For the past four years, the leader of the United Kingdom’s Evangelical Alliance faced several major national challenges: Brexit divides, religious liberty concerns, dramatic demographic shifts, a pandemic, and political baggage that made its way across the pond.
Since white American evangelicals became known as some of former US President Donald Trump’s biggest supporters, Gavin Calver saw media in his own country conflate them with the Christians his organization represents. Calver had to work even harder to educate others about the broad array of evangelicals in the UK, who don’t fully align with any single party or politician.
“I can find myself tweeting about a food bank serving in Bradford, only for someone on the other side of the world to lambast me for being a Trump supporter,” Calver wrote in a reflection that ran on Inauguration Day in The Times of London. “How did it come to this? How has the word evangelical been so politicised?”
The end of Trump’s presidency last month means Calver’s job can again focus on the mission of evangelicals in the UK—currently under its third coronavirus lockdown—without having to untangle their message from American political associations.
“I can’t pretend it’s not easier now to say ‘I’m Gavin, I’m an evangelical Christian,’ and for that to not immediately link me to politics of a nation I’ve never lived in, I’ve never voted in, and I have no plans to move to,” the Evangelical Alliance CEO said in a recent interview with Christianity Today. “People were desperate to get back to an evangelicalism that is liberated from bondage to other things, and actually focuses on the main thing, which is making Jesus known together.”
Calver has close ties to the United States. Until recently, his parents were pastors there, and his father, Clive Calver, once led World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the US National Association of Evangelicals. But he has seen how the political approaches by evangelicals in the two countries have clashed for decades; while the Religious Right made way for American evangelicals’ steady Republican support, British evangelicals have more representation across the three major parties and focus on issues over affiliation, according to Calver.
Misunderstandings over the evangelical term got exaggerated as UK media attention turned to the American president, but some of the confusion has been there all along; the faith is not as “mainstream” as in the US, he said.
Last week, Gavin Calver spoke with CT about the shared history between the evangelical communities in the UK and the US, how Trump has affected their close relationship, promising opportunities amid another COVID-19 lockdown, and what Brexit means for the unity of the British church.
How would you describe the historical relationship between US and UK evangelicals?
Our two nations have a special relationship on so many levels, and the church shares that too. Personally, the one that most comes to mind was when the late great Billy Graham came over for a couple of tours. My grandpa at the time was the chairman of a couple of his European tours. I remember as a little boy being at Crystal Palace or Wembley Stadium and seeing loads of people come to the front to give their lives to Jesus.
The ministries of Rick Warren or Tim Keller have had profound impacts in this nation, and the ministry of someone like the great late John Stott would have had a huge impact in the US. Ministries like Alpha that have worked really well in the UK worked well in the US, and the Purpose Driven Life stuff that came out of Saddleback a while ago worked well in the UK as well.
How did American evangelical support of Trump affect evangelicals’ reputation in the UK?
The problem was this word evangelical was connected to something that we had very little influence over and no control upon. In the media, they would talk about evangelical Christians doing X, Y, and Z as in the US. That by association made it look like we were the same people with the same ideology and the same everything.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We’re brothers and sisters. That’s important that we hold to that, but we’re a million miles away politically at times. It was a struggle to lead something here in the UK that was seen in the light of Trump. What Trump stood for by association the media caricatured us as standing for and, with the greatest respect, that often was not the case.
Would you say Trump’s presence and the American evangelical support for Trump tested this historically strong relationship between the two communities?
It created that awkward moment at a family dinner party where there’s something you can’t talk about because it’s just going to lead to a complete disagreement. I know that from my own experiences of visiting the US and having family there that it causes a tension in families that we don’t really understand here. Politics are important, but they’re not at any point some kind of demigods in our society here in the United Kingdom. The absolute wedding of politics and faith was not helpful when trying to have rational conversations.
Back in 2019, Franklin Graham planned a number of crusades in the UK. Multiple entertainment arenas canceled them after LGBT activists organized against his coming. How have you made sense of this situation?
The issue for us in the United Kingdom is the religious liberty issue of the “cancel culture,” that you’re not allowed to hold that kind of event in a venue. But the church was very much divided as to whether it supported or didn’t support Franklin coming. The pandemic led to an outcome in which he couldn’t come. But now it will be interesting to see what happens in some of the legal cases around freedom of religion that are going to be taking place with those venues that wouldn’t have them.
Franklin Graham’s relentless support of Trump certainly didn’t help in the UK lens. But once the venues were canceled and COVID stopped it from happening, the issue now is: What are the religious liberty consequences, if any, going forward here? That’s significant to every evangelist that wants to speak about Jesus in any public setting in the UK.
How has the UK church responded to the pandemic?
We’ve got a change in spiritual temperature. For years the church has been answering questions the world wasn’t asking, but since the pandemic, 25 percent of the population of the UK has to been to church online at least once. Normally only 5 percent of the population goes to church. We’re calling it mortality salience, which is an awareness of your own fragility. You might die one day, so you start asking the big questions.
There’s been a change in style. We’ve gone from not thinking we could do online church to doing it amazingly. There’s been a changing cultural narrative. In my role at the EA before the pandemic, I’d be asked my views on abortion or same-sex marriage or something else to try to caricature you as what the media wanted to see you as. Since the start of the pandemic we’re asked, “How are you going to help rebuild the society socially and spiritually?”
Have any churches been able to meet in person in the UK during the pandemic?
On and off. We’re in our third lockdown now. In the first lockdown churches couldn’t meet. In the second some could. In this one, you can within certain limitations, so some are. We’ve got a different situation here too than in much of the US. It’s much stricter here. We’re very much obeying the rules we’re given, and masks are not controversial here. You wear a mask because you love your neighbor and you want your neighbor to live for longer.
I’ve preached more times than ever before in my life, but I’ve seen less of people. When I have preached in a building, it’s been slightly odd; you have to wear a mask; you can’t sing in church. The church has never closed; we’ve just changed our style.
How has Brexit already begun to change how evangelicals do ministry, both domestically and in Europe overall?
It’s too early to talk about how it’s particularly changed, seeing as Brexit only fully happened about four weeks ago. The challenge for the UK evangelicals is not to become an island. You could ask, how could we evangelicals vote on Brexit? Probably as the nation voted, which is 52 percent in favor and 48 percent against.
Nationalism doesn’t really have a place in evangelicalism for me. We’re citizens of the kingdom of heaven; therefore, we need to make sure we look outwards to Europe and also look inwards to make sure that we’re being open. The church is the only organization in the United Kingdom and in Europe and in the USA that can potentially get everyone in the same place on the same team, loving one another and reaching out.
My church did men’s curry nights. We had 15 men at the curry nights, 14 nationalities. The guy who runs the curry house system said, “What on earth are you?” I said, “What you think we are?” He says, “I think you’re the church. No other group in this community can get this diverse group of people around the same table, eating together, laughing together, and being together.” The church can do something the world can’t do.”
In this season, when Britain and the United Kingdom could become like a little UK again, looking inwards, let’s look outwards. There’s no British people in heaven, just brothers and sisters celebrating for eternity.
Last year, Northern Ireland legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. Was this something that you anticipated?
We knew these challenges were coming. Obviously, we disagree with both of those decisions by the government there. We put up a good fight, but, in the end, the secular tsunami won out. However, it doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to advocate for what Scripture says and don’t continue to work with the powers that be on issues that are important like this.
The United Kingdom is a challenging landscape. It is an increasingly secular one. Whatever happens that’s really wonderful between now and the end of time, whatever happens that’s really horrible and difficult between now and the end of time, we know, at the end of the story, Jesus wins. Therefore, in the middle, we hold firm. We stand firmly on his word, and we do what we can to make him known.
What type of impact are African and West Indian believers having on the UK church in recent decades?
Absolutely huge. A quarter of UK evangelicals are not white. If you go into London, which is the place in the United Kingdom where the church has been growing by far the fastest, half of those who go to church in London aren’t white. For many years, United Kingdom sent missionaries all over the world. I’m just so grateful that many have been sent back in reverse mission.
We are grateful for it. One of the perhaps potential differences in the UK is the way that ethnicities and nationalities and different groupings of people all live together in such harmony and togetherness and unity.
Can you elaborate?
One of the most important works of the Evangelical Alliance is our One People commission led by my friend and brother Yemi Adedeji. The One People commission exists to celebrate our unity across ethnic diversity. We are used to, in this nation, very much living together. Churches are often multicultural and we are doing fairly well in that space, but there’s still a lot more work to be done. At the Evangelical Alliance, one of our main things to make sure is that we’re calling for unity, we are working our relationships together, and that brother- and sisterhood goes beyond human divides.
Certainly, in the light of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter marches in the US, the reaction in the UK was significant and necessary, but it did feel like we were starting from a different place as well. Let’s not be naïve or foolish enough to think that the UK church in the UK itself don’t have problems with racism. They do. But it feels like on this issue that we are further down the track towards working out what it really means to be a united society that’s fair for all. But we still have a long way to go.
What are the types of issues that pose a challenge to church unity in the UK?
Brexit’s been an issue. if you said to me, 10 years ago, “Is the UK’s involvement in Europe a potentially divisive issue for the church?” I would have said, “That’s so silly. How could it be?” Then suddenly you’ve got a referendum, and you realize the church is as split as the nation. We’ve got our own wounds to recover from, and we’re trying to do that and we’re trying to say that what unites us in Christ is so much more important than what divides us.
At the Evangelical Alliance, we're saying this is our family, and it's important we bring them together.
We also want to be involved in wider acts of Christian unity as well, but the tribe that I’m part of is the evangelical one.
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