The last few months have been unexpected for everyone, but for me I’ve been working from home most of this year and have the added joy that my wife is now expecting our second child. With this we’re realising that we will likely outgrow our two-bed flat and so we’re looking at potentially moving.
Growing up I never moved, and we lived where we did in London because we felt a strong sense that this was where God wanted us. This time we’re looking at moving more because of a set of circumstances, we can’t afford to stay in the area, and the growing sense that God is telling us our time is drawing to a close here. Whilst we’re still praying about this we have started to look at areas commutable into London but a big part of that for us is trying to find a well-ordered Christian community which would be a good place for us as a family.
When we started looking we didn’t think it’d be that hard but then when you start looking at churches in different areas you potentially realise things you might struggle with, or wish was present in what you were seeing, that weren’t otherwise forefront in your mind. What follows is an attempt to try and externalise some of my thinking on this in a roughly hierarchical order:
My father always encouraged me to walk to church as a kid and thats something I still believe now. When I first came to London my wife and I would take the underground, just a couple of stops, to our church. However, later on, we started attending our local parish church which was just a five minute walk from our house and it fundamentally changed how we engaged in the local area. My son loves it and even when we aren’t going to church, we walk past it or walk past the people know from it. When we share our faith with our neighbours we are sharing something which they can easily access for themselves.
With Coronavirus and the prospect of me working from home much more I do think its really important to be contextualised and not disjointed. I think this is a basic dimension of human anthropology and how we are designed as people. Yes it does make it much harder to get into a good church but I think theres a whole series of arguments to be made regarding how cars in particular have been bad for Christianity and church going, which I won’t go into here.
2. Clearly Stated Orthodoxy
If I had two orthodox churches near me, I would choose the closest one. Aside from that, however, a church needs to be orthodox. By this I mean:In praise of indifference
The faith itself. What is our faith? How are we reconciled to God? What is his being? This is the marrow of belief. The things which if we depart from means we cannot be considered a Christian. For believers to disagree on this means that each party by necessity must consider the other an unbeliever. This has been historically summarised, at a minimum, by the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds.
One of the things I’ve found, looking at a lot of church websites, is how hard it is to know what they believe. They might say a lot about how much they uphold scripture but what does that actually mean? In my last post I covered several categories of differences which can divide Christians and many of these are implicit in Churches rather than explicit. There’s a real fear that by ‘naming and claiming’ our faith we run the risk of being divisive but I just want to know that I believe the same thing as the person sitting next to me again.
3. Sacramental Outlook
The third thing I’d want to look for is a robustly sacramental outlook. Some years ago I wrote:
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 our faith let us ‘show, don’t tell’
One of the reasons I write so much about Baptism is because I believe it’s really important to get it right. In communion we really partake of the body and blood of our Lord. This is not something alien for historic Protestantism but it is alien to it today. In our faith it is not us who principally acts but God, and by faith the sacraments are how we are bound together not just in space but also time. That we so willfully neglect this is the principal cause of alot of our issues in the church, I believe.
The next point is polity. By this I’m not going to come out and say I believe that if you don’t have bishops it doesn’t count but I think being part of something greater than yourself does matter a great deal. For one it raises your interests beyond that of your own congregation, for another it speaks to the prayer of our lord in John 17:21 that we may all be one. Even if we can’t bring everyone together we should atleast attempt to do so where we can.
There are debates to be had on what model of polity is best but I don’t, on average, see an objection to bishops. I see that bishops can create a lot of issues, and it also depends on how you define the term, but that overall there’s much that is laudable about the office. At root, however, is the belief that the there is a broader context in which the local church is operating and that context is visible, tangible, material and incorporates not just the leaders but the laity within it too. One of my issues around the sacramental life of the Church of England is that it’s unable to properly exercise the third mark of the church, discipline. This is down to its inability to articulate it’s membership robustly. That comes down to polity.
Personally I think the Irish Archbishop James Ussher had it most on the money when he made the argument for a fusion of Episcopal and Presbyterian models of polity.
The idea of community, for me is the intersection of locality and polity. In that it wants to see an engagement in the local area through lens of the church itself. I increasingly believe that God wants us to be at work, principally, amongst those we live amongst. In the 19th century there was an incredible movement in the UK called the ‘civic gospel’ that argued that our towns should be ordered and shaped to the true ends of man. For me that is the glory of God and in the words of Irenaeus of Lyon Gloria Dei est vivens homo. This is what a good church should work towards.
These days I am more concerned about my elderly neighbours plumbing and phone bills than more abstract higher-level social injustices. I am more concerned about the drugs in my community and what is being taught in the school linked to my church. All of our lives, and the social fabric we occupy, should be ordered to the glory of God. I will be honest I see less and less point in voting these days as I feel increasingly unrepresented as a Christian by national politics. I would even question a Christian serving in the military, or potentially police, these days. Yet thats driven me more into engaging with my local area and a church that is on that same level isn’t just attractive but I think operating on the scale the church is expected to in scripture.
6. Intellectual Stimulation
Churches should also be centers of thought in their community. Scripture is such that even the smallest of children can enjoy it but even the greatest of minds can never exhaust it, Church should reflect this. Too often Churches suffer from lack of robust teaching with a congregation largely at the whims of the ministers sense of what might be appropriate at any given point in time. The Protestant idea that people should read the Bible for themselves has been the greatest engine for literacy the world has ever known. People need help with that but sometimes the temptation is to instead resort to the lowest common denominator wherein we constantly repeat how one becomes a Christian but never progress beyond that.
One commentator writing on the Protestant legacy of education writes:
A little over a year ago, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I commented in a short piece on the salutary effect that event had on education. The general historical picture is clear enough without detailed statistical analysis; but statistical evidence can help to contribute to a thicker, more complete picture.
Such evidence is provided by a recent article in Comparative Sociology called “Still Influential: The Protestant Emphasis on Schooling” (already referred to in the popular press here), in which Horst Feldmann, of the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, uses data collected from 147 countries to argue that those that are historically Protestant have “a cultural heritage that puts a high value on education and schooling,” because Protestantism from its inception “has been advocating and actively pursuing the expansion of schooling, including the schooling of girls.”EJ Hutchinson, The Legacy of Protestant Education
In America even now we see many Christian parents are seeking to raise their children within a classical worldview. Far from fundamentalism one journalist wrote:
What I found instead were parents, students, and teachers with a shared vision of an educational program steeped in the Great Books and committed to glorifying God, freeing the mind from the marketplace of idols, and shaping virtuous, morally self-regulating citizens.Louis Markos, The Rise of the Bible-Teaching, Plato-Loving, Homeschool Elitists
Even if we aren’t talking about educating children a church which loves to catechise and invest in it’s members seems a rarity today. Now more than ever do our churches, children, and christians need Wisdom (capital W) to navigate the challenges of the 21st century. It’s not a choice between the classroom or the pulpit on this, it should be both.
7. Historic Continuity
The final point for me is a sense of historical orientation. For me this is simply expressed via negativa in that the Christian church did not start after the 1960s and should therefore reflect that reality. Institutional continuity with the past is good because, as CS Lewis said of any book “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.” but even if a congregation is cogniscant of it’s place in the grand history of the Church and conversant with it it is a massive plus. Some people get excited about new ideas, but I think I’m turning out to be excited by old ones when it comes to my faith.
8. Other Considerations
The only thing for myself is the mental spectre of my own discernment process within the Church of England. I currently attend an Anglican church, our local parish, but my wife is correct in that she does not think it would be good for us to continue to another one were we to move. She says that as a (now former – baby expecting) Church Warden. To be honest that isn’t hard when the local parish of our leading candidate looks likely to be both progressive and anglo-catholic. More generally what one can expect from one CoE parish will differ radically to another but at this point I feel that you can’t really untangle them namely due to the common fund.
I will be honest I am still haunted by the recommendation, during my discernment process, by an Anglican priest that I should pack my bags and swim the Tiber or Bosphorous. I am a Protestant but coming out as against Women’s Ordination, among other things, has made a rod for my own back because so many Churches are egalitarian on this issue now. Many which aren’t are heading that way. I wish I could just chuck my beliefs on that subject under the bus at times, but I believe them to be true and so I need to learn how to make sense of it. I guess part of this is figuring out what things I can negotiate on and what things I can’t. I don’t imagine a church exists that ticks all the above boxes either, so I guess it’s trying to figure out what is the best fit.
In all this I keep coming back to this article by Andrew Wilson on the state of Evangelicalism, and the influence of HtB, in the UK:
I mean “centre” as in the centre circle of a football pitch: the reasonably large, obvious bit in the middle, as far away from all extremes as you can get, from which it is possible to influence most of the game, and which, if you want to play with everyone else, you have to interact with on a regular basis. In that sense, I think, HTB is clearly in the centre, and far more central than any other institutions or individuals I’m aware of.
But I do think it’s worth thinking through three corollaries of HTB’s increasing centrality, both for individual churches (like mine) and for evangelicalism as a whole.
First, contemporary evangelicalism is increasingly becoming aligned by shared conferences, courses and choruses, rather than confessions, creeds or catechisms. There was a time when self-identification would primarily be a function of denominational affiliation, but for most evangelicals this is no longer true.
Second, this apparently trivial practical reality has huge theological implications. In previous generations, the issues which marked out churches as different from each other were rooted in post-Reformation disagreements over the nature, identity and right ordering of the church: polity, sacramental theology, liturgy and of course baptism. Those were the sorts of things denominations, and local churches, really needed to agree on, so they were clarified and articulated. But they are not the things that conference hosts, or course developers, or songwriters need to agree on. You can happily pitch up at the HTB Leadership Conference without having any idea how the people there approach church government or baptism, because the conference has no elders and no baptisms.
Third, the centrality of HTB also reflects decreasing levels of doctrinal clarity in British evangelicalism as a whole. … How many people who run Alpha or the Marriage Course, I wonder, know what view (if any) HTB have of penal substitution, or hell, or predestination, or gay marriage, or any number of other contentious issues in the contemporary church? (Egalitarianism, as mentioned above, is probably the exception that proves the rule). Most evangelicals will wonder why it matters: if someone has a good course, or runs a good conference, what difference does it make what they think about penal substitution, hell, gender roles or gay marriage? This, of course, is exactly the point I’m making – that the centrality of HTB reflects the lack of doctrinal clarity in evangelicalism.Andrew Wilson, The New Centre of British Evangelicalism
I think Wilson has a point here and I’ve become painfully aware of his points here having lived in London. Wilson is a self-confessed fan of HtB, and I used to be too, but I think increasingly Christians do need to know what they believe and why they believe it and this free-marketised conference orientated expression of the Church represented by HtB I think doesn’t help make that happen. It also feels very late 20th century, which is cringe.
Anyway, if anyone can recommend a decent church in a town that’s semi-commutable to London let me know.