A Peculiar People

Rodney Clapp: A Peculiar People

Rodney Clapp, a former associate editor of Christianity Today (the flagship evangelical journal in North America), is an Anglican who has been strongly influenced by Anabaptism – especially by the writings of John Howard Yoder, who he quotes extensively in the earlier part of this book. In fact, I suspect that he would not be displeased if the title of this blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican’, were to be applied to him. That, of course, made this a very interesting book for me.

The last phrase of the book is a good summary of its theme: ‘church as a way of life’. This is a book about the church in post-Christendom, and Rodney Clapp has fully accepted John Yoder’s criticism of Christendom and all that it stood for. What makes the book particularly interesting is his awareness of the potential of the liturgy and the sacraments to form post-Christendom disciples. This is an emphasis that is missing in Yoder (although other Anabaptists such as Alan and Ellie Kreider are aware of it).

Rodney begins by talking about the end of Christendom, or, in his phrase, ‘How Christians became useless’. In a post-Christendom age, he says, the church has become like a chaplain on the bridge of a ship in danger; we want to feel that we’re useful, but we’re haunted by a sneaking suspicion that we’re just getting in the way. He continues by telling the story of Christendom, quoting heavily from Yoder’s ‘The Royal Priesthood’. There follow chapters on two responses to the end of Christendom: on the one hand, the privatization of spirituality, and on the other, the desire to re-assert the Christendom idea of a ‘Christian nation’.

Rodney’s theme is that the church is called to be a distinct culture in its own right – ‘church as a way of life’ – and as the book progresses he discusses different aspects of that way of life. Christianity is inescapably communal – in fact, the modern idea of the ‘autonomous individual’ is an anachronism when applied to the biblical story. Worship is the central activity of this community; worship, he says, is ‘practice in learning to see through common sense’ and glimpse the real world beyond, the world as God sees it. Baptism, in which we take on a new loyalty to Christ, is truly an act of civil disobedience, preaching gives us a new language with which to describe our lives, and the Eucharist not only proclaims Christ’s cross but also shows us to be a fundamentally egalitarian people – ‘one of the key questions attached to eating is “Who eats with whom?”’

There is much more. In the chapter entitled ‘Church as Parade’ he tells the story of two parades – the Palm Sunday processions in his Episcopal Church, which proclaim the message of Jesus the suffering servant, and the militaristic Fourth of July parades in which many American Christians participate, which convey triumphalism and the message that military might is the key to America’s strength, and promote the idea that violence is the best way to solve real problems. In ‘The Church as Listening Community’ he asserts the importance of communal reading of scripture (private Bible reading, he asserts, is second-best and should not be the centerpiece of the devotional life as it so often is in the evangelical world), but beyond this, what he calls ‘the performance of scripture’: ‘And so it is that Scripture is genuinely respected and obeyed only in community. And so it is that Scripture really has authority only when it is performed and not merely applied’. Further chapters discuss the church’s engagement with the world, its post-Christendom (non-triumphalistic) mission and evangelism, and the church as a community of friends.

Rodney Clapp is an American and so writes from that perspective; some of the things that he has to say are specific to the peculiar situation of the church in the United States, a nation which seems particularly susceptible to the temptation of Constantinianism. However, this does not detract from the power of his vision of the call of the church to be a culture, an alternative society living a distinctive way of life in a post-Christendom world. He combines an Anabaptist awareness of the dangers of Constantinianism with a catholic vision of the power of Christian community, liturgy and sacraments to shape Christian disciples for mission. I found this a perceptive and inspiring book which renewed my hope in the potential of my Anglican form of Christianity, despite its Constantinian heritage, as a venue for genuine discipleship.

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