What is Evangelicalism?
Am I an evangelical? To be honest, I am not sure. There is confusion about what the term ‘evangelical’ means. On one hand, I quote John Stott and John Wesley, and I was a Young Life leader in college which screams ‘evangelical’. I am passionate about evangelism and try to avoid liturgical ‘fussiness’.
But on the other hand, I have more in common with Pope Francis than Jerry Falwell. When I read books written by pastors who self-identify as evangelical, I worry that we are reading a different Bible. And do not get me started on politics. In America, evangelicals are seen as a powerful voting block that has been organized into a political machine. Groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition can swing elections, so you constantly read headlines like ‘Candidates in S.C. battle for evangelical vote.’ From the media, you get the impression that evangelicalism is a political party instead of a legitimate expression of the Christian faith.
At his first press conference hours after being elected Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry laid out the top two priorities of his ministry, racial reconciliation and evangelism. When asked if that makes him an evangelical, Curry responded, “I think it’s fair to say that I am a follower of Jesus.” Two things about his response stand out to me. First, The Most Reverend Curry has that essential quality of good leaders, the ability to answer a question without answering the question. And second, there is some reluctance to associate himself with that group of people gathered under the umbrella known as evangelicalism. If I were to label Curry, I would call him a progressive evangelical, but does that label even make sense?
When I think of great evangelicals, I think of William Wilberforce who almost singlehandedly ended the British slave trade. Wilberforce’s radical passion for the Gospel compelled him to be the moral conscious of a nation. Or consider Anthony Ashley-Cooper the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, the most influential evangelical of the 19th century. During his time in Parliament, Shaftesbury championed legislation including, but not limited to, reforms in public sanitation, mental health, penitentiaries, child labor (including mining and chimney sweeps who recruited children as young as four), women’s labor laws, burials for the poor, foreign and local missions, education for the poor, and animal cruelty (especially vivisections).
Words change meaning over time. Two centuries ago, the word dapper described someone who was heavy-set. Now it describes how I look when I wear my seersucker suit on Easter. Awful used to mean “worthy of awe”, so in ancient devotions, there would be prayers to Awful God. If words are human constructs that convey ideas or thoughts, then the meaning of a word is fluid.
Is that is what has happened to the word evangelical? Has the word changed meaning over time? Or does evangelicalism within the Anglican Church looks different than the rest of Protestantism or even from one side of the Atlantic to the other?
In his book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, David Bebbington sees four characteristics of what might be called classic, Anglican evangelicalism.
- Conversionism-Individual conversion is essential to the Christian faith, thus an insistence on evangelism.
- Biblicism-The primacy of the Bible for theology and morality.
- Crucicentrism-The cross is at the center of all doctrine, as opposed to Anglo-Catholics who might focus more on the Incarnation).
- Activism-Personal faith naturally flows into public life.
Those characteristics are helpful to understanding what it means to be an evangelical Anglican. To be evangelical is to be passionate about the conversion of souls. The Bible contains all things necessary for salvation and is our primary source for all doctrine. The cross is the nexus between God’s mercy and human sin, and therefore is at the center of our faith. And faith is not a private experience, but a life changing, world transforming force. Clearly those categories could describe many non-evangelicals, but a zeal for those four tenants is at the heart of evangelicalism.
My understanding of ‘evangelicalism’ is different than how mainstream America uses the word. If I am an evangelical, I am a Wilberforcian evangelical (a word that I clearly just made up). Regardless of how I define myself, the Episcopal Church is blessed by evangelical voices who have a zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel above all else.