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Scapegoating for unity

22 January 2016

Bernice Martin finds a study of Evangelicals careful and convincing

The Scandal of Evangelicals and Homosexuality: English Evangelical texts, 1960-2010
Mark Vasey-Saunders
Ashgate £60
Church Times Bookshop £54 


THE Scandal of Evangelicals and Homosexuality is the doctoral thesis of the Revd Mark Vasey-Saunders. His supervisor, Robert Song, was adviser to the Pilling working party, and the author in 2014 of an idiosyncratic and subtle book on the theology of same-sex relationships, Covenant and Calling.

No one should read Vasey-Saunders’s book in the hope of finding what the author’s precise opinion about same-sex sexuality is. Rather, he examines why the issue of homosexuality is currently so toxic for the Church, and specifically for Evangelicalism, the tradition to which both Song and Vasey-Saunders belong. For most of Christian history, homosexuality had no special salience, and only became regarded as a litmus-test of theological orthodoxy, particularly among Evangelicals, in the second half of the 20th century.

The book applies the theory of René Girard to the part played by homosexuality in recent Evangelical debate. The term “scandal” has a particular meaning within the Girardian model which gives piquancy to the book’s title.

Girard’s theory of sacrificial violence, derived from literary analysis, was later applied to anthropology and religion. All desire is “mimetic”: we desire what we see others, or more precisely the model Other, desire. This creates a triangular relationship between subject, model (the Other), and object (of desire), energised by rivalrous imitation between subject and model. Envy and rivalry snowball through contagious imitation until the social order of the community is menaced: Girard confusingly calls this “the crisis of undifferentiation”.

This can be arrested only by loading responsibility for the disorder on to a scapegoat. Peace is restored by displacing the violence into a sacred ritual that destroys the scapegoat. Girard claimed that society and primal religion originated in this process.

He thought that the Passion of Christ, as sacrificial victim, altered the dynamic, and that even some of those inciting and inflicting ritual violence knew that this was an innocent scapegoat. Though the Church is not immune from the “Scandal” of ritual scapegoating, its foundation documents and ritual enactments in the eucharist regularly reveal the violence of the process.

Vasey-Saunders applies this model to disagreements within English Evangelicalism with particular reference to key texts between 1960 and 2010. It is a work of careful scholarship and argument. Evangelicalism, the descendant of Calvinism, currently displays three main tendencies: progressives and exclusivists, on sharply opposed theological trajectories, and a broad central group of “cautiously open conservatives”, including “entrepreneurial charismatics” currently demoralised by “late-onset decline”.

After the 1960s, when a broad consensus seemed to emerge, especially after the National Evangelical Anglican Conference in Keele in 1967, underlying disagreements and rivalries over theology began to be deflected on to pharmakoi, individuals and groups who appeared as potential scapegoats. Disapproval of homosexuality acted as a unifying trope as ritual violence was unleashed on pharmakoi.

The first example discussed in detail is Dr Jeffrey John, but the contagious violence generated by Evangelicalism’s fears for its own future also found other targets: liberals and gays were scapegoated; and liberals and gays scapegoated “fundamentalists” in turn. The infectious mimesis of violence is teased out in convincing historical and textual detail.

The book concludes with an important chapter presenting a critique of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Vasey-Saunders suggests modifications that go some way towards salvaging the moral character of God the Father and are less likely to encourage ritual violence in human affairs in imitation of the cosmic violence of the Passion.

Only this, he believes, can release the resources that already exist in the movement for resisting sacred violence and nurturing an “unafraid Evangelicalism”.


Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.

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