O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.Psalm 63:1
Not too long ago I wrote about my experience going through the discernment process for Priesthood in the Church of England. I mentioned that an outcome of the process was that it left me questioning whether I could even consider myself I member of the Church of England in the medium or long term. Well I’m still in the process of closing it out and the Priest guiding me through the process doesn’t want me to walk away so quickly. In the time since, however, he encouraged me to talk to another Priest who I was of the impression had come from a similar place to me but had found a way to make it work. The conversation I subsequently had with him, unfortunately, really drove home some of the sentiments I had mentioned previously.
I write the following only as a means to try and process what happened.
It turned out this Priest used to have my views but had since revised his beliefs to come in-line with the Church of England. Neither of us knew much about each other in advance but I was left with the impression fairly quickly that the person who had organised the meeting thought this man could bring me around to his view. The problem was I had used to think like him and since come round to the consistently held position of the historical church on this. He repeatedly asked me to be open to revising my views, but I told him these weren’t views I had just come to a point where I could be honest with myself about what scripture, tradition, and reason said on the subject.
At this point the Priest stressed that the ability to serve in the Church of England holding such a position is exceptionally limited and that he didn’t have a high regard for those who occupied such a position. I didn’t really care what he thought but it was at this point, I guess, that my eyes were really opened to just how small the closet was that I could expect to be stuffed in if I went down this road. The minister then stressed, twice, that I should consider ordination outside of the Church of England, first in Eastern Orthodoxy and when I pointed out the fact that I was a Protestant, and not Eastern Orthodox, he then suggested in the Anglican Mission in England. I must admit I found this shocking, but I interpreted the subtext of what was being said that I was not wanted and that it’d be better for everyone if I went elsewhere. I don’t think the Priest was being malicious, I think he was being honest, but something snapped in me, something died at that point. At this point I ran out of time, I was on my lunch break, but we both agreed there wasn’t much point meeting up again.
That conversation was several weeks ago now and I still don’t really know what died. Walking back to the office I texted the Priest guiding me through the discernment process basically saying I was done. He wants to keep the conversation going but I’m now really at a point where the discernment is over now. I don’t feel disappointed and I don’t really feel anything about the outcome of the discernment process. What I do feel is emptiness about where I fit in now. In my prayer time, I feel as if God is potentially saying it was my Anglicanism that died that lunchtime.
At the start of the discernment process, I was propelled forward by three factors:
The first was the general sense that the country I live in, the UK, comes across like a spiritual desert. When praying the opening the stanza of Psalm 63 has come to me repeatedly, I have been repeating a paraphrased version of it for years to myself as a prayer. “Oh God you are my God, in this dry and barren land where there is no water.” I see the country suffering from a form of collective anomie, of acedia. The roots have withered and I wanted to do something to help water them or at least replant a cutting from the old tree before it died.
The second was the influence of thinkers like TS Eliot, Abraham Kyuper, and a number of other Magisterial Reformed thinkers (notably Peter Martyr Vermigli) who really made me believe in what I think could be called the old High Church tradition of the Church of England. I believe that if you were to steer the population back towards the gospel, the only way you can do that is via the Church of England. There just isn’t a live alternative option in the UK.
The final one was becoming a father. My own father is quite quiet about his faith, and I grew up with a less than glowing image of the Church of England as a child. I wanted to change that for my son, to give him as an inheritance an institution he could be confident in. An institution that he could see the gospel in without nuance or qualification. Something which tied together his identity both as English and Christian.
Of these three it is the second that has withered for me. I still agree, broadly, with the principle but I do not see any practical way to realise it now. It is an abstraction fundamentally disconnected from the reality on the ground. Throughout the discernment process I was honest to my discernment guide about the disconnect I saw in the Church around me and what I read in various books on Anglicanism and the relationship between Church and Society. I was also honest about the fact that I never had the expectation that I would necessarily go into the Priesthood off the back of the process. For me it was a process of exploration. Yet I must confess I don’t have much tolerance or love for progressivism or Anglo-Catholicism and have a deep dislike for what I see as the revisionism in both of them. I think it is the realisation that what I held in my head as Anglicanism simply wasn’t true, that snapped during that conversation. It is this which really twists the knife within rather than anything in regard to discernment. I am reminded of Peter Hitchens when he wrote:
Yet in modern England, now it is Campion, More, and Fisher who are remembered, while Latimer and Ridley are forgotten. There are numerous churches and schools dedicated to the “English Martyrs,” but the martyrs involved are always Catholics. Whereas the Anglican Church generously and rightly honors More and Fisher, in a true spirit of reconciliation, I do not think the Roman Catholic calendar has yet found any place for Cranmer. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is a museum piece.
For More and Fisher have, more or less, won. The Elizabethan settlement long ago broke down. The Anglican Church, once forged to a gleaming hardness by the fires of Bloody Mary, has rusted away. Its Catholics now brandish thuribles and don chasubles, bowed down by embroidered copes at elaborate High Masses. Even its archbishops of Canterbury now array themselves in garish vestments that would have appalled their grandfathers. Its Protestants have wandered off into a land of guitars and modern language, full of the sort of enthusiasm Anglicanism once feared and despised, its Calvinism quite undiluted by godly order, sobriety, and reverence. The Elizabethan Prayer Book, which Catholics were once forced to endure, has almost disappeared from use in its own churches, except in cathedrals, or in a few services for very old people, held early in the morning or at sunset, until the Grim Reaper takes a hand, attendance dwindles, and they stop forever. The Prayer Book’s penitential, stern theology is too rich a mixture for a land that has grown comfortable with divorce and abortion.Peter Hitchens, Latimer and Ridley are Forgotten. First Things
I now honestly wonder whether Latimer’s candle, the one sworn never to go out, had in fact now been gutted some time ago.
When I pursued discernment it was within the Church of England. I do not understand these people who go to some theological college and then decide where they can get a job as a minister. So when I was told to explore it elsewhere, everything else aside, it made no sense to me. A minister operates in a particular context, they are called and ordained by the Church – not their own desire and sometimes, if we look at history, against their own desires. The Priest I spoke to said I should consider both Eastern Orthodoxy and the Anglican Mission in England. Aside from it not being quite that simple the only one I’d even consider is the latter of the two. The problem, however, is that I do not see how one can parse the institution from the theology, that if I was to do so seems to be going off the theological piste of classical English Anglicanism and if I am in for a penny I might as well be in for a pound and not equivocate about those issues I have previously chafed with within Anglicanism. My principle points of contention being (in summary):
- The ideal timing of baptism is following from a period of catechism and scrutinies
- Regeneration being presumed from the time of baptism and not subject to a later ‘claiming’
- Confirmation should not be a distinct rite of the Church separated from baptism
- The Lord’s Supper should be taken by all baptised in good standing of the Church, including infants
- We humans must partner with the work of God in our salvation. Something which seems incompatible with classical reformed theology.
I have linked to posts on both points where I lay out my position in much more detail. I later summarised my views more generally here. Now some might say at this point I wasn’t an Anglican if I hold these views. Yet, as I’ve mentioned previously:
Are we Protestants? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. Do we believe in the localised presence of Christ in the elements during communion? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. Do we pray to saints and worship images? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. Should women be ordained? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. What should clergy wear in services? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. Should the Church conduct or bless same-sex marriages? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. Is Christ the only name by which men are saved? I know clergy who would disagree with each other on this. The result is a sort of all-pervasive entropic relativism that prevents any sort of equivocal claims being made and individualism run rampant. This makes me ask myself, why should I care what any of these people think? They aren’t even of one mind amongst themselves. It encourages a sort of superficiality, an absence of sobriety.Superficiality or Sobriety
In some ways if the Anglican church was explicit enough to say ‘these aren’t anglican’ to the things I mentioned I’d even prefer that to the current status quo. I just do not find clergy and their interpretation of canon, history, and doctrine as holding any water any more. They have undermined any semblance of authority by the sheer multitude of opinions found amongst them and their interpretation of the articles to which they subscribe. I am now so disenchanted with the very notion of Anglicanism that I do not really wish to be associated with it anymore. There are aspects of it which are woven into the fabric of who I am as an Englishman, I cannot escape it, but I do not find the icons of it that fill my mental space inspiring, emboldening, or encouraging. Being honest I have no wish to be associated with Anglo-Catholicism and the Progressive social mores which have diluted the blood of Anglicanism across the West and are now, it seems, inseparably mixed. I do not see it as a Church that would make my son confident in his faith with its liberal, and I think ill-considered, freedom with the sacraments it had been entrusted and its historic undermining of the faith by its clergy. Yes the prayerbook is beautiful, yes some of the early theology that emerged from it is genuinely first amongst the Reformation, yes the Church has done a great deal of good. Yet you cannot take the sweet without the bitter and the cup has become so much the latter to me that I cannot drink from it anymore.
So the question I am left with is where do I go. What is next? My life continues like it did before, my work is good, I have a loving family and friendship network, I think by every worldly regard I am successful. Yet spiritually – I’m in the desert, collectively living in this time and place and simultaneously a personal one. My local church is fine, I don’t have a problem with it aside from the fact that it is tied into the institution I feel so disenchanted with. For this reason I struggle to trust it. Aaron Ren, who used to write on Christianity and Masculinity, wrote on our low trust of institutions:
Supporting and investing in institutions generates surplus value that accrues to the institution and which will almost certainly be redirected and utilized in ways you don’t like, potentially by people whose values are very different from yours.Aaron Ren, The Masculinist #35: Rebalancing Away from Institutions
I feel this in regard to the Church of England, that in standing still, by continuing to serve where I am accrue surplus value for an institution which will no doubt redirect the time, talents, and treasure to ways, traditions and people who believe or advocate things I wouldn’t want to endorse if given the direct opportunity. I actually emailed Aaron about this and he responded that in truth he didn’t know what advice to give. He was a Presbyterian, a tradition which tended to keep most of their operations at a congregational level. I am, by nature, I think a bit more trusting than Aaron’s position of radical skepticism when it comes to institutions but in this specific context I can see the merit of what he says. Yet I do not see another practical way forward for me. So I remain, I serve, I give of myself. I pour myself out.
Truth be told I realise now that part of me is mourning. I don’t really believe in the institution that I was raised and baptised in anymore but have nowhere to go. I don’t feel like I’m leaving the Church of England but rather the Church of England has left me. Yet in all this my primary concern is that for my son. I am praying now that in my shortcomings and failing this desert, this 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, might be an exodus that enables him to enter the promised land. That I can somehow do my best and trust him to God to find a home, to hold fast to the faith in a time and place where it seems fast retreating. Ren writes later in his letter:
My assumption is that my church will contribute zero towards this and that my wife and I are 100% responsible for spiritual formation in our son. I’d like to hope that we’ll get better than zero from the church, but I’m not taking any chances. With the primary religion of young people today being “Moralist Therapeutic Deism” and so many Millennials raised in religious schools that come out knowing next to nothing about Christianity and the Bible, nobody can afford to depend on the church to catechize his kids.
Gresham Machen supposedly said a hundred years ago something that’s still true today: “The most important Christian education institution is not the pulpit or the school, important as those institutions are; but it is the Christian family. And that institution has to a very large extent ceased to do its work.”Ibid
The irony of this is that I had come to believe, to some degree, in the mediated reality of the Church between God and the believer. The lived reality is proving to be a little different. I have to believe the Church is the body of believers, I have come to rely much more now on believing friends and family rather than an institution. I need it to be true that whenever two or three are gathered in his name he is present. I do not feel far from God, even though I am in the desert, because my faith has had to take on a much more existential quality in light of the last year and in that is something to rejoice. I am powerless before God’s grace. The Father is forever the root of my being through Christ and the blessing of his Holy Spirit.
What does concern me is the future my son will be growing up in. Right now he is a small boy, one day he will be a man, but I cannot walk the way of Christ for him but institutions help, a good church matters. I pray he finds himself amidst those who would draw him closer to Christ in a time when our society is walking further from the light of the gospel.
When I remember You on my bed,
I meditate on You in the night watches.
Because You have been my help,
Therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice.
My soul follows close behind You;
Your right hand upholds me.Psalm 63:6
I do not know how this will appear to others and how my internal processes appear to the external eye when laid bare like this. I am aware that in a certain light this can be read in a manner that is immature, self-entitled, narrow minded, and arrogant. I do not really know how to defend myself from these charges, I don’t wish to defend myself, only to state that this has not been some sudden impulsive process. It’s something my wife and myself have and continue to spend a long time discussing and praying over. I can only ask in your charity that you would pray for me and my family as I close out the last few meetings I have left in this process and try and discern what the future might look like. I have no ill towards any individuals I’ve interacted with throughout the process and greatly appreciate their honesty, being a member of the clergy is quite possibly one of the most difficult things I can imagine.
6 thoughts on “O God, You are my God”
A long post from me. Apologies in advance.
I’ve been one of your subscribers for nearly two years, and have found your writings so interesting and encouraging, especially for the way they embrace the intersections between Christian belief, church history, and political policy and practice. I have often appreciated the wisdom and challenges you have presented.
So I have been deeply moved by your post. I read it several times, and have thought carefully about the many issues it raises. You can be assured of my prayers for you and for your family. I especially pray that you will continue to know (because you obviously do know) the security of fellowship with God that the Psalmist expresses in Psalm 27; and I especially think of verse 15 which, in Coverdale’s beautiful translation (BCP), reads “Show me your way, O Lord; lead me on a level path, because of my enemies”. We might not be sure about the nature of the enemy — a person, a cultural shift (which seems to be the case in your post) or whatever; but we all need that plain path. Then, verse 18: “O tarry and await the LORD’S pleasure; be strong and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.”
I don’t want to offer advice because, all too often it costs the advisor next to nothing and is unhelpful; and especially with an orthodox believer, I am reluctant to leave any impression that I know better. It seems to me that I don’t know better, because your own post is so full of charity and wisdom. But I did think I might share with you something of my own story, if only to show that your sense of the Anglican church having left you is shared by others.
Despite my profound reservations about the direction that Anglican Church has taken (especially in English-speaking countries) I was recently licensed as a Reader (lay minister) in Truro Diocese, to work in the parish of St Illogan. I do not come from a Christian family — quite the opposite, for mine was a “New Age” family before the new age had even started. Throughout my teens and twenties (c. 1963–1977) my affection for Anglican culture and my debt to it were profound. I am a musician, and much of my training took place in that context — the one musical area (choral music and church music) in which England is unquestionably second-to-none in the world. I was an organist in a parish church for seven years (one of John Keble’s churches in Hampshire); but I wasn’t a believer.
Conversion came later, when I was around 27; and as far as my birth family was concerned, that went down like a lead balloon. To cut a long story short, my wife and I spent the next 40 years living and working in the Republic of Ireland, involved in community churches, house churches and other such “independent” set-ups. But when I retired in 2015 we unexpectedly moved to Cornwall for family reasons. And by the grace of God we ended up in a parish which is deeply orthodox, which preaches the Gospel in the historic ways that you have written about so well, and which is strongly aware of the value of the Anglican Church’s historical formularies as bastions of Gospel truths. (It was all very new for my wife, who had no experience of Anglican culture at all. And that led to some very amusing incidents!) If we’d ended up living somewhere else in Cornwall, we might well have not joined an Anglican community. But because of this parish, here we are; and it seems right.
I have screamed in indignation at things I hear coming from national leaders and others in the Church of England. But our life in the parish goes on, preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, repentance, new life in Christ and the Kingdom of God. There are many things wrong; but the number of committed believers in the parish and their godly dispositions, rise above those local difficulties and help us to see very clearly that, even within the Anglican Church, the truth of what you say stands out:
I have to believe the Church is the body of believers, I have come to rely much more now on believing friends and family rather than an institution. I need it to be true that whenever two or three are gathered in his name he is present.
I have good relations with the higher-ups in Truro Cathedral, including the musicians (who are very generous in taking me seriously as a musician) — and that choir is among the best in the country (which is saying something!); and that’s despite most of them holding theologies very different from mine. And my love of Anglican culture is undiminished compared with what I felt in my younger, unbelieving days. But that does not make me love the institution. Rather, I find a profound tension and frustration about the very things you mention. I noticed it during my Reader Training course (three years, and quite demanding, which is good), and several times discussed with the course leaders and others the comparative absence of confessional training — if that’s the right way to put it. I could witter on endlessly about that; but think it’s probably best to end there.
I know I am not alone in feeling these things about the institution — at least five clergy I know (three of them over 50, two of them around 30), feel the same way. It is the life of the parish that enables them to carry on and encourages me to stay, despite being connected to an institution that is increasingly apostate — conformed to the spirit of this age. The higher-ups in the diocese don’t interfere in parish life, the bishop is encouraging and from what I can see has a good pastoral heart. Coming out of many years in the “independent” sector (from the wilder shores of pentecostalism to the most conservative evangelicalism), I have learned to see what are some of the advantages of episcopalianism as a principle of church government. Again, it depends on the people — and on what and whom they are serving.
Our four children are all grown-up, spread between Ireland, Finland and New Zealand. One thing we always give thanks for is that they are all Christians — up-and-down in two cases, but definitely disciples of Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, I feel very aware that you are younger than I, and you have more at stake because of your family, and the years that lie before you raising your son. But please be encouraged that I will pray for you in these ways — that our Lord God will lead you in a plain path, that the desert will bloom; and I’ll pray that, although the Church of England has left you, you will continue to find encouragement, either within it or without it, from others who know and love our Lord Jesus.
With warmest good wishes,
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Thank you for your kind message and insight. I think one of the biggest challenges, for me, is this wrestling with the disconnect between principle and practice, a good example you mention is episcopacy. I believe, in principle, that is has a great many good and wise benefits but in practice I see it has done stemmed, if anything in some cases accelerated, the changes we both rue. I’ve even heard senior conservative churchmen admit as much. That dissonance and a sense of a total lack of personal agency, in my context, has been the hardest thing.
Both my wife and myself are pretty tangled up in local parish life, in a number of ways, so any changes will not be sudden. I am a governor at the school joined to our church, my wife is a churchwarden, we both lead a small group and a youth group. I don’t want to rush anything but it just feels like the love has gone now. Maybe time will smooth the rough edges, and my ideal on paper is still something approximating a form of Anglicanism, but I do not want to fall, personally, into some sense of spiritual torpor or malaise and just settle. To not just get by as an individual, as a family, but to thrive. That’s hard when you’ve lost faith in the structures and as an evangelical, it’s harder to get enthused about inviting others to join you in that situation. I’m just praying some way forward is made clear and that I can wrestle with this tension in a healthy way.
Thank you once more for your response, for your prayers and insight. It’s greatly appreciated and I’m grateful that individuals like yourself can still be found in the church serving faithfully.
Thank you, Gildas.
That’s a very thoughtful reply; though I would not have expected anything different. I am especially struck by your statement “That’s hard when you’ve lost faith in the structures and as an evangelical, it’s harder to get enthused about inviting others to join you in that situation.” Yes.
One of the things that has most troubled me since I returned to England after 40 years living in Ireland is that the meaning of the word “evangelical” seems to have changed utterly from what I understood it to mean when I was converted some 43 years ago and throughout my 40 years living in Ireland.
Within the Church of England and so many other church groupings, the meaning seems to have morphed: from being a statement about a coherent, historically rooted body of doctrine, ecclesiology, or a perspective on biblical authority, it has become a statement about individual preference — about oneself. (I saw this at first hand during my three years on the Reader Training programme.) Being evangelical now seems to mean that one has a commitment to specific styles of worship, to certain kinds of church service, and that one is a lively, bang-up-to-date Christian. Sadly, it also seems to result in believers deeply ignorant of much more important things — of the broad yet deep biblical teaching of people as different as Jeremy Taylor (I too am an admirer), J.C. Ryle and John Stott (a rather random, Anglican list); of true spiritual discernment; of wisdom that comes from God rather than the world. No wonder so many purportedly evangelical believers and churches fail to identify the spiritual forces that assail the people of God, that suck them into doing things that appeal to the world.
My parish has a reputation, probably just, of being one of the most evangelical in Cornwall; and as I said earlier, there are many things we could do better. But it seems to have avoided most of those pitfalls in modern concepts of being evangelical — it’s broad in practice, and deeply orthodox in thought and teaching.
I’ll leave it there, for I don’t wish to distract from the essentially personal nature of your points. As I say, I’ll pray for you and your family; and together we can also pray for the church of Jesus Christ.
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Yes I’ve seen that with people who call themselves ‘open evangelicals’ and the like. I actually remember hearing some anglo-catholics lament the ubiquity of anglo-catholic trappings in the CoE now for a similar reason. Lots of people might want to adopt the externals but not the undergirding theology. I think something similar has happened with evangelicalism which has muddied the water in this area to a significant extent. It also acts a cover allowing those who might appear superficially evangelical but have conflicting theology get a pass with their more traditionalist peers. Its a type of camouflage but if everybody is an evangelical of some sort these days nobody is!
In London there is the benefit of a good number of churches with links to networks like New Wine, HTB, the Church Society etc. and I’m happy where I am but, as I mention to my vicar, its increasingly hard, if not impossible, to distinguish it from the institution for me.
Thank you so much for your prayers, I will pray for your own parish and its flourishing too.
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I sympathize a lot with your writing. I suppose, if you’re willing to divest of Elliot’s organic dream, then one can see the good fruit of Anglicans continuing still. I don’t see Latimer and Ridley’s candle burnt out, but it has moved; maybe no longer visible in Canterbury or York, but burning bright in Abuja and Jos. Revelation is clear that some churches have their candlestick taken away, and the masturbatory disposition of Anglo-Catholicism (both among Anglicans and Roman Catholics, the latter no less progressive and enchanted with frills and “religion” than the former) is the death knell bell tolling. But God perseveres still, even in the spiritual graveyard that is Europe, and I have hope that various phenomenon, even things like the Free Church of England or the Anglican mission, will become the basis for new federations of Christians from the carcass that the Church of England has become.
Thank you – indeed on paper there are more Anglicans than in any time in history it seems and I do not doubt that will continue on a global scale as time goes on.
I guess its more about asking myself where I fit in now. In terms of geography, there aren’t that many options where I live. I think also doctrinally I just find so many aspects of my experiences within Anglicanism distasteful and the desire to disassociate myself is just so strong now. The irony is that I can say that and then someone asks my views on communion and I’d start quoting Jeremy Taylor at them. The distinction I want to make is more against the classism, nominalism, progressivism, worldliness, mismanagement, historical-dishonesty and navel-gazing I’ve seen having grown up in it. I do not get a sense of forward momentum with it, it is a leaky ship without a rudder in increasingly choppy seas, and I guess my first response was to try and do something about it, to step into the breach. In retrospect, it seems rather naive. I also accept now that my views will have always placed me on the very outer fringes of a classically reformed Anglicanism, I know this from my conversations with more than one minister who made the transition to the FCE that my views wouldn’t be welcome there. I do also question whether or not they will end up turning more AC like REC in the US in due time under their current patriarch. I can’t help but feel I’ve just reached a point where I think it best, after 30 years, to stop trying to make myself and Anglicanism work.