On celebrating diversity within the church

What follows is the crystallisation of a few thoughts prompted by a recent Guardian article on what it perceives to be a crisis in the Church of England and how it is being taken over by a dastardly sect called evangelicals. This was followed up with a few conversations in various places on similar topics.

The thing that often frustrates me is that when Anglicans use the term ‘evangelical’ they often mean something rather different than when evangelicals use it. When one word is used to denote (or connote) different things, then a mutual lack of understanding can often, needlessly, ensue and can result in hostile, or otherwise unhealthy attitudes between members of the same faith. If one claims that evangelicalism is a “wing” of the Church of England, that’s a misleading statement. Evangelicalism is a far broader, richer, more varied church that can be contained within any denomination (even the largest of them). Rather than try to re-tread well-trodden ground to state who is and who is not evangelical, I attempted to demonstrate that the question wasn’t quite that simple via the use of a Venn diagram that I put together during the last 10 minutes of my lunch break.

 Christian expressions

The point in the diagram was not to highlight differences or to show “why I am not like you” or anything like that. It was rather the opposite. It was to celebrate the breadth and diversity of different expressions of christian identity. It was also to counter some of the overly-narrow focus that some expressions have of themselves, placing them in a broader context. It wasn’t meant to be a complete or accurate representation of all expressions of christianity, merely an improvement to that offered by The Guardian (which in turn, echoed a sentiment I come across frequently, particularly among those who have a phobia of evangelicals). If one were so inclined, you could find at least a dozen things to take umbrage with, and indeed some chose to deliberately miss the point by doing so.

To give example of a kind of unhealthy attitude referred to above,  take someone who is indoctrinated to think that a church must be liturgical in order to be whole, fully functioning, etc. The reason it’s unhealthy is because it gives rise to ecclesiastical snobbery and a hatred towards to the more ecclesiastically liberal churches that can have a well-rounded theology, with healthy worship that have no need of liturgy. Indeed just the other day I read a comment that expressed a fear of any involvement of evangelicalism within that person’s denomination, describing it as “theologically impoverished”. Such a view is not borne of understanding and love, but of ignorance and hatred.

I am not saying that evangelical churches are beyond reproach. There is a time and place for fair, reasoned and loving critique to help build one another up. Even if that sometimes takes the form a rebuke. Yet one must recall “the plank in your own eye” if you find it necessary to speak up about another church/tradition than your own (see here for a recent take on the Evangelical Alliance). Those critiques that carry the most weight come from those that can recognise the weaknesses in their own tradition. It’s fine to pick your particular strand of christian belief, be it Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, etc. but such an identity must be held to lightly, rather than clung on to in white-knuckle defensiveness.

One of the other illustrations that I like to use is that of dog breeding. You can have any number of different types of pedigrees and you have cross-bred mongrels. Pedigrees can look beautiful. But the preservation of the purity of their identity comes at the cost of poor health in some. In contrast, mongrels can be ugly things; one can spend time trying to work out the different breeds that have gone into making the dog what it is. Yet for their ugliness, they tend to be healthier dogs.

In this (yes, flawed, analogy) I’m a mongrel christian. I find my home in the Ichthus Christian Fellowship, but on the weeks when we don’t get to meet, I will regularly visit other churches. In the last 3 years alone, I’ve been to Assemblies of God, Baptist, Church of England, Congregationalist, FIEC, Methodist, New Frontiers, Pioneer, Redeemed Christian Church of God, URC and other independent churches. There are several attitudes one could take when visiting another church. One could go with a kind of sneering snobbery that seeks to see how they “do things wrong”, determined to see the bad and to leave with a smug sense of superiority about one’s own church. I much prefer to think of it as going to worship with a slightly more distant relative and seeing what good things they do that my home church doesn’t.

I’d encourage you to visit churches outside of your normal experience every once in a while. It’s possible you may find something very weird, compared to your regular worship experience, whether that be being asked to kneel in front of someone dressed in robes or seeing someone wave a flag. If you decide to not go back, preferring the ways you are familiar with, that’s OK. But at least if you go and engage with others, then you can come away having shared fellowship with a wider circle of christians than you otherwise might, and you get to experience a different part of the christian life first hand, rather than rely on 2nd hand accounts and scare stories.

Some choose to see different denominations as signs of division within the church. But try seeing it as a sign of diversity instead. Then sample that diversity. If your diet consists of knowing the nuance between different types of potato, then you’re not really having a varied diet. Likewise with churches. To taste and see just how good the Lord is, it helps to sample from a different dish every now and then.

2 responses to “On celebrating diversity within the church

  1. All churches – with the possible exception of unprogrammed Quakers – use liturgy. Just because they don’t use a more formal or codified liturgy does not mean evangelicals don’t use liturgy! They may not be aware that they are using it and may protest strongly that they are not, but this comes from a misunderstanding of what liturgy is.

    While I agree that celebrating diversity within the church means embracing evangelicalism, be aware that many liberal and/or Catholic Christians have been seriously harmed spiritually and emotionally by some evangelical churches (and often uni CUs too), especially if they are LGBTQ. LGBTQ evangelical organisations are helping with healing here, but it’s going to take a long time.

    • I’ve come across that all-embracing idea that “everything is liturgical” before. The weakness of it is that it’s so dilute it’s virtually meaningless and just a by-word for ‘the way we do things’ which is sometimes worded as “tradition”. If that argument held, then the way I organise my spreadsheets is liturgical because that’s the way I do it.

      Rather, when one considers the idea of liturgy there are 3 aspects that spring to mind.

      1) Scripted services; you get handed a booklet that reads like a short play where everyone has there roles and there’s no room for going off-script and certainly no room for the Holy Spirit.
      2) The reworking of John 13:45 as “[By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you are colour-coded according to your rank]”. Here a strong desire to separate clergy (and their pecking order) prevails, rather than the idea of a priesthood of all believers, where all are equal.
      3) The liturgical calendar. While the first two are neither prescribed nor proscribed in scripture, this 3rd is the only one that crops up in the New Testament (Galatians 4:10,11) where St Paul indicates that observing a liturgical calendar (special seasons) is demonstrative that they haven’t fully understood the gospel.

      It’s for these reasons that a pro-liturgy church is best described as ecclesiastically conservative, even if it may be liberal in other ways.

      Of course people hurt one another; I wouldn’t deny that some liberals have been hurt by conservatives and that anglo-catholics have been hurt by evangelicals. Yet the same is true the other way around, and I certainly see a rising tide of suspicion and hatred of evangelicals within the church, sometimes as a retaliation against the many for the sins of the few. Perhaps we all need to be reminded of 1 John 2:7-11.

      As for the question of LGBTQ people in the church, you probably know that I stand alongside fellow affirming evangelicals, though I don’t make such affirmation a Shibboleth, as I will worship alongside those I disagree with, whether they be homophobes, Tories, creationists, liturgicals, etc. I’ve long had on my mind some qualms, though, about single-issue christians (i.e. those whose primary concern and expression of christianity is about campaigning on one topic. e.g. LGBTQ, environmentalism, sola scriptura, feminism, etc.) but have yet to get it in writing. On this, I think we may disagree, but I hope that that will never be sufficient to prevent communion and fellowship.