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Interview: Steve Clifford general director, Evangelical Alliance

22 August 2014

'It's so important that we learn from and respect each other, even in our disagreements'

We're passionate about serving the Church, and particularly its Evangelical expression. The great John-17 prayer of Jesus gives a profound insight to the heartbeat of the Trinity, while calling us to a unity which carries with it a missional imperative: "that they might be one . . . that the world might believe". So we exist to see the Church more united in mission, confident and effective in voice.

The Evangelical Alliance has members from all the mainstream denominations and networks. Around 30 per cent are Anglican. The incoming chair of our council is General Superintendent of the Elim Pentecostal denomination; the outgoing chair is a Baptist, while the chair of our board is an Anglican vicar.

If a neighbour were to ask "what is an Evangelical?" I'd tell them about the fastest-growing wing of the Christian community around the world. Passionate followers of Jesus - people who want to see others come to a personal relationship with him, but also active in social engagement and fighting injustice. We see the events of Jesus's death and resurrection as the pivotal moment of human history, and regard the Bible as trustworthy and authoritative in understanding God's purposes for his creation.

I dislike labels. I come from a Charismatic, new-church tradition, but my experience over the years has given me a deep appreciation of the Church in all her diversity. I thank God for these riches. It's so important that we learn from and respect each other, even in our disagreements.

The watershed moment for me was during the summer of 1971. I got a summer job working on a farm attached to Capernwray Hall. One evening, I sat in their chapel and heard, not for the first time, the account of Jesus's death and resurrection. As I listened to the preacher, I just knew deep down it was true, and it had profound implications for my life.

Over the past 30 years - is it really so long? - I've been involved in churches of all kinds of shapes and sizes, and stumbled into other areas of ministry: chairing March for Jesus, Soul Survivor, and Hope. I really didn't see the general-director role coming in my direction, but God has a way.

One of the things I've really appreciated in this diversity is the exposure to the wider body of Christ, so I bring that into my role. Although we primarily work to be a voice for the Evangelical community, it's with a real respect for the other expressions. The commitment to unity has to be outworked at a national level, but some of the exciting stuff happens at the local level. "Unity movements" is the language we use.

We've initiated something called "Gather", to be a catalyst for these movements. Some happen through Churches Together, others are local Evangelical fellowships, and some happen spontaneously, but the common values are Christian leaders, meeting, praying, eating together, with a deep commitment to their city or town: asking what is God's agenda there, spiritually, physically, socially, then working together to see it happens. There are really exciting things happening across the country, something far broader than ourselves.

We have two main kinds of members: individuals who affirm an Evangelical faith and support our work, and organisations and churches who affirm the statement of faith, but also agree to some relational commitments.

The vast majority of Evangelical Christians in the UK, and indeed across the world, share similar views of human sexuality; but the fact that a debate is taking place indicates some variations of understanding and biblical interpretation.

Our theological commission reported on this in September 2012 in Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality. It's clear, well-argued, pastorally sensitive, sound (from our perspective), and continues to outline a biblical, historically orthodox view, which is the position of the vast majority of Christians in the UK and round the world.

The withdrawal of Oasis Trust's membership [News, 9 May] was based upon our council's request, that the content of their website, resources, and social-media output should reflect their stated position of having "no corporate view" on the issue of human sexuality. They sadly declined; so it was recognised that we were facing relational difficulties.

Passion held alongside a good dose of humility is a good combination. There's always a danger that passion can lead one into an obnoxious rigidity in relationships, but, at the same time, a humility which hasn't got passion can lead one into having no convictions at all. Obviously, human sexuality is a big issue within northern-hemisphere Christianity. Our position is wanting to be faithful to the biblical truth while sensitive to very real pastoral issues.

I see the Lausanne Congress in 1974 as a key moment for the Evangelical churches. I thank God for Billy Graham and John Stott, who insisted that the mission of God required us to be committed to both words and actions. We'd been in danger of losing the actions through our commitment to the words of the gospel. Forty years on, I hardly find an Evangelical church that is not involved in their community: foodbanks, debt counselling, street pastors . . . - you name it, we're involved in it. If anything, I fear we're now in danger of losing the "words".

We must be agents for change in our communities, but at the same time we have responsibility to engage, challenge, and influence those in power.

There's an election coming up in less than a year, and I'm hoping and praying the Church's voice will be heard clearly. We're instigating a major initiative to encourage, resource, and support Christians as public leaders.

The migrant Church is a wonderful gift to the UK. I've come to know some brilliant leaders who are doing some amazing work inside and outside the Church. I'm challenged by their passion, their faith, and some extraordinary churches that they are helping to grow. If the John-17 prayer of Jesus is to be answered, the Church must rise to the challenge of crossing all racial divides.

I'm remembering a "holy moment" at a council meeting, when two leaders from Caribbean and African Churches shared their experiences, and the whole council knelt in repentance for failing to express our unity across these divides, and asked how we as an organisation need to change.

The One People Commission that emerged is seeing African, Caribbean, Chinese, Korean, and South Asian leaders meet regularly together to pray, to plan and influence the work of the Evangelical Alliance and the Church across the UK. I've been so enriched by these relationships.

My pipe-dream? To save a penalty at Wembley that enables Bradford City to win the FA Cup.

My father was an Anglican vicar, who was tragically killed by a drunk driver when I was five. I'm married to Ann, and we have two grown-up children, Jake and Jordan.

We've always lived in what we call an extended household, with perhaps 60 people living with us over the years. The first was a young Asian guy having difficulties over an arranged marriage who came to live with us for a couple of years, and that became a pattern. All kinds of people came, and we realised we enjoyed it. We bought a far bigger house when the children arrived; so there were always two or three people alongside our nuclear family, and a wider circle of people who shared our lives. Our children didn't know anything else, but I think they were enriched by it. When they were teenagers, there were others around to be a listening ear and a support, and they now relate to people very well.

I love Greece: the people, their hospitality, the light, the sea, the climate - it's just great.

It depends on my mood, but I love jazz.

I'm reading Tim Keller's Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, and Tom Wright's Paul for Everyone The Prison Epistles.

I pray for my family, my church, and the areas of responsibility that I sense God has given me.

I'd choose to be locked in a church with Nelson Mandela. I'd love to ask how he kept his heart soft while facing so much injustice.

Steve Clifford was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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