Monday, October 14, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“A RISING TIDE – Evangelical Christianity in New Zealand 1930-65” by Stuart M. Lange (Otago University Press, $NZ40)

One of the hardest things to sell to a general readership is a history of a minority intellectual or religious movement. The topic is altogether too esoteric. Yet, though I am neither Protestant nor evangelical, I found Stuart Lange’s history of mid-twentieth century New Zealand evangelicalism an excellent book on a number of counts. It is not solely because Lange writes clearly and with authority, although he does do these things. It is as much because I believe a country’s intellectual life can be charted properly only by specialist histories such as this. General surveys of New Zealand history, which make big generalizations about New Zealand’s cultural and spiritual life, are apt to miss all the nuances that only the specialist books like Lange’s can provide. (And if you don’t believe me, check out the broad and often reductionist statements Sinclair, Oliver, Belich, King and others make, in their general histories, when they venture to comment on New Zealanders’ beliefs.)

In his Preface, Lange is careful to define his topic and establish the parameters of his work. Like all religious and philosophical terms, “evangelical” is open to many definitions. Lange takes it here as referring to that part of Protestantism which is Bible-focused, puts a strong emphasis on conversion experience, believes itself to be truest to the theology of the Protestant Reformation, and is inimical to both liberal theology and an overemphasis on ritual. As a strain in New Zealand Protestantism, evangelicalism arrived by way of 18th and early 19th century British evangelicalism, which reacted against latitudinarianism and High Church tendencies in “Established” British churches. (Anglican Church of England; Presbyterian Church of Scotland). It was “a positive reassertion of Protestant Christianity that was both Biblicist and evangelistic” (p.11) It was also “an unstructured transdenominational movement”, manifested in many denominations. While he does make brief references to other denominations, Lange chooses to focus on how evangelicalism played out in the two largest New Zealand Protestant churches, the Presbyterian and the Anglican, between 1930 and 1965.

The general trajectory of A Rising Tide is clear.

In the 1920s and 1930s New Zealand’s Anglican and Presbyterian evangelicals felt intimidated by growing liberal and modernist theological tendencies and (in the case of Anglicans) the dominance of Anglo-Catholics in key church positions. They lacked influence in the denominational theological colleges, even if they still made considerable appeal to congregations at large, who were likely to be as baffled by modernist theology as the evangelicals were. But there were some key (Anglican and Presbyterian) evangelical teachers and preachers who did gain influential positions, were able to create effective tertiary student movements and so could foster a new and more vigorous generation of evangelicals.

Therefore, as Lange tells it, from 1945 to the mid-1960s there was a  resurgence in New Zealand evangelicalism. A good number of preachers and ministers, who had gone through the newly-established evangelical student movements, were appointed to parishes and made a big impact. Though still a minority of their denominations, evangelicals were less of a minority than they had been and less likely to feel isolated or intimidated in church assemblies and synods. Indeed in the Anglican and Presbyterian churches, the theological leanings of appointed ministers meant that some parts of the country became strongholds of evangelicalism – a clutch of South Auckland parishes for the Presbyterians and the Nelson diocese for the Anglicans.

            Lange divides his narrative into two parts. Part One (Chapters 1-4) is called “The Turn of the Tide” and covers 1930-45. For outsiders such as this reviewer, it is an introduction to many unfamiliar people and movements. The Dunedin Scots Presbyterian minister Thomas Miller, an evangelical who resented the liberal theological “establishment” at Theological Hall and frequently criticised the college’s rector Dr John Dickie. The foundation of the Evangelical Union (EU) in universities, in opposition to the Students Christian Movement, which the evangelicals saw as wishy-washy indifferentism, and the influence of the evangelical Inter-Varsity Fellowship (IVF). The appointment of the evangelical E.M.Blaiklock to an academic position at Auckland University College, from which he was able to expound his views with academic credibility. The Anglican evangelical minister William Orange, who had little immediate impact on the Christchurch diocese that he served, but whose expository Bible classes and camps trained up a generation of Low Church clergy for the Nelson diocese.

            In Part Two, “A Rising Tide” (Chapters 5-9), covering 1945 to 1965, there is the Anglican evangelical the Rev. Roger Thompson, the setting up of the (Anglican) Evangelical Churchmen’s Fellowship and the (Presbyterian) Westminster Fellowship, the continuing vigour of the EU and the IVF in universities, the existence of a sort of Anglican “Bible Belt” of evangelical parishes in the largely High Church Christchurch diocese, the galvanising effect that Billy Graham’s 1959 “Crusade” had on many evangelicals, and the impact (often hotly contested by non-evangelicals) of the evangelicals J.G.Miller and Arthur Gunn on the Presbyterian Church.

I do not offer it as a criticism to note that there are some pages of this text which become lists of names, especially of pastors favourable to the evangelical position and the parishes they occupied, with dates. Such information is inevitable in any denominational or institutional history, or even history of a “transdenominational” movement such as evangelicalism.
What interested me much more were some consistent themes in this history.

            One was the fact that evangelicals remained a minority in their various denominations, even in years that Lange sees as the height of their “tide”. Often, therefore, they were shunned or had little real influence in wider church councils. Among conservative Presbyterian evangelicals in the 1930s, Lange says there was:
            “the feeling… that they were a faithful remnant in a corrupted denomination being deliberately locked out of real voice or influence by the denomination’s controlling forces.” (p.38)
This meant that sometimes evangelicals could adopt language which implied they were being persecuted, as when an article in a publication of the Anglican Evangelical Churchmen’s Fellowship announced, in the 1950s:

Every spiritual revival, every reformation, every evangelical awakening of the Church, has been at the cost of ecclesiastical promotion and popularity, and has been purchased by blood, sweat and tears.” (quoted p.168)

            At the same time, in New Zealand, evangelicals were anxious not be thought of as reactionary religious cranks. Especially in the setting of tertiary education, they craved acceptance as a genuinely intellectual movement, not merely as people who were rejecting theological modernism unreflectively. The tone was set by an early EU statement, which “was couched positively in the language of classical doctrinal confessions, rather than in language that suggested a direct reaction to modernist positions”. (p.52) The most prominent figure in making evangelicalism intellectually respectable, and insisting that it was “rational” rather than emotionalistic, was Auckland’s Classics Professor E.M.Blaiklock (who was neither Anglican nor Presbyterian – he was a Baptist). On the whole, as Lange notes a number of times, New Zealand evangelicals following the British evangelical model of basing their preaching on reasoned Biblical exposition. Though they may have sympathised with the theology of some American fundamentalist Protestants, they were fully aware that in New Zealand “fundamentalist” was essentially an insult word. Therefore they shunned the very term “fundamentalist”, just as they shunned those detailed scenarios of the “end times” that are an obsession with many American fundamentalists.

            Because evangelicals saw themselves as embodying essential Protestant values, which they believed church leadership often betrayed, they resented any suggestion that they are non-intellectual or somehow an aberration. Of J.G.Miller, evangelical Presbyterian minister in Papakura in the 1950s, Lange writes:
            “He struggled to understand why… liberals knew so little of their Biblical or confessional heritage. He saw them as superficial and faddish, and he resented their presumption that they were the intellectuals and that ‘conservatives’ were the obscurantists.” (p.177)

            Because Evangelicals were so firm about their Protestant heritage (or “tradition”, as Catholics would say – but then evangelical Protestants claim not to be influenced by tradition) they were most wary of church union. Part of this was because they felt they already had enough in common with evangelicals of other denominations, and didn’t have to go into formal church unity to prove it. Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and other evangelicals often already met together in “fellowship”. Besides, “they saw church union as a Trojan horse by which liberalism would complete its conquest of the church.” (p.110) More fundamentally, however, evangelicals feared that ecumenism would lead to a softening of Protestant attitudes towards Catholics. If I level one criticism at A Rising Tide, it is to say that Lange underplays this anti-Catholic animus, although he does make a few mentions of it. There is a passing reference to Thomas Miller, in the 1920s, being associated with the (militantly anti-Catholic) Protestant Political Association. There is a delicate phrase about “deep-seated Protestant apprehension about Roman Catholicism” (p.110). In the 1960s, for the Westminster Fellowship, Arthur Gunn was pouring out pieces about ecumenism leading to the “darkness, superstition and cruelty” of Catholicism. (p.194) I admit it can be difficult to draw a line between zealous, deep-seated convictions and bigotry, but on some occasions, evangelicals appear to have crossed that line. In a major sense, they were people who misunderstood the word “Protestant” as being a synonym for “Christian”.

            Yet, in an odd sort of way, the evangelicals may have been right to query church unity. On the whole, congregations prefer to stay with their own distinctive denomination and its norms, regardless of how well-disposed they may be towards other Christian denominations. As Lange notes in an epilogue, the project of formal ecumenism stalled, Protestant churches didn’t unite as one church (despite some “uniting” parishes), the National Council of Churches disbanded in 1988 and its successor body in 2005. Anglicans remain Anglican and Presbyterians Presbyterian, even as their numbers diminish.

            Perhaps Lange’s brief epilogue is a little too sunny and optimistic. He notes that in the last four decades, Protestant churches in New Zealand have become much smaller than they were in the 1960s, New Zealand society has become both more diverse and more secular, and among more zealous Protestants, Pentecostalism has tended to eclipse evangelicalism, bringing with it all the American influences that New Zealand evangelicalism used to shun.

            Even so, this whole book strikes me as a judicious, fair and well-balanced account of an important part of New Zealand Christianity. While Lange evidently identifies with much of the evangelical position, he is aware of its weaknesses and he notes some “generational” differences from some of the elderly evangelicals who were among his informants and sources. He has also chosen his title wisely. After all, a rising tide is always followed by a falling tide. Whether evangelicalism in New Zealand will enjoy another rising tide at some future date is a moot point.

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