Evangelicalism divided?

Posted on January 12, 2008

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I have seen/heard several comments in the last few weeks about the divided state of contemporary British Evangelicalism. Rob Warner’s book, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, has attracted a fair amount of attention, not least because of his central role in some of the debates he reflects on in the book. Andy Goodliff has begun a review here, and Jim Gordon has posted two parts of his own review here and here. Both focus in part on Warner’s account of the growing divisions in English Evangelicalism through the 1980s to the present. In addition, this month’s Christianity magazine has a feature article by Andy Peck (an excerpt can be read here) entitled ‘Evangelicals United?’ which is in many ways a re-presentation and popularisation of Pete Ward’s ‘tribes of evangelicalism’ thesis.

All these accounts start with David Bebbington’s ‘Quadrilateral,’ from his classic book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. David had argued that, historically, if we were to look for the uniting features of those people and groupings that were regarded as ‘Evangelical’, four broad themes would emerge: biblicism; christocentrism; crucicentrism; and activism. Reading the reviews of Warner’s book (my copy is on order…) and Peck’s article, both then recall a time in the 1950s or 1960s when Evangelicalism did appear united to the authors, and chart how Evangelical growth in numbers, influence, and confidence since then has led to fracture and disunity.

Andy says this in his summary of the book:

Warner’s thesis ‘seeks to build upon Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain‘, but identifies a rather more dynamic model of ‘twin and rival axes within pan-evangelicalism that energise the dynamic of evangelical rivalries, experiments and evolution’ (20). There are two things happening, firstly there are the group of active-orientated entrepreneurs, who make up the conversionist-activist axis – those who are engaged in Spring Harvest, March for Jesus, Alpha, and what was in the 1980s and 90s a growing worship industry. Secondly, there are the more theologically-orientated group, who make up the biblicist-crucicentric axis – those who are concerned with doctrine and often the formulating and guarding the doctrinal core of evangelical convictions’ (20). The book is thus divided into two parts, exploring historically and theologically these two axes.

[Where does the third quotation start, Andy? I expect better from my former students!]

Jim states that ‘The last 20 years have seen a process of increasing polarisation, as Evangelicalism has gone through a period of reinvention, redefinition and realignment.’ and explores the same basic theme that Andy picked up on:

The historic movement of pan-Evangelicalism, has in the past been held together despite many internal tensions, by agreed principles generously interpreted …. What Warner argues is that in late 20th century English Evangelicalism, these four essentials in the Evangelical bar code have through a process of bifurcation split the Evangelical movement into two axes. The first is the crucicentric biblicist axis which is essentially Reformed, doctrinally defensive, leans heavily towards fundamentalism and is increasingly separatist. The other is the conversionist activist axis, which is entrepreneurial in style, pragmatic in approach and mainly driven by and ecclesial pragmatism baptised in the Spirit, but less doctrinally precise. Both are increasingly discredited.

I ought to declare an interest here: I presently chair what used to be the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth amongst Evangelicals (ACUTE), although the first decision under my chairing was to re-name it (to an even longer mouthful!). But my concern with this picture is not because I have anything invested in pretending that the Evangelical movement is more united than it is (if anything, unless there is more than Andy and Jim are saying, I think Warner misses the truly toxic potential divisions which may yet happen, and which, if they do, will get entangled with the politics of ethnicity). Rather, it is because I am interested in Evangelical history.

The account of increasing division Warner and Peck give is true, but only in the way that political statistics are always true: it is easy to demonstrate decline or increase by carefully choosing the starting point. Evangelicalism in the 1950s in Britain was united and uniform, surprisingly so: the old ‘liberal’ and ‘centrist’ wings of the movement, significant before the Second World War, had declined, and a moderate conservatism held sway. My reading of British Evangelical history, however, is that the 1950s represent an astonishing moment of uniformity, unparalleled in history before or since, rather than a norm against which other things may be measured.

Evangelicalism has always been a pluriform movement; in some ways, its chief genius since the 1730s has been its ability to hold together people across lines that divide the wider church, in the name of a focus on certain essentials and a commitment to action. In 1750, some of the Evangelicals astonishingly refuse to be divided on Calvinist-Arminian lines; in 1800 the great pan-Evangelical campaigns all begin in a public house, the London Tavern, because they are bringing together ministers who are prohibited by their denominations from entering one-another’s churches, or even houses; in 1846, the Evangelical Alliance is consciously and determinedly internationalist in scope and focus; and so on.

Through the twentieth century, the wider church became better at not being divided, and so this feature of Evangelicalism becomes less obvious–but, actually, it is still true in important ways: all the ecumenical groups I have been involved in, local or national, multi-lateral or bilateral, have been unable to celebrate the Eucharist together; Evangelicals do it routinely (and the fact that we do it demonstrates that this is not because we don’t care about the Eucharist!). Jim’s line about ‘agreed principles, generously interpreted’ is a very good one; both parts capture something of the central genius of the British Evangelical movement.

I think, pending a close reading of his book, that Warner is simply wrong to suggest the present pluriformity of English Evangelicalism is anything remarkable; rather, the uniformity of a half-century ago was remarkable, in historical terms. However, the thesis is not just about uniformity, but about unity. This post is long enough already, though–that can wait a day or two.

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