A 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 December 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.
Second, 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.
Third, 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?
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!
In 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.
Mainline Christendom churches do many excellent things, but one thing we’re not good at 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.
First, a few pieces of absurdity for you this morning.
Driving.ca 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:
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)
The thing that troubles me the most about the condition of the Christian church in 2014 is not our conflicts over gay marriage, or the fact that despite the best efforts of our most knowledgable liturgists we still haven’t managed to produce a liturgy that’s good enough to satisfy their perfectionism. It’s not the fact that most of our members appear to be too busy for anything more than Sunday church attendance once or twice a month, although I confess I find that irritating. It’s not even the fact that we seem to be unable to connect with younger generations in anything more than a superficial way, although I admit that this worries me a great deal.
No, the thing that troubles me most of all is that we appear to be failing across the board at our primary mission of forming disciples for Jesus.
I’m not talking about evangelism here – although I think that for the most part we’re failing at that too. I’m taking about what we do with people after we evangelize them. What happens to a person in our churches after they decide to put their faith in Christ? Or, if we want to put it in terms that most timid mainline churchgoers will find more congenial, after a person decides to become a churchgoer, what’s our plan for forming them as disciples of Jesus?
I take it that we can define a disciple as a person who makes it their primary mission in life to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice. And I also take it that one of the clearest discipleship manuals in the New Testament is the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters five, six, and seven, where Jesus spells out exactly what the daily lives of his followers are meant to look like.
Well, let’s take a hop, skip, and jump through those chapters. The Sermon tells us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, but it appears to me that we North American Christians lay up for ourselves treasures on earth at exactly the same rate as those who do not claim to be followers of Jesus. The Sermon tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, but it seems to me that we North American Christians hate our enemies and act toward them in just the same manner as non-Christians do. The Sermon tells us to avoid divorce, but divorce statistics for North American Christians are practically identical to non-Christians. The Sermon tells us to influence the world around us like salt and light, but I would suggest that most of us are far more likely to let the world around us influence us.
I could go on, but I won’t. Have a look for yourself, and ask yourself how your church is doing.
We Anglicans pride ourselves on our liturgies and we have made corporate worship the centre of our life; that’s why the thing we seem to want more than anything else is to get people to come to church, and why success in our eyes appears to consist of persuading more people to join us for worship. But my question is, if our worship is so wonderful, why isn’t it forming us as disciples of Jesus? It may be inspiring us, giving us a shot in the arm, but is it helping us become people whose lives remind others of the Sermon on the Mount? And if not, what are we doing wrong?
Please note that I am including myself in this criticism. I’ve made preaching the primary task of my ministry, and I like to think I do a conscientious job of it. But the older I get, the less confident I am becoming that listening to a fifteen or twenty minute expository sermon on Sunday is actually transforming people into more consistent Christian disciples. And I’m not convinced that putting on more midweek courses will do it either; my experience in churchland is that the vast majority of churchgoers can’t – or won’t – make the time to attend them.
So is there a way to do this? This is a genuine question. Where are the churches that are doing a decent job of forming their members into growing disciples of Jesus – people who are putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in their daily lives? And if you know of such a church, what are they actually doing to make this happen? I’m asking this out of intense personal interest. I turned fifty-six earlier this month, so God willing, I have about ten years of full-time ministry left in me. I would like those years to be fruitful years. I would like to use them as effectively as I can to help form people as disciples of Jesus. But I’m not at all sure that the ways I’m attempting to do that job at the moment are as effective as I’d like. So I would like to hear about places where it’s being done, and being done well.
Can anyone help me?