An Anglican leader from outside the UK once told me how he used to view the Church of England. The problem, he thought, was loss of confidence of God’s word in the church, partly as a result of secularism in the culture. The solution would be a strong, inspiring individual to lead recovery of gospel and revival in the church, and/or to establish a new faithful church, and then, a strong, inspiring individual to protect the Judaeo-Christian world view in the nation, and restrict the influence of the secular progressive agenda. Where is that hoped-for ‘Elijah’ figure?
This investment of hope in the individual human leader to stand up against evil, gather the righteous and establish peace and security with “our side” as the winners, seems to be hardwired in us. We always seem to want a personality, a face, a contemporary ‘king’ to inspire us and lead us. That person can become the embodiment of our faith, obscuring Christ himself, so that when things are going well, we defer to these leaders as the fount of all spiritual power and wisdom. But when the leaders turn out to have feet of clay, we are devastated, and sometimes, influenced by the jeering of others, we are tempted to question the faith that these fallen ‘Elijahs’ preached. We need to remember the lesson of 1 Samuel 8, where the people insisted on a king so they could be “like all the other nations” (1 Samuel 8:20); to teach them a lesson God gave them one, and it was Saul.
The leader who asked ‘where is the Elijah?’ realised that this was the wrong question. Or at least, he was looking in the wrong place - for a person rather than a vision. The answer to the problem of secularism in society and turning away from the truth in the church, is not another charismatic human leader. We already have one for all time - the man Christ Jesus. Nor is the answer to be found in an institution, as if the New Testament shows God setting up his kingdom through respected political, technological and educational establishments.
A vision is something more than an idea. We can see it; it’s tangible - communities being established around the world, of ordinary people whose lives are changed by encounter with the crucified and risen Lord, who quietly and humbly resist the deluge of lies fed to them by false teachers in church and culture, build their lives on the Rock, and proclaim his salvation and his values to those around them, to others in their nation, and to the ends of the earth. They know they are not starting from scratch, but stand on the shoulders of godly men and women before them; they use trusted forms of governance to ensure accountability and liturgical worship to align with the Scriptures and the wider movement.
Among Anglicans, it is Gafcon which articulates and guards this vision of global, faithful Christian life and witness. While we give thanks for the courageous and wise leaders of the movement, our faith is not in them or in the respectability of the institutions they represent, but in the vision summarised in the Jerusalem Declaration, and lived out in thousands of parishes in different countries: ethnically and culturally diverse, united in the Lord and his truth. So if a leader fails, or the movement faces a problem, we are saddened and moved again to pray for the Lord’s mercy, but our faith in God and in his gospel is not shaken. We need a focus to inspire, to point out what’s wrong, to show the right path, to encourage us to walk in it. The Elijah for our time is not a contemporary leader, but the Gafcon vision.