Evangelicals then and now

Jonathan Fletcher was converted at the age of 12, and nurtured through Scripture Union camps. Through the writings of JC Ryle and Griffith Thomas, he became an ‘Anglican by conviction’, and trained for the ordained ministry at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. He has pastored an independent Anglican church in Wimbledon with an evangelical foundation for the past 25 years.

Tim Thornborough: When was there any doubt that Anglicanism would be the route that you would adopt in ministry?

Jonathan Fletcher: My generation in the 60s in Oxford was rocked by John Robinson’s Honest to God, so that comparatively few of my contemporaries did get ordained in the Anglican church. When I went to Wycliffe, in my second year, I was the only conservative evangelical there. I’m not sure I seriously considered other routes to ministry because, at that time, the classic formularies of the Church of England were still the accepted goal posts of Anglicanism. We were helped at Oxford by the Bishop Jewell Society, which was completely separate from the Christian Union and was a termly meeting for evangelicals from an Anglican perspective. The sort of people I looked to for help in forming my views on ministry and theology were Alan Stibbs, Jim Packer and John Stott, and, before them, JC Ryle and Griffith Thomas.

Iain Murray was brought up in the English Presbyterian Church and was converted when he was 17. He has worked as a pastor in English and Australian churches, and was instrumental in setting up The Banner of Truth Trust to publish reformed and puritan material from the past and present. He has written extensively on the history of Evangelicalism in the UK.

Iain Murray: I went to Durham University for the first part of a preparation for the English Presbyterian ministry. The usual procedure for Presbyterian ministry was a three-year Arts degree and three years theology at Westminster College, Cambridge. But I never went to Westminster.

One influence that changed my direction was my mother’s death. She was a faithful church-goer all her life, and familiar with liberal theology, but was not converted until a few years before she died of cancer in her 50s. The truth was that until that time she had heard very little truly biblical preaching, and it disturbed me greatly that she and many others had been so deprived in a once-orthodox denomination. She died triumphantly, and her testimony contributed to my withdrawal from the English Presbyterian Church.

After a period of uncertainty, Dr Lloyd-Jones helped me, and I served as his assistant, then as minister of Grove Chapel, London, before the Banner of Truth moved its head office to Scotland in 1972. Later we lived in Australia for nine years. I remain very fond of Australia—I have Australian citizenship— but I came back to the UK for the work of the Banner of Truth Trust in 1991.

TT: You mentioned Dr Lloyd-Jones: would you would see him as the figurehead of the strand of Evangelicalism that your ministry has been part of?

IM: While students at Durham, a number of us started to read the Puritans, although we knew nothing of the puritan conference in London. When we began to ask the question “Does anyone preach these things today?”, our attention was increasingly drawn to Dr Lloyd-Jones. His influence shaped many of us for the ministry.

Ranald Macaulay was brought up in South Africa where he threw off his Anglican school upbringing to become an atheist. Converted in Cambridge, he went on to work with Francis Schaeffer in the L’Abri Fellowship, planted two Presbyterian churches in the UK, and is now attached to The Round Church, Cambridge, where he is involved with Christian Heritage.

Ranald Macaulay: I met an atheist who convinced me that God did not exist. I remember coming out of an Anglican church in Johannesburg and saying to myself, “I do not believe in the Father, I do not believe in the Son, I do not believe in the Holy Spirit”. I began what I later saw to be a certain kind of existentialist walk. I started to ask myself, “If God doesn’t exist, what kind of universe does exist?” And I became very despondent, and felt increasingly the sort of pressure that men like Sartre and Camus wrote about: what is the meaning of life? It was absurd.

By the time I came to Cambridge, I was literally on my knees. By the grace of God, I was feeling so lost and so confused that two weeks before I left for Cambridge, I knelt down beside my bed and I prayed: “God, if you are there, please help me”. I knew that my best friend at school had become a Christian before me, and so that was a great influence on me. He took me along to hear Mark Ruston at the Round Church, and a CICCU (Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union) tea, and I went along to hear LFE Wilkinson who used to be head of Oak Hill. So I was converted, believe it or not, on my first Sunday in Cambridge.

But that was only the beginning; I was left with a kind of uncertainty about just how true Christianity was. I had a lot of questions, and I wasn’t getting very far. I was doing difficult subjects like Jurisprudence, and I had an atheist philosopher as my teacher. That was the background to my meeting Francis Schaeffer at Cambridge. While I am hugely appreciative of the writing of people like John Stott and Packer, it was Schaeffer who was really the primary influence. I started to study at Ridley Hall for full-time ministry, but left after three terms and became a Presbyterian by conviction when I went to Switzerland. It was going back to my roots in one way, but meeting Schaeffer helped me to realize that there was a whole development of Presbyterianism in the States I knew nothing about which was Bible believing. I was ordained, came back to England, did another degree in theology at Kings, and started a new church in London.

I had huge reservations about starting another church, but eventually did take the plunge because I was ordained into the International Presbyterian Church which Schaeffer had begun as a spinoff from the Presbyterian Church of America. Another congregation began when we went down to Hampshire to start our L’Abri residential work there.

JF: Can I just say that while I didn’t go through Ranald’s existential angst, I had to face up to it. That was the atmosphere of Oxford in the 60s. And Francis Schaeffer was incredibly helpful in all that. That existential movement was all around then. I think it’s roughly the same as postmodernism, so I think Schaeffer’s got a lot to say to people today.

TT: As young men who had suddenly found themselves orientated towards a mission and ministry, what were your great hopes for the future back then? What did you dream of happening in the lifetime of your ministry? And how has it actually turned out?

JF: Let me start unhelpfully and say I didn’t have a vision and dream of how I would be used and what would happen to the Church of England. The 1960s were a very tough time in all sorts of ways. Jim Packer would say that the Evangelical Anglican conference at Keele in 1967 was the high point of Anglican Evangelicalism, and that it’s gone down since then. Actually, I think the 1950s may have been more exciting with Billy Graham missions—when we actually thought we were on the brink of a revival in London.

The Keele conference turned out to be a two-headed monster. The intention of the founding fathers of Keele—that is, Jim Packer, Alec Motyer and others—was to campaign for the Church of England to return to its evangelical roots. But they handed the baton to younger evangelicals, and their aim was much less ambitious: to make sure that Evangelicalism was an accepted stream within the Church of England. Keele was wonderful: there were 1,000 people there, which in 1967 was a lot. But I doubt that we could scrape together that number of thoroughly evangelical clergy now. But there were warning signs even then that all was not well. There was an element of churchyness beginning to creep in.

So I personally didn’t have great visions and dreams for how the evangelical cause would progress; I just thought it was a good thing to teach the Bible, see people converted and moved into ministry. And my plea, then as now, would be for people to be realistic about the parlous state of the Church of England: it’s basically in intensive care. Despite this, I’m not pessimistic because things were worse in the 18th century, and because, ultimately, we are on the winning side.

IM: When I started in ministry, I had two main motivations. One was simply to serve a congregation; that was my primary desire. But with that, I had a concern to see the recovery of the older evangelical and Calvinistic literature. We tried to encourage InterVarsity Press in that direction, but then we started The Banner of Truth Trust in 1957. The old reprints took off remarkably. Today, things have changed enormously, and it is quite thrilling in Brazil, for example, to see that authors such as JC Ryle are better known now than they were in their lifetimes. In the US, the young people, by their thousands, are today buying the old classical literature to an extent we do not see in Britain. My hopes for the best literature have been fulfilled far beyond anything I expected!

RM: The 1950s were a very exciting time for me, really. There was a lot beginning to happen. Outstanding people like John Stott could lead a university mission without being considered fundamentalist in the bad sense—really preaching effectively to the student audience. I still remember the buzz of hearing Schaeffer at Keswick when he spoke to the postgraduates.

I sensed that something new was happening. You, Jonathan, are saying that the Anglican church is in a parlous state; I think the whole of the evangelical church is in a parlous state. I feel very saddened that our hopes, however real back then, have not been realized. And we have seen a very sad fragmentation and disorientation.

JF: There was a big change from the 50s to the 60s. In the 1950s people were coming out of the army, having done national service, and there was a maturity among young Christian students which had gone by the 60s. The 1950s were exciting, but the 1960s were hard. The 1964 John Stott mission to Oxford was picketed by the humanist society and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament! It was quite tough being in the OICCU (Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union) in those days.

IM: I think there has been a tendency to run down the so-called ‘fundamentalist’ generation we grew up in. Billy Graham could never have held all those campaigns in the mid-1950s if it hadn’t been for the support of many evangelical churches.

RM: I feel that today we have what I describe as a ‘pietist hangover’. Evangelicals have never really come to grips with the pietist period from, say, 1860. This was the dominant spirituality of most evangelicals around the time of Spurgeon’s revival-year sermons in 1859, and on through to about the end of the second World War. One of the major features of this movement was a deep suspicion about intellectual and cultural engagement. Tyndale House, a biblical research centre in Cambridge, was a major development in putting an end to this, as was Carl Henry’s first book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.

TT: Iain has written extensively on the John Stott/Martyn Lloyd-Jones split in 1967 at Keele. What are your perspectives on the impact of this to the cause of the gospel in recent history? What are your thoughts about the healing of the rift which appears to be happening at the moment—your hopes and concerns for that new beginning, if you like, that we’re seeing now?

RM: To use a biblical expression, I think, evangelicals had ‘feet of clay’ already when we came through the Second World War. On the one hand, we had a pietist, somewhat anti-intellectual tradition. On the other, the Anglicans were wanting to change this, and were becoming engaged intellectually. However, they lacked the wherewithal to do it, because behind them lay a huge philosophical and theological vacuum. Lloyd-Jones became aware of this inherent weakness and saw where the engagement was, in fact, going, and, for good reason, began to get worried.

Take three illustrations. First, complementarianism had been widely accepted by evangelical scientists. Intellectual leaders were beginning to say, “You have the biblical account and you have the scientific account, and these don’t really have to dovetail”. This was disastrous, and demonstrated a philosophical naivety. Then Lloyd-Jones saw how there was a huge amount of straight confusion doctrinally, because of compromise with liberal theology. Finally, he was seeing a growing comprehensiveness at the Anglican congresses— like Keele. For example, David Watson stood up once and said he thought the Reformation was a tragedy. Some at Nottingham felt they should call themselves Anglicans rather than evangelicals. Thankfully, John Stott took the bull by the horns and, with great courage, insisted, “We are evangelicals first”.

So the way I see it is that Lloyd-Jones sensed where it was all going and rightly said, “Help! What do we do?”. But at that point, he did the wrong thing: he called for the evangelicals in the Anglican church to come out of it. Or, at least, that is how it was understood.

TT: Whatever the precise details of what was said, the divide between Anglican and non-Anglican evangelicals after Keele was very keenly felt by many churches in practice.

JF: Evangelicals have got a tradition of dividing. And I think that is what we are seeing again within Anglican circles where there is a big divide between Fulcrum (which is a new ‘open evangelical’ network) and Anglican Mainstream. Throughout the 1960s, I was in the Christian Union which was interdenominational. My own observation of 66/67 was that both John Stott and Lloyd-Jones were right. And both were possibly wrong. I’m sure if Lloyd-Jones were around now and he looked at Anglican evangelicals, he would say, “I told you so”. If he was right in saying “Come out”, John Stott was right in saying, “Come in”.

I am looking back to the 18th century as my hope for the future. The Church of England was in a worse state then than it is now. In the middle of the 18th century at St Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Day in the 1750s there were only 10 people. On Easter day! Heresy was rampant. The situation changed partly through the preaching of Wesley and Whitefield, and partly (and this is where I want to address younger evangelicals) because you saw faithful people going into the funny little places that were not strategic, and making them strategic through teaching the Bible. There is a craze at the moment for church planting at the risk of neglecting innercity areas, urban priority areas (UPAs), country parishes, and so on. However, as well as grappling with the kind of thing Francis Schaeffer was doing, I think the answer is the preaching of the word—and I want to encourage our younger brethren to be prepared to go to villages and the UPAs.

With the division, I think there has been a bit of a healing process—partly through the work of the Proclamation Trust, and the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, which has brought free churchmen and Anglicans together, and partly through Evangelicals Now where we see both sides working together.

I loved the time, as in my OICCU days, when we worked together. We may have gone to an Anglican or Baptist church in the morning, but, essentially, we were gathered around the Word. And more recently I had the great privilege of being the speaker at the council meeting of the Federation of Independent Evangelical Churches. They accepted an Anglican speaker at their council meeting; that was a wonderful step forward. And I think even Dick Lucas may have spoken at Caister FIEC conference and even at a Banner of Truth conference. That is amazing!

But we are always prone to separating. We are, naturally, very divisive.

TT: What are some of the potential dangers for this new wave of Evangelicalism?

JF: A number of dangers. I think there is this danger of us falling out with one another. Because truth means so much to us, our particular aspect on some of the secondary issues will lead us to divide. And we’ve got to come to an agreement on what are the essential things and what are secondary. Because truth means so much to us, we will find it difficult, and therefore my brothers here may well want to attack me because I am not a creationist.

I think there’s a real danger of an overreaction against pietism into a dry intellectualism. My Christian circles were always tremendously warm and fun. A big change for me, personally, was getting the Australian perspective, which taught me that I could be both reformed and evangelistic, which I had missed out on.

IM: Our tendency to fragment shows us the way that sin is still in us. We disobey our Lord’s command to ‘call no man master’. So we set up our leaders, and most people just go the way their leaders go. The only healthy antidote to that is to have leaders who are so humble before Scripture themselves, and who make Scripture their complete foundation, that they create disciples who are able to disagree with them in a friendly way. We have had some complete disasters with some of the most gifted men over the last 50 years who have ended up having a negative influence. People end up worshipping the gifts not the giver.

JF: I learned this valuable lesson from Ryle, who would quote 20 commentators and then say, “I call no man master” and give his own view. I personally revere John Stott, but would dare to disagree just occasionally.

TT: Iain,how do you think Martin Lloyd- Jones would react to the situation today?

IM: One of the things Lloyd-Jones was always big on was that we should set the agenda—or rather, that Scripture should set the agenda. Now, how do we do that when people are really not interested in the Bible any more? At that point, we have to say: this is not a battle against flesh and blood; it is a spiritual battle. Apostasy has come on our land because of disobedience to the word of God. The first thing is that the people of God should be faithful to the word of God, and, who knows, God may, in his mercy, use a refined people to renew the cause of the gospel in the land. That’s how I understand the 18th-century revival. Wesley and Whitefield weren’t concerned for reviving a denomination; they were concerned for souls and preaching Christ, and the renewal of the Anglican tradition was incidental to a much bigger work of God that was going on.

RM: Wesley and Whitefield were preaching to people who still had a culture that was influenced and shaped by the puritan thinkers, so they got a ready hearing from the people. But you go to a modern person and say, “The Bible says…”, and they reply, “What do you mean?” You say, “God exists”, and they say, “So what?” The culture has moved on. A vacuum exists intellectually which we must address. But some still operate along the lines of the pietist withdrawal. They act as if all we can do is pray for revival, and God may drop it on us. But we see Paul operating very differently in Acts: he proclaimed the gospel and yet, at the same time, he persuaded and argued. It’s what I call two-legged evangelism as against onelegged evangelism, which is proclamation only. I’m not talking down preaching; I’m saying that the preaching must be informed by a mind like Paul’s and Jesus’, which can address individuals in specific ways according to their cultural contexts.

TT: You seem to be expressing a common concern in three different ways. Jonathan is concerned about the craze for church planting; Iain, about the blind following of leaders; and Ranald, about our inability to grapple with the bigger philosophical ideas. But your common worry is that beneath the resurgence of evangelical activity, there is a shallowness that threatens to destroy it all. Do you see any signs for hope in the future?

JF: The headline figures are disastrous. Churches are shedding members like autumn leaves, and the age profile in many churches means that they will be empty and dead in 20 years time. So we need to be realistic. The activity we are seeing may just be that we are getting a larger slice of an ever-diminishing cake.

I think that Evangelicalism as a whole is in a parlous state. There is a real superficiality to much of the life we see. People need to know our church history, or we will fall into the same errors. I am more sanguine about the future than many; I don’t get too excited about the resurgence. What gains we seem to have made may be gains from what are, effectively, easy pickings; evangelicals have a bad record of going into hard places like the inner city.

RM: I’d like to add an element beneath that. Because we are not rooted properly and grounded in the truth, we are in danger of building something that can easily crumble. We need to recover a view that the Bible is absolutely true—that is, it describes objective reality, although, admittedly, in a limited way. This is how God has chosen to reveal himself personally to us. So I think that many evangelical activities going on at present—for example, in preaching, church planting and church growth—tend to be superficial because they are essentially all about technique: “We’ve discovered a new way of preaching” (or meeting together, or singing, or having big meetings, or doing Bible study). They get people excited for a time, but much of it is just a waste of time in terms of the real need to recover convictions about truth.

IM: The growing friendship among evangelical leaders is very encouraging.

JF: The tragedy of the 1966 split was that the Anglicans needed the Free Church to keep us sound, and the Free Church needed the Anglicans to keep them in touch and relevant. We needed each other very badly. We’re good friends, but we easily fall out.

IM: Deeper spiritual life, more humility, more devotion to God, more prayer— these are uniting disciplines. We won’t ever be united intellectually, and we need to acknowledge that, but it’s amazing how fragmentary our understanding is.

TT: If you were doing a farewell message to this next generation of leaders, what would you want to impress upon them?

JF: Beware of wolves, shallowness and getting into bed with Rome. Stick with the word, and take it really seriously. I think the Bible, properly taught, does deal with all the real issues. Francis Schaeffer used to say that when he was talking with an existentialist, he would spend the first 50 minutes dealing with and critiquing existentialism, and only the last 10 minutes on the gospel. I think that the Bible deals with these issues anyway; I would spend the whole 60 minutes explaining the gospel from Ecclesiastes.

IM: Next to a devotion for and love of studying and preaching Scripture, I would encourage them to understand why our Protestant Confessions say what they say, and how they speak to us, and that they should read Schaeffer’s book The Great Evangelical Disaster. It’s required reading.

My thanks to Peter Sanlon for his helpful comments during this interview.