26 August 2016
Over the years, my wife Ann and I have learnt the importance of celebration. We've just had our 40th wedding anniversary and so took the opportunity to celebrate in a number of different settings with a wide array of church, friends and family. This edition of idea has marked the 170th birthday of the Evangelical Alliance, an alliance called together with a very specific purpose – to express the unity of God's people as Jesus prayed for us in John 17 with the amazing aspiration that the world might come to know Him.
There is a certain irony that as I write this, I do so with the backdrop of what has been the greatest political shaking that has been experienced in our country in my lifetime. Has there ever been a time when the divisions and disagreements across the UK have been more apparent? The referendum has revealed complex and deeply concerning fissures. A country which has prided itself on hospitality and tolerance has discovered under the surface pockets of unexpressed fears, anxieties and prejudice. This has been fuelled, in some communities, by a deep sense of powerlessness, of not being heard in decisions made by Brussels and Westminster. We are living in an age of a disunited United Kingdom.
While Christians didn't agree on the desired outcome for the referendum, what we can agree on is that in the shaking, it's time for the Church to model a better way of handling disagreement - and for us to engage in the profoundly important national conversation, as we look to the future, of what kind of society we wish to build. On 19 August 1846, the conference that formally brought the Evangelical Alliance into being began in London. Of the 922 who attended, 84 per cent came from across the UK, eight per cent from the United States and seven per cent from mainland Europe. John Angell James, chair of the assemblies' planning group, declared: "In every chorus of human voices, the harmony depends on the 'key note' being rightly struck… That note I'm appointed to give and it is love." The marker was established, and what a wonderful marker. One that would spark a movement that would spread to 130 countries around the world, reshaping the face of society for generations to come.
As the assembly proceeded, two major agenda items needed to be agreed. Firstly, a statement of faith that captured the prominent characteristics of an evangelical theological understanding. Occupying the first few days it was navigated successfully due to a strong desire among delegates to reach across existing divisions over certain areas of biblical interpretation. Over the years, the evangelical basis of faith, as it became known, has had a great deal of attention and been the source of heated debate. However for the last two days, the delegates turned their attention to what was called 'the practical resolutions', now called 'evangelical relationship commitments'. These discussions focused on the very practical issues associated with how we relate to each other, how we build and maintain relationships and how we disagree agreeably.
Unfortunately the practical resolutions have not received as much attention as the basis of faith. Perhaps if we had, some of the difficulties and pain faced in our local churches, national denominations or networks and organisations would have been avoided. Based on the premise that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, part of one family, it challenged us to pray for each other, be open to learn from each other, speak and write well of each other – even in our disagreements – and encouraged cooperation and avoid competition. Reading the relational commitments again, I'm convinced they stand the test of time and speak into a world of mass communication and social media. Do take the time to read these evangelical commitments, which you can read here.
As a 21st century Evangelical Alliance, we remain convinced 170 years later that we are "one body in Christ", the foundational motto of the Evangelical Alliance. Jesus prayed in John 17 that "we might be brought to complete unity then the world will know that you sent me". A unity that carries an amazing missional imperative. A unity that not only handles our disagreements well, but commits us to working with our brothers and sisters to see God's heavenly purposes fulfilled on earth.
This time of national shaking is a great opportunity for the UK Church. Let's not miss this opportunity. Let's pray, but also as the good news people proclaim a better way through both word and action.