An evangelical in the eighties: religion and politics

As a counterpoint to dr ngo, here is my experience of a subtly different sort of ‘Bible-based’ Christianity, as an Anglican Evangelical in the 1980s. Although I was brought up in an evangelical Church of England tradition, I’m going to concentrate on a period in my late teens and twenties, when I went to Oxford and afterwards. That was the first time I really came into contact with what I’d call the modern Anglican Evangelical tradition (in contrast to my childhood in a small village that the 1960s barely seemed to have reached by 1980). By the modern tradition, I’m talking about people such as Michael Green (at St Aldate’s Oxford), John Stott (at All Souls Langham Place) and Jim Packer, and some of the people I’d see as their spiritual descendents, such as Nicky Gumbel, the founder of the Alpha course.

Unlike dr ngo’s fundamentalists, however, we didn’t see denominations as key and we were organisationally probably ‘lumpers’ rather than ‘splitters’. As Anglican Evangelicals we would often feel we had more in common with some people in the Free Churches or even individual Catholics than with other parts of the Church of England. St Aldate’s in Oxford had a particularly difficult relationship with Pusey House, one of the Anglo-Catholic strongholds in Oxford (although I am inclined to think the hostility came more from the Puseyite side).

In some theological ways we may have resembled dr ngo’s fundamentalists. Our main focus was on the Bible, which we understood as inspired by God. But we weren’t Bible literalists in quite the same way. In particular, we weren’t required to be creationists and there was quite a lot of effort to show how our faith was compatible with scientific thought. (The main emphasis in the 1980s was on the relation of religion to cosmology, rather than biology, and John Polkinghorne, the particle physicist, was a key thinker for us). In general, Evangelical Anglicanism, which has historically had a strong basis in the universities, has none of the anti-intellectual bias of some US evangelicalism, though looking back I’m now aware that it didn’t adequately discuss issues about the textual transmission of Biblical texts. There were some charismatics among us, but we were not on the whole, charismatics.

The behavioural code we deduced from our Bible reading was puritanical by the standards of our student contemporaries, but not extreme by traditional standards. We didn’t binge drink (though some alcohol was acceptable), we didn’t have pre-marital sex (putting the gays among us on a level playing field, at least for early adulthood). But we didn’t shun the world: we were there to convert it, after all, and that meant interaction with it. There were debates about what aspects of the world were acceptable (were particular heavy metal groups Satanically influenced, for example), but we did not need to become social pariahs. In some ways, we were most puritanical about money: at the height of Thatcherism we were expected to reject materialism, to give sacrificially (and not just to the church) and to work for the good of the community.

Like dr ngo’s fundamentalists, we felt that we were surrounded by unbelievers: unlike them, this was largely an accurate belief. Social Christianity in Britain largely collapsed in the 1960s: even the ‘nominal’ Christians we knew went to church once or twice a year if ever. We knew that many of our friends thought Christianity irrelevant. Britain, we felt, was no longer a Christian country. (As a result, our Christianity was not patriotic: our country was the eternal kingdom and we could feel we had more in common with an African brother or sister than a British atheist).

We were a small minority (maybe about 10% of my college were churchgoers, and that was on the high side for Oxford), but we were not a beleaguered minority. Our model was the Christian of Acts, we were a growing church. One of the basic facts we repeated was that it was the Evangelical churches within the Church of England that were growing, while the liberal ones declined. (I don’t know if that is actually true now or indeed in the 1980s).

We had chosen to be Christians and we knew that choice might have negative consequences. We expected to be ridiculed for being Christians and we sometimes were. We did not consider that we were persecuted or expect persecution, but we did feel that if we stood up for our principles (whether it was refusing to watch sexually explicit films, standing up against corruption or refusing to work on Sundays) we might lose friends and even jobs. There might be a price to pay in being Christians, but it was nothing compared to the price Jesus had paid.

Our political views were shaped by the 1980s, but also by our minority status: there was no ‘Christian bloc’ we could hope to win over. Instead, we made alliances with secular organisation on particular issues, but had no real political home. Economically, we rejected Thatcherism and were mainly Social Democrat/Liberal, with a particular emphasis on help for the Third World. On matters of sex, drink and drugs, however, we were nearer traditional Tories, although we also shared our opposition to porn with eighties feminists. (Most Evangelical Anglicans were moderate feminists (male and female as equal) and there was considerable support for women priests. St Paul’s more misogynistic views tended to be downplayed). In campaigns to ‘Keep Sunday Special’, meanwhile, we were allied with the trade unionists. There was no single defining issue for us: anti-abortion sentiment was common, but it was not a central plank of our political views and my position as someone who was moderately pro-choice was not untenable.

***
Although I am still a Christian, I am no longer an Evangelical and when I see Evangelical Anglicanism now it is largely looking in from the outside, via an often-hostile secular media. Yet I think the movement has changed (or at least the attitude of its leaders has) and I find myself wondering why it has started to look more like the US religious right? I think there has been a deliberate attempt by some Evangelicals to imitate what was seen as the political success of the American religious right, which has also resulted in a narrowing of the issues campaigned on. But I think there are also deeper reasons for such a move.

One reason may be that the great revival has not happened: there has been no mass turn or return to Christianity, as was eagerly expected in the eighties. The numbers of Christians has held up, but the social tide has been against Evangelicals. Gambling, porn and divorce are all more common and the argument on gay rights has been decisively lost by Evangelical Anglicans. (This is why the smart Evangelical Anglicans are now looking for a theology which allows the acceptance of gay marriage).

Equally significant has been the move towards a multi-faith Britain. Once, even the non-religious were Christian non-religious: now other faiths are ever more visible. The result has been a new tendency to cling onto institutional Christianity; the very institutional Christianity that we rejected in the 1980s as weakening true Christianity. Mimicking the behaviour of non-Christian minorities in Britain, there are also attempts to demand the protection of religious rights for Christians. Again, this seems bizarre to someone raised, as I was, on the model of the early church. Jesus after all, did not say: ‘Blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for you will have a good claim under the Human Rights Act’.

It is possible to overestimate how right-wing Evangelicals have become: their pronouncements on welcoming refugees, for example, tend to get less play in the liberal and conservative UK media then if they denounce gays. But I do think they have an increasing credibility problem. If Evangelical Anglicans want to gain enough acceptance to be more than a fringe element in society (and particularly if they want to be able to win over young people from the educated middle classes), they are going to have to realise again that morality isn’t mainly about sexual behaviour and that seeking political concessions for Christians is a poor tactic. I’m probably biased, but I think that Evangelical Anglicanism has temporarily lost its way. Whether it can regain it, I’m not yet sure: I certainly wouldn’t count it out.

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2 thoughts on “An evangelical in the eighties: religion and politics

  1. Thanks for this–it’s quite interesting to hear the inside view from England. And yes, classic English evangelicalism sounds quite a bit different from our variety which tends heavily to the anti-intellectual.

    I like what I hear from the Fulcrum folks; Reform not so much…

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    • As I said in the piece, this is a rather dated inside view: I don’t know how much has changed in the last 15-20 years.

      On anti-intelelctualism: I think right from the start of the Anglican Evangelical movement in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there’s been a significant presence in the universities (starting from Charles Simeon, followed by the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union), and that’s been maintained ever since. That has meant that Anglican Evangelicalism can’t be too anti-intellectual if it wants to keep its influence there. And if Evangelicalism loses its foothold in Oxbridge, in particular, it loses its chance to influence a lot of the future leaders of British society.

      Anti-intellectualism sounds to me likely to ensure a downward spiral to becoming a religion largely of the lower classes. I suppose the situation is different in the US, which possibly has a slightly less rigid class system (though I’m not convinced) and also has religiously denominational universities that have kept their religious identity, so allowing people to get higher education within an Evangelical bubble.

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