Fighting Fundamentalism: a spiritual autobiography, Douglas Bartles-Smith (Book Review)

Fighting Fundamentalism: a spiritual autobiography, Douglas Bartles-Smith. Saxty Press, Shrewsbury, p/b, pp129, £12.00. ISBN 978-0-9555021-0-1.

This artless little book is not quite what it says on the cover. It is not the “journey of a soul” in the same league as, say, Harry Williams’ Some Day I’ll Find You – though the author clearly owes a great debt to Williams. And it is not a guerrilla handbook for Christian liberals either – though they might well find some ammunition here. What it does do is to remind us of the “seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal”.

When we feel most alone in the struggle for what we believe in, the life and ministry of Douglas Bartles-Smith is there to remind us of the good fight that others have fought. Bartles-Smith spent nearly all his ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Southwark, and a considerable part of that as Archdeacon, from which post he retired only in 2004. Thus he can tell a personal story leading from the days of “South Bank religion”, when the Diocese was seen in the 1960s as a haven of radicalism, up to more current struggles with the Thatcherite impact on the inner city and the emergence of issues about gender and sexuality as a focus for ecclesiastical conflict.

The most prominent theme in his life-story is actually nothing directly to do with fundamentalism or sexuality, but is about inner-city ministry, where he made some pioneering contributions as a parish priest, and on which he later contributed mightily to the Church’s challenge to Thatcherism in the Faith in the City report and its aftermath. There is a great and encouraging story to be told here, and one which must not be forgotten. But there is also material for theological reflection. Bartles-Smith rejects fundamentalism (especially on matters sexual) because it is “too counter-cultural” for an incarnational faith, and yet his opposition to Thatcherite social and economic philosophy was very counter-cultural indeed. Truly there are no simple answers in the Christ-and culture debate.

Issues of sexuality crop up from time to time in the book, but, until the final chapters, they do so in a very low-key way. Bartles-Smith paints a vivid picture of Anglo - Catholicism in the fifties and sixties when closet gayness was almost the norm, but there is no real analysis of that. Almost suddenly, in the last two or three chapters, the issue in the book’s title is seriously addressed, as our author witnesses Thatcher’s appointment of Archbishop Carey and the rise and rise of the Evangelical party, and in their wake the smuggling in of fundamentalist ideas, leading rapidly to a struggle in his own diocese over the treatment of gay clergy. But again this is quite properly anecdotal, not analytical. We know that the Thatcherite culture was laissez-faire in economic terms but largely authoritarian in social terms, and that is a long-established syndrome in the Evangelical tradition especially in the USA. A Thatcher could hardly have appointed anyone but a Carey to lead the Church of England. But why did Evangelicalism catch on so quickly? And above all why did the conflict focus so sharply around the gay issue? As Bartles- Smith reminds us, Christian fundamentalists – unlike their Muslim cousins with whom he also deals – tend not to take literally the condemnation of lending money on interest, or most of the other Levitical laws. So why the obsession with homosexuality?

Perhaps the Thatcherite emphasis on personal fulfillment,.in such apparent conflict with her social authoritarianism, inevitably lifted the lid off the pressure-cooker of sexuality, and hence also released others to express their fear of sexuality. In a “me” culture, is there inevitably going to be a faultline somewhere in the area of sexuality and specifically homosexuality? Bartles-Smith hints at this in quotations from notorious Christian homophobes such as Peter Akinola. If you leave out the condemnation of “unnatural” sex, Akinola’s protests against Western self-indulgence sometimes read remarkably like Bartles-Smith’s own protests against Thatcherite capitalism. A good illustration, perhaps, that this counter-culture business is not straightforward. We are also reminded, however, that the South African Church, which has never been backward in criticising cultures of social injustice, has taken a very different stand on the gay issue from those elsewhere in the African continent. The causes seem to be multi-dimensional, and perhaps our author (who certainly knows his theology) has in him the material for a more analytical approach to such questions.

Be all that as it may, Bartles-Smith’s story is a valuable one of realistic courage on the part of a liberal/catholic priest in a Church which became dominated by a very different spirit. Reading such a biography reminds me very much of A H Clough’s “Say not, the struggle naught availeth”. I write this review just as reports are coming through of debates in General Synod over aspects of the gay issue. I am informed that a number of delegates bravely and movingly came out during these debates. Perhaps the Church of England is again on the move, and this time to a healthier place. If so, the decades of faithful witness of those such as Douglas Bartles-Smith have contributed much to making that possible.

Anthony Woollard

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