by Simon Butler
from Signs of the Times No. 25 - Apr 2007

In this commemorative year of the Abolition of Slavery, a literary highlight has been Simon Schama's wonderful 'Boy's Own Story Book', Rough Crossings1

It tells the story of slaves who escaped the American plantations, who fought the War of Independence alongside the British and ended up returning to West Africa to form what we now know as Sierra Leone. All the usual heroes of abolitionism are present in the story and, happily, many of the former slaves themselves are allowed to tell their story. But at the story's heart lies one Lieutenant John Clarkson, RN, whose Evangelical faith coupled with his naval skill thrilled and inspired me, an ex-naval officer Evangelical.

Like the best ones, Clarkson is an unlikely hero. This fairly slight and conventionally godly man becomes, in Schama's description, the 'Moses' of this exodus to Africa from North America. In his encounter with the devout escaping slaves and the harsh world they leave behind, Clarkson has an experience not unlike Vincent Donovan in his great Christianity Rediscovered. He becomes emotionally and spiritually connected with those he is repatriating. He encounters Jesus Christ afresh through the expression of faith of those who form the new colony of Freetown. For Clarkson this is an epiphany. On returning to England (in the confident hope he will return again as the new colony's Governor) Clarkson takes up the slaves' cause. But he is to be bitterly disappointed. Prevented by the luminaries of the Clapham Sect from returning to West Africa for fear he had 'gone native', he fades into a somewhat bitter obscurity, regarded as an embarrassment by the great and the good of the Sierra Leone Company.

In asking myself why Clarkson seemed such an appealing figure, I have found part of an answer in the way he manages allow his Evangelical faith to be broadened, honed and reshaped by his encounter with 'the other'. Clarkson's conventional pieties would have been focused around Scripture. But in his engagement with the Bible Clarkson finds space to allow his experience of the slaves to change his outlook and his praxis. He is, in short, renewed.

Looking around the contemporary Evangelical scene, I see much of this taking place. For those outside the Evangelical subculture, it can be a revelation to discover that Evangelicalism is a diverse, often outward-looking and engaged expression of Christian faith. Many outside the tradition, who have it mediated to them by the public pronouncements of self-appointed 'spokesmen' (I use the word advisedly), or who judge it by their own negative experiences in the past, find this outward looking and engaged side of the tradition difficult to see.

In my own diocese, which has a rather out-of-date reputation as 'liberal', there are Evangelicals readily engaging with 'the other'. A group of us under the title Godly Conversations have been meeting in recent years to reflect, without fear of being labelled 'unsound', about how we engage and respond in contentious areas: in our theology of the atonement and the doctrine of the church, and in the area of human sexuality. What has encouraged me has been the refusal of fellow-Evangelicals to close down discussion on these issues. Instead, there has been serious and ongoing engagement that challenges the monolithic statements often heard from pressure groups like Anglican Mainstream.

Engagement with 'the other' inspires me as an Evangelical. It prompted me back in November to write an article for the Church of England Newspaper publicly criticising those whose obsession (as I see it) with a narrow orthodoxy has led them into what I find questionable moral tactics.2 While many in the more Conservative Evangelical tradition are men and women of integrity, nevertheless I believe that there is an emerging and ugly 'ends-justifies-the-means' behaviour that is sacrificing the practice of moral truth in order to shore up what such activists see as unchangeable 'biblical truth'.

Off the record, Evangelical bishops acknowledge this. A number have spoken to me since the article was published confirming their suspicion of the behaviour and tactics of some conservative activists, who they greatly mistrust. But on the record there remains a considerable unwillingness on the part of many to criticise the behaviour of fellow-Evangelicals, despite regular disgraceful attacks by Conservatives on those they call 'ungodly bishops'. Happily, patience is running thin. Bishop Tom Wright recently weighed in - using characteristically swashbuckling terms - against those who published A Covenant for the Church of England,3 a grandiloquent conservative manifesto for UDI that appeared with great fanfare. Thanks to his intervention4 and much private Evangelical anger, what was issued as a call to arms is now being quietly reclassified as a mere 'position statement'.

It is clear that Conservative Evangelicals do not want an 'overseas solution'. Yet many do long for an 'orthodox safe space' within the Church of England. Quiet attempts are being made to explore the possibility of a 'network' of churches who deem themselves in 'impaired communion' with their diocesan bishops. The problem with networks, however, is that they are usually only of the like-minded and, as such, run against the biblically important doctrine of the church as communion which many open and moderate Evangelicals deem an essential aspect of an Anglican ecclesiology. Evangelicalism is at its best when it is seeking to engage with 'the other', when its missionary zeal is both transforming of its own identity and transformative of the culture it engages with.

Readers of Signs of the Times may also want to consider their own relationship with Evangelicalism, currently the growth area of English Anglicanism.

For those who want a more open and inclusive church, and that includes this Evangelical, it is vital that others in the Church of England engage constructively with us. I believe such healthy engagement will be transformative not only of the 'Clarkson' sort of English Evangelicalism, but also of the wider church with whom Evangelicals share God's mission to our nation.


Notes

  1. Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, BBC Books 2006
  2. Reproduced at http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk
  3. See http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/?p=1212
  4. See http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk

Simon Butler is Team Rector of Sanderstead and an Honorary Canon of Southwark Cathedral.  He is also a member of General Synod.