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Conservative Evangelicalism, Gender, and the Episcopate: by the Revd Liam Beadle

I am writing in the week of a general election. Without wishing to predict the future, it is likely that the following week will be taken up with conversations between possible coalition partners. It is helpful to think of evangelical Anglicanism as a coalition. Bishop Graham Kings has identified three ‘parties’: conservative, open, and charismatic. While there is some overlap between them, as in a coalition government, relationships between the three are not always easy, and this is one of the reasons for the appointment of Rod Thomas as Bishop of Maidstone. Our prayer is that a conservative evangelical voice on the bench will enable the evangelical coalition to flourish.

But what is a conservative evangelical anyway? Any outline is bound to be personal and impressionistic, but to get our bearings there are a number of historical influences, contemporary concerns, and external markers. It is these which distinguish conservative evangelicalism from the evangelicalism of Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha course which nurtured the Archbishop of Canterbury and from the evangelicalism of senior figures such as Bishop Graham Kings, associated with the Fulcrum movement. An obvious historical influence is John Calvin, the misrepresented second-generation reformer. Calvin’s sharp legal mind and knowledge of the Scriptures and the Fathers make him a sublime theologian, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion is one of the great books of the world. While many of Calvin’s followers have been regarded as dour, his theology emphasises joyful confidence in the sovereignty of God, giving rise to a deep assurance of salvation in those who read the Scriptures through the lenses he provides.

Another obvious historical influence, this time from within the Church of England, is J. C. Ryle, the first Bishop of Liverpool. Ryle’s writing is pithy and accessible, while giving a beautifully clear defence of the Reformed nature of true Anglicanism. A primary contemporary concern of conservative evangelicals is expository preaching. The ministry of Dick Lucas at St Helen’s Bishopsgate and the establishment of the Proclamation Trust have done much to make conservative evangelical Anglican preaching one of the secret glories of the Church of England. The conservative evangelical conviction is that the preached word is the voice of God. There is an excitement about conservative evangelical gatherings not because of high-octane music or perpetual innovation, but because of the expectation that God will address his people through his word.

As far as external markers are concerned, historically the position of the officiant at the Lord’s Supper at the north-side of the holy table was the obvious one, and grants to parishes from evangelical trusts were often contingent on it. It can still be found, but a more reliable external mark is that while open and charismatic evangelicals are happy to adapt Common Worship Order One, conservative evangelicals prefer to use Order Two, most often in contemporary language. In a conservative evangelical parish church you are unlikely to find candles, but you will always find Bibles in the pews – very often the English Standard Version. It is a very distinct group of Anglicans.I am enormously grateful to them: I came to a living faith through their ministry, and they taught me to preach.

I am not convinced by the current conservative evangelical opposition to the consecration of women bishops, but I do claim to understand it, and hope to represent it fairly. It should be obvious that for conservative evangelicals the supreme authority is not the wisdom of the world or even the tradition of the Church, but the Bible. They have Article XX on their side: ‘…it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.’ Conservative evangelicals believe that for women to exercise a ministry of headship in the church (that is, as an incumbent or bishop) would be contrary to Scripture. The classic texts have been discussed elsewhere, but for reference I Timothy ii.11 ff. is read alongside I Corinthians xiv.34 and an appeal to the order of creation and the nature of the marital relationship, giving especial weight to Ephesians v.22-24 and 32. Conservative evangelicals are adamant that women are equal to men and that this understanding of Scripture honours women, enabling them to play a vital part in the life of the local Church.

It is the local Church which is primary for conservative evangelicals. Again, they will appeal to the Articles, specifically to Article XIX: ‘The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.’ But if this is the case, why do bishops matter at all?First, and most importantly, conservative evangelical Anglicans believe that the seeds of episcopal ministry are to be found in Scripture. The New Testament refers both to elders and overseers, that is, to presbyters and bishops. While in the first century it seems these rôles were combined, in time they were separated. The Book of Common Prayer refers to ‘the Ordering of Priests’ but to ‘the Consecration of Bishops’: that is, presbyters are consecrated (or ‘set apart’) for ministry as a Bishop. Bishops thus have a distinctive purpose within (not apart from) the presbyterate.

Secondly, conservative evangelical Anglicans believe that episcopal ministry benefits the Church. To them, the accusation of congregationalism is not particularly offensive, but nor is it entirely accurate. While to be apostolic is to submit to the apostles’ teaching in Scripture, there is an ‘apostolicity’ about episcopal ministry. St Paul did not set apart committees for ministry and mission. He set apart men. That is why it is important for conservative evangelicals to have bishops to whom they can relate with confidence. While personally wary of an ecclesiology in which congregations may choose their bishop for a particular doctrinal stance, clearly conservative evangelicals have specific needs which arise from a specific hermeneutical understanding of gender and ministry.

It is to be hoped that an honoured place for conservative evangelicals in the Church’s ministry will enable all evangelicals to unite in mission, that the people of England may hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and come to a living faith in him.

liam phot webLiam Beadle is the Vicar of Honley in the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. He grew up in Newcastle and read Theology at Oxford before training for ordained ministry at Cranmer Hall, Durham.

He likes second-hand bookshops and gin.

His chief desire is to preach God’s word to the end that God’s chosen people will worship God in the name of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.


I am extremely grateful to the Revd Liam Beadle for agreeing without knowing much about me or the website to write this piece for us in an attempt to explain the viewpoint of Conservative Evangelicals. Until now, I have had some difficulty in grasping why, for example, they insist on male headship but I now understand much better how and why it is so central in their ecclesiology.

4 comments on this post:

SeekTruthFromFacts said...

An excellent summary of the Anglican conservative evangelical position, Liam. Thank you for speaking for us!

06 May 2015 22:59
ukviewer said...

An interesting point of view, as we’ve been studying this among the different types of Anglican spirituality. Liam reiterates the classic position, although I have to say that what is telling for me is his admission that he isn’t entirely convinced by the ‘headship’ argument.

As far as I can see, the Conservative Evangelical position is totally bound up with a literal interpretation of the scripture quoted. It’s interesting that Liam quotes bits of the 39 Articles of Religion to support their case. These are not the ‘breathed words of God’ rather a human input, written in a patriarchial society by men for men.

As for women having an honoured place, yes, as long as they confine themeselves to the kitchen, housework and submit unquestioningly to their betters – Men.

I can’t understand why the wider church is pandering to such a theology, which in my view is errorneous and deserves to be corrected. And the allegation that they might as well be congregationalists or baptists holds water for the Conservative Headship Evangelicals.

Sam said...

I’m curious why you think conservative evangelical theology of headship means women should be in the kitchen? As Liam makes clear, it’s about the leadership of the local church and the dynamic of marriage. That’s a very different thing from thinking women shouldn’t work or belong in the kitchen. After all, the director of Reform, a leading Conservative Evangelical pressure group, is a woman!

07 May 2015 16:01
07 May 2015 05:50
Joyce said...

So glad to read of somebody who likes secondhand bookshops and gin. Perhaps we’re related. I’ve given up the former for Kindle and for reasons of space and speed of acquisition but am still fond of the latter.
The term ‘conservative’ in a Church context seems to have a modern connotation I’ve not quite grasped and appears to have different meanings according to which side of the Atlantic it’s generated.

07 May 2015 14:09

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