaine of London. Whereas Methodism, following after John Wesley, viewed ‘the world’ as his parish, these early Evangelical figures were much more respectful of the rules governing parishes. Furthermore, they believed in Apostolic succession (I.e. The Church of England belief in the continuity of bishops), and tended to be more inclined to Calvinism than John Wesley would have preferred. The split with Methodism would become key to the identity of Evangelicals in the Church of England: unlike the followers of Wesley and George Whitfield, Anglican Evangelicals would remain steadfastly committed to their Mother Church. Despite massive growth in the early and mid nineteenth century, even having an Archbishop of Canterbury in the figure of John Bird Sumner, by the latter decades of that century the Evangelical Movement gradually fell into obscurity. In many cases, the loyalty to the Church of England was reduced to ‘It’s the best pond to fish from’. Whereas the early Evangelicals were steadfastly committed to Anglicanism, this wasn’t so much the case in the early 20th Century. The Movement drifted into dogmatism and isolationism, so much so that Michael Ramsey could dismiss even a figure such John Stott as a ‘fundamentalist’ at one point.

What changed? Simply put: the 1967 Keele Congress. 

John Stott

Guided by figures such as John Stott and JI Packer, during the 1950s Anglican Evangelicals began to get more confident of their place within the Church of England. Abetted by the evangelism rallies of Billy Graham and the new separation of Evangelicals from Fundamentalists in the United States and Europe (cue figures such as Francis Schaeffer and Carl F.H. Henry), the Evangelical Movement was numerically growing at a rapid pace, and was delving into the latest scholarship (especially in Latimer House, Oxford). When the 1960s arrived, although Evangelicals were still divided over how much accommodation could be made with the Established Church, there was an energy that had been lacking for almost sixty years. When in 1966 the great Reformed preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones called for Evangelical Anglicans to leave the Church of England to form an independent Evangelical denomination, John Stott passionate argued against it. The Evangelical mainstream became thoroughly committed thereafter to working within – and even celebrating! – the framework of the Church of England. 

Amidst all the change in the Church of England, the new Evangelicals like Stott were passionate that no longer would they be governed by an Evangelical ‘party spirit’. As the Chairman of the 1967 Islington Clerical Conference, John Stott said, ‘It is a tragic thing…that Evangelicals have a very poor image in the Church as a whole. We have acquired a reputation for narrow partisanship and obstructionism… We need to repent and to change.’ It was felt that a national Evangelical congress was needed to think through this change of spirit. 

Keele University

And so, in April 1967, with help from Latimer House and the Church Pastoral-Aid Society some 1000 delegates converged on Keele University, of which 519 were clergy and 481 were lay people. There were also 30 observers from Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Free Church perspectives. Over the next few days, in an astonishing rush of energy, these 1000 delegates hammered out a Statement which reflected the new face of Anglican Evangelicalism.

The Statement had five sections: 

  1. The Church and its Message 
  2. The Church and its Mission
  3. The Church and the World.
  4. The Church and its Structures 
  5. The Church and its Worship 
  6. The Church and its Unity

The first section followed standard Evangelical beliefs regarding God, the authority of the Bible (welcoming ‘all scholarship which promotes a more precise understanding of holy Scripture’), atonement, justification, and conversion (with a note about charismatic renewal). It was the other areas in which change made itself known. The Statement recognised that Mission was about more than getting bums on pews, but was rather for Christians to ‘share in God’s work of mission by being present among non-Christians to live and speak for Christ, and in His name to promote justice and meet human need in all its forms.’ Evangelism was being put in a wider, missional context – Evangelicals were called upon not so much to separate as to ‘study and be involved in the contemporary world’. The Statement had things to say on contemporary issues such as housing, education, work and leisure, race, and addiction. It called upon Evangelicals to get stuck into the structures of the Church of England, but thinking through these structures in a modernising way – dioceses were called to reorganise so as to free bishops from excessive administrative burdens, the national church was called to put together a General Synod made of clerics and laity, and questions were raised about such things as publicity, Clerical dress, and the state of church premises. 

Furthermore, the Statement felt that ‘liturgical revision is long overdue’, and that a period of liturgical experimentation was ‘welcome’. Baptism of children from a Non-Christian family was questioned, though infant baptism was affirmed. The centrality of the practice of Holy Communion was encouraged. The Statement said that, ‘We have failed to do justice in our practice to the twin truths that the Lord’s Supper is the main service of the people of God, and that the local church, as such, is the unit within which it is properly ministered.’ The Congress therefore admitted that Evangelicals had ‘let the sacrament be pushed to the outer fringes of church life, and the ministry of the Word be divorced from it.’ Finally, the Statement called for Evangelicals to be deeply involved with all ecumenical conversations. 

If none of this seems particularly adventurous or unusual, it’s because the Keele Conference made its impact. Evangelicals became increasingly engaged within the life of the Church of England, whether on a doctrinal level, a liturgical level (the work of the Evangelical Colin Buchanan became vital for the Church of England’s liturgical revisions in the latter quarter of the century), a parochial level, and in particular on a missional level. Much of the most exciting Anglican missional practice theology is now done by Evangelicals. The Lord’s Supper is the heart of the worship in many Evangelical churches (although we are seeing a slipping away again in recent years). The work of figures such as Justin Welby indicates that it is no longer the case that Evangelicals are isolated from practical on-the-ground issues. 

Keele changed the nature of the Church of England as well. Evangelicals are now numerically the biggest constituency in English Anglican life, with a preponderance of Evangelical bishops. There have even been three Evangelical Archbishops since the Congress (Donald Coggan, George Carey, and Justin Welby). Evangelicals seminaries are some of the most flourishing training centres for Anglican ordinands. Evangelical scholarship has a vital role in modern theology departments (one just needs to name N.T. Wright, Oliver O’Donavan, John Webster, and Alister McGrath for proof!). No longer is it the case that only Evangelical churches use a catechism course such as ‘Alpha’. Evangelical themes – such as liturgical modernisation, evangelism, and preaching – are typical with the CofE as a whole. Many have called it an Evangelical take-over of the Church of England!

Justin Welby, Evangelical Archbishop of Canterbury

In changing Evangelicalism, Keele prompted a few risky situations to emerge. It widened a few fault lines in Evangelicalism which would become increasingly transparent over the next few decades. The gap between Conservative and Open Evangelicals would grow, with a risk for each: Conservatives increasingly risk returning to a pre-Keele fundamentalism (the words used by Stott about Evangelicals as a whole – ‘narrow partisanship’, ‘obstructionism’ – are increasingly being used once more of Conservative Evangelicals); Opens increasingly risk turning into a new form of Anglican low church liberalism (in allowing the dictates of culture to take primacy over the authority of Scripture in many areas). Furthermore, many Anglican Evangelical megachurches are at risk of allowing the Lord’s Supper to be separated from the wider worshipping community, or at least making it a less central form of worship. Others are avoiding the pastoral structures of the Church (such as Chapter Meetings and Deanery Synods), preferring their own networks (whether that be Reform or New Wine). This risks allowing Evangelicalism to lapse once more into a kind of obscurity – albeit one with bigger numbers nowadays. 

Holy Trinity, Cheltenham – the future of the Church of England?

Keele ’67 returned Evangelicals to the energy and dynamism of its glory days in the late eighteenth and early to mid nineteenth century. In this its fiftieth anniversary, let’s not lose sight of its insights and developments. 


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