Using church buildings in Coronatide

Over in England, some members of the Church of England are getting themselves tied up in knots. Like us, because of the current pandemic they aren’t allowed to hold public services in their church buildings. Unlike us, their clergy aren’t even allowed to stream Sunday services in the buildings, or go into them to pray the daily offices by themselves. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have forbidden it. They need to stream their services from their vicarages. The Archbishop of Canterbury even streamed one from his kitchen, which seems to have aroused the ire of traditionalists. The controversy has been exhaustively covered at the Thinking Anglicans website, although I must warn you that the comments are not for the fainthearted.

And this has been very controversial. People have written articles on both sides of the subject. A retired bishop has written a piece for ‘The Tablet’ which has gotten a lot of attention (I can’t read it because it’s behind a paywall, but the title of the piece is ‘Is Anglicanism going private?’, so you get the drift). The argument seems to be that churches are public space, open to all, so clergy should be allowed to stream services from them. Vicarages are private space (especially kitchens?), and for some reason it’s not good for services to take place in private space.

Now, I need to start by freely admitting that there are things about the Church of England I will never understand, despite the fact that I grew up in it. The whole idea of an established state church is repugnant to my theology of the Church as a fellowship of resident aliens (we read 1 Peter at the Daily Office last week; you’ll find it all spelled out there). And the fact that the early church got along for a couple of centuries without any church buildings seems to sit rather strangely with the idea that church buildings are now somehow essential to the public mission of the church. What public mission would that be? The mission Jesus gave his church was to make new disciples for him. The early (pre-church building) church did that spectacularly well. The modern church, not so much.

Be that as it may, there are three comments I wish to make.

First, it is alleged that churches are public space, appropriate for public worship, while vicarages are not; they are private homes. I find myself wondering how many of the people who make this claim actually grew up in vicarages. I did. My dad was ordained in his thirties, and from then on I lived in church housing. I can assure you, vicarages are not private space. The Parochial Church Council met in the living room once a month. Bible study groups (then known as ‘home meetings’) met there regularly. My parents entertained parishioners frequently, either individually or in groups. Our garden was used for vicarage garden parties. As a teenager, I was starved for private space. I felt like I was living in a goldfish bowl, on public display, which for an introvert like me was very hard. So I don’t buy this nonsense about vicarages being more private than churches. They aren’t.

Furthermore (and this is the second point), whatever the intrinsic nature of these houses may be, streaming public services from them makes them public. Here in Canada our experience is less extreme than in the Church of England (at least in my diocese). I have not been forbidden to stream Sunday services from the church, and so I do it. But I also stream daily services of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer from my house, from the little room I’m currently using as a study (because I’ve been told to work from home as much as possible during the pandemic). As a result, many people now know what the inside of my house looks like. This is a big change, because I live in my own house, not a vicarage/rectory. My study at home is now public space.

And funnily enough, no one has complained about that. We do the daily offices in a relaxed kind of way, and that seems to fit well with the relaxed feeling of my study. I would even argue that it’s a better fit for streamed services. They’re different from public services in church. In church, people relate to the worship leader as members of a crowd, but when they participate in a live streamed service, although the leader might experience it as a group event, the participants do not: they only see the leader (and any others who may be assisting him or her). In other words, it’s more like listening to talk radio; you feel like the host is talking directly to you, not to the other two hundred thousand people who are listening in. And the most successful talk radio hosts (I think of the late Peter Gzowski, for example) know how to use this personal and informal aspect of the medium to best advantage. I think we would do well to think about the implications for live streamed services, especially in smaller churches.

Thirdly, I would like to contest the point that services in church are open and welcoming to all, whereas services live streamed from the vicarage are somehow more ‘gated’, more private. There are huge swathes of the population for whom this is simply not true.

Let’s take the disabled population. People who are hard of hearing often find church frustrating (I have a constant struggle to get my lay readers to use our microphones; they protest that their voices are loud enough, despite the complaints we get from some of our more elderly members.). Blind people struggle to find a place in services that rely totally on people’s ability to read. People in wheelchairs frequently find churches inaccessible. People who struggle with mental illnesses find the constant expectation of cheerfulness brutally exclusive.

But what about the folks who have never darkened the doors of a church? I’m an evangelist and I make it my business to listen carefully to my non-Christian friends. I’ve been told several times how emotionally difficult it is for some of them to make it through the door of a church. They have absolutely no idea what they will encounter on the other side. And I’m not even going to begin to talk about the abysmal job many churches do of making first-time attenders feel welcomed and included in the worship. Church buildings an open and welcoming space? In many cases, that’s a delusion only long-time church goers could believe in.

The truth is, whether or not churches are public space, they are certainly religious space, and I think this is what really lies behind a lot of the objections to the archbishops’ policy in England. People like the experience of Christianity as a religion. And what are the characteristics of religions? They differentiate between the sacred and the non-sacred. They have sacred places where you go to meet God, and non-sacred places where you work and play and rest; the two are clearly distinguished from each other. And religions have sacred and non-sacred people. Priests are holy and special; they relate to God on our behalf, Ordinary people don’t expect to have the same familiarity with God’s presence.

In the New Testament, Christianity was not a religion. It had no professional priesthood; in fact, it saw itself in totality as a royal priesthood to which all its members belonged (see 1 Peter again). Ministry was shared by all Christians under the direction of elders who were far more like a combination of lay readers and vestry members than a professional priesthood. And Christianity had no sacred spaces; the early Christians met in homes in small groups, and did their evangelizing in public spaces like Mars Hill, and the lecture hall of Tyrannus.

In later centuries, of course, Christianity became far more like a standard religion, with a professional priesthood and church buildings (referred to as ‘houses of God’). People are so used to this way of operating that they barely notice how foreign it is to the ethos of the New Testament. And when an aspect of it is threatened (as it is in the Church of England right now with the closing off of ‘sacred space’), they get very defensive.

I have two suggestions.

First, we need to see the current crisis as an opportunity, not a threat. In recent days a survey in England has shown that, although only about 6% of the population attends church on Sundays, around 25% have tuned in to a live streamed service since the pandemic began. Speaking personally, for years I have said Daily Morning and Evening Prayer alone in church. Now I say them in my home and stream them on Facebook, and I rarely have less than fifteen people joining me. A couple of them are people I thought had drifted away from our church. This is just one example of the new opportunities that present themselves. The world is changing, and the call of the Church is always to find fresh ways of sharing the Gospel message in new circumstances.

Secondly, we all need to calm down. This week Marcus Green has written eloquently about this. Clergy and lay people are all under unique stress right now. People are getting sick and dying, seeing their loved ones die alone in long term care facilities, losing their jobs and livelihoods, seeing their academic year evaporating before their eyes. Many of us are having trouble sleeping at night. Many more are having trouble making ends meet.

Is this the time for Christians to be sniping at each other about something as unimportant as whether or not we are allowed to stream services from the church? Surely what we need to be doing right now is being gentle and patient with each other, encouraging and supporting each other, not arguing about unimportant matters.

“But it’s not unimportant!” people will say. “It’s about the worship of God; how can it be unimportant?”

It’s unimportant, because Jesus and the authors of the New Testament apparently had no opinion on the matter. Or wait; maybe they did! Jesus was once asked about it by a woman of Samaria. She pointed out that her Samaritan ancestors had taught that God was to be worshipped on the mountain near Samaria, but the Jewish people (represented, in her view, by Jesus) asserted that the proper place for worship was Jerusalem.

‘Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”‘ (John 4.21, 23-26).

The location of worship is of no importance. God has no opinion on that matter. What is important is that the true worshippers worship God “in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such to worship him.” And notice where this conversation was taking place? Not in a Temple or church building. Not in a vicarage or private home. It was taking place at the town well, the most public space in the community.

Where are the town wells in our communities? Where are the real public spaces, the spaces where people congregate? Bars and coffee shops? Post offices? Public parks? Definitely, but I would suggest that in a time of Coronavirus, cyberspace is one of the most outstanding public spaces. And if we want to engage in the conversations that will lead people to Christ, we could do worse than to follow the example of Jesus and go into those spaces to meet them. What matters isn’t whether we ‘go’ to the town well from the church or the vicarage or rectory. What matters is what we do at the wellside when we get there. And that, I would suggest, is a conversation actually worth having.

Book review: ‘Anglican Theology’ by Mark Chapman

13732149I enjoyed this book but found the title ‘Anglican Theology’ misleading. I recognize the validity of the author’s point that telling our story is sometimes the best way of exploring Anglican theologies, since there have been so many of them (Reformation/Tudor, High Church/Stuart etc.)! But even given this point, I thought a more honest title for the book would have been ‘Church of England Theology’.

The vast majority of the book describes theological controversies in the Church of England, most of which had to do with the nature of authority in the Church and its relationship to the British crown. A Christendom relationship between Church and State, with Anglicanism as the ‘Established Church’, was assumed in all these controversies. But for the vast majority of Anglicans around the world today this is irrelevant, as our churches have never been ‘established churches’. So how can we find a way forward toward a vibrant Anglican Christianity that does not assume a privileged position of power in society? What is our Anglican identity when we are not an established church? And what forms of episcopacy are appropriate in such contexts?

The penultimate chapter introduces the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, but rightly points out its inadequacies (it was intended as the basis for Anglican reunion with other churches, not as a definitive statement of Anglican essentials). The author points out that if the Quadrilateral is seen as definitive of Anglicanism, its omission of any mention of the Book of Common Prayer (in its many and varied editions) is very strange. Surely this is one of the most characteristic features of what Anglicans actually do: we worship together using the Book of Common Prayer and/or books based on it. For many of us, this is where we both discover and develop our theology.

I enjoyed Mark Chapman’s honest description of the way in which later generations have adopted revisionist understandings of certain defining moments in Anglican history, in service of their own theological agendas. But I have to say that I would enjoy reading a more future-oriented volume, which takes these convictions Anglicans have developed in the past and asks how we can move forward as a global family of churches, and what theological ideas can unite us and energize us in the very different situations we find ourselves in today.

On Starting with Jesus

Rant ahead. I think of Anglican Christianity as being rather fixated on the idea that God became a human being and lived among us in Jesus (the ‘Incarnation’). This is the centre of our faith. It’s why we stand for the reading of the Gospel every Sunday. We don’ do that for any other reading of the Bible, and we certainly don’t do it for the sermon – but we do it for the Gospel reading. Heck, some of my Anglo-Catholic friends bow every time the name of Jesus is mentioned!

So I can take for granted that when I read John 1.18 – ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ – Anglican heads are going to be nodding. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, “In God there is no unChristlikeness at all”. That’s what we believe.

Okay then! I’ve been researching confirmation courses and inquirers’ courses produced in the Anglican family (this is because I want to revise my [now out-of-print] 2003 book ‘Starting at the Beginning’). And here’s what I found! Some of the confirmation courses have great long screeds about the church and the sacraments, how to pray and so on, but they barely mention the story of Jesus at all! The best known inquirers’ course, the Alpha Course, simply assumes that people already know the story of Jesus, and just starts asking doctrinal questions about him: Who was he? Why did he have to die? etc.

Is this a responsible way for us to provide basic instruction about our faith in 2018? I know a lot of non-churchgoing people, and most of them are very unfamiliar with the story of Jesus. They certainly don’t have access to the background knowledge they need to help them understand the story (they don’t for instance, know what the word ‘Christ’ means, which is rather fundamental – if you don’t know that, you’ll certainly miss the point).

Surely, in 2018, anything claiming to be an inquirers’ course or confirmation course ought to be firmly based on the story of Jesus? Surely it ought to begin by re-telling that story, and exploring why his life and teaching is so important for us?

The worldwide Anglican Communion is currently emphasizing discipleship; they’re calling it ‘living and sharing the Jesus-shaped life’. So what shape is that, again? I ask, because recently two well-known Anglican bishops have each issued a suggested ‘rule of life’ to help their people follow Jesus more closely. But I haven’t seen much acknowledgement that Jesus has actually already given us a rule of life; we can find it in the Great Commandments (Mark 12:28-32), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), among other places.

What would a Jesus-centred Rule of Life look like? Surely it would begin with the idea of seeking first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), and then explore the practical ways Jesus gave us to live that out. Things like avoiding anger and practicing reconciliation, being faithful in marriage, telling the truth at all times, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, practising prayer, fasting and giving to the poor, not storing up luxuries for ourselves, not judging others, and doing to others as we would have them do to us (see Matthew chapters 5 – 7).

What I want is a course about basic Christianity that is intentionally centred on the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. We want people to come to know God. We believe that God is most clearly revealed to us in Jesus. So why isn’t our basic Christian instruction focussed, to the point of obsession, with the life and teaching of Jesus?

Note to self: We need to do better.





miter-300x250Ian Paul started it. Thinking Anglicans (and its usual commentators, including me) weighed in. As did Bosco Peters.

Sexuality? No. Omar Khadr? They’ve never heard of him. Donald Trump? Not even close. This latest Anglican flap is about whether Anglican bishops should wear mitres on their heads.

Minor issue? I agree – which doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion on the subject!

But I’m not going to argue the case in and of itself. I’m going to state it in terms of some underlying principles which I think are important.

First, while traditions can be charming, it’s always important to keep asking ourselves whether they’re still fit for purpose. In other words, if we were starting the whole thing over again today, would we do it this way? If not, why are we still doing it?

Second, while very literalistic interpretations of scripture texts can be perilous at times, there’s an opposite danger which may be even more pernicious, when we adopt a standard interpretation that flies in the face of what the text actually says.

Jesus specifically addresses the issue of what we might call today ‘clerical pretentiousness’. Amongst the various manifestations he identifies, we find ostentatious clerical dress (Luke 20:46), and ecclesiastical titles (Matthew 23:7-12). Apparently he thought this an important enough issue to name and warn us about. That being the case, the burden of proof is surely on the side of those who would defend these things. And that proof needs to arise out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not out of later ecclesiastical tradition (which, all too often, owes more to the power structures of Christendom than it does to the message of Jesus).

Third, and related to point two above: as a priest (God forbid that I should ever become a bishop, but if such a travesty were ever to occur, the point would be even more important) and as a relatively self-centred human sinner, I think my tendencies toward self-importance are quite healthy enough by themselves, thank you very much! They don’t need the encouragement of overly ornate robes or pretentious titles.

Fourthly, I think we have to be very careful about optics. Bosco and others have claimed that mitres are almost the most recognizable item of clerical clothing in the world. That may be so, but my response would be, recognizable for what? I suspect (I have no statistical proof, but I do talk with a lot of non-Christians) that most non-Christian people under the age of forty have absolutely no idea what a bishop is or does. I am, however, concerned that more than one person has privately admitted to me that mitres remind them most strongly of KKK hoods.

Fifthly, and following on from the last point, I was present a few weeks ago at a cathedral service with the usual ordered procession: choir first, then minor clergy, then major clergy (the bishop would have been at the end, had she/he been there). The symbolism was clear: the further back you got in the procession, and the more ornate your robes were, the more important you are. In the entire cathedral, only one person sits on a throne and wears cope and mitre. An outside observer gets the point right away: this is about the trappings of power. And if we don’t think that’s what the ministry of a bishop is about, then why not rethink the symbols we use?

Sixthly and finally, I take it as central that the most important things Christians do are not done during Sunday worship, but during the week. Jesus had very little to say about what we do in Sunday worship, who should preside, what clothes should be worn etc. etc. He evidently thought practical daily discipleship – loving your enemies, living a simple life with few possessions, being generous to the poor and so on – was far more important. It’s during the week, as we go about our daily lives, that we seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. What we do on Sunday should support this and energize it.

That being the case, what we do on Sunday should flow out of genuine gospel values,  and support them, rather than working against them. It seems clear to me from the teaching of Jesus that those gospel values include simplicity of life, humility, and servanthood.

Many who wear mitres and copes on Sundays have demonstrated these values in their daily lives; I would never dare to assert otherwise. The question for me is how these articles of clothing demonstrate those values. Personally, I think they do not, which is why I think we would do better to avoid them.

Four Reasons I’m Still an Anglican

anglican-wordle-2A Christian denomination is like a family. Lord knows, there are times you feel like leaving. Lord knows, there are times that other families look really good. Families where discipleship is much more front and centre, and is a value acknowledged by everyone. Families where you don’t have to argue the case for evangelism all the time. Families where people’s Bibles are well-worn because they’re read every day. Families where they don’t think that no ministry is real unless the person doing it is wearing a clerical collar.

Still, I know that every denomination is a rusty bucket. As you get older, you realize that one of the advantages of staying in your own particular rusty bucket is that you know where the rust spots are, and you also know where the strengths can be found.

I’m not sure I’m fully aware of all the reasons I’m still here, reasonably happy in this particular Christian tradition. I suspect that not all of them are rational reasons. Still, here are four that stand out for me.

First, this is the church I was born into. I was baptized at St. Barnabas’, Leicester on 3067169127_e681f8e734_zDecember 28th 1958, raised in the Church of England, came to the Anglican Church of Canada when we moved to Canada in 1975, and I’ve ministered in it since May 1978. I know its customs and traditions very well. I know the family history, I know the skeletons in the closet, and I have deep and lasting friendships with literally hundreds of colleagues and fellow Christians, in Canada and the United States, in England and Scotland and beyond, who follow the Anglican Way. That sort of history and networking is not something you abandon lightly. The phrase ‘bonds of affection’ is sometimes used to describe the ties that keep the worldwide Anglican Communion together; in my case, those bonds are very real.

s-l300Second, the liturgy. I’m not attracted to churches where the Sunday service consists of ‘sing, sing, sing, make announcements, preach, preach, preach, then go home’. I love the comprehensiveness of a good liturgical service: welcome, public reading of scripture, preaching, creed, intercessory prayer, confession, taking the bread and wine, prayer of consecration, sharing communion, closing prayers. Everything is there and nothing is left out. And because it’s a written liturgy, the congregation can participate; they aren’t reduced to listening passively to the pastor’s brilliance. I also like the fact that most of our liturgies are historic; they are based on ancient prayers passed down through the years.  The oldest parts, of course, are the psalms that were the bedrock of the prayer life of Jesus, and the Lord’s Prayer that he himself taught us to say. I love all of this. I don’t care whether it’s Book of Common Prayer or Book of Alternative Services – I’m good with them both, and I know they’re good for my soul.

smiling-lewisThird, C.S. Lewis. This Anglican writer (who called himself a ‘mere Christian’) has been a
reliable spiritual guide for me since the late 1970s. I’ve read almost every book and letter and article he ever wrote – some of them I’ve read so many times I almost know them by heart. He feeds my mind, nourishes my Christian imagination, and lays out for me a ‘common sense’ way of following Jesus. I don’t agree with everything he says, but that doesn’t matter; there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s my elder brother in Christ, and my most important mentor – even though he died in 1963.

Finally (and I think it’s important to be honest here!), the General Synod Pension Plan. Yes, I’m old enough to know that this is definitely a factor in my thinking! It is for most of us who are Anglican clergy, but not all of us will admit it. It’s not a gold-plated plan; it will pay me about 52% of my current salary if I retire after forty years, or a little more if I go further, which will certainly require some major belt-tightening, but that will be enough to give me a level of security and allow me to continue to minister in ways that interest me for as long as I feel able to do so.

These are the four most important reasons I’m aware of why I’m still an Anglican. I was raised in the evangelical clan of Anglicanism, and that gives me ties outside Anglicanism with other evangelicals. Also, in recent years I’ve explored the riches of the Anabaptist tradition and rejoiced in the strengths it brings in areas where we Anglicans are weak. But for now (who can predict the future?) I’m still following Jesus as an Anglican, and I can’t see any strong likelihood of that changing in the immediate future.

What about you, my fellow-Anglicans? What are your reasons?

Still Happy to be an Evangelical Christian (repost)

I’m reposting this piece from November 2013, because I have recently been told by a good friend (who is not an evangelical) that we ‘nuanced, tolerant evangelicals’ (her phrase) need to keep explaining our brand of being evangelical. OK, here’s my explanation!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the Anglican circles I move in, it’s not uncommon to hear people make snide comments about Holy Trinity Brompton (home of the Alpha Course) or All Soul’s, Langham Place (where John Stott was rector for many years) being ‘only barely Anglican’. This, of course, is because these churches are part of the evangelical tribe, and their worship and theology doesn’t pass the particular litmus test that the joker (usually a person of the ‘liberal catholic‘ tribe of Anglicanism) sees as essential to being ‘mainstream Anglican’.

I find this sad. You see, I grew up in the evangelical tribe of Anglicanism, and I found Christ there.

My Dad was an evangelical priest. His ministry was centred on preaching the gospel of Christ and helping people commit their lives to Christ, and there are many people in different parts of England (and even Edmonton!) today who are Christians because of his ministry. He taught people how to have daily ‘quiet times’ for prayer, he led small group Bible studies, he visited people and had personal conversations with them about their faith. His preferred style of worship was low church (although he had sung in a church choir and could sing Evensong better than most high church clergy I hear today), without a lot of extra bells and whistles. He was about Jesus, the Bible, conversion, faith,  commitment, the work of the Holy Spirit, and community.

But he was never anything other than Anglican. He believed the doctrines taught in the Book of Common Prayer, he celebrated the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, he wore his clerical collar during the week (far more than I do!) and his robes on Sundays. To suggest that somehow my Dad was less than Anglican because he was an evangelical would have been insulting in the extreme.

It seems to me, from some of the conversations I see on the Internet, that a lot of people who make loud noises about Anglicanism being a ‘big tent church’, with lots of room for different points of view, are a little shy to acknowledge that evangelical Anglicans are an integral part of that big tent. In this they are very different from a previous generation of Anglo-Catholics. My bishop in my Saskatchewan days, Vicars Short (of blessed memory), as high an Anglo-Catholic as they come, was once having a conversation with me about a particular subject (I forget what). I ventured an opinion (he was very brainy, so this was always a little scary) and then said “But of course, I would take that point of view, being an evangelical”. Bishop Short replied “You don’t need to apologize for that; that’s a perfectly respectable Anglican position”. A very long way from the snide, dismissive talk about ‘Con/Evos’ that is so common in the blogosphere today.

I’d say these days that ‘evangelical’ isn’t the whole truth about my Christianity, but it’s still the tribe I belong to, and I’m still happy to do so. Why do I say that?

First, because I still love the Bible, although I find it difficult to subscribe to the belief of many evangelicals that it is inerrant, and I acknowledge that most of us are selectively literalist in interpreting it. Nonetheless, I believe that in sum total these books are smarter than I’ll ever be, so I read and study them daily and find that as I do so they lead me to Christ over and over again. And I particularly enjoy making their prayers my own.

Second, because I still rejoice in the evangelical teaching of ‘justification by grace through faith’ – in other words, the gospel idea that I don’t have to wait until I’ve achieved fifty percent plus one in the holiness exam before I can come to God. On the cross, Jesus stretched out his arms and forgave sinners, and that includes me. So God’s love embraces me wherever I am and whatever I’ve done, and accepts me and welcomes me into God’s presence.

Of course, Anabaptist friends have challenged me to include discipleship in my understanding of grace: the idea that although God loves us so much he accepts us just as we are, he loves us too much to leave us there! The call of Jesus is to follow him and to put his teaching and example into practice in our daily lives. But still, when we fail (as we always do) the rock on which we stand is not our shaky and imperfect obedience, but Christ’s infinite and unconditional love for us.

Third, because I still believe that a simple liturgy, without a lot of ceremonial additions, is the best and most biblically faithful way to worship God. And although I have appreciated the challenge of catholic-minded Christians to put the service of Holy Communion at the centre of my worship, I do not buy the argument that it needs to be the main service every Sunday (although it certainly should be available every Sunday). The simple reason for this is that we are still expecting Sunday worship, rightly or wrongly, to be the front door through which unchurched people will come within sound of the gospel and come to know Christ. Is a service at which we talk about eating someone’s body and drinking his blood – and then proceed to exclude those who are not baptized – the best way to communicate the gospel to unchurched people? Not always. So I appreciate the old Anglican tradition of services of Morning Prayer, centred on the word and on music, that give the unchurched and the seeker and the questioner a way in to Christian worship without asking them to participate in a blood feast they don’t yet understand (which many of them instinctively know demands from them a commitment they can’t yet reasonably accept).

Please note once again: I fully accept that at least once on a Sunday we ought to celebrate the Holy Communion and that at least half of the time it ought to be our main service. Also please note, I do not advocate the abandoning of liturgy at non-Eucharistic services either. We Anglicans have a great tradition of excellent non-sacramental liturgies, and I don’t think we should join the wholesale rush to abandon them.

Fourth, I’m still an evangelical because I appreciate the call to personal holiness I find in my tribe. Historic Anglican evangelicalism includes not only a call to be sexually pure (which people tend to be rather obsessed with today – either for it or against it), but also to live a simple life and to beware of the lure or wealth, to avoid worldliness, to be either moderate or abstemious when it comes to potential addictions, and to love Christ and draw close to him in prayer and Christian service. Granted, I question some aspects of this today (how does it work for gay people, for instance?) and I think that it tends to be overly individualistic (what about structural evil in society, and how we as Christians react to it? And what about the issue of war and peace, on which Jesus and the early church appear to have been largely pacifistic?). Nonetheless, I appreciate the fact that in a Christian world that has largely abandoned talk of holiness because it’s seen as too negative, evangelical Christianity has continued to call for us to repent of our sins and learn to live a holy life.

Fifthly, I’m still an evangelical because I believe that the gospel needs to be shared and people need to be called to conversion. All four of the New Testament gospels end with a version of the tradition in which Jesus sends out his disciples as missionaries to spread the good news and to call people who are not yet Christians to become his followers. The entire New Testament assumes that this matters supremely: God has not sent his Son into the world so that the world can ignore him, or see him as one possible option among many. I am a Christian today because a Christian evangelist (my father) shared the gospel with me and challenged me to give my life to Christ. I do not believe that i would have picked this up by osmosis, even though I was taken to church every Sunday by my parents. My institutional relationship with the church needed to become a personal commitment to Christ, and that happened because of someone’s personal witness. My greatest joy as a Christian is to pass that on.

As I said, ‘evangelical’ is not the whole truth about my life as an Anglican Christian, nor should it be. From the writings of C.S. Lewis I learned a broader approach to Christianity, a strong natural theology, and a common-sense approach to personal devotion that has been vitally important in my Christian living. From Anglo-Catholic friends I learned to appreciate the place of the body in Christianity, and the rich history of spirituality found in the various monastic traditions, especially the Benedictines and the Franciscans. And from Anabaptist friends I heard the call to a more faithful practice of the teaching of Jesus, especially simplicity of life, truthfulness, nonviolence and love for enemies.

So I’ve picked up good things from these other traditions, but they have modified my evangelicalism, not replaced it. To use another illustration, I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of other Christian homes, and have brought some of their traditions back to my home, but I haven’t moved house. I might get angry with evangelicals sometimes, and some of them might look askance at me from time to time and ask if I’m really still one of them, but the evangelical tradition is still my spiritual home; it’s where I was first nurtured in Christ, and it continues to feed me, challenge me, inspire me, annoy me, and provoke me to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). And for that, I am thankful.

Wanted: Enthusiastic Christians

Mainline Christendom churches do many excellent things, but one thing we’re not good atjesus-is-the-way doing is making enthusiastic Christians. What I mean is, taking secular people and turning them into enthusiastic Christians (a process traditionally called ‘conversion’).

I know, I know, we don’t convert anyone, we don’t turn them into enthusiastic Christians  that’s the work of God the Holy Spirit. I sing from that song book too!

Nonetheless, church culture can be a help or a hindrance. And the church culture of mainline Christendom churches was formed by fifteen hundred years of the Christendom paradigm, which assumed that people were already Christian by virtue of being born into a Christian country where the Christian worldview was assumed by everyone. People just needed catechism and pastoral care; they didn’t need evangelizing.

The Christendom paradigm is now dead. And here’s the rub: the church needs enthusiastic Christians to be able to do the things Jesus is asking us to do. If you haven’t been captivated by the Gospel of grace – if you haven’t experienced the forgiving, loving, life-giving touch of the Holy Spirit – if your Christianity is just a low-temperature, pew-sitting kind of thing – you’re going to have great difficulty passing it on to others, either your children, or your friends and neighbours.

This, I think, is the big issue for mainline Christendom churches. How do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to reach out to people who aren’t really that interested in ‘religion’ and help them become enthusiastic Christians?

I do not believe that there is an effective answer to that question that leaves out the issue of evangelism. And this strikes terror into the heart of mainline Christians. Most lay and clergy leaders in mainline churches are desperately searching for the magic bullet – the infallible program that will turn things around, draw new people into the church, balance the budgets etc., without asking us to talk to our non-Christian friends about Jesus.

That program does not exist. You cannot turn disinterested secular people into enthusiastic Christians without (a) having a faith worth sharing, (b) having a friend worth sharing it with, and (c) opening your mouth to talk about what Jesus means to you.

This is why I believe that the crucial issue for the future of our Anglican church is helping people learn to relax and enjoy evangelism. But a prerequisite for that is that they must be enthusiastic Christians themselves first. Therefore, evangelism isn’t just important for people outside the Church. People inside the Church need it to. When we become lukewarm, what we need more than anything else is a fresh infusion of the joy of the Gospel. We don’t need browbeating into greater faithfulness. We need to hear and experience the love of Christ in a fresh and powerful way. We will not share it with others unless we are experiencing it ourselves.

When I attended a Cursillo weekend (or ‘made my cursillo’, as the jargon goes) in the late 1970s I was introduced to a wonderful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition. It begins like this: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love’.

The fire of your love. Not the slowing dying ember. Not the little flickering pilot light. The fire.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Friday miscellany

First, a few pieces of absurdity for you this morning. has a piece called ‘Eight Cheap Cars for the Cash Strapped Student‘. Hey, folks, if you can afford a cheap car, you’re not a cash-strapped student! Cash strapped students used to ride the bus or the train. When I was a student, the only one in my class to own a car was the son of the wealthy businessman. The rest of us walked or took the bus (or sponged rides off our friends!).

Over the Europe there’s a huge and complex refugee problem caused mainly by a lengthy civil war in Syria. Reading the Old Testament and the New Testament, it would seem that God might be concerned about this – in fact, that it would be high on his list of priorities. Meanwhile, over at ‘Thinking Anglicans’, a joyful post about the appointment of Christine Hardman as the next Bishop of Newcastle has turned into a long discussion in the comments about whether or not Conservative Evangelicals in Newcastle will be able to accept her ministry. Note: so far, no Conservative Evangelicals are taking part in this discussion.

By the way, if you want to read some stories about the real human beings who are refugees, check out this post on the Christian Peacemaker Teams website.

Over in Kentucky, of course, there’s an ongoing controversy about a devout Christian county clerk who refuses to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples because it violates her conscience; she believes that God’s plan is for marriage to be a union between one man and one woman (note: she has now gone to jail over this issue). I’m sympathetic to her view; I have reservations about same-sex marriage myself, and I’m also mindful of the fact that the government appears to have unilaterally changed the terms of her contract after hiring her. On the other hand, as has been pointed out on the internet, if a Quaker clerk refused to issue a gun licence on the grounds that it violated his or her conscientious objection to guns, I suspect that the conservative Christian community wouldn’t be jumping up and down in support. I also suspect they won’t be donating money for the legal bills of Christians who are prosecuted for war tax resistance.

Interestingly, some of the folks involved in the fight to legalize same sex marriage in the US seem to have a good sense of perspective on this incident:

“I think this is a tempest in a teapot,” said Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, which was active in the push for same-sex marriages to be recognized. “If the big backlash and the mass resistance that our opponents promised is one clerk from a county of under 25,000 people, I think we’re in very good shape.”

Now, a serious issue.

Jesus told his critics that the reason he spent time with ‘sinners’ was that it wasn’t the healthy folks that needed a doctor, but the sick. Christianity believes in grace, which is God’s love poured out generously and without reservation on all who need it, whether they deserve it or not. So Christianity isn’t supposed to be a club for those who are doing well; it’s meant to be a community for imperfect people who help each other and share the love of God with each other.

So I’m saddened by the continual realization that when some people start having struggles, they stop going to church. There are all kinds of legitimate reasons for this, and I’m not in any way wanting to judge these folks. I simply think that we in the church need to do a better job of being obviously, in the sight of the world, a community for the broken, not a club for people who have their lives all together.

Speaking of brokenness and how we deal with it, many of my friends will know how much I enjoy the CBC program ‘Heartland’. A couple of years ago Graham Wardle, who plays Ty Borden on the show, got together with another motorcycling friend to start the annual ‘Cruise with a Cause‘, a motor cycle trip to raise money for good causes. Their 2015 ride is ending in High River today, and their cause this year is the Canadian Mental Health Association. ‘Heartland’ stars Graham Wardle, Amber Marshall, Shaun Johnston and Alisha Newton are all taking part. I think that’s a great cause; mental health issues affect millions of people, and often they’re afraid to talk about it or ask for help. Anything that raises the profile of this subject is a good thing in my books.

And while we’re talking about mental health issues, I should mention the World Suicide Prevention Day ‘Cycle Around the Globe Initiative‘ on September 10th, sponsored by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. Here in Edmonton my good friends Bill and Betty Jo Werthmann and the ‘Hillary’s Ride’ initiative are sponsoring a ride at Hawrelak Park, one of several events happening in Edmonton as part of ‘Lift the Silence’ suicide awareness week.

And finally, getting back to the refugee crisis, there is of course a lot of excellent noise going on out there. However, we also need to do something. I have a rather small house and I doubt if a refugee family would fit into it. So the best I can do is to give my financial support to one of the excellent organizations that are doing something about it. Here are a few:

Canadian Foodgrains Bank

World Vision

Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund

Mennonite Central Committee

Oxfam Canada

Carry on!

Christian Leadership

This week the English Anglican world has been all astir with the news that the Church of England is about to appoint (strangely, they don’t elect them over there) its first female bishop. This is old news in Canada, but not so in the C of E.

Also, stop press, since a couple of dozen of the English bishops are also members of the House of Lords, and at the moment they’re all men, a bill has been proposed to make sure we get some women in there too (some people, including yours truly, think that the presence of bishops in the government is a compromise of gospel principles, but apparently that point of view is not currently being considered by the British government or the C of E).

Meanwhile, the Church of England is apparently floating a proposal to identify 150 potential top leaders and groom them for the job with MBA-style training. Reports, and many comments, at Thinking Anglicans here.

Of the many responses, I liked Steve Tilley’s the best. I especially liked the last bit:

For the last eight years I have been doing missional stuff back in the front-line and at grass roots as minister of a planted church which is now hoping to plant again.

Every post has involved investing time and energy in future leaders and growing the Church of England’s talent pool. I can, off the top of my head, name eleven people in ministry and leadership as a result of this work – roughly one every three years.

Think how good I would have been if groomed for future major responsibility? That’s right. Not at all. Those who are worth giving further responsibility to have already invested a considerable amount of time and money in their own development.

By the way, I am really happy in my work.

Meanwhile, I leave you with some words from our sponsor:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to (Jesus). “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”…

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-37, 41-45, NIV 2011)

Carry on.