Evangelicalism divided? (2)

Posted on March 24, 2008

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I ended the last post with the promise that I would return to the question in ‘a day or two’. Illness and exam marking intervened, quite dramatically in the latter case, unfortunately.

Evangelicalism has never been a uniform movement; has it been a united one? Or has it, at least, been more united than Rob Warner suggests it has become at present? Warner suggests a growing divide between the ‘entrepreneurial Evangelicals,’ representatives of the ‘conversionist-activist’ axis, and the ‘Conservative undertow’, or ‘Calvinistic hegemony’, representatives of the ‘biblicist-crucicentric’ axis. He then, curiously, acknowledges that there is already a new middle (‘the post-conservative emergence’, represented by EA since Calver left; LBC/LST under Tidball; &c.–hardly marginal groups…), but refuses to let this impact his analysis in any way.

Let me offer three comments on this, one built on the same ‘participant observer’ methodology that Warner deploys, one drawing on statistical data, and one more orthodoxly historical:

Warner’s analysis of a split between the more ‘conservative’ and the more ‘progressive’ wings of the British Evangelical movement seems to me to be overly simple in at least two ways. First, conservative Evangelicalism itself is divided on whether it wants to remain a part of the broader Evangelical movement or not. There are those–curiously, often denominationally Anglican, and so of rather shaky credentials in terms of classical conservative Evangelicalism (with is either solidly Baptistic and congregationalist, or firmly Presbyterian)–who are looking for a purer, narrower, Evangelical movement, one from which the doctrinally questionable have been rigorously excluded. There are also those, more often in my experience Presbyterian, and Welsh or Scots, who, whilst in some ways more ‘conservative’ than the former group, are nonetheless open to a continuing pan-Evangelical dialogue, accepting the presence, if not the views, of some who are much more ‘progressive’ in their beliefs.

Now, it may be that this is a case of a centre-periphery historical pattern, and that the ideas now espoused in London will soon be accepted in Edinburgh, and eventually on South Uist. I doubt it, though. David Bebbington has convinced me that such patterns do occur in British Christian history (for the most convincing example, try plotting dates of British revivals on a map, ending with the Hebrides in 1948…), but I am more and more convinced that Scots (& incidentally Welsh) Christianity, not excluding Evangelicalism, is a different beast to the English version, and lives by different rules. Further, without invidiously naming names, if you know the people involved you can trace this debate within the leaderships of organisations and denominations, as well as between those organisations’ current public stances.

All of which is to say that the hard split that Warner identifies is much messier than he allows for.

Second, having now read Warner’s book, I think the gaping hole in the middle of all his analysis is the lack of any acknowledgement of the rise of Black majority churches as a significant force in English Evangelicalism in the period he surveys. I expect that when the history comes to be adequately written, this will be seen as the single biggest change, transforming Evangelicalism, and the wider religious scene in England. (To take only one example, the notion that Western Europe will continue to secularise is now routinely dismissed almost solely on the basis of the influx and settlement of religiously-serious immigrant communities). And, to put it very bluntly, I think his analysis fails completely to apply to, or to account for, the Black majority churches. In London, this is presently over 50% of the Evangelical community, and growing fairly rapidly.

Third, historically, I observe regular divisions in Evangelicalism just as wide, and much more vitriolic, than anything Warner is able to illustrate. Robert Haldane in Geneva; Spurgeon and the ‘Downgrade’; the decision of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christan Union to separate from the Student Christian Movement (then routinely identified as an Evangelical organisation); …

Once again, I find Warner erring in thinking the 1950s were normative, when in fact they were very, very odd in the history of the British Evangelical movement.

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