What does Sheffield have to do with Jerusalem?

What does Sheffield have to do with Jerusalem?

I recently heard the news that a friend of mine had been accepted for ordination within the Church of England. This would normally be good news but I have not been able to shake the sense of conflict I experienced over the decision. The reason why? To be honest, its because she is a woman. This was uncomfortable to me because pretty much my entire life I’ve been affirming of women’s leadership in whatever capacity. In fact, I’ve argued for it repeatedly in the past. My line manager at work is a woman, and so is hers and I have no issue or disquiet about any of that. In any other context, it’s not even something worth commenting on. Yet I realise I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something different about ordination. Something in my mind linked increasingly with communion. In my mind, it is like I am driving on a foggy night and I see a shape in the road. It could be nothing but I’m going to take measures to avoid it in the event that not doing so might cause some damage to myself and the passengers with me.

More recently there is news that in Sheffield a Bishop has been appointed who doesn’t condone women’s ordination. This has been seen as problematic in that it’s stated that nearly one-third of those ordained in Sheffield are women. One of the arguments against his appointment is his belief that the sacrament administered at the hands of a female priest is not valid and will not receive it from a woman. This amongst other things gave me pause because it perhaps highlights my ignorance of Anglican theology over what constitutes a valid administration in the event that it is purely a memorial or ritual. In fact in my mind, if the sacrament is a memorial the ordination and criteria of those who administer it is arguably inconsequential. If it is not, if there is something more significant taking place then are we saying that both the Roman and Orthodox church are wrong in their decision not to follow suit in opening the criteria for ordination? So much so that we are willing to damage the relationship and limited unity we shared with other Christians around the world? Are we saying that the historical position of the church in all forms for most of human history got this wrong? One of the foundational tenets of Anglicanism is ‘scripture, tradition and reason’. Do we dispense with the tradition (of scriptural interpretation and practice) in this instance? Or as Chesterton described it in his book ‘Orthodoxy’…

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

This isn’t a conscious shift on my part which what makes it so alarming to me. In fact witnessing the outcry from some areas at the appointment of this Bishop in Sheffield made me wonder if the opposite objection is also true. What of those ordained who do not condone women’s appointment to formal ministry? How can they in good conscious serve in a church that has departed from what could arguably be called historical orthodoxy on this matter? How can these two camps endure over time? If such objection will be raised to the appointment of such non-conforming bishops surely this is a form of argument for segregation? Or worse for the marginalisation of the non-conforming ordained?

The increasing trend within Anglicanism of unity at any cost is particularly highlighted I think during the season of Lent. I was listening to an Orthodox believer speak on the practice within their church of encouraging a specified fast throughout the whole church. This is different to anything I experienced in which you fast as much or as little as your conscience dictates. It is individualistic and that was fine for me because it was largely about my personal relationship with God. Yet when I heard this man speak of the fast as a corporate act, that it is an extension of the belief that all things in creation are to come together through the ministry of the church that totally made sense. In this light, the Anglican attitude of unity at any cost is actually the opposite of all things coming together in the church. Are all things coming apart in the Anglican church?

To be honest I increasingly struggle to confidently share my faith with others. What I’ve mentioned above is increasingly giving me pause. Why would I invite someone into a church so divided? One where I am increasingly unable to explore or voice my thoughts and prayers to even my minister because I am so unsure as to what they even believe. There’s great pressure to ‘get with the programme’ and go along with the inertia of the environment you find yourself immediately in. To be honest that’s what I find myself doing. When a brother struggles I hesitate to offer my input because I’m struggling too. It’s a different kind of struggle than that which church is eager to talk about. I love my community but I struggle with the environment we find ourselves in. Not Orthodox enough for the Orthodox church, not Roman enough for the Roman church and not Protestant enough for a Protestant church. That should make me an Anglican, but the difference between principle and practice I guess is more significant than I realised.

Lord If I am wrong in any of this please forgive and correct me.

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Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction to Evening Prayer, 1662 BCP

Liberalism and schism in the Church of England

Liberalism and schism in the Church of England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Widdecombe, New Statesman Interview 2010

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

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

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

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

Galatians 5:7-9

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

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

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

Praying for disestablishment

Praying for disestablishment

I was in a Bible study recently and towards the end we began talking about David Cameron’s Easter message (I know its a bit late) and the insistence that we are still a Christian nation (If we are then shame on us for what passes for Christian these days). Yet I was surprised by the near universal sentiment in the group that it’d be better for the Church of England to ‘come out’ of its role as the established church of the nation. Most of the people there had been raised in the CoE yet felt clearly the country and the church are being pulled in opposite directions and the church being chained to the state clearly was not doing us any favours with the expectations of the unbelieving public and political class bearing down on it.

 

A fair criticism of the Church of England is how closely it mirrors the secular world around it, how our bishops so closely mirror our politicians talking so much but saying very little. Demographically both the Church and the political system have become increasingly devoid of the participation of those in lower and middle income brackets and the young. The Church keeps promising to exercise authority against those deserving of it but the outcome is always underwhelming. The Church of England is an institution, a bureaucracy and ‘there is no health in us’. Which is perhaps why the church needs to ‘come out’ and learn to find its own voice and walk unaided by the state.

I am confident it is only a matter of time until the public and the state make the decision for the church and it should be taken as a blessing from God rather than anything tragic. It will force us and all others of the magnitude of the task before us here in the UK, because things will not be going back to the way they were. I will be surprised if the established nature of the church outlasts the life of Queen Elizabeth by any real measure (and I will really lament if Charles gets a handle on what little is left) because she seems to be the last true Christian monarch. As an aside, I’m not even a Monarchist but I think she’s probably one of the most vocal and well positioned Christians left here and for that I respect and even like her.

If the Church is wise it will act proactively and use such a separation as a chance to proclaim the gospel, if we are brave enough we should proactively seek to end it on our terms rather than that of the state. To get ahead of the inevitable and step more fully into the idea of the global church that Anglicanism is already participative in and more fully reject those who seek to capitalise on the idea of Christianity as a means of obtaining cultural capital for their own ends.

I find myself praying for disestablishment and soon and I do not think I am alone in praying this. The Church of England has an opportunity to occupy the role of a witness to the Kingdom of God which is infinitely better than the myopic cultural and epistemological materialistic landscape we are inheriting. It would be a massive change that would fundamentally alter the Church of England at its core, but its a change I think could be ultimately cathartic and for the better.

Thoughts on Anglicanism

At the Reformation the Church of England became protestant in order to become more truly and perfectly Catholic.

William Van Mildert, Bishop of Durham 1826-36

Anglicanism, or the Church of England (CoE), is a church with an uncertain future. It has rightly drawn ridicule from both believers and unbelievers alike for its actions in recent years. Finding itself hemorrhaging members and increasingly factional over a range of issues. I was raised in it yet walked away from it for a time because I saw it as fundamentally compromised. Yet despite that I have found myself increasingly convinced of a form of Anglicanism in recent years for two primary reasons.

Catholicism

1031aristobulos
Saint Aristobulus, the first Bishop of Britain

Anglicanism is Catholic in the sense that reciters of the Nicene creed believe in ‘one holy catholic and apostolic Church’. We Protestants are quick to assert that ‘Catholic’ means universal and that is true, however one of the things I struggled with in an Evangelical background (which I still believe in) was that the faith I encountered felt no older than the 1960’s that birthed it. Strictly speaking Catholic means those practices and beliefs that have always been present in the church and shared for a continuous period of time, Anglicanism can still in this light call itself ‘Universal’.

Having travelled England and the British isles I am increasingly challenged by the detritus of Christian history in this land that even the reformation wasn’t able to remove from the face of the country God placed me in. We have such a rich inheritance left behind by those who went before us that I am confronted by them and challenged by their lives and sacrifices in the name of the Gospel that I want to find myself in their company.

As a Protestant I am guilty of believing any useful Christian history starts from the Reformation onwards. Yet Anglicanism I believe is one of the few Protestant churches that can claim the uninterrupted heritage of the Church in some form as their own in a thoroughly unique and powerful way, and I think all Protestants should want to get to grips with it with gladness.

Protestantism

633px-William_Tyndale.jpg
William Tyndale, English Reformer

The reformation when it came to England had a focus on removing erroneous unbiblical beliefs and practices that had emerged in the church. The Anglican church shared in the reformation that swept throughout Europe and as a denomination has carried it far beyond the borders of the British Isles. The sacrifices of figures like (a hero of mine) William Tyndale and the coming into existence of the Bible in English happened within the context of what is now the Anglican Church.

I believe in a Church that first and foremost is devoted to following God through his revelation in the light of scripture. That despite how wondrous, exciting and beneficial following those who’ve gone before us is I recognise that scripture alone is our final authority. Whilst the traditions and history of the Church is an anchor for us it is not infallible and should not be beyond reproach. Should the church fail to act in the light of the Gospel message preached by Jesus and his followers that has worked its way to us through the ages the Bible alone is a prophetic voice calling it to account. The cult of the saints, transubstantiation, the belief in purgatory and priestly indulgences are all examples of things in the history of the church which do not have their roots in scripture which we subsequently reject.

I have found Peter J. Leithart’s ‘The End of Protestantism’ an interesting piece related to my thinking on this, whilst I don’t agree with everything I think he does get a lot of things right in it. Protestantism has always been (up until recently) a scholastic movement which is increasingly defined in some cases by ‘what it isn’t’ (Roman Catholicism) rather than what it is. I come from an Evangelical background, but I would actually take the sermons in the tradition of the Apostolic fathers over the pop-psychology I hear in many Evangelical church sermons today. We need to look increasingly beyond our own individualistic salvation to that of a vision big enough for not just us but all of society and this is something I feel the tradition of the faith can help us in our efforts to once again baptise the nation as we look at both the successes and failures of those before us.

Baskerville_title
The Book of Common Prayer is a good reflection of Anglicanism’s fusion of Catholic faith and Protestant conviction

Contra Anglicanism

lloyd-jones-copia1
Martin Lloyd-Jones was a well know critic of the contemporary Church of England

Now I’m not going to pretend the Church of England has got its act together. I’m still deliberating a lot of this and have echoes of Stott vs Lloyd-Jones in the 60’s doing the rounds in my mind. One day I wake up on the side of Stott and the other Lloyd-Jones but regardless I am convinced that a Christian has a commitment to be Catholic and simultaneously Protestant. I need to fight for the church and I honestly feel that my attempt to understand classical Anglicanism, whilst unpopular today, is a Christianity at its most authentic.

The reality of the Church of England is that it is compromised socially, morally and theologically. Compromised is the right word because it tries to create space for conflicting theologies and visions of the church pretending they can all coexist. Being together is better than being truthful in many instances which unsurprisingly compromises its witness.

Being part of the establishment of the country also comes with pressure to conform to the society around it and not the Gospel as historically (and Biblically) understood. This also gives the church its own coloured history and personally I think it’d be good if disestablishment happened sooner rather than later. On governance every insight I’ve had into Church runnings in the CoE makes me feel a little bit sick at how convoluted and political it all seems. It is also particularly lost to the working classes in our society, it’s a middle and upper class church and that needs to change.

Final thoughts

Now do I attend a church that necessarily matches up to the ideal I’ve discussed? No, I attend my local parish church that operates largely in the tradition of Holy Trinity Brompton. A tradition which is increasingly typical of growing Anglican churches in London that don’t really feel all that Anglican. They do good work and pull numbers but for several reasons I think they really lose out in some key areas which raises questions for me about their sustainability in the long term.

My own ideal is a low church set up that is Evangelical in conviction, expositional in its teaching, interested in explicit Discipleship and investing in the life of the community and with a place for the Book of Common Prayer in its services. Easily accessible to everyone but with clearly defined membership for those committed to the church and regularly celebrating the sacraments.

My only point of contention with classical Anglicanism on this is the idea of infant baptism, it is a well established occurrence I know but I personally advocate believers baptism. The idea of baptising someone unable to make the choice themselves seems meaningless to me. The closest anabaptist in me can’t help it.