The Church of England In The 1940s And JI Packer

This is from Alister McGrath’s masterful biography of JI Packer. McGrath talks about the desperate state of the Anglican church for evangelicals in the 1940s. If it was this bad in the 40s and things turned around, there’s still hope for evangelicals choosing to serve in mainline churches today.

… However, as time went by, the Church of England gradually lost its close association with the ideas and practices of the Reformation. The rise of Deism and a form of theological liberalism usually known as Latitudinarianism during the eighteenth century eroded the influence of evangelicalism. Although a major evangelical revival developed during that same century, it had faded away by the 1830s. During the remainder of the nineteenth century, the history of the Church of England was dominated by the rise of Anglo-Catholicism (a ‘high church’ movement, linked with the Oxford Movement), and the rise of modernism and liberalism. Between the First and Second World Wars, the general growth of liberalism within the Church of England was supplemented by the rise of ‘Liberal Evangelicalism’. The strongly liberal ‘Group Brotherhood’, which began meeting in 1907, ‘went public’ in 1925 with the publication of a work entitled Liberal Evangelicalism. The result was that evangelicalism became seriously disunited and fragmented by the eve of the Second World War.

After the Second World War, evangelicalism was in a sorry state in England. It had lost any positions of power it once had in the national church. It was numerically weak. It was treated with something approaching contempt by academics, especially academic theologians. It was dominated by forms of Pietism which stressed the importance of personal intimacy with Jesus, yet discounted as irrelevance any serious thinking or engagement with theological issues. It was a movement with a distinguished past, but apparently no viable future. Hensley Henson (1863-1947), Bishop of Durham, dismissed it as ‘an army of illiterates, generalled by octogenarians’. With exceptions as honourable as they were few, the movement was characterized by an anti-intellectual defensiveness, nourished by a separatist mentality.

For a convinced evangelical, such as Packer, to go into ministry in the Church of England at this stage was rather like a Daniel volunteering to enter the lions’ den. It seemed that there was no place and no future for evangelicals inside that church. They were few in number, and were left in no doubt that they were unwanted. In the post-war period, the Church of England witnessed a major surge in the number of men wishing to be ordained, and a growth in its church life at every level. It seemed that its future was secure. The kind of evangelicalism which Packer represented – which at this stage was generally identified with ‘fundamentalism’ – was widely regarded as immature, simplistic, irrelevant and unreasonably dogmatic. For Packer to choose to minister in such a church was, quite simply, a step of faith. Could things be changed? In the closing years of the 1940s, there were few reasons to think so. But Packer kept his counsel.