If you follow some secular media coverage of the Church of England, you might well be under the impression that its evangelical wing contained many who are divisive, homophobic and relentlessly negative.
The truth is inevitably somewhat more complex. I have just spent 24 hours attending parts of a major gathering of more than 400 Anglican evangelical church leaders representing well over 200 churches.
The ReNew conference brought together some diverse views, ranging from those who remain committed to the Church of England to those who have left it for various reasons and linked up with the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) under GAFCON, the international conservative grouping. And it covered a whole variety of topics, from the current state of the denomination to outreach, inter-faith issues and the atonement.
One thing I can tell you for sure is that they talk. Goodness me do they talk. All the time. I had barely even sat down on the train to get there when two people behind me – who were plainly heading towards the same event – started talking brightly about church-planting. It was breakfast time, I was half asleep and I hadn't even had time to take the lid off the little tub of porridge I had bought! They chattered away happily for much of the two-hour rail journey.
When I came down to breakfast the second day, I was about to tuck into breakfast when I realised delegates nearby were talking with enthusiasm... about church-planting! Reader, I nearly choked on my black pudding. I mean, church-planting is most commendable but there is a time to discuss it, and that, in my own diary, is never over breakfast.
However in a way this snapshot gives you a picture of the real passion of Church of England evangelicals at the moment: they are incredibly committed to church growth and passionate about revitalising existing congregations and establishing new ones. And here are several other things which might surprise – even shock – you as well:
1. They are surprisingly Anglican. The caricature of evangelicals in this denomination is that they love guitars, throw away liturgy, and have little respect for rules. That may be true for some. But here there was not a guitar in sight, and several speakers stressed their commitment to the Church of England's formularies, theology and liturgy. Moreover I certainly cannot recall any other event I have attended using part of the 'Prayer of Commination' from the 1662 Prayer Book which contains the line: 'Enter not into judgment with thy servants, who are vile earth, and miserable sinners.'
2. They are surprisingly united. There was a great range of views at this conference. One of the most striking presentations was from three clergy who have radically different perspectives on the Church of England – one very committed to their diocesan structures, one who had mixed feelings, and one who has planted a new church with AMiE. But they spoke generously of each other. There was no sense that 'this is what I think, and you should think the same'.
3. They are surprisingly thoughtful. Read some social media, and you may well find knee-jerk negativity from some evangelicals expressing contempt for others and total despair about the Church of England. But it became clear as the event progressed that those voices are really quite unrepresentative of the constituency as a whole. Most of the presentations were intelligent, thoughtful and measured – even (perhaps especially) when talking about the issue of sexuality. As one speaker said, many gay people assume evangelicals hate them, so it is not too difficult to pleasantly surprise them when you actually speak to them.
Several bishops were present, and one of the things shared was how last week's College of Bishops meeting had discussed how the Church of England can take the gospel to the nation, including, presumably, church-planting.
Of course, not everything said from the platform chimed with my own views or approach. And the delegates seemed to be fairly white and middle-class, which would concern me if I was organising the event. But I came away heartened that up close and personal, Anglican evangelicals are, on the whole, far removed from their secular media caricature.
For me, the presentation on outreach from Revd Glen Scrivener was especially helpful. At one point he encouraged us to think about how Jesus makes a difference to us personally, so we are ready to speak of our faith when others ask.
Now Christ has done some amazing things over the years in my life – and many challenging things too. But at that particular moment, I have to admit the first thought that popped into my mind was simply: 'At least Jesus doesn't speak to me about church-planting over breakfast.' Shape
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Follow him on Twitter @Baker_David_A