Reading most media reports on the Jeffrey John affair, one might be forgiven for thinking that not only homosexual clergy, but also evangelical Christianity, were distinctively Anglican concerns. You might also have assumed from your newspaper reading, radio listening and television viewing that those who opposed Canon John’s appointment as Bishop of Reading are part of a dwindling minority. All this is far from the case.
Let’s unravel some of this. There are about two billion Christians in the world today, and at least 700 million are evangelicals. Most of these live in non-Western countries. By comparison, the worldwide Anglican communion is small: numbering 70 million, it is dwarfed by the global evangelical movement. Of course, some Anglicans – a clear majority, in fact – are themselves part of that movement. Within the Church of England itself, about a third of communicants are evangelical, and half of the ordinands in training have an evangelical background.
Evangelicalism is neither a church nor a denomination, but a massive, loosely networked community of classical Protestants, Charismatics and Pentecostals. As a Pentecostal myself, I belong to an extraordinary phenomenon – one that didn’t exist until 1901, but which now has some 120 million adherents. As general director of the Evangelical Alliance UK, I join with other evangelicals around the world in a fellowship of Christians that grows at about five per cent a year, while many other parts of the Church decline. Granted, numbers aren’t everything, but those of us who count ourselves as evangelical do see a link between our convictions and the impact of our witness.
Over the past few weeks, various advocates for Canon John’s appointment to the bishopric of Reading have sought to depict those objecting to it as some sort of sinister but well-funded sect, intent on hijacking the Church and holding it to ransom. The Dean of Southwark fumed about a “minority” group who have “used the press’s natural interest to further their own agenda”, who have made “a noise out of all proportion to their size” and who have thereby operated “in a manner which is deleterious to the Church at large”.
An anonymous critic writing in the Guardian accused evangelical bishops of “turning the national Church into some weird puritanical sect”. We’ve been accused of “hysteria” and of being “biblical literalists”, as well as “conservative bigots” and “Pharisees”.
These are caricatures and distortions of evangelicalism, and they will not help the process of healing, dialogue and reconciliation that must take place now that Canon John has honourably withdrawn from the process that would have led to his consecration in October. They betray a woeful ignorance of evangelical realities which may or may not be wilful. They need to be refined and corrected before we can all move on constructively. If that is to happen, some basic truths will have to be grasped.
First, evangelicals are orthodox Christians. Typically, we are not a “fringe” group seeking schism from the sidelines. We see ourselves in the most basic terms as “gospel Christians”. The word “evangelical” is derived from the Greek New Testament term “gospel”, meaning good news. Not all of us say creeds in church, but we characteristically uphold credal doctrine: we are Trinitarian; we believe in the deity and bodily resurrection of Christ, and we look for his coming again.
Some of us belong to churches that are exclusively and avowedly evangelical, but many evangelicals live out their Christian lives within “mixed” denominations. However, in this latter case, evangelicals will usually point to founding documents that bear out their essential commitments. Our application of orthodoxy today has not usually been motivated by “literalism”, but by a careful scrutiny of the relevant biblical texts in context. There are as many reputable scholarly studies that uphold the traditional position on same-sex partnerships as there are studies that challenge it.
Liberals within the Church often call us to “listen to the voices of the Third World”, but on the issue of homosexuality there has been apparent outrage that leaders from developing nations should suggest that if an appointment such as Jeffrey John’s were to go ahead they might have to consider their position within the Anglican Communion. It suggests that when millions of believing Christians outside our shores hold fast to beliefs that don’t fit Western pluralist assumptions, they are disregarded as outmoded and irrelevant.
So here’s another thought. There is evidence that a “Liberal Gospel” breeds decline, in the Church of England and other churches. The fact is that only a tiny minority of Christian denominations around the world have formally approved the ordination of practising homosexuals, same-sex blessings and other such measures. Two of the most notable examples are the United Church of Christ in America and the United Church of Canada. Since they adopted these policies, their membership has declined sharply. This gives the lie to the oft-quoted assumption that if the Church adapts to Western cultural trends on this matter people will come flocking through its doors.
Finally, the response of evangelicals is generally not “bigoted” but does oppose policies being made by force majeure. There was genuine concern that the appointment of Jeffrey John would have bounced the Church of England into a radical shift of policy ahead of proper reflection, discussion and debate.
It’s important to reiterate that evangelicals are not the only ones who object to the forcing of a gay liberationist agenda on the Church. The Roman Catholic Church, which represents a further billion people, is officially opposed to the ordination of sexually active priests. The Orthodox churches, which number more than 200 million people, have if anything a harder line on this matter.
The Archbishop of Canterbury made some helpful comments last weekend, when he said that he recognised that most of the people expressing deep concern on this were not “extremists”. Yet that is exactly the accusation from those whose own strongly held views might also be considered “bigoted” against us.
Joel Edwards is general director of the Evangelical Alliance UK