Religion is a public affair

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Evangelical Christians are best known for having been 'born again', writes James Heartfield

A new thing in church history" was created in 1846 when 800 Christians from around the world met in the Freemasons' Hall, Great Queen Street, in London, to form the "evangelical alliance". It was, they said, "a definite organisation for the expression of unity among Christian individuals belonging to different churches".

But, in fact, Evangelicalism has roots in the 17th century, with the teachings of John Wesley and George Whitfield. Today, the World Evangelical Alliance embraces 335 million evangelicals in 121 countries. Preachers like Billy Graham and John Stott are its best known proponents today.

Evangelicalism is not a denomination, like Catholicism, but a movement that cuts across the protestant churches, such as Methodists and Pentecostalists, embracing as many as 40 per cent of the Church of England.

There are around one million Evangelical Christians in Britain.

Evangelical Christians are best known for being "born again", or converted.

This is the recognition that Christ redeemed mankind of his sin. Opinions differ over whether all people were redeemed - as John Wesley thought - or just some. But without recognising redemption you cannot be saved, which is why evangelism, or carrying the message, is so important to Evangelical Christians.

Evangelical Christians have counted reformers like William Wilberforce of the Anti-Slavery Society, factory moderniser Lord Shaftesbury, and the Salvation Army's William Booth in their number. But, today, they are probably best, if a little unfairly, known by association with American presidents such as George W Bush and Ronald Reagan.

To be "born again", to recognise God's redemption of our sins, is an essential tenet of Evangelical Christianity. Unlike their co-religionists in the United States, of whom perhaps 70 per cent are supporters of the Republican Party, British Evangelicals divide relatively evenly between the political parties.

Evangelical Christians here do hold to what might be called conservative values. Keeping to the authority of scripture before any other religious authority, they cannot accept that civil partnerships are equivalent to marriage between men and women, or that homosexuality is without sin, or that abortion is acceptable.

Evangelical youth organiser Graham Knox is happy that his daughter's school teaches comparative religion, where different faiths are taught alongside each other. He does not think that it is the school's job to instruct her in faith, but that that is a responsibility he cannot abdicate.

David Hilborn, theological adviser to the Evangelical Alliance, disagrees.

He believes that a "public-private dualism" is a mistake. "Religion, if it is worth its salt, is a public affair," he says.

Delivering the good news of the gospel is central, so it is difficult to withhold one's views. That makes a conundrum for teachers of Evangelical Christians. Civil partnership is the law and so should be taught in health and social education. You can expect followers in the classroom to argue vociferously if you suggest, for example, that Genesis is little more than just a nice story.

But if Christian scripture is taught in religious education, it will surely include St Paul's views on the sinfulness of homosexuality, Romans I. 26 and 27, argues Mr Hilborn.

Some, but not all, Evangelical Christians will hold to views on the age of the world, or creation, that are at odds with geology or Darwinian evolution. But at the Evangelical Alliance, they are at pains to reject Richard Dawkins's caricature of fundamentalist ignorance, pointing out that many Evangelical Christians have been in the forefront of scientific advance.

In English literature, Evangelical Christian children might be embarrassed if Margaret Atwood's dystopia, The Handmaid's Tale is on the syllabus: it paints evangelists as authoritarian dictators. They might struggle with the existential atheism of Jean Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, but then they are likely to be feisty debaters.


* The Evangelical Alliance, 186 Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4BT. Tel: 020 7207 2100;

* Youth for Christ, PO Box 5254, Halesowen, West Midlands B63 3DG. Tel: 0121 550 8055;

* Care for the Family, PO Box 488, Cardiff CF15 7YY. Tel: 029 2081 0800;

* Association of Christian Teachers, 94a London Road, St Albans, Hertfordshire AL1 1NX. Tel: 01727 840298;

* The Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian and Gay Christians, contact: Mike Dark, Membership Secretary, Flat 3, 7 Upper Tollington Park, London N4 3EJ.

Tel: 020 8245 1865.

* The Born Again Christian Bookshop UK: www.born-again-christian.infouk.christian.bookshop.htm.


British historian David Bebbington identified four central tenets: Biblicism: the authority of the Scripture. It is higher than that of any established church or other authority. That is not to say that Evangelical Christians believe in the literal word of God, there is interpretation, but not the reduction of scripture to mere metaphor. Crucicentrism: Christ's death is an objective atonement for mankind's sins. It is by God's grace, not man's, that we are redeemed of our sins. In some interpretations, that means some are saved, and some not. Conversionism: or, popularly, being "born again". Faith is the subjective recognition that Christ has redeemed our sins. The experience of God's grace comes as a personal revelation, sometimes gradually, or dramatically, as a re-birth. This might be accompanied by a re-baptism. Because we have to come to a recognition of Christ's redemption, Evangelical Christians took their mission outside the established church to preach. Activism: Evangelical Christians should be active in the world, through charitable and other good works. Abortion and homosexuality are likely to be considered sins, but there is an Evangelical Fellowship for lesbian and gay Christians.

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