It wasn’t long since I stepped away from the discernment process that lockdown began in the UK. A lot of my thinking about Church since then has been rendered pretty abstract since we can’t actually go anywhere, especially given we spent Easter in lockdown this year. Yet I can’t help but wonder what things will look like on the other side of this. For me personally and in a more collective sense. I’m just going to be posting some thoughts here in the hopes of processing them.
Titivators and Stackers
In my previous entry, I posted about my chafing at the move of many churches to go online, to live stream or go to pre-recorded YouTube church that people can tune in to. Shortly after posting that entry, I read a related article by Mary Harrington over on unherd about the debate surrounding people’s bookcases, and their contents, appearing in live streams. Do you groom your bookcase to signal something of yourself to observers (titivators)? Or do you let it roam wild (stackers) with care to who might be viewing? She writes:
Ancients vs Moderns. The Glorious Revolution. The Cavaliers and Roundheads. Even the Reformation itself. It’s not about the ‘marketplace of ideas’ at all, but about substance versus performance, restraint versus exuberance, whether identity is an inner matter or outwardly conferred. And, of course, it’s filtered through the great English preoccupation with class. In short, it cuts right to the heart of who the English are in their deepest and most contradictory selves. We disturb those sleeping dragons at our peril.Mary Harrington, Unherd: The hidden culture war behind Michael Gove’s bookshelf
I can’t help sense something similar is happening with the online streaming of church services. To me, the desire and eagerness for live-streamed, disembodied, or recorded church is a combination of:
- Outsourcing worship to a professional class. I’ve heard this called previously two-speed religion, the ministers and ascetics doing the spiritual heavy lifting for the laity being dragged behind them. You get expressions of this in both low and high church traditions.
- Worship as public ‘titivation’. The idea that worship does not have much substance unless it is seen to be happening and grace being something outwardly conferred. On sites like Twitter you see a lot of this from people posting and sharing images or accounts relating to their spiritual life for the affirmation of mutuals and friends.
It might not be a surprise but I find myself not really in favour of either of the above. At the same time, it isn’t a black and white issue, I’d be surprised to find anyone who is wholly one way or the other. The point is, however, that for me a combination of setting aside the discernment process, lockdown beginning and then going through Easter in the midst of it all I’ve found myself having been dragged in the opposite direction to the above (although ironically I’m writing about that fact online for the perusal of strangers – physician heal thyself).
Pushing and pulling
Pushed from the Church of England
Off the back of deciding not to proceed with discernment, I can’t help but feel a strong ‘push’ away from the Church of England. The decision I made a symptom of a much deeper alienation I encountered when I really began to look honestly at the institution, warts and all, and found I couldn’t really stomach it. How the leadership have since handled the church’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has only deepened this feeling of estrangement.
The thing that gives me caution is whilst I experience a great number of things pushing me away, I don’t really feel pulled to anything concrete. I have beliefs, principles, and personal red lines but don’t practically see a way to realise them where I live. If I am feeling pulled in any degree it is that I feel I am being pulled apart. It is easy to then justify a slow slide into a genteel form of acedia, the temptation to adopt passive conformity and just abdicate responsibility. Indeed, it feels like its something of a virtue in Anglicanism to not be too passionate or serious about one’s beliefs. Yet one of my major gripes with Anglicanism as it stands is that, to me, it’s become captured by those who take their own beliefs very seriously – and are passionate about it; whether they are theological and political progressives, anglo-catholics, or a combination of the two. I just have no wish to be associated with, or in a union alongside, either party. At root level some of our deepest assumptions and expressions of our faith are just fundamentally different. I just think it’s important to be honest about those differences.
One Anglican minister who writes (what I think) is a fairly popular US blog on Anglicanism described ‘Anglicanism’ as:
C.S. Lewis wrote that the various Christian groups are like rooms in a great hallway. The shared central beliefs of our Faith are the great hallway, but the various communions are the rooms. Each person finds the room that fits them best (baptist, presbyterian, Roman Catholic, etc), but must remember that we are all in the same house and share that same “mere Christianity”.
Lewis was an Anglican, but he didn’t mention that much when he was writing this in Mere Christianity because Anglicans love to hang out mostly in the hallway. This is why Lewis was so well suited to write such a classic Christian book in the first place, a book beloved by people in almost every Christian communion.
Sometimes you’ll hear someone refer to an Anglicanism as a “denomination.” Often this is used as shorthand to mean “particular Christian body.” However, Anglicanism is not a denomination. Instead, it is a Christian communion that doesn’t subscribe to denominational theology. This is probably why Lewis chooses to use the word ‘communions’ and puts “denominations” in quotes.Greg Groebel, Anglican Compass: Anglicanism is Not Denominational
I’ve seen this sentiment expressed in the UK too. Yet this seems to actually mistake what CS Lewis is saying when he writes:
I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions — as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.
It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall, I have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into the room you will find that the long wait has done some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.
In plain language, the question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?”
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. This is one of the rules common to the whole house.CS Lewis, Mere Christianity. Emphasis mine.
With respect to the aforementioned commentator if participation in the church I find myself in isn’t congruent to me realising my end in and of itself then I think CS Lewis would say I would better be served finding it by leaving that institution. The hallway is not an alternative to a given room and I would agree with him that ‘the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think preferable’ and I whilst I have substantive differences and objections to a tradition like Roman Catholicism, or one of the Eastern Churches, I find how they contextualise themselves infinitely more attractive than an institution increasingly happy to conceive of itself as ‘the hallway’ given to the worst excesses of clerical pick and mix bourgeois consumerism available after the decline of modernity.
The other side of this is that, as mentioned in previous entries, I don’t think I could agree with all the formularies as originally intended. Namely around the role of baptism, confirmation, what actually occurs in the former and whether the latter deserves its own rite distinct from baptism. So in a way, stepping out rather than trying to conform Anglicanism in my own image, is one of the ways I’ve tried to be faithful to the tradition I was raised in, to conform as best I can.
In light of all of this, I have been trying to figure out some sort of exit strategy. I feel a pull to historical figures, to ideas, but less to specific institutions.
Pulled to Episcopacy
One of my stumbling blocks is that I’ve actually come to think there is some merit to the ‘idea’ of a bishop, even if my experience of them, in reality, has been less than endearing. Namely as a figure of unity for the church at a macro scale. Like the Anglo-Irish Reformed Archbishop James Ussher, I don’t mind whether you call them Bishop or Superintendent (call him whither you will) but I do see the logic in the office. I do not, however, see it as the sine qua non of the church, rather the three marks of the church are that. The office of a bishop is something I see as really key for exercising all those marks, but I think in our current age particularly that of the third mark (discipline). Otherwise, you end up with Christians (be they ministers or otherwise) who when they encounter a rebuke can simply move to another tradition or move down the road and set up shop somewhere else. We can probably all think of some mega-church pastors (or perhaps vicars) who have reacted this way to being caught in a scandal. On the other hand, this is something the more radical traditions manage to practice pretty effectively without bishops. In any case, it’s hard to shake. Although, on the other hand, I increasingly believe in a plural eldership at the congregational level – it just seems so much healthier. Why can’t we ask the same question James Ussher stated? Why not have both?
Pulled to Reformed Social Thought
I’ve also been pulled to some aspects of Neo-Calvinist social thought during this time. Namely that of Kuyper and Dooyeweerd. Specifically the latter’s definition of the various ground motives that have occupied Western culture:
- The Form-Matter divide of Greek thought
- The Creation-Fall-Redemption motive of Biblical (Hebrew, Semitic) thought
- The Nature-Grace divide of mediaeval, Scholastic thought
- The Nature-Freedom divide of humanistic, Enlightenment thought
Dooyeweerd argued that every Western thinker made presuppositions rooted in one of these ‘ground motives’ as such no one is really a neutral thinker. Something I would have disagreed with once, but not really any longer. Otherwise, their writings on sphere sovereignty, wherein each sector of society has its own distinct privileges, responsibilities and obligations. Something which, I think, likewise makes a legitimate critique against the notion of semi-Erastian state churches (ruled by the magistrate) like we see in the Church of England (even if it isn’t really Erastian anymore). A product of one sphere (the crown) exercising undue influence over another (the church) which has led to the latter’s inability to sufficiently adjust and distinguish itself from an increasingly apostate culture. Arguably the doctrine of Symphonia amongst the Eastern churches complements this aspect of reformed social thought. It is the golden mean, the goldilocks zone, that avoids falling into a dichotomy of assuming nature (the crown) or grace (the church) must abrogate or impose on the other.
I wouldn’t normally be attracted to something that described itself as ‘Neo-Calvinist’ but… reading Dooyeweerd he is incredibly perceptive and I think just makes a whole lot of sense of where we find ourselves currently. Even if he is heavy going.
This entry was really just an attempt to process some of my thoughts recently whilst in lockdown. Remaining, for now, in the Church of England, and if it is the hallway of the faith, I feel it’s worth returning once more to the previously quoted passage from CS Lewis:
It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into the room you will find that the long wait has done some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping.CS Lewis, Mere Christianity
I guess I feel like I’m waiting to feel a pull towards a given door and praying to see what good is being brought out of this situation.
As a final thought, some months ago I was privileged to have dinner with a number of other Christians at CS Lewis’s old home at The Kilns, in Oxford, as part of a conference put on by the Davenant Institute. Whilst there I felt massively fortunate to talk with someone who had a disproportionate influence on my thinking about the Church of England, in a positive way. I couldn’t help but ask where this individual worshipped when they were home, what the tradition was like. I was surprised to learn he attended a Baptist church. This is despite holding to episcopacy, paedobaptism, and, in short, the works. He was more Anglican than me yet he didn’t attend an Anglican church because he couldn’t find a sound one local to him. That even those I considered advocates at an institutional level can’t get over their cognitive dissonance with the reality on the ground has been quite sobering.
This situation with the Church of England can’t help but make me think of a book I read to my son, about a cavern and a highwayman. The thief shouts into the cavern demanding whoever is inside to yield their treasure, the cavern echoes back. The thief thinks what he hears is someone confirming his desires (with a pleasing voice to boot). He then ventures inside and becomes lost. I wonder if the Church of England has, faced with its own hollowing out over the last couple of centuries, become a bit like this cavern. Strangely, that is its current appeal for some.