Disability, faith and the church

Disability, faith and the church

Depending on who you talk to as many as 1 in 100 people could be psychopaths. Some of the defining characteristics of a psychopath include a lack of..

  1. Anxiety
  2. Remorse
  3. Empathy

Listening to a talk on the subject I wondered to what degree this impacts someone coming to faith. Even if we get more general I feel theres an argument that some people genuinely have the biological cards stacked against them concerning coming to faith. Often when we discuss faith and make appeals to others we place an emphasis on the mind at one extreme or the emotions at another. What do we when confronted with such people incapable of responding properly to either of these? Not just the psychopath but those with learning difficulties or conditions like severe Downs or later life onset conditions like Alzheimers?

When listening to the talk and thinking on this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Apologist David Wood who self diagnoses’s himself as a psychopath. It’s clearly not impossible for such people to come to faith but does this mean that biology or psychology has no consideration? If we were to do a quantitative study of our Churches we’d inevitably find certain people appear more than others. Psychopaths, for example, are better represented in the Prison population compared to non-Psychopaths. Likewise we’ll find various  aspects of the population both over and under emphasised in Churches. This will change from one church to another but ultimately “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” and unless we accurately reflect our local populations will need to reconsider how we can bring these people into the church. Psychopathy, whilst having no bearing on comprehension is still a handicap and any number of similar or related conditions can potentially exclude people from not just participation in a church but from faith itself as we understand it.

So much of Protestant faith is framed through a lens of engaging both the head and the heart. Salvation is by faith alone but what about those people who struggle, or lack the mental categories or presence, that contribute to faith? We could wash our hands at this point and give it to the Holy Spirit, but whilst its impossible to dismiss the Holy Spirit at work in our lives it seems fatalistic to use it as a pretext to dismiss these issues. Its here that I wonder if a view espoused more recently by NT Wright of the Church as a form of covenant community might have an explanation. Salvation, communion with God is seen less through the lens of individual receptiveness to the Gospel but by participation in the community which is collectively saying we trust in Jesus Christ.

[T]he doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ….Let us be quite clear. ‘The gospel’ is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. ‘Justification’ is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other

N.T Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said.

The Church in this light is less a collection of individuals bound by common creed but a community, a family focused on the person of Jesus Christ. Faith is a core component still but it isn’t directly pertaining to justification, instead faith leads to participation in the family of Jesus Christ out of which comes justification. Here then, participation in the family is the emphasis which is still accessible for those with conditions like Downs, Alzheimers or even Psychopaths who might struggle or be otherwise unable to have faith in the conventional sense. Faith is still a core component but theres a nuance here I think is important. This perspective isn’t without its own areas of concern and there are probably implications to this that need to be realised but thinking about this has made me consider it in a way I hadn’t previously.

I think sometimes theres a temptation to expect Christians to be a certain kind of person. The problem with this perspective is, unless the entire neighbourhood, nation and world eventually becomes that kind of person the Church will also be perpetually hobbled. For England to become a nation of  Christians again the Church will have to look very different to what it does today. It’ll need to anticipate the entire spectrum of human nature and have a place for it. This doesn’t mean necessarily changing our theology or liberalising but perhaps coming to increasingly view faith as a community effort rather than an individual one. Theirs a tension to be found in calling the people to repent and simultaneously the church accessible to the people. In the words of Bonhoeffer..

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it..

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

All of this touches on a broader question to me. So much of our faith is hinged on our individual ability to respond – in this light it is quite individualistic. I do not think it is a coincidence then in this light that practices like the corporate sacrament of communion is deprioritised in many Protestant churches. The individual response is important, but perhaps it is the means rather than the end itself.

A few years ago, when the emerging church was popular, I knew a good many people who felt they didn’t need Church, they had their own private thing going on they’d say. Many of those who attended church would ask these people ‘how do you get fed?’ by which they meant – where do you get taught scripture? They asked ‘where do you find accountability?’ by which they meant – how do you ensure you aren’t stumbling into heterodoxy? These were poor questions because the exposition of scripture itself is nothing miraculous, you can get it off the internet, and heterodoxy abounds in so many churches today.

So why go to Church? Perhaps because the Church is the covenant, the Ark, the body and the family of Abraham that is committed to following Christ. It is more than mere acquiescence to a particular set of propositions or an emotional response to the Gospel. The belonging itself is crucial and is emphasised by the practices Jesus himself handed down to us in Communion and Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 1:13 ‘Is Christ divided?’. The answer is no. This makes me ask the question of my own views on communion, anyone can break bread and drink wine but what does that mean if we do so outside the Church? At worst we do so in order to delude ourselves that we can engage with God on our own terms. Perhaps it isn’t just faith but also the church that binds us together, particularly if we’re struggling or just can’t comprehend the Gospel. I’m reminded of the final words of Christopher McCandless ‘Happiness is only real when shared.’ I think its true, but I think it extends to faith too. Our faith is only real when worked out together.


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.)


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

The church and gender disparity

The church and gender disparity

Its not exactly news to say the Church of England (CofE), overall, is still in decline in the UK. The question of where this decline is coming from however is something normally associated with age. Its really obvious in many churches, even independent churches, that the older generations are generally the more faithful in their observance compared to a group like Millenials. However this is compounded in the CofE with the exception of newer church plants in the mould of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) which disproportionately attract young people. The divide which is still more broadly consistent however is that of gender.

In the UK women are 50% more likely to attend church than men. At times this figure can grow to as much as 66%. Even out of all those who attend in the CofE only 16% are ‘convinced’ their belief in God is true, drastically lagging behind the conviction of 71% of self-identifying Evangelicals and 88% of British Muslims. This is interesting in that globally the places in the world which are typically associated with Islam show much higher rates of male over female participation despite women overall globally being more active in a faith. We can assume therefore that Muslim men in the UK are far more likely to be active in their observance than their Christian counterparts. The only other male dominated group like this in our society are Atheists.

If men disappeared from church life altogether, aside from the issues regarding the priesthood the church would still be able to function. However if women disappeared from the church it wouldn’t be able to practically function from the moment such a vanishing were to take place. Yet the real significance of gender disparity in a church is that it correlates with its decline over time. As a result the lack of gender disparity is a good indicator of the long term health of both a local church and a faith overall. For many Christians therefore, this should be a cause for concern. In the words of one writer..

Women may be the backbone of a congregation, but the presence of a significant number of men is often a clear indicator of spiritual health.

George Gallup Jr., “Why Are Women More Religious?” 17 December 2002, Gallup Tuesday Briefing, Religion and Values

Even in many of the newer HTB plants around London whilst they manage to attract young people the gender divide is still present. The style of Christianity is described by New Frontiers minister Andrew Wilson  as “middle-class, charismatic, non-confessional, low church, generic evangelicalism” which statistically and anecdotally, in my own experience, still appeals to more women than men. Realistically however its all but confirmed that if the CofE is to endure in any fashion its likely it will look like HTB due to its success in both ‘revitalising’ existing churches and the success of courses like Alpha. Despite this it still divides the population at large by both economic class and gender. It also arguably contributes  towards a culture of decreasing doctrinal clarity as Andrew Wilson expounds..

Perhaps it’s the breadth of Alpha’s appeal, perhaps it’s the elevation of Justin Welby, perhaps it’s the genial personalities and inspirational styles of the key leaders (Nicky Gumbel’s tweets resemble, and even quote, Joyce Meyer an awful lot of the time), or perhaps it’s something else entirely – but it seems to me that externally, HTB has avoided taking a “position” on a number of controversial contemporary issues (much more so than the centre of American evangelicalism in the last generation, Billy Graham, and in this one, Rick Warren), and that their doctrinal boundaries internally are much less defined than most local churches’ (they have numerous staff members and even worship leaders, let alone church members, who do not agree with each other on all sorts of doctrinal issues, including some that Christians in previous generations have died over, and allow huge theological diversity to be represented by speakers in their church, conferences and Focus weekends). 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?

Andrew Wilson, The New Centre of British Evangelicalism

All of which casts questions for over the long term health of HTB churches. This is something I struggled with, and I know many other guys who are still in places touched by HTB do too. The lack of clarity on doctrinal issues is difficult, as is trying to engage constructively with the unspoken assumptions and theology evident in the style and structure of HTB gatherings. What you believe pertaining to something like ‘penal substitution’ isn’t the issue so much as the fact that your onboard with their style of service and its contents. There are guys for who this is fine, but there are plenty of guys who also just go through the motions. They don’t bother to sing the songs, don’t come forward for prayer and just leave church altogether to their wives and girlfriends only turning up occasionally or at social events (if that). Many still believe its just that church, aside from the relationships, is something to otherwise be winced through and often isn’t compelling or relatable to many of them. Let alone anyone they’d consider sharing their faith with.

The exception to this within Christianity seems to come from two places..

These observations say nothing to the the accuracy of the belief found in those places. Yet at its most basic quantifiable level, ideas about inherent gender traits aside, this numerical disparity in gender is something that needs addressing if the church is to see growth in any sort of healthy, widespread way. Europe several times has been rebaptised by the works of the monastics, of men (and women) who were willing to sacrifice way more than many of us do today. Today believers struggle at times to pray consistently, read scripture and to make it to worship once on a Sunday. I don’t think its even that the church has become ‘feminised’ because many of the expressions of Christianity seemingly popular with men (I’ve broadly outlined two forms in the points above) seem just as popular with women. We shouldn’t be looking for masculine christianity necessarily, but one that can achieve equal gender parity, because that isn’t happening currently and we need to move beyond seeing this as a binary his and hers issue of gender stereotypes. Particular when one gender comes across as alienated from the church to a greater degree than another, the honest answer is that currently both genders are experiencing alienation given attendance numbers. The well known quote ‘Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets’ seems appropriate here. The system isn’t functioning as intended but it is functioning per design.

Its something of a conundrum that Christianity today is at times accused of being patriarchal. Men dominate the leadership yes but women make up the bulk of its members and many men are distancing themselves from it. How we respond to reaching better gender parity depends on our outlook on subjects like gender. In talking to others about the issue of gender disparity one of the more common glib responses I saw was “Jesus either appeals to some people or doesn’t” and that most discussions on the subject can be attributed to sloppy gender dualism. The implicit implication here however is that more men than women are less willing to humble themselves in obedience to God and the church which is reflected in their lower attendance. Arguably this itself actually reinforces a measure of gender dualism whilst attempting to skirt an issue which is consistently played out around the world. Ultimately if we believe gender determines behaviour, we will approach this differently to believing that gender is a purely sociological construct. Yet I think pragmatically we must concede that there is perhaps a measure of both taking place. We see this concession in the business world with their unashamedly, albeit generally successful, gendered product marketing. On this note, as I’ve written previously, the impact of the free market on the church today has changed how we perceive church, and if the majority of church attendees are female it stands to reason that the church is viewed in terms more acceptable to women than men as a result of the material marketed to us within it, if that is the audience being drawn.

We live in a post-industrial service based society where many men struggle academically, financially and emotionally being far more likely to die of suicide today than any other means. The advent of innovations like widespread and affordable contraception also mean people are having families later, or not at all. We wish to live life on our terms, even if such actions prove self-destructive at an individual and societal level. Any solution to addressing gender disparity is rightly condemning the trajectory of the society around us which perpetrates the struggles both genders experience today. Many of us have little prospect of stable careers, homes and family life. They’ll be no singular solution which will address gender disparity in church, but its about time we recognise that such a thing exists and needs to be addressed.

A Swiss study conducted in 1994 concluded overwhelming that one of the greatest contributing factors to children inheriting the faith of their parents is the role of faith in the life of the father. This is actually compounded further when the father attends church regularly and the mother does not where 44% of all such children went on to become regular church goers themselves. When the opposite is considered, the mother was devout but the father not, only 2% would go on to be regular church goers. Whatever you think of the study this suggests a clear link setting up fathers as lead role models to their children, particular in the area of belief. Also on this theme researchers Paul Hill, David Anderson, and Roland Martinson in their book ‘Coming of Age: Exploring the Spirituality and Identity of Younger Men‘ also highlighted that many men listed their parents, male mentors and friends as the key relationships which helped them grow in their faith. I’m sure the equivalent is applicable for women too but if this is true, perhaps it follows that these things are missing from many churches today particularly for men if they’re the ones missing. We can’t do much about biological parents, but we can provide spiritual fathers, mentors and friendship.

On a personal note the idea of gender disparity is something I’ve been noticing for awhile. It’s not palatable in society to be a Christian, that’s one thing, but there’s been a number of times where I’m sat in the pub with male friends, both believing and otherwise, who confess they either don’t understand it or see the point in it. Yet deep down I understand it and see the point in it. Despite this to be honest my internal and private religious life and how I imagine it should be expressed differs quite significantly from my public religious life. That’s partly the reason for this blog. The disconnect is that I want to share my private religious life with others but the only thing ‘present’ is the public side which at times feels the ‘least bad’ option of whats going on in public that I can join in with. By public I mean church, public prayer, worship etc. the only point where my public and private meet fully are in the blood and wine of communion. In private I want to spend more time talking (or thinking) through ideas, I pray in a very different way privately (I struggle with long open prayers, lose focus and find reading written liturgical prayers easier), my areas of interest in the faith differ sometimes wildly from what I might see on a Sunday or in a study group and am perhaps more political, practical or socially minded. I also would give way more of my week to sharing, working out and discussing my faith with others in a more down to earth environment given the opportunity. I feel the lack of role models and mentors in the church and I wish there were more out there available. I know I’m not the only one who thinks like this thanks to the internet, but the internet isn’t the public sphere, not really.

Trying to address gender disparity doesn’t mean we need to buy into a specific cultural ideas of what a man is. The men who saved Christian Europe in the past were monks, men who don’t exactly fit our classical stereotypes of masculinity. Yet the absence of many men raises challenging questions we need to address. This is a sensitive subject for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, so we need to be gracious in how we go about this but the status quo isn’t working. Something needs to change.

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..


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..


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

Whatever happened to discipleship?

Whatever happened to discipleship?

The morning of writing this I watched a squat young blackbird following its parent through my cramped back garden. They’d often visited, at first the parent would leave and fetch food for its offspring, now they are looking for food together. Soon the young bird will be looking for food by itself, until it has its own children and the cycle repeats. This is natures discipleship, the elder apprenticing the younger until the disciple becomes an elder in their own right.

In the church we call our Archbishops respectfully Patriarchs but more affectionately (in some circles) Popes. Both are related to greek terms for ‘Father’. The Desert Fathers were called ‘Abba’ and ‘Amma’ aramaic for ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ which gives us ‘Abbot’ and ‘Abbess’. Jesus himself used familial language to describe believers and their relationships to one another..

He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’

Matthew 12:48-50

Paul likewise wrote to Timothy..

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.

1 Timothy 5:1-2

Even in the community of Israel, the Levites passed their responsibility from generation to generation. The elders teaching the next generation how to administer their duties and stewarding their inheritance until it was time to pass on. Did the church, a ‘holy priesthood’, abandon this pattern or have no need of it?

We keep up this language and idea today, particularly when we focus on particular passages which place emphasis on this pattern, but I wonder to what degree discipleship is currently present in the British Church. I think the trend is more likely that many are to understand discipleship as the growth of our relationship between us and God our Father. This is important, this is our ultimate aim, but are we confusing our terms here? Aren’t we called Christians because we imitate and follow Christ? Is Christ himself not the visible image of the invisible God? Are we likewise called to be in turn visible images of Christ to the world, and one another? Jesus called us not to go into all the world and make ‘believers’, he called us to go and make disciples. Theres a distinction, that distinction is the great commission.

Brother, let me be your servant.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.

Verse 1 of ‘The Servant Song’ by Richard Gillard

We might agree then that it is not perhaps so general. Many places I have witnessed see the small/study group pattern as a means to discipleship. However even here they fall short. Mike Breen, an Anglican minister and discipleship advocate defines these insufficiencies as the following..

  • Small groups are usually much lower commitment.
  • They are usually looking to grow by adding new members.
  • Anyone can be part of it.
  • Challenge is not a regular fixture in most small groups because the emphasis is much more on sharing, contributing and creating as warm an environment as possible so that newcomers feel welcome.
  • Small groups are usually led by facilitators who are looking to create space for everyone to share and contribute.
  • Small groups multiply when they are too large, and usually it’s through splitting them (every Small Group Pastor in the world just cringed that I used the word “split”). It’s growth by addition.
  • Small groups tend to lean towards the lowest common denominator in terms of spiritual content so that anyone can step into it (again, we’re not saying all small groups do. But in general, many do).

That isn’t to say these small groups are bad, its just we need to recognise that whatever is going on in these meetings isn’t discipleship, at least not within itself.


Discipleship as Guilds and Family

Discipleship I believe ultimately is a term that can be considered synonymous with apprenticeship. Their are differences but I think when you read letters like 1 and 2 Timothy, Timothy the (young) man is clearly an apprentice to Paul. Thats the relational context in which he emerges in the New Testament, we might caveat this by stating that this is the process for the training of leaders alone but I think in doing so we are drawing an artificial distinction between those who head up a spiritual community and the community itself. Paul in the book of Hebrews rebukes Jewish background believers for refusing to step into the leadership role expected of mature believers by adopting ignorance.

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Hebrews 5:11-14

Paul’s phrasing ‘by this time you ought to be teachers‘ touches on a perceived logical progression in his mind on the part of the believer. That ultimately, given time, all believers might progress to be teachers in some fashion if they are sincere and able. Likewise his use of the word ‘infant’ and his imagery of milk and solids draws on the example of child being fed over time by a parent, a Father (Abba) or a Mother (Amma).

All of this to me reminds me in a fashion of the old guild system. Timothy for me strikes me as a Journeyman minister, who having completed his apprenticeship under the Master Paul is sent out to train and educate others on his journey to become a Master in his own right by the process of training others. This sort of practice, in my personal experience, has disappeared from the Church in many places, especially for the laity. If it occurs at all I think there is a tacit expectation that such practices happen purely within the biological family, but this is often without any vested interest taken in the state of such mentoring by the broader church. Family in many ways is the natural place for such a thing, however this apprenticeship is entirely dependent on the sufficiency of the parents to ‘distinguish good from evil’ and not only distinguish it but teach others to do so. It also assumes that it is normative for Christianity to be passed generationally in a steady static fashion with no obvious provision for adult conversion, which is no longer the case in Britain. What we need is a more robust and scalable model of discipleship that isn’t based on biological familial lines but on the idea of the church as family. Our elders are fathers and mothers, our peers brothers and sisters, our children sons and daughters.


Discipleship as Sponsorship

Another parallel for Discipleship is that of Sponsorship. In my mind I’m thinking specifically of the kinds seen in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Before I lived in London, whilst not involved myself, I knew a great many people who had gone through AA and greatly respected the community it created. One outline of the role of a Sponsor (worth reading in full) details the responsibilities as follows..

  • This is an individual who will usually have more experience in the program than the sponsee. This means that they will be able to share their wisdom and experience.
  • Most sponsors will tell their sponsee to contact them at any time of the day or night if it is an emergency. The urge to relapse can come at any time, and having somebody to contact can make all the difference.
  • A sponsor can just be a good friend. One of the things that people worry about when they first enter recovery is that they will never be able to form meaningful relationships without their chemical crutch. What they learn is that friendships in sobriety can be stronger than anything they have ever experienced previously. One of their most important relationships may be with their sponsor.
  • This is an individual who will offer encouragement and provide praise for achievements.
  • A sponsor should be able to provide honest feedback.
  • A more experienced person in recovery will be able to spot the warning signs of an approaching relapse. They may be able to guide the sponsee back to safety.
  • This is someone who can be a good role model for their sponsee
  • It is often the job of the sponsor to help the sponsee work their way through the 12 steps

These principles can be adapted for education, mentoring and growth of disciples. This is a practice which requires no money from its participants and only some oversight to guard against abuse. The 12 steps in this instance we might treat as synonymous with Pauls ‘teaching about righteousness’ he mentions in Hebrews. Practically this could take the form of walking a sponsee through the Catechism and serving as an confidant as they are inducted and brought up into the faith, the life it entails and the acceptance of sponsee’s of their own. This is something easy in the sense that Jesus’s yoke is easy for us, it is only requiring the will of the parties involved. Something which I think, to be honest, is in short supply today.

Discipleship is essential, yet often missing

We ask why our young people leave church when they leave home, we also ask why men are not involved in church to the same degree as women. I genuinely believe a forsaking of discipleship is one of the major roots for this. People groups forget their native languages when they do not see a benefit in the next generation learning it. Likewise religious communities inevitably disappear when they do not see a benefit in making sure the next generation knows their faith. Talking from a pulpit isn’t discipleship no matter what the content and if we are unwilling or unable to take the time to disciple others as a community, the community will simply disappear.

What does the Sunday Assembly mean for Church?

What does the Sunday Assembly mean for Church?

On a recent commute in I had the pleasure to listen to the recent BBC feature on the Sunday Assembly ‘Swapping Psalms for Pop Songs‘. The Sunday Assembly is a relatively recent phenomenon which originated as an ‘Atheist Church’ where individuals; get together, sing songs, listen to several readings and hear an inspirational talk. The idea is that it’s intended to be a collective affirmation of life that occurs under the motto ‘Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More’. They also run soup kitchens, food banks and offer their time to local authorities and the NHS in a voluntary capacity. They’ve since dispensed with the idea of an ‘Atheist Church’ and prefer the word ‘Secular’ in place of ‘Atheist’ which I think is a fairly damning indicator of the supposedly neutral loading that the word secular is meant to convey. It’s fairly obvious from the outset that its riffing on the contemporary Evangelical church service but without the spirituality or any mention of God in any sense.

The movement isn’t without controversy both within Atheist circles and a healthy number of Christians levelling their collective guns at the movement. The thing that stood out to me however is the degree to which the format of the Sunday Assembly mirrored so closely our current Evangelical arrangement in the UK. The removal  of any reference to the supernatural is obviously a glaring omission but with consideration of the form, their isn’t an overall difference. The function differs quite significantly but I couldn’t help but be reminded of the well known Marshall McLuhan quote “the medium is the message”. The medium of the Sunday Assembly is community, celebration and being part of something bigger than oneself, a ‘movement’. At a purely mechanistic functional perspective in what way does the Church differ? Or if it doesn’t how should it? It promotes a narrative that seeks to address and alleviate some of the fundamental existential questions we are all faced with today, in an approach that isn’t all too different in how things like the Alpha course market themselves. The Assembly differs in that its much more pragmatic and grounded in celebrating the every day.

One thing the documentary touched on was that whilst a significant proportion of individuals don’t subscribe to a particular religion in the UK. Only a minority of these are Atheists and the rise of something like the Sunday Assembly is that their exists a niche in the ‘market’ for these people who may be an Atheist, but probably aren’t and just don’t subscribe to a recognised, structured faith. Offering something that follows the form of a typical church gathering helps bridge the gap for a lot of people during the massive social shift in recent generations from being a majority Christian nation, to a majority Secular nation and many people still have in their collective memories some form of Church that appeals to a part of them. How long something like the Sunday Assembly endures will be interesting to see, as its appeal so far seems largely limited to WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) nations (England, N America, Australia, Germany etc). Perhaps over successive generations as people lose the exposure to church that previous generations had, the appeal of things like the Assembly will wain.

The Sunday Assembly also provides a new avenue for people to engage with something like a church service but take what they want and leave the rest behind, in the past we would call this nominalism. As church numbers continue to decline these people who, in previous generations, might of made up the broader body of a church but not engaged in any significant way find an appeal in something less demanding or exacting in its requirements to hold to a particular set of doctrinal views. This also means that those who still attend church, on average are expected to be more committed and more overtly religious than previous generations. The problem with this is if our church services begin to look increasingly like Sunday Assembly gatherings then any point of distinction to the outsider is diminished to the point of insignificance. We become increasingly willing to place less emphasise on doctrine, reduce our message to the lowest common denominator, tone down accountability and find ways for people to reduce the amount of ‘overhead’ engaging with a church might add to someones already busy life. If we just try to appeal to those who are nominally inclined towards the faith, its the faith, not the nominalism of the person in question that will suffer.

Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution…Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

I remember a discussion with a Chaplain where he compared the role of the Church to that of a Hospital. Today however, he continued, the Church more closely resembles a Health Spa. This is just anecdote, but their is a degree to which I’m reminded of this when I think about the Sunday Assembly and its appeal. Partly because it comes across as being rooted in a belief that people are fundamentally good. All we need is to help one another to be better and ultimately feel better about ourselves. A Hospital by comparison, doesn’t believe people are evil or poorly made, it is grounded in the view that people need healing. Their is something that needs addressing not just in people but all the world, and this should be the position of the church. It isn’t a quick fix and it isn’t about making us feel better but doing the right thing in response to God’s love.

I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock

People are really very busy today, and people are distrustful of large narratives that will inevitably place expectations on their lives. This doesn’t mean therefore that we simply avoid such things. We seek out those people who see through the pretence of whats going on today and offer them the Gospel unashamedly. We work out what it means together and with the help of those who went before us. It’s demanding, it’s tough and it isn’t really all that seeker friendly, but it is relatively simple. We shouldn’t dismiss the Sunday Assembly out of hand but acknowledge the good things it does. Yet more so we should acknowledge that the Church is much more than a mere Assembly and get to grips with what that means for us today.


Excerpt from the Martyrology of Tallaght

Excerpt from the Martyrology of Tallaght

If he be a cleric, let him not be wrathful.
Let him not his voice be raised. Let him not swear falsely.
Let him not be greedy. Let him not be treasure loving.
Let him not be niggardly, lying. Let him not be fault-finding at meals.
Do not slander thy fellow.
Thy side half bare, thy bed half cold
From Christ, God’s Son, mayest thou have thy reward.

Absence from thy bodily family
Until the day of thy death.
Grassless earth over thee
At the end of thy journeying.

Knowledge, steadfastness, patience,
Silence without muteness.
Humility, purity, patience,
Take not the world,
O cleric.

8th century excerpt from the Martyrology of Tallaght on the life of Saint Indrath at Glastonbury