Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Monday, 8 January 2018

Why evangelical Christians should not support the invitation to Franklin Graham to speak in Blackpool.

The Lancashire Festival of Hope – Why evangelical Christians should not support the invitation to Franklin Graham to speak in Blackpool.

Greg Smith January 2018

Franklin Graham is the son of the world renowned evangelist Billy Graham and has for a number of years sought to continue his ministry through the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of which he is the President and Chief Executive Officer. He has been invited by a group of Evangelical Church leaders in Lancashire to be the keynote speaker at the Lancashire Festival of Hope which is scheduled to take place at Blackpool's Winter Gardens in September 2018. 

I am an evangelical Christian (until two years ago on the staff of the Evangelical Alliance) committed to the mission of God in the world, the growth of Christ's Kingdom and I long to see people converted, saved, their lives transformed, them coming into active membership of local churches and growing as disciples of Jesus. Yet I want to suggest that there are numerous powerful reasons why British evangelicals should not support Franklin Graham's proposed mission in Lancashire. Some of these are theological or missiological, others are more pragmatic and political (with a small p).

It is obvious that Franklin Graham is a controversial figure. Unlike his father he has taken a clear and partisan political stance in the United States with his unswerving support for Donald Trump and his political programme. In many public statements and postings on Facebook and Twitter he has expressed extreme conservative, nationalistic and right wing positions on issues such as law and order, education, immigration, Islam, race1, abortion and sexuality. He is an active participant in the “culture wars” that have divided America (see the comments section of his Facebook posts). His statements include robust invective against Hillary Clinton and her Democratic party supporters and even Disney. These statements and views have been widely perceived by Muslims as Islamophobic and by the LGBT community as homophobic and in Lancashire some of them have come together to protest. Opponents of his visit are accusing him of hate speech and have drawn up a petition to the Home Secretary (which to date over 7,000 people have signed) to refuse him entry to the United Kingdom. The controversy over the invitation to Blackpool has been covered nationally and locally by BBC radio and the Guardian.

Why should this matter to evangelical Christians in the UK? We believe in freedom of speech and the man has a right to his opinions, even though we may find them distasteful and wrong headed. Yet it seems that in supporting and tolerating Franklin Graham we are condoning his intolerance. One evangelical Baptist, Steve Holmes, has called him out as someone who has departed the Baptist dissenting tradition with a blog which I would urge everyone to read with the remarkable title "Mr Graham, you ain’t no Baptist, bruv" .

Yet, surely it is important in our post Christian society that the gospel of Jesus is clearly preached and people are called to repentance and faith? From the 1950s to the 1980s his father led numerous campaigns alongside British churches that bore substantial fruit, carefully building a wide coalition of churches from different denominations. In 1982 Billy preached in Blackpool at the Winter Gardens. Many people responded to the gospel call and continue as faithful Christians to shape the life of our churches today. Might something similar happen through similar methods in the 21st century?



The first problem with the invitation is that the choice of Franklin Graham to lead the mission has already brought division and disunity to the churches in Blackpool and the surrounding area. It is not surprising that some of the more inclusive churches in the district have been appalled and moved to opposition. Two Anglican clergy have written an open letter to the Bishop of Blackburn expressing their opposition and asking him to oppose the invitation. Other Christians whom I know, who would in normal times have been enthusiastic about an opportunity to share the good news, have become extremely cautious or concerned. The Lancashire Festival of Hope has tried to portray itself as a strongly united ecumenical movement - while they may hope and pray for this to be the case, to present it as such is an untruth. The division puts at risk much of the good collaborative grass-roots mission in word and deed that has been put together over recent years in one of the most deprived and forgotten towns in the country. We know that political parties if disunited have great difficulty in winning elections. How can we expect church which disagrees publicly to convince people of the truth of the gospel?


Graham perceived as a purveyor of hate, not Christian love.

Secondly the statements that Franklin Graham has made mean that he is perceived by many as a purveyor of hate rather than of Christian love. Expressing extreme hostility to Islam as he has done, may increase the personal risks faced by Christians who are serving as missionaries or aid workers in majority Muslim settings and is unhelpful to global missions strategy. ( Graham and others were challenged on this by Clive Calver and other evangelical leaders as long ago as 2003) . To point out all people are sinners who need to repent is indeed an important biblical doctrine. However, to make repeated statements which may be taken to imply that large categories of people such as Muslims and the LGBT community are despised by Christians and by God, has already closed the ears of these people. The brand of Christianity and network of churches with which Graham associates carries more than a taint of racism which will make many Black people suspicious of his message. It is also likely to offend the vast majority of British people who are comfortable and positive about living in a tolerant and diverse multi faith Society. It means that people like me have few friends and acquaintances whom we could comfortably invite to a meeting to listen to Franklin Graham. A full-time evangelist friend of mine says that his favourite line for starting a conversation with people he meets on the streets is "have I told you that Jesus loves you?”. I am sure this is a much wiser opening gambit than to say “you and everyone like you are going to eternal punishment in Hell unless you believe in Jesus”. Sadly, that is how Franklin Graham's gospel is now commonly heard.


A cheerleader for Trump

Next there is the problem that Franklin Graham openly supports the presidency of Donald Trump and the policies he has proposed and most candidates of the Republican party including the disgraced and now defeated Roy Moore. Many evangelical Christians in the USA seem to believe that Trump is God's anointed leader for such a time as this (though Franklin Graham does not use that phrase). Most of the world considers Trump to be a sexually immoral liar, who has brought the name of the United States into disrepute, and there is a mass movement in the UK to protest any visit by the current president to this country, which led 1.8 million to sign a petition. Thus the majority of British people are likely to think of Franklin Graham as unwise, if not delusional in his support for the President. Many will be unable to trust his judgment and find it hard to believe his version of the gospel. This could be especially so for women who will be appalled on his silence about Trump's philandering and misogyny. Furthermore the policies Trump advocates, such as building walls to keep out Mexicans, banning Muslims from entering the country, reducing taxes on the rich, repealing Obama care, increasing military spending, support for the gun culture of the USA, and his failure to condemn far right extremists and racists, all seem questionable in terms of Christian values. They seem to have little relation to the cries for justice of the prophets, the message of good news for all the nations of the earth, and the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that we should love all people, even our enemies.

To be fair Franklin Graham does express compassion for the sufferings of the sick, the poor and persecuted Christians and has raised and channelled vast amounts of funding and material aid through his charity Samaritan's Purse, for which he reportedly received an annual salary of (only) $620,000 in 2015. But one might have expected a Christian leader of his stature to have questioned more directly some of Donald Trump's behaviour, policies or ill-judged tweets as Pope Francis and Justin Welby have recently done. Thus it can be argued that many of the things Franklin Graham has said or written seem to directly hinder and implicitly contradict the work of the gospel.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed his confusion at the popularity Donald Trump enjoys among some Christians in the United States. Numerous writers have tried to analyse the link between extreme right wing politics and many sections of the (mostly white and male led) evangelical church in the United States. A Financial Times article in April 2017 seeks to explain “How the Bible Belt lost God and found Trump” and concludes that they have lost their moral compass. One scholar interviewed in the piece suggests “evangelical Christians are mainly mobilising against the sins they either do not want to commit (homosexual acts) or cannot commit (undergoing an abortion, in the case of men). They turn a blind eye toward temptations such as adultery and divorce that interest them.” Jim Wallis, perhaps the most well known radical evangelical leader, and his Sojourners community have frequently put forward a different view to the Christian Right, for example in a post on the recent Alabama election . According to Mark Galli in Christianity Today the biggest “loser there was the Christian Faith itself”. Wallis has argued at length that “America's problem with race has deep roots, with the country's foundation tied to the near extermination of one race of people and the enslavement of another. Racism is truly our nation's original sin.”

Therefore, personally I have come to question whether Franklin Graham and many sections of the white evangelical church in the United States, in adopting so strongly the populist nationalism (and indeed cultural racism) that helped Trump to power, have in fact slipped into idolatry of the flag and the nation. I fear that they could be worshipping political power, rather than the Lord of Glory who emptied himself of riches and power for our sakes. At the very least as the Guardian reported recently Paul Bayes, the bishop of Liverpool, said “self-styled evangelicals” risked bringing the word evangelical into disrepute, and added there was no justification for Christians contradicting God’s teaching to protect the poor and the weak.


No culture wars here please.

Finally the invitation of Franklin Graham to Blackpool presents the prospect of bringing the bitterness of the North American culture wars to this country. Blackpool itself has a very significant LGBT community and choosing to hold this sort of mission in the town has been perceived as a provocation. Lancashire as a whole has a large Muslim community and for the most part there are peaceful and positive relationships between Christians and Muslims and other faith communities as they collaborate together on practical issues and learn to talk openly and honestly about their religious differences. Community cohesion is now at risk because of Franklin Graham.

The legal framework on equalities and against discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, and sexuality is not always an easy one to work with for evangelical Christians, but it does provide some protection against discrimination for vulnerable minorities. The laws against inciting hatred are also significant and many people are claiming that Franklin Graham has already contravened them. This puts the authorities, especially Blackpool Council in an impossible position, as they are obliged to maintain these laws, and their own stated diversity policies. This may mean that they will need to refuse permission for the events of Lancashire Festival of Hope to take place on council premises. One can foresee a long trail of litigation in which Franklin Graham's Christian supporters will be tempted to play the persecution card and cast themselves in the role of victims. Such a costly legal battle will be counterproductive in terms of the gospel and will jeopardise future goodwill and collaborative working with the council. Already some councillors are saying that the church is behaving recklessly and the three most local MPs (all of them professing Christians) are supporting the campaign to stop Franklin Graham . The positive relationships and partnerships which work for the common good on issues of poverty, financial inclusion and employment, which have been captured in the recently adopted Faith Partnership are at risk.


Medieval Crusades or a better way?

In the late 20th Century in Billy Graham's generation mass meeting evangelism was remarkably popular and effective. In the 1980s I personally supported and attended his Mission England events and saw the blessing they brought to enquirers and to the church as a whole. I am however not convinced they are going to make much impact in our current diverse society, with its network of individuals connected mainly by electronic social media. The model of evangelism comes out of a tradition of the revivalism of American camp meetings and has hardly changed since the late 19th Century when Moody and Sankey brought it across the Atlantic. There are many other appropriate (and biblically evidenced) methods of reaching unbelievers today. The best of these include the whole people of God in welcoming seekers to a community of believers and exploring together what it means to believe the gospel and follow Jesus. In Alpha courses and similar programmes small groups allow honest discussion of contemporary concerns in the light of Scripture and have proved at least as effective as preaching at people.

Crusade evangelism (the term itself is offensive to many Muslims) is based on a rather thin theology, where the “decision” is almost the only thing that matters. David Fitch, a leading American evangelical scholar offers a trenchant critique of evangelicalism in North America where the church is fixated on three master signifiers, the inerrancy of the Bible, the need to make a decision for Christ and the concept of the Christian nation. These issues although so poorly defined as to be empty of meaningful content, become the boundary markers by which evangelicals distinguish themselves from unbelievers, including liberal Christianity. The result is a section of the church which rejects science and scholarship, accepts cheap grace without the need for repentance, conversion and transformation of lifestyle and has sold out to right wing conservative politicians.

There is already much fine work taking place for the evangelisation of the people and town of Blackpool. This is documented in a recent Church Times article and the Together Lancashire report a Tower of Strength built upon Rock. More recently there has been excellent news of substantial funding from the Church of England for an expansion of the community based evangelism of parishes serving deprived areas in Blackpool's social housing estates, and an expansion of the Ministry Experience scheme for mission apprentices. Devoting local church resources to event based evangelism could be a distraction from this valuable mission work, and could do great damage to it because the lead evangelist is so controversial.



Thus there are about half a dozen key reasons for not supporting the invitation to Franklin Graham to speak in Blackpool. Disunity amongst Christians and conflict with the council will not provide an environment in which the gospel can be heard. The political statements of Franklin Graham ensure that he will be greeted with hostility by large sections of the public, possibly by pickets and demonstration, and that the ears of many more will already be closed. Many Christians will be embarrassed by the contradictions between what he has said and the love of Jesus that they have personally experienced and want to share with others. The effort expended in the festival could be a distraction from and do damage to some of the valuable mission work already taking place in Blackpool.


My Appeal

For all these reasons I want to urge and advise my Christian brothers and sisters in Lancashire and across the country, and all local churches, to have nothing to do with the Lancashire Festival of Hope as long as Franklin Graham is the keynote speaker.

I want to urge the Christian leaders in Lancashire, all of whom I respect and many of whom are doing fantastic work in the mission of the Kingdom, to think again and withdraw the invitation. There are many other fine evangelists, some of whom are more locally rooted in the North of England who could deliver a powerful Gospel message.

Finally I would urge the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to withdraw from this event and to consider carefully and prayerfully how their mission strategy can be brought closer in line with the mission priorities of the Lord they seek to follow.


There is now (January 2018) an open public controversy about the proposed Lancashire Festival of Hope and the invitation to Franklin Graham to speak at an evangelistic mission in Blackpool in September 2018. Up to this point I have refrained from making a public statement about my views on this issue because of my role in Together Lancashire as a connector and enabler of mission activity in the area and have expressed views mainly in private meetings and channels of communication. I have been much agitated and prayed hard about this issue but I can no longer remain silent and keep my head “below the parapet”. I have share my concerns over the last six months with a small group of Christian friends and have valued their encouragement, wisdom and prayer support.
The appeal I am making and the views expressed in this article are my own personal ones and should not be taken as those of Together Lancashire, the William Temple Foundation or any other organisation with which I am associated.
From the moment in Spring 2017 I heard of the proposed invitation to Franklin Graham I had grave misgivings. Aware of his track record I instantly knew that such an event would prove divisive in the local churches, would be seen as provocative by LGBT communities and Muslims in the area, and risk immense damage to the good relations that I and colleagues have worked hard to establish between the churches and the local authority. I suspected that the attempt to hold such a mission in a Council owned venue in Blackpool would lead to nasty and counterproductive litigation.
Seeking to follow what I understand as the Biblical principles for dealing with disagreements between Christians, in May 2017 I made these concerns clear privately to some of the organizers of the event, and then in June accompanied by a small number of colleagues met privately with them. Though they listened courteously they were unwilling to change their plans.
There is now an online petition sponsored by the Liberty Church calling the Home Secretary to ban Franklin Graham from entering the country and numerous media articles and press releases arguing the same case. I have not signed this because do not think petitioning the government to ban him is the best way because
a) I have a tender conscience about asking the secular authorities to judge issues between Christians
 b) I don't think there is really any chance that the Home secretary will even look at banning FG from the UK. But now there is a big public controversy I have to speak out

"I don’t want Franklin Graham to be banned — but I do want him to shut up." was what some Canadian church leaders said on a similar occasion.. https://ipolitics.ca/2017/03/02/welcome-to-canada-mr-graham-please-shut-up-now/
I agree with a number of local colleagues that there has been a serious lack of leadership from the senior church leaders in Lancashire in (not) addressing this issue. In consequence my goal in writing this is to persuade the organizers and church leaders in the region who are backing the visit to withdraw the invitation to prevent further division and damage to the church and the cause of the Gospel.

Footnote 1

According to the Christian Post https://www.christianpost.com/news/franklin-graham-defends-trump-blames-satan-for-charlottesville-unrest-195443/ 14. Aug 2017 The president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse, Franklin Graham, defended President Donald Trump from critics saddling him with blame for the deadly clash that erupted at a white nationalist protest event in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend and blamed "Satan" for being "behind it all."
"Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on President Trump for what happened in #Charlottesville, VA. That's absurd. What about the politicians such as the city council who voted to remove a memorial that had been in place since 1924, regardless of the possible repercussions? How about the city politicians who issued the permit for the lawful demonstration to defend the statue? And why didn't the mayor or the governor see that a powder keg was about to explode and stop it before it got started?" Graham asked in a statement on Facebook.

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Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Culture wars around Christmas

My seasonal blog for William Temple Foundation sheds some light on the culture wars around Christmas, and the messages and mission of church in society.


and I missed posting this earlier one from September (a full length Temple Tract is forthcoming)

ON white, male privilege and the role of the Church in a world still beset by racial inequality.


Friday, 20 October 2017

Book Review -The End of Evangelicalism

Book Review : David E. Fitch. The End of Evangelicalism: Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission. Eugene, or: Cascade, 2011. Pp. xxvi + 226. $28.00. isbn 978-1-60608-648-1.

Does evangelicalism have a future? In this book published in 2011 and therefore already overtaken by events, in particular the election of Donald Trump with the support of 81% of white evangelical voters, David Fitch offers a trenchant critique of evangelicalism in North America. Drawing on the theoretical insights of Zizek he describes a section of the church that is fixated on three master signifiers, the inerrancy of the Bible, the need to make a decision for Christ and the concept of the Christian nation. These issues although so poorly defined as to be empty of meaningful content, become the boundary markers by which evangelicals distinguish themselves from unbelievers, including liberal Christianity. The result is a section of the church which rejects science and scholarship, accepts cheap grace without the need for repentance , conversion,and transformation of lifestyle (think Donald Trump as “God;s anointed one”), and has sold out to right wing conservative politicians. For some of us these forms of fundamentalism have crossed the boundary from evangelical orthodoxy into heresy and idolatory.

Fitch, who continues to describe himself as an evangelical, would argue strongly for a more solid evangelical theology which is grounded in a Trinitarian understanding and demands a personal and corporate identification with the Living Christ. In a final chapter he sees some signs of hope in post evangelical movements of the emerging church and leaders such as Brian McLaren, peter Rollins, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. However, he alerts us to potential traps in these new theologies such as de-incarnationalizing the word, over realized eschatology, and individual faith without roots in the historic and currently embodied church..

The situation in North America is somewhat different from that in the evangelical world in Britain. Yet there are similarities and in some sections of the church admiration, modeling and personal networks that could lead to similar problems in our churches. For example a failure to understand these issues and political naivety of church leaders has resulted in an invitation to the extreme fundamentalist preacher Franklin Graham to lead a mission in Blackpool that can only be described as divisive and provocative in the local context. Fitch's book is well worth a read but someone needs to write a similar book exploring the strengths and weaknesses, the common identities, theological disputes and internal tensions in the UK.


Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Book review ; A Church for the Poor: Transforming the church to reach the poor in Britain today

 A Church for the Poor: Transforming the church to reach the poor in Britain today

By Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams

Published by David C Cook £8.99 from https://www.eden.co.uk/shop/a-church-for-the-poor-4523056.html

The option for the Poor which was the keynote slogan of Latin American liberation theology from the 1970s onwards has been around now for a long time. In our current age of austerity and since Francis became Pope there has been a significant revival of this theme in the Catholic world. Evangelicals in Britain have also recently rediscovered the heritage of social action, and projects such as food banks, homeless shelters, work clubs and debt counselling centres have proliferated. Yet as Bishop Philip North recently pointed out, the church as a whole has failed to make a priority of marginalised communities in what were once known as council estates and has spectacularly failed to establish thriving worshipping communities in these settings. In many ways this story is not news; in the late 19th Century for example William Booth Salvation Army struggled to recruit from the most deprived communities and in the 1970s urban evangelicals such as David Shepherd began to catalogue and seek explanations for the gulf that existed between the church and the Urban working class. However, a new generation of Christians in the 21st century now needs to grapple with these wicked issues for themselves.

In this context Charlesworth and Williams' new book, the sequel to their "The Myth of the Undeserving Poor", plays a useful role. It is a short popular treatment of the issues, clearly aimed at the evangelical and charismatic market and presents a serious challenge to comfortable middle class Christians who struggle (or fail) to connect with and integrate into their congregations, people who are caught in the web of poverty. If you have a group of young enthusiastic Christians, or older church members who are encountering poverty for the first time as volunteers in a local food bank, this book could be very useful for them. It also has some useful practical advice for people charged with leadership in the local churches. It also offers a useful survey of the wide range of social and community action approaches that are currently in operation in a broad and ecumenical range of Christian churches and organisations. It also recognizes the different varieties, experiences and cultures of poverty, of those in work, in rural areas, and of asylum seekers as well as those on benefits. Perhaps it could have paid more attention to issues of race, religion, disability and gender. However, it is not an advanced level what academic text and therefore has some limitations.

Both authors clearly have their hearts in the right place and have years of practical experience in planting and growing churches. They exhibit a sincere longing to serve the poor, to welcome them into their fellowships, to treat them with sensitivity and dignity, to share the good news of Jesus and his Kingdom and to challenge people to respond and grow as disciples of Christ. They ground their theology in the practice of the New Testament church and cite numerous biblical verses. I think they could have made more of the Old Testament and it's system of welfare provision and radical redistribution in the jubilee as well as the prophets denunciations of injustice and oppression. It is only on page 150 that they raised the question of advocacy and there they rely on James rather than Amos. Even here there is not much sign of a manifesto for radical economic and political change. However this is an inevitable consequence of their earlier political and social analysis, which fails to recognise growing inequality and poverty as a direct consequence of free market ideology which has dominated the global economy since the 1980s. Rather they explain the current situation in Britain as the unfortunate outcome of the failure of the banking system in 2007.

A final weakness is that the book betrays some vestiges of a messiah complex. The preposition FOR rather than OF or WITH is perhaps the key. It is still mainly about how we as affluent Christians can bring the word and the love of God to them. There is still an assumption that getting people saved is the endpoint of mission, and that subsequent to that there should be personal and social transformation. This leaves relatively little room for the voices of marginalised people to be heard, and for the recognition that God may already be at work in their communities and that the missionaries themselves may need to heed a call to conversion.

So do buy this book as a primer for your gap year mission trainee, your project volunteers or even your new curate. But please don't rely on it if you are doing a theological or sociological dissertation or if you have already been in community work or urban ministry for twenty years. Nor would it be much use for someone who has lived on the streets, been housed on a sink estate, claimed JSA and been sanctioned for trivial reasons, or who has just scraped a living by insecure work at minimum pay. After all these are the people who are the experts on the realities of poverty in Britain today. And they often don't choose to read books in order to understand it.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Does Faith make you healthier and happy?

My new Blog for William Temple Foundation
from a recent Evangelical Alliance survey and reflects on the findings.
The final academic project of John Atherton, who sadly died last year, involved a comprehensive survey of the literature on health and well-being. One of the important hypotheses in this field is that participation in religious activity is associated with higher levels of health and well-being..............

Friday, 23 June 2017

New Blog for William Temple Foundation - Tim Farron

The resignation of Tim Farron and his explanation of his reasons raise some profound questions about the place of faith in public life in 21st Century Britain

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Friday, 19 May 2017

My personal manifesto

I am absolutely fed up with finding great piles of horseshit on the roads, footpaths, and parks of my local neighbourhood. I have a willing assistant in this task, my favourite doggy, Harry who is only 6 months old and regards the aforesaid commodity as an exceptional delicacy. Many a time I have been dragged into the road narrowly avoiding a pile up, all been required to chase him in circles around the steaming heap of poo, in vain attempts to prevent him feasting upon it.  
As a dog owner I rage at the injustice that while I am personally liable for clearing up canine deposits, with the threat of a fixed penalty fine or even a court appearance if I fail to do so, yet horse owners and riders can, and do, leave immense mounds of equine excrement in public places without fear of reprisal. In my own neighborhood I know by observation love among the offenders are the mounted section of Lancashire Constabulary. I demand that something is done about it. I have already written to the mare but have received no reply.
I would like to see the current general election campaign fought upon this single issue. It should be not the brexit election but the horseshit election. My vote will go for any party or candidate who makes a manifesto commitment to the legal equality of dogs and horses and their owners. I hope the others will all lose their deposits, but not in our streets. If only they were to promise legislation requiring horse riders to dismount and clear up on pain of prosecution. Motions need to be passed in the House of Commons to this effect. No filly busters should be permitted. While I understand that the greens are taking some careful steps in this territory, and that they regard horse manure as prime material for recycling in municipal allotments, as yet their policy is not strong enough to win my vote. I trust that other electors in this constituency will continue to kick up a stink until this problem is solved.

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