Monthly Archives: June 2014

Inclusive or exclusive – ways of being church

The two words of the blog post’s title describe two very different ways of being and doing church. An inclusive church is one which welcomes all types of people, people who might otherwise be rejected for reasons of class, race, sexual orientation or age. Such a church tries, sometimes with difficulty and cost, to live out Paul’s statement that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ’.

Exclusivity in Church presents a quite different vision of what it is about. For exclusive Christians, there is placed a great priority in ensuring that those allowed in church are worthy or pure enough to be there. They will also all have passed through a common conversion experience of ‘giving their heart to Jesus’. They will then be examined to see if they believe a series of statements connected with Christ, his sacrificial death and the need to trust divine revelation revealed in the Bible. They are then believed to be part of a redeemed humanity which, so their church informs them, is saved and destined for eternal life with God in heaven.

This second way of being church is linked to a world view that places a great gulf between good and evil. Human beings are engaged not only with defeating temptation and evil in their lives but also they are called to fight in the cause of righteousness against the forces of evil in the world. The powers of evil are believed to be full of lying and deceit and so exclusive Christians are encouraged to be suspicious of everything and everyone who is not closely identified with their cause. Even those who call themselves Christian must be regarded with, at best, suspicion if they do not speak in the same way as the exclusive Christians. They must be rejected if they allow people who are ‘sinners’ to be part of their fellowship, especially homosexuals. In some places Christians who submit to the ministry of female clergy are also to be shunned.

One of the strengths of this, admittedly extreme, presentation of conservative Christianity is that it is so counter-cultural that those who support it are paradoxically made to feel special. Because they feel the irritation and even hostility of those around them, they have to cling together for mutual support and protection. That closeness is a source of warmth and strength. They also find consolation from the passages in Acts which describe when Christians are persecuted.   If we are persecuted, so the reasoning goes, then it must be because we are true Christians.   The passages from Acts where it is said that the Christians attracted the good-will of the surrounding population are conveniently forgotten in order to sustain the martyr narrative.

To return to the inclusive Christian group, the disadvantage of seeking to live in harmony with the neighbourhood and indeed to serve it, is that no one is trying to persecute you. You will lack that self-righteous buzz of being martyrs for God. There is no reason to have to live in close dependence on your fellow Christians for your survival. The stories of how you became a Christian which draw on a fairly predictable conversion narrative, are absent. Indeed the sheer variety of members’ narratives in an inclusive church could be a problem in taking a church forward because there are so many versions of what it means to be a Christian. It will be for the minister to attempt to identify a common thread in the many accounts that all can identify with. The inclusive church will thus often be untidy and unpolished in exactly what it stands for.  No doubt the more confident exclusive churches around will describe it as ‘wishy-washy’.   But meanwhile it will continue its vital work of trying to reach out to people of all kinds.  Individuals, rich and poor, black or white, native or foreign, young or old, male and female will hopefully find themselves drawn to seek out the mystery of depth that is known to Christian tradition as God. The journey into that depth is helped by the experience of other human beings who have travelled a similar road. Above all, Christian people are drawn into a pondering of the life and death of a particular human being known to us as Jesus. His life and teaching, as well as the events of his death and resurrection, contain within them clues to the greatest mystery and question of all. The question is quite simply: How are we to live? Do we clutch on to safety and security and avoidance of pain, or do we cast off, as in a boat, to explore the new, the unexpected and the real and trust and hope to find God there.

85 Making maps

mapSome eleven years ago my wife and I moved to the city of Edinburgh. At first, as in any new city, we found ourselves easily lost in getting from one place to another. But over a period of time we began to see the connections between one landmark and another so that setting out for a new place no longer filled one with dread that we might end up in a totally strange part of the city not knowing in what direction to go.   Certain parts of the city did remain strange to us and even after seven years I dreaded being asked to officiate at a particular crematorium on the far side of the city.

The task of getting to know a place involves a process of internalising a map inside of one’s head. The map that one carries around inside is no longer a map marking particular places but it also includes the connections between them. One learns a series of alternative routes to get from A to B. You have successfully put each landmark into a setting of relationships with other landmarks. To know a city is to understand how one place connects with everywhere else.

The task of getting to know the Bible is one that goes far beyond being able to quote particular passages. The Jehovah’s witnesses who bombard you with texts taken out of context, are rather like travellers who claim to know a city because they have visited certain landmarks. Metaphorically speaking they were taken there by coach and never understood how they got there. Far too many preachers endlessly quote high sounding passages from a pulpit as though that concludes any discussion. But every text has a setting and a context. Every text is linked to other texts and not to understand these connections is to show little understanding of the whole. Just as the map needs to show the roads that connect the landmarks, so the Bible texts and passages need the context in which they belong as well as their connections with the whole.

One of the great ‘aha’ moments in my own study of Scripture was the realisation that Paul, no less, evolved and changed in the time he spent writing the letters. One is able, for example, to trace a line of development in the way he understands the end of the world. The early language of I Thessalonians uses fairly crude literalistic language of apocalyptic to describe the coming of Christ and the way that people are physically ‘raptured’ to meet him. The language of I Corinthians 15 shows that Paul has re-thought his teaching as he realises that there are problems in his earlier ideas. Now he proposes that the earthly or physical body is raised as a spiritual or imperishable body. To use our map language, one is being presented with an understanding of the way that these two sections of scripture are connected. The route that joins them together is the idea of an evolution of thinking by Paul.

The problem about thinking about the Bible as being like a map, is that very people have cottoned on to this very basic idea. Even those who have years of study still seem very adept at treating a particular passage as though its context did not matter. And yet every single passage is rooted in a context of history, theology and culture. It will of course never be possible for anyone to know all that there is to know about the detailed map of the Bible and to see all the connections. But equally it would be wrong to pretend that that there is no map, that the Bible is a series of disconnected blobs of truth scattered over the landscape.

The study of Scripture is to see, even in part, the way that the idea of a God who is concerned for the human race takes shape. Different aspects of this revelation are discernible at different times. Different insights, not all of equal value are presented to us within the text. The notion of inerrancy, which we have discussed many times before, destroys the richness and complexity of the way that truth is handled in the text. We need to affirm the connections that exist within Scripture that allow us to understands the untidinesses and even contradictions of the text. There are no simple or ‘common-sense’ solution to the many problems that confront the reader who really wants to understand. The only way forward is to study at depth or to find a teacher who also wants to see the Bible, not as blobs of truth, but as vast interlocking system of reflection that presents to us some of the ultimate questions and the way that human beings have tried to respond to them in the light of their experience. Truth will always be more than uttering platitudes. It will involve detailed and painstaking engagement with the detail of the maps of truth that we have in Scripture.


Hubris syndrome

A problem for Christian leadership?

Next month I am off to the States as a first time visitor for nine days to attend an international conference on cults. I have little direct experience of what are normally known as cults, Moonies, Hari Krishna etc., but I found that the organisation was interested in the study I had made on Christian groups which behave in cultic ways. Increasingly the articles in its journals seem to touch on groups that would normally have been thought to be part of main-stream Christianity. Because I am not a specialist, I am offering a paper which is based on my reading of the literature around the subject rather than some in-depth study with statistical charts. My offering this year is an attempt to apply some of the fascinating insights of social psychology to an understanding of cults.

Today I am not going to try and summarise the entire argument of the paper in 500 words, but rather to share with the blog one part of the discussion which is provided by an article written by Lord Owen, the former politician and medical doctor. The essence of his article is to postulate something he calls ‘hubris syndrome’, an affliction he ascribes to politicians, bankers and other very important people. The syndrome affects anyone, Owen believes, who has become self-important over a period over a period of time, through a constant exposure to the public admiration or scrutiny. He shows that the syndrome is similar, though not identical to narcissistic disorders. Both demonstrate a tremendous self-importance, sense of entitlement and messianic pretensions. Owen believes that both Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher developed the syndrome while in office. Interestingly he believes that in these cases the power of being Prime Minister gave rise to the hubris. It was this exposure to power that created the syndrome rather than a character flaw they possessed before they took power. This fits in with other material I have unearthed that talks about the power of the environment or situation to affect an individual in radical and unexpected ways.

Lord Owen’s article raises the intriguing possibility that religious leaders may be among those who are susceptible to hubris syndrome. He mentions cult leaders in passing but I am raising the thought that anyone who is put in a place of great responsibility and power may develop hubris in this way. The word hubris with its associations with classical Greek mythology is a better word than narcissism to describe the tendency of certain religious personalities to become overwhelmed by their sense of importance and entitlement. The unhealthy hankering after privileges and titles among some leaders is unhealthy to say the least. It is good that Pope Francis is beginning to challenge the pomposity of honorary titles, monsignors etc among the Catholic clergy, not to mention simplifying their accommodation arrangements. Within Greek mythology hubris is followed by nemesis. Nemesis implies a collapse of reputation, of power through having acted inappropriately or wrongly. It is true that many of the scandals involving Christian leaders, financial or sexual, involve the individual clergyman believing that they are in a place above rules, above conventions and even above people.

Hubris in short needs to be reflected upon as a failing which is possible for every person who takes on power in whatever setting. As part of clerical or ministerial training I can see a place for hubris sensitivity training! If such training were to be offered it may be that not only would clergy and pastors avoid it themselves, but perhaps they would pass on to their laity the ability to challenge it wherever it appears. The best antidote for hubris at the earliest stage is humour. It difficult to develop such hubris when those around you are laughing at the pomposity that is being developed. Before the full-blown syndrome has been developed, there is something rather sad and pathetic about its early stages. The best cure for this is to have it made the subject of ridicule. If it develops beyond the ridiculous, it then can become something sinister, dangerous or harmful. The political classes are to some extent held in check by such programmes as ‘Have I got News for You’. We need some equivalent mechanism within the Church ! ?

83 Love and its opposite

they-will-know-we-are-christians-by-our-love-not-doctrine2If you ask most people the opposite of love, they will, without thinking very hard, give the answer as hate. This answer is perhaps not wrong but also not the best answer. The opposite of love is found in a Latin word which does not have a satisfactory translation. The word in Latin is ‘cupiditas’.

The word ‘cupidity’ does exist in English but to make sense of this rather archaic word, we have to spend a moment in finding a better translation of the original Latin word. Cupiditas is a longing for something that is outside oneself, that which is not part of the self. It has the idea of almost an addictive attraction to something that one desires for one’s selfish needs. It could be a desire for food, for drink or for sex. One wants to take the desired object and in some sense consume it, take it into one’s being. Cupiditas in regard to another person is the opposite of love, because one wants that person for selfish ends. It may be that a man wants a woman to enhance his image, or to exploit for his sexual gratification. He may hide this from the woman until they are married and then the full betrayal of love can no longer be hidden. The failure of love becomes a nightmare from which this woman will need to escape.

Cupidity and love sometimes get confused in people’s minds, just as sex and love get muddled up. But it was a Russian philosopher who defined love this: ‘Love is putting another person at the centre which you normally reserve for yourself.’ So there is a massive difference between the two. If someone else is at the centre of one’s care and concern then personal interests take second place. It is not difficult to see this process at work when watching lovers walk hand in hand or parents caring for their children. Putting someone else at the centre is indeed a glorious thing to watch and to experience for oneself both as a giver or receiver.

When the Christian talks about love, the reference is not normally about sex or even family life. It is referring to the relationships that are to be found among the followers of Jesus. Love in the Christian sense is the ability to go out of oneself for another. There is no desire for gain of any kind. The focus for this altruistic love is a desire in some way to reflect back something of the love that has come from God. This kind of love that can be shared as widely as possible by the Christian is called ‘caritas’ in Latin. Its meaning is summed up in the words sung to a Taize chant, Ubi caritas et amor, ibi Deus est. Where there is love and caritas, there is God.

82 Inerrant Bible

Thinking about the Bible

Invitation to anarchy?

I have been reading a little about the history of the Anglican Church in Australia, and in particular the story of the Diocese of Sydney. Sydney has been for many years the centre of an extremely conservative form of Christianity and as I indicated in a previous post, Sydney Anglicanism has given financial and theological backing to a movement within Anglicanism called GAFCON (Global Anglican Futures Conference). GAFCON claims to represent the centre ground of Anglicanism and to be a return to the ‘biblical roots’ of Anglican thinking. This has spawned what can only be described as fairly vicious attacks on those who do not agree with its posturings about, among other things, women bishops and same sex marriage. As far as the situation in England is concerned, such opinions represent a fairly small minority opinion within Anglicanism, even if these opinions are given much coverage by the press.

Those who follow this blog know that I have very little sympathy with this approach to Christian truth and the way that it put tremendous personal pressure on the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.   The sheer energy and stridency of the movement does however need to be understood and interpreted. It will not do to say simply that this is the view of the Bible and thus the truth about these issues. The historical perspective will want to indicate a more sophisticated way of understanding than this. It is my belief that part of the history of GAFCON is the history of conservative evangelicalism in Australia.

In a few brush strokes it can be stated the ‘low-church’ tradition has prevailed in the area of Sydney for over a century. But it is only in the past 50 or 60 years that this identity became part of a political struggle for power within Anglicanism both within and beyond Australia. I am hoping to write up this story at some point in a longer article, because it is well documented, even for a reader on this side of the world. The story centres around certain powerful individuals and institutions. There is one Broughton Knox who was the head of the only theological college in Sydney, Moore College, in the 60s and 70s and I have already mentioned him before. There are also two brothers, Philip and Peter Jensen. The first is now Dean of Sydney and the second served eleven years as Archbishop of Sydney. Two fascinating details emerge from the life stories of these men. One is that two of them studied the history of the English Reformation to doctoral level. Thus they became totally fluent in the language of Calvin and the English Puritan divines. Their enthusiasm for this period of history became a key aspect of their theology and teaching, well backed up by biblical quotations. Because both Peter Jensen and Broughton Knox had done their doctoral study in Oxford in Britain, their power to get their own way theologically in Australia was significant. The influence on the whole church was disproportionate as there were few others as well qualified theologically in Australia itself. Broughton Knox in particular introduced one distinctive aspect of ‘Sydney Anglicanism’ from the Reformation divines which emphasised the power of the local church. This was also an approach that sat lightly on denominational structures and the role of oversight. Peter together with his brother Philip came out strongly against homosexuals and women in ministry. All this was in the context of very conservative evangelical teaching with a strong 16th century flavour.

The second point about the Sydney Anglican ‘experiment’ was that it had a strong, almost obsessive interest in correct doctrine. The context of this style of Puritan teaching of the importance of ‘correct’ doctrine was the presence in Australia of a strong biblical cult, called ‘Tinker Tailor’ that was around in the 50s and 60s under one Lyndsay Grant. Lyndsay and Del Agnew, the leaders of this group were part of an evangelical network of socially influential families in the Sydney area. The influence of the group went beyond their members and some members of the family of Broughton Knox were life-long supporters. From their reading of the Bible, the ‘Tinker Tailor’ group put a great emphasis on the Keswick style of spirituality. This gave importance to the feelings of being saved rather than simple believing correct doctrine It is the opinion of the biographer of Broughton Knox that the rational, what I would call ‘dry’, style of evangelical belief so dominant in Sydney today in part comes out of a desire to remove Sydney Anglicanism from the influence of the ‘Tinker Tailor’ heresy.

The practice of finding ‘truth’ in Scripture will always be vulnerable to the personal limitations of the person who teaches it. Lyndsay Grant preached from the Bible and ended up with the highly destructive cult which shattered families and individuals. That story cannot be covered here. The Jensen brothers and Broughton Knox also preached from the same Bible and produced a variety of Christianity to reflect their own personal issues and concerns. There are in fact no rules in teaching from the Bible. Although no teacher of Scripture wants to admit it, it would seem that almost any opinion can be lifted from this source. If a preacher happens to have a personality disorder that craves power, that too can be supported from the Bible. The present struggle for power in the Anglican Communion, according to this summary, begins with a struggle for theological power and dominance in far-off Australia by a smallish group of powerful individuals. Their misuse of power, even their abuse of power, in this way has come, in the opinion of this blogger, to damage and undermine good Christian teaching right across the world.

81 Religious fanaticism examined

1359564497_muslim-riotsThis past month we have had the appalling story of a Pakistani father who organised the stoning of his own daughter in the name of ‘honour’. She had committed, in the eyes of the family, the unforgiveable crime of marrying someone who was not approved. In this action we see various things at work, some of them not so far distant from our own culture.

In the first place there was in that father a overriding of a fundamental human instinct to preserve one’s offspring. That instinct is imprinted in animals of every kind. It is indeed a necessary instinct for species to continue. Fathers do not always contribute to the nurturing of their young and we have all watched the female polar bear wandering the snowy wastes protecting one or two cubs to the best of her ability. Absence is one thing but for a father to destroy his own daughter means that a powerful instinct or taboo has been overwhelmed by something else.

What is it that could allow a human being to defy not only morality but the primal instinct to preserve and procreate into future generations? How could a potential grandfather destroy the descendents that at one level are the sole purpose for his existence? That it can be suggested that the answer is somehow religious is a deeply troubling thought. How can religious belief ever justify killing a daughter and grandchild not yet born?

To offer even a partial answer we have to return to the aspect of religious faith that has been discussed before on this blog. Religion is the force that connects the individual to other people and their surroundings and gives them a place in an otherwise fragmented universe. That is the meaning of the word ‘religio’, a binding up or connecting. The infant is born into a world where nothing make sense and there is plenty to frighten and scare the person on their own.   The only strength comes when we bond together with others so we learn to depend on their strength and not rely just on our own. The ‘I’ becomes part of a ‘we’. In most societies today, the security of tribal or group membership allows a single person to feel reasonably safe because he or she is protected by the force of numbers. The tribe or group will of course make demands of the individual in return for this protection. The tribe will demand that the individual member conform to the mores of the tribe, whatever rules and customs have been set out over the centuries. In most cases, these customs enhance community life and make it possible for the individual to navigate safely through life and remain a respected member of the group.

The crisis comes when the desire to be part of a ‘we’ culture demands a price that is too high. We see that in the cults that the urge to belong encourages the members to sacrifice their moral integrity in some situations. Whether they engage in ‘flirty fishing’ or even murder in order to belong, their desire to be part of ‘we’ group has destroyed the essence of their morality. In the Pakistan episode we see a facet of Islam that is falsely saying to its followers that there is such a thing as ‘honour’ which is higher than morality, humanity and instinct. We can imagine something of the pressures put on individuals like the murdering father in Pakistan. Simultaneously we have to be quite clear that there is such a thing as a morality that transcends all religious systems. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights offers us a good start. It sets out certain principles which should be acceptable to people of every faith and none. The massive misogynist culture that infects many religions, including our own, is something that needs to be constantly challenged by those inside and outside these systems. The heinous crime of a father killing his own daughter can be seen not as simply as an individual act. It is a crime that has to be laid at the door of every religious leader who failed to challenge contempt of women by men and allowed this infection to spread across the globe both within and outside religious systems.

Those of us who practise a faith have to recognise that the word ‘religion’ is not necessarily a force for morality or goodness. Forces like politics, unabashed power games and blind prejudice can easily creep in to infect it. It is important for religious leaders of every tradition to seek to purge away the possibility for evil to creep into religious practice. It is tragically hard to see how such events, the killing of a daughter by a father, will be stamped out until all religious leaders have glimpsed the idea of a universal morality which binds together the whole human race. Perhaps the compilers of the Declaration of Human Rights have something to teach the leaders of religions that morality and human rights are not protected by faith systems. Religions need to rediscover morality and human rights all the time and not assume that the faiths of the world are the guarantors of truth, morality and goodness. In the case of the Pakistani father, that failure is all too tragically evident.

80 Evangelicalism and Ecumenism

One of the expressions that used to be around a lot in Christian circles and institutions was that of ‘inter-denominational’. By suggesting that an organisation sat lightly on the boundaries that existed between Christian denominations, it was trying to pretend that somehow it transcended these differences. Of course one soon learnt to realise that ‘inter-denominational’ was a code for a complete rejection for all the historical issues that exist in the Christian story in favour of what this blog would claim to be a flat, predictable evangelical form of Christianity. By claiming that evangelical Christianity was in a direct succession to the New Testament and the early church because it alone followed the letter of Scripture, the events and twists and turns of Church history could be ignored at will. In practice the conservative evangelical interpretation did hang on to some parts of Reformation history but this left the first 15 centuries to be ignored as though they had never existed. Thus the contributions of Orthodoxy, the medieval mystics and the Celtic church were airbrushed out of consideration by ‘bible-believing Christians’.

All Christian denominations exist because of the events of church history. Each denomination represented an important emphasis which stood as a witness to one part of the great panoply of Christian truth. Thus the few Anglicans who have taken the trouble to study the Methodists cannot fail to be impressed by what the Wesley brothers stood for, even if they do want to become Methodists in the 21st century.

Evangelicalism and ecumenism do not mix. The reason is that the former has very little sense of Christian history in claiming that it alone knows the ‘truth’ because it has God’s word. Ecumenism is rooted in a firm understanding that Christian history must be embraced and understood so that all that the different Christian bodies represent can be heard, understood and represented in finding an ever fuller vision of Christian truth.

Ecumenism is thus hard work and takes patience and intelligent study as well as imagination. The cliché-ridden slogans of popular evangelical rhetoric do not deliver the subtleties required for this kind of work. Here in the Anglican Diocese of Carlisle we have a conundrum which is preventing important ecumenical work proceeding because of the predominance of evangelical churchmanship in the area. Over the past 20 years this Diocese has encouraged many evangelical clergy to occupy hitherto ‘middle of the road’ parishes. Now the Diocese is finding it hard to move forward with a great plan for working more closely with the United Reformed Church and the Methodist to form mission areas. A predictable resistance is being found on both sides. It is hardly surprising to find that an evangelical clergyman rooted in the Bible finds it hard to understand the subtleties of difference with their Methodist brethren. The feeling is mutual. I do not know what is going on at the other end of the Diocese but things do not look good around here. And yet it was all so predictable …….

79 Terrorisation and religious education

religious-education-10nvgenThe government of Britain is at present in a bit of a dilemma how to respond to the stories of an Islamic ‘takeover’ in certain primary and secondary schools in Birmingham.

No doubt the details of what has been going on will eventually emerge, but there is revealed in this story some confusion as to what would constitute an ‘unsafe’ education. The government obviously want to protect children from coming under the influence of extremist teachers and speakers. I dare say that they would like them to understand that in every discussion there is normally another point of view that needs to be weighed up before the first opinion is accepted. The aim of education is to have an understanding of the way society works, the values of tolerance, empathy and compassion.  There is also the value of respecting the opnion of another person.   The trouble is that there are many  schools, Christian and Muslim which do not subscribe to these values. The so-called ‘Christian’ school which claims to teach ‘Christian’ values may also be a hot-bed of misogyny, homophobia and plain scare tactics. A typical Christian-aided primary school (of which there are many thousand in Britain) will normally have a decent head-teacher but they will be under constant pressure to allow in unsuitable speakers to come and rant at the children for assembly. I still remember hearing about a school where the Vicar spoke so strongly about the awfulness of hell, that many of the children were in tears. The problem is that one impressive but nutty speaker can have a powerful effect on a vulnerable child. My brother who is a parent-governor at a school in Canterbury when an outside speaker came to do a powerful fundamentalist presentation to the children, telling them that the ones not in church on Sunday would not go the heaven. This school is not even a church school.

The values of education on which everyone can agree are not easy to define. As regards the religious content, the agnostic opinions of the majority could be seen to interfere with the desire of parents, Muslim and Christian to have a religious education for their children. The Government has to tread extremely carefully. And yet they know that if there are no restrictions put on what is taught in schools we may have a generation of Muslim children who grow up, at best marginalised from the wider society but, at worst, encouraged to become alienated terrorists. Children educated in the extremist end of the Christian faith will not be terrorists since this is not part of the ultra-fundamentalist agenda. But many of them will grow up unhappy, lacking in self-esteem and terribly fearful. Many of them will also have suffered violence at the hands of their parents, because of the apparent injunctions of Proverbs. Others will have imbibed a terrible sense of guilt that hangs over them like a miasma for the whole of their lives. Their suffering will be handed on to their children because this kind of teaching goes down the generations.

Let us watch the newspapers in the next few weeks to see how our politicians cope with this dilemma. The best thing that can happen is there to be a real debate about religious education. All of us want religion to be taught in a way that opens up this whole dimension of life so that something of its wonder and mystery can be glimpsed. The schools can do this as long as the fanatics of whatever religion or faith are firmly kept out of our schools.

78 Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism – further thoughts

One of the problems of studying the issue of conservative evangelical churches is that the situations on each side of the Atlantic are quite different. On the other side of the Atlantic, the word ‘fundamentalist’ has an exact historical meaning and is sometime worn as a badge of pride. It can be traced back to the period of the First World War when a group of conservative theologians wrote pamphlets which stood up for the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith against modernist ideas. In Britain the word is generally resisted by evangelicals, and they maintain that the word describes people with ideas which are pretty extreme and for the most part are not found in this country. These ideas would include an insistence of six day creation, a total denial of theories of evolution and a belief that women have no part in ministry. A more moderate evangelical position would tolerate women in ministry, find some way of accommodating evolution and certainly not endorse the ‘young earth’ theories. That such ideas are found at all in this country seems to be the result of ‘Christian’ schools importing wholesale educational material which contain some truly ultra-conservative opinions. If you want to see these kinds of ideas on offer, you need to get hold of the text-books used for independent Christian schools (including home schooling) where the American fundamentalist bias is clearly seen. One answer to the question as whether evangelicals in this country are fundamentalist is to say: ‘It depends on how far certain styles of American literature, American institutions and ideas have been welcomed into British churches and homes.’ The dire material that is churned out on the so-called ‘God Channel’ also has all the hall-marks of the worst kind of American fundamentalism.

In the past twelve months a new book entitled Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism edited by David Bebbington has been published. It is particularly valuable because it is a scholarly study of the situation in the UK.  It talks for example about the influence of Billy Graham in this country and the way that fundamentalist/evangelical movements in Ireland and Wales had their own characteristic emphases which were quite distinct from those of America. There is a scholarly attempt to separate to separate the words evangelicalism from the ‘f’ word by noting how fundamentalism in America normally had a militancy and a strong separatist tendency which only rarely found in this country. I have dipped into the book and I expect that I will be sharing segments of it over the coming months.

This blog is meant to be a short blog and I wanted to suggest that a study needs to be made at some point to examine the question as to how far the church in Britain and individual Christian have been corrupted by the influence and excesses of a rampant American fundamentalism. It reaches us, as I have already suggested, through literature, broadcasting and the effect on leaders who want to be up to date with the show-biz style and music that belongs to some American churches. The sobriety of a John Stott at All Souls Langham Place, seems to be a mile away from these excesses. I may not like the theology of John Stott but at least we are on the same planet culturally . In my study Ungodly Fear, I recorded how an American church was transplanted complete with leaders in a West country town. Perhaps there was an attractive glamour about its style but there was also something un-English about the way people were trapped into styles of church life that did them much harm.

The David Bebbington book, which I welcome and value, throws into relief the need for churches in this country to work out which strands of culture and theology are indigenous to our land, and which come as brash imports. The brash imports may have glamour but they lack the reflective sobriety of the British approach to church and theology. Perhaps my conclusion is that fundamentalism is everything that comes to conservative Christians from across the Atlantic in the packaging style of ultra-right-wing evangelicalism. What evangelicalism belongs to this country, however strange it in its ideas to my way of thinking, can be dignified by the more sober description of ‘conservative evangelicalism’. It is for the conservative evangelicals themselves to purge themselves of the crazinesses that flow across the Atlantic.  To all of them, I would say: ‘Be very, very careful before you welcome the money, glamour and influence of imports from a land that sometimes appears to revel in weird and somewhat crazy Christian ideas.

77 Church Growth part 2

In the previous post I mentioned the Wasdell research in the 60s which was filled out by further work done by the Alban Institute in later decades in the States.   Although we might think that American churches are generally full, with hundreds of members in each of them, the average congregation is not dissimilar to our own, with some 50 – 80 souls in each. It would however be true to say that in the States there are far more congregations at the top end in numbers than in this country.   But for the most part, they also have small congregations which struggle with the same problems of viability (financial and otherwise) and the need to provide helpful ministry. One point that Wasdell made in his research, which was not particularly picked up by the Alban Institute, was that a 150 worshipping congregation is seldom exceeded in the UK because people who come feel a sense of estrangement when any congregation becomes too big. Anonymity is fine if you are young, unattached or in a situation of transition, like that of being a student. Having no one to recognise you is not OK if you are an older person or someone struggling with mental health issues. Being noticed is also important to anyone who lives in a place and wants to be a part of the community and make their contribution to it.

Wasdell was saying, to summarise, that most congregations find a natural ceiling of around 150 people. Obviously there may well be more people associated with a particular church but the ASA (average Sunday attendance) at the main service will only rarely exceed this number. As I said in the previous post, the larger churches have to make changes of organisation in order to manage a higher number successfully. But, if it is true that most churches in fact do stop growing when their regular main congregation reaches this 150 mark, then this will affect our understanding of mission and outreach. What are the implication of this research finding on the church’s desire to evangelise and reach out to save souls among the mass of people who do not as yet come to our churches?

When I was a Vicar or Rector I remember posing the question. ‘How many people could our church absorb at one time.? People pondered this question and the answer was generally agreed to be around 20% over the course of a year. In a congregation of 90 this represented 18 new people, or one or two a month. Were the congregation to be faced with an influx of 50 people at once, then there was a recognition that the carefully nurtured dynamics and inner relationships of the congregation would be affected dramatically. It would represent a challenging task to absorb so many new people and not lose whatever character and style the congregation already possessed. Perhaps it is a challenge that some leaders would relish, but I suspect that in practice it would also be highly stressful. In practice the last two congregations that I oversaw attracted on average of one new person a month. The integration of such numbers of people was manageable. The existing dynamics were preserved and the congregation were helped not to remain too inward looking by a steady drip of new faces arriving.

The Church talks a lot about church growth and mission but I suspect that there are not many who have really though the practicalities of managing large numbers of new converts. The structures of the Anglican church that I know could certainly not cope with a large influx all at once and I wonder whether any church could manage the enormous practical issues of large numbers of converts beyond 20-25% in the course of a year. Thus I raise the question as to whether most churches are equipped for the kind of evangelism that they say they want to provide.

The 150 ceiling which seems to describe so many of the congregations of Britain does suggest to me that mass evangelism will never in fact happen while the Church is organised in the way it is. If there is to be a partial conversion of large numbers of people in society (as many say they want) then the Church would have to change shape in ways that are impossible to conceive at present. There is however another way of understanding the meaning of ‘mission’. The church could explore more deeply how to ‘be’ a church within a community, how to do the things it does but with a far greater awareness of how these impact on the community around. The weekly tasks of worship, prayer and service would continue but there would a real effort to nurture and retain the goodwill of those around. The churches that in fact cause harm to individuals, which we explore in this blog, are also, as Chris tells us, precisely the ones that care not a jot for their reputation in the surrounding communities. They believe, wrongly, that what goes on in their congregations is what is important and that their reputation outside counts for nothing. The smugness of ‘being saved’, so they think, is far more vital to their well-being that what the community outside sees and hears. But in their indifference to the community they fail in the command of Jesus to be salt, yeast and light to the world and the world starts with the neighbouring community. When the people who do not come to our churches are nevertheless grateful that we exist, then we are beginning to succeed in being what the church is meant to be. The church would be saying ‘come and join us’ but also it would be saying something else.   Our purpose is to do things on behalf the community. It exists to represent you before God. We trust that our faithful witness will in some way spill out into the community in ways seen and unseen. There may be visible acts of service but the holding up before God of the entire community in prayer is an unseen but powerful contribution to the well-being of this place. Perhaps we are called to be like the Suffering Servant, the representative human being who is faithful so that the many can be kept safe.

Such a representative function for the church would not accord well with traditional evangelical ideas of individual repentance and conversion. But as I get older and find the conundrum of the 95% of society who play no part in our churches more difficult, I wonder if we have got church growth ideas all wrong. Perhaps the model of the yeast, light and the salt is a more realistic task for us to contemplate than trying to convert the whole of society. Anyway I offer this thought to be shared and I would welcome the comments of others.