Wei-Han Kuan explains why evangelicalism has survived in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.
I remember being completely astounded when I was first told that the Diocese of Melbourne was originally the most vigorously evangelical of all the Australian Anglican dioceses. This piece of information was passed on to me some time in the 1990s, when I was actively considering signing up to the said Diocese as a candidate for ordination. To my historically naïve mind, nothing could seem further from the truth! I was weighing up the pros and cons of committing to a lifetime of ministry in a diocese whose true character—it seemed patently obvious to me at the time—was mixed and even majority Anglo-Catholic in ritual and probably liberal in theological emphasis. Evangelicals, it seemed to me, were a minority either concentrated in a few flagship parishes such as St Jude’s Carlton, St Hilary’s Kew and St Mark’s Emerald—the domain of the three Peters: Peter Adam, Peter Corney and Peter Crawford—or huddled in outposts such as St Paul’s Glen Waverley, where I lived; or St Matthias’ North Richmond, where I attended.
Later, in 1997, a reading of the brief, broad brush-stroke official sesquicentenary history of the Diocese, confirmed what had been planted in my mind—that Melbourne indeed had been founded with an evangelical bishop at its helm.1 There was no denying the facts of the historical record: that in 1847, an evangelical Englishman, Charles Perry, was selected as the founding bishop of Melbourne. But that official history, and later still, the great majority of histories and narratives presented to me from within the Diocese, whether in print or in conversation, held to a particular implied metanarrative; a narrative that explained the presence of that evangelical past in Melbourne.
And here it is: that Melbourne, founded evangelical, eventually grew up, left its harsh conservative, wowser-ish foundations—no drink, no smoking, no dancing, no music—and became more cultured and intellectually mature, reaching the full flowering of Anglican identity, that is Anglo-Catholicism, and later yet, liberal Anglo-Catholicism. Evangelicalism was, and is, good for infancy and youth but as surely as a seed turns into a tree, true grown-up Anglican maturity looks like liberal Anglo-Catholicism.
This dynamic, according to this metanarrative, is true of the Diocese of Melbourne’s evangelical past: founded evangelical, but gradually maturing into Anglo-Catholicism. And it is true of the Melbourne Anglican’s personal spiritual experience: and so I’ve heard, in the past decade of life in this Diocese, story after story of an Anglican life started as an evangelical, but now graduated, matured into Anglo-Catholicism—especially of a liberal theological kind. Note that this metanarrative is at work in dioceses in the Global South today, founded by evangelical missions but now increasingly funded by liberal sources.
It seemed to me that such a powerful and persistent metanarrative should not go unchallenged. Why is it that evangelicalism has continued, has persisted, even thrived in some quarters, within the Diocese of Melbourne? Why hasn’t it just rolled over and died out as a movement? The prevailing metanarrative described above implies that it should have, and it should have long ago. But it hasn’t! Why? That question lay at the heart of my recent research studies.
Four vital contributors
The conclusion I came to was a fourfold one: that it takes four vital contributors to ensure evangelical continuity within a diocesan or denominational setting. Melbourne, it occurred to me, has never had all four in the same place, in good strength, at the same time. Hence as a diocese it failed to achieve a more uniformly evangelical character, unlike another diocese to its north. Importantly, Melbourne has had, consistently through its history, vital strength in one or two of the contributors—hence evangelicals have persisted and even thrived in certain quarters within the Diocese.
Here are the four vital contributors:
1. Healthy evangelical parishes;
2. Healthy evangelical societies focussed on mission and evangelism;
3. A strong Anglican evangelical theological college; and
4. A diocesan bishop willing to promote and support leading evangelicals and their causes.
Parishes are the basic unit of organisation of a diocese, the context in which most regular week-to-week ministry occurs and in which able evangelical ministers base the bulk of their preaching, teaching and evangelistic ministries. Parishes also provide ministry to all age groups and all comers—by definition they exist to serve any and all.
Healthy evangelical parishes are spheres of vital evangelical activity, places where evangelism has to work! They are where converts are won, and, critically, where young people are converted and energised and directed towards active ministry. Additionally, local churches are also where lay people exercise ministry leadership. So from the local parish, future leaders are identified, nurtured and led to offer for the ordained ministry. Their vocations are first identified, developed and tested in the sphere of parish work as active lay persons.
Critically for Melbourne Anglican evangelicalism, there has never been a period in its history when it has been without healthy evangelical parishes. Here is a rough unbroken continuity of such parishes from 1847 to the present day: St James’ Melbourne, St Stephen’s Richmond, St Mary’s Caulfield, St Matthew’s Prahran, St Columb’s Hawthorn, St John’s Toorak, St Hilary’s Kew, St Jude’s Carlton—they’ve each been known, in their turn, as the flagship evangelical parish of Melbourne.
Incidentally, parishes of course also affected the character of the Church Assembly or Diocesan Synod, which is made up of parish representatives—clerical and lay. Hence the character of the parishes has a determinative effect on the outcome of elections and selections, most critically in the matter of appointments of successive Bishops and Archbishops of Melbourne.
From parishes, the keenest evangelicals turned to evangelical societies as an outlet for leadership energy. Parishes were too often bogged down with the mechanics of turning out another Sunday service, or developing local programmes to meet local needs. They were relatively less creative in their modes of ministry to younger people. It was left to societies like the interdenominational Children’s Special Service Mission (today, Scripture Union Family Missions) to evangelise and to cater to the spiritual needs of children. The Church Missionary Society’s League of Youth performed a similar and extremely powerful function for young adults.
Such societies rapidly developed into the main context in which new and youthful leadership was trained and raised up for evangelistically-focussed ministry. Participation in ministry from an early age, in a lay capacity, and with encouraging results from evangelism, proved to be a significant formative experience. Evangelicals’ enthusiasm and commitment to evangelism and world mission was awakened through the spirituality emphasised in the societies. Societies also provided vital leadership experience—unfettered by diocesan controls or interference. This sort of practical hands-on ministry experience led to some considering ordained or missionary service. Such men and women then went on to further training in a theological or missionary Bible college.
Our third vital contributor, the theological college, acted as a kind of finishing school for evangelical talent, receiving as students those enthused for ministry or who felt powerfully led by God to offer for ordained or missionary service.
For most evangelicals, prior experience of ministry in the parish or society setting tended to have a more significant formative effect on their theological perspectives and ministry methods than their college experience. However the theological tone of the college has also had a powerful impact, especially on their intellectual formation. In my research period, the attitude of the college principal, due to the low numbers of full-time staff, has been overwhelmingly important. This was true of both Moore and Ridley.
The ethos of the college—its sense of priorities in ministry, focus on overseas missionary work, and attitude towards the diocese and ecclesial matters—have also been influential on students. The early record of Ridley College magazines and publications give a good indication of the value assigned within the culture of the college to particular forms of ministry. At Ridley, missionary work in rural and overseas settings was especially feted. Advancement through the ranks of clergy was also noted, whether alumni had been appointed archdeacons, canons or bishops locally or overseas. It was an evangelical college focussed on its role within the world-wide Anglican denomination. There was hardly any mention of interdenominational affairs.
From college, those entering ordained ministry have been dependent on the presence of a diocesan bishop willing to ordain and licence them to particular parishes or ministries—the fourth vital contributor. The bishop’s endorsement has also been crucial to advancement in the ranks of diocesan affairs; effectively promoting or stifling evangelicalism’s impact on the Diocese as a whole.
In periods when the diocesan bishop did not actively encourage evangelical ministry, opportunities for such ministry elsewhere—like with CMS in East Africa, or outside Anglican structures—were increasingly viable alternatives for younger evangelical leaders. The same influence extended to coadjutor or assistant bishops and archdeacons, but on a lesser scale. At various times, the power and influence of other personalities have overshadowed the diocesan bishop’s leadership, but the system of licensing clergy meant that the diocesan bishop wielded critical influence over the long term character of the parishes and hence the Diocese. A bishop’s active encouragement or discouragement of evangelical appointments altered the character of a vacant parish radically. This in turn altered the kind of culture and ministry offered by the parish to its locality. And so we return to thinking about healthy local parishes.
The flow-on effect of each contributor into the next describes how the movement is able not just to self-perpetuate, but also to increase in vitality and strength. However, take one contributor out of the flow, or decrease its effectiveness, and the vitality of the whole is decreased.
Four contributors applied to Melbourne’s history
Now let us consider briefly these four contributors and the question that beset us at the beginning. What has been the secret of evangelical continuity in this Diocese? Or, why hasn’t evangelicalism died out in Melbourne, according to the prevailing metanarrative of Melbourne Anglican history?
I can think of three reasons. First, and as I’ve already alluded to, at every stage of its history, there have been vital healthy evangelical parishes. Sometimes due to the stubbornness and tenacity of their vicars, or in the case of the founding and early history St Hilary’s Kew the tenacity of its laity, who asserted boldly and publicly in the papers, with reference to pressure put of them to not appoint the young evangelical vicar of their choice, ‘he who pays the piper has a right to call the tune’.2
At every stage there have been parishes where succeeding generations have been soaked in and imbibed an evangelical spirit. And parishes have been given or have mustered enough independence to sustain that evangelical culture.
Second, that evangelical culture has proven able to rise to the challenges presented to its right to survive. The evangelical gospel seems to be remarkably resilient to charges of anti-intellectualism, or incipient immaturity doomed to die out or grow out into something else. Evangelical people have an energy for evangelism that must find an outlet. If not in a local church, then in their societies: CSSM, SUFM, CMS, AFES. In any case, converts are won, converts populate evangelical parishes that then stay evangelical in culture. The facts are that this keeps happening. Effective evangelism is critical to evangelicalism.
Third, Melbourne evangelicals acted strategically, decisively and bravely—in the face of episcopal opposition—to found and sustain their own evangelical college, Ridley.3 Within the training college rests the long term future of the movement.
What are the lessons for EFAC?
Preaching and healthy local churches
EFAC was founded by John Stott for the encouragement of evangelical ministers feeling beleaguered in their minority status within their dioceses. Preachers’ clubs came together to study the Bible, pray and work on their preaching. Stott recognised that healthy local churches are the basic unit of organisation within God’s plan for his people. The recovery of evangelistically-effective expository preaching paved the way for strengthened churches. The church needs such preaching in every age! Without preaching that is both clearly evangelistic and clearly sitting under the text of Scripture, the spiritual capital of a church dwindles and its vitality is misspent or lost.
Partnership with societies
EFAC is, of course, an evangelical society. Its role in Australia needs contemporary clarification. In the past it has focused on encouraging evangelicals in minority situations; providing, among other things, resources for preaching and evangelism. It has been the de facto network for Anglican evangelicals, but not since the 70s and 80s and the National Evangelical Anglican Congresses has it had any real leadership role in the national Church. It could, of course, recast its role in terms of fostering the evangelistic and expository preaching priorities outlined above; especially in creative ways beyond the current regular experience and practice of local churches.
An eye on the college
The relationship between EFAC and the local evangelical training college could become the critical interface between ministry practice and theological training. Local church leaders feeding back to theological educators their needs, issues and challenges; theological educators staying in touch with current issues and serving needs at the coal face of evangelistic ministry. Loss of this connection spells a long, slow and disastrous disassociation between theological education and actual conversion growth in the Church.
Relations with the bishop
Episcopal authority is a critical element within Anglican ecclesiology, and any movement seeking to have a long-term impact must enjoy a degree of support from the leading bishop. EFAC, as a peak evangelical society within a diocese, has opportunities to develop friendly and robust relations with the diocesan bishop—especially where evangelicalism is not the majority spirituality.
Here then are a few humble suggestions offered up as fruits of a recent season of labour. May the Lord bless his gospel workers in the Anglican Church of Australia for yet another season of harvest!
Wei-Han Kuan is the State Director of the Victorian Branch of the Church Missionary Society in Australia.
1. Brian Porter, ed., Melbourne Anglicans: The Diocese of Melbourne 1847-1997 (Collingwood: The Joint Board of Christian Education,1997)
2. Argus, Tuesday 25 September 1888, page 13, letter from ‘Carthusian’.
3. See Wei-Han Kuan, ‘The Perry Heritage,’ in Proclaiming Christ: Ridley College Melbourne, 1910- 2010, ed. Peter Adam and Gina Denholm (Melbourne: Ridley Melbourne, 2010).