Evangelicalism divided? (2)

I ended the last post with the promise that I would return to the question in ‘a day or two’. Illness and exam marking intervened, quite dramatically in the latter case, unfortunately.

Evangelicalism has never been a uniform movement; has it been a united one? Or has it, at least, been more united than Rob Warner suggests it has become at present? Warner suggests a growing divide between the ‘entrepreneurial Evangelicals,’ representatives of the ‘conversionist-activist’ axis, and the ‘Conservative undertow’, or ‘Calvinistic hegemony’, representatives of the ‘biblicist-crucicentric’ axis. He then, curiously, acknowledges that there is already a new middle (‘the post-conservative emergence’, represented by EA since Calver left; LBC/LST under Tidball; &c.–hardly marginal groups…), but refuses to let this impact his analysis in any way.

Let me offer three comments on this, one built on the same ‘participant observer’ methodology that Warner deploys, one drawing on statistical data, and one more orthodoxly historical:

Warner’s analysis of a split between the more ‘conservative’ and the more ‘progressive’ wings of the British Evangelical movement seems to me to be overly simple in at least two ways. First, conservative Evangelicalism itself is divided on whether it wants to remain a part of the broader Evangelical movement or not. There are those–curiously, often denominationally Anglican, and so of rather shaky credentials in terms of classical conservative Evangelicalism (with is either solidly Baptistic and congregationalist, or firmly Presbyterian)–who are looking for a purer, narrower, Evangelical movement, one from which the doctrinally questionable have been rigorously excluded. There are also those, more often in my experience Presbyterian, and Welsh or Scots, who, whilst in some ways more ‘conservative’ than the former group, are nonetheless open to a continuing pan-Evangelical dialogue, accepting the presence, if not the views, of some who are much more ‘progressive’ in their beliefs.

Now, it may be that this is a case of a centre-periphery historical pattern, and that the ideas now espoused in London will soon be accepted in Edinburgh, and eventually on South Uist. I doubt it, though. David Bebbington has convinced me that such patterns do occur in British Christian history (for the most convincing example, try plotting dates of British revivals on a map, ending with the Hebrides in 1948…), but I am more and more convinced that Scots (& incidentally Welsh) Christianity, not excluding Evangelicalism, is a different beast to the English version, and lives by different rules. Further, without invidiously naming names, if you know the people involved you can trace this debate within the leaderships of organisations and denominations, as well as between those organisations’ current public stances.

All of which is to say that the hard split that Warner identifies is much messier than he allows for.

Second, having now read Warner’s book, I think the gaping hole in the middle of all his analysis is the lack of any acknowledgement of the rise of Black majority churches as a significant force in English Evangelicalism in the period he surveys. I expect that when the history comes to be adequately written, this will be seen as the single biggest change, transforming Evangelicalism, and the wider religious scene in England. (To take only one example, the notion that Western Europe will continue to secularise is now routinely dismissed almost solely on the basis of the influx and settlement of religiously-serious immigrant communities). And, to put it very bluntly, I think his analysis fails completely to apply to, or to account for, the Black majority churches. In London, this is presently over 50% of the Evangelical community, and growing fairly rapidly.

Third, historically, I observe regular divisions in Evangelicalism just as wide, and much more vitriolic, than anything Warner is able to illustrate. Robert Haldane in Geneva; Spurgeon and the ‘Downgrade’; the decision of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christan Union to separate from the Student Christian Movement (then routinely identified as an Evangelical organisation); …

Once again, I find Warner erring in thinking the 1950s were normative, when in fact they were very, very odd in the history of the British Evangelical movement.


  1. michael jensen
    Mar 24, 2008

    Yes… it would also be wrong to see the Calvinist Anglicans as not committed to a vigorous programme of evangelism and church-planting.

    Why is it that whenever I read these historical accounts or sociological accounts of the evangelical movement I feel like I am being painted as a villain? It can’t be merely that I have a bad conscience!

  2. Steve H
    Mar 24, 2008

    Hi Michael,

    Well, Warner, and others, are trying hard to paint the conservative wing of the Evangelical movement as the ‘villains’ (Warner, to be fair, is as hard on the ‘entrepreneurial’ wing)…

    For me, the ‘villains’ of the piece are those who attempt to redefine the Evangelical tradition for their own political ends. To take one example, it happens that I am a committed Calvinist–I struggle to find the right formulae to articulate an adequate position on the issues, but on the basic question, whether salvation is a miracle of grace in which God sovereignly transforms the life of the sinner, I know where I stand. I am, however, impatient of attempts to pretend that Calvinism is somehow ‘more Evangelical’ than Arminianism: rightly or wrongly, from the birth of the movement, Evangelicalism has been divided, sometimes angrily, sometimes fraternally, on this issue.


  3. michael jensen
    Mar 24, 2008

    Yes, it all sounds like more sophisticated versions of that terrible ‘canal, river, rapids’ thing that Graham Kings from Fulcrum came up with. Who wants to be a canal, after all!?

    I understand where you are coming from with political ends etc. But words are political, and this ain’t necessarily as bad as all that. Does anyone who claims the name ‘evangelical’ have a right to the moniker if they can in some way trace their ancestry to the evangelical movement, however loosely?

  4. michael jensen
    Mar 24, 2008

    Sorry if this appears twice, but I submitted a comment which appears to have disappeared.

    Historical analysis will never suffice, though it is important. And though of course there are nefarious political uses of terms, I think a non-political use is nigh on impossible. Does anyone who calls themselves an evangelical and can trace a link, however tenuous, to something Wesley wrote in his journals one fine morning (and it seems like that sometimes!) have a right to the moniker? Or, is it worth continuing to contest it? IF so, what are the parameters?

  5. simon jones
    Mar 25, 2008

    I think you’re spot on with your observation that Rob ignores the influence of the black-led churches – and even the presence of black people in our congregations – on English evangelicalism. I guess my question would be: where on rob’s spectrum would they be placed? My experience is that this community is as divided as others on questions of theology and social engagement. Perhaps, those Africans and Afro-Carribeans who have settled in the traditional churches (of whatever denomination) are less conservative and less charismatic than those who have formed their own churches and church-groupings. But this is a hunch based on observation from my molehill first in Peckham and now in Bromley.
    I guess Rob gets his fixation with the importance of the 1950s from Callum Brown both of whose recent works have made that decade pivotal for the church generally and thus for evangelicals. Given the weight of criticism that Brown was subjected to from the likes of Robin Gill and (I think) Ian Randall, it’s surprising that Rob would accept his analysis quite so uncritically (interesting and suggestive though it undoubtedly is).
    I agree with your point in the last comment on the use of evangelcial definitions for political purposes. I think the whole ‘stoning of Steve Chalke’ episode was less about theology and more about politics.

  6. Steve H
    Mar 25, 2008

    Sorry–for some reason WordPress thought your comments were spam, and I’ve only now checked that list!
    There are two definitions of Evangelicalism that seem important to me: Bebbington’s quadrilateral (and all the similar or derivative schemes: Marsden; McGrath; etc.) and Noll’s account of ‘communities of conversation’. Both are historians, analysing the commonalities of people who have in fact been regarded as ‘Evangelical’, which I think is the right way to go with any such word.
    I’m not that bothered about the term: if someone could convince me that there was a definition of ‘evangelical’ that on historical grounds should be preferred to Bebbington’s, and that I didn’t fit within it, I’d drop the label tomorrow (and do a fair amount of resigning of roles, which might be quite attractive…). But the scholar in me rejects twisting evidence for political ends…

  7. Steve H
    Mar 25, 2008

    Hi Simon,
    Thanks for your comment.
    ‘More conservative and more charismatic’–that phrase, which I suspect is right, captures the problem. On Warner’s simple scale , ‘more charismatic’ = ‘less conservative’; the Black churches just don’t fit…

  8. michael jensen
    Mar 26, 2008

    Yes, thanks Steve. And thankyou for recognising my comments weren’t really spam!

    But I think the scholar-sitting-above-the-nasty-business-of-politics attitude won’t quite do. Hey, I am against twisting evidence, oh sure. But the writing of history by scholars is shot through with political ends, of course. There is no ‘historical’ definition that is not also a ‘political’ one. The impetus to broaden the definition to be more inclusive is not less political than the impetus to narrow it. I don’t see that one has the higher ground over the other, twisting of evidence notwithstanding.

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