The benefits of smallness

Posted on March 25, 2010

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(This is a thought I have offered in conversation to various friends, several of whom seem to have found it helpful and/or convincing. One day I might see if there is actually any evidence to support it, and write a proper paper. For now, it belongs here…)

British evangelical institutions seem less ready to separate themselves from each other than their American counterparts, either through internal splits, or through the formation of factions separated by mutual condemnation. Several of my American friends have observed this, and questioned whether there might be a reason. I would love to say that our version of the tradition is more mature or irenic, or better understands the primary gospel demand to maintain the bond of peace, but I fear that none of this is true. Rather, we are just smaller.

The point is a rather obvious organisational one: to take an example, my denomination, the Baptist Union of Scotland, can only just support one theological college (‘seminary’ in American terms). So the college needs to be hospitable to charismatic and non-charismatic spiritualities, to ‘conservative’ and ‘open’ evangelicals, and so on. Our leaders, who have generally come through the college, have lived, worshipped, and worked with a variety of people and a variety of traditions. If we were bigger, we might have two colleges, and the potential would be there for the colleges to define themselves against each other on this or that issue, and so denominational leaders might be able to view those on the other side of the divide as ‘the other,’ unknown, feared, and demonised.

Of course, other evangelical traditions in Britain are bigger, but a more complex version of the same point holds: the movement as a whole is simply not big enough to permit significant separation, except in isolated and extreme cases. If we are to function beyond our own local fellowship, British evangelicals end up all working together at some level.

It happens I find myself on one side of various current debates within British evangelicalism; it also happens that, in every case, there are leaders on the other side who I know well – some I studied with, some I have taught, some I have worked with on this or that committee or conference. Given the size of our movement, this is just inevitable. I suspect that it is because of this, and not because of any different – let alone ‘better’ – moral stance, that we find it easier to disagree without denouncing than our sisters and brothers across the Atlantic.

If this happens to be right, does it make any difference? I think of an old friend of mine, someone whose wisdom I value and respect, who in a former role made it a part of his business to get young evangelical leaders together every so often. We needed an excuse, of course – a topic to discuss, or a speaker to listen to, but the real agenda was to build relationships, to make sure that, when they emerged into national leadership, these folk had once or twice eaten quiche together. It’s a long-term investment, but a work like this will, I believe, produce better, more gospel-shaped, disagreements in public ten or twenty years down the line.

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