Recent reading

I don’t get a lot of time for reading from about the middle of September until the end of April, as churchland gets really busy during that time. However, if I’m lucky enough to get a summer relatively free from pastoral emergencies I can usually count on getting some good reading done during the warm months. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:
Stuart Murray: The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. This book is based on the question ‘What would Anabaptism look like with its Mennonite/Amish/Hutterite clothing stripped away?’ The lion’s part of the book is based around the seven core convictions of the Anabaptist Network in the UK, with a historical chapter toward the end for those who are new to the Anabaptist story. Since (despite Doug Chaplin’s objections) I’m happy to identify myself as an ‘Anabaptist Anglican’, this book was a great read for me.
Christopher Hitchens: God is Not Great. This summer I’m especially interested in reading about atheism (pro and con), and so the amalgam known as ‘Ditchkins’ (Hitchens and Dawkins)is of course particularly important right now. I found this book to be far too ‘over the top’ for me. The subtitle tells it all: ‘How religion poisons everything’. Really? Everything? I also have serious questions about the accuracy of the book. I’m not an expert in many of the areas Hitchens writes about, but I do know a fair bit about New Testament scholarship. In his chapter on the New Testament I identified at least fifteen glaring errors. This does not bode well for the accuracy of the rest of the book. Hitchens is a journalist dabbling in science, philosophy, theology, biblical scholarship etc., but he needs to do his homework better if he wants to make a convincing case.
Peter Hitchens: The Rage Against God. The subtitle of this book is ‘How atheism led me to faith’, and it is the autobiographical sections of this book that are the most enjoyable reading. But Peter is of course Christopher’s brother, and the tension between them on the subject of Christianity is never far from the surface. In the middle of the book Peter details three areas where he thinks atheism’s arguments (read, ‘Christopher’s arguments’) fail: (1) ‘Are conflicts fought in the name of religion really about religion?’ (2) ‘Is it possible to determine right and wrong without God?’ and (3) ‘Are atheist states actually not atheist?’
Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion. This is a far more formidable book than Hitchens’ ‘God is Not Great’. Dawkins is a scientist at the top of his game, and when he argues on the basis of things he really knows about (biology, evolution, natural selection etc.) he is extremely persuasive. However, for large parts of the book he strays into philosophy (eg. in discussing ‘Why is there anything at all?’ and the question of right and wrong and where it comes from), and there his arguments are far weaker. Still, I found this a very enjoyable read and I learned a great deal about science.
Francis S. Collins: The Language of God. Collins was until recently director of the human genome project and is a world class geneticist; the title of the book is taken from a remark Bill Clinton made with regard to those who had mapped the human genome learning ‘the language of God’. The book is partly biographical, partly philosophical, and partly scientific. Collins is concerned, firstly, to defend belief in God from the arguments of atheism, and secondly, to defend the theory of evolution from the arguments of fundamentalism. In the process he teaches us a great deal about DNA and human genetics. I found this a very enjoyable book.
I’ve now started to read Terry Eagelton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Other books in my pile for the summer include Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Anthony Flew’s There is a God, Lucy Moore’s Messy Church, James Alison’s On Being Liked, and Andrew Marin’s Love is an Orientation. We’ll see how far I get!

Emergents, Anglicans, Transcendence, and the Tickle Trunk

This past week, as I noted before, I was at the clergy conference of the Diocese of Edmonton. This sounds grander than it actually is; it’s a group of about fifty clergy, most of us well-known to each other, which happens once a year at a local retreat centre. This year our keynote speaker was Phyllis Tickle, well known author of books like The Divine Hours and ‘The Great Emergence‘. Phyllis is almost an octogenarian, but she’s full of beans and a delight to listen to.
Phyllis’ book ‘The Great Emergence’ outlines her view that (in words she attributes to retired Episcopal bishop Mark Dyer) ‘Every five hundred years the Church has a rummage sale, gets rid of a lot of stuff it doesn’t need any more, and takes on a bunch of new stuff’. Each of those five hundred year changes, in her view, has involved a fresh grappling with the issue ‘What is our authority?’ (the Bible, the Pope, reason. etc. etc.). The current change, which she calls ‘the great emergence’, has been brewing for a hundred years or so, fuelled by the enormous scientific advances and social changes of the last century. I’m not going to go into detail on her theory; it’s outlined well by Duncan McLeod here.
I have to say that I have a great suspicion of systematisers; I’m sure there’s a grain of truth in their systems, but I’m also sure that from then on they notice the things that agree with their schematics and overlook the rest. So I’m probably predisposed to be skeptical about Phyllis’ theory (although I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed her explanations and connections of the various historical events that have made the last hundred years so interesting and challenging for the Church). Her particular interest is the various strands of what she calls ‘Emergence Christianity’ (apparently there are now variants on this – including emerging Christians, emergent Christians, emergence Christians etc. etc. – it all seems very confusing).
One idea that did give me pause, however, was her bold statement that, despite all its strengths, emergence Christianity ‘can’t do transcendence’. ‘Transcendence’, as I understand it, means the sense of connection with the Other, with the majesty and mystery of God. For that, she says, you need holy places – dedicated sanctuaries in which people have been praying for years, full of holy objects and the smell of incense. She claims that many emergence Christians recognise this shortcoming – which is not being met by beer and theology sessions in pubs – and are looking for help from inherited forms of church. She suggested that we mainline Christians gather the little emergence pods around us like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings and let them use our buildings from time to time.
Now, I question this argument on two points. First, I’m not sure that the emergent church is beating a path to our door, crying out to use our buildings to recover the long-lost experience of transcendence. Most of the emergent Christians I’m in contact with know exactly why they left the traditional Church, and our expensive buildings, and the way (in their view) that we disconnect Sunday worship from real practical Christian living, both loom large in that decision. They aren’t looking for us to fill a gap in their Christian experience; they think we’re the ones with the gap (and, in some ways, they’re probably right).
But second, and even more fundamental, I deny the idea that you can’t ‘do’ transcendence unless you have a large ancient dedicated holy space to do it in. I would say that you can’t ‘do’ transcendence at all – if it’s real, then it’s God’s doing, and he can do it anywhere he likes. The early Christians certainly experienced it, and they didn’t have any ancient buildings to ‘do’ it in. God, however, was definitely among them, working his miracles and changing people’s lives, even when they met for worship in living rooms (after all, if the New Testament is true, everything essential to church life should be doable in a living room!).
What do you think? When have you had the experience of transcendence, and how did it come about?

Messy Church

I must be the last person in the world to discover that Lucy Moore is brilliant and so is her creation, Messy Church! She was the Tail-End Charlie at our clergy conference, coming in for twenty-four hours Thursday night and Friday morning, at a point in time when I was really tired and quite ready to go home. Nonetheless, she succeeded in firing me up and getting me interested in something I was definitely not interested in beforehand. We’re looking at starting something new for young children and their parents in the Fall at St. Margaret’s, and we’re definitely going to take a look at the ‘Messy Church’ approach.

Origins of the mitre

In case anybody’s curious about this rather strange episcopal headgear, here are a couple of links:

The Wikipedia article is quite informative, and for my money this is the important line:

The camelaucum (Greek: καμιλαύκιον, kamilaukion), the headdress both the mitre and thePapal tiara stem from, was originally a cap used by officials of the Imperial Byzantine court.

The whole thing, in other words, is a Christendom innovation to do with power, pomp, and circumstance. Apparently it’s not all that old (as church history goes), either; the Catholic encyclopedia dates it to the tenth or eleventh centuries.

This article is I suspect a spoof, but even so, it’s a hilarious one. I will now never be able to shake the idea of a bishop wearing a fish’s head…

Even today, mitres are by no means universal in the Anglican Church, and a hundred years ago only Anglo-Catholics wore them. The bishop who ordained me a deacon, Jack Sperry, never wore one, and I don’t think he was any less a bishop for it. In my view, it’s long past time for us to rethink the wearing of ceremonial robes based on the dress of civil officials in the Roman empire (in other words, adopted as a sign of Christianity’s growing temporal power). Even Dom Gregory Dix admitted that in the early church a bishop probably presided at the Eucharist in ordinary clothes (The Shape of the Liturgy, A & C. Black, 1945, reprinted by Seabury Press, 1983, p.142).

Sermon for June 20th: 1 Kings 19:1-15a

God’s Care for Burnt-Out Disciples

Let me tell you the story of Jack. Jack committed his life to Christ when he was a teenager. He wasn’t brought up in a Christian family and he didn’t get any encouragement from them when he started attending a church and going to midweek youth group meetings. But he loved Jesus passionately and was very enthusiastic about his new faith, so he barely noticed the opposition. He got involved in a small church that had to struggle to survive, and it was only natural that as he got older he became one of the leaders of the youth work.

Jack went to university and then went out into the business world. He found very few Christians in the company he worked for, and the values assumed by the people in his office were very different from his own. Money was the bottom line. Everyone was aiming for a comfortable lifestyle and lots of them were willing to cut quite a few ethical corners to get it. Jack wasn’t backward about his faith, and gradually he got used to being an object of jokes around the office. He continued to attend church and was now the leader of the youth work. He really wanted to make a difference for Christ and lead others to know and love him, but he was getting more and more discouraged. Not much seemed to be happening; so little was changing.

At a certain point in Jack’s mid-twenties, the pressure just got to be too much for him. So many family gatherings began on Sunday mornings, and he got tired of always being the one who had to be late. He got tired of being the one who was always different at the office, the one everyone else made jokes about. He got tired of all the responsibility of the youth work at church; everyone wanted to see it happen, but no one else was willing to lend a hand. He just lost his enthusiasm for it. He didn’t complain about it; he just gradually discovered that it was a lot easier to sleep in on Sunday mornings, and to blend in at the office. It’s ten years now since Jack went to church, and although he misses it and feels guilty about it, in some ways life is a lot easier for him now.

It must have been about twenty-five years ago that I first heard the phrase ‘burnout’ used to describe the experience we go through when the gap between our ideals on the one hand and reality on the other just becomes too great for us, and our inner flame dies out. As soon as I heard the phrase explained, I recognised that I’d already been close to it several times. I’d been working as a minister in small rural churches with few members, always struggling with financial problems and wondering if the church would survive, and because I was the minister it was always my fault when things went badly. In this context it was easy to lose one’s enthusiasm for Christ, for following him and for leading others to him.

Our Old Testament reading today is obviously a burnout story. It’s the story of a burnt-out prophet, the prophet Elijah. Let’s think about his story together.

Read the rest here.

Perspective

This week I finished reading Christopher Hitchens’ influential book ‘God’ (excuse me, I mean ‘god’) is Not Great’. and his brother Peter’s counter argument ‘The Rage Against God’. I’m now about a third of the way into Richard Dawkins’ brilliantly argued and written ‘The God Delusion’.
Christopher Hitchens makes some good points, but he’s also an enfant terrible who loves to be provocative, and in his one chapter on the New Testament he makes numerous elementary factual errors and wilful misinterpretations (well documented by Mark Robarts here). Nonetheless, his subtitle ‘How Religion Poisons Everything‘, and his exhaustive list of the misdeeds of Christianity and other religions, should certainly make us pause for thought.
Dawkins is in a different category. He’s a real scientist at the top of his game, and his arguments seem to me to be formidable. I know that they have been countered by able Christians of equal scientific standing to him, but it is impossible even for a convinced Christian to read this book without feeling at least a twinge of doubt. The finest theological and philosophical minds in Christianity need to be addressing his arguments in a patient, clear, and rational manner, so that people who are attracted to atheism are given a compelling alternative.
Unfortunately, that’s not what the Anglican world is concerning itself with this week. Instead, the Anglican blogosphere is consumed by an apparent slight committed against the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (which, for those millions of people unaware of this since TEC unhelpfully changed its title, is based in the USA) by (we think) the Archbishop of Canterbury (it’s not clear to me whether it came from the Archbishop personally or from that faceless entity called ‘Lambeth Palace’). The Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori (who is apparently a fine scientist, by the way) was invited to preach and to preside at a service of Holy Communion at Southwark Cathedral in London. As she is a foreign priest, Church of England canon law requires that she get permission from the Archbishop of Canterbury and provide proof of ordination – a little bizarre, since she is one of the three or four most well-known Anglican clergy in the world right now, but there it is!
But the sub-text is that (a) she’s a woman, and the Church of England is currently trying to get legislation passed that will permit women to become bishops while at the same time continuing to make provision for those opposed to their ministry, and (b) she’s the primate of the province which is the lead advocate for gay rights in the Anglican world – and therefore a very controversial person in the eyes of many, perhaps the majority, in the Anglican Communion. It therefore transpires that she was required not to wear her mitre (to the uninitiated, that’s the absurd-looking ceremonial hat that many bishops wear) at the service at Southwark (there is no agreement on precisely what the symbolic meaning of this might be, but undoubtedly it’s not a particularly friendly act toward the Presiding Bishop). She complied with this, but appears to have carried it under her arm in procession, to make a point.
Now, predictably, the Anglican world is up in arms. A number of evangelical clergy in Southwark diocese have written to complain that she was even allowed in the place at all, given the fact that (in their view) the province under her leadership has thumbed its collective nose at the rest of the Anglican world. Conservative Episcopalians can’t resist saying ‘I told you so’, and liberal Episcopalians are predictably outraged at this snub and are demanding that the Archbishop of Canterbury apologise to their Presiding Bishop.
I’ve said a couple of times today that I don’t think Jesus is all that interested in the question of whether or not someone is allowed to wear a rather ridiculous ceremonial hat. In response, people have accused me of being simplistic and refusing to see that it’s about more than just the hat; it’s about hospitality and rudeness and sexism and power games etc. etc. etc.
Yes, yes, yes; of course it’s about those things. But that’s not how it’s going to get written up in Christopher Hitchens’ next book, folks! It’s going to be all about who gets to wear ridiculous looking hats! And that’s why I find this incredibly frustrating. Yes, it’s not a particularly Christlike act to tell the Presiding Bishop that she can’t wear her mitre, but is it a Christlike act to wear one in the first place? Is it Christlike to wear expensive ceremonial robes and to participate in processions where rank and precedence are clearly indicated? Is it Christlike to engage in turf wars and worry about who has jurisdiction over (rapidly shrinking and aging) groups of Anglicans? Seems to me that Jesus had some things to say about the attitudes behind that sort of thing (see, for example, Mark 10:32-45).
But the wars go on. Many Anglicans from Africa, Southeast Asia and other parts of the ‘global south’ are offended because they feel American Anglicans are ignoring the plain teaching of the Bible and refusing to listen to the counsel of their fellow Anglicans around the world. Many of them have sent bishops into the United States to provide pastoral care for Anglicans who feel they can’t go along with what they see as the liberalism of the Episcopal Church. To the Africans, this is responsible Christian pastoral care and a way of preserving the truth of the gospel. To the Americans, it’s unpardonable interference in the internal life of their province and a violation of the canons of the Council of Nicaea (bet you never heard of those before, eh?) to boot.
American Anglicans claim that the teaching of the Bible isn’t all that plain after all, and that they have an obligation to deal with the pastoral realities of living in a societywith much more liberal attitudes toward homosexuality. To them, the Africans are homophobic, misogynistic fundamentalists with an impossibly simplistic attitude toward the Bible and toward human sexuality (and in fact are barely Anglicans at all; they’re really more like Pentecostals or Baptists); quite simply, they need educating. To the Africans this attitude is insufferable arrogance; to the Americans, it’s just self-evident common sense. Both groups, of course, see it as self-evident that they are right and that their opponents are deluded, or evil, or both.
So, there’s a lot of bad history between these two groups. And every marriage counsellor knows that when there’s hurt going back a long way on both sides, every little disagreement gets blown out of all proportion, because it’s tapping into all the resentment and hurt that came before. And one of the things that marriage counsellors have to help couples see is that, yes, there is a lot of hurt that came before, and we need to address that hurt, but for the moment we need to keep it from inflaming what is, after all, a fairly small issue that’s before us right now.
So I repeat my statement: it’s just a hat, folks! Jesus apparently didn’t think it was important enough to mention it; what he did do was to warn us against wearing long robes and desiring places of authority and respectful greetings (Luke 20:46). He also told us to love our enemies, and he said that the world would know that we were his followers if it could see that we loved one another as he has loved us.
At the moment, the world is not seeing much love among us; in fact, it finds us largely irrelevant. The people of the world are fascinated by Hitchens and Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris (so, at least, their book sales would lead us to believe), who are doing a pretty good job of convincing people that we are medieval ignoramuses, desperately clinging to the last vestiges of our long-lost power and influence in the face of mounting scientific evidence that our faith is a delusion. Of course, the spectacle of high priests in pre-medieval ceremonial robes waving incense around altars in huge ancient stone temples wasn’t exactly helping our case before – and the fact that now the international Anglican community seems to think it’s hugely significant in the eyes of God that one of the high priests wasn’t allowed to wear a part of her weird costume is just making it worse.
For the record, I think that ‘Lambeth Palace’ made a bad call on this one. But I think all sides of this disagreement need to take a deep breath and ask some serious questions to do with straining out gnats and swallowing camels. Meanwhile, I’m going back to Dawkins. He, at least, is talking about issues that are really important, and I need to focus on finding answers to his arguments so that I can help the people in my congregation who are afraid to even open his book.

Thinking about Baptism

I want to do some online ruminating on the subject of Christian baptism.
Baptism is a divisive subject in the Christian community. Some Christians think that it should be reserved for people who are old enough to make a mature commitment to Christ (usually described as ‘the believer’s baptism tradition’). Others believe that it is legitimate for the children of Christian parents to be baptised as a sign that the family is united in following Christ (the ‘infant baptism’ tradition). Most of the denominations that practice infant baptism also have a rather woolly definition of ‘Christian parents’, and in the past most of them practised indiscriminate baptism (any parents coming to the church and asking for the baptism of their children could have it); many still do.
Through my years as an Anglican pastor I have struggled with the issue of what exactly infant baptism means, and what should be required of those who bring children for baptism. My wife and I had all four of our children baptised; however, I have to say that the most moving baptisms I have administered have all been adult, believer’s baptisms, when the candidate was making a conscious profession of faith in Christ.
Here’s the issue in a nutshell. In the New Testament, baptism is about conversion and discipleship. The church is seen as a separate entity from the world, and faith and baptism are the distinguishing marks of followers of Christ. Baptism is the sign of becoming a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20); it is dying to the old, pre-Christian way of life and rising again to a new life as a follower of Jesus (Romans 6:1-11); it is new birth into the Kingdom of God (John 3:5).
But in the Christendom era, when church and society were seen as one, baptism was seen differently. The whole society was seen as Christian, so that the idea of making a decision to follow Christ was strange. It was also not in the best interests of the empire to have a distinction between Christian and non-Christian citizens; the emperor needed a united religion around which he could gather his subjects. And so the baptism of all children born into the Christian empire became the norm. Of course, infant baptism predated the Christendom shift (there has always been a controversy in the Christian Church as to whether it can be found in the New Testament and the early post-apostolic church; the most honest conclusion, I think, is that your answer depends on whether you give more weight to the analogy between baptism and circumcision – which was of course administered to children – on the one hand, or to the conversion language most often associated with baptism in the New Testament, on the other). But it is fair to say that infant baptism did not become widespread until after the time of Constantine, and it is rather telling that it was in the Christendom era that it was made illegal for citizens of the empire not to have their children baptised.
Today, of course, Christendom is either dead and buried, or in the last stages of life support (depending on where you live). But old habits die hard; there are still grandparents who lose a lot of sleep over the issue of whether their grandchildren are baptised because ‘something might happen to them, you know’ (it’s worth pondering what sort of god these grandparents believe in, a god who would torture little babies because their parents didn’t baptise them – but that’s a different subject), and there are still parents who don’t come to church but still want their child baptised because they ‘believe in God and want to give the child a good upbringing’.
And so, many times, we clergy still stand in front of congregations and ask parents to make baptismal promises we’re pretty sure they are not going to keep, because to do otherwise would be to ‘exclude’ someone – and excluding someone is the one unforgivable sin. And it’s very interesting to me that we see baptism as being about inclusion, whether there is faith in Christ or not, whereas in the early church it was intimately bound up with faith in Christ, not just ‘belief in God’ (see Galatians 3:23-29), and was all about commitment to a life of discipleship and learning to obey the commands of Jesus (see again Matthew 28:18-20).
I have said on a number of occasions, tongue in cheek, that I think the Anglican Church could benefit from a one-generation moratorium on infant baptism. The fact that this issue is such a sacred cow is a consequence of the fact that it is so tied up with the Christendom system, and the Christendom toxins (Stuart Murray’s phrase) are still at work in our church’s bloodstream, even today.
I think we need to ask ourselves the following questions:
  • When we compare our present practice with the teaching about baptism, and about the difference between the church and the world, in the New Testament, why are we not bothered by the contradictions we see?
  • How could we bring our baptismal practice more in line with something that was more obviously based on New Testament teaching and practice? And if we are going to retain the practice of infant baptism (and I think there is a good argument for doing so), how are we going to restore it to its rightful place as a sign that a family is united in following Jesus, rather than a private family rite of passage which is barely connected to real Christian faith and participation in the Christian Church?
  • How could our baptismal services more obviously reflect New Testament teaching about the significance of baptism, and the relationship between faith, baptism, and discipleship, than they presently do?
More anon…