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Faded labels: conservative

Stephen Tomkins


In an age of coalition, the old polarities of liberal and conservative seem increasingly blurred - so could the same be true in Christianity? Stephen Tomkins and then Theo Hobson scrutinize some popular stereotypes.


Conservative Evangelicals

Spending the last two years writing a book about the Clapham sect has been a frustrating experience for my political and reli­gious prejudices - but don't worry, I'm sure they'll pull through.

Just in case you're not up to speed with this fascinating group, it was the community of evangelical activists to which William Wilberforce belonged 200 years ago. They were influential in abolishing slavery and the slave trade, colonising Sierra Leone, opening India to mission, tackling poverty in Britain, pioneering Sunday schools, founding free schools, evangelicalizing the Church of England, national moral reform, and the invention of Victorianism.

My frustration lies in their resistance to the ways in which we naturally tend to categorise Christian political activity. They are not unique in this, but illustrate patterns that apply today as well.

They are usually described as politically and socially conservative, and not without reason. Wilberforce initiated legislation outlawing all trade unions, and helped suppress civil liberties in the war against the French revolutionary terror. Hannah More, before the great Reform Act of 1832, wrote vehemently defending the status quo in which four per cent of the population had the vote, votes were openly bought and sold, and scores of constituencies had gone decades without even taking a poll. Their moral reforms included censoring republican, non-Christian and sexual writings, and suppressing entertainment and trade on Sundays.

And yet in other ways they were far from conservative and indeed terrified conservatives. They promoted working class literacy, despite the suspicions of local clergy and landowners. They did this partly so that people could read the Bible and Christian tracts, but then as the Bishop of Worcester complained, 'who shall hinder them from reading bad books as well as good?' They opposed the death penalty, a 'barbarous custom'. In fact, their repressive moral reforms were explicitly motivated by the hope that small punishments for small crimes would avoid the need for big punishments for big crimes. They campaigned to make prisons less squalid, barbaric and corrupt - though they also disapproved of prisoners being allowed to buy coffee. They were staunchly anti-war even when the fight against revolutionary France was at its most popular, the War Secretary warning Lady Spencer, 'Your friend Mr Wilberforce will be very happy any morning to hand your ladyship to the guillotine.' Their abolition campaign lost most of its support from Tories when it became identified with the revolutionary campaign for freedom, equality and fraternity.


Other campaigns were in themselves a tangled mix of agendas. The idea of colonising Africa looks thoroughly patriarchal and patronising from this end of history, and indeed was driven by the desire to bring 'civilization' and British values as well as Christianity to the dark continent, but probably the greatest impetus was the hope of replacing the slave trade with legitimate trade with African nations, repairing the depredation and desolation of slavery with economic development - aims that today's aid agencies would be at home with.

Paradoxically, the latter day leader of the Clapham sect, Thomas Fowell Buxton was suspicious of imperialism, believing that English people were generally decent at home and villains abroad, but this very fact made him push for the paternalistic state-sponsored empire of Victorianism to protect indigenous people from unregulated colonists.

Even the label 'evangelical' in this context has very different connotations when it comes to placing it on the conservative/progressive religious axis to those it has for most people today. There was no liberal Christianity for
it to define itself against; instead their great opponents were the 'high church': ultra-Anglican, ultra-royalist, ultra-hierarchical, and utterly intolerant of Dissenters and Catholics - all values which evangelicals took with a pinch at least of salt - and equally repressive morally. The evangelicals were the progressive party, and the threat to the establishment. The Bible Society in its early years was accused by one contemporary magazine of plotting
the destruction of the Church of England, and by another of raising a revolutionary army of 21,000 working people in Southwark. Which was an exaggeration to say the least.

The place of evangelicals in the UK political world has never been straightforward, from their dominance of Victorian Britain, through their 20th-century retreat, to their re-engagement since the 1970s. The British labour movement owes a significant debt to the value early evangelicalism put on the souls and gifts of working people, and so the Tolpuddle martyrs for example, who were transported to Australia for forming an early trade union, were Methodists, led by a Methodist lay preacher, George Loveless.  

In recent decades, the increasing focus on sex roles and sexuality has certainly put evangelicalism at the rearguard of social change - though in early evangelicalism the preaching, leadership and polemical writing of women, though not prevalent, was significant enough to make the movement more progressive than reactionary in that area, and evangelical non-conformist churches had women ministers in the 1920s. Today evangelicalism encompasses a broad range of opinions on these issues, from the utterly repressive to the kind of progressiveness more familiar to the pages of Third Way. A majority of evangelicals, I should think, completely embrace the equality of women, and a significant minority are comfortable with gay relationships.


But even those branches which are as conservative as it is possible to be in such areas resist categorisation in others. Newfrontiers, a network which has 220 churches in Britain, found itself newsworthy in May when Phillippa Stroud, whose husband founded the Piccadilly branch, stood as Conservative candidate for Sutton and Cheam. Newfrontiers members believe that leadership is exclusively male, and that women must obey their husbands. The Observer published interviews with gay former members of the Strouds' church, some of whom said attempts to change their sex lives had included exorcism.1

But the striking fact about Newfrontiers is that alongside such conservatism almost all its UK churches are involved in social action with some of the most marginalised people in their area. A congregation near me, King's Church in Catford, has a weekly 'feast' for 60-70 homeless people offering food, clothing, sleeping bags and advice on housing, benefits and salvation. They offer a weekly addicts' support group and for six years have run six houses for 28 residents who may have been sleeping rough, in substance abuse rehab or prison and want help reintegrating into society. The church also has links with a local language school for immigrants.

Work by Newfrontiers churches in other parts of the United Kingdom includes advice and provision for asylum seekers, and a scheme whereby asylum seekers in Newcastle are lodged in a church house and in the spare rooms of church members. Simon Allen, who manages the social action in Catford says, 'It's an essential part of the gospel.  Jesus went to people and practically cared for them. It ushers in the Kingdom of God - justice for those who are suffering injustice, hope for the hopeless - regardless of whether they make a response to the gospel.' The church claims to have had influence in Tory party policy, including advocating 'more socially aware policy on asylum'. Presumably it would not seek such a liberal influence in the area of gay rights.

A similar ambidextrousness characterised the Catholic contribution to the election. When the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales published 'Choosing the Common Good' in February, it was widely seen as an endorsement of David Cameron's campaign, and not unreasonably. The Tele­graph quoted 'a church source' as saying 'The docu­ment is very much in line with Tory policy',2 and it had a strong emphasis on marriage and family values, and on re­vers­ing the breakdown of society and families. And yet it also urged that the cost of economic recovery should be borne by those who could afford to do so instead of those who had gained least before the recession, and insisted that immigration policy had to start by recognising the dignity and rights of each person.

The fact that the same Bishops' Conference produced a similar document in 1996, 'The Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching', which was read as backing Tony Blair illus­trates not so much how Catholic opinion has changed in that time nor how the Labour party has changed, but rather how Christian approaches to political and social issues can often run across the grain of left/right, liberal/conservative party politics, so that it only takes quite a small shifts in the direction of political parties to make one or the other a better fit.

1'Rising Tory star Philippa Stroud ran prayer sessions to 'cure' gay people', Observer 2 May 2010. The article has been removed from the Guardian website, but included quotes such as: 'With hindsight, the thing that freaks me out was everybody praying that a demon would be cast out of me because I was gay.'
2 'Catholic Church election advice seen as endorsement for Tories', Daily Telegraph 27 February 2010.

Stephen Tomkins

Part 2 by Theo Hobson