Sabbatical 2007: Innovative Church Experiences (a repost from 2007)

Note: this is the sixth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican’, from thirteen years ago. This post was originally posted on April 27th 2007.

This weekend I have had three different experiences of innovative church.

On Friday I went over to the east end of London to meet with the East London Anabaptist Study Circle. If I expected a group of people who would sit in a circle and study and make erudite comments, I was in for a culture shock!

Wapping is in a poor part of the city of London which was particularly hard hit during the Blitz in the Second World War. A huge influx of immigrants from all over the world has had an enormous impact on the face of the community since then, but so has the major redevelopment that took place in this area during the Margaret Thatcher years.

I had been invited for supper at the home of Karen Stallard and her friend Ruth. Karen is a psychiatric nurse and Ruth a teacher, and they are two leaders in Wapping Community Church, a new and very fragile church plant started by the folks at Urban Expression, a church planting organization wanting to do mission amongst the poor of the city. Over supper Karen and Ruth told me a bit about their background and about their vision for the Geoff Ashcroft Community (you can find out more about the Geoff Ashcroft Community here – and please do follow the links, it’s something really exciting and worthwhile).

After supper we went over to another home where a group of about ten people gathered for the Anabaptist study group. They were all younger people, pretty well all of them involved in Urban Expression, and obviously a bunch of enthusiastic mavericks with a strong sense of mission and a willingness to try and to fail if need be. Our study for the evening consisted of playing ‘Dutch Blitz’, a Mennonite card game! It was fast and furious and I was soundly defeated at it! I did get some conversations in, but the evening took a very different shape from what I had expected! Fair enough – as my brother likes to say, Christianity is meant to be a doing religion, not just a talking religion!

I got back to the London Mennonite Centre quite late – around 11.30 – and had some preparations to make for the next day, so it was about 12.15 by the time I got to bed. I was up again at 6.30 to catch a train down to south London, to Battersea, for ‘Workshop’ – a course in Christian discipleship. You can find out about it here, and again, please do follow the link because I don’t have time or space to tell you all about this wonderful year-long course.

The weekend was held in a primary school, with the main sessions taking place in an assembly hall and breakout groups in various other places. About forty people were there; after opening worship we had a two-part session on Old Testament wisdom literature – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. The woman who was teaching the section on Ecclesiastes and Job mentioned her gratitude that such books are allowed to be in the Bible; she had this past month been diagnosed with breast cancer, she said, and it was good to know that doubts and questions are allowed. I really appreciated that. After a coffee break we had a session on healing which was quite different – the teachers are all volunteers and each put their particular stamp on the subjects in question.

I was getting very tired now, but after lunch we had a small group time. Apparently the small groups had chosen ethical topics to debate; in each group one person facilitated the debate and two people had prepared opposing viewpoints on the subjects – in the case of the group I was in, on ‘Euthanasia’. After they had spoken, the other group members got involved and a lively (and very respectful) discussion ensued. I thought this was a great model, but the obvious level of trust in the group helped make for a good atmosphere.

By now I was very tired and decided to skip out on the rest of ‘Workshop’ and take a break for the rest of the weekend. I was a bit disappointed as I had been looking forward to the whole weekend, but my body was telling me otherwise.

Today (Sunday) instead of going back to ‘Workshop’ I went over to St. James’ Anglican Church in Muswell Hill. This is another lively Evangelical church, like St. Mary’s Maidenhead where I went last weekend. My observation is that a lot of Anglicans in England seem far less bothered about ‘Anglican identity’ than we are in Canada! I had walked past St. James’ several times and been attracted by their colourful signs and the fact that they have a coffee shop built on to the side of the church, with a small bookstore.

I went to the 9.30 service there this morning; I arrived at 9.15 to the sounds of the music group and choir singing ‘In Christ Alone’. They practiced a few more songs while I was waiting for the service to start, and then they broke up into groups of three at the front and committed their work of leading worship to the Lord in prayer.

I was warmly welcomed by the greeters, who soon found out that I was visiting from Canada. In fact, I have to say that this was one of the most welcoming churches I have ever been in. The greeters were warm without being overly smothering; the vicar was wandering up and down the aisle chatting with people, and when he saw that I was new he made a point of coming over to chat. There was an older man who seemed to be ‘patrolling’ the aisle smiling at people, shaking their hands and pointing them to seats, and during the greeting time in the service the people around me all greeted me and asked if I was a visitor and all that.

Notice I said ‘seats’. No more pews at St. James’ – at least, not in the main worship area – the side aisles still had a few, but they were not being used. The main part of the nave had been covered with a warm red carpet, and chairs with red cushions took the place of pews. This made for a very warm atmosphere, and I thought how easy it would be to stack the chairs and use this great space for other things midweek! What great stewardship of space (I noticed that even Westminster Abbey has no pews, by the way!).

I took my seat about two thirds of the way back. I was one of the first ones there, and as people arrived they all came and sat in front of me! In most Anglican churches I know the back third would have filled up first, but not here! There was a buzz of conversation as people came in; the congregation was very young with a high percentage of families with children. The atmosphere was mainly informal; some people dressed up for church, but most dressed informally. They have six services a Sunday: 8.00 Communion, 9.30 and 11.00 Morning Worship, 2.30 Spanish Church, 5.00 and 7.00 other strange stuff! I would guess about two hundred people were at the 9.30 service.

The service was led partly by the vicar and partly by the music team. It was not a Eucharist and the liturgical element was kept to a minimum. Here is the outline:

    • Opening song (‘Crown Him with Many Crowns’)\
    • Confession and Promise of Forgiveness
    • Songs (‘His Love Endures Forever’ and ‘Who is There Like You?’)
    • Children left for their groups (not called ‘Sunday School’) – vicar encouraged us to greet each other and have a few minutes’ conversation.
    • Apostles’ Creed
    • Prayers for the Church and the World, led by someone from the congregation, not using a litany but a prepared, ‘conversational style’ prayer.
    • The Lord’s Prayer
    • ‘Church family news’
    • Song (‘There’s No Other Name that is Higher’)
    • Reading: Acts 16:11-34
    • Sermon (the fourth in a series on ‘Great Conversions’).
    • Song (‘In Christ Alone’)
    • Final Prayer

Clergy did not robe or wear clerical collars, and no titles were printed in the bulletin, just the names of their jobs (e.g. ‘Vicar: Alex Ross’). The sermon was preached by their ‘Minister for Mission’, a lovely title I think! The songs were printed in the bulletin and also thrown up on a screen at the front of the church.

After church there was coffee at the back and also out in the parish centre where the bookstore is. There was also prayer in one of the side chapels; I went for prayer for some health issues and was warmly welcomed and prayed for by the people there.

I was impressed and excited by St. James’, Muswell Hill. A lot of people back home would turn their noses up at this and say it wasn’t a proper Anglican service, but the Gospel was preached and people are obviously being led to Christ and mobilized in mission for him. I certainly felt I met God there, and the sermon was very nourishing. I applaud the willingness of these folks to innovate and do something outside the Anglican norm.

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

Note: this is the fifth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican’, from thirteen 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 summarize. 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.
  • Realizing 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 among 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 evangelize other faith communities implies that we should evangelize 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 staff 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 2007, Report #3 (a repost from April 26th 2007)

Note: this is the fourth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican’, from thirteen 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:

    • Overemphasizing 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.
    • Demonizing – 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!

Two Sunday Worship Experiences (reposted from April 26th 2007, when I was on my Sabbatical leave in the UK)

This is a repost from thirteen years ago, April 26th 2007, when I was on my sabbatical leave in the UK, connecting with the Anabaptist Network. I wrote this post while I was staying at the London Mennonite Centre).

I said that I would write a little bit about my two worship experiences this past Sunday. They were different from each other, different from my usual Sunday fare, and both very enjoyable in their own individual way.

Sunday morning I went with my friends the Palmers to St. Mary’s Maidenhead. This is an Anglican church that stands very solidly in the evangelical stream of Anglicanism. It’s also a church that is growing. Looking around on Sunday morning, I saw lots of young families, and when the children and young people went out for Sunday School at least a third of the congregation had disappeared. Since I last worshipped there in January of 2005 they have moved to two worship services on Sunday, with the coffee hour in between, so things weren’t quite as congested as last time!

St. Mary’s has Communion once a month and this was Communion Sunday, so it was interesting to see how they do it. Here are the features I noticed:

    • They followed the basic outline of the Eucharist service—greeting and opening prayer, scripture, sermon, prayers of intercession, Eucharistic prayer, communion, prayers after communion, dismissal—but in a very stripped down way that was very accessible for people not brought up in the Anglican tradition. The atmosphere was informal and participatory.
    • No robes, and no titles for the people up front either. I gather that the worship leader for the first part of the service was either a lay reader or a churchwarden. One of the clergy preached and, later, presided at the Lord’s Table, but he was not distinguished from other people up front by dress or title.
    • The music was almost all contemporary, but not ‘Vineyard-style’, and there was no rock band to lead it, but quite a good choir with a keyboard player and some wind instruments up front.
    • There was one scripture reading only (and no psalm), and it was not from the lectionary but from a sermon series on John 14-17. The sermon was quite long even by my standards! There were Bibles in the pews (NIV) and lots of people were following along in the passage as the preacher preached the sermon.
    • The Prayers of the People (as we would call it) did not use a litany form, but the prayer leader prayed quite simply for several subjects with ‘In Jesus’ name Amen’ at the end of each section.
    • The Eucharistic Prayer was the shortest one in the English ‘Common Worship’ book, and it sounded very much like the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. It ended immediately after the words of Jesus ‘Do this in remembrance of me. Amen’.
    • Children do not receive communion here, so the children did not come back in for communion as they do at St. Margaret’s. The children seemed to really enjoy their Sunday School (not called that, by the way) which was held in a different building.

Even though this is a program-size church there was a high sense of fellowship in the congregation; people greeted each other and talked before the service and afterwards as well. I heard people talking about their faith during coffee hour too! I’ve only been there once before, but one person remembered me and remembered what we had talked about last time I was there. That was impressive.

I liked St. Mary’s a lot, even though some aspects of evangelical Christianity don’t particularly appeal to me any more. I liked the informality, the sense of the priesthood of all believers, the simplicity and lack of ritual in the service, and obvious focus on Christ and on personal faith in him.

In the afternoon, back in London, I went to Wood Green Mennonite Church. This congregation meets in the hall of a local Baptist church at 3.00 in the afternoon. It’s a small church—between twenty and thirty people—and the chairs are set in a circle with an open end where a simple lectern is placed for the leader. Here are some things I noticed:

    • Wood Green does not have a full time pastor although one of their elders is paid to do some part time work for the congregation. She was preaching this past Sunday, but not leading the worship.
    • As in many churches in the Mennonite family, leading the service was not restricted to the ‘pastor’. Another member of the congregation was leading the service. She used a liturgical form which I was familiar with, a sort of Anabaptist ‘daily office’. The form didn’t quite seem to fit for a Sunday, though; it didn’t seem to grow naturally out of the small size of the congregation, and I discovered afterwards that it was not their usual fare.
    • The sermon was part of a series on Mark (it seems that five or six members of this congregation share the responsibility for preaching). This week’s passage was mainly Mark 7:1-23 and the sermon was quite participatory—e.g. at one point people were asked which of the people or groups in the story they identified with and were invited to come up and stick a star on a flip chart beside the name of their person or group. After everyone who wanted to place a star had done so, the people were then invited to share why they placed their star where they did, and a number of people shared quite freely.
    • The ‘Prayers of the people’ part of the service, while it used a litany form, was quite open and in each section people were invited to add their own prayers—and they did.
    • There was no communion. I discovered afterwards that communion is not celebrated on Sundays; the congregation shares communion once a month on a Thursday evening; they do it as part of a fellowship meal, and their tradition includes foot washing as well, whenever communion is shared.

After the service tea was served and people stayed for a long time for fellowship. In fact, after we walked back to the London Mennonite Centre (about a fifty-minute walk), some of the congregation showed up there as well. Wine and food was brought out, conversation followed, another guitar player and I were invited to play some of our songs, and we ended up playing music for a couple of hours!

Again, I liked Wood Green a lot. I liked the way the service took place ‘in the round’ with a lot of participation from everyone. I liked the interactive form of the sermon, and I especially liked the obvious sense of family in the congregation.

So – I had an interesting Sunday with a lot to think about at the end of the day.

Ban that phrase…

I’ve been doing a bit of exploring on Joe’s blog Felix Hominum, which still exists, although it’s been a long time since anything was written on it.

On Thursday I referred to Joe’s last post. Here is one of his first posts, written in 2004.

Just a quick note to let you know that the phrase “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle”  should be banned for all time from every conversation.  It is a favorite response when you run across someone who is facing an unexpected (or anticipated) difficulty or crisis of some sort.

I first came across this phrase in great quantity a few years ago.  During the time we were expecting Sarah Joy, and during the time immediately after her birth, well-meaning folks who discovered she had a serious heart defect and also has Down Syndrome used this phrase over and over again to try to be “pastoral”.

The intentions I am sure were good, but the phrase is less than helpful.

Read the rest here. Again, please do.

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

Note: this is the second in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican‘, from thirteen 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 and41mkiwzv2al-_sl500_aa300_ 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 good411DZmPyvcL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ 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-Christendom we are a minority.
    • From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, 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.

Are We There Yet?

Nine years ago today, my dear friend Joe Walker wrote his last ever blog post. And it was a winner.

“Are we there yet?” Any one who has spent time in a form of cultural character building exercise known as the family vacation will have experienced the ritual and almost liturgical repetition of this phrase.

We drove across the northwest USA in a 1974 station wagon. The kind that Chrysler used to make, with the engine that consumed gallons per minute and where the various parts of the rear seat belts were forever tucked under the living room sofa that was called a “back seat”. It was covered on the exterior with that charming 70’s wood paneling which was popular not only on certain brands of American automobile, but throughout numerous suburban basements. In retrospect it was probably a good idea, ahead of its time. If your wood panel station wagon got into an accident, you could repair it easily with supplies from your own family “rec room”.

And still the cry went up to the father: “Are we there yet?”

Read the rest here. Please do.

Above the Sky?

But the pains which he endured; Alleluia,
our salvation have procured; alleluia,
now above the sky he’s King; alleluia,
where the angels ever sing: alleluia!

I don’t normally criticize Charles Wesley, but ‘Now above the sky he’s king’ is very bad theology that gives a free rein to power-mad rulers below the sky while consigning the rule of Christ to some faraway place that many of them don’t even believe exists. The New Testament proclamation is ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to (Jesus)’. ‘Now in all the earth he’s king’ would be better—and if we took it seriously, the world would be a much more just and compassionate place.

(h/t to N.T. Wright, in various places.)

Thirteen Years Ago Today…

Thirteen years ago today I started my first (and, so far, only) sabbatical leave. I spent three months in England resting and reconnecting with friends and family, as well a spending time with the good folks from the Anabaptist Network in the UK. It was certainly a transformative time for me and I look back on it as one of the best experiences of my life.

I left Edmonton on the evening of Tuesday April 15th 2007 and arrived in London the next day. Here’s the post I wrote after arriving at the London Mennonite Centre:

Hello from the London Mennonite Centre in Highgate, London, England.

Nick and I flew over on Monday night and arrived at Heathrow airport about 11.00 a.m. on Tuesday morning. After clearing customs we traveled by Underground and got here to the LMC early afternoon. We were warmly welcomed by Ed and Phyllis, the hosts, and the other staff and volunteers here. A lot of the people who work here seem to be from Canada or the United States—in fact, English accents are a distinct minority! The director, Vic Thiessen, and his wife Kathy are actually members of Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton, a congregation which is very familiar to Marci and me.

My time so far has been made up of (a) getting started on my study and (b) doing little housekeeping jobs to help my stay in London and in the UK in general run more smoothly. The latter include things like: getting an ‘Oystercard’ to make travel on the Underground and the bus system more reasonable; getting a ‘mobile phone’ (i.e. cell phone) (haven’t successfully done that yet, although there have been a couple of false starts); and negotiating the mysteries of cyberspace to get my Canadian laptop hooked up to the wireless network here at LMC.

As far as study goes there is plenty of material in the library here and a wonderful book service from which I can buy the stuff I need to continue when I leave here on the 30th. I will be spending my mornings reading Anabaptist history and source material from the 16th century, and then another study period each day (afternoons or evenings) on contemporary stuff, especially the issue of the end of Christendon and the insights Anabaptism has to offer about Christian mission in the new situation we find ourselves in today.

My first study book is C. Arnold Snyder’s Anabaptist History and Theology, and although I’ve only just begun he’s already helped me make sense of the mass of tenuously connected movements that make up 16th century Anabaptism. I didn’t have a second study period today (owing to a little adventure I had on the Underground – a long delay when the Northern Line was closed for two hours), but when I begin that period tomorrow I’m going to be working with Stuart Murray Williams’ book ‘Post-Christendom’. I’m also really looking forward to Stuart’s book ‘Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition’. All Christian traditions have interpretive grids to help them make sense of the Bible; we all tend to assume that ours is the ‘correct’ grid, and I think it’s really good to check out someone else’s grid and see what we can learn from them.

It was good to spend a day with Nick; he and I sat out in the yard (or the ‘garden’ as they call it here) last night and said Evening Prayer together, and today we had tea out there. We took some pictures too, which I’ll post below. I put him on the train this afternoon, and he is now up in Manchester spending a week with my brother.

That’s it from me at the London Mennonite Centre; here are a few pictures for you.

Nick in the ‘garden’ at the London Mennonite Centre.


Me having a cup of tea in the ‘garden’ behind the LMC. The house used to belong to a doctor and incorporated his surgery; it was built in the 1850’s and is four stories high.


Getting down to work in the library here at LMC.