By Andy Walton
The world looked rather different in 2003. Social media didn’t exist, the war in Iraq was in its early stages, and Donald J. Trump was just a TV personality.
The year would feel familiar in one regard: Conflict within the Church of England and wider Anglican Communion wasn’t far from the surface. After the appointment of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, the fissures seemed like they may burst open at any point. Already suspicious of the archbishop’s theology, conservative evangelicals felt their suspicions were confirmed when the Rev. Jeffrey John was appointed Bishop of Reading in May 2003. They would exert pressure to prevent him from taking up his appointment, due to his long-term relationship with Grant Holmes.
In the same summer, Gene Robinson had been elected as Bishop of New Hampshire, and the Episcopal Church’s General Convention consented to the election. Amid ramifications not just for the Episcopal Church but the whole Anglican Communion, Bishop Robinson became a lightning rod for discontent.
Into this febrile atmosphere came NEAC4 (the National Evangelical Anglican Conference in Blackpool October 2003). This was the fourth major gathering of evangelical Anglicans since the 1967 event organized by John Stott and others. Disquiet among centrist evangelicals about the lack of diversity in the speaking lineup and a fear that the event would be used simply as a platform to bash other parts of the Church galvanized a group that had already begun to meet quietly.
Fulcrum was born in a noisy bar at the Blackpool Winter Gardens while NEAC was meeting. It officially launched at Holy Trinity, Clapham, the church of William Wilberforce.
Fifteen years later, we gathered at Lambeth Palace in London to reflect and to look forward. Good News: Global, Local, National was our theme for the day’s symposium — all watched over by the portraits of archbishops from the Reformation to the 21st Century.
Opening the day, the Rt. Rev. Graham Kings, theological secretary of Fulcrum, outlined some of the history and explored the group’s tagline of renewing the evangelical centre. Fulcrum has always had an ambitious aim: not simply to represent Open Evangelical theology, but to be an active voice contributing to debates happening in the Church of England and in the Anglican Communion.
This has not always been comfortable. Fulcrum campaigned for women to become bishops within the Church of England, a campaign that met with disappointments and difficulties but eventual success. In the same period, Fulcrum has attempted to maintain an orthodox position on sexuality in both the Church of England and the wider Communion. The whole Communion has struggled to communicate on this latter issue; in the words of Oliver O’Donovan, this really was a “conversation waiting to begin” (that book emerged from a series of articles for Fulcrum).
Fulcrum has provided a space for much more than debate over women in leadership and human sexuality. With over 1,200 in-depth articles in 15 years and five significant gatherings, it has contributed to conversations on mission, worship, politics, culture, and much more besides. We have met in Parliament with Labour and Conservative politicians (whose deep Anglican convictions underpin their politics), we have met in pubs for regular Beer and Theology events and, this past week, we met at Lambeth Palace to hear wisdom and provoking insight.
The Rev. Rachel Marszalek, general secretary of Fulcrum, challenged us to recall the radical agenda of evangelical Anglicans of ages past, including Charles Simeon and Spencer Perceval — the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated. Her remarks ranged widely, drawing in references to progressives like Walter Wink and conservatives like John Richardson, but ultimately she asked us to “discover how best the gospel can have traction in the local Anglican church.”
Following a response to Marszalek by the Chaplain to the Bishop of Dover, the Rev. Jenny Corcoran, we moved to the chapel at Lambeth to celebrate the Eucharist and hear a rousing homily from Bishop Anthony Poggo, the Archbishop’s Adviser on Anglican Communion Affairs and former Bishop of Kajo-Keji. The South Sudanese bishop told stories of his regular visits to Africa and beyond, where Anglicanism thrives and where some churches have baptisms and confirmations every Sunday. While the focus of many has been on the Church of England and other struggling Anglican churches in the Western world, we have always maintained the importance of constant dialogue with theologians and leaders in the global South.
In the afternoon, Fulcrum’s chair Dr. Peter Webster, a church historian, introduced the keynote address by N.T. Wright. As a past president of Fulcrum, Tom has a long history with the organization. He was on sparkling form at Lambeth, provoking us and prodding at the open wound of Brexit — not to cause discomfort for the sake of it, but to emphasize what has in many ways been his life’s work: to remind us that God has done something startling and something new in Jesus Christ, yet something in continuity with the hopes of the prophets and patriarchs.
What might that have to do with Brexit (or Trump, or any other 21st-century political phenomenon for that matter)? Well, as Bishop Wright and many others have said, if Jesus is Lord then Caesar is not. His plague on both the houses of the Brexiteers and the Europhiles was that they are all selling something they can’t possibly deliver: Utopia.
The great tensions of our time — modernity versus postmodernity, progress versus revolution, if you like — are thus instantiations of the tension between “solidarity” and “difference”: the “solidarity” that tries to put everything together under one roof to create a single organic unity, the “difference” that insists on not being reshaped on someone else’s Procrustean bed.
Channeling the iconoclastic philosophy of John Gray, Bishop Wright tore into naïve and idealistic political philosophies and called us back to worship. At the end of his address, he called for a renewal of reverence and a focus on the Eucharist as drama.
In many ways his talk recalled the adventurous beginnings of Fulcrum as a project of renewal within the one holy Catholic and apostolic church in England. Far from being a bunch of evangelicals who can take or leave the deposit of faith we’ve been handed, we must be those who renew and hold fast to the vision handed to us by the Apostles (and for that matter, the Fathers and Mothers, the Reformers, the evangelical revivalists, and many 20th-century giants).
It’s an ambitious project, especially in our fissiparous times, but if anyone has the fire and flamboyance to call for it, it’s Tom Wright. We also heard a response to Bishop Wright from the Rev. Isabelle Hamley, chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. An Old Testament scholar, Hamley asked us as Anglican evangelicals to hold our story lightly but confidently, and to offer our good news to others.
As we ended our day together in Evening Prayer, led by Archbishop Welby, we reflected on a day well spent and on 15 years of attempting to renew the evangelical centre. None of us has much of a clue about where the next 15 years will take us or the Church. The world has changed, the Church of England has changed, the Anglican Communion has changed.
But the idea that there’s something worth fighting for and a future to bequeath to the next generation is not in doubt. Renewing the evangelical center may have just begun.
Andy Walton (@waltonandy) is a writer, broadcaster, and churchwarden at St. Peter’s, Bethnal Green. He is the author of the Theos report “Is there a ‘Religious Right’ emerging in Britain?”