Churches in Great Britain: Living with the Legacy
Conservative evangelical churches in Britain benefit from the legacy of faithful expositors of the Word. However, clarity on the centrality of the gospel is accompanied by confusion on the importance of secondary matters.
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A brief summary of the state of churches in Britain is rather like asking about the state of the music scene in Britain. The “church” spreads across not only many denominations, but also many different networks of broadly likeminded churches.
Ever since Richard Hooker published “Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie” in 1597, English gospel-preaching churches have prided themselves on (i) being careful with the gospel, and (ii) insisting on the freedom that exists on “secondary issues.” This latter emphasis has often precluded giving serious thought to those secondary issues, like what the Bible might actually teach about church polity and practice.
Brits also tend to pride themselves on being nuanced, which means ideas like the 9Marks agenda can die the death of a thousand qualifications. “It’s a bit more complicated than that” is what Brits often think, even when we don’t say it.
Within evangelical circles, these two factors mean that people with firmly held ideas on secondary issues are often written off as arrogant or divisive.
I’ve written at more length about the health of the church in Britain more broadly, and I don’t currently have space to revisit the complex relationship between denominational, non-denominational, and inter-denominational networks. I also have no space to trace the history of evangelicalism in Britain. Rather, here I will reflect on the far smaller subset of conservative evangelicalism in Britain.
CLARITY ON THE GOSPEL & THE WORD
First and foremost, when it comes to the centrality of the Word in the life of our churches, I’m greatly encouraged by both our unity and our health.
Britain has produced and continues to produce a large number of faithful biblical expositors. The legacy of men like John Stott and Dick Lucas can be seen in many churches, and men work hard to expose God’s people to God’s Word. Ministries such as the Proclamation Trust, and training colleges such as Oak Hill, London Seminary, and WEST/Union continue to produce high-quality expositors. Dependence upon the power of God’s Word is also evident in a great deal of ministry outside the pulpit, such as small groups or women’s ministry study materials.
This high view of Scripture has worked its way into many churches’ understanding of the gospel, evangelism, and conversion. In contrast to the man-centered gospel that’s so often held out in other churches, conservative evangelical churches in Britain are faithfully holding out and depending on the true gospel, rightly preached. Not only is the gospel taught, but there’s an appropriate priority to evangelism that recognizes the lost-ness of the nation and seeks to reach out in bold and faithful ways.
Our dependence on God’s Word also demonstrates itself by a rich concern for discipleship and growth, whether through one-to-one ministry, Bible-centered small groups, or practical teaching in the church and parachurch more broadly. This is encouraging, especially in light of a British reserve that lends itself to people “hiding,” even in one-to-one relationships.
CONFUSION ON MEMBERSHIP & DISCIPLINE
If we were to divide the health of the church into marks related to the right preaching of the Word and those related to the right administration of the ordinances, it’s in the latter where there’s little consensus about what, if anything, the Bible teaches.
Few churches see well-defined church membership as biblically mandated. In fact, many see the practice as a harmful barrier to people feeling welcome at church. I mentioned that Brits tend to pride themselves on being nuanced. This means many churches shy away from any sort of formal church discipline. A pastor may offer private counsel to abstain from the Lord’s Table, but the voice of the whole congregation is rarely involved. Even churches with a well-defined membership rarely practice church discipline, and among churches that do, discipline for something like non-attendance would be almost unthinkable.
Nonetheless, a small but growing number of churches are treating the Bible’s teaching on membership and discipline as normative. Even within Anglicanism, where well-defined church membership and discipline has been rare, there are a handful of churches thinking about how to practice these things more faithfully within their respective denominational constraints. “Partnership covenants” have been utilized as a way for those who want the chance to engage in deeper relational and accountable fellowship within parish churches.
Finally, many churches do practice a plurality of eldership, both within independent churches and denominations. However, this is often argued as a pragmatic, rather than a biblically faithful decision.
In Britain, we have much to be thankful for, even as there is much work to be done. Among Christians, we need more conversations among those of us who agree on the gospel but disagree on the “secondary issues” and their importance. These conversations must be charitable and had in love, and they must happen within a framework that highlights our mutual generosity and long-standing co-operation. At the very least, this would provide an opportunity to show our brothers and sisters that these secondary issues, though not as important as the gospel, may be more important than British Christians have tended to assume over the past 400 years.
 For two useful books from different perspectives that trace the trajectory of evangelicalism through the twentieth century see Murray, Iain H. Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950-2000 (2000). Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, and Barclay, Oliver. Evangelicalism in Britain 1935-1995. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1997.