Grumpy Old Conservative Evangelicals?

It seems to be thought to be a bit of a truism amongst conservative evangelicals, especially in the Church of England, that we have an image problem. We're too grumpy, too difficult, too uninvolved etc. I've noticed it come up in conversation a few times recently, both online and in person. In contrast we are encouraged to be positive and friendly, especially if we want to see progress in our denomination.

If I'm right we tend think along these lines: it's not just what we believe that is unpalatable, but it's the way we believe it. We are harsh in our expression, we're looking for an argument, we're looking to criticise and we're unnecessarily divisive. I'm not saying this is what those outside our constituency think, rather that I think within our constituency we tend to think this.
I’ll be honest that it’s a view that I’ve increasingly found a little uncomfortable. As I’ve reflected, I have a few reasons.

1. It is a view that tends to shutdown discussion: “You can’t say that because it’s grumpy.” That kind of approach is, of course, increasingly common in our world (“you can’t say that because...”) and it is terribly destructive.

2. It seems to be the clarion call of younger conservative evangelicals, as they reflect on the failures of the older generation. As someone who is now probably uncomfortably in the middle, I can see the frustration (although one must beware the irony of being grumpy about it!). The Church of England we are being bequeathed is a place where conservative evangelicals are marginalised and disliked - in fact there’s great pressure simply to remove us from the picture. If only the older generation could have been less bull-ish and more winsome, perhaps we’d be in a better place. Well, perhaps. However, while we mustn’t look down on the young, neither should we disrespect the wisdom of the old and, a few years into incumbency I can increasingly see what a dispiriting place the Church of England is and respect those (few) who have stood up. In particular, we would be wise to consider the history of the evangelicals within the church who decided to be positive toward the denomination and get stuck in. I’m not sure myself that it’s been very successful and the majority of us are products not of those evangelicals, but of those who have been grumpy!

3. It actually doesn’t seem a very accurate characterisation of conservative evangelicals. Let’s be honest we have a fair amount to grumble about. The Church of England seems to be aiming to become a conservative-evangelical-free zone on the way to a gospel-free denomination. We see false teaching, immorality and political manoeuvring on what seems to be a daily basis. Now grumbling is not a great response to that, especially if it’s against God (e.g. Numbers 14:27; John 6:41; Jude 16)! However, on the whole that’s not what I see. I see conservative evangelicals persevering in faithful ministry in an increasingly tough denominational situation and despite that remaining positive about the gospel and trusting the Lord. In fact, compared to those of different churchmanships, I find the characterisation laughable. When I compare going to ReNew or a North West Partnership meeting with going to a Diocesan gathering, it would seem to me that we are not the grumpy ones!

4. I increasingly wonder where we get the characterisation from that we are grumpy. Don’t hear me say that we are perfect, or that our strategies have been good or that we don’t let our right frustration lead us to sin. I’ve certainly seen that side of things in myself as much as in anyone else. However, I wonder if we’ve been fed the “grumpy conservative” line from those in our dioceses and denomination who want us to compromise. For them, in reality, what makes us most difficult is that we attempt to stand for things and don’t let the revisionist tide wash over us.

5. I am increasingly concerned that in the rush to be positive and involved and most especially not negative and grumpy, we run the risk of our no longer conservative (and often no longer even evangelical forebears) from the 70s and 80s. We are compromising and not standing. I am struck how issues of atonement and women’s ministry are now ignored in conservative evangelical circles, because we have new battles. The 5 guiding principles, which as far as I can see are an incoherent nonsense being used to prevent us flourishing were accepted with the merest whimper. I was reading Dale Ralph Davis on Eli in 1 Samuel 2 recently. He writes:

“This prophecy against Eli emphasizes that you can end up in grave sin by thinking it very important to be nice to people. How easy it is to practice gutless compassion that never wants to offend anyone, that equates niceness with love and thereby ignores God’s law and essentially despises his holiness.” (1 Samuel, p.30)

Is it too harsh to say that I think most of us are nearer to Eli’s weakness (in the face of wickedness like Eli’s sons) than we are to the tough faith and leadership that we’re called to? Perhaps, but I think we (certainly I) have a temptation and a tendency in that direction, which a relentless positivity can promote.

My limited experience of fighting battles in the Church of England on things of central importance is that too many of us conservative evangelicals would rather be nice than stick up for the gospel. We’d rather wring our hands and write a blog (!) than take some action and face the flak, be thought negative and, perish the thought, be characterised grumpy by those who deny the gospel.


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