Sunday, 18 July 2010

When Evangelicals were united

In amongst researching something else today, I came across an online copy of Third Way from 1979.
The past is indeed another country, as they say. Thus several of the articles and many of the letters in the correspondence columns were taken up with the issue of trade unions, strikes and wage claims.
In an even more unfamiliar twist, the Nationwide Festival of Light was holding an evening rally at All Souls, Langham Place, looking at “What does the Bible say to the International Year of the Child?” (speakers Harry Sutton, Eddie Stride, Raymond Johnston and Bob Holman).
There is also an article by one John Gladwin (with a very fetching ’70s haircut) questioning the morality of granting an 8.8% pay rise to workers in the public sector — on the basis that it is possibly too small, not too big!
In another article, Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for West Lothian, writes of the forthcoming devolution vote: “We in the Labour Vote No Campaign contend that the proposal for a ‘Yes’ vote for the Scotland Act comes four-square in the category of false prophecy.”
What most strikes me, however, is the co-existence of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ evangelical strands alongside one another. Of course, the emphasis is on politics and social action, but that was Third Way’s subject-matter. But the theological discourse is conducted in a language which the Evangelical constituency held in common.
The same search also took me to Randle Manwaring’s From Controversy to Coexistence: Evangelicals in the Church of England, 1914-1980, written in 1985, when the Evangelical constituency was still just about holding together, and Manwaring could write of “the decay of the old liberalism”.
If I am being nostalgic, I would argue that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Church of England prays constantly that we may be ‘united in the truth’. Perhaps back then we were also united in our ignorance. We knew next to nothing about the ‘new perspective’ on Paul, or that we could divide over our views on women’s ordination. On the contrary, the Nottingham Statement had declared as ‘the’ Evangelical Anglican position that,
Leadership in the church should be plural and mixed, ultimate responsibility normally singular and male.
Were we wrong on other matters as well as this? Obviously, many Evangelicals today would say ‘yes’. Yet I think my question to the constituency would be whether the gospel as we are preaching it today is the gospel as it was preached by the generation that produced the evangelical leaders of the ’70s and ’80s — many of whom were converted through the Billy Graham crusades at Harringay and Wembley. Manwaring writes,
... there can be little doubt that the work of Billy Graham had lasting effects throughout Anglicanism, its benefits by far outweighing its disadvantages. (112)
To put it another way, would the ‘you’ you are today be interested in, and capable of, being instrumental in the conversion experienced by the ‘you’ you were when you became a Christian? I very much hope the answer is yes, but I very much fear that the answer for my own generation is often no.
Certainly the ‘new perspective’ is much more important in this regard than women’s ordination, on which even relative conservatives take different views. But I hazard a guess that our disunity in other areas reflects our confusion at a more fundamental level. The shared good news that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to die for our sins, so that whosever trusts in him should not be judged eternally by that same God, but have eternal life, seems to have given way in some areas to the assertion that ‘God loves and therefore anything which seems to be ‘loving’ is of God’.
Of course God loves, but as Don Carson has pointed out, the love of God is a difficult doctrine to handle correctly. I must agree with him when he says,
I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God—to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity.
Evangelicals can, in the end, be united only by the evangel — the gospel they proclaim. And that gospel itself depends on who the God is revealed in Christ. Carson quotes Marsha G Witten:
The relatively weak notion of God’s fearsome capabilities regarding judgment is underscored by an almost complete lack of discursive construction of anxiety around one’s future state.
 Our generation of Evangelicals is indeed anxious about many things, and urges that anxiety — along with the possible palliatives — on others. But there is little anxiety about eternity. And that may be our downfall.

John Richardson
18 July 2010
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  1. John,
    I think there may be a sociological explanation for the disunity we see among evangelicals.

    Some years ago, my wife was involved with supporting the underground church in Romania. She found it remarkably coherent and united in purpose. However, soon after the Ceausescu regime was overthrown and democracy restored, the Romanian church began to squabble among themselves and fragment. The old unity they had was lost.

    I have been reading Canon Michael Saward's book 'Evangelicals on the Move' which traces the rise of the Evangelical movement in the CofE written by someone who was instrumental in setting up NEAC.

    Back in the 50's 60' and 70's evangelicals in the CofE were more marginalised and less accepted than they are now. As evangelicals became more assertive and influential then they have become complacent in their core beliefs and focused on the luxury of squabbling.

    Perhaps what they need is good dose of persecution to unite them.

    And maybe the liberals are God instruments for doing this.. ;)

    Chris Bishop

  2. On the other hand my memory and bookshelf tells me that Jim Packer (1978) and Tom Wright (1980) in Latimer Trust booklets were concerned about Evangelical Anglican Identity, and offering rather different answers to the problem as they then saw it.

  3. I love the Don Carson quote there. Spot on.