Thursday, 23 April 2009

Thinking about Fundamentalists!

I was in Stirling for the early part of the week at the third meeting of the Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism network, which was great. The core group of these meetings has remained the same for the past year or so and we've been slowly inching our way towards a working definition of Fundamentalism. This time we focussed on more contemporary expressions of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, or at least on the post 1945 period. Unfortunately one speaker pulled out who was due to speak on Fundamentalism and the Northern Ireland peace process during the last twenty years which was a great pity since Ulster probably has the most visible Fundamentalist communities in Britain, and I'm not just thinking about Ian Paisley!
We had five keynote speakers, but I had to miss the final session by Harriet Harris, because of the way the train timetables worked out for me to get back to Aberystwyth. This was really disappointing given that her Fundamentalism and Evangelicals (2nd. edn., 2008) is the most up to date and, with her preference for a strictly hermeneutical definition of both groups, probably controversial work on Fundamentalism in Britain and Ireland.
Our first paper was by Callum Brown, whose brilliant The Death of Christian Britain (2000) has brought him to the attention of many outside of academia. He focussed on the upsurge in conservative Christianity in 1960s Britain, concentrating in the main on five individuals, Billy Graham, Peter Howard, Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge and Lord Longford, not all whom had the strongest links to British evangelicalism it must be said, but each gained public prominance for their opposition to the permissive society of the 1960s, indeed more prominence than any mainstream evangelicals. I was particularly struck by this contrast, and the reluctance of many evangelicals to get involved in public campaigning in the 1960s, but this was before the Lausanne Congress (1974), and before John Stott's re-awakening of the social conscience of evangelicals. Especially revealing were comments from the floor about Martyn Lloyd Jones' coolness toward the anti-abortion movement, indicative perhaps of the falsely pietistic approach of many evangelicals in the 1960s.
Ian Randall focussed our attention on the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s and 1960s arguing that Graham began to question his Fundamentalism through contact with some key British evangelicals. Randall argued that it was his organisation of the British crusades, in particular, that led Graham to take a more generous views of the theological positions of some of his supporters who did not share his conservative evangelical opinions. This led to a fruitful discussion about whether the equating of evangelicalism with Christianity and vice versa, the belief that only evangelicals were genuine Christians, should be regarded as a key element of Fundamentalism.
In many ways Andrew Atherstone's paper on the Keele congress of 1967 dovetailed neatly with this, since he argued that the most significant thing about the Keele meetings was not the re-engagement of Anglican evangelicals with the structures of the Church of England, but the attitudinal change or the mood swing that it represented. From the perspective of my own work on evangelical repositioning in Wales during the 1960s what was interesting about this paper was a short piece about Keele representing the turning away of evangelical Anglicans from any possibility of pan-evangelical unity, of the kind that Martyn Lloyd Jones had been advocating. Maybe Keele represented a missed opportunity for British evangelicalism, that is only now being realised once more?
The final paper I heard was from Derek Tidball, on the emergence of Free Methodism in the north-west of England during the 1970s. Although a secession from Methodism, Tidball argued that the Free Methodists did not display the kind of beligerent secessionism characteristic of many Fundamentalists, and do not therefore fit the Fundamentalist label.
The three conferences which we've had so far have all, to some extent or other, grappled with the problem of defining Fundamentalism, or at least distinguishing it from Evangelicalism more generally. It may be that this is a futile task, and what would be more useful would be to talk in terms of a spectrum on the left of which might be more liberal forms of evangelicalism and on the right outright Fundamentalism, with many gradations and stopping off points along the way!
We'll that's the end of my month of galivanting around the country. Back to a hectic few weeks of teaching duties now before thinking about the next conference, the Calvin-fest in Geneva at the end of May.


Anonymous said...

Hello David,

I trust you made all your connections and made it back with ease. I'm sure it's nice to be home. You're right, it was a great conference and an informative two days. Although this meeting was only my second, I feel that you may be right concerning the difficulty of definition, but I also believe there are certain characteristics of fundamentalism that are becoming more clear as we progress. I was especially interested in the recurring theme of catholicity. Hope you are well. It was nice seeing you.

Best wishes,


Stephen Kingston said...

McGrath, in his "Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity" argues that Fundamentalism is differentiated from evangelicalism by its oppositionalism, which characterises it but does not - in his vew - characterise non fundamentalist evangelicalism.

You are welcome to borrow my copy if you have not already read this.