Fighting Fundamentalism

Extracts from Douglas Bartles-Smith's new book

from Signs of the Times, No. 26 - Jul 2007

The London bombs have made people even more worried about religious fundamentalism. It is clear that many Muslims are as counter cultural as many conservative Evangelicals would have us be. They hate the culture in which they have been brought up. 31% of Muslims who were polled in a Telegraph YouGov poll [1] shortly after the London bombs exploded agreed with the statement: "Western democracy is decadent and immoral and Muslims should seek to bring it to an end but only by non violent means."

David Banting, [2] Chair of Reform, is not saying anything very different when he adds: "We are moving into a world where the Church is going to have to be counter cultural, more so than it has been for a thousand years." Stephen Bates, [3] the Guardian journalist, warns that:

Just as the Militant tendency tried to subvert the old Labour Party in the 1980s, so the Church of England is being invaded by a Teleban Tendency with its own agenda and strong determination to win. this is a takeover bid, to create a pure church of only one sort of believer. And it has found allies in the USA and the developing world.

Stephen Pritchard [4] writing in the Observer agrees with this and adds: "What the Evangelicals cannot grasp is that their self-righteous crusade against a tiny minority is driving away thinking heterosexuals, disgusted at their tactics and dismayed that the Church's leadership is so supine". Finally Joan Smith [5] writing in The Times said that she and her friends saw that "Militant religion is the gravest threat to the secular modern world... Individual freedom depends on keeping religion firmly in its place."

We need to take these words very seriously and fight to keep the Church of England tolerant and sensible even if this means ditching the Anglican Communion. We need to remember how we became a Church in the sixteenth century. For the Elizabethan Settlement was formed in not dissimilar circumstances to today.

Elizabeth I stood for the via media. The extremes of Roman Catholicism and the Puritans (the Evangelicals of the time) were not part of the Established Church. Elizabeth tolerated Catholics and Puritans who were loyal. But she knew that both posed a danger to the State and the Church. The Pope issued a 'fatwa' excommunicating Elizabeth and encouraging Catholics to kill her. The Puritans were already stirring up trouble, which would lead in the end to the beheading of Charles I, and the establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell - a society which even extremist Muslims would not find decadent.

The Church of England in Elizabeth's time was still a very broad Church, from those who wanted to keep bishops, the sacraments and some Catholic practices to those who were moderate Puritans. From time to time some people attempted to make the Church more Puritan, but Elizabeth insisted on moderation and pounced on extremists.

Members of the Church of England need to remember this today. No one wants the conservative Evangelicals to give up their beliefs, but they must allow others to keep theirs, and this they are not doing at present. There would be no problem over homosexuals for instance, if the conservative Evangelicals allowed the Liberals to hold their view, whilst they held to theirs. This would seem the sensible thing to do, over an issue which many believe to be secondary when compared with the main doctrines of the Church. It already happens over the ordination of women to the priesthood where "two integrities" have been agreed. But the conservative Evangelicals refuse to do this because for them it is a major issue as scripture, they believe, says homosexuality is wrong. They treat the Bible like Muslims treat the Qur'an. They are in fact fundamentalists. They ignore what has been Anglican teaching since Elizabethan times, when the theologian Richard Hooker formulated the classic Anglican position which called for reliance not just on "scripture", but also on "tradition" meaning the whole inspired experience of the church of Christ, and on "reason" as the God given glory of humanity. All three must be used if we are to get at the truth. Fundamentalists rely only on one. But it is the lack of any real 'authority' being given to 'reason' which causes the harm.

There is now a great need for religious leaders to challenge religious fundamentalism, which has grown in power and influence throughout my lifetime. The time for appeasement is over. Archbishop Desmond Tutu rightly sees fundamentalism as a grave threat to world peace. "Religious extremism filled the void created by the collapse of dictatorship and the end of the Cold War", he told diplomats at the United Nations, "That is when Fundamentalisms arise because people are deeply distressed by complexity and they look for simplistic answers". [6]

This is happening within Christianity as well as Islam. President Bush is a Born Again Christian and he was elected largely because of the Evangelical vote in the United States. There is as much need for Christians leaders to challenge fundamentalism within Christianity as there is for Muslim leaders to do so within Islam.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the English Bishops must oppose fundamentalism. They must stand up and be counted as Neil Kinnock did when he opposed the Militant Tendency in the Labour Party. As Bishops of the Established Church they must speak for the 72% of Christians in this country who claimed to be Christian in the census, rather than the small percentage of conservative Evangelicals who go to church. If they cannot do this, then the rest of us must oppose them for the sake of the future of the Church.


  1. You Gov Poll in The Telegraph , 25th July 2005. [Back]
  2. Stephen Bates, interview with David Banting in September 2003 and quoted in A Church at War , I. B. Taurus, 2004, p23. [Back]
  3. Stephen Bates, A Church at War , p. 222. [Back]
  4. The Observer , 19th September 2004, in the Review of Books. [Back]
  5. The Times , 18th March 2004, article 'Religion must be kept in its place' [Back]
  6. The Times , 20th March, 2004. [Back]

Douglas Bartles-Smith was an Anglican priest in inner London for 40 years. He has recently retired from being Archdeacon of Southwark and Chaplain to the Queen.

Fighting Fundamentalism: A Spiritual Autobiography, ISBN-10: 0955502101, is published by Saxty Press.