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10 April 2008

Fundamental change

Both politically and theologically, conservative Christianity is now a militant and rapidly growing

By Stephen Bates

If you went to a Church of England service last Sunday, especially in the suburbs, the chances are that the vicar was an evangelical. There are a lot of them about and, although the term carries loaded meanings for many outsiders, conjuring up images of Bible-bashers and bigots, it also covers a wide range of Church practice.

Evangelicalism, which centres around the Bible as the revealed word of God – with an emphasis on personal conversion and an imperative to spread that word – is almost the default position for many Anglican clergy these days, but also for most other Protestant and Nonconformist sects: from the good old Methodists and Baptists to some of the more exotic fringes of Pentecostalism. The latter is the world’s fastest-growing Christian faith, allegedly gaining a million converts a year to its various churches, mainly in the developing world. Pentecostalism started only at the turn of the 20th century and now has about 500 million adherents.

There are many different shades of English evangelicalism. Since evangelicals decided that the Church of England was “a convenient boat to fish from” in the 1960s, the movement has come to occupy many of the commanding heights of English Anglicanism. These range from the charismatics (the happy-clappies) to the open movement, placed pretty well in the centre of Church life, to the conservatives, whose more militant fringes are now consciously mirroring some of the highly politicised techniques of the religious right in the US (they get some funding from there, too). The conservatives’ tactics are also quite similar to those of the old Militant Tendency in the 1980s Labour Party.

You think I’m joking? Here is Edward Armitstead of Bath and Wells diocese, writing in the magazine of the conservative Church Society about how to take over a parish: “The rural Church is likely to be dominated by the ‘old guard’ who are suspicious of innovation . . . do they actually understand about the issues or even care about them sufficiently to make in telligent dialogue worthwhile?” The answer, he says, is to recruit small groups of the like-minded to infiltrate congregations “to help others see the need to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus”. The conservative evangelicals are the ones who do not hesitate to tell that nice, Guardian-reading, self-designated hairy lefty, Rowan Wil liams, Archbishop of Canterbury, that he’s a false teacher and a heretic. They noisily assert that they wouldn’t allow him in their churches to preach because he would only confuse their congregations with wrong doctrine.

They are also the ones who have chosen opposition to homosexuality as the litmus test for Anglican orthodoxy and have made it the issue that has come close to dividing the 70 million-strong worldwide Church. In this, they have made common cause with conservatives in the US Episcopal Church, who have long sought a cause with which to disassociate themselves from that Church’s socially liberal leadership. They decided they had found it when, five years ago, the diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson – as opposed to all the closeted gay bishops the Church has had over the centuries, and still has.

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The particular sinfulness of homosexuals was a visceral issue, one which they believed would unite their supporters in a way that a few years earlier women’s ordination could not. Female priests divided them: many evangelicals knew women (some had even married them), whereas gay people are more easily demonised, especially as the Bible in a few scattered references says homosexual practice is wrong. These groups have been able, thanks to the instant communication offered by the internet, to enlist the heavy artillery of third world bishops, particularly in Africa – a continent in which Anglicanism is growing – to threaten to divide the Church.

The Christian voice in Africa is largely a culturally conservative one and some of its bishops are threatening to boycott this summer’s ten-yearly episcopal gathering at Canterbury because they might have to mingle with American bishops who had the temerity to consecrate a gay man. To make matters worse, Williams has said that Robinson – virtually alone of all the Church’s bishops – will not be welcome at the conference. The archbishop is now contemplating whether he should even be allowed to speak, let alone lead a service, inside a church when he visits England next month.

So much for internal convulsions. Church leaders have grown more assertive in other matters, too, and this spreads beyond evangelical Protestantism, as the recent spats initiated by the Roman Catholic hierarchy over same-sex adoptions and embryo research have shown. Outbursts such as the one by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, head of the Scottish Catholic Church, who condemned the Embryology Bill as “monstrous”, mirror similar interventions by Catholic bishops in the US, where part of the religious right’s electoral clout has arisen from the willingness of Catholics and evangelicals, previously mutually antagonistic, to make common cause on selected issues such as abortion.

Taking orders

For generations, Catholic politicians such as John F Kennedy had to deny they would take their orders from the Church. So it is ironic that now Catholicism is in the mainstream, cardinals and bishops assert that politicians from their faith should do what they tell them – or else. There is no doubt that certain strands of politically and theologically conservative-leaning Christianity are becoming more assertive. This has quickened since the 11 September 2001 attacks and there is a whingeing rancorousness which claims that Muslims wouldn’t be treated as badly as Christians are. One conservative member of the General Synod, Alison Ruoff, has even argued that no more mosques should be built in Britain because there are enough already.

Conservative Christianity has been much less effective in Britain than in the US because it has less social and political influence, less unchallenged access to the media – and less money. But there is certainly a desire in some quarters to mimic the tactics of the US right. They think they are winning the argument, but fear they may be losing the war. They assume that because the world is against them, that means they must be right. But the ultimate irony is that the more urgently they profess the need to win the nation for Christ, the more they repel those they say they most wish to save.

Stephen Bates was the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent (2000-2007) and is the author of “A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexuality” and “God’s Own Country: Power and the Religious Right in the USA”

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