Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Challenges of Networking

By Robin G. Jordan

This past November Treading Grain David Wood published a brief article about plans to form an ACNA diocese in the Carolinas. More recently on Baby Blue Cafe Mary Aire published an article about proposals for the reorganization of the CANA District of Virginia into an ACNA diocese. These articles document a trend in the churches forming the Anglican Church in North America to organize in territory-based judicatories.

This trend does not surprise me as a number of voices on the Internet have called for the organization of all ACNA churches in a particular geographic area into a diocese. This form of organization is the one with which the former Anglicans and Episcopalians that form the nucleus of the ACNA are the most familiar. It is the way that the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church are organized. It is how the Church of England and a number of other Anglican provinces are organized.

The diocese was the way that the feudal Medieval Church was organized, each bishop with his own fiefdom, palace, retainers, vassals, and serfs. It was also how the Roman Empire was organized. It was from the Roman Empire that the Eastern and Western Church borrowed this form of organization.

As noted in my article, “Affinity Networks,” the Celtic Church would adopt a different form of organization, a network of Christian communities that shared an affinity with each other. It was more suited to conditions in Ireland than the diocese. Patrick attempted to establish the diocesan form of organization in Ireland but it did not survive his death.

With an eye to integrating AMiA and REC congregations and clergy into the life of the diocese, the Diocese of the Central Gulf and the Diocese of the South incorporated provisions into their constitutions and canons opening various bodies of the diocese to these congregations and clergy with one exception—the Standing Committee. The hope is that such congregations and clergy will eventually unite with the new dioceses.

This call for the integration of all churches in a particular geographic area in an ACNA diocese received a rebuff when the Anglican Mission in the Americas opted to become a ministry partner to the ACNA instead of dismantling its organizational structure in order to create new ACNA dioceses. The AMiA had found that its particular form of organization was more effective for achieving its purposes of church planting and evangelism than the traditional diocese. Instead of releasing new churches to the ACNA, the AMiA has enfolded them in its own parachurch organization.

The Reformed Episcopal Church has not shown itself to be in any rush to dismantle its own organizational structure. One observer of developments in the ACNA with whom I am acquainted believes that as other founding entities of the ACNA release their congregations and clergy to ACNA dioceses, the REC will follow suit. Indeed REC will begin feeling pressure to release its churches to ACNA dioceses. While I do not rule out the possibility, I have so far not seen any signs of this development happening. I have also received reports of REC new church plants that have been enfolded into its own parachurch organization. I have adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude regarding what direction the REC will take.

This trend points to collective amnesia on the part of Anglicans and Episcopalians regarding the problems and disadvantages of this particular form of organization—the territory-based judicatory. It brings together congregations and clergy that have little in common beyond that they are located in the territorial bounds of the same judicatory. Anglo-Catholics, charismatics, evangelicals, and “mere Christians” are thrown together to make the best of a bad arrangement.

Conservative evangelicals historically have not benefited from such an arrangement. They have at times found themselves in a diocese in which the bishop is intent upon forcing the churches of the diocese into an Anglo-Catholic or liberal mold and to reshape them to his liking. This has led to serious theological disputes between the bishop and themselves. Conservative evangelical congregations have been forced to accept Anglo-Catholic or liberal clergy. Conservative evangelical ministerial candidates have been denied permission to attend conservative evangelical seminaries and theological colleges. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Another observer of developments in the ACNA with whom I am also acquainted believes that the pending formation of these two dioceses mark a rapidly closing window of opportunity for conservative evangelicals in the ACNA to form a non-geographic diocese or other grouping in that body to enfold congregations and clergy that are committed to upholding the historic Anglican formularies and promoting the Protestant and Reformed heritage of the Church of England. He may be right. The passage of time and further developments in the ACNA will reveal whether he is.

On the other hand, there may be no real openness in the ACNA to the formation of such a judicatory. A judicatory that is more firmly committed than the ACNA to the Jerusalem Declaration would be perceived as a threat to the perception of Anglicans outside of North America that the ACNA is GAFCON in North America. It would point to the ACNA’s own token commitment to the Jerusalem Declaration. An isolated, marginalized, scattered, and weak conservative evangelical wing prevents it from playing any appreciable role in a settlement that might shape the direction of the ACNA. One element in the ACNA would prefer to keep it that way.

Conservative evangelicals have historically tended to focus upon parish ministry. The kind of organizations that they are likely to form and support are those that benefit parish ministry. The Church of England’s Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) is a good example. For a good part of its history the Church of England’s conservative evangelical wing isolated itself from the life of the denomination. The result was that Anglo-Catholics and liberals would come to dominate the decision-making boards, commissions, committees, and councils of the Church of England, as well as the episcopate in the English Church. Only in the second half of the twentieth century would the conservative evangelical wing recognize the folly of its ways and take a more active role in denominational affairs.

A preoccupation with parish work is one of the major obstacles to the organization of conservative evangelicals in the ACNA and the AMiA to further their common interests. They appear set upon following in the footsteps of previous generations of conservative evangelicals. They do not seem to have learned from the mistakes of the past.

Among the other developments that weaken the cause of traditional Anglican evangelicalism in North America is a separatist tendency in those who should be championing its cause. Conservative evangelicals have since the nineteenth century been subject to pressure not only from within their own ranks but also from what are sometimes known as “the Free Churches” to break with the Church of England in the United Kingdom and the Protestant Episcopal Church in North United States and to establish a doctrinally pure denomination. They have also experienced pressure from the Tractarians, the Ritualists, and their successors to secede. The Reformed Episcopal Church and the Free Church of England are the result of nineteenth century attempts to establish such denominations. So is the Plymouth Brethren.

Bishop of Liverpool J. C. Ryle who was a leading nineteenth century conservative evangelical fought against this tendency in conservative evangelicals in his day. He urged them not to abandon the Church of England.

The events of the past 40 years has strengthened this inclination in conservative evangelicals in North America as one group after another has succeeded from The Episcopal Church over issues of doctrine and practice. Separation is no longer Plan B if Plan A fails. It has become Plan A.

The conservative evangelical focus upon parish ministry may itself be a mild form of separatism. Conservative evangelical clergy who find themselves the only Reformed minister in a judicatory are apt to keep their distance from other clergy who do not share their Reformed views. This may explain the past reluctance of conservative evangelical clergy to participate in denominational boards, commissions, committees, and councils. In their minds their participation in these gatherings would entail collaboration with ministers who were not Reformed in their views. The prospect of such collaboration evoked feelings of doubt and uneasiness about the propriety of their participation in the gatherings and caused them hesitance about taking part in them. Rather than suffer the prick of a troubled conscience they avoided gatherings of this type.

I am convinced that the future of historic Anglicanism in North America is tied that of traditional Anglican evangelicalism. If traditional Anglican evangelicalism does not have a future in North America, historic Anglicanism does not have a future either. Of all the schools of thought in the contemporary Anglican Communion, only the conservative evangelicals can truly claim a recognizable continuity not only with the primitive and apostolic Church but also the Protestant Reformation. They are the heirs of the English Reformers. They are the spiritual descendants of Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, Jewel, Parker, Hooker, and Whitfield.

I am also convinced the way forward for conservative evangelicals in the Anglican Church of Canada, the ACNA, the AMiA, TEC and other Anglican bodies in North America and those outside these bodies is to network with each other and with conservative evangelicals outside of North America. They can provide each other with encouragement, support, and assistance and work together for the furtherance of their common interests. Even if the window for a non-geographic judicatory n the ACNA closes, conservative evangelicals should organize into a formal or informal affinity network. This network should be a part of a larger affinity network that enfolds affinity networks in the other Anglican bodies and outside of them and has links to conservative evangelicals outside of North America.

One of the challenges of creating networks of conservative evangelicals is that conservative evangelicals have a tendency to look around them and when they do not immediately see other conservative evangelicals like themselves, they are apt to conclude that they are a dying breed. Because they do no see anyone within the limited range of their vision, they assume that there is no one. They surrender to hopelessness. “What is the point?” they exclaim.

Conservative evangelicals, however, are not noted for their visibility. They do not wave a flag or blow a trumpet to attract attention to themselves. Due to their particular circumstances they may prefer to not draw attention to themselves and to avoid the limelight. In North American and even in the United Kingdom they are not likely to be found in high profile leadership positions.

Those whom we should be seeking to enfold into a network of conservative evangelicals may not yet be conservative evangelicals. We should be endeavoring not only to bring into such a network those who share our views on every point but also those who might over time come to appreciate and even adopt our views and who can be encouraged to gradually move in a conservative evangelical direction. We cannot always expect people to immediately see the merit of our views. Those who are quick to adopt our position on an issue may just as quickly adopt the position of someone else.

A farmer, when he plants wheat, does not expect the seed to produce an immediate yield--to spring up right away as mature plants, the stalks bent double from the weight of the heads of grain. He knows that the seed must be allowed to sprout. The young wheat must be watered. It must be given an opportunity to grow and to mature. When it has ripened, then the wheat is ready for harvest.

We must also be wary of the very human proclivity to conclude from a handful of bruised, rotten, or shriveled apples that the whole apple crop is ruined. In our impatience we are prone to discard the good with the bad. We lump together those who eventually might support our cause with those who will always be its fiercest opponents.

Paul was an enemy of the Lord and a persecutor of the brethren. Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and changed his life. Jesus called Peter to follow him early in his ministry. Peter was a part of Jesus’ innermost circle of followers. Yet Peter did not always grasp what Jesus was saying. He fell away when Jesus was arrested. When he heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection, he did not believe. Under pressure from the Judeacizers he shunned the Gentiles. It took a vision from God to put his feet back on the right path.

We cannot expect everyone to have a road to Damascus experience—to see a bright light, to hear a voice from heaven, and to be immediately convinced of the rightness of our views. Most of people who do come to our position on key issues are going to come slowly to that position as we did.

It is also not necessary that other people share our view on every point—only on what really matters. The Protestant Reformed Church of England required uniformity on essential matters. She permitted liberty of conscience on non-essential matters, matters of indifference.

The creation of a network of conservative evangelicals like the launching of a new church or any other undertaking must begin with prayer. Only through prayer can we discern God’s will in the matter. We must ask God for guidance—to show us what he would have us do. We must also ask Him for the good will and the grace to accomplish his purposes.

The Holy Spirit was at work in the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the rediscovery of the gospel of divine grace to which the New Testament bears witness, and the spiritual movement that flowed from this rediscovery. I believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in our day, bringing about a revival of gospel teaching.

Conservative evangelicals may not be large in numbers. But God works through the weak and the insignificant. He takes those who are nothing and does great things.

I believe that the organization of conservative evangelicals into networks is God’s will. The renewal of classical Anglican evangelicalism and historic Anglicanism are more than the rebirth of a tradition. They are a major part of this revival of gospel teaching.


  1. You have nailed it! I totally agree.

  2. This is enormously helpful, Robin. Thank you.