Burns wrote “O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!” Well his wish has been granted when it comes to evangelicals. In an article in the Guardian Alan Wilson has written of The evangelical identity crisis. When he isn’t writing for the Guardian Alan Wilson’s day job is CofE Bishop of Birmingham.
There is much which could be said about this short article. It is intriguing that Alan Wilson is obviously a mainstream figure in the CofE who presumably has pastoral oversight of a number of evangelical parishes in his diocese and yet he can still write, and presumably think, in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Evidently, in the gentlest possible mainstream Anglican manner, Wilson sees evangelicals as rather strange chaps on the fringes of the Church who have to be humoured, but not taken too seriously.
Perhaps the good bishop draws in the skirts of his cassock because “Their leadership waxes and wanes in an emergent, not institutional, way.” The bishop may not recognise it but this flexible non-institutional attitude to leadership is one of the great strengths of inter-denominational evangelicalism.
Whilst leaders emerge who do fit the media stereotypes alluded to by the bishop it also allows for their rejection. Just try getting rid of an Anglican bishop who denies core beliefs of the 39 Articles to which he supposedly subscribes. Amongst evangelicals a leader is not someone who is imposed by a hierarchy, rather a leader is someone whom others follow. If their leadership is proved false or injurious, as some have, then people will eventually stop following them. If, as in the case of John Stott, their leadership is true and healthy then people will listen and follow.
The other great strength of non-institutional flexibility is that it allows the rise of men and women, ordained and non-ordained, on the basis of their gifts. Hierarchies inevitably place a high value on conformity, which can and does stifle and suppress. I can’t think of a mainstream denomination, including my own Church of Scotland, which is not priest ridden.
The emergent and flexible leadership amongst evangelicals is more in tune with the times than the rigid hierarchical leadership of the mainstream denominational structures. Just think of the impossibility the mainstream music companies face with P2P downloading. They muster their lawyers, have vastly expensive court cases, crush the upstarts, and another site springs up that afternoon. There is a vitality in the emergent and flexible which can never be matched by the weight of the institutional. They can’t be beaten because they can’t be pinned down.
Sure open source has its problems, but they are the problems of vitality and success. Take Wikipedia, despite the mainstream media’s demonising the vast majority of articles are accessible, accurate and informative; then think of the impossibility of changing an entry in Britannica. Above all Wikipedia engages people, involves them, gets some writing and researching who would never have done anything before. A bit like evangelicalism within the Church.
Flexibility frees, hierarchy controls and channels. I suppose it all depends on whether you are a Microsoft Christian or a Linux Christian.