Are evangelicals (right to be) paranoid?

There’s an old saying: ‘Just because you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.’ (Think about it…) Evangelical Anglicans are often accused of being a little paranoid about their place in the Church of England—but do they have any grounds for being so? I sent this letter to the Church Times last week, though it was not published—perhaps because it sounded a little too paranoid?

How fascinating to read of the report of the Festival of Preaching organised by Canterbury Press and the Church Times. If the Church is going to experience both renewal and reform, this must surely come as much from preaching as from organising and strategising, and this means that preaching itself must be both renewed and reformed. The range of insights into crafting and delivery, handling texts and handling self-as-preacher, looked both engaging and transformative, and sharpened my regret at not being able to attend.
How surprising, then, to find two traditions which prize preaching so highly—the conservative evangelical and the charismatic—to appear to be almost totally absent from the otherwise impressive array of speakers. All the more surprising when the promotion for the event two weeks previously was juxtaposed with Bishop Philip North’s inter-traditional (and almost ecumenical) appreciation of summer festivals, in which he visited Keswick and New Wine as well as his ‘home territory’ of Walsingham. At Keswick he found that ‘The preaching is enormously impressive in its intellectual rigour and, while it may not be to everyone’s taste, the purpose of the conference — to sit beneath and be converted by the Word — is never diluted.’ At New Wine he observed a different focus, one of ‘a strong desire for a proclamation that is relevant to the immediate needs and aspirations of the culture.’ I would be surprised if the Festival of Preaching could not have been enriched by these two important perspectives.
Many evangelicals are unapologetic Anglicans. They love the Prayer Book, are convinced of the Articles, and are able to say the Declaration of Assent without crossing their fingers either metaphorically or metaphysically. But many do wonder what they have to do simply to take their place alongside others, being treated as honest Anglicans—being included in such events as this Festival without a second thought. I am sure that much that went on was ‘evangelical’ in the sense of being focussed on the Scriptures and their exposition, and even ‘charismatic’ in an expectation of the presence of the Spirit of God to be at work as the word is preached. But this makes it all the more odd for these two theological traditions within the Church of England not to be more obviously represented. 
Evangelicals are often thought of as being a little paranoid; if we do have this tendency, the cast of events like this only give us an excuse to continue in it.

There is a point of substance at stake in this particular example. From the reports in the Church Times, it sounded as though the focus of the event was on preaching as performance—questions of delivery, technique and self-management were to the fore. If there had been a greater evangelical presence, then I wonder whether issues of theology and hermeneutics might have been more prominent (I am sure they were not entirely absent).

But there is also a point of process. When I asked this question on a Facebook forum, the reaction was astonishing—I was reducing people to labels, of course there was an ‘evangelical’ perspective, and so on. But the point remained: there was a striking contrast between the appreciation by Philip North the week before, and the range of speakers at the Preaching Festival.

Most Anglican evangelicals I know are fully involved and engaged with the Church of England. It is true that they are not greatly fond of committees or honorary titles, and don’t take much to dressing up—but are these essential qualities of Anglicans? There are some shrill voices from the margins who appear determined to separate themselves—but this is not true of the vast majority.

So why do we still get given these signals?

Or am I being paranoid…?

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44 thoughts on “Are evangelicals (right to be) paranoid?”

  1. Thank you for expressing some of my thoughts, Ian. Over the Summer I was looking for an event that might help sharpen up my preaching, but when I saw the line up for the Festival of Preaching I was really disappointed.

    I hope I’m open to different speakers and ideas – I’d happily spend a morning thinking about poetry in preaching, or Sandra Millar on children’s ministry for instance – but I realised that I’d be sitting through a lot of speakers who don’t scratch where I’m itching.

    I want my preaching to connect with people outside the orbit of the church, and my concern was how very churchy, middle class and Radio 4 it all seemed. If the Church Times were an event it would be this.

    (Incidentally I’m still looking for an event that might work for me – have your readers any ideas?)

  2. Perhaps….

    I think you probably are right to be a little paranoid, but, as I’m sure you would acknowledge, there are significant factors as for why this is so and so it is not entirely unreasonable. Two jump out.

    First, that it is difficult to agree a standard for constitutes an “evangelical”, and people are not easily or willingly grouped into such categories. You posted an article on broadly that idea (‘what makes an evangelical’) last year if I recall, but your perception that there was no voice from that camp at this event might not be shared. It is perfectly possible that the organisers and attendees of said event genuinely thought that they had an evangelical voice, even if they didn’t, and that might be the majority perception.

    Second, is that within a broad church paradigm it is much easier to pick and choose speakers and academics who you know will be received well. There are simply more to choose from and you can afford to be selective. It is probably impossible to present anything truly reflective of the breadth of tradition within Anglicanism, and while sometimes the balance is achieved, that would not be the norm.

    I would also add, that I somewhat symapahise with the CT’s decision not to publish your letter. For one thing, it is a bit long, and the CT letters tend to be a bit more ‘pithy’ and to-the-point that this. For another, I think they are (warning: total conjecture!) wary to present any conservative-minded opinion as being in any way the victim here, and don’t wish for their paper to become a battleground the way some online outlets have.

    That doesn’t mean they are right of course, but I expect editorial prudence is more significant than a conspiracy to silence dissenters. 😉


    • Thanks Mat. I am not sure my letter was padded…and interesting to see they *did* publish a (quite long letter) from David Banting arguing that Synod should meet in November to study the Bible…

    • A very good point. As long as “evangelical” is used of folk who self-identify as evangelicals, organisers of such events can point to them and say “But we did include an evangelical – look!” A good example of this is the bishop of Bangor, who self-identifies as an evangelical but whose words and actions prove that he means something very different by the term than someone who obeys the authority of the Bible in every area of their lives.

  3. Presumably theological content was taken as read, among a professional and theologically qualified audience all supposedly signed up to the 39 Articles?
    I wouldn’t have gone to a professional seminar on a specialised technical aspect of my own former field and expected a lecture on basic bookkeeping principles instead.
    On the other side, my heart does rather sink at the managerialism and showbiz/advertising approach of much modern Christian practice – “presentation” is indeed a skill, but too often now seems about gimmicks rather than simply being clearly audible and speaking sense.

      • As ever, its about doctrines not labels. If all ordained persons believed ex animo that we all face the wrath and condemnation of God from birth onwards and that we are all born with a nature inclined to evil, wouldn’t that make a big difference to what was preached and taught in the CofE?
        Phil Almond

        • Yes Phil, indeed it would – it changes everything: our doctrine of God, of humanity and of salvation.
          It would change the Gospel we proclaim and the urgency with which we do it. It would burden our prayers and it would open our eyes to why the world is so messed it. The Anglican Fathers were right to include it in the 39 Articles, and we ignore it at the world’s peril.

          • ‘It would change the Gospel we preach and the urgency with which we do it.’

            It certainly would. Consider St. Paul’s eagerness to spread the gospel, covering more than 10,000 miles in missionary endeavours. Or how about John Wesley, who rode over 250,000 miles on horseback during his ministry.

            St. Paul explained his urgency in this way: ‘I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.

            ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,e just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.’ (Rom. 1:14 – 20)

            This ministry of the gospel of Christ is both a privilege and an obligation: ‘For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!’ (1 Cor. 6:19)

            In contrast, the Experiences of Ministry survey 2015 showed that, across a range of stipendiary and self-supporting roles, the clergy spent, on average, 4.4 hours a week in ‘preaching/teaching (including preparation’.

            The considerable bulk of their time (6.4 hours/week) was spent in ‘administration and organisation’. Meetings and reports take precedence over the urgency to preach and teach. In practical terms, there is no urgency to be saved ‘from the wrath to come’ because, for the most part, clergy join those who scoff at the promise of divine retribution, asking rhetorically: “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” (2 Per. 3:4)

            The ascendancy of modern secularism aside, the widespread belief among clergy that retributive justice (wrath) is a character flaw which is unworthy of God and the neglect of the preacher’s art among them go a long way towards explain why the Church of England is haemorrhaging its membership.

            Until the C of E fixes these two issues, the Resourcing for Ministry initiative will be a futile endeavour.

  4. The Church of England does tend to be somewhat siloed, with not nearly as much inter-mingling between the traditions as I’d like to see. But it cuts both ways. I wonder how significant are the attempts are made by Keswick, New Wine, Spring Harvest, et. al, to incorporate voices that don’t readily fit their usual framework?

  5. A little paranoid – we drink from our own wells. Those who might identify with and be identified as being Evangelical & Charismatic were not represented – with the exception of the brilliant Dr Paul Gooder. But to be fair, having been involved with numerous evangelical/charismatic conferences in the past decade, the line-up at such is always fairly predic and rarely reaches outside its own comfort zone. Pity, we have much to learn from each other.

    • At New Wine this year, the big hits were Alister McGrath and Bishop Philip North. Neither of them names you would normally associate with a charismatic gathering.

  6. To be fair, the self-identified Evangelical / Charismatic conferences are intentionally such, and the pool of speakers is largely governed by the constituency they are seeking to serve. It seems the Preachers Conference was ostensibly for a broader audience, but did not include a correspondingly broader pool of speakers.

  7. Looking at the line up of speakers at this Festival, I really don’t think evangelicals and charismatics would have cared too much for what looked mainly like a gathering of radical-liberal Anglican university figures, with the tattooed lady preacher thrown in for extra edge – and for ‘youth appeal’? Throw in the new liberal orthodoxy on homosexuality and gender and a dose of Jungian psychotherapy

    What else would you expect from Martyn Percy’s stable? As his coup against Philip North shows, he knows how to use institutional Anglican power.

    In other words, a gathering long on poetry, ambience and ‘stories’ and not too much on what evangelicals and charismatics (and Anglo-Catholics) understand (or should understand) as the substance of preaching: expounding and applying the Word of God. If Philip North found himself (to some degree) ‘at home’ at Keswick and New Wine as well as Walsingham, that would be because the credal faith was held more of less in common (give or take a bit of Marianism and debatable Eucharistic claims).

    In liberal thinking, biblical “stories” are exactly that: flexible narratives that may suggest and point to ‘the word of God’ but never to be equated with it.

    By contrast, The Proclamation Trust, The Gospel Coalition, and old stalwarts like Carson and Keller have a very different understanding of what preaching is about.

    Oil and water won’t mix.

    • Brian, the very popular ‘tattooed lady preacher thrown in for extra edge -for youth appeal’ was invited to address all the Bishops gathered for in Oxford at the same time for their bi-annual College of Bishops’ residential. Not many edgy or young present at that, but she was very well received from what I heard.

      • Yep, I’m sure she was – ticks all the boxes from Yoof Central and OneBodyOneFaith. Mind you, I thought the C of E bishops went through all this edgy ‘you can cool with the kids without being evangelical’ stuff with Chris I-am-your Brain from the late and unlamented Nine O’clock Service – nah, that was 22 years ago and nobody remembers. This one is on an ego trip as well.

  8. One has to ask what the point of a Festival of Preaching is. Is it like a festival of Classic Cars, all there to be admired and drooled over? Or something like Glastonbury, drop out of the real world for a weekend? It appears to miss the entire point of preaching, which is a pastoral activity, and not something to be wheeled out to be admired on rare occasions. I suspect evangelicals and charismatics would have entirely different criteria for judging the quality of preaching they hear. How many were saved as a result?, they might ask themselves, just as John Wesley might have done. How much biblical light has been shone on life, I wonder.

    • A good point – although evangelicals have also indulged in ‘sermon tasting’, an ecclesiastical version of oenophilia. I suspect evangelicals would be happier with ‘workshops’ – awful word but it conveys the idea of learning around a desk or table with materials in front of you.
      The Langham Trust has done a lot of this kind of work in the ‘Two-Thirds World’, showing how to craft biblical sermons.
      Teachers like Haddon Robinson are also esteemed for helping to clarify the task of expository preaching.
      I found a very helpful piece by him on the web recently and I try to look at my summary of what he wrote each time I prepare to preach. In short, he said there are three questions biblical preaching must always address at the outset:

      1. What does it mean?
      2. Is it true?
      3. What difference does it make?

      To this he adds 10 points, of which the most important are:
      – every sermon should have one central ‘big idea’ (‘a bullet not a buckshot’)
      – however you develop your material, bend your thoughts to the Scriptures: let the text speak for itself.

  9. I have never subscribed to the idea that different ‘parties’ need to be fairly represented, nor even that the identity of those parties is set in stone. Some of them have not always existed. It is *theoretically* possible that some (or, worst case scenario, all) are based on some fundamental error. ‘Parties’ are not something that ‘was in the beginning is now and…’.

    Who should be a bishop? Promote holiness, down-to-earthness, integrity, humility (don’t all put your hands up at once), and promote academic rigour. Not political speak or failure to call a spade a spade, nor conformism.

    A few years ago the proportion of bishops from Cuddesdon (which did not usually mean the most academically qualified) was huge. Now it is soft-line evangelicals who are huge, but Christopher Cocksworth is still in a voting minority of 1.

    Rod Thomas is claimed to be the only bishop who takes a certain academically respectable view of the texts. The recurring nightmare of course (unless we set our minds on higher things, which is the answer to all of this) is that even he will be bullied out of existence by Christ Church, Modern Church, Zeitgeist Church, or whichever church is currently fashionable. Other scenario: the ratio of a hundred and plenty to one will be adjudged just about appropriate.

  10. Of course, a newspaper ‘leader’ column will often reflect what they gauge that the readers want to hear; the letters page may do the same. Where this is the case, it is a circular process and no good can come of that.

    • That’s another issue – who should be a Bishop? But it is related to preaching and how it is done. Many complain of the lack of conservative bishops, and thus the under-representation of a large slice of the C of E at episcopal level. However, in my experience, conservatives are at heart pastoral people and really want nothing to do with the politically greasy pole of preferment. Consider, for example, Nicky Gumbel, chief cook and bottle-washer of the Alpha course, and thus a very influential Anglican indeed. Why isn’t he a Bishop? I can’t believe nobody has ever proposed it – the fact is, he doesn’t want to be, and why should he? Thus we have a whole series of politically correct bishops quite prepared to turn their back on pastoral work in favour of politics. In fact, George Carey and Justin Welby are the only ABCs for a very long time who have had any parish experience at all.

      Let’s forget about our bishops and concentrate on where the power really exists – in the local church.

      • Yes, correct. Pastors want to stay pastors. But people prefer their leadership to that of the ambitious.

        (I spoke about bishops etc because that is one especially glaring imbalance.)

        • Like Brian, I’ve just looked at the lineup, and it’s really what you would expect from the Dean of Christ Church. All fully paid-up members of the liberal establishment, plus the obligatory tattooed lady. Also, I noticed my own diocesan Bishop – a good preacher, but not in the expository tradition of Stott, Kendall, Lucas and others. There’s as much hokum around in the liberal world as ever there is in the evangelical world, but some don’t have the eyes to see it.

  11. I do not think I am the only person who regularly thinks it’s time to give up on the title ‘Evangelical’. Despite the fact that I take Scripture seriously, uphold a more or less orthodox line theologically and believe the best hope for the world is in Christ, I find the term ‘Evangelical’ relates too closely to having a closed mind, being certain of being correct and clinging to an unwillingness to doubt one’s own preconceived ideas. Once upon a time ‘evangelical’ meant engaging seriously with the Bible, being wiling to wrestle to find truth, eschewing easy propositionalism. I think it may be time to become those rigorously thoughtful people we once perhaps were, and stop defending a party line.

  12. Liz – sadly I think you are right. The term has been hijacked by some who are not evangelical by any previous use of the word; whilst to others it is heard negatively in terms of the fundamentalism you highlight. But I’m not sure what other term I would put in its place which would convey what Evangelical once did: passion for Jesus, personal holiness, centrality of the Scriptures, commitment to evangelism and necessity of new birth. Perhaps “Apostolic” might be better? 😉

    • Liz, Simon… I’m guessing whatever term is used the accusation if being a ‘closed mind’ will still be chucked. After all it’s so often an attack phrase not an analysis of evangelicalism.

      Bible people, Gospel people…. John Stott?

      • Possibly the two meanings of the word ‘evangelical’ are getting confused here. Does it refer to theology or to churchmanship? Anyone who fancies ditching robes, electrifying the music and clearing out the pews might claim to be of evangelical churchmanship, but their theology might be quite different. It rather depends on whose propaganda you listen to, as the BBC (for example) will quite happily call various right-wing Americans ‘evangelicals’, accompanied, of course, by the usual sneer.
        On the other hand, Bible-believing people receive their authority from a 2000 year old document. If that’s ‘having a closed mind’, then I’m guilty of it.

  13. “the focus of the event was on preaching as performance—questions of delivery, technique and self-management were to the fore.”

    Those aspects are not unimportant but am concerned that ‘evangelical’ is sometimes reduced to be more about style/performance as the primary, not content. So it has come to mean far less than it did. Rather than being more forgiving definition hasn’t it become (again, sometimes) cut loose from its moorings?

    Paranoid? I don’t know. I wonder whether it’s the term which is the opposite of ‘conspiracy’. Ministering in the 60s and 70s had an understandable feeling of paranoia…. We were called ‘fundamentalists’ even then for believing the fundamentals of the Apostles Creed.

  14. Paranoid is a strong word… but dead accurate nonetheless. Of course no-one is going to include anyone who actually talks about *theology*. Don’t you know theology is divisive, Ian? Be more inclusive, just like Jesus would have wanted.

    Maybe I’m just bitter and jaded for having endured three years of IME training – in the whole three years we opened our Bibles and had a theological discussion precisely once. (And that was after a conservative evangelical speaker had been talking about mission).

    “Brush the theology under the carpet, focus on the externals” – sums up the last three years of my IME training, and it sums up the approach to this preachers conference.

    • Your comment reminded me of this:

      A quote from said article; “After reading several chapters from the gospels over the weekend, local progressive believer Wendy Butler reportedly published a Patheos blog post in which she criticized Jesus of Nazareth for “not being very Christlike.”

      The best satire is the stuff that is only barely distinguishable from the truth. People tend not to open their bibles, but when they do they find what they read has a tendency to challenge their misconceptions. So it is that opening your bible becomes actively discouraged. 😉

      • Yes indeed!

        On our curates conference in January this year (mercifully the last one I will have to attend) one of the passages was the sheep and the goats, where Jesus has the line ‘depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and angels.’ Afterwards there was some merry discussion about this, which quite frankly seemed strange to me given that Jesus had basically said some will inherit eternal life, and some eternal damnation. Not the kind of thing to make jokes about.

        I feel that many in the CofE seem to think the Bible is some kind of impenetrable mystery, you can’t really put it together, therefore anyone doing ‘theology’ is only doing their own interpretation. And consequently you get preaching conferences where the Bible is not really talked about, because it’s all down to your own interpretation, might as well focus on the externals… people who think the Bible actually has something to say rock the boat.

        • It doesn’t sound as if POT (as was then) has changed much from the early 90s – a hoop to go through but not much value in itself.

          Is it because liberals predominate in these settings? Or is there a kind of homogenised top-down model of ‘what you need’/

          I wonder that DEF’s – or the EGGS don’t have something to say on this.

          • Brian As someone involved nearly continuously with ministry training before and after ordination over the last twenty years – in a number of dioceses, colleges and courses I simply do not recognise your comment on curate training. The fact you still know it as POT does not suggest recent engagement. Liberals do not ‘predominate’ either. Your evidence for all this? If it is any reassurance to you I am evangelical in theological training who loves my continued involvement with these courses and takes pride in its content. But it is also training offered to ministers all traditions of the church and not simply one group within it. I want to see evangelicals offering a positive contribution to this training and in willing to learn from the insights of others.

          • David, I was responding to Phill’s less-than-enthusiastic assessment of his own IME. If other people have had a more positive experience lately, that is all to the good.

  15. I attended the Festival of Preaching and, being from an evangelical and charismatic background myself, I can’t say I noticed the fact that this tradition was not represented. The festival wasn’t about that, it was about how to effectively and creatively preach the message to people in all different situations and in ways that can grab attention, transform lives and make a difference. It was not about content but delivery. I would say that any tradition would have found it useful. I found the whole experience really interesting and informative, and the speakers were really inspiring. In fact I enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t about content because, as an ordinand, I find myself spending a lot of time trying to work out what I believe, what I should and shouldn’t say, what I am brave enough to say. So it was really nice to put that down for a few days and focus on being inspiring. I would recommend it and will be going to the next one.

  16. You don’t have to be paranoid to realise that Justin Welby has now cast a loaded die by which he can only condemn homophobia, while ‘struggling’ with whether gay sex is sinful:

    And to explain his struggle, the Archbishop replied: ‘because I don’t do blanket condemnation and I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. Inherently, within myself, the things that seem to me to be absolutely central are around faithfulness, stability of relationships and loving relationships.’

    So, according to the Archbishop, to call same-sex sexual behaviour sinful is blanket condemnation. And, as part of his reasoning, he resorts to Greek virtue ethics by which he extols the virtues of mutuality (faithfulness, stability, loving, etc.) at the expense of any biblical prohibitions concerning the vice of embodying such mutuality in same-sex sexual behaviour.

    So, six questions for Archbishop Welby:
    1. Do you struggle with the HoB consensus (BRGS Report) that there’s little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage?
    2. Do you struggle with Canon B30?: ‘Does the Church of England affirm, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side?’
    3. Do you struggle with Marriage: a teaching document, 1999? ‘Does sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belong within marriage?’
    4. Is ‘getting married to someone of the same sex…clearly at variance with the teaching of the Church of England? (paragraph 26, House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage, 2013)
    5. ‘Do the declarations made by clergy and the canonical requirements as to their manner of life have real significance?’
    6. Do the declarations made by clergy ‘need to be honoured as a matter of integrity’?

    Let’s be honest: Welby’s ‘struggle’ is just a feeble political cop-out aimed at placating all sides until he plays his hand through the Teaching Document in 2020.

  17. David looks to be right that this is all about not offending people because:

    The two things that ++Justin is reluctant to deny or condemn correspond precisely with the 2 party positions. That is not likely to be a coincidence.

    This is not by any meansthe only time that this has been the case.


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