UK Evangelicalism: Three Streams, One Cross

It should be noted that this blog post had its origin in some comments on a minor factual issue in a chapter of a forthcoming book on the Atonement I’ve contributed to. With that in mind, it is probably not going to do what you want it to do, but I hope it will be of interest regardless. Caveat over…

UK Evangelicalism: Three Streams, One Cross

The story goes like this. Back in 2006 the brave and plucky Steve Chalke wrote a book (with Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus)which challenge the power of the cabal of conservative evangelicals who secretly control all Christianity in England. The truth as ever, is significantly less interesting. But there are some interesting things to observe in the debates about evangelical identity and what are (or are not) acceptable evangelical articulations of the atonement. I take as instructive and helpful for understanding evangelicalism (as I did in this paper) David Bebbington’s ‘quadrilateral’: evangelicalism is broadly focused on these four things:

  • Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible (usually with reference to it’s authority and truth!)
  • Crucicentrism: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross (Jesus died for sinners, of whom I am the worst, etc)
  • Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted (i.e. every individual must make up their mind as to what they think of Jesus: Lord and Saviour, or ultimately irrelevant)
  • Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort (i.e. this faith is not just head and heart, but hands: resulting in evangelism, personal devotion, social action, and engagement in society)

Challenges to atonement go to the core of evangelical identity – not only a major theological thing but also a real and perceived felt thing for individuals. Indeed, after I wrote a blog post about the atonement years ago, someone in my church asked ‘God has saved me in Christ – who are you to tell me how?’. This is not an abstract truth claim or irrelevant debate – discussion of the atonement is intensely personal for evangelicals.

Now I noted the possibility of a secret cabal of conservative evangelicals – and in some parts of the church/discussion of the church and theology it is common to assume (wrongly) that all evangelicals are by definition conservative.

This simply isn’t true.

In contrast to the common perception of American evangelicalism, or global evangelicalism (about the nuances of both of which this author is broadly ignorant), UK evangelicalism is a complex phenomenon. A particularly helpful article by the now retired Bishop Graham Kings can be found on Fulcrum’s website: Canal, River and Rapids: Contemporary Evangelicalism in the Church of England. Obviously, evangelicalism in the UK is broader and bigger than that found in the Church of England, but it is not smaller or narrower, and so this classification system is particularly helpful. Indeed, the recent history of evangelicalism in the UK is arguably dominated by debates within Church of England evangelicalism (Because, of course, the C of E is not the only Anglican church in the UK, or even England!) – and those of us formally outside the C of E cannot simply ignore it! Kings identifies three streams of evangelicalism. Using the metaphor of a watercourse, and the way that water flows, Kings examines particular hallmarks of three different forms of evangelicalism:

Canal: Conservative Evangelicals

Committed to:

  • the infallibility or inerrancy of the scriptures
  • penal substitution as the defining model for the atonement
  • evangelism as the defining mode of mission
  • headship in gender issues
  • combating the promotion of homosexuality

Open to:

  • hermeneutical insights (particularly from evangelicals)
  • church planting across parish boundaries (even without permission)
  • working with fellow conservative evangelicals in other denominations
  • the use of non-liturgical worship

River: Open Evangelicals

Committed to:

  • the intrinsic authority and trustworthiness of the Bible (which is to be interpreted in context and with insights from the world-wide Church)
  • the longing for conversion to Jesus Christ of all people (from others faiths and none)
  • working for renewal within the structures of the Anglicanism (at local, national and international levels)

Open to:

  • surprises of the Holy Spirit (in the charismatic movement)
  • learning from other traditions (within Anglicanism)
  • working ecumenically (with other denominations)
  • positive fruit of biblical scholarship (which builds up the body of Christ)
  • issues of justice (which are integral to holistic mission)
  • significance of the sacraments and liturgy (which embody regular worship)
  • learning from other faiths (dialogue as well as proclamation)
  • ordination of women (to the three orders of the Church)

Rapids: Charismatic Evangelicals

Committed to:

  • the dynamic authority and trustworthiness of the Bible (which is often interpreted in the context of Spirit-filled ‘listening’)
  • mission in the power of the Spirit (which includes encounters of ‘signs and wonders’)
  • the exercise of spiritual gifts in church (including tongues, prophecy and healing)

Open to:

  • sharing conferences and celebrations with other denominations including Roman Catholics
  • the ministry of women at differing levels of leadership
  • the advantages of modern media for presentation and publicity
  • the reality of possession, and oppression, by evil spirits
  • world-wide pentecostal and charismatic movements
  • the importance of the communal aspect of being church
  • explorations of creative, alternative worship

There are obviously serious overlaps between these different strands – for example I would self identify as a conservative evangelical, who is egalitarian on female leadership and continuationist/charismatic on the present day ‘spectacular’ gifts of the Spirit because of the authority of Scripture, whilst many of my friends would probably classify me as charismatic or open. I introduce this personal note because this is not just an abstract discussion – the debates on evangelical identity and atonement theories are not happening off in some idyllic theological college lounge (though they often do!) but in my mind, my marriage, my church, and the networks I’m part of. And it is these networks – colleges, publishers, mission organisations, ‘denominations’, and parachurch organisations – where evangelicalism is most articulated and discussed.

What is notable for my own present focus on the atonement (with reference to a 1995 SPCK publication that came out of a symposium on the atonement at St John’s Nottingham, whilst John Goldingay was Principal; to be contrasted with the 2007 IVP book co-authored by three theologians associated with Oak Hill College, or another book that emerged from a discussion hosted by the London School of Theology but initiated by the Evangelical Alliance) is that Kings observes that the “only theological college currently specifically conservative, is Oak Hill in London”. To mis-label colleges (And by extension, networks, organisations etc) against their own self-identification is to engage in fake news. So when someone refers to ‘conservative evangelicals’, I want to read Kings Canal, River, Rapids with them, taking into account the minimal changes since 2013, and ask them if they *really* mean ‘conservative’!

The interplay between the three streams is made more complex by the reality of individuals serving as ‘navigators’, as Kings summarises:

In concluding this section of outlines, it may be helpful to mention three significant evangelical Anglican leaders and prolific authors who, like many, navigate more than one watercourse, thus showing again the importance of the fluidity of the metaphor. John Stott is the architect of the postwar renaissance in evangelical Anglicanism. He may be seen as an example of someone who navigates the canal and the river: a conservative evangelical who in the 1970s realized increasingly the importance of the issues of social, political and ecumenical involvement. Michael Green, an evangelist and theologian, was greatly influenced by David Watson and may be seen as an example of someone who navigates the river and the rapids: an open evangelical who saw God’s vitality in the contemporary use of the gifts of the Spirit. Alister McGrath, a key focal theologian of the evangelical movement, may also be seen as someone who navigates both the canal and the river: increasingly open to women’s issues, his current major publishing project is on the interplay between science and theology and he has publicly welcomed the appointment of Rowan Williams, while still disagreeing with him on the issue of homosexuality.

The aforementioned 2007 IVP book, regardless of your own opinion on it, represents a form of this ‘navigating’, not least in terms of who endorsed it at the time, thus suggesting it might have value! Looking back at this book from 13 years ago reveals a depressingly white and male evangelical intelligentsia, and some names give a pause for sober reflection as to where they are now in terms of recent news and trajectories. Names who would in 2007 and today resist the characterisation of ‘conservative evangelical’ include C.J.Mahaney (charismatic!), Tremper Longman III, I. Howard Marshall, Mike Pilavachi, Mark Stibbe (charismatic) and Terry Virgo (con-evo, to be sure, but very deliberately and publicly charismatic/apostolic). Other figures whose relationship with mainstream conservative evangelicalism is either strained or complex would include Carl Trueman (rejects the label and is critical of both UK and US evangelicalism), Gordon Wenham and Michael Ramsden.

So, to sum up: what should all this make us ponder?

  • firstly, discussion of the atonement and a focus on particular models (or the primacy, say, of Penal Substitutionary Atonement) is not a mark of ‘conservative’ evangelicalism, but of evangelicalism generally.
  • secondly, evangelicalism in the UK is a complex beast, with at least three observable strands (I would possibly split off Open, now, into at least two distinct elements, and modify charismatic to include both ‘apostolic’ and traditional streams!) – it is not monolithic.
  • thirdly, were a book like Pierced for Our Transgressions to be published today, would all the then endorsers still endorse it – and who might we see stepping up to put their head above the parapet?
  • fourthly, who are the ‘navigators’ today? Green and Stott have passed away – and the generation of Nicky Gumbel, Hugh Palmer, Charlie Cleverly and so on are beginning to near retirement. Will UK evangelicals retreat into our tribal silos, confident in our own success, or will we actively seek to collaborate together for the sake of our lost nation?
  • fifthly and finally, whilst this is all very interesting, if you’ve read to this 1600 word mark, pray! Pray for evangelicalism (and other Christian churches) in the UK, that we would proclaim the gospel and see revival in our time.

Again, if you’ve read this far, you might want to read a little further. Here are a few reviews of books by people that I wonder if they might be possible future navigators…

  • MORE>Truth by Kristi Mair – slap bang in the core of evangelicalism, but written brilliantly, by a female philosopher. Kristi is one to watch. See also Healthy Faith and the Coronavirus Crisis, which has contributions from a number of interesting younger voices including Dan Strange, Kate Wharton, Krish Kandiah and Luke Cawley.
  • Unleashed! The Acts Church Today by Gavin and Anne Calver – a charismatic evangelical couple, one of whom leads the Evangelical Alliance, unpack Acts as a call for today.
  • Swipe Up! by Jason Roach – a short, accessible look at sex. I’d also point to Sam Allberry’s Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?
  • Ambition by Emma Ineson – a brilliant book from a new Bishop! Another bishop is Graham Tomlin, whose Why Being Yourself is a Bad Idea is superb, imo.
  • Ollie Lansdowne – he’s not (Yet?) written a book, but his New Whitchurch Press project is a hopeful harbinger of things to come…
  • A War of Loves by David Bennett – best known for his testimony, David is comfortable speaking across the spectrum of evangelicalism on a range of topics.
  • Glen Scrivener (and Emma!) – an evangelist whose little books are often quite good…

Oh, and if you want to read about atonement, here are three books you should have on your desk…

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