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.

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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.

 

 

 

Mitres?

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.