I don’t know how appropriate this is but with my recent reflections I’ve been wrestling with some of the cognitive dissonances I’ve been feeling about my place in the Church. Becoming a Father has raised a lot for me and prompted me to examine what I believe on a range of issues. I’ve also been reading much more Patristic literature recently. What follows is a short summary of points which I’ve changed my view on or didn’t change but wish I could experience in my local worship but don’t currently.
Practices around Baptism
In my reading on the practices of the early church with regard to baptism, I’ve come to see the necessity for the application of scrutinies and catechism in advance of its reception. This goes some way to ensure the sincerity of those baptised and a proper grounding to the faith of those baptised. Growing up I had a lot of peers many of whom, if not all, have since turned their back on the faith and this cannot help but inform my views.
When they are chosen who are to receive baptism, let their lives be examined, whether they have lived honorably while catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited the sick, and whether they have done every good work. If those who bring them forward bear witness for them that they have done so, then let them hear the Gospel.
The early church set criteria for those being baptised not just on confession but on conduct. Those being baptised had a sponsor, who vouched for them, that they had attended to those in need within the local congregation and lived in a worthy manner. This seemed to occur alongside the practice of Catechism ensuring it wasn’t just head knowledge that was taken on but was married to conduct.
I also think Scrutinies being attached to Sponsorship in advance of Baptism is a perfect opportunity for discipleship as apprenticeship. That existing Christians should mentor and vouch for those being prepared for baptism. Similar to a sponsor in an AA programme.
You were called a Catechumen, while the word echoed round you from without; hearing of hope, and knowing it not; hearing mysteries, and not understanding them; hearing Scriptures, and not knowing their depth. The echo is no longer around you, but within you; for the indwelling Spirit henceforth makes your mind a house of God. When you shall have heard what is written concerning the mysteries, then will you understand things which thou knew not.
It seemed customary in the life of the early church for a period of instruction to be carried out for those wishing to be baptised. This could be over years but undergirds and instructs those wishing to enter the church in advance of their baptism. An appeal for this exists for me given so many people I know have been baptised in ignorance and in later years forsaken the faith. We live in an age of great apostasy. I say apostasy because many are baptised but few are faithful today. The application of both Catechism and the Scrutinies seems to be a measure with precedence in the Church that whilst making it harder to be baptised might lead to a better educated, more involved and sincere laity.
A Baptismal Rite that includes Chrismation and Communion for infants
The early baptismal rites, whilst being predicated on catechism and scrutinies, joined together the practices of chrismation/confirmation and communion all into one. This has its biggest impact on infant baptisms. With an emphasis on both scrutinies and catechism, the earliest a child might be normatively baptised is several years after birth (Gregory Nazianzen placed it around the ages of around about 3 or 4) but if done earlier because a child is not expected to live for long they should experience the same rite for anyone being baptised. This is reflected in the Apostolic Constitutions of Hippolytus of Rome which distinguished children by order of baptism but not liturgy.
To the best of my knowledge, the only reason for a gap in chrismation and baptism was the Western insistence on the chrismation being done by a Bishop, something that wasn’t required in the East who maintained the shape of the rite seen in the early church to a greater degree as a result. In this sense I think the East is in greater continuity with the early church and scripture itself.
My views on communion haven’t changed too much only that if anything its become more important to me. As result, I’d love to experience and hear the following articulated and practised more consistently.
My minister has to oversee a number of churches given the way our parish structure is set up. This means we can’t always experience weekly communion. Yet this is something that I think should be at the centre of our corporate weekly worship as a church community. I miss it when it isn’t done and whilst our doctrine around the practice is important, it is secondary I think to our actual regular participation in the act.
My reading of Church history has strengthened my view of a receptionist understanding of real presence. Whilst first explicitly articulated (by the Monk Ratramnus of Corbie in the 9th century) during the same period to when we first see of Transubstantiation defined I see the philosophical arguments surrounding ‘where’ exactly Christ’s body lies a core consideration, not the question of real presence.
My objection to consubstantiation or transubstantiation is rooted in a view echoed by the Berber Apologist Arnobius of Sicca in his objection to the presence of Pagan deities in various vessels.
For neither is it possible that there can be at one time one god in several images, nor, again, divided into parts by his being cut up. For let us suppose that there are ten thousand images of Vulcan in the whole world: is it possible at all, as I said, that at one time one deity can be in all the ten thousand? I do not think so. Do you ask wherefore? Because things which are naturally single and unique, cannot become many while the integrity of their simplicity is maintained. And this they are further unable to become if the gods have the forms of men, as your belief declares; for either a hand separated from the head, or a foot divided from the body, cannot manifest the perfection of the whole, or it must be said that parts can be the same as the whole, while the whole cannot exist unless it has been made by gathering together its parts. Moreover, if the same deity shall be said to be in all the statues, all reasonableness and soundness is lost to the truth, if this is assumed that at one tithe one can remain in them all; or each of the gods must be said to divide himself from himself, so that he is both himself and another, not separated by any distinction, but himself the same as another.
Which is echoed in the writing of Brad Littlejohn in his defence of the Reformed view of the sacraments…
If Christ was truly man, if nature was truly nature, then his body had to have spatial limitation. And it would not do to on the one hand assert that the body was so glorified that it was capable of infinite spatial extension and yet that such glorified flesh could rightly be offered up as a propitiatory sacrifice, as Catholic dogma insisted.
There is also I think a Manichaen view to the ‘replacement’ of matter in Transubstantiation that usurps the integrity of creation in the Christian mind. Littlejohn later draws on the writings of Anglican Divine Richard Hooker explaining…
It does not accord well with either piety or reason to needlessly heap on subtleties like those that transubstantiation or consubstantiation require, in which there is “so great contradiction between their opinions and true principles of reason grounded upon experience, nature, and sense”
Which I think explains it plainly and maintains the integrity of Christ’s body whilst being rooted in thinking that we can trace back to the early church itself.
One body, one bread
I’ve occasionally been in churches which used wafers in communion but increasingly have come down against this. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:16, 17 writes…
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.
1 Corinthians 10:17 NKJV
Which highlights a theological significance for the sharing and breaking of bread. This seems a minor point in comparison to others but I see a significance in the act of breaking bread and sharing it that is lost and undermined by the practice of administering wafers at communion. Wafers also seem to contribute to a commodified, pharmaceutical view of what takes place during our reception of communion.
I’ve also seen a trend of some sacerdotalists mocking people who don’t use real wine in communion for using ‘grape juice’, or ‘squash’ as indicative of their low view of the sacraments but if they decide to use wafers in communion this seems an exercise in the pot calling the kettle black. The tearing and breaking of bread has a theological significance that in a liturgical context is often neglected.
Questioning an open table
I’ve always experienced open table communion but throughout my reading of Church history I cannot help but be aware of the guarding of communion as an exercise in discipline. There is a vertical dimension to communion between a recipient and God. There is also a horizontal dimension to communion that occurs in the context of a community. I think therefore that there is a distinction between ‘guarding the table’ and not sharing in communion with someone formally.
Too often I think the communal emphasis on participation in communion is one of being a face in the crowd. Wherein putting some restriction on limiting it to congregants or those who have been attending for a certain period ensures some measure of skin in the game. Administering communion in a context where access is not a given I think would also communicate some value to those participating. It also builds up the idea of one linking their identity to their visible church, where they ‘commune’. It also creates a context where withdrawing communion from someone might be utilised to bring them to repentance, as has repeatedly been done in history by many Godly ministers. Yet given the Protestant belief in the visible and invisible church to do such a thing isn’t, like the sacerdotalists, to bar someone from Gods church ipso facto but only its visible manifestation in that context.
I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of episcopal governance because I do think it is singularly useful in many regards and yet I was born and raised in a tradition that to my mind is singularly represented by the abdication of Bishops from their responsibilities. The lack of accountability for Bishops in upholding doctrinal standards or in taking responsibility for abuses crises in their churches is a great argument against them.
Yet Bishops, in principle, ensure a measure of continuity across space and time. There have been loads of great bishops in history who have upheld orthodoxy but what recourse do we have for those who actively seek to subvert it? The weakness of Bishops is their lack of earthly accountability. I still believe in this method of church governance as necessary to link Christians together in concert. Yet too often the office is exercised without responsibility and accountability. So it is something I increasingly hold lightly. St Athanasius at the Council of Nicea reportedly said “The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops” and this was later, apparently, repeatedly by John Chrysostom himself. Athanasius himself contended against the Bishops of his day and yet didn’t reject the office of Bishop. He contextualised it as an office that did not warrant blind obedience if it contravened the truth. So this is a well-worn sentiment in the Church. Yet who will hold the bishops to account? God ultimately, but what do we do when they seek to steer the Church upon the rocks of scandal and heresy? This seems like a perennial question with no easy answer.
Male clergy and Male participation more broadly in the Church
I’ve mentioned previously that I used to be egalitarian on Church leadership but have since revised my views on this. C.S Lewis in his tract on Women Priestesses I think epitomises this best.
The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within that context, treating both as neuters.
Which is a sentiment I think echoed in the Apostolic Constitutions…
For says He, He shall rule over you. (Genesis 3:16) For the principal part of the woman is the man, as being her head. But if in the foregoing constitutions we have not permitted them to teach, how will any one allow them, contrary to nature, to perform the office of a priest? For this is one of the ignorant practices of the Gentile atheism, to ordain women priests to the female deities, not one of the constitutions of Christ. For if baptism were to be administered by women, certainly our Lord would have been baptized by His own mother, and not by John; or when He sent us to baptize, He would have sent along with us women also for this purpose. But now He has nowhere, either by constitution or by writing, delivered to us any such thing; as knowing the order of nature, and the decency of the action; as being the Creator of nature, and the Legislator of the constitution.
The Constitutions are more forthright than Lewis but both make an appeal to the idea that the role of the priest is an inherently gendered role. I’ve only quoted small samples of both but they make arguments on the idea that man, and of that a subset of them are qualified both by nature and disposition to be a Priest. Linking the theological significance of the gendered identities of Christ and his apostles to the office itself. This requires us to take the relevant passages of the New Testament at face value, something which it is tempting to caveat and contextualise out of existence.
Another contemporary writer has also written extensively on this is Alastair Roberts who has written on the topic here…
With the loss of a male priesthood—or, more particularly, with the loss of a masculine priesthood—we have attenuated the reality of the Christian message. We have no effective symbolization of the authority of God within our churches. When that goes, all else is enervated. The empowerment and valuing of women—an imperative for any Christian church—will best be served, not by putting women in the office of guardians of the Church, but when we appoint strong guardians for the Church who are committed to empower and value women, to hear their voices and to recognize their gifts, and to exercise their own calling as the servants of all.
I would only add that in my own reading on anthropology with regard to Men that in the overwhelming majority of social contexts they operate in contexts associated with the public sphere. Masculine biology leads to emergent social contexts which lead to this pattern reoccurring in many cultures wherein Men are expected to: Face other men (socially and competitively), Provide for their family and the broader community, and Procreate. Masculinity, unlike Feminity, isn’t a given but universally performative and in this light, the role of a Minister seems a distinctly Male role. Pragmatically I am also convinced that the reason Men are abandoning Churches is partly that they do not find a context to exercise their masculinity. This has historically always been an issue but is something I don’t should be inherent to the Church. The Pew forum published research on religious affiliation that gives some indicator of those who are giving Men a context in which to exercise themselves. Summarising…
- In 23 of the 81 nations, men and women are about equally likely to attend services weekly.
- In 30 countries, women are more likely than men to report attending services weekly. Most of these countries have Christian majorities or large Christian populations.
- In 28 other countries, men are more likely than women to report attending services weekly, often by large margins. In Afghanistan, for example, the share of men attending services at least once a week exceeds the share of women by 84 percentage points; in Pakistan the margin is 72 points and in Bangladesh it is 66 points. Muslims make up a large share of the population in all of these countries except for Israel, the only country in the world with a majority Jewish population.
So if we do want more Men in the church I will put my hands up and say we have to consider what it is that Muslims and Jews are doing to engage men. A big part of it may be down to liturgical practice and expectations placed upon Men to take an active role in the religion. The Pew research explains…
This distinctive pattern at the country level is largely explained by religious norms that prioritize male participation in Muslim and Jewish worship services. In most Islamic societies, Muslim men are expected to attend communal Friday midday prayers in the mosque. Women, however, can fulfill the Friday prayers obligation individually, either inside or outside the mosque. Likewise, the Orthodox Jewish tradition does not count women as part of a minyan (at least 10 men needed to hold a service). When Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women do attend communal worship services, they often pray separately from men.
This is not to excuse misogyny that may be evident in these contexts only that if we want more Men there is something to be considered here. I also think that if we want more Men the distance of the Priesthood in general from the religious life of most Men needs some redressing. This distance and redressing may also refocus the role of lay Women in the Church. The potential underlying issue is that leadership has perhaps become too centralised in many churches, not just in Men but in the office of the Priest or Minister altogether. Men in the laity possess little public responsibility or authority within the Church by comparison to the Mosque or Orthodox Synagogue. I think there is a distinct sacramental role for the Priest but I think looking at ways to improve the public responsibility of Men in the life of the Church more broadly may lift Male participation in the life of the Church. Incidentally, there is a good article on Masculinity in Early Christianity accessible here.
The role of Asceticism
I’ve always had a curiosity about the lives of the early ascetics of the Church. Despite being raised Protestant I have, from my teens, sought out stories about ascetics and their teachings. At the same time, I think there is a lot that is unhealthy about them. The deliberate mortification of the flesh seems rooted in a low view of the body and openly public displays of piety, such as those of the Stylites, reminds me of Jesus’s words about those who pray openly on the street corners.
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.
At the same time, there is an image of Ascetics that is martial in nature. John Cassian, the 5th-century monk, commanded that they should walk around with their lions girded as a reminder that they are always ready to do battle against spiritual powers and principalities. Every Christian I think should have something of the ascetic about them, I think many of the stories and sobriety of the Puritans reflect an element of this. Yet I would even go so far to offer the Church did well to acknowledge the place these people have in the life of the Church and whilst guarding against excesses should have a place for them. A few years ago there was a lot of airtime given to ‘Neo-Monasticism’ but actual Monasticism I think still has a place in the world. That said I would give this a light touch, only to say I do not object to it the way some do and appreciate the historic missionary and petitionary strengths of individuals and communities devoted to this way of life.
The following are a few changes I have come to feel could be useful to weekly gatherings that I have come round to.
Back in my university days I used to be a worship coordinator for the intervarsity Christian fellowship at my university. I played and coordinated bands to play during our weekly gathering as a student community but over the years I have been progressively alienated from contemporary worship. Reasons include the overwhelming emphasis it has in so many contemporary church services, the emotionalism, the questionable theology of many songs, the churn seen in many churches repertoires, the pentecostal influences on many songs, the talent and treasure it requires from a church not just in the band but supporting technology (sound desks etc.). I’ve written about this more extensively here. I’ve also been challenged for the, admittedly pragmatic and even polemical reasons, the early church rejected the use of instruments.
Our tongues are the strings of the lyre with a different tone indeed but much more in accordance with piety. Here there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body.
John Chrysostom, Exposition of Psalms 41
This has led me to drift towards older practices surrounding Christian sung worship, psalms and hymns. Now I’m way more open to things like plainchant and shape note singing. This approach to singing, although it varied in style, fundamentally hasn’t changed until recently. There’s a depth that exists in this form of singing that I just don’t experience in contemporary worship that comes out of people and is much more textured and tangible than some contemporary forms. There is a human scale to this music that emerges from the virtue of the human voice being the sole instrument being employed. Beautiful acapella music can be found across Christian traditions but my personal preference is for the Sacred Harp congregationalist singing that took root in non-conformist protestant communities in the US. Whether or not it’s appropriate I’ve read it being described as “a cappella heavy metal” on virtue of its raw power, I feel like sometimes the roof is going to come off when I listen to it sung. Despite this it’s rare that when listening to it being sung for me not to be deeply moved and fortified by it. There is also always much greater emphasis on the words and puts the onus on the congregation rather than a smaller subset of a band amplified by microphones.
Take away the microphones
Artificial amplification I increasingly believe is the Photoshop for public speakers. This is partly why I think there is an argument for the removal of microphones from Churches altogether. The technology has allowed congregations to grow beyond a scale that I think has had a subsequent impact on issues like pastoral ministry and the relationship between congregants. I also think there is something to be said for preaching without amplification, I’ve never done it, but to do so requires an energy and strength that I think would fundamentally change how we perceive preaching and public discourse more directly. You can’t have a conversation with a crowd but you can preach and to use amplification to usurp this I think is a fundamental distortion that has many far-reaching effects we aren’t fully appreciative of. Whatever you think of him it must have been incredible to hear someone like Charles Spurgeon preach in person by virtue of his strength of voice alone. The times I’ve heard anyone preach without amplification has been so different to when they were amplified, more virile and animated.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t amplify at all but seek out architecture to lends itself to the human voice. I do not think it an accident that so many beautiful churches have incredible acoustics, and so I see an aesthetic argument for the removal of amplification.
Keep it together
This may be more a British phenomenon but I’ve never been to a church that actually kept children in the main service all the way through. The idea of a children’s church has been made so ubiquitous here that it’s just taken for granted. The times when everyone is together (‘all age services’) have the tendency to dumb down or condescend to children such that many never really experience being a regular member of a church until they leave home. The change in context is such that for many it is deeply alien to them and I do not think it a surprise that it would be a factor in many deciding not to continue attending church when they do leave home.
This does not mean I think every church service should be dumbed down but that children should be active participants in the liturgy, because it forms them by their participation. It also means our preaching should be practical enough for a child to take something, not as a child, but as something plainly understood. I’m reminded of a quote associated with Dietriech Bonhoeffer that went “If one couldn’t communicate the most profound ideas about God and the Bible to children, something was amiss. There was more to life than academia” (Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy p64).
Adherence to a Church calendar
Many churches now adhere to thematic or expository preaching, with exceptions for christmas and easter. When I was younger we used to do harvest too. Yet this abandonment of any following of a calendar in a sense is an abstraction of our church services. This is akin to your exchanging the plants in your garden from seasonal crops to evergreens. You get consistency but a lot less variety and less interaction with the world itself outside.
Maybe this is a product of our post-industrial world. Our buffered age. After all if we can buy strawberries in deepest darkest winter how in touch with the seasons do we need to be? Well I think there’s something in the adoption of a calendar cycle that is catechetical and devotional in and of itself. People were, for a time, baptised at Easter, why? Because of its commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ that we enter into through our baptism. In this we don’t just tell people the gospel but do something in our showing of it through a liturgical year too. I think it has also been a way the Church has been more involved in the life of the community and the community in the Church.
Sunday School for Everyone
This is something I’ve never seen in the UK but I’ve heard occurs in some places in the US. The idea of basically giving courses in religious instruction not just to children but to adults too. Obviously these are scaled to those attending but giving a chance for people to attend a weekly workshop or seminar that constitutes part of an ongoing life of theological education.
This is distinct from small groups because I believe there should be some sort of curriculum and be explicitly catechetical in character. If your church adheres to a particular confession how often is this systematically gone through? Also if one does do a liturgical year in your church you can justifiably question how do you address pertinent topics or ensure you really get a chance to go deeper into important books and motifs in scripture? Things which might be covered by thematic or expository preaching? Well, you can, I imagine, create space to do some of this in Sunday schools. These don’t have to be on a Sunday but tailored to the needs of people as they arise. This gives dedicated space to preaching and teaching but also opens up different contexts by which members of a church can gather throughout the week, potentially also sharing the load by giving different responsibilities to different people in a church (a Minister might not need to do all the preaching or teaching but this might be given to trusted members of the laity in a larger congregation).
This was just something I’ve been thinking about recently and it has been somewhat cathartic to get this all out on paper. Despite that, I cannot help but be mindful of another Bonhoeffer quotation on this topic.
“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community
That is to say, I cannot hold these things too tightly at the expense of those around me given I am constricted by time, space and opportunity to fully exercise any of the things raised. I do not wish to destroy what is before me each week. I’m also aware that several of things mentioned would be considered objectionable to many and we all have to determine which issues are hills we are willing to die on. I started with what I consider most important and as I went on in this piece hold the things mentioned less staunchly.
In those things I haven’t mentioned I still, as a rule, associate with the Evangelical and Reformed Anglicanism I was raised in. I have also tried to focus on conduct rather than theology proper in this context.
I do hope to find somewhere or someplace that does reflect this more fully in due time. Does it exist though? Or is it just fantasy? I think it might be the latter.