Three conservative evangelical Anglican bodies have announced they are merging. The Fellowship of Word & Spirit and Reform, both dating from the latter part of the 20th century, are set to join ranks with the Church Society. The Church Society, which has roots dating back nearly 180 years, is often referred to in media reports as the “senior evangelical society.”
Its Protestant and Reformed theology is not embraced by the entire evangelical constituency, but with the right of appointment of about 120 parish vicars it wields important influence.
It was a key factor in the defeat in Parliament of the 1928 proposed prayer book because of its drift into Catholic rituals. Earlier its predecessors took out legal cases over introduction of Catholic rituals, a policy rejected by some evangelicals.
There was a hint of something afoot toward the end of last year with the seemingly sudden resignation of Susie Leafe, director of Reform, without indications of plans for succession or for the future.
The Rev. Lee Gatiss, director of the Church Society, said each of the three bodies shared “common goals” and that “the challenges of the present time require us to unite our efforts so that we are better placed to harness the energies of evangelicals in contending for the gospel.”
Gatiss said broad details of the merger had been worked out but that much more needed to be done. The next stage will be the annual general meeting of the Church Society on May 12. The meeting will elect a new president and a new board with representatives drawn from each of the three bodies.
Leaders of the merging bodies have welcomed the move.
“At a time when even our best bishops talk of the debate about gender and human sexuality as a tsunami, our divisions and separateness from fellow conservative evangelicals are little short of scandalous or irresponsible,” said Canon David Banting, chairman of Reform.
“Our new context means that we need to focus our efforts, unite our endeavors, and ensure we maximize the usefulness of our resources,” said the Rt. Rev. Rod Thomas, Bishop of Maidstone, who gives episcopal leadership to conservative evangelicals. “I am therefore approaching this prospect of a merger with real enthusiasm and hopefulness — and I would urge you to do the same.”
The Rev. Colin Munro, chairman of the Fellowship of Word & Spirit, sounded a similar note: “At a time when our nation is rapidly rejecting its Christian inheritance, and the Church of England is in a crisis about its convictions and influence, there has never been a greater need for those committed to biblical truth to unite together, enabling our message to be heard with greater clarity and power.”
What does all this signal? First, the merger announcement’s framing and the supporting comments signal that many conservative evangelicals believe the Church of England is at a point of crisis that calls for a robust response. Second, it is clear that the three bodies are committed to remaining within the Church of England rather than leaving.
As the announcement says, “the coming together of these bodies will enable us to be more effective in the pioneering, establishing and securing of healthy local Anglican churches.”
The common factor in the merger project is Lee Gatiss. The director of the Church Society is a council member of both of the other merging bodies and he is on the record as favoring that conservative evangelicals stay within the Established Church.
How many conservatives will support this remains to be seen. The other conservative template is the recent consecration of the Rt. Rev. Andy Lines by bishops of the GAFCON movement as a missionary bishop.
For many years, conservative evangelicals have been in broad agreement about what they see as the major problems besetting the church. There has been less shared agreement about what should be done. It once prompted David Phillips, former director of the Church Society, to say that leading them was “like herding cats.”