Amy Orr-Ewing, among the most prominent apologists in the UK today, found her voice in a place where she wasn’t allowed to speak at all.
It was 1996, and Amy and Francis “Frog” Orr-Ewing were 19-year-old students in love and planning their second mission trip together. Having met at St. Aldate’s, a lively charismatic church in the heart of Oxford, England, the couple chose to spend Easter break in Afghanistan. By that spring, the Taliban controlled three-fourths of the country. The fundamentalist Islamic group would go on to capture the capital, Kabul, shooting or kidnapping many who failed to follow their harsh enforcement of Shari‘ah.
Not quite the backdrop for a wild spring break, but nonetheless the place Amy, Frog, and a ministry friend, Miles, believed God was telling them to go. The editor of a University of Oxford student newspaper wrote a letter explaining that they were journalists, one of the few groups granted visas into Afghanistan at the time. Then they filled their rucksacks full of Bibles and flew to Herat.
What followed was a series of highly improbable events. And since Amy isn’t a real journalist, she’s fine calling them miracles: being transported by a woman named Angela and a taxi driver named Aslan to a hidden apartment; passing through 12 gunned checkpoints without a hitch; and, finally, being invited to interview Taliban leaders at a secret military headquarters.
Upon arrival, the Taliban’s education minister turned to Frog. “Does she have to come in?” he asked, nodding at Amy, her uncovered blonde hair no doubt offending his propriety.
“Yes, she does. I fear for her safety.”
The three students were escorted into a room filled with guards holding Kalashnikov rifles. Like good “journalists,” Frog and Miles began asking questions. They spoke with the leaders for hours, over time finding ways to subtly bring up Jesus. Amy sat and took notes but didn’t say a word.
Then it was time to leave. Frog pulled out a Pashto Bible. “We think this is the most precious gift anyone can give another person,” said Frog, holding his breath while handing the book to the education minister.
The minister’s eyes grew wide. “I know exactly what this book is. I’ve been praying to God for years that I could read the Bible. Thank you for coming this far to give me my own. I’ll read it every day until I finish it.”
Amy’s eyes glisten as she recounts the story. “We discovered that at the heart of the world’s most fundamentalist Islamic regime, there was someone praying that God would send him a Bible, and God chose us to do that. Gospel proclamation can happen in impossible places.”
Old Good News
As director of the Zacharias Trust, the European headquarters of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), and program director at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA), Amy Orr-Ewing is proclaiming the gospel in another impossible place. Granted, you won’t find many Oxford dons leading tutorials with Kalashnikovs in hand. But throughout the UK, you will find a heady cynicism and existential shrug toward the faith that remains the motto of Oxford University. Dominus illuminatio mea—“the Lord is my light”—reflects a chapter of Western history when Christianity did not simply have a seat at the table of cultural influence. It was the table.
“Our main systems of ethics, the way we do law and justice, the values of society, how we decide what is fair, the protection of the poor, and most of the way we look at society . . . all have been shaped by and founded on Christianity,” said Justin Welby, head of the Church of England, last year. But regular churchgoing has sharply declined: Welby’s own church body had just 800,000 worshipers on an average Sunday in 2012, fewer than half its numbers in 1962. And the number of Brits who identify as “nones” (of no religion) is now 1 in 4, double what it was a decade ago.
“A primary challenge is that Christianity is not new good news. It’s old good news,” says Orr-Ewing. “People just don’t think it will be relevant to them.” We’re sitting in her airy third-story office, sipping coffee on stylish gray couches. I glance at her vast book collection, trying to pick out familiar names. Mark Noll, J. I. Packer, and Michael Behe make an appearance, as do the multivolume theological dictionaries of the Old and New Testaments. All testify to Orr-Ewing’s own academic training: She received a first-class degree (given to a fraction of Oxford students) in theology at Christ Church before earning a master’s in theology at King’s College London. Now—amid OCCA lectures, evangelistic talks throughout the UK, the States, and Southeast Asia, and raising three boys with her husband, Frog—she is also completing a PhD at Oxford on the apologetics of Dorothy Sayers.
Sayers, the celebrated novelist and essayist, is one of the luminaries OCCA professors and students draw on to show why Christianity still matters to mind and heart. OCCA is jointly run by RZIM and Wycliffe Hall, the only evangelical school in the Oxford system. Cofounded by Alister McGrath in 2004, OCCA trains Wycliffe students to winsomely defend the faith by drawing on its rich intellectual heritage. At the end of the one-year program, students receive Oxford certification.
“We wanted to make sure we had the best resources for the best questions, so Oxford was the obvious place to have it,” says McGrath. C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, William Lane Craig, and Timothy Keller are standard sources for OCCA students, who include 20-something missionaries but also older laypeople who want to evangelize in their workplace or neighborhood. Students have included London accountants and chancellors from Hong Kong.
“A lot of apologetics in the States happens in Christian conferences and by people giving papers to each other,” says Orr-Ewing. “We’re not doing apologetics in the church. The whole purpose is to engage with people who don’t agree with you already.” OCCA’s annual “uni events” take Orr-Ewing and other speakers to UK universities, where they host free lunchtime talks and evening lectures. Topics include, “Is Christianity a psychological crutch?” “How could a loving God judge people?” and “Does prayer change things?” According to RZIM, during last year’s missions, more than 250 students came to Christ, and 500 more said they would attend a local Alpha, Uncovered, or Christianity Explored course to learn more.
At one such talk when I visited, about 100 students crowded into St. Ebbe’s, built on a site in central Oxford where Christians have worshiped for 1,300 years, to hear Orr-Ewing speak on “Can we trust the Bible?” Instead of the brash booming of a preacher or the detached droning of an academic, Orr-Ewing speaks in warm, lilting tones—the kind that invite you to a conversation in the living room.
But this is no teatime chatter: Orr-Ewing takes students through the origins of Scripture, explaining how the New Testament was compiled from more than 5,000 manuscripts. She compares the most popular male names in first-century Palestine with the male names in the Gospels, noting their remarkable correlation. “The Gospels contain verifiably correct details about names, geography, culture, architecture, botany, leading us to conclude that the New Testament ought to be taken seriously,” she says. “It can be trusted.”
But what of the miracles? Here, Orr-Ewing draws on Oxford friends Lewis and Richard Swinburne, the philosopher best known for using probability theory to prove that it’s 97 percent likely Jesus arose from the dead. “The miracles of the Bible are not about a fantasy world,” says Orr-Ewing. “They reflect the Divine breaking into the world we all know—the world of pain, disappointment, violation, and dysfunction.”
Afterward, Orr-Ewing answers a flood of questions. One comes from a young man near the front. He doesn’t like her argument that to discredit the Bible for its miracles is a bit closed-minded. “If you are unable to provide any evidence, how are we expected to follow?” he asks. Orr-Ewing thanks the crowd for coming, and then sits down next to him. A circle of students forms around the two, waiting their turn to meet with someone whose authority in this moment comes from her willingness to sit and listen.
Not the Secretary
Richard Dawkins lives just blocks from the Zacharias Trust. Onlookers this side of the Atlantic might assume the evolutionary biologist typifies a biting atheism entrenched throughout England, where 38 percent of youth now say they don’t believe in God.
But many Brits are simply lukewarm about faith, not coldly against it. In a 2012 study, UK think tank Theos helpfully distinguished between atheists and “nevers”—those who respond thusly to the question, “How often do you participate in a religious service as a worshiper?” Among the nevers, 35 percent said they believe in God; 44 percent, in a soul; and 28 percent, in life after death. Further, about 1 in 3 nevers still identify as Christian. So while church attendance is faltering, vestiges of Christian faith still mark the psychosocial landscape in the UK. The work of the apologist, then, is to bring faith to bear on the challenges and strains of human life, not simply to run it through a clinical test of verifiability.
This is where apologists like Orr-Ewing may have an edge on many of their male counterparts.
“Amy has good relational skills, which is important,” says McGrath. “She’s not a lecturer delivering a talk in a disengaged way. Apologetics is reaching out from the churches to our culture. We need the range of speakers and experiences to connect up with that culture.”
Sharon Dirckx, who earned a PhD in brain imaging before becoming an OCCA tutor, agrees. “Amy has an amazing capacity to think rationally through a problem and present it coherently—but with compassion,” she says. “Amy has the heart of a mother and the mind of a theologian. The combination is powerful.” Dirckx and Orr-Ewing had their first children within a year of each other, in 2005. “I remember people saying to Amy that there was a new intensity to her preaching that had come as a result of having children. Giving birth certainly made me more empathetic to the suffering of others.”
McGrath notes that some Brits reject Christianity as patriarchal, believing it keeps women subservient and justifies their mistreatment. “As a man I could answer that question; it’s much better if a woman does.” Orr-Ewing answers it in her life as much as in the content of her talks and books. She first started preaching as a teenager in her father’s church; in 1998, she became the first woman to join RZIM’s itinerant preaching team. Though hosts occasionally assume she’s the secretary, only twice out of hundreds of speaking invitations in 16 years has a group asked that the Zacharias Trust not send women.
“To know with conviction that the New Testament is clear, that women ministered in the early church—having that sense of calling is critical,” says Orr-Ewing. “It can be oppressive and draining and discouraging, but having that sense of this being right before God—then it doesn’t really matter.”
“Since Amy started young, there weren’t that many role models Amy could spot, where the woman is the preacher who travels and the guy is the one who stays local,” says Frog. “Now that’s becoming much more normal. A couple where both work—there’s going to have to be give and take.”
Frog is a ministry powerhouse in his own right, having been the youngest incumbent in the Church of England as pastor of All Saints Church in southeast London. Now he leads Latimer Minster, a sapling congregation that meets on an old farm in Buckinghamshire, a wealthy suburb halfway between Oxford and London. He has ambitions to grow Latimer beyond its 200 regular attendees. But “Amy and I don’t believe there’s a tension between these two jobs,” Frog tells me as we walk Latimer’s impressive grounds. “There are many timetable crashes, but it’s a diarizing, juggling match rather than a calling thing. I’ve always tried to invest in apologetics ministry, and Amy is utterly committed to the local church.”
Today, 10 of RZIM’s 36 itinerant speakers are women. One, OCCA graduate Alycia Wood, says Orr-Ewing has been the role model that Amy herself lacked. “Women face unique challenges as apologists because of the demands of travel, and that many events are in the evenings or on the weekends. I learned a lot by watching Amy be a brilliant apologist and an excellent mother to three boys.” That Orr-Ewing does both informs the Zacharias Trust’s flexible workplace culture, one that doesn’t force female staff to opt out of teaching and traveling should they choose to have a family.
“We need men and women ready to make disciples of all nations,” says Dirckx. “If you let women use their gifts as evangelists, you have the potential for reaching more people. In the West it’s a numbers game, isn’t it?”
And what may seem like a practical concession is really a bedrock truth of Christianity: God has always used unlikely people—like three Oxford students pretending to be journalists in Afghanistan—to resound the Good News. “Without women we wouldn’t know what happened at the Cross,” says Orr-Ewing. “John’s there, but all the other witnesses to the words from the cross are female. And women are the first witnesses to the Resurrection.
“If you’re a Christian, you believe the Lord arranged for that. That’s not unintentional. That’s amazing.”
Katelyn Beaty is print managing editor of Christianity Today magazine.
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