What people believe -insights into St Michael-le-Belfry

One of the most difficult things to know is what other Christians believe. They may belong to churches which have very definite statements of belief and moral teaching. In order to belong to that church, each member is expected to agree to the doctrinal standards set out. It would, we believe, be normally unwise to assume that all the members of such a church always believe exactly what is expected of them.

I have recently been reading a study of a church in York which attempts to tackle this important question. It is a detailed snapshot of the famous St Michael-le-Belfry Church in York and it is based on field studies carried out in 1999 and 2000. Two things interested me. The first was a frank account of the history of this church since its effective foundation in 1965 by the well-known clergyman, David Watson. He inherited a church building in York which was ripe for closure. Under his leadership St Cuthbert’s, and later St Michael’s, became showcases for the charismatic/ evangelical impulse which was sweeping through the church at the time. The second point of interest is the way that the author, Matthew Guest, now a lecturer in sociology at Durham University, has used extensive questionnaires to probe deeply into the beliefs of the congregation. This section is for me, by far the most revealing part of the book. What it seems to show, in summary, is that while the church possesses a clearly defined charismatic/evangelical identity, the beliefs of many of the congregation often veer towards a liberalism that is not officially appropriate to a church in this tradition.

Two classic Protestant doctrines exist which tower over all others in their importance for the conservative evangelical identity. Both are problematic for many Christians outside the conservative networks such as myself. The first of these is a belief, which we have met many times before, a commitment to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. The other belief that is normative for classical evangelicalism is a belief in the efficacy of the death of Christ. This is a divinely given means to allow the followers of Christ to obtain salvation. The implication of this belief is that no one will be saved if they have not shared in the distinctive experience of evangelical conversion.

According to Guest’s survey, only 24% of the St Michael’s congregation followed a strictly literalist understanding of the Bible. The majority position, 51%, declared that the Bible was true but not always to be taken literally. It is interesting to note that in 1994, in another survey, 28% of churchgoers of all denominations believed the Bible to be literally true. We might have expected that St Michael’s, a beacon of evangelical belief and practice, might have had a higher score. Guest’s research suggests that many in the congregation were actively involved in an attempt to relate what they knew of secular learning to biblical insights. To put it another way, independent reading and reflection was a normative part of the individual forging of a spiritual identity. There was little sense that preaching provided a definitive statement of what had to be believed. Sermons were only one part of the journey towards faith.

The classic view of salvation which states that only those who have made a personal decision to follow Christ will enter heaven was also problematic for many St Michael’s members. This evangelical soteriology was firmly held by David Watson and I heard this teaching from his lips in 1974. It is this teaching which lies behind the (to my mind) intrusive question: ‘Are you saved?’ The strict version of the evangelical message sees any watering down of this model of salvation as being ‘patently false and the result of delusion or satanic machinations’. The idea that family members are destined for hell because they have not made a decision for Christ sat uncomfortably with many of the St Michael’s folk that Guest spoke to. In many of the interviews that he conducted individuals wanted to soften the harsh version of the doctrine. 86% of those interviewed preferred to reject the idea of hell being a place of punishment. Like Christians elsewhere they found it difficult to conceive of a God of love who ‘lets people trip off down into eternal misery’.

Hard-line views about other religions also failed to find favour with the majority of the St Michael’s congregation. Many wanted to find positive aspects in these non-Christian religions. While maintaining that other religions were deficient in some way, most respondents were unwilling to condemn them. In short it could be said that at a personal individual level, the majority of St Michael’s members opted for a tolerant and inclusive view in relation to other religious.

The one area where the St Michael’s congregation revealed a classic conservative approach was in the area of sexual morality. Guest found that 81% of respondents believed that sexual relations between same sex adults are always wrong. This compares with 39% for the population at large. This latter figure will have decreased further since the survey was made. Attitudes about the role of women in church and family were far closer to the views held by the wider society. Some members did identify with traditionalist patriarchal view of women and their role within the home. Nevertheless 57% disagreed with the statement that the primary role of the Christian woman is to support her husband as provider by caring for the children and tending to the household duties. The same percentage was also found in a public opinion survey.

Guest concludes that wider cultural norms in our society have made considerable impact on the beliefs and practices of the members of St Michael’s. The official position of the church is to be exclusive and set-apart from the secular world. This is the stance taken by preachers, whether visitors or resident. In practice, this sense of separateness has been eroded for many St Michael’s individuals. We can even call it a significant liberalisation of parts of the congregation. Strict conservative views on issues connected with the Bible, the meaning of salvation and the role of women continue to be held. But, Guest would claim there is no consensus on these topics. Can we by any chance extrapolate these findings to other bastions of evangelical identity and suggest that any unanimity that is claimed is not real? The ‘myth’ of evangelical agreement is certainly one that has intimidated those of us who positively applaud diversity and untidiness of belief in church life.

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 “What people believe -insights into St Michael-le-Belfry

  1. Thanks Stephen. Always interesting.
    What does it mean to take any piece of writing literally?
    Let’s apply this notion to today. I know that our newspapers are inaccurate – the reports in three local papers in 1990 of the burning down of the church where I was curate in charge averaged one error for every inch of newsprint. Despite this, I find it very hard not to believe what I read in my favourite newspaper. That’s how the system works: the paper prints what its readers like to read, and we readers gobble it up. The influence of the press.
    Politicians likewise. The phrase we use here is broken promises, but it is the same issue.
    Now with contracts and small print, we expect them to be taken literally, as when I last sold a house for example.
    The theme which emerges for me is one of trust. What written statements do I trust?
    With regard to the Bible, taking it literally or not covers a number of issues. Sometimes it’s a question of historical accuracy. Sometimes it’s a matter of poetry versus prose, e.g. the ‘four pillars that support the earth’. Sometimes it’s to do with the miraculous. Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
    The matter does not often arise for me in practice. Take these two verses that have impacted me during the last six months. “He who shuts his ear to the poor will himself cry out and not be heard” (Proverbs 21:13) and “Give thanks whatever happens for that is what God in Christ wills for you” (1 Thess. 5:13). Asking whether they are to be taken literally or not seems irrelevant to me.
    Personally, I don’t think the phrase ‘taking the Bible literally’ does justice to a fascinating subject.

  2. The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.

    This is part of the doctrinal statement of UCCF, the sponsoring body for Christian Unions at universities up and down the country. It forms the best and clearest statement of what young Christians are expected to believe before they enter full membership. Of course, there will be ways, as David is attempting, to soften its impact. A common-sense reading, however, indicates that it is an attempt to lay claim to the entire Christian tradition behalf of an ultra-narrow right-wing clique knowing only a narrow segment of the Christian tradition. The exclusive tone of this and the other statements of UCCF doctrine suggests that all are lacking in tolerance, openness and Christian love. Other Christians are implicitly consigned to hell if they deviate from this statement. That is what makes this item, and indeed the others so offensive. There is plenty of evidence that many evangelicals and ex-members of Christian Unions are moving on. Some are joining Fusion a new alliance of evangelicals in Universities that is doing away with having to hold on to these kinds of oppressive doctrinal statements. I shall have more to say about them in a future blog post.

  3. Stephen, looking forward to your article. Let battle be joined!
    Here are three further thoughts I have had in the last twenty-four hours.
    Paul wanted Timothy to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). A fine aim. It suggests that it can be divided wrongly, N.B.
    My friend Clive told me he regards the Bible as a lock which requires a key. I find that a fascinating image.
    Finally, once a year a printed newssheet comes from my old school. For years, the accounts of the young people were so glowing, full of amazing talent and astonishing achievements, that I felt intimidated, wondering how it was that I had achieved so little in my own life. Then one year, there was a new head, and the tone was completely different. We have taken the following drastic measures, he wrote, cutting back expenditure here and here, and provided all goes according to plan I think we can save the school. My eyes were opened. An example of taking texts literally!
    I love the Bible, and my decision to regard it as the word of God, taken in 1970, is one I have never regretted. I hope we can find a helpful way forward in this blog, as I think how we read the Bible is one of the key questions of our age.

  4. Stephen, it’s important to remember that there are many different flavours of evangelicalism. An insistence on a literal interpretation of the Bible is found mostly at the more conservative end of the movement – reformed Baptists, perhaps also the FIEC churches, and conservative evangelical Anglicans. Other forms of evangelicalism are numerically much larger than the conservatives and don’t take a strictly literal approach. I’d include charismatic Anglicans here, so the figures you quote don’t surprise me.

  5. Peter. I have tried very hard in my piece to show that I do recognise the many flavours of evangelicalism. Of course there are many types. The point I was trying to make and which was brought out in the study by Matthew Guest is that this full range of flavours is to be found within a congregation like that at St Michael’s. Just because a particular strong line is being taken by a leader of a conservative congregation, it does not mean that everyone agrees. Something hard-line like a doctrine of inerrancy or the condemnation of those who have not been converted to a belief in the atoning death of Christ on the cross tends to get softened inside people. The Church of England, now arguably strongly flavoured by evangelicals, was unwilling to endorse strong doctrines at the recent Synod. It seems to be a feature of all hard-line doctrines that they get softened over time. That is human and also healthy. Two human beings are unlikely ever to entirely agree with each other, and that certainly applies with Christian doctrine. If two people do claim to entirely agree with the other, I would suspect some pressure of coercion is at work. It does not happen in the real world away from cults and controlling behaviour by a ‘strong’ man. 86% did not believe that hell was a place of punishment at St Michael’s. It should have been 0% if strict conservative principles were at work. Clearly they weren’t – thank God.

  6. And I too am grateful that “strict conservative principles” are rejected by the majority.

    I have had disagreements with conservatives who, in my view, speak out of both sides of their mouths. They love to say that divine authorship means that a clear and consistent message is present throughout the Bible which can be derived by careful study. You then point out the diversity of protestant / evangelical belief, and they can’t deny it. It is a historical fact from the reformation through to present times. All they can do is come out with lame excuses in an attempt to remain in a state of cognitive dissonance.

    So yes, evangelical agreement is certainly a myth used by some to shut down debate.

    Let me just add that the communications revolution (ie internet) has played a huge role in debunking this myth. Church leaders can no longer control the flow of information and keep people in a bubble. Again, this is something I am most grateful for.

  7. I was a curate at St. Michael-le-Belfrey from 1989-92, and I’m not especially surprised by the divergence in belief which Guest describes. Certainly the Bible was regarded as authoritative, but I don’t remember anyone there claiming it to be inerrant. I would not have done and I encountered no problem on that score – though I did on some other issues. Misogyny still ran deep (I was the first member of the clergy not to be an elder there, though that was later corrected). Some elders held to the view that Substitutionary Atonement was the only model for understanding Jesus’ work on the cross, and I still remember the deepening glower on the face of one of them as I used some different models in one teaching session.

    Graham Cray did not have an exclusive approach to ideas generally, and this translated over into aspects of church life and belief. Nor was there in my time any induction programme or even leaflet describing the church’s doctrines and beliefs – other of course than the Creeds when they were used. People will have attended for different reasons; because they like the music, or the creativity, or they had friends there, or because it was a good place to meet other young people. Some may even have gone for the preaching!

  8. There is a very interesting and pertinent article by Ian Paul on the “literal” debate following on from Hugh Houghton’s recent translation of the 4th C Latin commentary Fortunatianus. It is true as Paul says that many in journalism don’t take time to do a little bit of elementary learning about ecclesiastical debates. Ah well, such is life.


    I agree with David that we need to be careful about labels as it is all too easy to find ourselves dressed as Aunt Sally and quietly exiled to Coventry.

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