Interview with William Taylor: Impressions of Sydney & Australian Evangelicalism

Sometimes the best lessons are learned from someone on the outside looking in. We chat to William Taylor of St Helen’s Bishopsgate London regarding his impressions of evangelicalism in Sydney and Australia, drawing on his recent visit in late 2016-early 2017.

When did you first visit Australia? What were your impressions?

It was 2001. It was July. It was winter. I came out with Richard Coekin for the midyear conference with Phillip Jensen and the men and women from St Matthias and the University of New South Wales . It was a lovely three weeks and my impressions were how cold it is in Australia!

Other impressions were how friendly people were, how outgoing the Australian people are generally but also the benefit Christianly of decades of solid, evangelical ministry in the Sydney Diocese. Thank the Lord! It was a wonderful thing not to be in the kind of situation we have in England where all the time you’re defending the gospel against liberals within the church. So they were great, great first impressions.

What did you get up to on your most recent visit?

Everything as far as I can make out! Various people had lined up a really helpful and thoroughly enjoyable itinerary.  I was involved in the NTE conference – the National Training Event with students in Canberra, I spent some time with Holy Trinity Church in Adelaide, I visited some Anglican churches and the Bible college in Perth [Trinity College] and then Brisbane. I went to Melbourne for 36 hours and then Sydney for several weeks.  Then we had a lovely holiday and some time in New Zealand.

In January, I had the great joy of speaking at the Katoomba CMS Summer School in New South Wales and then spent some time at Moore College and with some preachers which was really very valuable and worthwhile. Overall it was a great chance to see old friends and engage in gospel ministry across the country.

As an outsider looking in, what trends (both strengths and challenges) do you notice amongst Sydney and Australian Churches?

It’s very hard to make comments like that as an occasional visitor. I’ve been to Australia five times; this last time, I was there for just 12 weeks. But strengths – you can see the tremendous strength of an evangelical heritage and particularly you notice all over Australia the men and women who were trained by Broughton Knox at Moore College – it is extraordinary – and you see their determination to go back to the word of God and constantly be reforming their practice and their understanding according to what the word of God says rather than according to some set formula or some downloaded system. People like John Woodhouse, Peter and Phillip Jensen, Paul Barnett, Allan Chapple out in Perth and David Seccombe, you could go on and on and on and on through this list of people who ask not ‘what does my system say…what did my grandparents say…’ but ‘what does the Word of God actually say about this’. What a refreshing strength that is. I think that is the biggest strength.

One of the more particular strengths I found in all the training things I was involved in was the very clear evangelistic and missional focus of, for example, the National Training Event and the Katoomba CMS Summer School for New South Wales. The attitude was – ‘we’re here actually to train, encourage and send people in mission’. And I think that was very, very helpful and it was certainly an encouragement to us here in our ministry here to make sure that everything that we’re doing has a clear missional focus as we’re training people for the work of evangelism. So I thought that was a tremendous, tremendous strength. And very refreshing for me personally.

In terms of challenges, as always the biggest challenge is that we take our gospel heritage for granted. We can assume the essentials and go off on some journey of our own about something we’ve become excited about but which is not actually a fundamental scriptural emphasis. We can very easily be excited by whatever the next fad is coming from overseas. We island people – from islands like the United Kingdom and Australia (well you’re Continent people so I guess that’s slightly different!) – get excited by the next thing coming through and then we develop something as a passion which is not actually the essential gospel. Especially when we’ve had such a strong gospel heritage, there’s a danger that the next generation think they’ve got to do something exciting or develop their own emphasis so that we get noticed. And I think that’s just as big an issue in England as it is in Australia.

helensWhat do you think are the most pertinent differences between the evangelical ‘scene’ in the UK and Australia?

Very few. If you’re in Sydney – great differences. But if you’re talking about Australia generally then it seems to me – sitting and talking to Anglican clergy in Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane – the kind of issues they are facing with compromised denominations are exactly the same as what we are facing in the Church of England here in London.

And the great mistake people make, I think, is to think that England might be like Sydney. Sydney is one diocese and is relatively small in population. England has 60 million people in 41 different diocese. So there’s a danger of thinking that you can talk about England as a whole.  You simply can’t. A church like St Helen’s is in a much more comparable position to an evangelical church in Adelaide, Perth or something like that. And in that case, it’s actually very similar.

One of the differences in practice is that in English preaching we are schooled very strongly in ensuring that the author’s intention and his theology governs my sermon. And whilst we make a complete hash of it often, we are asking ‘what is the pastoral purpose of the author in a book of the bible and how has the author lined up everything he has to say, this theology, in order to achieve this pastoral purpose’. And that I think gives to a sermon great weight so that it’s not just a talk about little me. It makes it carry weight in the public square because you are dealing with major, major issues which God has put in the scriptures because they give Christians confidence and they mature and grow Christians for living a Christian life in the world. The danger is I can go to a text and – because I come to it late or I’m not prepared to do the work – I can look for things I already know because I was taught them at college or because my system tells me and I hook out of the text the things that I already know and basically give a talk using the text as an illustration of the things I already know. If you do the danger is you end up with dull preaching that is usually man-centred and focussed in on me and little things that I’ve got to do. Now, that is a danger in every evangelical grouping in the world. But in a way, the stronger your system the more at risk we are of loading your system into the text of scripture. And I do think there is a slight difference in the way we’ve been schooled in our preaching and understanding of preaching in that level.

You have a particular ministry to city workers in the heart of London. Are there new challenges which they are facing which we should look out for in our own walks with Christ?

I think it’s the same old challenges: not to store up treasures on earth, to seek first his kingdom. There is the big challenge. It just comes in slightly different guises. I guess frenetic busyness within the very connected, information-heavy world we currently have is one of the big challenges to the London city worker today. But my observation is that the people who have their priorities clear and who understand why God’s put them in the workplace – first and foremost to make Jesus known – they actually manage to do it despite the busyness and the information overload that they have.

I mean it was thrilling yesterday. We had our church council. One of our church wardens goes for a walk every morning and prays for his own personal evangelism ministry each morning and finds the Lord opening up opportunities for him in his workplace in a large city bank down at Canary Wharf. People who have the right, clear priorities are putting them in place.

How can we best support our Christian brothers & sisters in the UK?

Please pray for us. Please keep sending your Bible teachers across to encourage us. I think one of the great blessings in the evangelical world over the last 20/30 years has been the strong, if you like ‘triangulation’ between Sydney, South Africa and CESA [now REACH-SA] and London and England evangelicals. And I think we have served to sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron. And it’s been a wonderful thing to have conservative evangelical ministers coming to England and vice versa in order to strengthen and encourage one another. So please do keep praying for us and please do keep being generous in ministry to us, in allowing people to come and spend time with us so that the very positive influence continues.

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