Don’t call us Evangelicals
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
AT GENERAL SYNOD in July last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that the real story of today’s Church was not the “soap opera” of infighting, but the exciting new things happening on the margins. He talked of the “creation of new styles of church life”; he even suggested that the old parochial system was not sacrosanct. “We are increasingly aware of contexts where it simply isn’t capable of making an impact, where something has to grow out of it or alongside it,” he said.
The intense interest in the Jeffrey John affair meant that, at the time, very little attention was paid to this bold sketch of the Church’s future from someone who might be expected to defend the status quo.
Dr Williams’s statement begs many questions. What are these “new styles”, and why might they be so important? Can these developments point the Church beyond its present divisions; or might they lead to a widening of theological divisions?
TO LOOK for new movements in the Church, the obvious starting-point is the success story of the past decade — the mighty Alpha course. Here is a new Anglican initiative that has become a household name. Whatever one thinks of the contents of the course, there is no denying that it has broken the mould of Anglican churchgoing. It has shown that new models of church really can attract young people, and in their thousands.
To repeat the now-familiar history, the course originated at Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), in central London, and hit the big time in 1993, under the leadership of the Revd Nicky Gumbel, still officially an assistant curate at the church. It is now used by about 7000 churches in Britain. Its theology is Evangelical, but its leaders are wary of getting involved in Anglican politics. On the gay row, in which Evangelicals have been particularly vocal, the people behind Alpha seem to have taken a vow of silence.
When I visited HTB to meet Nicky Gumbel, I asked the receptionist how many staff there were, expecting there to be perhaps as many as 20 or 30. There are more than 100. The scale of the operation is constantly surprising.
“I think we’re in an incredibly exciting time,” Mr Gumbel begins. “It’s rather like the time of exile in the Bible — a terribly difficult period but a very fruitful one, in which we are being forced to rethink, and work together. There’s a profound coming together of different denominations and different traditions.
“An extraordinarily exciting thing is happening in the Church of England, with the appointment of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, and also having David Hope, Richard Chartres, and Tom Wright. This is an opportunity for the different traditions to learn from each other, instead of criticising each other. Thankfully, people are beginning to drop the labels, which are thoroughly unbiblical — they’re a thing of the past.”
I begin to wonder whether Mr Gumbel’s healthy complexion is due to the fact that he has just returned from a long cruise, and has not yet heard about the events of last summer.
“I’m not denying that there are problems,” he says, “but labelling each other and name-calling is not the way forward. And it’s irrelevant compared with what’s happening on the ground. If you ask our people about these labels, they have no idea what they mean, they’ve never heard of them. All they know is that they’re Christians.”
So he rejects the “Evangelical” tag? “I would never, ever use that term. It’s unbiblical. People outside the Church aren’t interested in these divisions. Part of the appeal of the Alpha course is that it’s run by all sorts of churches — Roman Catholic, Baptist, Salvation Army — as well as many different traditions within the Anglican Church.”
But in reality, surely, the Alpha movement has greatly contributed to the rise of the Anglican Evangelicals? In the current climate, it feels evasive to declare all labels meaningless and plead for unity. But when I try to press this point, Gumbel’s optimism deflects it with ease.
“What we need to learn is mutual respect, and that’s something very basic to Alpha because of the small groups, where people listen to each other’s views. People are not primarily concerned with the issue that obsesses the press; they’re concerned with things like poverty and homelessness, drug addiction, finding meaning in their lives, dealing with guilt, building meaningful relationships. They’re not interested in these divisions you read about. Most of them wouldn’t even know that they’re Anglicans, and certainly wouldn’t care about the other labels.”
This seems to be a key part of Alpha’s appeal: it claims to transcend the Church’s divisions, and to teach the non-partisan essentials of Christianity. Above all it offers an experience of Christian community. “When people come here they experience a love, a warmth, an acceptance, a positive atmosphere, and they tell their friends. And that experience of church is basic to the course: it’s church-based evangelism. Alpha has a high doctrine of the Church.”
I’m not sure that too many Anglo-Catholics will be convinced. What is beyond doubt, however, is that large numbers of 20-somethings continue to come. Mr Gumbel showed me some recent data — a bar-chart showing the age spread of the students. It peaks very early, at 25.
“In ten or 15 years, these people will be running the country — they will be the headmasters, the magistrates and so on. This is the age-group that people bring their friends. It’s primarily word of mouth that gets people to the course. For instance, there’s a young person who’s bringing 25 friends along this week, because she’s excited about what’s going on here. This is what’s happening at the grass-roots — but because it’s good news, it’s mostly ignored by the press.”
MY MEETING with Nicky Gumbel confirmed that Alpha is certainly a new, or new-ish, form of church life, which supplements the parish system with something else, and seems to connect successfully with the needs of young people. But then, we come up against the ‘E’ word: despite Mr Gumbel’s ecumenical enthusiasm, Alpha conforms to the Evangelical account of evangelism and renewal, including the conservative moral teaching that rankles with the liberals.
Of course, Dr Williams applauds Alpha’s success, but his Synod speech did not sound like a call simply for more of the same. Church unity seems to require a re-direction in the Evangelical movement, asoftening of its moral certainty. Otherwise, it will continue to threaten the stability of the Church, by keeping other traditions — and especially the liberals — at arm’s length.
TO INVESTIGATE new Evangelical thinking, one must wade through countless new mission statements, all promising a totally fresh and relevant approach. But most of them are merely attempts to re-package conventional Evangelicalism for the youth of today using snappy titles, ambient imagery and cyber-cool typefaces. I am more interested in attempts to re-think the package itself.
One of the most influential attempts of recent years was a book called The Post-Evangelical by Dave Tomlinson, published in the mid-1990s. It identified a new breed of believer who was dissatisfied with conventional Evangelicalism. The “post-Evangelical” was more open to theological and moral complexity.
Mr Tomlinson related his critique to the postmodern cultural context: the Evangelical message must adapt to the postmodern world “in which people now reject truth-claims which are expressed in the form of dogma or absolutes”. This sounds like the wishful thinking of a liberal. In reality, the “postmodern context” has not diminished the appetite for dogmatic certainty.
Since writing the book, Mr Tomlinson has become a vicar in north London. I put it to him that his alternative, more liberal version of Evangelicalism has not emerged.
“I think it’s happening slowly, both here and in the US,” he says. “The trend I identified is now a significant factor in the Evangelical movement. People might not call themselves ‘post-Evangelicals’, and they probably resist the term ‘liberal’, but there are many with a more open attitude. The whole ground has shifted.”
But surely last summer’s events suggest that the old positions are firmly entrenched?
“I don’t think the headlines are really representative of what the Evangelicals are thinking. Most of them want to distance themselves from what [the conservative Evangelical group] Reform is saying, and are much more open-minded about homosexuality. There’s definitely an aspiration to rethink. You see this in the States as well, with the ‘Emergent Church’ movement.”
This movement, he explains, consists of Evangelicals and former Evangelicals grappling with postmodern culture. I ask him whether it really involves substantial theological change.
“That’s hard to say. I’ve just been to the conference of Emergent Church leaders in the States, and there was the same sort of band playing that you find at Charismatic conventions. For a lot of people, it’s just tinkering around with externals. But, on the other hand, there really is some radical questioning going on.”
In Mr Tomlinson’s own ministry, style and substance are inseparable. In the 1990s he ran a discussion group, Holy Joes, which met in a pub — and still does. This unorthodox setting influenced his critique of the dated puritanism of old-style Evangelicals. And now his own church, St Luke’s, Holloway, reflects his “post-Evangelical” approach.
“There’s a mix of worship styles at St Luke’s. As well as the Sunday service, there’s an alternative evening service, with chill-out music. And I’m currently setting up something called ‘Breathing Space’ for people interested in spirituality in a more general sense. The idea is to offer something for people who wouldn’t go to an ordinary service.”
Dr gordon Lynch is another Evangelical-watcher. He lectures on contemporary religious movements at Birmingham University. I ask him if he detects anything new going on in the Evangelical movement.
“There’s a lot of interest in alternative worship, but that’s on the edge of the Evangelical movement. A lot of those involved have stopped calling themselves Evangelicals,” he says.
“That applies to the Emergent Church movement, and the constituency of Greenbelt — it’s a mix-
ture of Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals who are looking for culturally relevant styles. And there’s more weight given to the role of experience; there’s more recognition of the authenticity of other faith traditions and other identities.”
Are these liberal, experimental edges having any real influence on mainstream Evangelicalism?
“It’s difficult to be sure. Conservative moral theology still seems to be pretty firmly in place — I don’t think there was a real debate on homosexuality at the recent NEAC conference, for example. The appeal of moral conservatism is still very strong.
“On the other hand, there is evidence that it’s short-lived for many people. There’s lots of people coming into these big churches, but also lots leaving. After a while they find the morality and the theology over-simple. A lot of these churches put all their resources into initial conversion and neglect subsequent spiritual direction.”
Do these people evolve into liberal Anglicans?
“A recent study has shown that they tend to keep their distance from any institutional church; but they retain a form of faith — sometimes they meet up in informal support groups at someone’s house. For a lot of people, the Greenbelt festival is their once-a-year church — the only place they find exciting discussions and innovative liturgies.”
Everyone agrees that the “post-Evangelical” and “Emergent Church” movements are very hard to read, partly because their boundaries with mainstream Evangelicalism are so blurred. But it seems clear that there are many former Evangelicals who exist in a state of limbo, tentatively seeking something else, and generally rejecting traditionalist options. But they do not constitute a movement, or a coherent campaign to rethink Evangelicalism.
THE GREENBELT Festival seems to be one of the main spaces where Evangelicalism comes into contact with alternative, experimental forms. Paul Northup, who is one of the festival’s trustees, explains that the relationship involves a certain amount of tension.
“Greenbelt has roots in early 1970s counter-culture; but during the 1980s it became more mainstream as a result of the burgeoning Christian music scene, and lots of Evangelical groups got involved. So they form a considerable part of our constituency.
“On the other hand, they have always been a bit suspicious of the broadness of the festival. I think in the mid-1990s there was a particular mood of suspicion, which has eased off a bit since. Today we’re getting more Evangelicals coming than ever, but some organisations still question whether it’s a safe place to send their youth groups.”
They feel there’s too much liberal theology being taught?
“Well, it’s an arts festival, not a teaching festival; so there’s no single line being upheld — and this worries some of them. And a lot of Evangelicals don’t like the presence of other forms of worship — there’s Catholic and Orthodox worship as well as the alternative, experimental stuff. But we are trying to involve Evangelical groups more and more, by earning their trust and building relationships. It’s a balancing act between welcoming them and maintaining our radical, open approach.”
Is there a gradual thawing of Evangelical suspicion? “Yes, I think so, but I’m not all that optimistic that the barriers will ever come right down, because Evangelicals often seem afraid of what they’re not used to: they partly define themselves by what they are not.”
ANOTHER bridge between Evangelicalism and liberalism is the magazine Third Way. I ask its editor, Simon
Jones, to describe the readership.
“A lot of our readers identify with the label ‘post-Evangelical’,” he says. “But that term doesn’t really describe a coherent movement. It’s a way of saying they’re coming from an Evangelical position but they see the need for a critique of it. They might accept the idea of the Bible’s authority, but also be asking questions about how that’s applied to real life. They’re interested in the assumptions of Evangelical theology being challenged by other perspectives.”
Does he think that this critical agenda is influencing mainstream Evangelicalism? “I think the mainstream is more interested in the social gospel than ever — issues like fair trade. And they’re also more involved in their communities, doing social work and so on. On the other hand, the conservative interpretation of biblical teaching is still there, and in some ways it’s hardening.”
My next witness is Professor Andrew Walker of King’s College, London, an expert in recent Evangelical history. I ask whether the main body of the Anglican Evangelical movement is evolving in a liberal direction. He politely suggests that it is the wrong question.
“We’re seeing a major reconfiguration of Anglican Evangelicalism; but the most significant trend is not a move towards theological liberalism. The big shift is towards what I call generous orthodoxy, or catholicity.”
Professor Walker has set up a group called “Deep Church” that tries to help this process along. It has the backing of the Bishop of London, and some influential Evangelicals. “It’s a mood, not a movement,” he says.
In recent years, Evangelicals have experienced a “Catholic turn”, he explains. They are increasingly interested in Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions of worship and spirituality. “Today, it is not unusual to find that Evangelicals have icons on their walls, or practise the disciplines of Ignatius Loyola. The Evangelical training colleges are now teaching Catholic and Orthodox spirituality and theology as a matter of course. You hear of people who call themselves Catholic Evangelicals, or Evangelical Catholics.”
So is this trend transforming mainstream conservative Evangelicalism?
“In this country, conservative Evangelicalism has never had the sort of unity it has in the States. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy never really caught on here, and that’s the basis of real fundamentalism. I think the Anglican Evangelicals are beginning to break up in three directions: some are retrenching; some are moving into liberalism; but most of them are looking for a deeper, more church-based theology.”
Professor Walker explains that the Charismatic renewal of the late 1960s had a very ecumenical dimension. “It was cross-denominational: there were Roman Catholics speaking in tongues as well. There was a vision of Christian unity. And now Evangelicals want to rediscover that. So they’re beginning to think more seriously about the Church as the body of Christ; and they’re taking liturgy seriously. They’re more interested in doctrines of incarnation and the Trinity.
“I think that the Alpha movement has played a role. In many ways it’s a conventional Charismatic Evangelical movement; but it’s been used by other denominations, and that has affected its theology. Perhaps as an unintended consequence, it has helped to open up Evangelical theology.”
But surely there is a conflict of ecclesiologies here: the Evangelicals are suspicious of hierarchy and tradition; and High Church traditions are suspicious of direct appeals to the Spirit and the Bible. Will Evangelicals move away from biblicism?
Professor Walker admits that this is not clear. “No one knows how it will pan out in terms of things like institutional structures and moral teaching; but this Catholic turn is the most significant development for many years. There’s a movement of tectonic plates going on.”
DOES ANY of it matter? The veteran theologian Dr David Edwards warns against overestimating the might of the Evangelicals. “Yes, their influence has grown in recent decades,” he says, “but that’s partly because the Church has shrunk. While I’ve been a priest it has halved in size.”
I ask him how the movement has changed over the last few decades. “They’ve certainly changed in terms of presentation — using modern slang, and so on — but also in some of their theological emphases. They used to teach faith in the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross to satisfy the wrath of the Father. You don’t hear that preached with such enthusiasm now.
“There’s much more emphasis on social questions, and global justice: they used to be dismissive of the social gospel. And hell has gradually disappeared as well.”
Perhaps the central ingredient, I suggest, is the appeal to “biblical morality”? This seems central to their appeal; the promise of clear moral rules.
“This does have appeal, but the appeal is limited, because it’s counter-cultural. It only appeals to some of the people, some of the time. You find a lot of Evangelical clergy softening their line as they get older, as a result of pastoral experience. Something similar happens within the movement as a whole: when you become successful and powerful, you compromise, or at least you split into those who compromise, and those who don’t.
“You have to remember that fashions change. In the early 20th century Anglo-Catholicism had a huge revival, which later petered out.”
It would be rash to predict the future of the Anglican Evangelical movement. Perhaps it is softening its edges as it becomes more successful and established — a sort of New Labour syndrome. Perhaps it is undergoing a very gradual process of liberalisation, though the evidence I heard as I talked to people was very mixed.
Alternatively, it may be that some Evangelicals are seeking a more Catholic theology, probably as they get older. There’s a danger, though, that these trends are magnified by wishful thinking on the part of more liberal commentators.
In reality, the most successful form of Anglicanism emphasises a sharp distinction between what it sees as Bible-based Christian morality and the vagaries of liberal culture. Within such a huge movement, there will always be fringe elements, such as liberal and catholic variants, but these hardly amount to a reformation.
Next week: how the parish structure is being challenged by liberals and Catholics as well as Evangelicals.
Theo Hobson is author of Against Establishment, an Anglican Polemic, (DLT, £7.95 (CT Bookshop £7.15); 0-232-52508-0)