Thursday 9 July 2009

‘Liberals’, ‘moderate’ evangelicals and ‘traditionalist’ evangelicals

Anglican Mainstream has linked to a blog by The Urban Pastor which attempts to unravel what is going on in contemporary Anglicanism. He is a conservative evangelical and outlines in a helpfully nuanced way some of the differences of position in those who are lumped together under the label ‘traditionalists’. ‘Traditionalists’ doesn’t do justice to the coalition of evangelicals, charismatics and anglo-catholics. They are morally traditional, doctrinally conservative, missionally innovative but not ‘hardline’ (Ruth Gledhill in the Times). ‘Conservative’ is not a label they are keen on.

There is a fair degree of diversity within the ‘traditionalist’ camp. They are distinguished by their attitude to scriptural interpretation. They are heading towards biblical orthodoxy and away from biblical heterodoxy, trying to steer towards biblical obedience and away from biblical revisionism.

On the other side of the argument, he says, are the liberals, labelled by him ‘revisionists’. What they believe is governed by trying to understand the culture. He is certain that they’re not a monolithic group either.

The ‘traditionalists’, he says, have the gospel. Their churches are growing because people are being converted. They preach the truth, so people are generous and sacrificial with the money God has entrusted to them. (I might think these claims are just a tad arrogant and confirm one of my prejudices about ‘traditionalists’.)

Liberals have the positions of power - the vast majority of Bishops, Archdeacons, Rural Deans are liberals. ‘Traditionalists’ are massively under-represented in England. Though ‘revisionists’ have the power in the Church of England, it doesn’t actually belong to them but to the ‘traditionalists’. The ‘traditionalists’ are doing nothing more than reclaiming what’s rightfully theirs. (I might think this is also a tad arrogant. It also reveals how important the acquisition of power is to conservatives.)

The situation is complicated by a split between conservative and ‘moderate’/'liberal' evangelicals. ‘Moderate’ evangelicals claim to agree with the traditionalists on biblical ethics and the importance of mission but disagree with the way conservatives seek ecclesial reform. ‘Moderates’ think conservatives bully people that don’t agree with them. They are reasonable, restrained and sensible. Infighting between these groups is bad.

‘Moderate’ evangelicals get promoted because they are not ‘conviction’ evangelicals. Maintaining unity is the most important thing for liberal evangelicals. They place church order above gospel convictions. Fulcrum and Graham Kings, recently appointed as the Bishop of Sherborne are under attack here.

Being a liberal evangelical is an inherently unstable position. Liberalism compromises evangelicalism and evangelicalism tarnishes liberalism.

The big issue isn’t homosexuality but the Bible. ‘Traditionalists’ believe that you should do something because the Bible says it, even if the culture doesn’t approve of it. ‘Revisionists’ say that we should do what the culture says because that’s the prevailing view, even if the Bible says that we shouldn’t. These are two different religious systems which are implacably opposed.

This blog is very revealing of conservative evangelical mentality. Life is unfair. Having power is important. They do not perceive those who disagree with them as being Christian. They are the only ‘real’ Christians.

The subtle or not-so-subtle differences between those gathered under the FCAUK banner are also unstable. They disagree not only about homosexuality and the ordination of women but about whether these are first or second order issues. For anglo-catholics, women are a first order issue, homosexuality second order and vice-versa for conservative evangelicals.

Of course, there’s madness here as well. Gay priests form a high percentage of Anglo-catholic organisations which are homophobic in their public utterances. Insane. What is less recognised is the insanity among conservative evangelicals who deny the presence of partnered lesbian and gay people in their congregations when they know full well they are present.

Conservatives want to replace the perceived liberal power base and the broad church ethos of the Church of England. Changing Attitude wants honesty, transparency and integrity - Biblical virtues – and Christian witness and mission which proclaims God as loving, passionate, creative and just. Who is more Biblical?

Wait a moment, Colin, this isn’t about competition or rivalry, who is more or less Biblical. God creates all, loves all, redeems all. Ah, there’s a critical fault line – for conservatives, God does NOT redeem liberals or homosexuals, Jews or Moslems. God is selective, not inclusive.


  1. I think the wisest thing anyone can do is to refuse to engage in that kind of tit for tat, that kind of debate. It can never be won, it revolves around us and about how grand our own understanding of God is, and it's a distraction that affects conservatives, liberals, evangelicals and anglo-catholics alike.

    Best to just focus on God and on loving and living and leave those in the playground to their games of throwing sand.

  2. "‘Traditionalists’ believe that you should do something because the Bible says it, even if the culture doesn’t approve of it."

    Such as stone adulterers to death for instance? Or how about Jesus very obvious and perfectly stated teaching on divorce?

    Cherrypicking one's belief system is all very well if you are not trying to pick fights as well, but once you start to condemn others using your cherrypicked beliefs, then you are on the losing side in the battle of the righteous.

    I think all sane and rational Christians (Yes Prof. Dawkins, we are legion) can see what it is happening, and yes, some of us are goaded into response. If we don't then the voice of prejudice will win the media war, which is all important in these days of mass hypnosis by tabloid.

  3. A lot of helpful analysis here, although as an open evangelical myself I would like to point out that the term normally used is "open evangelical" (not moderate). "Liberal evangelical" is normally avoided totally as it suggests linking with the Anglican Evangelical Group Movement of earlier in the 20th century - the only people who normally use "liberal evangelical" are the conservatives who want to present the opens as having sold out to liberalism.

    Moving on from nomenclature, the other thing that needs saying is that there are some (probably a growing number of?) evangelicals who are happy to accept committed gay relationships. I am one such. Many I suspect are unwilling to stick their heads over the parapet, but the fact is the issue is more complicated than "traditionalists" versus "revisionists". Certainly for myself I am prepared neither to opt for the Bible (and stuff culture) nor opt for culture (and stuff the Bible). What is needed is critical examination of the Bible's teaching critically and helpfully applied to culture.

    George Day

  4. George is right. We do need a critical, or as Rowan Williams said more intelligent, examination of the Bible.
    The snag is that the Bible's teaching about the Bible is one of the main causes of division.
    Is it the inerrant Word of God divinely inspired and preserved through millenia of transmission and translation?
    If this is the case how far can critical examination go? How much of the Old Testament's teaching is binding on Christian's today? Do we assume that anything Christ quoted is relevant and the rest "for its time"? Is it the other way about and anything not directly countermanded is still binding? Where does that leave the food laws for instance? All we have to go on is a vision which had to be interpreted.
    Is the Bible the work of men more or less inspired by their relationship with God? In which case are the Scriptures open to a much wider interpretation than we have given them up to now?
    The very need to look at the Bible in a fresh way - a really fresh way - is a root cause of the divisions.
    I'm with American author Candace Chellew-Hodge when she said that the Bible is a companion on the spiritual journey, and not its destination.