Why on Earth would a working-class person ever vote for a conservative candidate? This question has obsessed the American left since Ronald Reagan first captured the votes of so many union members, farmers, urban Catholics and other relatively powerless people – the so-called “Reagan Democrats”. Isnt the Republican party the party of big business? Dont the Democrats stand up for the little guy, and try to redistribute the wealth downwards?
This is a fascinating article from Jonathan Haidt, a professor of Psychology and New York University’s Stern School of Business, and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, asking a question that gets asked on both sides of the pond as to why people who would benefit much more from the policies of the left, vote for parties on the right.
Last weekend was the second Affirming Liberalism Day Conference in a rather wet Oxford. As with the first conference I went along both as an interested participant, and also with a technical hat on to record the two sessions.
If you listen to what is said, traditional Churches are equated with being boring and irrelevant and out of date, whereas what is going on at Kingsgate Community Church is much more attractive with modern music and presentation.
The key thing to note though is that nowhere is theology mentioned – certainly the assumption is not made that Kingsgate is growing because it is “remaining faithful to the Bible preaching the Gospel of repentance and the coming judgement and hell”.
If you listen to the whole of the Martyn Percy lecture part way through he looks at evidence of what was important to Churches in the past, and his conclusion is that much as today, the primary interest of the average Church member is the state of the building, and whether they will get a priest. Whilst there are people for whom theology is important, it is way down the list behind the environment, the services (generally whether they go on too long), and the kind of welcome, as this article from Christianity Today highlights:
A Christian author, Rob Parsons has said to The Times newspaper, “It is not big doctrinal issues. Typical arguments take place over types of buildings, styles of worship, youth work. If not that, then they argue over the flower rota.”
If you look at a church like St James’ it is precisely the kind of church the comment on the Church Times Blog believes is “dying a slow and painful death” – but we’re not. In fact we are one of the fastest growing Churches in our Deanery, outstripping the growth of the nearby Conservative Evangelical church. Our electoral roll numbers over the past few years have on two occasions shown a 15% growth, and we regularly fill our building to capacity twice on a Sunday. As I have mentioned on this blog previously, at Christmas we now have to run one service four times on Christmas Eve to accommodate everybody who wants to come. When you look at our family roll, whilst there are now more people coming in from outside the parish, most people aren’t coming very far, generally only from the next door villages.
When you turn up at our Church, you won’t find a worship band, no glitzy presentation (our sound system is well and truly on our last legs), and you certainly won’t find anybody preaching about the coming judgement and hell. Having said that, when you look at some of the members of our congregation, you will find Christians who are from that tradition. Equally you will also find people who have come from strong anglo-catholic backgrounds and all points in between. What we have at St James’ is almost a representation of the classic definition of the Church of England in that we have evangelicals and anglo-catholics held together in a broad liberal Church that accommodates both.
So is St James’ an exception, growing despite the underlying theology? The Martyn Percy argument is that it isn’t. So in that case, what are we, and the other growing Churches doing?
I can only speak for St James’. Firstly we are not overtly trying to recruit people. We make sure our events are well publicised, and we deliver a newsletter to everybody in the parish twice a year, but we aren’t doing anything that could be described as evangelistic events, events that are specifically targeted to bring people in. Essentially we tell people what we’re doing, and invite them along, but we’re not preaching at people – what we do can easily be ignored.
Most people who join the congregation come to us either at random, having moved into the area, or via occasional offices such as baptisms, weddings and funerals, or through one of our associated organisations such as our babies and toddlers group, or the church school. We also have picked up people on personal recommendations – existing members bringing along friends or family.
By virtue of our small building, we can’t offer a one size fits all type service, so although our main Parish Communion is pretty middle of the road, we also have a very traditional BCP Matins that is well attended twice monthly, and on alternate weeks an informal service of the word targeted at young families. Whatever the service we try to ensure that everybody gets a warm welcome from the sidespeople, and to guide new attendees through the service. Most major services are also followed by traditional coffee and biscuits in the Parish Centre.
In my experience, the quality of the welcome, and the feeling of community is something that the growing Evangelical churches are accomplishing also, and also leaving the members feeling happy that they can invite friends. This is what we’re trying to do at St James’ as well. It seems to me that the churches that are growing are the churches that get this right, it’s not about theology, or the nitty-gritty of the message, it’s about the basics, basics that anybody can sort out. The whole church needs to learn how to evangelise in the modern world, and whilst some are successful, sadly large numbers of them are struggling to get it right.
You may have heard that the Anglican Primate of Canada is due to retire following the meeting of the Canadian General Synod in June. Unlike the Church of England, the new primate will be democratically elected by the clergy and laity in the General Synod from a short list of candidates drawn up by the bishops. It’s also a pretty rapid turnaround too – the election will take place on June 22nd, with the new primate being installed on June 25th.
So why is the choice of a new primate important to the rest of us? Precisely because it’s the Anglican Church of Canada who although they’ve been somewhat in the shadow of the Episcopal Church in the US recently, have also been pushing ahead with a more liberal position on sexuality, particularly with regards to same-sex blessings.
Alongside this, according to a review of the candidates over on Father Jake’s Blog, the favourite is Bishop Victoria Matthews, current Bishop of Edmonton. She was the first female Bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, and also chaired the commission that examined the issue of same-sex marraige that determined that whilst it was important, it was not core doctrine and should not be seen as a church, or indeed communion dividing issue. Having said that, she is has consistently toed the line with regards to the issue in her diocese, coming out against the Diocese of New Westminster when they moved ahead with same-sex blessings. So she is certainly not the most liberal Bishop in the church, nor indeed in the field of candidates.
Of course she may not win the election, but it will be interesting to see what the reaction of the more conservative provinces will be if the liberal Anglican Church of Canada also has a female primate. Certainly the other candidates may be more personally acceptable to the anti-women provinces – but theologically her actions with regards to the sexuality issues appear to mark her out as much more the kind of person they would want.
Before the fall out from the convention has even settled, it looks like the election of a new Bishop of Newark, a post previously held by John Shelby Spong, is going to cause more arguments, as one of the four candidates is gay. The diocese have said that the committee deliberately avoided discriminating against candidates on the grounds of sexual orientation. Essentially, they have handed the decision to the members of the congregations in the Newark diocese, and as with the recent election in California it will be their choice of Bishop that will ultimately trigger, or avoid more arguments.
In the UK, Ruth Gledhill’s article in the Times yesterday that assumed that any Anglican covenant would be defined in terms of the conservative position has produced a swift response from Colin Slee, pointing out firstly that no covenant has been defined, and also floating the question as to whether many congregations in the wider Church of England, such as his own in Southwark, would sign up to it either. This offers the possibility that the Church of England as a whole may find itself theologically closer to the liberal provinces that include Scotland and New Zealand as well as the US and Canadian churches than the conservative provinces in Africa and Asia, and drafting a much more liberal covenant than the conservative churches could stomach. This of course raises the possibility that ultimately it may be these conservative provinces that will find themselves excluded, rather than the liberal wing.
Thoughts from, and the lives of a Canadian and a Brit living in Southern England.