Robbie Low visited the recent Bournemouth Conference for FiF
I HAVE A WEAKNESS for Evangelicals. Critical friends in liberal and catholic camps tend to put this down as uncharacteristic naďveté in an otherwise moderately intelligent person. The more charitable put it down to an excusable if peculiar nostalgia for my Baptist Sunday School days. Either way it was decided, in my absence, that Low was the obvious candidate for the great National Assembly of Evangelicals at Bournemouth this year. Whatever the reasons, I was happy to accept and indulge my weakness for other and more significant reasons.
Realists on both sides of the evangelical and catholic divide constantly assert that we cannot really work together. But if a deep love of Jesus, an acceptance of the authority of scripture and a passion to win souls for Christ is not enough to get us started then we shouldn’t be too surprised if Satan appears to have the field to himself in too many areas of our national and ecclesiastical life.
This conference, of some 2500 - 3000 christian evangelical leaders set out to maximize the unity of that constituency and prepare it for a major role in the spiritual and, inevitably, the political battlefield that awaits a newly confident and increasingly aware coalition of churches.
Nor is this confidence to be confused with brash arrogance, pushiness or numerical success - though the latter is certainly evident.
Part of that confidence grows from a rejection of the wilder reaches of fundamentalism but mainly from the obvious disastrous and costly failure of liberalism. Evangelicals, aided by some first rate theologians, are not afraid to be intellectual anymore and can muster a considerable case on most things.
Their approach to issues of morality and practice have not lost the scriptural conviction but there was, at every session I attended, an understanding of the complexities involved and evidence of the compassionate heart so essential to the pastoral work of the church of Christ.
The huge International Centre was a throbbing hive of activity, debate and encounter for three days, from eight in the morning till just before midnight. A massive Wesley Owen bookshop on one landing and a 100 stall mini version of the Resources Exhibition was in the first floor hall. Worship leadership was in the expert musical hands of Graham Kendrick, Geraldine Latty and Dave Pope and a first class sound system. There were also late night events for the younger leaders.
A galaxy of talented speakers were on offer - the wheelchair bound Joni Eareckson Tada on learning from the marginalised, the prolific and acute Alister McGrath on Biblical Authority and Interpretation, Nigel Cameron - a leading ethicist and penetrating biblical work from Roy Clements - to name but four of the two dozen or so on offer.
The middle day was given over to workshops on twelve major topics from Sexuality to Pluralism, from Politics to Revival with most media interest centring on Bishop James Jones calling for tax encouragement for families.
Each session had a major speaker, two respondents and time for small group discussion and subsequent questioning of the speakers. This worked on all sorts of levels enabling people across the traditions to engage with each others pastoral realities and theological responses. It also highlighted the besetting difficulty of protestantism - scriptural authority with no magisterium - which can, all to often, end up as every man a pope in his own parish. A Welsh Free church neighbour of mine was bemoaning the fact that he had to make up his own mind on each presenting pastoral issue as it arose, without any definitive help.
The following day I presented him with several photocopied pages of close scriptural analysis and teaching on the subject of our workshop. Delighted, and in full agreement, he asked me for the name of the book. He was shocked and amused in equal degree when I produced the Catholic Catechism.
But it was possible to have that kind of serious fun because this conference was about unity, working for an orthodox, biblical response to the needs of the nation and the world.
Thirty years before, evangelicals had limped away from a similar gathering, shattered into their various tribes, marginalised, inward looking and ineffective. Now on the 150th Anniversary of the Evangelical Alliance they were back, under the leadership of an exhausted but inspired Clive Calver, determined to work with whomsoever is willing to be involved in reclaiming the nation for Christ.
The recognition that this will involve catholics has been a slow and painful one for many but much of the enthusiasm of the conference was for what, in other quarters, would be called catholic social action. By their engagement at every level of care evangelicals are, in Calver's words, "earning the right to speak". It would be a pity, in my view, if we didn’t speak and work together as soon as and wherever possible. Maybe the next "Bournemouth" could take the ultimate risk and invite a catholic speaker and begin to discover what is possible in these urgent times.
The Evangelical Alliance survey of member churches provided key information on the changing face of the church in Great Britain.
A staggering 96% agreed that style of worship was much more significant that denomination in choosing a church. This coupled with a 50% demand for disestablishment and the rejection of a remarried Prince Charles as Monarch are clear institutional warnings.
The pattern of evangelism is changing. 76% see mass crusade evangelism as less effective now while 63% advocate church planting and 96% relational evangelism and 98% social action as the ways forward.
On matters of sex 90% will not accept unmarried heterosexual partnerships and 96% reject homosexual partnerships. 73% want to tighten up on divorce and 88% demand abortion law reform to limit it to life threatening pregnancies only. Euthanasia on request is acceptable to only 5% of the respondents.
There is strong desire (85%) for action on homelessness and (87%) on the integration of the disabled.
Robbie Low is the Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey heath in the diocese of St. Alban's
Next month: An interview with Clive Calver - Director General of Evangelical Alliance.
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