GLYN ACKERLEY served as the parish priest of an Evangelical church in Chatham, St Philip’s and St James’s, with an approach based on Charismatic renewal. He found, however, that some of his people were being drawn away by churches based on the health and prosperity gospel, and others were refugees from bruising experiences in such churches.
He decided to pursue a doctorate about them, and this book very much has the character of a thesis. In the ordinary run of things, you might expect an ethnography: life histories, socio-economic and educational background, age range, marital status and gender distribution, together with an analysis of organisational practices and turnover, and their influence within the broad Christian constituency, to back up your findings about them.
But that would have been understandably difficult; so what we have instead is a study gleaned from the internet of how these churches, led by Brian Urquhart, Michael Reid, and the American Jerry Savelle, present themselves rhetorically and create trust in their leadership. What emerges, in the broader international perspective, is a familiar story of powerful personalities, often a husband-and-wife team, and even dynastic successions, with obvious moral temptations, and a model of business operation which relies on a kind of spiritual investment system whereby the leaders conspicuously exemplify the health and wealth principle by reaping financially, and in every other way, what they sow.
There is an obvious problem here: those who do not reap the rewards of faith, and continue to be ill and poor, are deficient in faith. As Martyn Percy says in his foreword, such examples fit a wider pattern of religious abuse. But Ackerley is far more ambitious, and indeed speculative. He seeks to elicit the historical and cultural sources of this kind of religion in the global radiation of American capitalism, and, in particular, the pragmatism that judges by what works: in short, religious consumerism.
To this he adds a belief that the United States is a new Israel, for which the message of the Bible is clear to anybody, plus a kind of American Gnosticism, derived from the unexpected source of New Thought and Christian Science, whereby you may become an achiever through realising that your sufferings are mental delusions, and discover the principles of triumphant living.
As an adolescent in a Bible-believing revivalist family in the 1940s, I came across Mary Baker Eddy through my Christian Scientist piano teacher. I thought these worlds poles apart. If Ackerley is right, times have certainly changed.
The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.
Importing Faith: The effect of American “Word of Faith” culture on contemporary English Evangelical revivalism
Glyn J. Ackerley
The Lutterworth Press £24