Amusing myself to death

Amusing myself to death

I’ve been struggling for some time in knowing where I fit in with Christianity. I know I am a Christian of some sort. It is God’s truth, love, wisdom and beauty that keep me going, outside of it I am nothing. Despite this the conflict between my personal convictions and trying to work them out have been giving me a level of cognitive dissonance that is hard to reconcile. So much so that I have become aware that I’ve been closing up in regard to seeking to express my faith confidently amongst unbelievers and believers alike.

As a Protestant I adhere to Sola Scriptura, yet I have been struck by my own historical ignorance and the clash that contemporary evangelicalism has with the church of history. It seems naive to cling to the Bible but to reject entirely any respect for the context out of which it was collated and propagated. To uphold the Bible abstracted from its historical context is bookish, abstracted and dry. I am also tired of verses being taken out of context to promote some new angle on scripture that is marketed to the faithful on backs of emotionalism and the personal brand of celebrity pastors. As a balance I increasingly can’t help but value the input of the Church Fathers have on the scriptures and admire the fruit of their convictions that is born out in the accounts of their lives.

I’m also increasingly drawn to the ideas caught up in what might be known as Sacramentalism. Not too long ago I listened to a discussion on worship in which a Charismatic minister stressed the different ways people encountered God in worship. These are the sacraments, preaching and singing. In his own tradition it was the singing, in more reformed churches it was the preaching and in the more traditional churches it was the sacraments. I agree with him on this but I don’t see a scriptural argument for the emotionalism and hype given to singing in charismatic churches. On preaching, Lord knows that the quality of preaching can vary dramatically from one person to the next, and these days thanks to the internet you don’t even need to go to church for decent preaching. Yet a focus on the sacraments takes the focus off us and onto God. It cannot be packaged and sold like singing and preaching and has the added advantage of being explicitly commanded by Christ himself.

Despite this all I know is the Evangelical world. I’m still one deep down and thought I could straddle both worlds in something like the Church of England. Yet the hounding of people like Philip North and the entire principle of ‘Good disagreement’ are things I increasingly just don’t associate with what I see in scripture. In that sense Orthodoxy and Catholicism I commend for their adherence to and championing of what they believe is the truth, even if I disagree with aspects of it. In many ways I really wish I could become one and the fact that theres an impasse, an inability to reconcile really twists me up inside.

So what do I do? I don’t know, thats the problem. I increasingly turn to distracting myself from these issues. I try to focus on other things than; the sadness of what the CoE is, the inability to talk about things like church history with my peers, the cognitive dissonance I experience in church, the fact that I no longer agree at all with a female priesthood, having female friends who are ordinands, the fact that every day I listen to audio devotionals from orthodox and protestant ministers back to back, I turn down requests to play in the band at church because I am more interested in exploring plainsong, sacred harp and psalm singing, the fact that despite all this I can’t shake the sincere belief that some of the catholic and orthodox practices are wrong. Where do you fit in? It’s easier to watch TV, love your wife, play games, read, throw yourself into work and go to the gym. The position feels untenable and I have no idea what God is asking me to do with all of this, I could be wrong or right in any number of ways but that doesn’t matter if you don’t do anything with them. Distraction is not healthy in the long term, but in the short term it makes the heavy tension bearable.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

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.

Is evangelicalism in trouble?

Is evangelicalism in trouble?

I was listening to a podcast recently where the Presbyterian speaker proclaimed ‘Evangelicalism is in serious trouble.’ This was news to me yet the statement has stuck in my mind and I’ve been turning it over ever since. Is this man true? Is this man false? I don’t really want it to be true and to some measure I think we’re all in trouble all the time if we consider enough different angles. Yet is there anything specific to evangelicalism that makes it in trouble in a clearly visible way?

The appeal of evangelicalism to society at large has always been something prominent to me. James KA Smith in his book on Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ suggests that the appeal of ‘scientism’ to some is the story it offers to others. One that is a stance of ‘maturity, of courage, of manliness, over and against childish fears and sentimentality’ (p.77). He suggests that our response to argue over the nature of evidence for one thing or another doesn’t really address the underlying issues at work. A better approach is to offer these people a more compelling story that offers a more robust vision of faith. A faith that in the words of James KA Smith channeling Taylor ‘isn’t some vague theism but the invitation to historical, sacramental Christianity’.

Atheism, as mentioned previously is one of the few belief systems that skews heavily towards men at a nearly 70/30 gender split. This would feed into Charles Taylor’s assertion that the narrative of scientism is one of ‘manliness’ at least in image and appeal. That the words of St Paul ‘When I was a child I thought like a child but when I became a man I put away childish things’ is applied more by those who leave the faith or reject it today than those of us who adhere is indicative of something wrong. Is our faith perceived or in fact increasingly childish or outlandish and alien to the public? Does it offer no challenge? No courage? No maturity? Is it overly sentimental?

One of the claims laid at the feet of evangelicalism is its panacea-like vision of God at work in the life of the believer. Drawing close to God and being open to his work in your life would sort you out. The movement in general is replete with stories of lives turned around or struggles left behind. We come together to celebrate and rarely to lament. We seldom engage with lasting challenges because we believed God would inevitably overcome all of them on our behalf. From some perspectives this can seem childish, as a child my parents solved my problems, as a man I have to solve not just my problems but am expected to help those I come into contact with. Its not that we don’t want lives turned around and struggles left behind, its that we don’t know what to do with people when their lives don’t turn around and their struggles stay with them. Their is no challenge other than that of continuing in the growth of our love for God.

As an evangelical I personally felt somewhat directionless. I was expected to draw closer to God but what did that look like? Was I supposed to become more like my Pastor? Like Jesus? Did my Pastor reflect Jesus? Evangelicalism is complex precisely because its so open ended. In our effort to draw closer to God we can be lead down all sorts of bizarre (at times heretical) cul-de-sacs of which our only gauge can be our emotions, which is to say no real gauge at all. It also places the self at centre of this process, we lead a private self-defined faith thats ultimately is between us and God alone. This is why we see trends of many who consider themselves Evangelicals feeling led to dispense with Church altogether at times as it doesn’t square with their relationship to God. This is why we see increased theological divergence even amongst those who sometimes attend the same church. Its partly a lack of discipleship but its partly evangelical nature. Just recently I was swimming and caught myself wondering ‘I want a faith that is simple like swimming, one arm in front of another, towards some goal.’ Then I realised thats precisely part of the nature of liturgy. There might be different types of swimming but we don’t all swim in our own way, we use the same strokes and movements which gives us something in common, and even children can do it well. Evangelical dispensation of classical liturgy can be disorientating, its like being thrown into the lake with no knowledge of how to swim and being forced to invent our own style. That might lead to some creative and original techniques, but many people will likely drown without support. For much of Church history some form of liturgy has been present, Christ himself gave us the sacraments of baptism and communion.

The problem then, if it exists, with Evangelicalism is that many people on the outside increasingly don’t relate to it. It came into being as a renewal movement within the church but we live in an age where the vast majority of people are outside of it. The public doesn’t seem to relate the evangelical experience to their own experience of life (generally). The inside of evangelicalism is also becoming increasingly fragmented as time goes on as the relationship with God for the private individual is prioritised over the publics shared relationship and experience of God. The current worship/lecture system both focus on the interior self driving a wedge between the interior (mind) and the exterior (body). This is unfortunately wherein our society is currently orientated more around the exterior than the interior. However it might explain the appeal of the charismatic movement in bringing an exterior dimension to the Evangelical church, albeit one that is still privatised and in some ways the antithesis of liturgy.

This entry is no doubt me projecting my own thoughts onto the statement outlined by the Presbyterian in question at the start of this entry. One might also ruminate on the current state of the Presbyterian church, perhaps it is no better than Evangelicalism in some ways. Yet the statement stayed with me and chimed particularly with what I’m reading currently and my current thinking on evangelicalism. I think it has a lot of good things going for it, but it also has some major problems. I still consider myself evangelical but I think we should be Christians first and anything else second, when we get it round the wrong way thats when we suffer.

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.

 

On emotional spirituality

On emotional spirituality

I was reading a sample of the book “Strip the Vanity of the Heretics” by Coptic Orthodox Bishop Anba Raphael online whereon a particular section jumped out to me. Part six of the section ‘Intellectual errors of deviant religious groups’ (which probably includes all Protestants for him) goes..

Humans are composite of body, soul and spirit. If the spirituality is linked to the body only, it will be an ill, Pharisaic, literal religiosity. If it is linked to the soul only, the religiosity will be psychological, passionate, emotional, unreal, and temporary.

So in the Orthodox approach, we deal with God “in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23,24).

In the Orthodox approach, the body becomes spiritual, yet worship will not be according to the flesh. And the soul transcends, yet the worship will not be at an emotional level. The spirit is leading the human being, but becomes subject to the Spirit of God. The deviated approach, however, depends on the excitement of the emotions of the hearers, whether by enthusiastic songs with loud music, or emotional words flared with passion, or enthusiastic preaching, filled with emotional and psychological inspiration. “It is these who set up divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19).

Or even more with the most refrains filled with enthusiasm and emotion, for example, repeating several times, “the blood of Jesus Christ purify me from every sin” with a loud and enthusiastic voice, like someone walking in a demonstration!

Even if the term is correct dogmatically, the emotional and passionate cheering is wrong, because it wears off quickly, and man returns back to real coldness, after the unreal heat fades away. We did not hear from the fathers that they were shouting in this way. Such emotional sickness is not found in the church hymns or praises. This counterfeit spirituality is like fire in the straw, and Orthodox spirituality, is like water carved in the rock, quietly, with depth and continuation. Therefore we reject this emotional worship because it is from the soul not the spirit.

The total eight sections are well worth reading and whilst I don’t agree with all of the document (obviously being Protestant) this section spoke to me as someone who in recent years found themselves caught up in a lot of ‘emotional spirituality’. I will be the first to confess however that even now in the singing the words of some hymns and songs that I still get emotional and I can’t help it and it has only gotten worse the older I’ve gotten. However, I would venture that the Bishop here is not advocating a stoic dispassion towards the gathering of believers for worship but of the deliberate seeking out of such emotionalism both by the leadership and the broader body.

It is often talked about in many Christian festivals or conferences that after attending such things attendees are hit with a sort of ‘slump’ when they return home. Likewise I think this is what the Bishop touches upon when he states the ‘unreal heat fades away’ after the emotionally intense periods of worship we see in some churches. The kind of intensity isn’t sustainable day in and day out and in some cases we may even mistake emotional receptiveness to the work of God in the life of the believer. This is dangerous because the temptation arises to forsake sanctification in other areas of our life because we mistake our emotionality for genuine long term spiritual growth. This I think has become a big area for a lot of British Evangelicals who are so often lambasted for being so ‘unemotional’ as a nation. We are coaxed and cajoled in shaking off the ‘shackles’ of our staid nature and eventually having done so are convinced that we have finally become ‘free in the spirit’ (Romans 8:2).

At the same time the Evangelical in me recognises the necessity of conviction in bringing about actionable change in the life of the believer and a personal relationship with God. Even as a teenager one of my biggest issues with liturgy was the seeming insincerity by which I saw it carried out and it nearly drove me out. However, the imagery of spirituality ‘like water carved in the rock, quietly, with depth and continuation’ is one that resoundingly appeals (admittedly emotionally) within me.

Their is a danger of loving our services and traditions (on both sides of this) more than the souls of the people around us wherever we are. Despite this I believe the adoption of genuinely spiritual worship is foundational to long term and far reaching spiritual growth. So many young Evangelicals I know are biblically illiterate, undisciplined and unsure of how to share their faith – I know because I am one. I am not convinced that evangelical spirituality as it stands today prepares believers to go into the world and make a lasting change because we are like ‘children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming’ (Ephesians 4:14) when Paul admonishes us to cease being these very things. This isn’t an argument to dispense with Evangelicalism altogether but to stop looking to emotional intensity as a means to measure our  own or others relationship with God or the authenticity of what we encounter. Many people believe in something sincerely and with a great deal of emotion, but that is no indicator of the beliefs authenticity. For us that should only come through our searching of scripture in its proper context.

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