Don’t Mention The War

The BBC’s classic 1970’s sitcom ‘Fawlty Towers’, starring manic hotelier Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), included an episode in which Fawlty, semi-concussed, fails spectacularly in his efforts not to embarrass guests from Germany. Having strictly warned the staff ‘Don’t mention the war’, mayhem results as he continually falls foul of his own advice.

The Evangelical Alliance, which styles itself as ‘the largest body serving evangelical Christians in the UK’, has recently borrowed this catch phrase for a press release ‘Don’t mention the war’ about ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s defence of the Iraq war in his autobiography , ‘The Journey’. Unfortunately there is another war which the Evangelical Alliance is managing not to mention, the seemingly relentless attack being suffered by Christians in the UK, especially Evangelicals, as their basic freedoms of expression and conscience are steadily eroded.

The Evangelical Alliance claims that it ‘acts as an evangelical voice to the state, society and the wider church’. However, someone unfamiliar with the muddled state of Evangelicalism in the UK might well be very puzzled when comparing the Evangelical Alliance website with those of two other evangelical organisations which address the public arena, the Christian Institute and Christian Concern.

At first glance, it looks as if they addressing quite different social realities. What the Evangelical Alliance seeks to do appears helpful and wholesome, but its specific campaigns in the UK are limited to issues of debt, gambling and welcoming migrants. There is nothing to suggest any sense of urgency about the wholesale dismantling of a Judaeo-Christian culture. Turning to the websites of the Christian Institute and Christian Concern, we seem to be dealing with another country, one in which the law needs to be changed to protect freedom of speech, marriage is being threatened by homosexual activists, school children are being sexualised through explicit and amoral sex ‘education’, the rights of the unborn are being ignored and Islam is exercising a wholly disproportionate influence on civic life.

Now it could be said with some justification that different Christian groups have complementary roles. The problem with the Evangelical Alliance however is that it simply does not live up to the scope of the claims it makes for itself. Yesterday, I received though the post a leaflet encouraging me to renew my membership with the strap line ‘Uniting evangelicals for spiritual and social transformation’. But how can transformation happen unless the uncomfortable realities of contemporary Britain are faced? Refusing to tackle issues which are politically controversial is like pouring water into a leaking bucket – whatever good may result from making common cause on consensus issues will ultimately be squandered if we are not prepared to be equally energetic when loving our neighbour may actually mean being unpopular with our neighbour.

It would be some encouragement if the Evangelical Alliance, as a body which wants to unite Evangelicals, were to at least give a positive mention to those who are willing to tackle the issues it finds disagreeable. To take recent examples, Anglican Mainstream organised a widely advertised conference in London last month entitled ‘Where Did You Pick That Up From?’ which presented disturbing evidence of what is being taught in schools with input from medical and educational experts, yet the event was ignored by the Evangelical Alliance. Moreover, one looks in vain on its website for any obvious reference to the all too frequent cases of individuals who come before the courts because of their faith, such as the Christian foster parents Eunice and Owen Johns who last week went to the High Court, having been barred from fostering by Derby City Council on the grounds of their moral objection to homosexual unions.

So why is an organisation with such a high profile keeping such a low profile on the seriously contested issues? In the same promotional leaflet I received yesterday, the first reason given for supporting the Evangelical Alliance is worth quoting in full: ‘We are recognised by the government and the media as the UK’s principal evangelical voice. It means we can influence government policy and public opinion, providing a prophetic voice in the public arena’. But in the UK’s contemporary political culture, recognition has a price tag. Sadly, perhaps a more accurate statement would be: ‘We are recognised by the government and the media as the UK’s principal evangelical voice. It means we are influenced by government policy and public opinion, providing a compliant voice in the public arena’.

An interesting example of this thought process is set out in a reflection on Recommendation 11 of the Evangelical Alliance’s ‘Faith and Nation’ report published in 2006 which reads: ‘Pursue constructive political engagement, seeking to avoid a clamorous or censorious tone which could prove counter-productive, and repudiating violent, threatening or coercive methods’. In fairness, this report does actually seek to address the marginalization of Christians in modern Britain, but the commentary on this recommendation illustrates why the Evangelical Alliance fails to get traction.

Following a radio discussion on ‘homophobia’ which focussed on anti-gay protests by members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church in the United States, the Evangelical Alliance’s representative (it is not clear who) explains that it was more appropriate to condemn the protestors as ‘a brood of vipers’ because of their judgementalism than to make any statement about homosexual practice being sinful. The justification given is that ‘repudiating violent, threatening or coercive methods’ was more important than affirming biblical standards for sexual activity, although the speaker had him or herself used a phrase – ‘brood of vipers’ – which itself could well have been taken as threatening.

The problem is that what counts as ‘threatening’ is rather subjective and very much determined by the ambient culture. In using such a severe term the speaker was going with the grain of fashionable outrage at negative reactions to homosexual behaviour; but we never find similarly robust language being used about, for instance, abortion and the dismissal of Christians from their employment because they act as Christians in the public square.

The ineffectiveness of the Evangelical Alliance is not irrelevant to the concerns about the Anglican Communion which are normally addressed in this column. It illustrates the spiritual truth that structures follow life; for instance the Christian Institute, which faces facts the Evangelical Alliance prefers to avoid, has seen its income almost double over the past five years from £887,000 in 2005 to £1.625m while the Evangelical Alliance’s has declined over the same period from £2.351m to £2.229m. Christian Concern is also flourishing and increasing its profile, as confirmed by the election of its Director, Andrea Minichiello Williams, as a lay member of the Church of England’s General Synod last month.

Likewise, despite the cushioning of historic resources, if the Church of England persists in not doing what it ought to do (and doing what it ought not to do), alternative structures will arise. Internationally, such structures have been in existence, at least in an emergent form, since the emergence of GAFCON at Jerusalem in 2008, a process that is likely to accelerate now that Archbishop Henry Orombi has forecast that no Global South Primates will turn up to Rowan Williams’ next Primates’ Meeting in January.

With the resignations this week of five Anglo-Catholic bishops who are joining the English Ordinariate, we can see that a process of structural realignment is already in train in England. But will it be only the Anglo-Catholics who understand that structural change and innovation is necessary? If the stagnation of the Evangelical Alliance is a warning to Church of England Evangelicals, then the remarkable growth of the Christian Institute and Christian Concern should be an encouragement.

Charles Raven

9th November 2010

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.