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.