How did we get here? 1967-2022: The Evangelical Story in 4 Books
Podcast transcript | About Abortion | Episode 14
Hello and welcome back to this week's episode of About Abortion. Thanks for joining us. My name is Dave Brennan, and together, we've been journeying recently through the question of, “How did we get here?” How has it got to the point in our nation where more than 500 babies are being killed every day in the womb? How have we got to the point where one in four babies in the womb are killed? And how have we got to the point where, though this has been going on for more than 50 years, still plenty of people in the streets and even in our churches don't even know what abortion is, let alone how to think about it.
And we've been looking in particular at the legislative answer to that question. We've been looking at the cultural shifts, in particular the sexual revolution, and we've also been looking at the part the Church has had to play in shaping culture. And last week we looked at the shocking fact that the Church of England not only stood aside and allowed the Abortion Act to pass, not withstanding the fact that the Church of England has, e.g, Bishops in the House of Lords, and certainly in the sixties and even today, had a great deal of standing in the public eye. The C of E didn't only stand aside, but actually actively helped the Abortion Act to be passed, even drafted their own abortion bill in 1965. If you missed that episode, please do go back and listen in. The devastating truth is this, that the answer to the question, “How do we get here? How have we arrived at this point?” is in large part answered in this way: “Because of the Church.” Yes, in particular, perhaps because of the established Church, the Church of England.
Not just the C of E
But in today's episode I want to help you to understand that it wasn't just the Church of England. Those of us who are perhaps non-conformists, perhaps those who are Free Churches or Baptists or whatever, we can't just say, “Bad old Church of England,” and lay this all at their door. No, we have to face our particular heritage in this area. And so in today's episode we're going to carry on this approach of using books as particular milestones to observe along this journey of how the Church helps to bring the nation to where the nation is today. And largely I don't mean that positively. Sadly we've helped them in the wrong direction. We're going to take four books in this episode and we're going to go real quick through them. I'm not going to give a lengthy review. We're not going to go through paragraph by paragraph as we did last week. We needed to last week because that document is not very well known, the Church of England's document on abortion in 1965, and yet it's incredibly influential in that it helped to pass the Abortion Act. So it's important we did that.
1. Abortion: The Personal Dilemma by Reginald Gardner
But I want to take us just through four books now very briefly, and show how they really encapsulate different phases in the Church’s response to abortion. And so the first one I want to show you is this book by Reginald Gardner, Abortion: The Personal Dilemma. And this book was written in 1972. And for many years this book was seen as the go-to evangelical book on abortion. This man Gardner was a non-conformist. He was not a Church of England guy. He was actually what we might call a lay-preacher, a part-time preacher. He was a doctor, a medical missionary at times. He was a preacher. And this book really was seen as the authority on how Christians ought to think on abortion for many years. From ‘72 until about the mid eighties this was the most significant book. It heavily influenced, for example, the Christian Medical Fellowship. And many people really saw this as authoritative, the main treatment on abortion from an evangelical perspective, so-called. But the reason I say ‘so-called’ is this. Much like the paper we looked at last week (Abortion: an Ethical Discussion by the Church of England), this book also failed to take seriously what God's word has to say on the issue. You have to get to about page 100 before any scripture is mentioned directly. And the way this book opens is rather similar to the way that the Church of England paper opened. Just looking at the situation, looking at all the different voices. Explicitly a deference to the medical professionals as the great authorities, not only on on science but on morality.
Medical or moral decision?
And Gardner explicitly says in his book that the morality of abortion (he's quite demeaning of the practice of pure theology) is not for those ivory tower theologians and academics to decide, but it's for those who are on the coalface, it's for the doctors. They're the only ones who can make the decision. And being a doctor himself, I believe one of the most significant and in the toxic influences this book has had, is that it's reinforced this idea that only the doctors really have moral authority in this area of abortion. It's a medical issue. And of course, that's a great deception. Abortion is not a medical issue, in the way that suicide is not a medical issue. It's not a medical question. Assassination is not a medical question. Now, you may use medicines or drugs, you may use poison to do any of those things, but the decision involved in suicide, in assassination, in abortion, the decision is not a medical decision.
In less than 0.5% of cases, yes, there's a medically acute situation going on with regard to abortion. Very occasionally there's a pregnancy situation where the mother's life is threatened, but in more than 99.5% of cases it's not a medical question. Let's be clear on this. Even when the baby has some kind of abnormality, for example, Down’s syndrome, the question of whether to have that baby killed in the womb is not a medical question. It's a moral question. It's about whether we value that baby as much as every other baby, or whether we decide that baby can be discriminated against and killed, because they have, for example, Down’s syndrome. That's not a medical question. And Church, we need to wake up because for too long we have yielded and we've handed this whole area over to the so-called experts. And we've said that it's not our place to say. This is a personal issue. It's a healthcare issue. It's between a woman and her doctor.
But abortion is not a medical question. And Gardner helped to encourage that idea, accelerate that idea and really, this book, like the paper from the Church of England that we looked at last week, it failed to do the one thing that we needed it to do. It fails to establish with clarity what the Bible has to say about when life begins and why life matters.
Abortion is okay according to Gardner
Gardner gets caught up inthese ideas of ensoulment, the idea that the soul enters the baby's body, the embryo, the fetus at some point. Who knows when? And he also entertains this idea of what's sometimes called the ‘gradual growth in value’ of the child. You've either got the moment of ensoulment that takes place at some point within the pregnancy, or you've got this gradual growth in value over time. And even today a colleague of mine Christian Hacking stood outside (the Church of England’s) General Synod not long ago, asking people what they thought about abortion. And one of them, today, a member of General Synod, repeated that idea that it's gradual, the baby gradually grows in value over time. And so having entertained those two options, Gardner gives no clear answer, and then all of a sudden halfway through his book he concludes therefore abortion is sometimes okay, and now let's talk about in which situations those might be.
Gardner is very sympathetic to abortion for social reasons. He's very sympathetic towards abortion for those who just feel like they've got enough children already, for those who've got babies who've got abnormalities. Gardner himself performed abortions. He was an abortionist. And so this book, which for more than a decade held influence over the evangelical… I'm not talking about Church of England here. We can't just dismiss this as a kind of woolly liberal, Anglican problem only. These are the evangelicals in the sixties and seventies. This was as good as it got and it was poor. What was astonishing really was that for the longest time no one stood up to oppose Gardner. There's no counter-book that I can find. No one stood up and said, “Hang on, what does the word of God say?” This book stood relatively unchallenged for more than a decade.
2. Issues Facing Christians Today by John Stott
Let's move on to the second book in our pit-stop journey. The second book, which I think really encapsulated it well, was I think a real turning point in the history of the Church's engagement on abortion, was Issues Facing Christians Today by John Stott. I believe it was 1984. (I could be mistaken on the exact year there.) But this book really was pivotal. It was a turning point, because up until this point no evangelical, no Protestant in the UK had clearly articulated what I would call an orthodox Christian pro-life position. No one actually took from scripture what God has to say about the unborn child. And this is what Stott did. Of course, his book tackled a number of different issues. But in this book he had a chapter devoted to abortion and he clearly, from Psalm 139 in particular, drew out the value of the unborn child as someone created and known and loved by God. And this was a turning point.
A turning point for evangelicals
And because John Stott was such an influential figure, it was at that point… and I'm only focusing on a few specific books here, a few specific moments. Of course there's more to be said. There are other influencers. There are no doubt other books which are also very significant. But in particular it was John Stott who helped to bring into the UK this fresh understanding, a restoration to a biblical understanding of this issue. Of course, hugely helped by Francis Schaeffer, who visited the UK and gave lectures, but I think it was John Stott who helped to embed this in the evangelical mind. And that was a turning point, because from then on, at least for most conservative evangelicals, a broadly pro-life position has been, at least theoretically, the consensus.
If you'd asked most conservative evangelicals over the last couple of decades, mostly they would say, “Yes, we're pro-life, at least notionally, at least in general.” They may not have thought through the details, the ramifications. They may be unsure on what they might see as the extreme hard cases. But the general centre of gravity shifted there from Gardner to Stott in the space of about 12 years. At least the notional consensus shifted onto the pro-life side of the fence.
3. Matters of Life and Death by John Wyatt
About 10 years later along came John Wyatt, who actually was mentored by John Stott, a friend of John Stott’s. And he really took some of those issues in Stott’s book and expounded in particular on abortion, as well as euthanasia and some other life issues. So for matters of life and death, another pivotal book, which for many Christians is seen as the go-to book and again, further crystallised, at least notionally a pro-life position. But what's happened since Wyatt's book is just observing what the Church has been doing, and I'm talking now really about the evangelical Church broadly speaking… In none of this have we been touching on the Roman Catholic Church who have been clearly pro-life for centuries and have been unwavering and have put us to shame in their witness. But what didn't really happen since Stott's brilliant book and John Wyatt's brilliant book is, although it changed to some degree the private thinking of Christian leaders and preachers and seminarians, it never really made it into the pulpits. Not in any long-lasting way. And so you speak to many Church leaders today and they would say, “Of course we're pro-life, of course we're against abortion.” But they don't talk about it in the pulpits. Many times they'll assume that people in their congregations are as pro-life in their thinking as they are. We know that's not true.
80% of evangelicals say that abortion is sometimes okay
Because it's not being preached from the pulpits, there is a vacuum, and that ideological vacuum is quickly filled by the thinking and the ideology of the world around us. And so it is that 80% of evangelicals think that abortion is sometimes okay. We've got two surveys showing that. One is the 2011 Evangelical Alliance survey: 80% of evangelicals say that abortion is still sometimes okay. I've shared that often with Church leaders and others. And one of the comebacks I received was, “Well, the question's not that well defined. We can't read too much into it. What does it mean about extreme cases? Does it mention health issues, life of the mother and so on?” And so I thought, “Okay, let's make sure of that and find out.” There's new data now coming out which clarifies. It said, ‘Laying aside issues of the life of the mother, (so we're not talking about any kind of procedure to save the life of the mother), looking at all other cases, do you think abortion is sometimes justified?’ And again 80% of Christian women, (it was Christian women in this instance,) say that abortion is sometimes justified.
Silence from the pulpit
The people of God, those who bear His name in the UK, more than 50 years on from 1967, from the Church of England’s paper, from Gardner’s awful book, but even after Stott’s and Wyatt’s brilliant books, the average evangelical is still not clear in their thinking on abortion. Why? Because it's not come through the pulpits. In many cases there’s been a lack of conviction or a lack of courage from the pulpits, and that's led to a lack of clarity in the pews. There are, however, and interestingly it seems they're often the younger evangelicals, there are evangelicals who are clear in their thinking, but not yet active in their doing. The word of God in the book of James says, “We shouldn't just be hearers of the word, but doers also.” We don't want to be like a man who “looks in a mirror and goes away immediately forgetting what he looks like.”
Pro-life: an action, not a position
And so there needs to be a shift in understanding of what it means to be pro-life. Many people tell me,“I'm pro-life.” What do they mean by that? They mean in their heads they would say, or maybe out loud if you ask them, “Abortion isn't Okay.” But here's the thing. In Matthew 25 Jesus doesn't say to the sheep, “I was hungry and you were pro-nutrition. I was thirsty and you were pro-hydration.” He didn't say, “I was naked and you were pro-clothing.” We need another monumental shift in our thinking as Christians today.We need to totally re-work what it even means in our heads to be pro-life. Being pro-life is not a position. It's an action. It needs to look like something. It's not enough to be pro-life and do nothing when more than 500 babies are being killed every day. What good does it do then, what I'm thinking privately in my head, if I won't even speak it out loud, if I won't do anything? The priests and the Levites were anti-robbery in their beliefs, but they didn't help the man lying half dead on the road to Jericho. Only the Samaritan did something. And so the Lord's not going to say to us, “I was in the womb and you were pro-life.” He's going to say, “I was in the womb and you did something. You spoke for me. I had no voice. You were my voice.”
4. For Those Being Crushed by Camilla Olim
So the final book I want to point out to you on this journey is this book, which is For Those Being Crushed by Camilla Olim. And I'm not going to speak about this in detail today because we did a whole podcast on it a few weeks ago. And you can go and find that. Camilla came in and we talked about this book, and in my view this is the best book we've got today on abortion. There's a lot that I love about this book, but what I particularly love about this book, and what I've observed as people have read this book, is I've seen it move people to action.
Moved to action
I've seen people read this book, and then go out and do something. I've seen Church leaders read this book and be compelled to do something different, to speak differently. I've seen prayer meetings start because of this book. I've seen people going out onto the streets and doing things because of this book. And what this book represents is something that's exciting. There is a rising generation of, in particular, younger evangelicals, and that's just a fact that's been observed - younger evangelicals are more likely to be pro-life than older evangelicals. We could think about why that is, but it just is. And what this book represents is that younger generation of evangelicals who do get this issue, and who see it as a justice issue, and who are willing to stand up and be counted and be a voice for the voiceless.
And that's not to try and drive any kind of ageist distinction between younger evangelicals and older. We are standing on the shoulders of giants. We are deeply indebted to our forebears who've taught us in God's word and the ways of the Lord. There's a huge amount that previous generations have got right that we need to keep learning from. We must at all costs avoid this us-and-them dichotomy. That's not at all what I'm trying to get at here. But what I'm saying is there is a young generation of evangelicals rising up to be a voice for the voiceless. And this book encapsulates that. And really in this book we see some of that concentrated, and brought in a way that's digestible to anyone who picks this book up and reads it. But as this podcast develops quite soon we're going to be moving much more into equipping and training and encouragement, and how we can be that voice for the voiceless that we're called to be.
The inescapable choice we face
And this book I think, is a fantastic introduction to that. So this book represents an opportunity and a choice that, as the people of God we are called to choose life, not to choose death. Not just choosing life if we happen to be expecting a child or ‘don't like abortion, don't have one’. We're not talking about that ‘choose life’. We're talking about standing for life. We're talking about standing against the persecution of these innocent children in the womb. And so this book, I think is heralding a new move that God is at work in today in the UK. It's small, but it's real and it's growing, of people who are seeing this issue in the light of God's word, seeing the facts and seeing the fact that we can't just say, this is nothing to do with me.
So that brings us up to the present day, a quick pit stop tour through four books from Reginald Gardner to Camilla Olim. And next week we're going to be looking at philosophically how we've got to this point in the abortion status quo today. So tune in next week and follow as we continue the discussion. Thank you.
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