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.

Benedicite, omnia opera Domini

O all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Heavens, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Waters that be above the Firmament, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Powers of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Sun and Moon, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Stars of Heaven, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Showers and Dew, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Winds of God, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Fire and Heat, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Winter and Summer, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Dews and Frosts, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Frost and Cold, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Ice and Snow, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Nights and Days, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Light and Darkness, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Lightnings and Clouds, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O let the Earth bless the Lord : yea, let it praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Mountains and Hills, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Green Things upon the Earth, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.O ye Wells, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Whales, and all that move in the Waters, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Fowls of the Air, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Beasts and Cattle, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Children of Men, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O let Israel bless the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Priests of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Spirits and Souls of the Righteous, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye holy and humble Men of heart, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O Ananias, Azarias and Misael, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

 

Ananias, Azarias and Misael are names for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego the friends of Daniel. This is probably my favourite bit out of the morning prayer in the BCP where all of creation is called and encouraged to praise God. I try to think of every thing mentioned as I recite the lines, the repetition at first was tedious but I’ve gotten into it now and keep returning to this passage in particular.

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.

Anabaptists, Anglicans and Violence

Anabaptists, Anglicans and Violence

 

I’m not an Anabaptist, although I am sympathetic to their ideals. The Anglican church however has several tenants in direct opposition to a number of key Anabaptist tenants. I do not have an issue with these Anabaptist assertions, which leaves conflicted as someone who largely identifies as an Anglican. The Anglican points of opposition are..

No common goods..

XXXVIII. OF CHRISTIAN MEN’S GOODS, WHICH ARE NOT COMMON

THE Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

Article 28 of the 39 Articles

Infant baptism..

No Minister shall refuse or, save for the purpose of preparing or instructing the parents or guardians or godparents, delay to baptize any infant within his cure that is brought to the church to be baptized, provided that due notice has been given and the provisions relating to godparents are observed. If the Minister shall refuse or unduly delay to baptize any such infant, the parents or guardians may apply to the Bishop of the diocese who shall, after consultation with the Minister, give such directions as he thinks fit.

The Ministration of Public Baptism of Infants to be used in the church, From the Book of Common Prayer

Institutional support of the state, a Monarch as head of the Church, the death penalty and state advocacy of war..

XXXVII. OF THE CIVIL MAGISTRATES

THE King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.
Where we attribute to the King’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly

Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.

The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.

The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.

It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.

Article 37 of the 39 Articles

All of which the Anabaptists oppose, and I guess if pushed I do too. Yet the biggest differences between the Anglican and Anabaptist church, to me, is their vision of the Church in society. The Anglican church historically has been wedded to the English state as long as it has been reformed, the Anabaptists have been (in)famous for their rejection of the state everywhere and all that it entails (excluding that one time in Munster). In this light the Anglican church is positioned as an insider on the workings of society, the Anabaptist as the perpetual outsider. The Anglicans a majority movement, the Anabaptists a minority. This isn’t to say one is good the other bad, merely they have different visions of how they interact with society.

For a long time I considered myself a pacifist, yet watching all the violence in the world I’m left wondering what I would do if I was in the Ukraine, Syria or Iraq right now. I wonder if pacifism in this setting is guilty of selfishness for the same reason as suicide. You don’t consider the people around you, the people who depend on you, and I’m saying this coming into a time in my life where people for the first time depend on me. More than that, people make a culture, a society, a church and to offer no hard defence of those things is to give no value to the aforementioned things. Violence isn’t the only ways to protect these things of course, but can I really offer those alternatives to the Assyrian people or the Kurds who were stuck on Mount Sinjar? We might be willing to become refugees or to live as peaceably as possible under extortion by groups like the Islamic State, or practice non-violent civil disobedience but ultimately to do so is to give up our agency and rely on those outside the church for our assurances of safety and peace. Our safety in this instance will be assured by their willingness to use violence when we no longer are. Our safety then comes at the price of ensuring their are always people outside the Church, outside of salvation willing to do what we dare not. This is a cynical, utilitarian and exploitative outlook that bears no real love for the salvation and redemption of these people we are utilising to protect the church.

PACIFIST. Those who “abjure” violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.

George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism

One criticism of this is that perhaps it takes a poor view of Gods sovereignty and the agency of his Spirit in the world. That we are making the same mistake as Abraham in initially choosing Hagar over Sarah. That all things are according to his will and happen exactly as he intends and we just need to be faithful in our maintaining peace with all people. In this case we must be blunt about the fatalistic nature of this. That we must not even value the Church and its preservation as we live in the expectation that God will intervene in some other means. That we cannot trust our own reason or understanding of a situation no matter how dire. Yet we do not take this approach to Evangelism in general (unless of course we are hyper-calvinists) and firmly believe that God has placed us in a role in others coming to faith. The church is his hands and feet as scripture tells us. Likewise, with the progressive disappearance of the church in the middle east, who will be there to preach the Gospel to the Muslims, Jews and others left behind? We might say ‘there will be others’ but just as with the attempted destruction of Palmyra, can such things ever be replaced once they have disappeared? Are these communities and cultures not living artefacts in a fashion? If we do not value such communities, are we complicit in a fashion for their disappearance? To be truly a pacifist is to believe nothing in this world is ultimately worth saving. That might be fine for a Buddhist, is it fine for the Christian?

Yet the Anabaptist didn’t emerge in a vacuum, they came about in a period in the Middle Ages when the church aligned itself too closely to the state to the great detriment of the church. The anabaptists expressed a heartbreaking love for their enemies which lead to them being persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike and yet still exist today despite their earlier sufferings. Much of their theology has trickled down into much of contemporary Protestant Christianity such that the practice of credo baptism is positively normative in Evangelicalism as is its distrust of secular power.

We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.

 Justin the Martyr

Historically the aligning of the church to a single political power distances itself from other centres of power and compromises its witness in all areas apart from the region it was allied to. A Christian Constantinople emerged at the detriment of the Persian Church who came to be seen as a 5th column by the ruling Sassanid Empire. However,  even if the church is decentralised we find ourselves in a place where in both World Wars we had Christians on both sides willing to slaughter one another. A tragedy and a gross error in judgement, yet if such a thing had never of occurred would the world look more like that depicted in Philip Dick’s novel ‘The Man in the High Tower‘? A Reich on which the Sun never sets? There are no easy answers to these questions but it seems like a blanket answer one way or the other on this is simply a refusal to engage with these questions altogether. To opt out of all possibility of violence will mean you will never regret its consequences, but you’ll also never be invested enough to really bring about a change in the fundamental nature of the society you find yourself in because society itself is inherently violent.

The early church, to my understanding, was united in its rejection of violence. This has been moderated over time but the words of the Church fathers are convicting even today. The act of violence is one thing, but it is the existential implications of the act that we need to wrestle with. This is important because to get it wrong in either direction I think would be a gross error.

As the Church is in decline in the West the outsider theology of the Anabaptists is no doubt likely to appeal to an increasing number of Christians. Talk of the Benedict option in the US is a good example of this. Its uses the language of monasteries but really doesn’t seem too radically different from what the Mennonites have been practicing since their conception. How will this impact the Anglican church, a church that in the UK has always been close to the state? Could there ever be a meeting of minds between Anglicans and Anabaptist theologians? How will the Church of England respond to a England that doesn’t know Christ? Can the church ever marry the best of both the Anglican and the Anabaptist?

I am a Christian. He who answers thus has declared everything at once—his country, profession, family; the believer belongs to no city on earth but to the heavenly Jerusalem.

St. John Chrysostom

Chrysostom, 1 Corinthians 14 and (Charismatic) tongues

Chrysostom, 1 Corinthians 14 and (Charismatic) tongues

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.

I grew up largely ignorant of the charismatic movement, I was familiar with a general idea that something like it existed but it was only when I went to university that I got to understand it in any depth. I realise now in many settings, even many Anglican churches, that their is an implicit assumption that the contemporary charismatic outlook on the gifts of the spirit is accepted if not generally endorsed by many Anglicans today. One of the clearest signs of the charismatic movement is the use and advocacy of tongues. A series of noises generally unintelligible to all but those gifted with an interpretation. In my experience this takes place either in private prayer or in a corporate setting (which will require interpretation, or not, depending on the church in question). This practice is based on interpretations of actions described in specific chapters in books like Acts and 1 Corinthians.

I will be honest, as someone ignorant of it for a long time I didn’t know how to respond when first confronted with tongues as its understood by charismatics. My first reaction was

  1. This is really flipping weird
  2. If this was true how could I have been so ignorant of something like this for so long?

My charismatic peers were happy to talk about it and did so with a sort of certainty and ease that suggested there was little to no doubt as to the reality of these tongues to them. It isn’t a difficult thing to do, but the implications for doing so and the confidence in which you did so seemed to be at a sign, at least to others, as to how open you were to the Spirit being at work in your life. The thing that really confused me however was that tongues afforded them in many instances a liberty and license in their behaviour and conduct which I hadn’t seen before in Christians. The assumption being that the practice of tongues speaking in some instances was taken as an affirmation of the Holy Spirit for the individual in question.

We use this word ‘tongues’ because it is what appears in the context of passages like 1 Corinthians 14. Glossa, the word for tongues (the body part) in Greek is synonymous and interchangeable with our word ‘language’. This isn’t necessarily problematic to a Charismatic who will offer up that these may well be unknown languages or that of angels. They’re languages, just not as we understand them. Yet as time has gone on I’m wondering if this understanding is a much more recent one and not found in the general history of the church. Reading the writing of John Chrysostom, a 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople, however suggested avery different understanding..

Here he shows that it is in their power to obtain the gift. For, let him pray, says he, i.e., let him contribute his own part, since if you ask diligently, you will surely receive. Ask accordingly not to have the gift of tongue only, but also of interpretation, that you may become useful unto all, and not shut up your gift in yourself alone. For if I pray in a tongue, says he, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. Do you see how by degrees bringing his argument to a point, he signifies that not to others only is such an one useless, but also to himself; if at least his understanding is unfruitful? For if a man should speak only in the Persian, or any other foreign tongue, and not understand what he says, then of course to himself also will he be thenceforth a barbarian, not to another only, from not knowing the meaning of the sound. For there were of old many who had also a gift of prayer, together with a tongue; and they prayed, and the tongue spoke, praying either in the Persian or Latin language , but their understanding knew not what was spoken. Wherefore also he said, If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, i.e., the gift which is given me and which moves my tongue, but my understanding is unfruitful.

What then may that be which is best in itself, and does good? And how ought one to act, or what request of God? To pray, both with the spirit, i.e., the gift, and with the understanding. Wherefore also he said, I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

He signifies the same thing here also, that both the tongue may speak, and the understanding may not be ignorant of the things spoken. For except this be so, there will also be another confusion.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians 35.5-6 (on 1 Corinthians 14:15)

The above quote from Chrysostom suggests that our understanding of tongues as a word really is synonymous with an understandable language (he cites Persian or Latin as an example), a mode of speech. He also seems to suggest this is an argument against saying prayers or even speaking in languages you don’t understand. Tongues has one use. This frames passages like 1 Corinthians 14:14-15 and its broader chapter in context of describing individuals being gifted not just in communication but also in understanding.

 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.

1 Corinthians 14:11 (NIV)

What can a person achieve if he does not know what he is saying?

Ambrosiaster, commenting on 1 Corinthians 14:14

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Chrysostom, one of the most famous preachers in the history of the church

Chrysostom seems to understand tongues as a gift that enhances the commons, the body, of the Church. This could be truly miraculous, as is the case at Pentecost – but it is miraculous precisely because it is a gift that unites those in attendance in an clearly understandable message humanely impossible. In the case of Pentecost this results in the Apostles being able to clearly preach the inaugural Kingdom of God to those in attendance in their native languages.

This stands in quite a contrast to the more contemporary expression of tongues as a tool also for devotional, or private ends. Earlier in the chapter we see 1 Corinthians 14:4 which seems at first to support a private or devotional usage of tongues.

 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.

1 Corinthians 14:4 (NIV)

This depends on how we understand prophecy, but implies that tongues has a personal benefit to the individual. If we bear in mind that tongues can equally mean language or more generally a ‘mode of speaking’ however then this can equally be understood as anyone with the gift of a language building themselves up (in the eyes of themselves and others) by speaking it. Prophecy in this passage, is explained in the preceding verse as..

But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.

1 Corinthians 14:3 (NIV)

Which at the very least suggests a communal role for the benefit and growth of the wider church body.

This reading in light of the writings by Chrysostom portrays a very different image of Glossolalia than that given by contemporary Charismatics. It is singular in purpose yet much more public and clearly directed as an act of service to God, a witness to the unbelieving world and a means to grow the broader church body. This seems to make sense and remind me of the verse where Jesus himself states..

But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say,

Matthew 10:19

Given by what? The Holy Spirit. Which sounds more in keeping with Chrysostom’s exposition again. It is a public act that is directed towards bringing people into the Kingdom of God.

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers.

1 Corinthians 14:22

This has echoes again of Pentecost in it – the primary role of tongues is a public evangelistic one, contrary to the contemporary expression which rarely if ever takes place outside of church gatherings today. The gift of languages represents the undoing of the division of tongues found in the Tower of Babel account.

John Chrysostom is by no means the only or final voice on the matter but I haven’t seen anyone of his contemporaries or predecessors dispute this understanding. If however you want to read more on this I’ve found the following paper useful which takes a broader look on the subject within the early church.

So what?

tongues
Contemporary tongues emerged in 19th century Protestant revival movements in the UK/US

I think there are other reasons why contemporary tongues can be seen as problematic, both with reference to history and the contradictory, and at times heretical theological claims of the movements it is found within. But pragmatically as laypeople, what are we to do about this?

I think even having the knowledge that what is taken for granted currently on the subject of something like tongues isn’t the final word is incredibly powerful. Personally I am in an environment where this sort of behaviour is a normal part of the low level ambience. As a result we’ve got to be willing to have these discussions that can place the emergence of these practices within a specific context in light of the broader witness of the church and scripture in order to give us a better grasp of the issues at work and engage with proponents of such practices.

I do not think it is a surprise that in our late-capitalist, post-modern and overwhelmingly individualistic age we see a rise in the practice and appeal of something like these private, manmade and unknown languages. I believe the explanation for this rise in the practice is a mixture in part of..

  • Exegesis out of context
  • Ignorance of church history
  • Sociological phenomenon at work within the church and society

Despite this, I imagine a charismatic understanding of tongues is a theological hill that many people would be perfectly willing to die on. Despite being what many Christians would call a secondary issue on the surface. Partly because it is a core component of a much wider theological worldview. However, if we can work our way back to a confident orthodoxy  we can provide an example to others of a more grounded, nuanced and whole of life embrace of the Kingdom of God that engages with these phenomenon critically without rejecting the wider workings of the spirit. With the prevalence of this sort behaviour being advocated as normative in courses like Alpha, one of the primary evangelism engines at work in the UK church, we need to be willing to go against the grain and speak out in love for a corrective scripturally and historically orthodox understanding on this topic.

All good things on Earth and Heaven

All good things on Earth and Heaven

I saw this post today in the Croydon Guardian about a Priest who is attempting to reengage with the local parish by carrying out a blessing on a local pubs beer. The article reads..

Next week, the holy communion of booze and the Bible will be consecrated at one of the more unusual Thursday night drinking sessions to take place in a Croydon pub: the blessing of the beer at The Dog and Bull.

The ceremony, whose origins are thought to date back to medieval monasteries, will involve a procession from Croydon Minster to the boozer in nearby Surrey Street, following a mass at the church celebrating the pub’s licensees, Lesley and Mark Knight.

Father Lee Taylor, the minster’s associate vicar, will then bless the The Dog and Bull’s beer barrels and pumps using instructions from a 1614 manual for the benediction of everyday items.

Ale Mary: Croydon Minster to revive medieval tradition of blessing beer

Personally I think this is a warming step in the right direction, its also important to get to grips with the fact that medieval (and earlier) Christianity in Europe seems to be much more all-encompassing in its blessings and benedictions. The church was at a time literally the centre of the community, partly because the church embraced the community and in response the community embraced the church. There wasn’t a distinction in terms of spiritual or material, everything was baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. When we do draw that distinction both suffer and the church is marginalised from the everyday livesof the people. This isn’t the people diminishing the churches position, but perhaps the church diminishing itself in the degree to which it belongs to the common people.

I also think there’s something to be said as well for the fact that in Britain we have increasingly become detached from the passing of time and the land itself. The only seasonal celebration now is either in our personal calendar of birthdays and anniversaries or the more general deference to Christmas and subsequently New Year. The church once played a big role in celebrating seasonal occurrences like Harvest etc. or the lives of those who have passed on. Today the church, like our society, is largely ‘evergreen’ and I wonder if this is for the better. These celebrations remind us that all good things and good people are gifts from God and perhaps we would all do well to remember where these things come from (whether they be food or friendship).

One blogger I saw commenting on the article wrote rather appropriately of these measures..

The local church is, or ought to be, a physical instantiation of the reunification of heaven and earth. Therefore it makes complete sense that the local church (or churches for nothing stops these celebrations from being ecumenical affairs) should and must engage in blessing local activities and establishments. It is true that this wouldn’t be welcome everywhere and that some churches might have to find ways to bring the village into the church before the church could enter into the village in such a prominent way. Nevertheless, it must be tried. People need to see that the Church is not so divorced from the culture that it cannot recognise the importance of things like food and beer.

David Russell Mosley, The Church and the Village: The Blessing of the Beer and Other Agricultural Festivals

I think its also worth noting that both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, indeed all European churches generally, have a long history of engaging with issues like alcohol consumption (and the natural world in general) in ways which weren’t prohibitive but moderate and celebratory. 14th Century British people were even baptised in cider for a time! (although this was perhaps more due to health than love of Cider). This approach to the potentially contentious features of ordinary peoples lives is perhaps more constructive than the attitude of the more prohibition minded holiness movement and its descendants today. There’s a time for that when these things are abused, but isn’t part of Anglicanism a moderation between a position of two extremes?

Anyway, I don’t live too far from Croydon. Maybe I’ll go and celebrate the blessing of the beer.

gKyTiWG