Sitting in the same pew week by week there’s an illusion that evangelical Christianity never changes. I’m not referring to the ‘evangel’, the gospel, but ‘evangelicalism’, the type of Christianity that goes on in most churches where this paper is handed out. And that’s okay. This pewsitter is mostly a happy pewsitter.
But then a whiff of change stirs the nostrils and warns the pewsitter that somewhere tectonic plates are shifting.
From an unlikely place – the op-ed pages of the Washington Post – comes a message of change, by an unlikely writer.
Michael Gerson was the evangelical staffer closest to President George W Bush, famous for crafting biblical-sounding language into his speeches.
He was a real West Winger, the chief speech writer. He invented ‘axis of evil’. But also wrote for Bush after 9/11: “Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time.
Goodness, remembrance and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die, and all who mourn.”
So from my Sydney pew it was easy to write Gerson off as an engaging but right wing American evangelical. In Bush’s Washington it has been politically correct to go to church and a number of government high-flyers are pewsitters.
Yet, it turns out that Gerson attends one of the large Episcopalian (that’s the American word for Anglican) churches in the Virginian suburbs of Washington that has defected. They have joined a new missionary movement set up by Nigerians to give evangelical Anglicans an alternative structure to the liberal US church. Our Sydney bishops will be meeting with the Nigerians and these American dissidents this month in Jerusalem at GAFCON.
History has been turned on its head, the rich West is receiving missionaries out of Africa. The black man’s burden: returning the gospel to the West.
The Nigerians recently installed a bishop for their US churches, yet the relationship seemed tenuous to me.
Then I read in one of Gerson’s columns: “Some American religious conservatives have embraced ties with this emerging Christianity, including the church I attend. But there are adjustments in becoming a junior partner. The ideological package of the Global South includes not only moral conservatism but also an emphasis on social justice, an openness to state intervention in markets, and a suspicion of American economic and military power. The emerging Christian majority is not the Moral Majority.”
And it hit me. This guy takes the Nigerians seriously. He accepts that importing leadership from the Global South will impact his American evangelicalism.
More US evangelicals have begun to question the wisdom of being identified with right wing politics. They issued a manifesto last month saying that evangelicals should be identified by their theology, not their politics.
When this pewsitter first heard Episcopalian churches like Gerson’s calling on Third World bishops to help them in the wake of the election of a gay bishop in 2003, I wondered if the rich whites were manipulating the Africans. But Gerson changed this pewsitter’s mind.
Out of the chaos of the Anglican Communion might come a blessing: American evangelicals taking on the values of social justice that have been part of evangelicalism outside the States all along. The tectonic plates are shifting.