It goes without saying that, as ever, this post in particular represents only my own view, and shouldn’t be taken as representative of anyone or institution I’ve ever been associated with. I am, as I’ve said before, also one who blogs in a connected way.
I was recently privileged to be invited as (and this sounds a lot grander than it really is) an ecumenical guest, to the Southern Diocesan Synod of the Free Church of England. The Free Church of England (FCE) is a continuing Anglican church, outside of the Church of England, which is currently undergoing a small but promising resurgence, largely as a result of concerns in the National Church of England over the authority of scripture, historic changes, and missional priorities. As someone passionate about unity and truth, I was excited to go and see a bit of the inner workings of a historic movement whose motto is ‘Holding forth the faithful word’, a reference to Titus 1:9. Whilst there are some areas where I wouldn’t be able to engage in FCE churches (paedobaptism, etc) there was much to be excited and encouraged about. It is also worth noting that, as a theology graduate and son of two solicitors, I do actually enjoy meetings and process, so it was a treat to also have a great meal, cooked by the church, to have fellowship over.
After mulling for a couple of weeks, I’ve decided that as good a way as any to share my reflections is with the acronym ‘FCE’. So without further ado:
1 – Friendship
This may be a strange word, but it is the theme that introduced and framed my afternoon with the FCE. Over the past year or so, I’ve been cultivating friendships with a couple of theologically and mission-minded Anglican ministers – both of whom hold licenses in both the FCE and the C of E. One, James, lives almost literally down the road, and so it was from a place of friendship that I recently interviewed him, and I ended up at Christ Church Harlesden one Spring afternoon.
The FCE is not against other Anglican bodies, but offers a clear alternative. Formally, the FCE has a good relationship with the C of E and other churches, and whilst small, is committed to culturally careful church planting and faithfully continuing their charge. I was struck at the Synod (Which started with lunch – a brilliant blend of quiche and some stunning Tamil curry) that friendship is probably the unspoken value that I appreciate most. I recognised a few other folk from different places, and to be quite honest, the gathering was one of the most racially and generationally diverse I’ve been at in a while. There were pensioners from Exmouth, immigrants of varying generations (both age and geography!) a theologian from Kent, a mother and child from south London, and myself, among others. Yet, as we gathered, we did fellowship in the proper way – eating together, singing together, and getting down to important business. I was particularly struck that at this Diocesan Synod, each of the churches brought a report – often given by a lay person – and each of these stressed the value and importance of friendship in the Gospel.
2 – Christ-centred Church
It was perhaps fitting that we met at ‘Christ Church, Harlesden’, as the Christ-centred-ness of the FCE was eminently apparent. I was struck on entering the church building (a reasonably modern construction, replacing a larger more ‘traditional’ church, I understand) the balance between reaching out and reaching up. The building hosts a primary school – which appears to be thriving – in its main space. Behind sliding doors (which were open for Synod) was the ‘front matter’ you might expect from an Anglican Church – Organ, Altar/table, chairs, candles, etc. It was great to be worshipping Christ and hearing encouragements in a space that was clearly aimed at reaching out to the local community, and reaching up in worship of God. I understand that in addition to the small English-speaking FCE Congregation, there is also a larger foreign language gathering meeting in the church building.
The FCE separated from the C of E over concerns about the over-religious Oxford Movement, and so is confessionally reformed, which I felt at home with. It is recognisably Anglican – liturgy, articles, BCP, etc – but is distinctly and deliberately evangelical. Whilst I appreciated that this may not be to all my readers’ taste, it is worth noting that it was very clear throughout Synod that the primary purpose and motivation of the FCE is proclaiming Christ faithfully, wherever Jesus calls us. This was reflected in the emphasis on outreach in the church’s report, which included a new Church plant in Tunbridge Wells, and a consistent concern for those who don’t yet know Jesus. The Bishop’s closing charge was also beautifully gospel-rooted, with an exhortation to go out and do good.
3 – Ecumenical Evangelicalism
I’ve used the phrase ‘ecumenical evangelical’ to describe myself before – I don’t want my evangelicalism to be closed to the movement of God outside my tribe(s). I was struck by the FCE Synod that this value is expressed in the FCE, too, in a number of ways. Firstly, the FCE is Doctrinally Anglican, which means that the vast majority of it’s theology is deeply biblical, fundamentally evangelical, and postured outwards to persuade people of the beauty of Christ. Secondly was the cultural diversity – geographic, educational, language, theological, etc – represented in the room. The hope of unity is a drawing together of people from every tribe and tongue and nation, around Jesus and what he said and did. Thirdly was a bible-soaked, prayerful worship. Whilst not my normal fare (I don’t think I’ve held a ‘Mission Praise’ book since the late 90’s!) it was good to worship in song, prayer and liturgy with brothers and sisters from around the country. Fourthly and finally, I was struck by the different ways the FCE was and is willing to adapt and change in order to continue to hold out the faithful word, the Gospel. Whether it be church planting, multi-use buildings, Tamil language services, or other avenues, this was clearly an evangelical gathering of people committed to proclaiming Christ by all means necessary in order that anyone might hear something of the Gospel.