Sabbatical Report #4 (a repost from April 27th 2007)

Note: this is another repost from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from five years ago. This post was originally posted on April 27th 2007.

Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom, Part 2.

This is the second half of my summary of the argument of Stuart Murray’s fine book Post-Christendom, which I have been reading on my sabbatical. I need to stress that this is just a summary, and that Stuart’s writing is not easy to summarise. I highly recommend that people read the book for themselves!

Stuart’s final chapters suggest some direction for the Christian church in the post-Christendom world. He begins by thinking about mission. ‘What approach to evangelism is appropriate in post-Christendom? How can churches pursue social transformation without exercising control? What type of political engagement is feasible for marginal churches?’ The strategies he suggests include:

  • Frankly confessing our failure to embody the gospel, and inviting others to join imperfect pilgrims, not a perfect community.
  • Renouncing imperialistic language and cultural imposition.
  • Realising that churchgoing is no longer normal, church buildings and culture are alien to most people, and many who are searching for spiritual reality do not expect to find it in churches.
  • Searching for multiple contact points with the gospel in a culture no longer dominated by guilt – employing the full range of New Testament imagery, learning to relate the Christian story to contemporary angst and yearnings.
  • Starting further back when we tell the story, not assuming that people know the basics.
  • Rediscovering the ‘go’ in the Great Commission.
  • Engaging in conversation rather than confrontation, evangelism through dialogue, listening and speaking, receiving and imparting.
  • Concentrating on low-profile contextual witness, not razzmatazz.
  • Anticipating that the journey toward Christ will take longer – process evangelism courses must assume less and last longer.
  • Speaking consciously from the margins and inviting people into a lifestyle which, properly understood, contravenes dominant social values.
  • Post-Christendom evangelism must be uncoupled from ‘inviting people to come to church’ (this relates to rediscovering the ‘go’ in the Great Commission).

On the issue of evangelism amongst people of other faiths Stuart has a few thoughts as well; I quote some of them:

  • Assuming that our country is Christian causes immense confusion; members of other faiths who equate ‘Christian’ and ‘western’ dismiss Christianity as corrupt, and see conversion to Christianity as cultural suicide.
  • European colonialism meant Christians encountered other faiths as conquerors and masters, not equals, resulting in arrogant religious superiority.
  • Inter-faith dialogue suffers from assumptions that other religions lack spiritual value, that Christians can learn nothing from dialogue, and that the conversion of either conversation partner is illegitimate.
  • Many Christians seem warier of co-operating with other faith groups than with secular agencies, more worried about spiritual contamination than subversion by secularism.
  • However, arguing that we should not evangelise other faith communities implies that we should evangelise only ‘latent Christians’ and that evangelism is unpleasant – both concepts deeply rooted in Christendom thinking!
  • Evangelism, however, is not the starting point for mission in a plural society – the first priority is to build relationships of friendship and respect. It is important to spend time learning to understand the spiritual experiences of people of other faiths.
  • There is much to learn from the mindset of marginal movements such as the English Baptists, Quakers and Anabaptists – passionate movements with strong convictions, which they eagerly shared with others, but also passionately committed to religious liberty, not because their Christian convictions were unimportant but because they were too important to be imposed.
  • We need to develop a missiology that is passionate about the Christian story, passionate about sharing it with others, passionate about defending their freedom to reject it, passionate about resisting all attempts to impose religious views, and passionate about friendship that is not jeopardized by divergent convictions. The foundation for this missiology is renewed reflection on how God in the person of Jesus operated through invitation rather than imposition.

When it comes to influencing society toward the values of the Kingdom, Stuart suggests some strategies, including the following:

  • Accepting that we cannot be involved in every issue with our limited resources.
  • Doing nothing, rather than acting in ways that contravene our values.
  • Accepting that we can no longer expect to be consulted about every issue on the basis of past status.
  • Rediscovering the prophetic minority stance and a tone of voice that befits marginal communities.
  • Offering a perspective that transcends ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’.
  • Choosing to believe God’s mission can be effective from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Thus mission – now what about the shape of the church itself? Stuart acknowledges the yawning gap between church and contemporary culture. He investigates two forms of church – the ‘emerging’ church and the ‘inherited’ church (a term he prefers to ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’.

The ‘emerging church’ is hard to track, classify, or evaluate.

  • Some emerging churches are refocusing their mission – concentrating their energies.
  • Some emerging churches are reconfiguring community and focusing on relationships and groups.
  • Some emerging churches are refreshing worship, exploring treasures old and new.

The most hopeful emerging stories involve the integration of all three of these elements.

How do they look through the lens of post-Christendom?

  • Christendom meant enforced uniformity and contextual insensitivity. Emerging churches are avoiding this; may are configuring mission, community and worship specific to particular contexts.
  • Many are small, because they value human-scale community; they may be better placed to flourish in post-Christendom and nurture disciples.
  • Many share features with the dissident tradition: replacing hierarchy with egalitarian structures, exploring multi-voiced worship, using accessible venues rather than church buildings.
  • It might help them to know more history so they can learn from earlier movements; they especially need to take the demise of Christendom seriously.
  • They need to develop inter-generational strategies for passing on the faith (many are single-generation communities).
  • Are some of them more concerned with style than core values?
  • Some of them are parasitic on inherited churches, primarily recruiting dissatisfied Christians.

What about ‘inherited churches’? They need to eschew nostalgia and welcome the challenges and opportunities of post-Christendom. Some inherited practices that need to be reconsidered include:

  • The clergy/laity distinction, which hinders recognition of the ministry of all God’s people, perpetuates the myth that clergy are the ‘front line’, and leads to performance-oriented front-led services. Instead Ephesians 4:1-16 needs to be central: the church is where God’s people are resourced for mission and ministry, not the place where clergy man the front line and expect the laity to resource them! An agenda for change might include appointing leaders from their own congregation, regarding bi-vocational team leadership as normal (i.e. teams of part-time leaders, rather than a single full-timer), and replacing the reductionist concept of ‘ministry of word and sacrament’ with ‘equipping God’s people for works of service’.
  • Monologue sermons, which became dominant in Christendom. But the monologue is one of the least effective means of instruction and encourages passivity in hearers. Today we can explore alternatives: open-ended presentations, posing questions rather than dispensing answers, making room for comments, challenges etc., having several speakers debating issues with congregations invited to participate, forming discussion groups during or after sermons etc. We also need to go much further in the direction of multi-voiced worship.
  • Church discipline needs to be recovered, but first congregations need to learn skills in handling conflict. Matthew 18:15-20 is the model, but it is not hierarchical (leaders are not mentioned).
  • ‘Peace church’ – a modest proposal: ‘Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other’.
  • Beyond tithing – ‘if just war thinking is inadequate for challenging western militarism, tithing cannot subvert Western consumerism’. Instead we need to learn to pursue economic justice and participate in Jesus’ mission to bring good news to the poor.

We should beware of complicating this; church is really quite simple! Simple church might mean things like:

  • Recovering friendship as our relational paradigm.
  • Eating together a lot.
  • Lots of laughter.

Re-imagining Church.

  • Imagine a community stirred by poets and storytellers (the emphasis on doctrine and morality rather than narrative in most sermons and hymns offers little help for communities to rediscover and celebrate their stories).
  • Imagine the church as a ‘monastic missionary order’ – combining prayer and social action evangelism and contemplation.
  • Imagine churches as safe places to take risks.

Stuart concludes his book by suggesting some resources to help us in post-Christendom – we can find helpful things in the pre-Christendom church, in the anti-Christendom traditions such as Anabaptism, in the extra-Christendom world beyond the west, and even some things from Christendom too.

  • He suggests learning different ways of reading the Bible (from the point of view of the underdog and the marginalized peoples), learning the texts that spoke to people in exile, rediscovering the language about ‘principalities and powers’.
  • To what extent have Christendom power-structures influenced theology? (Creeds, atonement theories, retribution and judgement, triumphalism.
  • Helpful images for post-Christendom include marginality, liminality (a threshold state), exile, pilgrimage.

Terminology we might let go of includes:

  • ‘House of God’, ‘sanctuary’, ‘church’ (for a building).
  • ‘Clergy’ and ‘laity’.
  • Ecclesiastical titles (‘reverend’ etc.)
  • Non-inclusive language.
  • ‘Home mission’, ‘foreign missions’, ‘campaigns’, ‘crusades’, ‘winning converts’, ‘taking cities’.

Above all, in post-Christendom we need to intentionally put Jesus as the centre:

  • paying attention to his life, relationships, radical teaching, and their implications for discipleship.
  • recognizing that we need to ask not only ‘why did Jesus die?’ but also ‘why did they kill him?’
  • living in the gospel narratives
  • reading scripture from a Jesus-centred perspective
  • refusing to allow systems of interpretation to muffle Jesus’ call to discipleship
  • not just worshipping Jesus, but actually following him.
  • allowing ourselves to be challenged by his Sermon on the Mount and his kingdom prayer

Sabbatical Report #3 (a repost from April 26th 2007)

Note: this is the fifth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from five years ago. This post was originally posted on April 26th 2007.

Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom (part one of a summary of the book).

Over the past week I have been reading Stuart Murray’s fine book ‘Post-Christendom‘.

Make no mistake: Stuart Murray thinks that Christendom was, on the whole, a bad idea. He doesn’t dispute the fact that it might have had some good side-effects, but in his view this does not change the fact that it required the Church to mutate the gospel and the shape of discipleship into something very different from the original vision of Jesus and the New Testament.

Christendom – if you aren’t familiar with the terminology – was the state of affairs that existed after Christianity became, first a tolerated religion and then the official religion of the Roman empire. Before this, the Christian church was a movement on the edges of society, a group of wild-eyed fanatics who talked about brotherhood and loving your enemies, about selling your possessions and giving to the poor and so on. In order to join them you had to go through a demanding process called the catechumenate which lasted for several years, at the end of which you went through an adult baptism. There was a strong sense of purpose in the movement, and a clear line of demarcation between those who were in it and those who were not.

This changed in the fourth century when Constantine, the Roman Empire, decided to promote Christianity as a bold new religion that could unite his empire. He not only tolerated it – he gave financial inducements for people to join it, lionized its bishops and leaders, and built it some huge churches. He presided over its theological councils, even though he himself had not been baptized and apparently saw no difference between the god of the Christians and the Unconquerable Sun, his own family god. The process of co-option of Christianity as the official religion of the empire continued under Constantine’s successors, so that over an eighty-year period the church went from being a persecuted movement to being itself a persecutor (with the help of the machinery of state). Obviously, when that happens, something radical has changed.

Stuart tells the story of the Christendom shift and the changes it brought to the church. The story includes:

  • The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the city, state, or empire.
  • Movement of the church from the margins to the centre of society.
  • The creation and progressive development of a Christian culture or civilization.
  • The assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christians by birth.
  • The definition of ‘orthodoxy’ as the belief all shared, determined by powerful church leaders with state support.
  • Imposition, by legislation and custom, of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (although it was normally Old Testament morality that was applied, not the teaching of Jesus).
  • Infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into Christian society.
  • The defence of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality and schism.
  • A hierarchical church system based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, analogous to the state hierarchy and buttressed by state support.
  • A sharp distinction between clergy and laity, and the relegation of the laity to a largely passive role.
  • Sunday as an official holiday.
  • The requirement of oaths of allegiance and oaths in law courts to encourage truth telling.
  • The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations.
  • Increased wealth for the church and obligatory tithes to fund the system.
  • Division of the world into ‘Christendom’ and ‘heathendom’ and wars waged in the name of Christ and the church.
  • Use of political and military force to impose Christianity, regardless of personal conviction.
  • Enemy-loving and peacemaking replaced by the formation of a Christian army and the ‘just war’ theory or ‘holy war’ ideology.
  • Reliance on the Old Testament, rather than the new, to justify these changes.

He makes the further telling point that in order for the church to be brought in from the margins to the centre of society, Jesus had to be banished from the centre to the margins of the church, in the sense that his example and teaching no longer held centre sway – a Master who taught love for enemies, simplicity of life and caring for the poor would have been a little awkward for a rich and powerful empire! So in Christendom the worship of Jesus was emphasized at the expense of actually following his teaching and example. This can be seen most strikingly in the creeds, which date from this period of time. They jump straight from the birth of Jesus to his death and resurrection, but say nothing about his life, his miracles, his relationships, his teachings, or his subversive lifestyle at all!

From time to time dissenting voices emerged, challenging the Christendom system and calling the church back to a model more consistent with Jesus and his way. But the beginnings of the disintegration of Christendom might be traced to the reformation of the 16th century, even though most of its features remained for centuries afterwards. The Protestant Reformers did not oppose the Christendom system, but their activities led to the fragmentation of Christendom into competing, and eventually warring, mini-Christendoms – Lutheran Christendom in Germany, Zwinglian Christendom in Zurich, Calvinist Christendom in Geneva, and Anglican Christendom in England. And in 1525 a little group of Christians gathered in a house in Zurich took the radical step of baptizing each other as adults in obedience to the command of Jesus and in rebellion against the infant baptism system; the Anabaptist movement had begun. Anabaptists were significant because they alone, at the time of the 16th century, questioned the whole structure of Christendom; they had gone back to the New Testament and discovered there that the church was meant to be a voluntary community of people who had freely chosen to follow Jesus, not something you automatically belonged to by virtue of being born in a so-called ‘Christian country’. For this (despite the fact that they were mostly pacifists) they were seen as dangerous subversives and were viciously persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike.

The undermining of Christendom continued quietly in the centuries that followed. Stuart identifies the following as some of the causes of it:

  • Disillusionment with religion resulting from incessant warfare between supposedly Christian nations.
  • The reliance of philosophers and scientists on reason and experimentation rather than revelation.
  • The impact of industrialization and urbanization on traditional beliefs and structures.
  • Postmodernism, pluralism, and fragmentation.
  • The persistence of dissent, and the emergence of the ‘free church’ tradition.
  • The globalization of the church and its mission.

All of these have contributed to the post-Christendom situation we face today – which, in Stuart’s view, is not a disaster, since the Christendom system was not what Jesus had in mind anyway!

However, he points out that there are still many vestiges of Christendom in the popular mindset. He writes in an English context and some of the examples he gives are particular to Britain. However, some of the more general ones include:

  • Many church buildings contain military paraphernalia, and most denominations endorse the ‘just war’ theory.
  • Many denominations and agencies maintain structures that perpetuate outdated ‘sending nations’ and ‘mission fields’ concepts.
  • Infant baptism is still widely practiced, but there are concerns with indiscriminate christening where there is no evidence of Christian commitment.
  • The popularity of tithing in newer churches is encouraging Anglicans and Catholics to return to a Christendom practice.
  • Church discipline is not taught in seminaries, congregations are not equipped to practice it, and attempts to exercise discipline are frequently ineffective and authoritarian.
  • Inherited or chosen architectural styles of church buildings maintain aspects of Christendom church thinking. Many resemble lecture halls or theatres, disabling multi-voiced worship.
  • Special clothes continue to designate a clergy caste with special powers and privileges.
  • Churches enjoy the presumption that their activities are charitable and so receive tax privileges.
  • Holidays are planned around Christian religious festivals.

Other continuing issues include:

  • Overemphasising internal church issues at the expense of God’s mission and kingdom.
  • Confusion about the relationship between patriotism and ultimate loyalty to God’s kingdom and the transnational Christian community.
  • Predilection for large congregations that support a ‘professional’ standard of ministry…
  • Approaches to evangelism based on the assumption that people will come to us (being a welcoming church), rather than on our responsibility to go to them (being a missionary church).
  • Thinking the Christian story is still known, understood, and widely believed within society.
  • Reluctance to concede that Christendom inoculates people against real Christianity rather than evangelizing them.
  • Assuming that churchgoing is normal and that people feel comfortable inside church buildings.
  • Attitudes to church buildings that assume that they are ‘God’s houses’.
  • Attitudes toward other faith communities that assume that because we are a ‘Christian country’ Christianity should be given special preference.

How have churches responded to the end of Christendom?

  • Denying – some refuse to concede that it has happened and go on as if nothing has changed.
  • Defending – some see the end of Christendom as a disaster and are determined to fight against it tooth and nail.
  • Dissociating – newer churches sometimes suggest that the end of Christendom has nothing to do with them.
  • Demonising – completely dismissing Christendom as having no good features at all.
  • Disavowing – repenting of the sins of Christendom and facing resolutely forward into the new era.
  • Disentangling ourselves from the machinery of Christendom, deconstructing the old structures that are no longer appropriate, disembarking from the Christendom ship.

The final chapters of Stuart’s book suggest strategies for doing mission and being church in post-Christendom, and suggest some resources to help churches in this new world we find ourselves in. But this article is already too long, so more about that later!

‘Understanded of the people…’

If I was in London in May, I’d definitely want to see this, as I am a fan of the Book of Common Prayer (although I prefer the 1962 Canadian revision to the 1662 version):

Journalists, politicians, church leaders and writers are amongst people from all walks of life who have contributed to an exhibition celebrating the Book of Common Prayer.

2012 marks the 350thanniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and to celebrate that milestone, St Paul’s, in conjunction with the Church Times, will display a host of prayer books, old and new.

Titled ‘Understanded of the People: The People’s Prayer Book 1662-2012’, the exhibition will run at St Paul’s throughout May and coincides with a special service of choral evensong on Wednesday 2 May at 5pm, attended by the Prayer Book Society, at which the Bishop of London will preach and the Archbishop of Canterbury will give the blessing.

The BCP remains the classic worship book of the Church of England. Although contemporary prayer books have been introduced, many churches and most cathedrals still use the BCP alongside these modern forms. The 1662 version still has a strong hold on people’s affections and even people with little faith still see merit in its venerable language and historical associations.

The exhibition will include prayer books from the First World War, a prayer book carried by a bride at her wedding instead of flowers, the gift of a brother to his sister as he left for active service in World War II, and prayer books special to people like PD James, Terry Waite, Frank Field and many others. Readers of the Church Times were also invited to submit their prayer book stories and some of these readers will have their books on display.

The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor of St Paul’s, said: “The language of the Book of Common Prayer runs like a golden thread through the history of the English language. For many of the contributors to this exhibition, it shaped who they are and it’s a privilege for St Paul’s to be able to share personal stories alongside people’s prayer books.”

The exhibition will be on display in the North Quire Aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral from Tuesday 1 to Thursday 31 May from 8.30am to 4pm. Please see the website for visitor information.

h/t to the St. Paul’s Cathedral website.

Sabbatical Report #2 (a repost from April 23rd 2007)

Note: this is the fourth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from five years ago. This post was originally posted on April 23rd 2007.

My first week of sabbatical has flown by quickly and it seems I haven’t got in anything like as much study as I had hoped. But I’m trying not to get too discouraged about that. I had to get here, get established, get over jet lag, get Nick off to Manchester, get my cell phone set up etc. etc. Not surprising that life was busy.

At present I’m still working on two books: Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology in the mornings, and Stuart Murray’s Post-Christendom at some other time during the day. Snyder’s book is a superb historical study of Anabaptism and gives a good summary of the stories and ideas of all the early people in the movement. It’s also good in that it flags worthwhile books for further reading. I’m about half way through it now (it’s about 400 pages), but when I’m done I’ll need to go back and make some notes.

Snyder has been particularly good in identifying the historical and sociological background of early Anabaptism. He notes how in the sixteenth century in Europe there was a huge amount of discontent amongst the peasant classes, and how the established churches were seen as being in league with the ruling classes and landowners. Two common church-related themes emerge at the time: the lower classes wanted the right to appoint their own clergy (and thus have some control over the morality of their pastors, which apparently was very lax), and they wanted the right to keep their tithes in their own communities and use them to help the local poor rather than having to send them off to pay some canon in a distant cathedral.

Some of you probably know that in the 1520s there was a peasant uprising in south Germany and Austria, the ‘Peasants’ War’. At this time not all of the early Anabaptists were pacifists, and several of them supported the peasants and fought in their army. The mainline denominations, however, overwhelmingly supported the landed gentry and aristocracy. Snyder believes that much of the appeal of early Anabaptism lay in the fact that it was seen as a people’s movement. Something for us to learn there, I think.

Stuart Murray’s book is covering a lot of ground I’m familiar with, but he has a good way of summing things up and fitting them together into a coherent whole. His theme is ‘Post-Christendom’, and he defines the shift from Christendom to Post-Christendom as follows:

  • From the centre to the margins: in Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
  • From majority to minority: in Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Chrisendom we are a minority.
  • From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christans felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aiens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
  • From privilege to plurality: in Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
  • From control to witness: in Christendom churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
  • From maintenance to mission: in Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
  • From institution to movement: in Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must again become a Christian movement.

In the first half of the book Stuart is telling the story of Christendom (it has several tie-ins with Snyder’s work, actually). One very telling point he makes is that when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire it changed dramatically, and one of the changes was (as he puts it), that ‘in order for the church to come in from the margins to the centre, it had to banish Jesus from the centre to the margins’. What he means by that is that Jesus said some things that were very uncomfortable for a church in league with an empire – things about loving your enemies, about selling your goods and giving to the poor and so on. This didn’t sit well with a church newly allied to power and prestige. He points out that in the early years of Christianity, ethical instruction of converts was almost always based on the teachings of Jesus, but after the Christendom shift Old Testament norms like the Ten Commandments became more prominent.

Lots to think about, and I’m really looking forward to getting into these books again today.

I had a weekend that was mainly fun, though. On Friday I went out to Maidenhead, west of London, to spend the weekend with my old high school friend Steve Palmer and his family. Steve and I played music together when we were teenagers and have been best friends for thirty years. On Saturday we took his kids to an open day at the Berkshire College of Agriculture (donkeys, parrots, tractor rides, bricklaying, sheepdog shows etc. etc.). On Sunday I went to church with them at St. Mary’s Maidenhead, an evangelical Anglican church that is wonderfully free from tradition (!). Steve drove me back to London Mennonite Centre at lunch time, and in the afternoon I joined in the worship of Wood Green Mennonite Church. More about these two worship experiences in a day or so – they were both very enjoyable in different ways and I want to reflect on them a bit. Afterwards some of the folks from WGMC came back here to the Centre for wine and snacks on the patio. There was another folk-singing guitarist here, and they asked the two of us to play. We ended up trading songs back and forth for a couple of hours while it got dark – very enjoyable.

That’s it from me at the London Mennonite Centre. Talk to you all again soon.


An Easter Hymn from Charles Wesley

All ye that seek the Lord who died,
Your God for sinners crucified,
Now, now let all your grief be o’er!
Believe, and ye shall weep no more.

The Lord of life is risen indeed,
To death delivered in your stead;
His rise proclaims your sins forgiven,
And shows the living way to heaven.

Haste then, ye souls that first believe,
Who dare the gospel word receive,
Your faith with joyful hearts confess,
Be bold, be Jesus’ witnesses.

Go, tell the followers of your Lord
Their Jesus is to life restored;
He lives, that they his life may find;
He lives to quicken all mankind.

Charles Wesley

h/t Richard