Church History, Prediction and Strategy

Elections and History

So apparently the election we just had in the UK was going to be like the early 80s when the left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot took on Margaret Thatcher and was duly trounced - do you remember reading that in the papers a few weeks ago? The relevant piece of history told you all you needed to know. Corbyn, who was, if anything more left wing and more generally unpopular didn’t stand a chance and Theresa May would roll him and the Labour party over.

If you didn’t notice, things didn’t quite work out like that! But it’s a powerful illustration of the dangers of using history and applying it to the present day.

Evangelicals and History

Increasingly however, I see evangelicals who are (rightly in many ways) excited by church history at least possibly falling into the same trap.
  • For example, the state of the church is paralleled with the time before Whitefield and Wesley. There are some shocking statistics apparently about attendance at communion at St Paul’s on Easter Sunday and bishops feared for the future of the Church of England. The implication is that just as then, so now, we are at the darkest point of the night just before the dawn.
  • Or take another example. I’ve heard a number of evangelicals parallel the current state of conservative evangelicalism with that of the the early Oxford Movement. Those men were often sidelined and persecuted, forced to go to obscure and difficult parishes, but because of their vision and passion they changed the Church of England. This is not dissimilar from suggestions that we look to evangelicals from earlier generations who were in obscure places but made a difference.
  • One final example is linked to parallels to current strategy to stay in or leave the Church of England. Are we doomed if we stay, because we’re just doing a Keele, or are we doomed if we leave, because we’ll be just like whatever group of leavers you want to pick who have gone liberal themselves, or declined to be tiny.
I think drawing parallels is natural if you have any interest in church history at all. I’m reading (very slowly) Calvin’s Institutes at the moment and it’s hard not to apply lessons he was teaching in the context of the Reformation, to the present day. Similarly, I’m using Lee Gatiss’ excellent devotional using material from the Reformers. Again, one naturally applies lessons from then to today.

However, the scientist in me (two Church History courses at college probably does not make me an Historian!) often has a few queries.
This is fairly obvious, but often it’s quite hard to tease out. So how like Margaret Thatcher is Theresa May? How similar are Jeremey Corbyn and Michael Foot? Are they similar in the ways that matter?
As it turns out, for example, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May are quite different. The fact that they are both women isn’t really enough!

We might raise similar questions about Oxford Movement ministers and Conservative Evangelical ministers. How alike are they really? Is it really enough to observe that both are to some extent alienated from the denomination and forced to take obscure and difficult posts? I suspect not. I think it’s even difficult to make the link with evangelical clergy of a substantially older generation, although at least our theology would be very similar.

Either way, this would make me cautious about either giving hope for the future (prediction) or suggesting a strategy of obscurity on this basis.
In a sense this is an generalisation of the last query. It’s not just a question of the accuracy of the links, but have you chosen the right links.

There are an infinite number of links one could draw showing similarity or difference between people and situations. As mentioned already, being a woman and a prime minister, or equally a man and on the left-wing may not be the right links, or at least may not be a nuanced enough set of links. In fact, the polices of May and Thatcher are very different (from what I can understand) and it turns out that policies might make a difference and it might be a link you need to consider. You might also need to consider the state of the country, the relationships with Europe, terrorism, the recent success or otherwise in wars etc. Which links are the actual indicators of what is going to happen seems to me to be a complex question.

In discussing some of the church history examples above, I would have thought some aspects of theology and practice might be significant. For example, with the Oxford Movement or the Keele evangelicals, what they believed is quite significant in terms of what they did and what then happened. That is, the link in terms of belief might be very important and need to be analysed very carefully, before you can predict or strategise on the basis of the example. Similarly, you might need to consider questions about the state and beliefs of society, the connection between society and the Church of England etc.

Without being sure of the links you have chosen, to my mind you need to expression at least some conditionality in terms of predictions and strategy.
So every scientist knows that experiments where multiple variables change are hard to analyse. Ideally, you tie down every variable apart from one, which you vary to see the impact. Now the big problem with history is that the variables are infinite and an infinite number change between any two situations. Now many of these may not be relevant, but you have to decide which ones are and how you factor them into your decision.

Again this is really an extension of the other two queries. The question here is, what about all those other links between then and now (whether they show similarity or difference) that you haven’t included in your analysis. They might not seem significant and yet turn out to be the key.

For example, no-one seemed to take the progress of technology into account when analysing the future result of the general election. Yet, social media, used well by Labour, seems to have had a significant impact on youth voting, which in turn was maybe significant for the result.

Especially with Church History, which is often going back centuries to find parallels, the variables which have clearly been significant in society and the church are huge in number (let alone those which we don’t yet recognise the significance of). Determining, which are and which aren’t significant in terms of predictions and strategy, seems a risky business to me.

For example, the vastly increased mobility over the last century could make a huge difference to the successful continuation and growth of a relatively small number of churches leaving a denomination. I.e. distance may no longer be a significant contributor to isolation, organization, and fellowship. Change in technology could also be significant here. The lack of knowledge of the impact of these changing variables, makes it difficult to know how to predict what would happen if a group of conservative evangelicals were to leave the Church of England, because the situation is different this time.

Conclusion

With these queries in mind, the scientist in me suspects that a gifred historian is defined by how good they are at cutting through the infinite possibilities and honing in on the links that matter, as we relate our past to our present and future. For this gift to be useful, they need also to be compelling to those of us who listen and read them. They need to be able to argue, with some care I would suggest, that the links they are making are the right ones.

In the last year, our confidence in our journalists and media in doing this kind of analysis has, I would suggest, taken something of a bashing. As Christians, I would suggest that we could learn from this to be a bit more circumspect and provisional with how we use our history, especially when it comes to prediction and strategy.
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