I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Lee Gatiss, the director of Church Society. Here are highlights of our conversation.
Let’s start with a brief history of Church Society. When did the ministry begin and why?
Church Society has been around in various different guises for many years since the 19th Century. We have a family tree that takes us back to the 19th Century, various groups under different names, back to the 1830s. These groups were started for different reasons. The Ladies League or the Church of England Working Men’s Protestant Union: things like that were started often as grassroots bodies in order to bring together evangelicals on the ground in the Church of England, particularly in distinction from the Oxford Movement that was going on around the same time. So, really, it’s the evangelical pushback to the Oxford Movement. That may sound a bit too reactionary, but it’s really more of a push back to reassert the Protestant Reformed evangelical nature of the Church of England. So, these many different groups would often come together. The two big constituents are the Church Association and the National Church League, which themselves are products of mergers through the 19th Century. Those two big ones came together in 1950 to form what became Church Society. We’re a force for unity within the evangelical world, trying to be what I call the institutional spine of conservative evangelicalism in the Church of England.
Your mission statement is, “Church Society is a fellowship contending to reform and renew the Church of England in biblical faith.” What is the state of the Church of England as it stands today? What part of the church is in most desperate need of reform?
All of it! The Church of England is not a state church. Hitler had a state church—a church, which reflected his state values and so on. That’s not the Church of England’s role. It isn’t here to reflect back to the state its own values and put a religious veneer on them. It is here as an established church with rights and responsibilities and privileges within the establishment, the state, to preach the gospel. And if we’ve stopped preaching the gospel, then we’ve stopped being a church, and, therefore, have no right to be an established church. So, really, we’re wanting to reform and renew the whole church from the ground up. We’re interested in the ground level—in church schools, in catechizing, ministry in churches, preaching, appointments, how churches work together, how they’re funded—all the way up to the levels of government in dioceses and nationally.
So, if you can get the individual churches preaching the pure gospel, the goal is for that to have a ripple effect in the church at large.
Yes. So we want to be pioneering new churches and want to establish them in the faith. We want to help them grow and be strong in the faith and also strong financially, in terms of numbers and how they run things, including staffing. And we also want to secure these churches for the future, to make sure that they have good patronage arrangements for when the appointments need to be made. So, when a vicar dies and goes to glory—or just below that, if he’s appointed to the bench of bishops—or if he just moves on somewhere else, the next appointment will also be a good conservative, evangelical, Reformed Protestant.
What resources does Church Society produce to help reform and renew the Church of England?
One of our big areas is publishing, because we want to resource people and equip them to contend, reform, renew, and live God’s word in the parishes. We’re doing that through all the ways that we can think of in the modern world. So, it includes a blog, a podcast, videos on YouTube, a Facebook page and Twitter to put resources out and to link people together in networking and partnership. We also tweet a daily prayer request and it goes into something called PrayerMate, which is an app that many people use to do their prayer lists.
We have a member’s magazine called Crossway, which comes out quarterly. We also produce the Global Anglican, which is a quarterly theological journal—an international journal of theology—edited by Peter Jensen, the former archbishop of Sydney.
And then we produce books. Some of our books are produced from our conferences, while others have come about as I’ve thought, “Well, what do we need?” We need material on the 39 Articles. So, during Lent one year I arranged 39 people to comment on an article a day. We did the same thing with a book called Walk This Way, where we looked at the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. We added some stuff on the sacraments as well. For The Blessed Life and other books, we used a similar format. The Blessed Life is a commentary on the Beatitudes, the fruit of the Spirit, the seven deadly sins, and Jesus’ last words from the cross.
Is there a way for a person to find churches that are affiliated with Church Society? That would help a potential visitor know they are entering a church with evangelical convictions.
Yes, though it is more likely that people would find these churches more publicly in the list of churches under the oversight of the Bishop of Maidstone—who is set aside in the Church of England to particularly minister to those who are complementarian evangelicals. You can find a list of those on Wikipedia or, perhaps, on the Bishop of Maidstone’s website. This is a list of conservative evangelical Anglican churches in England, about 424, though there are more than just those. We are patrons to about 130 parishes, many of which are under Maidstone’s list—though not all of our parishes would necessarily identify with our theology for various reasons: either their ministry or their laity are not necessarily signed up and on the same page, for various historical reasons.
Have you seen many people move from a liberal to an evangelical position as a direct result of Church Society’s influence?
Yes, that does happen. And often it’s just that people don’t really know what they’ve signed up for in being an Anglican. They then explore the roots of it by reading the Book of Common Prayer, or the Thirty-nine Articles, or the Homilies, or other things that Church Society is keen on promoting. And as people dig into that, they have their convictions strengthened and informed.
How did you become involved with Church Society?
It was when I was training at seminary at Oak Hill Theological College in London. And I think the ministry had an offer where they were giving away free books, or a book grant to people who joined Church Society. And it was a good deal—it cost maybe 20 quid to join, and they gave you £50 of books. That was a no brainer, as you say; so, I joined. And a part of that was receiving their journal, then called Churchman. Now it’s called the Global Anglican: we changed the name just recently. But I got a subscription to Churchman. And through that, I started reviewing books for the journal.
Then when I left seminary, I actually was appointed as a minister (curate) at a Church Society parish, one of those where the vicar was appointed by Church Society. I also got to know the ministry through their work as patrons. And from there, I started on the editorial board of Churchman. Then, just as I was finishing my Ph.D., I was approached by the Council of Church Society—the ruling body which is elected every year by the members of Church Society. And they said to me, “When you finish your Ph.D., how would you like to come and be the director of Church Society?” The previous director had just left to go back into parish ministry. And I said, “Yes.”
So there we are. That’s how I got involved. And I’ve been doing it since January 1st, 2013. So I’ve now done it for nine and a bit years.
And being the director is your full-time job?
Yes, it’s my full-time job. I do a bit of lecturing at Union School of Theology: the Council allows me to do a bit of teaching. They limit me to a number of hours every year that I’m allowed to teach here in Cambridge, or at Union, and other places where I’ve been affiliated. That’s just to keep my academic credentials up and to make a contribution in that way. It’s useful because it brings me into contact with all kinds of people. And that’s good to keep up those links and have that academic credibility.
I’m curious about the future of the churches that are affiliated with Church Society. Are there many guys coming up that are looking to be placed in these churches?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, we run something called the Junior Anglican Evangelical Conference (JAEC) every year. JAEC is for people who are thinking about ministry, are training for it already at seminary, or are in the early years of ordained ministry as deacons or presbyters. We have JAEC and a network online of about, I think, 500 people in a Facebook group. And so we’re very much involved and keen to raise up the next generation of people and to equip them with the tools, vocabulary, and the convictions to be able to thrive in the Church of England as it is today.
In addition to JAEC, are there other conferences that Church Society puts on?
We’ve run a number of things in the past, from study days to individual one-off conferences. We used to have our own sort of national Church Society conference every year, along with the Annual General Meeting (AGM) at which the elections take place and the annual reports are brought out. However, we merged AGM with JAEC last year for the first time.
We’ve also played a role in starting a new ministry called ReNew. The ReNew conference is a joint venture with some other evangelical groups, both within and outside the Church of England. We also have the Fellowship of Word and Spirit Conference, which is one of those organizations that we’ve now merged with. This conference is for those people particularly looking at some aspects of Reformed theology and practice. We might bus in an American speaker or something, or do everything in house.
This year, actually, we’re running a series of regional conferences. Rather than trying to get everyone to go to one place around the country, we’re running five regional conferences in conjunction with the Bishop of Maidstone. This is actually a good way to get more people along. All roads lead to London (not Rome), but not everyone wants to go to London, so we are running the conference in different regions. The bishop is calling his people to these five venues around the country—God willing—you never know what COVID might stop.
Yes, I saw that your Fellowship of Word and Spirit Conference this year was canceled. Was that due to COVID?
That’s right. There’s a nervousness about the restrictions that were still on and people wary about that. We did put on JAEC in October and some other conferences toward the end of the year as well. But for the one this January, I think people were still nervous about restrictions and new waves.
How can our readers support Church Society?
One way is to donate. Another way is to buy our books. We are a nonprofit, so we’re not in it to make money. We’re here just to sustain the ministry and do what we do. So I’m not asking for money in that sense, but it would be great if people buy the books. Use our resources and tell us about it: that is encouraging.
We’re not in it for the money, but donations do sustain a staff team that is growing. As well as me, we have Ros Clarke, who’s our Associate Director. She also runs a training course for women in conjunction with Union School of Theology. We have Kirsten Birkett, who’s our theological consultant. We have three regional directors, working part-time with us, who are rectors in churches or are retired. They give us about a day a week of regional director work, particularly through webinars with people doing revitalization ministry. And then we have, obviously, the office staff: finance manager and a full-time administrator. You can help us and sustain us by praying for the staff.
People can also join Church Society, even if they’re not in the Church of England. To be a full member, you have to be part of the Church of England, or in a church in communion with the Church of England. But you can be an associate member of Church Society and have the benefits of membership as an associate member in any church. We have some people who are in Baptist churches and others around the world who are associate members.
What do you get access to as a member or associate member?
You get the right to vote at the conferences and sometimes there is a discount on resources. There’s a church membership scheme as well, sort of a church supporters’ club. They get sent a certain number of books and a certain number of Crossway magazines throughout the year, and a discount on books and things like that. But it’s not really about the money. It’s more about adding partners to that prayerful partnership which wants to reform and renew the church. It’s about doing something together.
Dr. Gatiss also shared these resources: