69 Who are the fundamentalists?

One of the problems of trying to study fundamentalist Christians 15 years ago was that it was very hard to find one. This may sound a strange thing to say when I was meeting conservative Christians all the time in my researches. But all too frequently the individuals would deny that they believed this or that doctrine which was supposed to be typical of conservative belief. I was dealing not just with the difficulty of defining what fundamentalism was but also finding it embodied archetypically in an single individual. People seemed very ready to back pedal on belief systems that might sound strange to another person or look somewhat extremist. When challenged on particular texts, the proponents of literal beliefs about the Bible would find some way of blunting the edge of what they believed, so that it was less offensive than when it had been uttered from the pulpit. I remember once hearing some bizarre ideas about demonic possession reported, which were apparently taught at a local healing centre. They fitted exactly a pattern that was ‘fashionable’ in the early 90s and I had no reason to suppose that my source had got it wrong. I did question the leaders concerned but they denied all knowledge of such teaching. A few days later I was in the back seat of a car and these same leaders were discussing transgender issues which were in the news at that time. Their comments fitted precisely the extremist language of moral condemnation of people in the unhappy situation of having an ambiguous sexual identity. Christian morality, according to their understanding, apparently had to condemn those who sought a sex change operation. I said nothing, but noted internally that conservative Christianity finds it easier to deal in precise categories of good and bad, light and darkness.   The concept of ambiguity in a moral situation did not exist within their thinking.

I write this preamble because it is extremely difficult to pin someone down as an archetypal fundamentalist Christian. The typical conservative Christian who sits in the pew is most likely full of inconsistencies about belief.   Even the most devout will not have internalised the ‘sound’ teaching perfectly . For most, there will be a muddle of correct teaching mixed up with all sorts of other ideas which compete for attention. Complete consistency of beliefs is quite hard to achieve. No Christian leader can ever completely police the thinking of his flock. Among Christian leaders you will probably find a layer of tribal ‘correct’ thinking and belief which they present to their congregations. In addition they will also have private doubts and questions which are kept to themselves Perhaps the only place we can find an archetypal Christian position expressed is in the writings of those who lead or represent denominations or Christian conservative networks. Whatever problems of faith such individuals have , these need to be kept firmly under wraps so that their followers see only the calm and clear presentation of consistent Biblical teaching. As far as this audience is concerned, doubts or hesitations have to be invisible.

In the past week or two I have come across two books which actually make it possible to study the archetypal conservative Christian. The books* make it clear that two brothers, Peter and Philip Jensen, both Anglican leaders in Sydney, Australia, have been teaching a coherent and consistent version of strict Calvinist Christianity for 20+ years. Peter Jensen served until recently as Archbishop of Sydney while his brother is Dean of the Anglican Cathedral.   The teaching of the brothers has acquired a fixed structure partly because the Sydney diocese has within it a strictly conservative Anglican college known as Moore Theological College.  This college through it principals and teaching staff developed a system of theology which can be thought of as an ‘ism’.  In church political terms, the Jensen brothers achieved supreme power in the diocese which allowed them almost complete control of church life in their diocese. No clergy were allowed to come from outside the diocese to ‘corrupt’ any of the parishes, and every ordinand has had to pass through Moore College. This Calvinist ‘take-over’ of Sydney Anglicans was of significance not just to the church in Australia but it is even now a threat to the world-wide Anglican Communion. What has happened is that the energy created within this conservative ‘ghetto’ has raised the confidence of this style of theology so that it believed that the whole Anglican communion is ripe for take-over by a confident Biblical Christianity. With the help of conservatives in America and across Africa, the Jensen brothers and their supporters believed that their time had come. Their version of Christianity was thought to be the only truly valid expression of Anglicanism. I have spoken of the influence of America in encouraging African churches to make a great issue over the topic of gay marriage, but it would appear that the Diocese of Sydney also has had comparable influence in this matter. The Diocese of Sydney and the now retired Archbishop Jensen form a crucial part of the so-called GAFCON group of disaffected Anglican churches across the world. They believe that they alone stand for Biblical Christianity.

In Britain, the greater part of the Anglican church has little time for GAFCON. While many churches and even dioceses follow a conservative path, few want to go the Sydney/ GAFCON way. The only allies in England for the Jensen brothers are the group of 30 or so parishes under the auspices of an organisation called REFORM. This conservative group has no representatives on the Bishop’s bench. Even in the one college that supports the Moore College ethos, Oakhill in London, there is far greater a degree of plurality than is allowed in Australia.

Conservative Christianity, à la Jensen brothers, has been indeed powerful in the Anglican Church but in many ways its power base is too narrow to take over the whole church. I suspect that all GAFCON and the other international groupings of conservative Anglicans have achieved is to help fragment the church. In the face of such uncompromising extremist teaching, Anglicans may, as I have suggested in another post, have to walk apart. It will always be impossible to talk to those who believe, as the Jensen brothers do, that the entire truth of God is preserved in a single theological system – theirs. Such a theological system is in fact a creation of their own hubris and must ultimately fall. My next blog post will indicate some of the cracks in the edifice that are beginning to show.

To return to the question at the beginning. To find true fundamentalist teaching we must look beyond the muddled thinking of individual Christians to the coherent ‘political’ systems set out by networks of destructive ideologies such as Sydney/Moore theological College/ GAFCON. Such ideologies must be studied and refuted with energy. This energy for such a task is sadly not in evidence.  (I will be writing more on this topic as further information come my way)

*Philip Jensen: Bible Believer. Psychology of Fundamentalist Leadership, Peter Herriot Amazon Kindle Book, 2009

Sydney Anglicans and the threat to World Anglicanism Muriel Porter, Ashgate, 2011

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

12 thoughts on “69 Who are the fundamentalists?

  1. Thanks for drawing attention to what seems a worrying problem in Sydney. Quite entrenched. I can’t really cope with the description Biblical Christianity. For me it has to be “Biblical Christianity”. Or “Biblical” “Christianity”. Just like I can’t stand the phrase “Bible-believing” in the way it’s often intended.

  2. We are not all singing from the same hymn book. The diversity and chaos I believe has come from the point where ‘Christianity’ first became a ‘State religion’, it never recovered. It is obviously easier to marry the fundamentalist view of scripture to capitalism and legitimize career motivation and ambition intensive. Religious patriotism and mind control follow this paper trail of;’ We understand the Word of God!’ I see in my minds eye Margaret Thatcher reading the ‘Prayer of St Francis’. And yes they, (The Fundamentalists) differ greatly. The mental acrobatics involved in sustaining various positions are quite simply ugly.

    I see a comparison with The Beatles music here, the originals by them were great, the singers and bands that covered them never really hit the spot! PEACE, Chris Pitts

  3. I have known several not very academically gifted people go to “fringe” Bible colleges, come away with a qualification, and then be ordained and take charge of a church. Does the same thing happen in Sydney? If those who aren’t too bright are in line for a high place in society, why should they want to challenge the status quo? They wouldn’t get a better offer. I was just thinking, if they are bright, you wouldn’t be able to indoctrinate them. Their reading would teach them there were alternative points of view. So is this control exercised by making sure potential candidates aren’t too bright?

  4. The interesting thing about Sydney is that the whole diocese has been forced into the straightjacket of Calvinist Protestantism. If young men (and it is only men for the priesthood) want to be ordained, that is the training they get and it is hard for them to know anything else. So one would imagine that it is not just the less bright ones that go but a full cross section of intelligence that are in ministry. The bright are capable of being ‘indoctrinated’ as there is nothing else on offer. Perhaps further down the road the bright ones ‘wake up’ but I have no evidence either way. All in all it a fascinating scene to observe, even from a long way off.
    I am told that there is an article on Moore Theological College in ‘Theology’ by the Bishop of Repton. I have not seen it but it should be interesting.

  5. Will they not only start reading ‘banned books’ when they have begun to doubt the system? The dissatisfaction has to come first to make them search the internet etc. If they have locked themselves up in the system then they won’t start looking. This is only a surmise but there is no evidence of mass apostasy as far as I know. Have a look at the happy smiling faces of Moore students on the web-site!

  6. I don’t really doubt that this happens. The marks of people’s theological colleges are always upon them. You can tell a Cuddesdon man! But it is much harder to pull the wool over people’s eyes these days. The Jehovah’s Witnesses forbid their people to read anything from another organisation, or even to listen to other people. But folk do come upon stuff. Books are referred to. Blogs often contain discussions that must surely make them see there are other points of view. As I say, I’m sure it happens, but equally, there would be some attrition, unless people are forbidden from reading.

  7. Just had a look at the Cuddesdon Theological collage web-site, they all have happy smiling faces! They talk of ‘Training men and women for the ministry’ I wonder if they do? I can tell a toilet cleaner from a brick layer, I trained at Essex University! well thats where I cleaned toilets anyway.

    Look, I’m waving my testimonials. Chris

  8. Go Chris! I do think theological education in general tends to distance leaders from the led – and that has a big weakness!
    Problem is we do need people with academic cleverness as well as loo cleaners.
    We must not lose good down to earth, unpatronising talking, listening, and understanding between us all.

  9. Cosmic Dick. I bet you know your way around a toilet! I really did get an award for my toilets at Essex university, it puts a deep theological lump in my throat when I look at it. I’d rather that than a blocked stink pipe. Peace love and clean toilets forever, Chris

  10. This discussion reminded me of a poem by C.T. Studd, 19th century missionary: “Some wish to live within the sound/ Of church or chapel bell,/ I want to run a rescue shop/ Within a yard of hell.” (C.T.Studd, Norman Grubb, Lutterworth, 1970, p166)

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