A Methodist at NEAC

The badge said ‘Methodist Guest’ - that meant I had the privilege to be the one Methodist among the two thousand Anglicans gathered in Blackpool in September 2003 for the fourth National Evangelical Anglican Congress. (I was there because Nigel Collinson had passed his invitation to Graham Horsley who was on sabbatical). It was good to be there. The first NEAC, held in April 1967, was the brainchild of John Stott and they have meet at roughly 10 to 15 year intervals since then. In the 1960's Anglican evangelicals felt beleaguered and in a minority. There were no bishops there then, but now there are a number of bishops, such as Graham Cray (Bishop of Maidstone) and the Bishop of Carlisle, who were actually helping to organise the event. In the 60's evangelicals were confined to their own theological colleges - now 70% of all Anglican ministerial students in full time training say they are evangelical. The organisation of Anglican evangelicals - partly through NEAC - has been one of the reasons for these changes.

Reading the national newspapers during the time of NEAC it would have been easy to think I was on another planet or in an alternative universe. ‘No room for Archbishop at conference’ trumpeted one national, in an article clearly written before Rowan Williams addressed the conference. I felt that he received a warm welcome from most of the conference members. There was a room set aside for those who did not wish to be present, and only 30 of the 2,000 people there chose to avoid the Archbishop. The second Archbishop to address the Congress was David Hope, Archbishop of York, who, according to another national daily ‘gave the congress a ticking off’. This is a strange description of an address that called evangelicals back to our devotional roots in the quiet time and in an emphasis on holiness. He told how he values our traditions. His address was a gentle challenge to us to value our own traditions for the benefit of the whole church. [The tape of this address is one of the two I bought and is available from NEAC via their website - www.neac.info].

For me the highlight of the Congress was an address by Andy Hawthorne of the Message Trust (Worldwide Message Tribe) - who worships in an Anglican church. The challenge to traditional evangelicals of what the Trust is doing in the estates of Manchester with its ‘Eden Project’ is immense. 150 people are committed not just to go to, but to live in, poorer inner-city areas and there have been reductions of crime rates by 40% when Christians work to serve local communities. He told of chief police officers asking if they will come to other areas. These things show the power practical effect of the gospel.

The Congress was dominated by the issue of sexuality. When it was called two and a half years ago, no one could have predicted the situation in the Anglican communion when we met. The Congress spent one day listening to the effects the issue is having around the world. A live link to the diocese of New Westminster in Canada told of a diocese which has decided to bless same-sex couples and where the bishop has gone as far as trying to get the locks on one dissenting church changed. A speaker from the USA spoke of the establishment of an evangelical seminary where all others are liberal, of bishops refusing to licence evangelical graduates or to send students to that college. The picture of Anglicanism in the USA that emerged was of a very small, liberal-dominated denomination where evangelicals are discriminated against. That such a small part of the world communion, with many less members than the Church of England, should be able to cause such disarray puts what is happening in Anglicanism into perspective. A pressure group has influenced a small group who appear much larger and important than they really are.

What was missing?

I listened hard for any mention of the Anglican-Methodist Covenant. Not a whisper! Not one mention - that is until I raised it at a seminar on rural issues. The covenant was not even on the map. There will not be another similar Congress for many years and to me this seemed like a missed opportunity. This seems to show that the Covenant, while important to many Methodists, is hardly relevant to many of our closest Anglican friends.

Other highlights for me:

  • An Anglican Archbishop (Peter Jensen, the Archbishop of Sydney) saying in conversation that Methodists should treasure the place of our lay preachers and our traditions such as lay presidency at communion.
  • The warmth of fellowship, depth and breadth of worship and spirituality, depth of study and scholarship, and the setting aside of minor differences to come together.
  • The depth of commitment to the Anglican Communion. Anglican evangelicals are at the centre of their denomination and a driving force within it. They are becoming the mainstream.

What can we learn?

  • NEAC is not a confessional body, it brings together some organisations and bodies which are, but no one has to ‘sign on the dotted line’ to attend. Do we need a similar Congress in Methodism which could bring together groups such as Headway with those many Methodist evangelicals who will not ‘join’?
  • We have seen the appointment of evangelical Methodists to positions in the Methodist connexional organisation, but still our training colleges and courses have few evangelicals on their staff. The growth of evangelical Anglican students over the last ten years is marked. In Methodism it still feels as if it is only the evangelical students who need ‘broadening’.
  • The influence of organisations such as Soul Survivor was clear. The development of new forms of being church outside the normal parish system is becoming significant. Where are the Methodist equivalents of St Thomas’s Crookes, Sheffield; Holy Trinity, Brompton; the network church in Huddersfield or Harvest New Anglican Cell Church in Thanet? If the Anglicans can cope with new and established churches which operate outside the parish system, is it time for a new ‘Forward Movement’ in Methodism to plant new ways of being church outside/alongside the circuit system?

The starkest contrast of the few days in Blackpool was leaving the Winter Gardens on the Friday and Saturday evenings. Moving from a time worshipping God into the nightclub world around Blackpool tower with lots of under-30's out for a night on the town was the biggest shock of all. Walking past the then closed and dark Methodist church within yards of the clubs brought back the words of DL Moody about not wanting to live within the sound of church bells but to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell. It was here that the relevance or not of NEAC will be tested.

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