I’m not sure John Chapman would have approved of this article, on two counts. For a start, it speaks more positively of him than he would have been comfortable with; but more particularly, this article tries to do two things at once, a vice that Chappo decried in many a trainee preacher. (I can hear him now: “My dear Tony, there was enough excellent material in there for two good articles. What a shame you decided to write them both at once!”)
It may well fail to do either adequately, but this article is meant to be a reflection on Chappo and his writing; and at the same time a review of Michael Jensen’s new book, Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology.
The impetus for this connection began at Chappo’s thanksgiving service in St Andrew’s Cathedral in November last year. Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen opened the service in an unusual way by referring to two books about Sydney Anglicanism that he had read, neither of which mentioned Chappo in the index. He said that he knew immediately that both were worthy of the bin, on the grounds that it is impossible to understand or explain present-day Sydney Anglicanism without reference to the titanic contribution of John Charles Chapman. And the remainder of the service was a magnificent thanksgiving for that contribution.
Now having investigated this matter, I can confirm that the Archbishop’s remarks were not directed at his son Michael’s new book, which seeks to explain and defend Sydney Anglicanism, and which does indeed fail to list John Chapman in its index. I can also confirm that Michael’s book is not bin-worthy. On the contrary, it is a stimulating and intelligent piece of writing that judiciously explains many of the people, events, themes and controversies of Sydney Anglicanism, and provides a compelling defence against some of the key criticisms levelled at Sydney by its harshest critics. All the same, I do have my reasons for wanting to talk about Michael’s book and Chappo at the same time, and they will become apparent in due course.
Using a cleverly conceived illustration, Michael makes clear from the outset that his book is addressing two audiences. It deserves quoting at length:
The famous Asterix the Gaul comic books that I read when I was a kid begin in this way:
The year is 50 B.C. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely… One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanam and Compendium…
The Gauls gain their fabulous strength from a magic potion brewed by their druid, Getafix. But the secret of their ability to defy the odds, and the Romans, comes from somewhere else. They are possessed of a remarkable inner fortitude. They have an almost casual confidence about them that drives their opponents to distraction. They have a clear sense of shared identity in the face of what seems like insurmountable opposition. They love to eat wild boar.
The way the story of the Anglican diocese of Sydney has been told by her supporters and critics alike often sounds like the opening to Asterix. In the view of Melbourne journalist and Anglican laywoman Muriel Porter, for example, the evangelical variety of Anglicanism that in general characterizes the diocese of Sydney is defiantly peculiar. As she reads it, an Anglicanism that is Catholic in liturgy and liberal in theology has triumphed everywhere. It is the dominant form, and reigns unchecked and unchallenged across Australia and even across the globe. This one small diocese of indomitable, very conservative, and (to be frank) completely unhinged evangelical Anglicans holds out against the onward march of liberal Catholic Anglicanism… They simply get in the way of what would be a normal development in other places.
The same story can be told from within the gates of the Sydney Anglican village as well. While all around, Anglicanism has capitulated almost totally to the liberal, broad-church paradigm—with the exception of a few parishes in each diocese that are allowed to remain traditional Anglo-Catholic or conservative evangelical—Sydney is the only diocese in which an evangelical form of Anglicanism holds sway. Alone it holds the torch against the onslaught of darkness. Alone it defies the complete capitulation of Anglican Christianity to Western cultural mores. Alone it holds to priority of Scripture over culture as authoritative for church belief and practice. Splendidly, nobly alone.
It is the thesis of this book that this narrative is simply untrue and that holding to it is potentially disastrous.
In the chapters that follow, Michael seeks to convince the wary outsider that Sydney Anglicanism, far from being a weird little isolationist tribe, is a perfectly sane, intellectually robust, legitimate form of historic Anglicanism that looks back with integrity to our Reformation foundations and formularies, and sits within a tradition that contains such worthy names as Jewel, Wesley, Whitefield, Simeon, Ryle, Packer and Stott. His point is that if Sydney Anglicanism is the lunatic fringe, then we must also dispense with a large swathe of the Anglican communion throughout the world and throughout history. If the evangelicalism represented by Sydney (and other parts of the Anglican world) seems strange to critics such as Porter, it has more to do with the current hegemony of the liberal-Catholic form of Anglicanism in so many places than with any departure by Sydney from historic Anglicanism.
In making this point, Michael explores ten topics, five under the heading ‘Bible’ and five under ‘Church’.
Under ‘Bible’, he explains why the charge of ‘fundamentalism’ is unhelpful and inaccurate in describing Sydney’s view of the authority of Scripture; how Sydney came to be a pioneer in ‘biblical theology’; how Broughton Knox’s views on ‘propositional revelation’ have been misunderstood; and why preaching of a particularly expository kind has come to have such a central place in Sydney Anglican churches.
Under ‘Church’, he explains and explores the Knox-Robinson view of the church; he asks whether Sydney Anglicans are still legitimate Anglicans (unsurprising answer: yes); he looks at some of the major controversies that have caused friction between Sydney Anglicans and other Anglicans around Australia (such as the ordination of women, and the push for lay administration of the Lord’s Supper); and he looks at the political nature of the Sydney Anglican synod, and the role of the Anglican Church League.
These topics are covered with a lucid and informative mix of theological reflection and historical explanation. I cannot say how effective the presentation will be in convincing the suspicious onlooker that Sydney Anglicans do not in fact have two heads (or ten horns), but as an insider I found it persuasive and encouraging. Certainly as an exercise in defusing some of the more explosive attacks of Sydney’s detractors (such as Muriel Porter, Kevin Giles, Nicholas Taylor and Humphrey Southern) the book has to be judged a real success.
However, the curious or suspicious outsider is not Michael’s only audience. As he makes plain from the outset, he also wishes to address his Sydney brothers and sisters. In this sense, the book is an attempt not only to defend and disarm, but also to explain Sydney Anglicanism to itself, and (at least to some extent) set an agenda for a new generation.
I confess to finding this aspect of the book less convincing. The opening illustration, for example, has a message for Sydney about the dangers of isolationism. We must resist the temptation of seeing ourselves, like Asterix and the Gauls, as the last remaining faithful remnant, holding the torch of evangelical Anglicanism against the onslaught of darkness “splendidly, nobly alone”.
This is no doubt a danger worth avoiding, but I struggled to think of who this was being aimed at. Sydney Anglicans have warm, strong and productive links with Bible-believing Anglicans all over the world, and with evangelicals in other denominations as well, and have had for as long as I can remember. Why ‘noble isolationism’ is a danger for us I found difficult to understand.
Similarly, I found chapter 9 (on the ministry of women) quite puzzling. While good points are made, especially in response to the Arianism accusations of Kevin Giles and others, I finished the chapter none the wiser as to what ‘complementarianism’ or ‘headship’ actually meant, so many and so complex were the qualifications and caveats that were made.
The insider-directed material in chapter 7 I also found unpersuasive. In discussing what it really means to be and remain Anglican, Michael urges his Sydney brethren towards a ‘churchier’ (for want of a better term) Anglicanism that retains a stronger emphasis on the sacraments, conducts a more ordered form of corporate worship, and is more reticent to make changes in church practice and order without the approval of the denomination.
Now I have no problem with Michael putting his case about these and other matters, even though (like many in Sydney) I would not share his particular view of things. The more serious shortcoming is with what is left unsaid.
Reading the book as a Sydney Anglican, I was struck by an absence at the book’s centre. The consequence is that those readers wishing really to understand the essence of Sydney Anglicanism (whether as an outsider or insider) will miss a vital aspect—I would suggest the vital aspect—of what is important and distinctive about our identity.
And this is where I come to John Chapman. I do not mean to imply that Chappo’s absence from Michael’s book is itself the problem, as if genuflecting to the blessed St Chappo has now become the shibboleth for any genuine account of Sydney Anglicanism. (How he would shudder with laughter at that thought!) Even so, his absence is baffling. The two passing mentions of his name occur in the chapter on preaching: once in relation to his being revolutionized by hearing John Stott preach, and again as one of the regular speakers at the Katoomba conventions in the 1980s. It is a strange omission not to mention Chappo’s decisive role in shaping the particular nature of preaching in Sydney—such as his establishment with Dudley Foord of the College of Preachers (which did so much to bring Stott-style exposition to Sydney), and the decades he spent training evangelists and expository preachers through his work at the Department of Evangelism, Moore College and SMBC (not to mention through his book Setting Hearts on Fire). Perhaps more than any other single figure, Chappo made Sydney preaching what it is. And yet this is passed over entirely in Michael’s account of the subject.
It is also decidedly odd that when Michael comes in chapter 8 to discuss Sydney’s ‘face to the world’, including its evangelistic and missionary efforts, there is discussion of the Billy Graham crusades and of Connect 09, but not a word about Chappo’s 25 years at the Department of Evangelism, his incessant itinerant evangelism around Sydney, Australia and the world, his mentoring of evangelists, his development and successful implementation of ‘dialogue evangelism’ in the 1980s and 90s, and his two extraordinarily influential books of that period: A Fresh Start and Know and Tell the Gospel. Failing even to mention Chappo in a discussion of Sydney’s evangelistic culture over the past 40 years is a startling oversight.
However, it is not the absence of Chappo himself that is the gap in the presentation so much as what Chappo embodied, perhaps more than anyone else in our recent history—which is the theological and practical centrality of the gospel within Sydney Anglicanism.
The gospel and its growth is what animates Sydney Anglicans. As Peter Jensen reminded us at Chappo’s service, we are evangelicals first and Anglicans second. The gospel is our passion, our song, our motive force. The gospel explains us. It’s the reason why we stopped wearing robes and running formal set liturgies in the 1980s and 90s (because we wanted to reach a lost Australian community with the gospel); it’s why our ‘face to the world’ has been less about whether to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to it, and more about how to preach the gospel clearly and compellingly to our neighbours and communities; it’s why we have been active in planting new churches, even (the horror!) across diocesan boundaries; it’s why our numbers have grown through conversion at the same time as other Anglican dioceses around Australia have precipitously declined; it’s why Phillip Jensen and others were able to persuade thousands of young men and women to enter Moore College and SMBC, and pursue full-time ministry in Sydney and around the world (because of the priority of the gospel over the ambitions of our careers); it’s why our biblical theology is the way it is (it reads the whole Bible through the lens of the gospel); it’s why our doctrine of church emphasizes the prayerful speaking of the gospel word as the essence of what gathers and unites and edifies us; it’s even why we oppose the normalization of homosexuality and the ordination of women (because gospel obedience to Jesus as he speaks to us in his word is far more important than keeping pace with the trends of worldly thought). And in the end it is also why we are glad to be Anglicans, because Reformation Anglicanism was a gospel movement, seeking to restore gospel preaching to a lost nation and gospel doctrine to a corrupt denomination.
To slightly subvert Michael’s opening illustration, the gospel is the magic potion that gives Sydney its strength and its character. And it’s hard to think of a Sydney Anglican who drank more deeply of that potion, and dispensed it more generously to others, than Chappo. Just to trace the catalogue of his published books reveals this preoccupation:
- Know and Tell the Gospel: a coherent and highly influential theological account not only of the gospel but of the involvement of every Christian in its spread
- A Fresh Start: the most widely used gospel give-away book of the past 30 years
- Setting Hearts on Fire: an inspiring and informative training resource for evangelistic preachers
- A Sinner’s Guide to Holiness: a short guidebook on how the gospel calls sinners to a holy life as the fruit, not the means, of salvation
- A Foot in Two Worlds: a simple guide to the eschatology of the gospel—that we belong to the next age but live out our salvation in this evil age
- Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life: an evangelistic book for seniors on the meaning of eternal life
- Making the Most of the Cross: a simple exposition of the key facets of the death and resurrection of Jesus
- Making the Most of the Bible: a simple argument for the authority and sufficiency of Scripture as a necessary corollary of our faith in Jesus as Lord.
Chappo is the emblematic Sydney Anglican because he was a classic evangelical. He lived and breathed the gospel, and it shaped his approach to everything including everything he wrote.
It’s this gospel-centred character or heartbeat that is strangely lacking in Michael’s portrait of Sydney Anglicanism. The word ‘gospel’ is used quite often, but the theological and day-to-day centrality of the gospel doesn’t drive the description of what it means to be a Sydney Anglican.
In one sense, this absence is not surprising. It is one of the dangers inherent in all apologetics—that in seeking to answer the accusations and critiques of your questioner you end up participating in a discussion that is shaped by your questioner’s presuppositions and world view. (I can well remember Chappo exhorting us in apologetics lectures to answer all questions honestly and openly but to do all that was possible to shift the discussion towards the real issue, which is Jesus and the gospel.)
Michael meets his opponents on the ground of their choosing—their unhappiness with Sydney’s supposed puritanism and fundamentalism; their distaste for how ‘un-Anglican’ Sydney is compared with the practice of most other Australian Anglicans; their abhorrence of our doctrine of church, our opposition to women’s ordination, or our advocacy of lay administration. This locates the discussion within a world view where the truly significant questions revolve around church structure and order, the sacraments, the debates of academic theology, the search for social justice for the oppressed (women, gays), the quest to influence society for the better, and the maintenance and reform of Anglican liturgy and tradition.
But these issues are of less (and in some cases very little) significance for Sydney Anglicanism, because our worldview rests on different foundations. The abiding and central issue for us remains the gospel of Christ, including the repentance and faith that it calls forth and the disciple-making urgency that it motivates.
Of course, I am not implying for a moment that Michael himself does not believe this gospel. And I am reluctant to criticize any book for what it does not say, for no book can say everything. But in this instance, the missing element is vital to a clear understanding of the subject, and its relative absence diminishes the value of the portrait, both for outsiders and insiders. In Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology the gospel remains too much in the background as an unstated assumption, rather than where it belongs—in the foreground and at the centre, as the most important thing about us, both in our recent past and in the challenges that we face in a new generation.
Chappo understood and lived this. What is assumed and left unstated in one generation is lost in the next. The gospel was the central preoccupation of his life, of his preaching, and (to our lasting gain) of everything he wrote.