30 August 2007

What is a Methodist Evangelical?

I've just come back from attending a conference on Methodist Identities at Cambridge.

One of the presentations I found very interesting was given by the
Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone, a research fellow at the conservative evangelical Anglican think-tank Latimer Trust. His paper was on the objections of both Methodist and Anglican Evangelicals to Anglican-Methodist union in the 1960s.

As a non-cradle Methodist, one of the most interesting revelations to me from this presentation was the fact that Methodist Evangelicalism and Anglican Evangelicalism were not historically the same thing.

For various reasons, I think that I have always tended to view Evangelicalism in the 'Anglican manner'. With apologies to Atherstone, I was not able to copy down the characteristics of Anglican Evangelicalism that he rattled off rapidly by heart, but in my own definition of 'Evangelical' in the 'Anglican manner', I've seen belief in penal substitutionary atonement and belief in the bible as God's infallible revelation to humankind as being two big hallmarks of evangelicalism.

My reluctance to see the bible as infallible revelation and to affirm penal substitutionary atonement as the central and most important doctrine of atonement have made me want to demur in calling myself an 'Evangelical'.

I now come to find out that, historically, this has not been the definition of 'Evangelical' within British Methodism, although a number of the participants expressed the opinion that the Anglican definition may be currently gaining a foothold in Methodism. Atherstone reckoned that the British Methodist Church during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was decidedly theologically liberal and that Methodist Evangelicals were simply Methodists who were commited to evangelism.

I asked Atherstone after the session whether this wasn't simply the old battle between Arminianism and Calvinism. Wouldn't a conservative Calvinist view Arminianism as theologically 'liberal' by definition? Atherstone agreed with me on this point: that Arminianism is 'liberal' by evangelical Calvinist standards.

I found this interesting because I think it explains some of my confusion when Methodist friends who appear to me to be decidedly theologically moderate insist that they are 'Evangelical'. I do fear, however, that the Anglican form of Evangelicalism is creeping into Methodism. That, of course, is my own bias.


Peter Kirk said...

Pam, as an Anglican evangelical I don't recognise your description of Anglican evangelicalism. This sounds more like a description of the minority of Anglican evangelicals whom I have called the Oak Hill connection. These are people whose vision for the Church of England is fundamentally opposed to that of the majority. You describe Latimer Trust as "conservative evangelical Anglican", and that is perhaps a more accurate name for them.

They must not be confused with the great mass of Anglican evangelicals, probably the majority of them, for whom the name "open evangelical" is now often used. They are also associated with the group Fulcrum. These are people who share the main stream vision of the Church of England, would consider the Bible to be inspired but not necessarily inerrant, and would not consider a right view of penal substitutionary atonement to be the touchstone of faith. Their position within Anglicanism is probably similar to that of evangelicals within Methodism.

PamBG said...

Thanks for your comments, Peter. Yes, I do realise that the Latimer Trust would come under your category of 'Oak Hill connection.'

Personally, having had some contact also with members of St. Mary's Islington, my impression is that 'Fulcrum Evangelicals' could very well be simple, mainstream Methodists, without even attaching the adjective 'evangelical' to the Methodists.

It's interesting because I think that within Methodism, these categories are almost more sociological than theological. I think it's harder to define what a Methodist Evangelical is than what an Anglican Evangelical is.

If the Methodist and Anglican denominations ever combined, I think that 'Fulcrum Evangelicals' and most Methodists would probably feel quite at home together.

Anonymous said...

I found this very interesting as I was brought up a Methodist, became a Methodist Local Preacher but, half way through my life, became an Anglican (there was no Methodist Church locally)and have been part of the evangelical/charismatic Anglican scene ever since. Recently I have become a visiting local preacher in the local Methodist Circuit.

In my opinion the essential difference is rooted in the Calvinist/Armenian outlooks. I recommend reading Roy Hattersly's biography of John Wesley which has some interesting points to make on the subject.

I would call myself a liberal evangelical - and the whole homosexual debate has confirmed to me that I cannot settle down in the fundamentalist camp.

DaveW said...

Pam, You wouldn't have had anyone particular in mind would you?

I have found many mainstream Anglicans who are Armenian and not Calvinist.

I also suspect that there has been a running away from the term Evangelical because people feel so uncomfortable with the conservative baggage associated with it.

PamBG said...

Pam, You wouldn't have had anyone particular in mind would you?

Um, you? But not just you. I've met a lot of other Methodists during the training process who call themselves 'evangelical' who are theologically more liberal than me. I've also met a number of people (and they often tend to be under 40) who call themselves 'evangelical' who seem quite conservative to me. Maybe not 'Oak Hill Connection' conservative, but a darn site more conservative than Fulcrum.

Peter Kirk said...

This is an interesting continuing conversation. I'm not sure the Calvinist/Arminian (not "Armenian", Anon and Dave) divide is the most important one. After all, Charles Simeon, a founding father of Anglican evangelicalism and a self-confessed Calvinist, was able to agree with Wesley on this issue.

However, I'm not sure that the bulk of Church of England evangelicals would fit into mainstream Methodism. Maybe Fulcrum represents the opposite end of the spectrum from Oak Hill, rather than the centre. But I don't think the majority of evangelicals would share Pam's "pro-gay" views on homosexuality, while not seeing this as the huge issue which many are now making of it. I'm not saying that these people would have fundamental problems with Methodism, only that they would be seen as relatively evangelical within Methodism.

By the way, although I speak in the third person, I am thinking largely of my own position and that of others close to me.

PamBG said...


I don't think my 'pro-gay views' are held by the majority of Methodists. I could be wrong as I've not polled a statistically significant number of Methodists. My personal impression, however, is that I'm in the minority - at least amongst Methodist members. (Do remember that I'm labelling myself as a 'liberal', albeit one who wants to be theologically orthodox.)

If being pro-gay is the main reason that you think that Anglican Evangelicals wouldn't fit into Methodism, then I think my thesis might still stand. If that's not the only reason you think that the 'fit' isn't there, then I'd be very interested to hear more from you. I'm still trying to understand 'what is a(n) (Methodist) Evangelical?

I have the impression that 'Evangelicalism' in Methodism was historically more ecclesial / social / liturgical: democratic polity / standing against the 'middle class Wesleyans' / being against anything that remotely smacked of liturgy.

Anonymous said...


Being (as you know) a lifelong Methodist who did his first degree at an open evangelical Anglican theological college, I find this a fascinating post and thread. You made me reach down from the shelf my beloved copy of David Bebbington's 'Evangelicalism In Modern Britain'. On page 1 I found a quote from Joseph Milner in 1789 that puts a twinkle in my eye in the light of the discussion here: 'Evangelical religion, or what is often called Calvinism or Methodism'!

More seriously, I think I default to Bebbington's description of the four qualities and priorities that have historically marked evangelicalism: 'conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.' (p 3)

On that basis, I suppose I am a classical evangelical, and still retain use of the word to describe my faith. However:

1. Historically, attempts have been made to narrow the definitions of Bebbington's four qualities. Biblicism has been hardened into dictation-theory or verbal-inspiration inerrancy. Crucicentrism has affirmed penal substitution at the expense of all other 'theories' of the atonement (or 'images' as George Carey has called them). I do not accept this narrowing. It turns 'evangelical' into 'fundamentalist Calvinist' - not that I wish to unchurch the fundamentalist Calvinists, of course. However, I do reject salvation being reduced to a doctrinal test (as per our recent respective comments on Dave W's blog re T4G).

2. The particular narrowing of that focus in recent years, largely but not exclusively from across the Atlantic, means the word 'evangelical' has become debased. Yet so too has the word 'Christian', and I note an increasing tendency among younger disciples to describe themselves not as 'Christians' but as 'followers of Jesus'. I can't blame them, but sometimes we have to take the flak, even if it is sometimes undeserved. Avoiding tarnished words can be a legitimate reimagining or restatement of faith, but it can also be of the 'I don't want to be associated with that lot' kind of superiority complex.

3. At the same time, as evangelical constituencies have gained footholds in historic denominations, I think there has been an attempt by people who would in past generations have spat out the word 'evangelical' to reappropriate it for themselves. That may partly explain the use of the word by those who seem to be more liberal than you, as may also the way it's become at times 'fashionable' to be evangelical.

So - here I am, a classical Methodist evangelical (or an Arminian open evangelical, I suppose). What I'm not sure about in the comment 2 above is your suggestion that evangelicalism in Methodism is more sociological. An organisation like 'Methodist Evangelicals Together' is fairly clearly grounded on doctrinal positions such as the Evangelical Alliance Basis Of Faith and the 'Four Alls' of Methodism. That isn't to say there aren't sociological factors as well, and I think you make some good historical points in comment 7, but I think it is more complicated today. We currently have a President of Conference who is theologically evangelical-charismatic, but who is well-disposed towards liturgy and even bishops! Maybe Martyn isn't entirely typical, though!

Thanks for a thoughtful post and your further comments. It would be intriguing to learn more from you some time about what might be the other side of the coin here: your self-description (comment 7) as liberal but theologically orthodox.

PamBG said...

Thank you for bringing us back to Bebbington. It was helpful to see you expressing your own views in light of his construct. I think I'd 'fail' on crucicentric as I tend to focus more on resurrection; although I'd rather not pull life, death and resurrection apart if I can help it. The whole 'thing' of explaining Jesus with a focus solely on the cross is something I find rather 'flat'. But thank you for defining crucicentric as not necessarily having to mean PSA!

What I'm not sure about in the comment 2 above is your suggestion that evangelicalism in Methodism is more sociological. An organisation like 'Methodist Evangelicals Together' is fairly clearly grounded on doctrinal positions such as the Evangelical Alliance Basis Of Faith and the 'Four Alls' of Methodism. That isn't to say there aren't sociological factors as well, and I think you make some good historical points in comment 7, but I think it is more complicated today.

I think it's probably always been complicated. I think I'm trying to say that British Methodists have never really defined themselves doctrinally and that the divisions in the past seem to me to have been more sociological/behavioural. I think that I too believe that the lines are being drawn more along theological lines these days.

What do I mean by being an 'orthodox liberal'? Well, I want first of all to endeavour to be orthodox. I think that my 'pro gay' (as Peter calls them) views are absolutely and utterly unacceptable to evangelicals. Therefore I don't think I can call myself 'evangelical'.

What I am, in my own mind, is absolutely and determinedly Arminian (and, quite frankly, also vehemently opposed to conservative Calvinism). I have a personal preference for liturgical worship which is not exercised in my ministry at the moment as it would be a stumbling block to my congregations. I am a Receptionist with respect to Holy Communion. In all of the above, I'd be Wesleyan. On the other hand, I'm radically low-church in my ecclesiology and believe firmly in lay presidency and the priesthood of all believers (but not necessarily the full priesthood of every believer). None of that fits neatly into any 'camp' and find me a 'person in the pew' who knows what an 'Arminian' is anyway.

Peter Kirk said...

Thanks, Dave F, for your contribution (from the other side of Chelmsford from me) which neatly sums up where I stand on a these issues, except that I am more with Pam on crucicentrism.

To me, the central issue which distinguishes evangelicals from other Christians, at least in the Church of England, is conversionism, the belief that what the mass of people need is not moral exhortation or participation in worship but to be born again. How far are Methodist evangelicals, and Methodists as a whole, in agreement with this?

Pam, "pro-gay" was your own self-description here. But I hope it doesn't make your views, and still less yourself, "absolutely and utterly unacceptable to evangelicals". Maybe your views are not totally acceptable either, but I hope we can at least be friends (not just on Facebook!) and good brothers and sisters in Christ.

PamBG said...

Peter, I'm willing to stand by my self-description as 'pro-gay'. I only insert scare-quotes because many people can take 'pro gay' to mean approval of promiscuity. (Although, probably if somone assumes that, they'll make that assumption whatever I say, so perhaps scare-quotes are not needed.)

I am certainly happy and pleased to have you as my friend. My desire is to be friends with anyone who will have me as a friend and to be friendly to those who might not even want to be friends. I don't always achieve that goal, but it's what I strive for with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Sally said...

Pam, as a Methodist I hold pro-gay views, much to the surprise of my frineds, I actually think that the evangelical debate, be it Methodist or Anglican has show there to be many streams within both denominations....

We are broad and narrow at the same time- our grace-ful dialogue is a necessity for all of us- and for God's sake!!!

crystal said...


it was after reading this discussion that I posted that about Calvinism. I hope I didn't offend you - didn't mean it to be a catholic/protstant thing. I've disliked Calvinism since I was a kid, ling before becoming a catholic, and I realized I don't really know a lot about it, so hoped people who knew more would comment, like you :-)

PamBG said...

crystal, I'm not offended at all, don't worry. Methodists in our current incarnation are not Calvinists at all. There were historically some 'Calvinist Methodists' but the Calvinists rather lost the battle in British Methodism.

Methodists are 'Arminian': and we believe that 'all can be saved' - i.e. that God offers the opportunity of repentance and salvation to every person who is ever born. We do not believe in single- or double- predestination. We believe that humanity possesses the image of God as well as the capacity to sin. I think that this is the reason why Methodist and Catholic spirituality is quite similar in a lot of ways if you can strip out some Protestant prejudices about candles, images, rosaries, etc. We both believe in progressing toward holiness (I'm just about to post a new post on 'conversionism') through prayer and acts of mercy.

I've confessed already to a prejudice against hard-core Calvinists and I'd much rather read Catholic theologians than Calvinist ones, my low-church ecclesiology notwithstanding.

Martin said...

Hi Pam, this is fascinating. I'm a little confused by some of it. Not so much your comments as those of other's. How can Fulcrum be moderate, centre ground or open if it isn't clearly open to homesexuality within a committed relationship as an expression of Christian love and fidelity. It also publishes material by people such as Jenny Taylor who in ways that seem informed and thoughtful promote an unhealthy Islamophobia. I would like to label myself evangelical but I fear to do so because there has been so little thats "Good News" about certain headline grabbing forms of it. And I don't see Fulcrum from the comments here or from their website as doing enough to put some distance between Biblical Christianity and sectarian religion. I found Dave F's comments very helpful however, perhaps because its less about defining who is in and more about trying to discover core, motivational values. I think my only hesitation is around attitudes to the Bible. Devotion to the Bible is something I want to affirm but I want to uphold the wondrous depth of poetry, intertextuality and playfulness rather than proof texting for sectarian assertion.

I think the "post" everything phase we are going through muddies the matters yet raises fresh exciting possibilities. I was fascinated to hear Bishop Willimon from the American United Methodists in a talk quote Marcus Borg with favour. An odd combination: a pro Pentecostal Methodist Bishop affirming a radical? He also had critical remarks regarding the packaged and processed product that is the "purpose driven life/church", something a more evangelical figure might be expected to affirm. Though perhaps post-liberal is no more old evangelical than post evangelical is old liberal. I'm not neccesarily agreeing with his criticism there but merely saying the lines are no longer clear.

Seeking the purpose of God today, confident we have a gospel to share and virtues to form in our lives as we follow Jesus might make us Methodists open to Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, Moslems and Anglican Evangelicals at different times, for different reason.

I'm with Brian McLaren here on his untidy open ended collecting of labels! I'm a liberal radical arminianist Catholic evangelical Methodist who wants to demonstrate submission to God and growth in virtue.

PamBG said...

How can Fulcrum be moderate, centre ground or open if it isn't clearly open to homesexuality within a committed relationship as an expression of Christian love and fidelity.

I'm not here to defend Fulcrum and I don't think that any movement anywhere is perfect, but they are open enough to at least be willing to live with people who believe in the above.

I'm assuming that by 'open' you mean 'affirming'? Having grown up in the environment in which I grew up, I simply do not believe that wholehearted affirmation of gay covenant relationships would happen in any evangelical organisation. Which is actually one big reason why I do not call myself 'evangelical'.

Devotion to the Bible is something I want to affirm but I want to uphold the wondrous depth of poetry, intertextuality and playfulness rather than proof texting for sectarian assertion.

I'd agree with all of that. And that also, I think, makes it hard to call myself 'evangelical'.

Certain evangelical scholars will see scripture in this way but scholars seem to be able to get away with it and remain 'sound' where church members and ministers often automatically become 'unsound'. I always say that if I read a few sentences from NT Wright, I might get had up for heresy even though he's seen as an evangelical champion.

Though perhaps post-liberal is no more old evangelical than post evangelical is old liberal.

I certainly do not think that post-liberalism is anything like old evangelicalism. Nor do I think that post-evangelical is old liberal. Now that you mention it, I wonder if post-liberal and post-evangelical may have the most in common with each other. At least in the pew, if not in the academy.

Anonymous said...

Re my old friend Martin and 'open' evangelicals: my understanding of the expression is that it means evangelicals who are open to the insights of other Christian traditions, rather than narrowly believing the evangelicals have a monopoly on truth.

I don't know Jenny Taylor's work, so can't comment on that, I'm afraid.

NT Wright is controversial in evangelical circles, of course - not least for his modified post-Sanders 'New Perspective'.

Does that help?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure you can be liberal and evangelical - but you don't need to be a fundamentalist either.

I'm sure that doesn't help at all :) but that's how I see it

Evangelicals are - or should be - conservative Christians who believe in the authority of the Bible, accept its seeming contradictions, but who preach - with love - Christ crucified as the only way to salvation.


Phil Williams said...

This is a fascinating discussion and I've enjoyed the insights from all sides ... I'm not quite sure where I'd 'map' myself on this one ... probably an amalgam of many of the views expressed here.

I do think that Anglican and Methodist evangelicals are different 'animals' in some ways, but it's hard to pin-point the differences. They certainly belong to the same 'genus' so I'm thinking in terms of different varieties of zebra, say, rather than a camel and a giraffe or a different types of antelope (a springbok as opposed to a kudu) ...

It might just be a case of slightly different stripe patterns on the legs ... :)