Monday 28 May 2007

What’s really wrong with English Conservative Evangelicalism

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


  1. John,

    A useful critique. One problem is that conservative evangelicalism is in itself diverse. It includes its anti intellectuals its noisey bigots and its patrician class. I'm not sure if the class issue is unique to CEs or not.

    At the same time it produces its working and middle class people and even its thinkers. The question is -are the noisey brigade and the notable personalities representatives of conservative evangelicalism in general?

  2. Dear John R,

    interesting comments as always. However, the title is slightly misleading unless you wanted to refer only to Anglican Conservative Evangelicalism. Outside Anglican circles those with a similar theological stance are rarely upper middle class.

    I agree with your comment on theology and the need for good biblical theology yet I am sometimes concerned that this is trendily followed at the moment to the expense of systematic theology. If the past neglected the former and overemphasised the latter the solution isn't to switch positions but to teach and learn both.

    Preaching is highly variable but perhaps we unfairly measure our minsters against conference superstars. Perhaps it's better to look at the larger scope of an individual's preaching. Do they range across the scope of scripture to teach the whole counsel of God? I'm firstly after a pastor who is faithful. If he's dynamic that's a bonus but it's no subsitute for faithfulness.

    Strategy - I was intrigued by Broadbent's comment that OEs see themselves as the heirs of Keele '67. If that's the case, and if, in some sense Anglican CEs are trying to move away from that, or even turn the clock back, then that has strategic implications. I suggest they need to look outside Anglican circles in order to develop gospel strategies for this country. The nascent regional Gospel Partnerships are are welcome development here and I am particularly heartened by those which have chosen to link up with Affinity so planting a flag as to their primary identification as evangelicals first and Anglicans second.

    These comments also impinge on the love of foreign bishops. If, strategically, Anglican CEs look to other evangelicals, who cares too much about bishops. Since the best of the bunch were martyred by Mary they've been of limited use (and usually of great hindrance) to the gospel. Theological learning plays a role here since it is likely to lead to ecclesiologies which make bishops redundant! I do wonder if CoMission would have been better off presbyterially ordaining instead of flying a bishop in.

    I'm no particular fan of the CE label. Conservative has too many nasty overtones. I'd much rather call myself a Reformed Evangelical. It's interested that historic Reformed evangelicalism has its mystical touch feely sides. The emotions/affections/heart attitudes are often addressed in old sermons. Somehow Anglican CEs moved away from this: in the past perhaps by clinging to a minimal doctrinal creed that left no opportunity to explore wider Reformed riches; and in the present by feeling too much of a need to differentiate themselves from charismatics.

    In Christ,

    John Foxe.

  3. John Foxe,

    You're right to say that there are differences between Anglican and Free Church CEs. I think a couple of things should be considered though

    1. To what extent do Free church CEs (C here being conservative or classical whichever your preference) have their own leaders/heroes/notable personalities and to what extent are the leaders the same. Stott, Lucas and much of the reform crowd have an influence beyond Anglicanism
    2. To what extent do the leaders in independent circles escape from the problems of being a particular type of people. Is or isn't there the equivalent of the school tie operating there
    3. What other problems and issues have come about -see some of the comments on on independence

  4. Dear John,
    Thanks for the baloon puncturing.

    How do we find ways that make the medium and the message cohere in the way men like John Stott made the truth sound so welcoming, warm ....compelling?

    More anon... on strategic thinking and strategists.

    Thanks again.

    L'Chaim! Ifan....

  5. I think Free Church CEs are generally less "posh". BUT often have no idea that us Anglican CEs exist and are suspecious. So I think in both cases it is a case of "who can you trust".

    As someone from a "bog-standard comp" & then Poly, I'm atypical for Anglican CEs. I used to get fed up with the school tie thing, BUT now I'm known and trusted it doesn't feel like that. In fact as a Vicar in a UPA rated in the poorest 5%, these "old school tie" types have proved to be very generous with time, money and prayer. They have a genuine concern for places like this.

    Going the other way the Reformed Free Church types are now convinced that I am saved, in fact even quite sound. Some of them have stopped traveling such epic distances and now come to our Church. So it comes down to trust and you trust those you know, but sadly we often only know people like us.

  6. peace, brother ...
    maybe we're not so far apart after all (though you might have something to say baout my wife's orders!)
    Tim G

  7. This is brilliant, and what I would have said in a nutshell. The impression that many evangelicals have of Sydney is not helped by the fact that we are invited over to do the job of speaking bluntly...

  8. John: this is just to say "hi". Good photograph!

    I followed links from Michael J's blog to this post and the matching one on the OE crowd. It's very good to hear your perspective on the UK scene, as I'm an outsider to it but an occasional reader of web material that's otherwise lacking some context.

  9. Some much needed critique here. Though we conservative evangelicals like to think we're the ones who really preach the cross and preach grace, we're not exactly well known for humility.

    About preaching, here at Wycliffe there are lots of (mostly) charismatic students who love the Bible but have been badly put off expository preaching by sermons that are little more than commentary, without even a smile or any sense of passion. We would do well to listen to Tim Keller distinguish between 'informational' preaching (which aims to make the truth clear) and 'experiential' (which aims to make the truth real).

  10. A very interesting and contructive critique. Thank you.

  11. I am an Evangelical that is Anglican, but what kind "open" or "conservative", i do not really know. But my background is working class, but being an Anglican clergyman in the US makes me uppr-middle?
    There is this fine line, of preaching God's word, yet not at the expense of giving up our Anglican roots. But we need to focus on the working classes, who are falling the hands of the Liberals.