I attended a pastor’s conference this summer. The conference took place in the United Kingdom and was being led by an American Evangelical church leader who was asked to come and speak to a group of pastors about human sexuality. For the first two days he spoke about what it means to ‘live in exile’. Using Peter’s first letter, the speaker framed the discussion about exile using passages like, ‘So be happy when you are insulted for being a Christian, for then the glorious Spirit of God rests upon you’ (1 Peter 4.14, NLT). It became quickly apparent that the speaker, through no fault of his own (he was invited to come to the UK), did not quite understand the context into which he was speaking.
His experience in the USA was shaping his understanding of evangelicalism in the UK. He was describing the political and religious climate change in the USA, which is seeing ‘Evangelicals’ in particular, Christianity in general, being pushed to the margins of society. Peter’s first letter, therefore, may be read into this climate as a guide on how to live in exile. The Christian community Peter was writing to were on the margins of Roman society, hidden ‘underground’ in many cases, and persecuted in some places. During question time, a pastor stood and said this: ‘Being evangelical is a very different thing in the UK than in the USA. What you are going through in the USA right now, is something we have been going through for a couple of centuries.’
It struck me, as an American who has lived and ministered in the United Kingdom now for ten years, how poignant this pastor’s reaction was. ‘Evangelicals’ in the UK have lived (and are living) in a completely different environment than our brothers and sisters in the USA. Our place in the religious landscape in Britain has never been one of privilege, status, or prominence (think ‘Religious Right’, ‘Moral Majority’, politicians speaking at Liberty University, and looking to gain the ‘Evangelical vote’ in the USA). Evangelicalism in the UK, from its roots in the revivals of the eighteenth century and development in the nineteenth century has always found itself on the margins.
When I say margins, I am not necessarily speaking about the margins of society. Evangelicals have been at the forefront of societal change in the UK in the past two hundred years. From the influence of Methodism in the eighteenth century (which sought to minister to those on the margins of society, gave a voice to women, and emphasized a faith in action) to the development of organizations like the Salvation Army, Evangelicals to this day make their presence known in society as ones who care for the poor and neglected. Ask anyone on the street today about the Salvation Army and it is likely they will know something about their work in the world. Evangelical presence in society in the UK, historically, has not been one on the margins, but one at the centre of social change.
When we say on the margins, we are speaking about evangelicalism’s place in the religious landscape in the UK. To understand this, we must understand what it means to exist in a society which has an established church. Although it continues to be criticised, the Church of England retains a place of privilege in England (this is similar, but different for the Churches of Wales and Scotland). A select group of bishops have a seat in the House of Lords, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York remain under the direct authority of Her Majesty the Queen (as does the Prime Minister), and the Church of England is the second largest land owner in the country (second to the Royal Family). This place of privilege comes with great responsibility and great criticism and the Church of England takes this responsibility seriously, however, the place of privilege does not mean it is the ONLY Christian presence in these Islands.
Since the Act of Toleration (1689) was passed by Parliament under William and Mary, Christian presence in England, in particular, and Britain in general, has diversified. This act of Parliament allowed Christian worship to take place in Britain outside of the rubrics of the Church of England, which, simply put, meant Christians could worship in ways not prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. Those who chose to worship in new ways were given the name, ‘nonconformists’, because their forms of worship did not conform to those of the Church of England. Nonconformity became a legal way of relating to God and society. We know these groups to include the following: Baptist, Independent, Congregational, Presbyterian, (and later) Methodist (in all its forms), and Nazarene. In many ways, this was a welcomed decision by Parliament, yet, being a nonconformist came with its own challenges.
Nonconformity quickly found itself, not necessarily on the margins of society (although that did occur), but on the margins of religious society. To be a nonconformist automatically made you a second-class Christian. The fight for a voice was not in society; nonconformists made their presence known in public in many ways (acts of charity, preaching outdoors, praying in public, etc.), no, the fight was to have a voice which spoke on behalf of Christians across the country. This voice was reserved for the Church of England. This two-tiered Christian presence in this country persisted throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
So when someone asks about Evangelicalism in the UK, I automatically think about nonconformity and the churches who seek to speak on behalf of the Christian faith in this country with a different voice than the Established Church. This is not to say the Church of England does not acknowledge other churches, nor is it saying the Church of England does not have its own group of evangelical members within its own body. What it says is those in the nonconformist traditions have always had to wrestle with the question raised by our speaker. How do we live faithfully in a culture which pushes us to the margins? For those in the UK who would label their church as ‘evangelical’, this is an old question. In fact, it’s an identifying mark of evangelicalism in the UK. Life on the margins is our way of life. When evangelicals in the UK read 1 Peter 2.17, I suggest, we hear something very different than our brothers and sisters across the pond. ‘Respect everyone, and love your Christian brothers and sisters. Fear God, and respect the king.’