In connection with this, you should also now read this article on Why Conservative Evangelicals should pass Resolution C.
As a Conservative Evangelical, I get rather tired of people telling me (not usually to my face) what is wrong with me. On the other hand, as one who has blogged on the subject of Open Evangelicalism, people may think I believe all in the Conservative Evangelical camp is rosy.
It is not, especially not in England. And so here is what I think is really wrong with English Conservative Evangelicalism. Bear in mind, these are general criticisms. There are many individuals to whom these do not apply. Nevertheless, here goes:
1. It is dominated by an upper-middle-class culture. This is very much the legacy of EJH ‘Bash’ Nash, founder of the famous ‘Iwerne’ camps. Bash was a man of simple faith and strategic genius. Seeing that the leadership of England was drawn from public (US = private) schools, he specifically targeted their students and sought their conversion.
Amongst the fruits of his labours were Dick Lucas, John Stott, Michael Green and David Watson, all of whom went on to become key evangelical leaders.
Yet, inevitably, Bash campers produced more Bash campers, and so English evangelicalism generally, and in latter years Conservative Evangelicalism particularly, has been dominated by a public school ethos. Unfortunately, public-school upper-middle-class people are generally poor at opening their ranks to outsiders. The ethos of the upper echelons of Conservative Evangelicalism has thus often been closer to ‘old school tie’ than is healthy.
2. Connected with the first point, English Conservative Evangelicalism is theologically thin. I have quoted before Michael Green’s comment that, “(Bash) often regarded theologians with suspicion and even mistrust.” Unfortunately, the same attitude rubbed off on many of his proteges — not, of course, entirely without reason, given the nature of much theological training in the past. Moreover, it has to be admitted that the great British divide between academic and applied disciplines affects more than just the church. Nevertheless, there are few senior Conservative Evangelical leaders with serious theological qualifications or ability.
Ironically, those in England seem to feel this is encouraged by Sydney Anglicans, when in fact many key parish leaders in Sydney are highly qualified academically. Indeed, it was Dr David Peterson’s move from Moore College to Oak Hill which most recently helped us address some of these shortcomings.
3. Arising out of point 2, English Conservative Evangelical preaching is not as good as it likes to think. That is not to say it is as bad as everyone else's! The standard of preaching nationally is generally quite dire in my experience. However, given the high esteem in which preaching is held by Conservative Evangelicals, we ought to be better at it than we are. Please, guys (and it usually is guys), the aim of preaching is not, “To teach the Bible accurately”. Of course, you can’t preach unless you’ve understood the Bible, and yes, you must teach it accurately, but that is not our aim in preaching. (What is? I’ll tell you later.)
4. Again in stark contrast to their Sydney counterparts, English Conservative Evangelicals lack a grasp of strategic, as distinct from tactical, vision. In military terms, they are like guerillas, able to stage ‘hit and run’ actions, but unable to combine forces and win any serious victories. The recent launch of the Covenant for the Church of England illustrates my point. The content was not as bad as some people suggested, but it was not as good as might have been hoped. And what was the follow-up plan? Many Liberals seem to think there is a Conservative plot. As a Conservative myself, I can only lament, ‘I wish’.
5. Connected with point 4, English Conservative Evangelicals eschew joint action and agreed leadership. There is no ‘king’ amongst them. On the contrary, everyone does what is right in his own eyes.
6. Connected with points 4 and 5, English Conservative Evangelicals are inconsistent over bishops and episcopacy. For the most part, they treat the episcopate as a joke — something they do not need and which the church would be better off without. Yet they will enthusiastically welcome overseas bishops and fete them as great leaders of the Church when occasion requires it. You cannot be serious players in an episcopal church and disparage the episcopate, which is one reason why Conservative Evangelicals are not serious players.
7. Arising from the last point. Conservative Evangelicals have no real concept of how Anglican ecclesiological structures might actually work to the good of the Church. In fairness, most of them have only worked in England, where Deanery Synods are like the ‘Night of the Living Dead’, Diocesan Synods are rubber stamps for the Bishop’s Council and there is only one Conservative Evangelical bishop. It is hardly their fault that they have no confidence in the ‘structures’ of Anglicanism.
Yet there are obvious examples within the Communion of Anglican structures working effectively to promote faith and mission. The Conservative assumption that these structures are inevitably irrelevant is therefore unfounded.
8. At its worst, English Conservative Evangelicalism is characterised by a harshness and arrogance of tone. All religious movements have a tendency to attract certain personality types. The typical Conservative Evangelical is somewhat straight-laced, probably not very appreciative of the arts and certainly not ‘touchy feely’. None of these are moral faults. However, a lack of empathy and sympathy certainly needs to be addressed in the light of the gospel mandate.
9. There is an increasing tendency to ‘masculinism’ amongst English Conservative Evangelicals. Certainly there is a need for the Church to reflect a true masculinity, and certainly it is currently dominated by an overly-feminised ethos. I have written on this elsewhere. However, the answer is not to puff out our chests and spray the building with eau de training shoe.
Each year I go to the London Men’s Convention, and each year I swear ‘never again’. And if I hear another jolly comment from the platform about football (‘Hey, we’re all blokes here’) I will throw up. Being a man should be like being English. It should be something you just are, not something you have to keep waving a flag about. Masculinity is about understatement! (Discuss.)
Finally, having written all this, I sat back and asked myself, “OK, smart Alec, now think about what’s wrong with you.”
Like everyone else, “My sins are ever before me,” but that is not the point here. Doubtless I have my own misunderstandings and weaknesses regarding the situation we are in. The peril of blogging is that you put them on public display, and maybe that is failure enough.
Revd John P Richardson
28 May 2007