Steve Chalke, evangelical minister and head of Oasis UK, at the opening of the Oasis Academy in Coulsdon. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
When evangelical leader Steve Chalke announced his support for monogamous same-sex relationships last week, the news was received with some surprise by the mainstream press. While the Church of England continues its characteristically sluggish machinations on the matter and Tory attempts to legislate a way through a complex cultural moment falter, few expected an evangelical minister to make the next move.
Evangelicals are the hardliners, right? The ones that think homosexuals will burn for their errant ways unless they are "cured" by prayer. Not the ones that openly bless a same-sex couple in their church and then talk publicly about it. As Chalke's actions demonstrate, this is not always the case and nor is it out of keeping with his biography.
In 2004 Chalke precipitated a fierce debate in evangelical circles when he published The Lost Message of Jesus. In this text he suggested the traditional evangelical understanding of the crucifixion – as the moment when God punishes an innocent in place of a guilty, fallen, humanity – was a form of "cosmic child abuse". Instead, Chalke asked his fellow evangelicals to recast the execution of Christ as "a vivid statement of the powerlessness of love". The Evangelical Alliance was less than keen on this suggestion and held a public debate in Westminster amid suggestions that Chalke might cause a split in the organisation.
Chalke survived this controversy and remained a prominent figure in the evangelical movement as head of the Oasis church in Waterloo. Indeed, he and his organisations represent perhaps the most visible form of evangelicalism in Britain today. In 2004, Oasis branched out into education, launching Oasis Community Learning. As of September last year, Oasis was responsible for 25 academy schools. This represented 20%, and the largest group, of academies independently run by faith-based organisations. As the Oasis schools grew in number, Chalke's motives were often questioned. Many thought that he was using them to propagate creationist views, a charge levelled at the evangelical car dealer Sir Peter Vardy. He repeatedly defended Oasis schools, suggesting that the creationist misreading of Genesis did not feature on their curriculums.
But they are still trying to convert their pupils, right? Not if we accept the line taken by Faithworks, another of Chalke's organisations. Faithworks has campaigned since 2001 for greater utilisation of faith groups in the provision of welfare services. A key part of the Faithworks Charter, a document it asks members to sign, is a commitment to provide services without imposing Christian views on the members of the public they serve. This proved popular with the Labour government of the time and was publicly endorsed by Hazel Blears.
So Chalke's evangelicalism eschews conversionism, creationism and the violent doctrine of penal substitution. Now that he has repositioned his views on homosexuality, is he still an evangelical? Many senior evangelicals have come out firmly, but politely, against Chalke, includingthe former leader of Faithworks, the general director of the Evangelical Alliance and evangelical sociologist Tony Campolo. Significantly, however, these responses have all affirmed that while they do not share Chalke's radical biblical hermeneutic, they agree that the church needs to reconsider its dispositions toward gay people.
Herein lies a potentially far-reaching consequence for the evangelical movement: given the relative success of Chalke's work and the respect he has built in the British public sphere, the dominant conservatives can no longer casually dismiss his views. What Chalke has achieved, then, is not only an impassioned and much-needed attempt at a rapprochement between Christian and homosexual cultures, but also the carving out of a legitimate and defensible liberal territory in an otherwise reactionary and morally introverted evangelical field.