The benefits of smallness

(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.

6 Comments

  1. JohnO
    Mar 25, 2010

    I only recently discovered your blog and I am very much enjoying dipping into it.
    I think, on this issue, you make an astute observation. I’m a member of the Church of Scotland and when I think of last year’s GA debate over ‘certain matters’ I can’t help but think of the difference in the rhetoric found on blogs and other media compared to the pretty gracious, but robust, debate held at the General Assembly itself. It makes all the difference when you are face-to-face with an ‘opponent’. Even more when that person may be someone you need to work with locally or even within a committee or working group.
    It’s a matter or ‘personalising’ issues – not always a good thing, but it can help us to remember that it is real people we are vilifying, not some faceless ‘bogey-man’ we have created.

  2. craig
    Mar 26, 2010

    Mmm … Quiche … The solid rock on which we stand and not just evangelicals, nearly all Christian traditions can find some common ground upon this ecumenical manna.
    Some day someone will realise its potential but we will disagree over whether a whole quiche should be broken and distributed or a preprepared quiche should be cut up into tiny cubes! Is it any wonder we are divided over tea and coffee

  3. Terry
    Mar 26, 2010

    Gospel-Shaped Disagreements: There’s the title of your paper, right there.

  4. Catriona
    Mar 26, 2010

    I suspect that you’re right that size is part of the reason we hold together better. Do the English Baptist colleges define themselves over against each other? I’m not sure they do – certainly their principals do eat quiche or curry (and sup whisky) together. Granted, I’m just a Northern-trained heretic, so what would I know anyway, but I’ve always felt the inter-college rivalry was friendly and tongue-in-cheek. Maybe there is a bit of ‘Britishness’ in how we act?

    Anyway, I’m having fun in Scotland and acclimatising to a very different Union.

  5. Chris E
    Mar 26, 2010

    It is interesting to me to what extent this both influenced and was influenced by the episode where MLJ called evangelicals to leave the CofE, both in terms of the original call – and the ultimate response.

  6. rachelmuers
    Mar 31, 2010

    I was struck by this when I attended Ireland Yearly Meeting (ie the decision-making body for Quakers in Ireland, open to all Quakers from the north and the south). It has to be one of the more diverse church bodies around – take the full spectrum of British Quakerism (ie from liberal to very liberal :-) ) and then add to it something that’s theologically & socially not far from Northern Irish Presbyterianism. One reason it just about works, I think, is that you can fit a substantial fraction of the Yearly Meeting (let’s say at least one or two members of every local congregation) into one largish school hall, and everyone knows everyone else’s name.

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