Disability, faith and the church

Disability, faith and the church

Depending on who you talk to as many as 1 in 100 people could be psychopaths. Some of the defining characteristics of a psychopath include a lack of..

  1. Anxiety
  2. Remorse
  3. Empathy

Listening to a talk on the subject I wondered to what degree this impacts someone coming to faith. Even if we get more general I feel theres an argument that some people genuinely have the biological cards stacked against them concerning coming to faith. Often when we discuss faith and make appeals to others we place an emphasis on the mind at one extreme or the emotions at another. What do we when confronted with such people incapable of responding properly to either of these? Not just the psychopath but those with learning difficulties or conditions like severe Downs or later life onset conditions like Alzheimers?

When listening to the talk and thinking on this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Apologist David Wood who self diagnoses’s himself as a psychopath. It’s clearly not impossible for such people to come to faith but does this mean that biology or psychology has no consideration? If we were to do a quantitative study of our Churches we’d inevitably find certain people appear more than others. Psychopaths, for example, are better represented in the Prison population compared to non-Psychopaths. Likewise we’ll find various  aspects of the population both over and under emphasised in Churches. This will change from one church to another but ultimately “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” and unless we accurately reflect our local populations will need to reconsider how we can bring these people into the church. Psychopathy, whilst having no bearing on comprehension is still a handicap and any number of similar or related conditions can potentially exclude people from not just participation in a church but from faith itself as we understand it.

So much of Protestant faith is framed through a lens of engaging both the head and the heart. Salvation is by faith alone but what about those people who struggle, or lack the mental categories or presence, that contribute to faith? We could wash our hands at this point and give it to the Holy Spirit, but whilst its impossible to dismiss the Holy Spirit at work in our lives it seems fatalistic to use it as a pretext to dismiss these issues. Its here that I wonder if a view espoused more recently by NT Wright of the Church as a form of covenant community might have an explanation. Salvation, communion with God is seen less through the lens of individual receptiveness to the Gospel but by participation in the community which is collectively saying we trust in Jesus Christ.

[T]he doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ….Let us be quite clear. ‘The gospel’ is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. ‘Justification’ is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other

N.T Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said.

The Church in this light is less a collection of individuals bound by common creed but a community, a family focused on the person of Jesus Christ. Faith is a core component still but it isn’t directly pertaining to justification, instead faith leads to participation in the family of Jesus Christ out of which comes justification. Here then, participation in the family is the emphasis which is still accessible for those with conditions like Downs, Alzheimers or even Psychopaths who might struggle or be otherwise unable to have faith in the conventional sense. Faith is still a core component but theres a nuance here I think is important. This perspective isn’t without its own areas of concern and there are probably implications to this that need to be realised but thinking about this has made me consider it in a way I hadn’t previously.

I think sometimes theres a temptation to expect Christians to be a certain kind of person. The problem with this perspective is, unless the entire neighbourhood, nation and world eventually becomes that kind of person the Church will also be perpetually hobbled. For England to become a nation of  Christians again the Church will have to look very different to what it does today. It’ll need to anticipate the entire spectrum of human nature and have a place for it. This doesn’t mean necessarily changing our theology or liberalising but perhaps coming to increasingly view faith as a community effort rather than an individual one. Theirs a tension to be found in calling the people to repent and simultaneously the church accessible to the people. In the words of Bonhoeffer..

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it..

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

All of this touches on a broader question to me. So much of our faith is hinged on our individual ability to respond – in this light it is quite individualistic. I do not think it is a coincidence then in this light that practices like the corporate sacrament of communion is deprioritised in many Protestant churches. The individual response is important, but perhaps it is the means rather than the end itself.

A few years ago, when the emerging church was popular, I knew a good many people who felt they didn’t need Church, they had their own private thing going on they’d say. Many of those who attended church would ask these people ‘how do you get fed?’ by which they meant – where do you get taught scripture? They asked ‘where do you find accountability?’ by which they meant – how do you ensure you aren’t stumbling into heterodoxy? These were poor questions because the exposition of scripture itself is nothing miraculous, you can get it off the internet, and heterodoxy abounds in so many churches today.

So why go to Church? Perhaps because the Church is the covenant, the Ark, the body and the family of Abraham that is committed to following Christ. It is more than mere acquiescence to a particular set of propositions or an emotional response to the Gospel. The belonging itself is crucial and is emphasised by the practices Jesus himself handed down to us in Communion and Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 1:13 ‘Is Christ divided?’. The answer is no. This makes me ask the question of my own views on communion, anyone can break bread and drink wine but what does that mean if we do so outside the Church? At worst we do so in order to delude ourselves that we can engage with God on our own terms. Perhaps it isn’t just faith but also the church that binds us together, particularly if we’re struggling or just can’t comprehend the Gospel. I’m reminded of the final words of Christopher McCandless ‘Happiness is only real when shared.’ I think its true, but I think it extends to faith too. Our faith is only real when worked out together.

In our faith let us ‘show, don’t tell’

In our faith let us ‘show, don’t tell’

I am all too aware of my shortcomings as a writer here but once upon a time I took a cursory course in creative writing. I did little to nothing with it afterwards but one thing I came away from was with the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’. In writing this is the view that instead of merely explaining what is happening in a scene it is better to show the scene to the reader. In one letter the writer Anton Chekov wrote.

When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared. You will bring life to nature only if you don’t shrink from similes that liken its activities to those of humankind.

Anton Chekov, Letter to Alexander Chekhov, 1886

The incarnation itself can be considered a divine instance of showing over telling. Colossians describes Christ as “the visible image of the invisible God” and Paul elsewhere writes.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV

As people we exist in physical space, this seems obvious at first but in our increasingly literary and now digital age we often now forget this. We were created in a realm not just of thoughts and feelings but actions and senses. This is why it is significant that Jesus was born, lived, died and was resurrected in a physical way. Its this realisation, and an increasing disillusionment with certain interpretations of ‘word and spirit’ typified by groups like both the reformed and charismatic movements thats making me look at this in different ways.

In our contemporary western churches it is arguable that we have slipped into the practice of telling rather than showing people the Kingdom of God. Our contemporary emphasis on lecture style preaching is indicative of this. Our worship is increasingly self-referential and advocating what we should be doing in Church rather than reflecting or depicting the agency and character of God in our world. Our architecture is also increasing bland, historically these buildings worked to direct people to God through their aesthetics and structure, today they are often utilitarian and basic buildings with a simplistic and stunted externals. This isn’t due to any pragmatism or frugality but a shift in areas of emphasis from an embodied soul to a disembodied mind. A shift from a present reality to proposition, this is most obvious in the older church buildings being repurposed for contemporary style services. Stained glass and vaulted ceilings on one side and comic sans bulletin notices and projector imagery appealing to the sublime on the other.

In my readings of the Old Testament I’m struck by the Prophets consistent use of props and their own lives to communicate what was given to them. Theres an earthiness and realness to them that so often seems missing in contemporary Protestantism, even amongst the charismatics. The work of God isn’t just vocalised but spat into the ground and rubbed into the eyes of those who couldn’t see. Yet even in many churches the practices handed down to us, the bread and the wine, are tacked on rather than taking centre stage in our gatherings. A Church that shows rather than tells quickly becomes a way of life, an exercise in world building. Jesus taught us several clear ways to do this the most obvious to be sharing in his blood and body, baptism and prayer.

This is important because in the act of showing we are engaging to the whole of us, not just our minds. The process of developing the sacraments and prayer into regular habits from a purely pragmatic perspective enables us to link thoughts, prayers and memories to our actions bringing all of ourselves in unity to the work and worship of God in the world.

There is also an added strength in doing such things as a body of people, it reinforces our identity with one another as members of group united not just by creed but by practice. This isn’t true just in church gatherings but even in areas like Sporting teams and the rituals they acquire. Creeds and statements said in the midst of actions and activities no longer become a series of propositions but something that informs our thoughts and in turn our lives. It also means that whilst being linked to theology actions aren’t dependent on understanding and in this way does not discriminate against those unable to grasp some of the weightier theological issues at work in the life of the Church. Understanding is important, but Jesus didn’t ask us to necessarily understand him but to trust and follow him.

All of this reminds me that there have been times in Christian history where the process of changing the words said during a liturgy has resulted in the shedding of blood. At first I couldn’t understand why people would be willing to become martyrs over small word changes, but I know now these words aren’t just words. They were joined with actions and together said something more about these people, the church and what it did and how it perceived God. The other thing I realised is such things exist in stark contrast to much of contemporary christian music where the words sung are seldom considered by the congregant who is increasingly relegated to the position of audience.

In writing and thinking about this I realise that whether by design or accident many of the liturgical and sacramental services of the church that we abandoned in the 20th century actually do what I’m talking about well, at least on paper. That these are increasingly unpopular with Churchgoers also raises questions about the validity of what I’ve been writing here. Yet we also find ourselves increasingly unable to remember scripture, remember songs and in the public sphere beating a retreat or defined increasingly only by the times Christians and Unbelievers find sources of friction. What does a Christian look like? What does a Christian sound like? What does a Christian do? There is increasingly no consensus on these things. Some positives exist as a result but these are arguably outweighed by the negatives and I’d wager only contribute to the erosion of the Christian presence in the West. Ultimately showing over telling is a good thing, but showing the world together the Gospel of Jesus Christ is better.

Benedicite, omnia opera Domini

O all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Heavens, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Waters that be above the Firmament, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Powers of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Sun and Moon, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Stars of Heaven, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Showers and Dew, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Winds of God, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Fire and Heat, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Winter and Summer, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Dews and Frosts, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Frost and Cold, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Ice and Snow, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Nights and Days, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Light and Darkness, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Lightnings and Clouds, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O let the Earth bless the Lord : yea, let it praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Mountains and Hills, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Green Things upon the Earth, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.O ye Wells, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Whales, and all that move in the Waters, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Fowls of the Air, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Beasts and Cattle, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Children of Men, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O let Israel bless the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Priests of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Spirits and Souls of the Righteous, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye holy and humble Men of heart, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O Ananias, Azarias and Misael, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

 

Ananias, Azarias and Misael are names for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego the friends of Daniel. This is probably my favourite bit out of the morning prayer in the BCP where all of creation is called and encouraged to praise God. I try to think of every thing mentioned as I recite the lines, the repetition at first was tedious but I’ve gotten into it now and keep returning to this passage in particular.

Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

I have to catch myself sometimes, I never thought I’d be this kind of Christian. Even a couple of years ago I was a fairly generic brand of miscellaneous evangelical. I’m still trying to work through what I think and where its leading me, part of this is getting my head round the challenge and appeal of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Book of Common Prayer is a foundational text for the Anglican church, its been adapted for use by both Catholics and Orthodox and at a time was the backbone of Church services nearly everywhere English was spoken. It contains Prayers but it also contains Orders of Service, Psalms to be sung or prayed, Catechism, the Creed of St Athanasius, the 39 articles of the Anglican church and more. For many it’s considered not just a foundational part of Anglicanism but of the English language alongside Shakespeare and the Bible. It was originally compiled during the reign of King Edward the VI, the son of Henry the VIII by Thomas Cranmer, the then Archbishop of Canterbury.

With the decline of liturgy and the various changes within the English church in the 20th century however the Book of Common Prayer is currently out of favour with many Christians. I have the 1662 pocket edition and it reads like the King James Bible, to many and myself initially it can prove complicated and overwhelming. Yet this is partly because, archaic language aside, its prayers are primarily corporate in nature which is something increasingly rare today. The secret to the BCP is in its name – it is meant to be common, or rather something we share ‘in common’ with one another. One person I was talking with, about the liturgy and prayers of the BCP, articulated it in the following way.

One of the things that is most blessed about the liturgy is the fact that it binds us into the community, whether we are praying in our corner alone or united with others in one place. The prayers are ‘we’ and ‘our’, not ‘I’ and ‘my’. It transcends space and time, uniting believers around the world and through the ages — not just to Cranmer but beyond, through the centuries of medieval development and to the ancient church. I love that feature of it. And this emphasis on community, made explicit in many prayers but also built into the traditional structure of Anglicanism from parish to diocese through province to primate, is definitely at odds with much evangelicalism — and this is a shame, because there is something beautiful about the knowledge, zeal, commitment, and drive for holiness that is embodied in evangelicalism at its best. But today, evangelicalism, even in corporate worship, continually uses ‘I’ ‘me’ ‘mine’ (one thinks immediately of the Beatles) and spends much of the time of praise looking to the praiser and his or her experience, not to the one being praised.

 

The Prayer Book sets us free from that without jettisoning the important, deep, biblical theology evangelicals claim as their own.
The use in the prayers of ‘we’ and ‘our’ aren’t original – it mirrors the Lord’s prayer.
OUR Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name,
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
(For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.)
Amen.

 

Lord’s Prayer
The Lord’s prayer in this sense is common too and if you recite it with any frequency, then this is liturgy in a fashion. Its tragic that, in my own experience, many evangelical churches seldom say it anymore publicly, or even share communion that often anymore.
The other thing I found challenging about the BCP is that it contains morning and evening prayers. I had to check with someone but the BCP assumes this is done every day. The idea of church being open every day, both morning and evening for me was pretty challenging. The idea of getting together with others early in the morning reminded me of a letter by Pliny the Younger on the Early Church.
..they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so..

 

Excerpt from the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan

This idea suggested Church, not just Christianity as a way of life. It was something always going on, always coming together and the emphasis was on the ‘common’ faith shared between believers. This is a Church, like the early church, which changed the way society was structured and run. Discussing this with my own minister I was disappointed to hear that the majority of ministers trained today have little to no exposure to the Book of Common Prayer and we are exchanging our heritage for something that seems in comparison so minimal. I only knew anything about because I sought it out, otherwise this is a text many of us either knowingly disregard or are ignorant of.

More recently when a family member was admitted to hospital I was distraught and I prayed till I didn’t know what to say. Out of words I went and picked up the BCP opening it on the section detailing ministry for the sick and ailing. Praying those words knowing that they had been said thousands of times of people in similar situations throughout the ages was profound. The words themselves have power, but so does the common nature of the text I had been given. I knew whatever happened, me and my relative were bound together in the footsteps of Christians who knew that same pain and struggle and responded by bringing it to God. When you push past the archaic language the words are surprisingly candid, human and they help give us focus, directing us out of ourselves towards God.

The BCP is full of prayers thanking God for all areas of our life but it also contains everything you need to know theologically to be considered an Anglican. It contains a Catechism, a Creed and the 39 articles. If an apocalypse were to happen today and all knowledge of this world to disappear, you could, upon discovering the BCP amongst the rubble, continue the practice and belief of the Anglican church from this small book. The faith in the BCP is a common faith, a public faith that is easy to understand and consistently referencing scripture throughout. The BCP is a ticket to a new (but really ancient) vision of church.

Despite all this I struggle to read the BCP consistently, the prayers are long and its not a fashionable thing to do. Yet theres an appeal to it, to be honest it feels a bit of dirty secret when I’m amongst my classically evangelical friends. The BCP is meant really for corporate settings, but I pray it alone because no one really does it anymore – not even my minister. I pray that changes. Even when I struggle I’ve taken to incorporating elements from it into my more open prayer. The doxologies, key phrases and terms are hooks I use to tap into the theology contained within it when I go about my day.

I don’t really understand the point in all the formality in so many church services but I am now beginning to understand the point of the BCP. If you’ve never read the BCP I would encourage you to do so. For all the christian books and music published today you can do worse than to direct funds elsewhere temporarily and pick up a copy for yourself. Let it speak for itself and instead of merely reading the words, like I used to, consider what is being said and why on the pages you read. Its worth it.

O Lord, open thou our lips.
And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Praise ye the Lord.
The Lord’s Name be praised.

Introduction to Evening Prayer, 1662 BCP

C.S Lewis on old books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

C.S Lewis Introduction to Athanasius: On the Incarnation

Liberalism and schism in the Church of England

Liberalism and schism in the Church of England

Not too long ago I had written out a post on liberalism, particularly in the Church of England. It was precipitated by a mixture of a piece in the Telegraph and some interactions my wife had with a liberal anglo-catholic friend. However after reading Anthony Smith‘s take on the Telegraph article I’ve found myself reforming my views on the subject or rather at least how I articulate them.

In the issue of liberalism I find my attitudes framed rather well by the tension between characters like John Stott and his counterpart Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 60’s. Stott, a faithful Anglican professed to being a witness seeking to reform the CoE. Lloyd-Jones an Evangelical minister calling for all-evangelicals to not associate with denominations with liberal wings. Some days I side with Stott, some days with Lloyd-Jones. So the Telegraph article in question naturally caught my interest when it detailed a group of Evangelical Anglicans potentially taking steps to formally break away whilst still trying to remain distinctly Anglican.

As Anthony Smith rightfully points out in his article little to no means exists for any churches that did break away to do so easily. With Women’s ordination Anglicans who wished to rejoin the Catholic church had to give up their buildings. I imagine nothing would change with any subsequent ecclesial break with the CoE. Its not impossible however, in the case of the ACNA / Episcopalian split in the US this has been attempted. Attempts to hold onto church buildings by local congregations have resulted in a flurry of  lawsuits initiated by the denomination against the congregations as a result of their actions with mixed results.

Anthony Smith also highlights that their are provisions for those who disagree on issues of theology already within the CoE meaning no one has to compromise.

Those who hold to the traditional teaching, by and large, are able to just get on with their ministry, without hindrance. The cost of breaking away would be so great, and the pressing urgency to leave is simply nonexistent (for the majority), so it really ain’t going to happen.

Anthony Smith, The CofE is not about to split – 2016

The distinction here however is in regard to a formal split. I wonder however, if functionally at least amongst laity, there is already an informal split between conservative and liberal wings of the Church of England already. Practices such as the fostering or habilitation of Zen Meditation or Islamic Prayer are acceptable to perhaps liberals but anathema to conservatives. Attitudes towards female bishops (or priests) and any potential future concession regarding homosexuality may only exacerbate the divide. The provision of flying bishops to take into account these divisions is arguably leading to a church within a church system. What starts off as a grassroots division is gradually taking on a ecclesial role which whilst on paper is still united on paper is increasingly segregated in both creed, commissioning and culture.

The first leavers were the Anglo-Catholics but the second might be the Evangelicals. The sentiments expressed by many earlier anglo-catholic leavers I find on the lips of many evangelical lay people.

I left the Church of England because there was a huge bundle of straw. The ordination of women was the last straw, but it was only one of many. For years I had been disillusioned by the Church of England’s compromising on everything. The Catholic Church doesn’t care if something is unpopular. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned if it’s true it’s true, and if it’s false it’s false. The issue over women priests was not only that I think it’s theologically impossible to ordain women, it was the nature of the debate that was the damaging thing, because instead of the debate being “Is this theologically possible?” the debate was “If we don’t do this we won’t be acceptable to the outside world”. To me, that was an abdication of the Church’s role, which is to lead, not to follow.

Ann Widdecombe, New Statesman Interview 2010

So whilst no formal split may occur and no evangelical equivalent to the Roman Catholic church exists to help facilitate the rehabilitation of leavers (unless you count GAFCON). This doesn’t necessarily mean business as usual. The compromise of the Anglican via media increasingly is isolating itself from both the Catholic and the Orthodox in addition to the overwhelming majority of Protestants. Over time it is likely the Conservative Evangelical wing of the Church of England is the one that will suffer as a result of this arrangement.

  • Conservative clergy will wane in influence in the face of continued acceptance of liberal attitudes and theology.
  • Conservative clergy will increasingly see no problem adopting more liberal attitudes themselves over time leading to the erosion of conservative numbers.
  • Conservative laity will be progressively deterred from considering ordination in a liberalising institution
  • Conservative laity will find increasingly find it easier to fall into denominations outside of Anglicanism and Evangelicals outside the church will be deterred from joining an existing Anglican congregation.

When I think about this whole thing I’m reminded of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?  That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.  ‘A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.’

Galatians 5:7-9

The yeast in this essence I think is the influence of other parties working through to change the whole body. Over time theology matters less than the structure our institutions take and the practices they encourage, the formal cohabitation of liberal and conservative wings over time is by nature a liberal action. Conservative doesn’t just mean ‘traditional’ but is linked etymologically to the word ‘conservation’. Yet we are no longer conserving the denomination in the practices and beliefs that have defined the CoE over time. Instead we are ring fencing a small facet in a broader spectrum of increasingly diverging beliefs and practices as one equivalent option among many. The biggest losers in all of this are genuine conservative Anglicans. Free range evangelicals can go independent at worst and the liberals will keep pushing boundaries which so far haven’t been definitively reached within Anglicanism. Any attempt to navigate this tension is done with the feelings of the respective parties being the primary consideration, this is a reactive mindset akin to therapy. The actual goal of any ‘discussions‘ or ‘listening‘ seems to be to continuously assuage the feelings of the respective parties till they are comfortable with cohabitation, or at least less concerned.

Maybe I’m too strict and narrow in my definition of Anglicanism, many will probably disagree with the outlook I’ve put forward. Even many evangelicals sit somewhere between the conservative and liberal divide. Yet I believe that some measure of church discipline should be put upon those in leadership who stray from the boundaries of orthodoxy. Some may say such a thing already occurs but I think thats wrong as several public examples testify that this is largely dependent of which bishops clergy serve under. To do anything less is, in the words of Ann Widdecombe is “an abdication of the Church’s role, which is to lead, not to follow”. Whatever it is the Church of England is doing it isn’t leading, its being lead. This isn’t to say the Church should become overbearing or aggressive but instead clear and consistent on its teaching in a pastoral fashion as best maintained from the time of Christ irrespective of our current cultures circumstances.

There isn’t a final word spoken yet, so time will tell what the fate of the Church of England will be. Yet even in the process of ‘conversations’ and ‘listening’ the ground is moving under the Churches feet. Maybe I’ll be wrong but if the Church doesn’t change I don’t think clergy would be crazy if they did consider leaving the Church. Where they go afterwards however is an even tougher question.

Immediacy

Immediacy

Recently I heard some say we live in a time in which Western Christianity is determined by ‘immediacy’. It wasn’t expanded upon at the time but this struck a chord with me, something rang true about this.

When we look at the word ‘immediate’ and break it down (or type ‘etymology of immediate’ into Google) you get the following.

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Immediate basically means ‘not mediated’ just as immodest means roughly ‘not modest’. In this light you could say that Protestantism is defined by ‘immediacy’ or rather the rejection of mediators (such as Popes, Priests and Saints) between us and God. Christ is our only mediator we say. Yet I think nearly all of us would say there needs to be some form ‘intervening’ at some level. Even the most Protestant of ministers would attest to that, otherwise they’d be out of the job. We are increasingly our own authority and I think a danger exists that this is corrosive to not just the church but all society.  What follows it a reflection on this and wondering what exactly is the right amount of mediation?

The idea of immediacy is one that seems inherently solitary. Any influence to qualify or interpret our understanding of events could arguably be considered mediated. A mediated experience is necessarily a shared experience. The family, school and government are mediated institutions. The media, whether mass or social, as its name suggests is by essence a mediated telling of events.

Even when we open the Bible to the Old Testament we see mediation in the actions of the Angels, Patriarchs, Prophets, Priests and Kings all of which are prefiguring or acting in the place of God. That is, until Jesus himself. After Jesus we have the Holy Spirit, but it isn’t disembodied but rather embodied in the followers of Christ. That is to say the Church. Scripture adopts familial language to describe the Church; Sisters and Brothers, Daughters and Sons, Mothers and Fathers. The Church is a mediated experience just as the family is. This is, to me, the first flashpoint between our contemporary understanding of ‘immediate’ Christianity and a more mediated reading of scripture.

In scripture we see the expectation of the experienced mentoring and setting an example for those unfamiliar or junior in knowledge of the faith. The Rabbi and his disciple, the Father and his son, the Shepherd and his sheep, these are all concepts familiar to us from the pages of the New Testament.Yet faith is largely solitary today, we may come together at set times, but more generally we operate with the general assumption that the Holy Spirit gives us the means, knowledge or ability to navigate through life and this is all we really need. We don’t really need one another, we have the Holy Spirit. What place then for spiritual discipline? What place then for accountability or confessing to one another? Is it possible that we experience the Holy Spirit through the family of Christ?

You may agree or disagree on this, which raises the question of who do we trust? Its debatable that part of the Protestant Reformation was a fundamental breakdown in trust between the Reformers and the Establishment of the Church in Europe at the time. I find it hard to move beyond the point where I am ultimately culpable for my own actions, I am response-able. Therefore one of the biggest obstacles I have in moving towards something like Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy (for example) is that I cannot agree with the theology of these churches, it is I not them who is ultimately responsible for my posture towards and relationship with God. A minister might be culpable, but it is I who is ultimately responsible. On one extreme we might say ‘no matter its more important to trust’ or that the belonging as a part of this or some other community, not theology, is the key to communion with God. Yet I can’t shake the root level Kierkegaardian existential foundation I find myself adhering to. I see that same existential relationship in the mystics of the church and their visions and with Christ in the garden alone with God. I am, as Charles Taylor suggests a ‘buffered self’ – I think we all are these days.

Thinking about all this I am reminded of two things.

  • The first is the historical transition of monastic practices from solitary to communal.  The immediacy of the solitary life being set aside for the mediated experience of life under both the rule of the community and the Abbott. The ironic idea that these people who withdrew from the world believed they drew closer to God by coming together (in a controlled context) than they did alone.
  • The second is the Garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem. Both of these places are characterised by the immediacy of us (not I) with God. In this seems the idea that all our mediation in this life is an attempt ultimately at achieving shared immediacy. Mediated experience can be (and has been) abused and dangerous but ultimately the immediacy of the Bible is communal, there is nothing else. The coming of Christ, his Holy Spirit is the coming together of Creator and Creation. The coming together of a New Heaven and a New Earth.

Our contemporary immediacy however is one that is so often characterised by a coming apart. We seek to distinguish, to set ourselves apart, not just from the world but other believers too. This is a sin we say, and this is true. Yet so often discussions on this topic inevitably lead to raising the subject of humility in setting aside our foibles and differences in submitting to one another, yet even this quickly falls apart when we ask the next question of who do we submit to? Normally it is the ones calling for humility on the part of others. This would be fine if such people were ultimately the ones responsible for our communion with God, but instead they are merely culpable. If we genuinely disagree, or see the other is in fact wrong and cannot correct them we quickly reach an impasse, we come apart. I am not sure how this is addressed other than becoming slightly more critical of our impulse towards immediacy, to be willing to keep talking if nothing else. To seek the coming together in all things, particularly in faith and where we cannot, to ask forgiveness from one another and from God for our failings. Yet ultimately the ‘direction’ all Christians should be travelling in is that of our coming together. This doesn’t take the form of homogeneity but in the pattern God has given us, that of family.

Finally in reflecting on this, their is something still to be said about authority, or the handling of mediated experience. We do need to move towards a point where we can set ourselves under one another. To recognise we are always in some a way a son even if we one day become a father. The image of the monastics submitting themselves to a rule of life, to the authority of their Father or Abbot I find helpful here. In our pursuit of immediacy we may stumble, and it is in the context of these relationships we need to be open to being corrected. This taps into the idea of covenant which I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Church should be a covenant community. Part of the immediacy of this age is that we’ve exchanged this image of the Church as covenant to that of Church as service. We should be operating with an ‘Opt-In’ mentality but instead frequently operate with an ‘Opt-Out’ one instead. To elaborate, I once heard a Church of England parish minister describe his understanding of being part of the ‘Holy Catholic Church’ mentioned in the creeds as being there as a service for everyone in his parish regardless of faith. Being generous this is the idea of treating the geographic community as covenant community without any acquiescence on the part of the former. This is civil religion and not the Christian faith.It is utilitarian and not relational. This might seem obvious but there is little difference in my eyes between this and those espouse social justice for its own decontextualised ends, the early church did not operate in this way. The act of baptism is going down into the water, communion is coming up to the table. We Opt-In to a life in relationship with God, this is necessarily communal and any community requires mediation if it desires to achieve immediacy with God.

These are my own fragmentary thoughts on this, I hope they’ve been useful. If nothing else this has helped clear my thinking on the topic.