Monday, June 17, 2013

Circumstances Change

Stephen Clark,  Pastor of Free School Court Evangelical Church, Bridgend, and Chair of Affinity’s Theological Studies Conference, has written an interesting pamphlet on ‘separation’. In Serving God in His Church in our Generation: Learning from the Past while Living in the Present, he argues that while the verities of the gospel remain unchanged, the circumstances in which these are upheld are continually changing, and that the path of wisdom lies in discerning these changes. My friend the Exiled Preacher drew attention to this publication and commended it, otherwise I might not have known about it. It can be downloaded here.

The context of the piece is the claim (made in another pamphlet, to which Clark's is a rejoinder)  that the evangelical inter-church organisation Affinity no longer stands where its direct antecedent, the British Evangelical Council, once stood, and that true separatists will do the right thing if they shun it. ‘Separatist’ here refers to someone who believes it is a Christian duty to refuse to work in concert with any who are members of a denomination or other group that is theologically ‘mixed’, accepting evangelicals and non evangelicals in equal standing therein.[There is no end to such separationism - a separationist of the second degree would presumably shun a person who was in an approved-of separationist church but who in fact was non-separationist in his views.]

Stephen Clark begs to differ from this view, for to take such a stand is to forget that circumstances change. In particular, to forget that the wider English church culture in which evangelical churches operate has changed since the 1960’s and 1970’s. Then the call for churches and individuals to separate from mixed denominations of evangelical and other types  had a point. That was in the era of the ecumenical siren-call, and the seeming steady Rome-ward march of the Church  of England. But by now the ecumenical appeal has been marginalized,  and the leadership and punching power of the ‘liberal’ leadership of Christian denominations has dwindled and become emasculated, as have the denominations themselves. So much so that your average 20 and 30-year old Christian is likely neither to know or care what ‘ecumenical’ means, or suffer from sleepless nights fearing the onward surge of the W.C.C. and the B.C.C. He's more likely to think that the initials are of cricket clubs

On top of this, by her advocacy of the ordination of women clergy, the Church of England has erected an electric fence between herself and the Roman Catholic Church. Those Anglo-Catholic clergy who longed for union with Rome have done what John Henry Newman did, they have long since bought a one-way ticket for the Rome express. And many of the current evangelicals in the Church of England,  the product of the work of the Proclamation Trust and of Oak Hill, do not have the ambition of their immediate predecessors as far as the upper echelons of the Church of England are concerned, nor a penchant for 'social action'. Instead, they teach a more biblically robust and trenchant version of the Gospel, more so (Stephen Clark whispers) than some of their dissenting and nonconformist brothers. Finally, in the couple of generations since the 1960’s the general culture of the British Isles has become more hostile and less deferential to all things Christian even as it has become more ignorant of them. Secularism reigns.  Circumstamces change. New dangers and new opportunities.

[In parenthesis, one of those who caught the train to Rome, William Oddie, has written recently written as follows: 
Why does the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) still meet, as though Anglican ordinations to their episcopate of openly gay men living with their partners, and also of women to their priesthood and episcopate, despite the warnings of successive popes of the fact that these steps would erect insuperable barriers to unity with the Catholic Church, why do we still carry on with the farce of behaving as though these insuperable barriers just did not exist at all?]

Stephen quotes John Calvin to the effect that the Roman church is not a church but may nevertheless have churches within it. (Inst. IV. 2. 12) 'Therefore, while we are unwilling simply to concede the name of church to the papists, we do not deny that there are churches among them'. Such a recognition is what Stephen Clark refers to as a ‘nuanced’ attitude to separation and alliance, more discriminating than the 'ecumenism at any price' or 'separation at any price’ outlooks. The point of principle that must not be lost sight of is ‘opportunity’: Does a prospective church situation provide the opportunity for unfettered preaching of the gospel?

Clark develops this 'nuanced' approach by an appeal to the behaviour of Dr Lloyd-Jones over the years.  In the 1940's he counselled the late Leslie Land (late of Melbourne Hall, Leicester), to find a preaching place in the Church of England. For many of his years as a minister,  he himself was in a ’mixed’ denomination, and his preaching-place, the church meeting  at Westminster Chapel, was a part of such a denomination. Only latterly did each becoming separate. And while Lloyd-Jones’ 1966 clarion call for evangelicals to come out of their mixed denominations and federate together was right (Stephen Clark thinks) for then,  the era of ecumenism, it was not right before then, and (Clark claims) is not right after then, in 2013 for example. The prevailing question for  Dr Lloyd-Jones was not separation for its own sake, (that was negativity of the sort that he (privately?) reprobated in T.T.Shields), but always ‘In situation X or Y is there (or is there not) opportunity for preaching the gospel in an unfettered way?’

It is a pity that  DMLJ is knitted into and has become an intrinslc part of Clark’s case. For one thing it provides ammunition for the barrack-room Doctorologists, and they certainly don’t need any more encouragement. For another (no doubt unintentionally) it gives comfort to the Doctor-apers. If it is not the Doctor’s gait and voice, then it is the Doctor’s views on co-operation and separation.  Maybe it is impossible to have one without the other.

To develop a nuanced attitude requires the employment of another trait, or traits. One is the ability to distinguish big issues from small issues, another is being prepared to change one's mind, and still another  is the willingness to sacrifice the expression of or insistence on dearly-held views in the interests of cooperation with others who do not hold these views. As Stephen puts it - ’some things may have to be borne in order to ensure that the most important matters are dealt with’. (11)

I like to imagine that in the days before his clarion-call, while he was still mulling it over,  Martyn Lloyd-Jones might have met up with John Stott over a cup of tea at the Liberal Club, and sounded him out. I dare say this did not happen. From this distance the two seem like chalk and cheese. But, if his issuing of the clarion-call was the result of views which developed from a new analysis of the times,  perhaps they should have had that cuppa. Or maybe we should conclude that since the clarion call fell largely on deaf ears it ought not to have been made, though Stephen Clark does not say as much as this.

Nevertheless if, as Clark suggests, nuanced views arise from a fresh look at circumstances, to see if they’ve changed in important ways, and if you (supposing you are a church leader of some sort) conclude that they have, then (so it seems to me) you have a duty to confer with others, to see if they have changed their views, before one issues the call in public, dramatic circumstances. Clearly Stott and Lloyd-Jones did not see eye to eye. Different nuances?

You see, appealing to nuanced distinctions carries a price. It is much more difficult than making a black-and-white clarion call to ‘Come out!’ (even if this also arises from 'nuanced' thinking) or in thinking of the church in terms of 'marks' - the preached word, the ordinancies, discipline. In order for the clarion-call to carry weight there is need for wide agreement on the facts about a situation and the weight that should be attributed to each of them. It’s fearsomely difficult to agree on nuances. So if we are now in the day of nuances, then clarion calls are (for the time being) a thing of the past, yet may be (if circumstances change) a thing of the future. If so, it seems that in an age of individualism ministers and churches of Christ are catching that spirit. 

Another thing, a policy according to which ministry in a mixed denomination is permissible in the 1940’s, but not in the 1960’s and permissible again in 2000 seems hard to take as a strategy.  Look at this in terms not of time, but of place. What is allowable in Wales may not be so in England, or what is allowable on Bridgend may not be in Bala. What stops the appeal to opportunity from being ‘opportunistic’? Unfortunately the appeal of a principle that it is possible to define, as ‘separation’ is, will always have more pull to a certain kind of mentality than one that is based in what it is permissible to do, or requires judgment to be made, balancing one issue with another, and allows that good men may differ.

Several different things need to be kept distinct. We should all be able to distinguish large issues from small, in all manner of circumstances. That way we show we are grown-up. That's one element in what for Stephen is 'nuance'. But Calvin (who as he have seen, he cites) had not only this in mind, and (I dare say) not even this first of all, but his approach to what is and is not a church is rather different from that which prevails presently. For Calvin whether a church is a true church or not is a matter of 'marks'. 

....we do not deny that there are churches among them. The question we raise only relates to the true and legitimate constitution of the church, implying communion in sacred rites, which are the signs of profession, and especially in doctrine.....Hence, however it is obvious that we do not at all deny that churches remain under his [the Roman Roman pontiff's] tyranny....In one word, I call them churches inasmuch as the Lord wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and  scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the church still remain - symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. (IV. 2. 12)

We must agree that there is something rather unbalanced about a church situation in which calls to separation are judged to be sour and negative if not nuanced, and the only alternative is a nudge in this direction or that, a touch on the tiller, in the light of opportunities. Surely the centre-ground should ideally be filled by an outlook on the church and her confession that is more principled than this.

However this may be, Stephen Clark's pamphlet is a good read - well-written, informative, and thought-provoking.