Authority and Idolatry

Authority and Idolatry

Recently I’ve been challenged to think about the role images play in the Christian church. I notice a lot of Orthodox and Catholic polemicists against Protestants in particular discuss the importance of the seven ecumenical church councils. By this they really are placing emphasis on the last, the second council of Nicea which validates the use of images in church.

Imagery came up again in reading William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain” which details his travels through the Middle East in the footsteps of John Moschos back in the 6th century. Whilst travelling through the Syria of the mid 90’s he comments on John of Damascus, known for defending the use of images whilst living under Islamic rule. I’ve haven’t read the ‘Fount of Wisdom’ but John’s (the latter of the two mentioned) peculiar and unique situation made him and his views something I’ve been curious about. The only quotation I’ve found of his on images, without access to any writings directly reads the following..

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honour is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.

We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.

St. John of Damascus

I think the comparison of the cross is potent namely because many Protestants have no issue with displaying a cross in church, or even wearing one. In fact I know of few aside from the Puritans et al who’d have an issue with this. Particularly because in the example given the worship is directed towards God alone. The contention however lingers on the term ‘venerate’ namely because it is a word rarely used in the everyman’s English language and is synonymous with worship. For John to say he venerates instead of worships images is akin to stating that he lingers in the bath instead of soaking. It is largely a linguistic phrasing without a substantive difference to the everyman.

Despite disputing of the term veneration, to be honest if we are referring to images of God alone the harm that can be done in any confusion is minimised. What is questionable however is in John’s example of the cross. Detractors of Protestantism accuse us of worshiping the Bible but in the case of Orthodoxy or Catholicism in a literal sense this is much closer to the truth. In the venerations of objects of worth; crosses, gospels, bread, wine and even the images and appendages of the departed there are actions involved. Bowing, kissing, prayer these are all ultimately directed to God we are told. Yet at the same time I have detractors of Protestantism say it is too cerebral, too internal and does not inhabit the body. This is why an Eastern or Latin Christian might stand a particular way or face a particular direction in prayer and I would confess that their is some truth to the criticism of Protestantism in this case. Yet by this reasoning if we enact worship with our bodies their is a disconnect when we say that our exhibition of this behaviour to created objects is not in fact worship because of some interior difference.

Whatever you or your church believes on this the interesting thing to me is the emphasis placed on it. The theology at work behind the second council of Nicea seems to be largely about the nature of the incarnation and the redemption of the physical world through the work of God. This is absolutely important and Protestants do uphold this. The linking of the issue however to the veneration of specific objects and images is an issue that, depending on your view of the Eastern or Latin Church is linked to a persons salvation pushes this beyond the immediate theological dispute into something more. More in that it ceases to be about the immediate flashpoint issue of idolatry and instead about authority.

The issue of authority becomes central because it is not enough that a Protestant hold to a particular view of the incarnation and God’s work in the world. It is the idea that truth is ultimately vested in an institution. I mention this more so after listening to an episode on ‘Non-Mainstream Christianity’ (Part 2c) from the podcast ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy’ in which Eastern Orthodox Fr. Stephen Damick, having detailed several cults highlights the trouble of adhering to an institution other than the Orthodox church. That discerning for yourself the truth is the same process by which a heretic might by lead to set up their own church. That even though you might have good intentions, others might exploit this same ‘mechanic’ for their own gain. Such is the history of Protestantism.

In this light the claims of a historical council are less important to the everyman than the point of adhering to the council itself. Truths pertaining to right, wrong and salvation slip into the guise of an institution. Dostoevsky in the Brother Karamazov touches on the friction of this in his short story ‘the Grand Inquisitor’. The story itself  reflects the actual life of Christ and echoes the plight of the Old Testament prophets over and against the idolatry of an unbelieving Israel. The thread through all of this is that truth can transcend an apparent authority.

Yet when confronted with an unbelieving world we cannot escape the question that Pilate confronted Christ himself with “What is truth?”. The serpent similarly challenged Eve with the question “Did God really say…?”. The serpent is worse of the two because he did not deny God but gave grounds for Eve to live outside her creators will. The temptation exists to desire that God had taken away such freedom from Adam and Eve. Just as the Church in the tale of the Grand Inquisitor took the freedom from humanity.

Oh, never, never, will they learn to feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them
bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!” That day must come when men will understand that freedom and daily bread enough to satisfy all are unthinkable and can never be had
together, as men will never be able to fairly divide the two among themselves. And they will also learn that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, miserable nonentities born wicked and rebellious. Thou has promised to them the bread of life, the bread of heaven; but I ask Thee again, can that bread ever equal in the sight of the weak and the vicious, the ever
ungrateful human race, their daily bread on earth? … True, they are vicious and rebellious, but we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them–so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men!

– Excerpt from The Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky  

The Grand Inquisitor gives his reason for acting and believing such in that he is acting in the service of the serpent. Did God then, being himself and not the serpent, give Adam and Eve the ‘burden of freedom’ to act as they would? Aldous Huxley in Brave New World touches on this idea in his own way when he details an exchange between the ‘Savage’ and Mustapha Mond.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

– Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I guess it is too Protestant of me to say that the ability to ‘claim them all’ that the Savage describes is an intrinsic part of a inherited Christian worldview and in their own way gifts of God.

In closing, I can’t help but be reminded, when thinking of idolatry and authority but be reminded of Daniel chapter 3. Daniel and his peers knew that God was able to save but would not crave to the pressures of this authority that made such demands of them. When I think about Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace I think of Tyndale who, like Daniel and his friends, went to the flames willingly but unlike them won a martyrs crown. In both instances it is faith in God alone that is the bulwark against authority whether temporal or spiritual. We know that God is able to rescue, but even if he should not we can say to the world “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up”.

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Responding to Orthodox criticism of Sola Scriptura

Responding to Orthodox criticism of Sola Scriptura

I’ve recently started listening to the Ancient Faith Radio (an Eastern Orthodox podcast network) series ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy‘. This is done by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and compares Eastern Orthodox doctrine to other beliefs.

For the most part I’ve found it an interesting listen on the differences between Roman and Eastern Christian beliefs (I’m only seven episodes in as of writing). So far I’m less surprised by the points I disagree with him, but I am surprised by the points on which I generally agree.

Episode seven of the podcast addresses what is known as the ‘Magisterial Reformation’. This is what most people think of when they imagine the Reformation. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli all get mentions including the Anglican Church and the five Sola’s of the reformation. Fr. Andrew being Eastern Orthodox disagrees with the Protestant view but his assessment of the doctrines I feel is particularly deficient. In fact it is deficient enough to actually write down the reasons as to why, partly so I can process this response in a manner outside of my own mind in order to see if my views bear out.

Early on in Fr. Andrew’s description of Sola Scriptura he states that the principle fails at the first hurdle because the principle itself is found nowhere in scripture. Yet this highlights a belief that Protestants subscribe to a form of circular reasoning emerging from the text itself. This isn’t true, Protestants do not hold to scripture but the view that what it contains is trustworthy. We trust scripture because it is an authoritative window on the life, identity, work and implications of Christ as depicted by his apostles and prophets. In addition, the outworking of the miraculous in the lives of those contained within are taken as signs of divine assent, the greatest of which being Christ’s conquering of death. We do not trust a text but the reliability of what the text depicts.

Fr. Andrew however builds on his view of Sola Scriptura by highlighting that whilst scripture is one thing, how we interpret something  can vary massively, as is highlighted by the differing beliefs of all the major reformation churches. He effectively upholds the old claim that the Protestants here have exchanged the Pope singular for making ourselves Popes plural. That we are interpreting scripture in our own image.

This claim of Fr. Andrew however is forcing an overly narrow understanding of the Protestant theological outlook. We recognise that we are fallible, that just as St Augustine or St John Chrysostom might of been correct in some things doesn’t mean they were always right. Yet this is not to say we should cease from making any and all truth claims. Just as we might make one claim, there is the honest likelihood that others might disagree and this is where the separate churches emerge amidst the peculiarities of cultural and political norms of the period. Personally I do not believe the reformers were definitively ‘right’ I just believe they were more right than wrong. The degree to which they are right is in the degree of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The approach taken by Fr. Andrew however feels like it teeters on an almost Post-modern rejection of ‘truth’ altogether. In place of truth is pure authority in the absence of understanding.

There is also a degree to which however Fr. Andrew opens Eastern Orthodoxy up to criticism here too. If scripture is not sufficient, the tradition must step in to support and help frame it. Yet the root criticism that we cannot genuinely know or interpret scripture can be applied to the interpretation of tradition and the decisions of various councils. Even in this matter Eastern Orthodoxy is not without schism and disagreement, the division with the Roman church being the most obvious example. I could not help but feel that Fr. Andrew’s framing of such divisions, particularly with the Roman and Eastern church was more about who was going to be ultimately recognised as the preeminent authority on tradition and that in such arrangements there could be no ultimate reconciliation. Fr. Andrew says as much in this episode. I confess we all must have our lines which we cannot cross but to somehow put the Protestants in a box in which they alone in being unable to faithfully understand or interpret what they consider sacred seems to be inconsistent.

At the beginning of the Podcast series Fr. Andrew compares the exercise he and the listeners are about to undertake as similar to; a mathematician checking his proofs or a scientist interpreting their data. That ultimately he is convinced of Eastern Orthodoxy because of its ‘truths’. Yet this is precisely what he argues the Protestants are guilty of at the time of the reformation in this episode. This is the process of examining the evidence before them and using their own judgement and reason to discern truth. This is to say nothing of history and theology being less of a science than the aforementioned things. Consistently Eastern Orthodoxy is presented as something not true because an individual is convicted of such a thing but because of its episcopal traditions and councils. This is truth taken on Authority, not reason. The contrast I think is reflected in the well-known exchange between William Tyndale and a Catholic depicted in Foxe’s book of Martyrs.

The clergyman asserted to Tyndale, “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”

John Foxe, “Chap XII”, Book of Martyrs.

The claims to authority are emphasised to a greater degree where Fr. Andrew later negatively conflates the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scripture with the view that we must constantly revise our understanding of scripture in light of new archaeological discoveries that shed light on a relevant era. I would agree with this but see it as a positive thing, I believe scripture ultimately communicates truth, that truth is totally contingent on historical events. Paul himself wrote “And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.”. He later goes on to specify that was a literal event in the same passage, yet if it turned out Christ had not really been raised then I would need to reevaluate my trust of scripture. I do not think Fr. Andrew would necessarily disagree here but I feel it is something of an own goal for the point he is trying to make. Ultimately, whether we want to or not we are accountable for our decisions and interpretation of what is true and what is false based on how we make sense of the world. What defines the historical Protestant movement is an insistence that ultimately scripture is the highest authority.

In relation to my own tradition, Fr Andrew makes the point that the original Anglicans upheld ‘scripture, tradition and reason’ as their guiding lights. Whilst he correctly highlights that we have since deviated from such a thing (for shame) I cannot help but associate myself with those convictions. Scripture is my highest authority, I respect the councils and fathers of the church that compiled and gave us the Bible yet acknowledge they are fallible. On some points they took things too far or I do not think they were right. Many Orthodox and Catholics look back on the some of the writings of someone like Origen, Augustine or even Tertullian in potentially similar ways. Even in scripture Peter is shown to be fallible at times in his judgement and actions. I think the Orthodox do a lot that is right and I associate with them in some ways more than with my liberal counterparts. Yet ultimately Fr. Andrew gives an deficient account of the faith of the reformers in his summation. The reformation has created a great many issues reflected in the profusion of different theologies that have emerged over time in the west since the split from Rome. Some of the pentecostal and prosperity preaching I see today in particular just makes me want to sack the whole thing in. Yet I look back to the faith of the reformers, I look back to the early church and take heart. I’m thankful for the lives and witness of these saints and ultimately they inspire me to believe that the situation today isn’t beyond redemption, God willing.

As a final point I want to add that there was no transcript available of the talk so if I have taken anything out of context, or misunderstood it in any way I ask for forgiveness.

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.

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

Free trade and the democratisation of theology

Free trade and the democratisation of theology

For the vast majority of individuals attending church their theological education comes from a number of places. The Church they attend plays a role in the forms of sermons they hear, songs they sing, words they pray and small groups they attend. Increasingly however we look to any number of various books we’re recommended or the latest worship music that makes the rounds to inform out attitudes and insights concerning our religion. At an individual level our theological development, outside of any small group, for the lay person comes from private purchases. Even in the form of conferences, the experience is accessible only via means of private purchase and the biggest tangible takeaway is often in books or music acquired. An indicator of how ‘Christian’ an individual is, at least socially, is by the volume of Christian themed books and music they possess. I’ve even heard the acquisition of such things recommended from the Pulpit on occasion as part of Christian growth. Our Bibles today largely originate from the presses of for-profit private publishers.

This isn’t something that has always taken place in the church, but the degree to which it does now when we stop and consider it is actually pretty shocking. Many of the most well known figures in Protestantism are Authors, Speakers and Musicians. We engage with these figures not through traditional denominational lines or on any personal level but through mass media, peers and endorsements that lead to the purchase of their material. Increasingly we vote with our wallets for content that is appealing or ‘speaks’ to us that is often outside our own tradition. As we allow this content to influence and shape us we end up situations at a macro scale where one church very much feels like any other irrespective of denomination. We are instead defined increasingly by what Authors, Speakers and Worship Leaders we follow in the style and substance of. The Western Protestant (Although I’m sure Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox see this emerge in their own ways) Christian subculture in many ways operates now as a microcosm of the broader free market driven society we find ourselves in.

The free market approach to theology in some ways provides ample opportunities for spiritual growth in a way which at first appears undiscriminating. However on closer inspection their are a number of issues with this current approach to Christian development..

Expense as a barrier

The most obvious issue is that access to content, teaching or any other material is locked behind a barrier that discriminates, on the part of its consumers, along economic lines. This touches on the broader issue of intellectual property and copyright in the Church which I won’t go into here. Yet one of the common accusations aimed at the Church in the UK is that it is an increasingly middle class institution. The middle class in this country are really the only people with the means, and arguably inclination, to engage in this material with any regularity and can soak up the expense.

The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

The other side is that such material produced has an expense attached to breaking into the market. The content of any material produced can frequently play second fiddle to its marketability. A well known speaker will sell better than a lesser known individual with often little regard to the quality of the content they produce. In recent years scandals have even emerged of US Mega Church ministers using Church funds to boost the marketing and sales of their own books. Such practices are defended as utilising ‘any means possible’ mentality to spreading the Gospel. Something condemned by St Paul himself.

Encourages churn

The other issue with this model is that material will age significantly quicker due to new content constantly being pushed into the market. Its hard to imagine which material produced today will be accessed by successive generations the way we might access The Book of Common Prayer, Pilgrims Progress or even Mere Christianity. Even the status our classics hold is harmed not by necessarily worthy successors but by the growing crowd of material itself. Theres more noise and as a result less signal because of our desire to produce so much content. Even looking back to the time I lead worship at my Universities Christian Union meetings I noticed a new song book every year from worship ‘labels’ with the latest and greatest songs inside. Of course all this material is optional, but even in its production such material requires some measure of space in our cultural bandwidth at the expense of something that was present previously.

13925929_631049963724893_6248546789731789474_o.pngThe churn in contemporary Christianity’s marketplace means that our faith is no longer ‘timeless’ in the sense of transcending time. Rather it is timeless in that our Christianity has become an empty void ready to be filled with the constant stream of freshly produced ’emerging’ material . We are arguably living in the Western Christian ‘end of history’ as a result of this free market attitude.

No upper limit

With the arguably limitless volume of material out there. We might ask the question, how much is too much? We might reason that is no end to our sanctification in this life, likewise their is no end to our purchasing. In fact we might, albeit subconsciously, even come to link the two. Such a statement isn’t absolute of course, but their is a measure of truth in this. Their is nothing wrong inherently in the purchase of books or music etc. but their is a danger that we might see the acquisition of such things so highly that it might become an idol in our lives that leads us astray.

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In our churches we may see preaching and teaching as ‘equipping’ yet in keeping our primary focus on such things we might fail to explain or actually get round to the task we are equipping individuals for. Paul uses the analogy of an athlete running the race, but perhaps we spend so much time training today that we do very little participation in the great race itself.

Opt-In instead of Opt-Out

If theres something important that needs to be said, or something that needs doing in a community its necessary that such things are made normative or default. However because all such content published today is optional, the material consumed or valued is that which is not necessarily important, but appealing. This can also cut the other way by subconsciously teaching us that even the essentials in our local church communities are now Opt-In. People shouldn’t be compelled but this leaves a situation where congregations are increasingly theologically compromised because those who attend are so fragmented in their beliefs. The only way to operate with any efficiency is to keep any practice at a basic, universally applicable level that is a mile wide and an inch deep.

An appropriate analogy of Opt-In/Out might be that which I experience frequently in my work. Android as an operating system for mobile phones has many more active versions live than at any given point in time than Apple’s iOS. This is because Android is open source (a good thing) which means that any company can use the software and can choose whether or not to lock the operating system to a particular version. The problem then is that if I design something to work across all these different devices, all running different versions of the same software (some really old and some brand new). It either makes things incredibly complex in order to deliver a good experience or I have to restrict the experience heavily so that I can ensure a consistent experience across all platforms. This is why iOS lock down their system so much, so they can control the variables more and deliver what they believe is a better, deeper experience. From a systems perspective if your leading a church you either have a really tough time trying to engage with everyones foibles and quirks which is much more labour intensive (The approximate marketing equivalent is Narrowcasting) or you become much more restricted in your message and appeal to the lowest common denominator in your practice (like Broadcasting). The alternative is to clearly demarcate your theological boundaries as a Church community in order operate within those boundaries at a much deeper level.

Is there alternatives?

Its one thing to talk about this but is there realistically any alternative? I love books and certainly don’t have any issue with publishers. However, there are a number of things that could allow individuals and churches address some of the issues outlined in this post. Its not so much we can pretend this doesn’t occur, but we can mitigate it and even use it to our advantage.

  1. Churches could offer adult theological education distinct from preaching – Many churches offer something in the way of Sunday school for children. Why should this stop when they become adults? Churches offering seminar style structured theological training gives the church an in-depth platform to engage with the spiritual formation of congregants.
  2. Individuals need to commit to a theological tradition – Their are distinctions in the theology and history of many churches which are in the UK. Developing an appreciation and affiliation to one will allow you to go deeper and seek out instruction in it rather than skimming across the top of a number of varied groups.
  3. Churches need to be more nuanced in the distinction of leadership and laity – One of the biggest barriers to something like option one is the lack of leaders in a church. Giving members the option to lead a class session or have responsibilities delegated to can help everybody. It also ensures that competent, godly and gifted people get a chance to develop themselves whilst being invested in a particular church and tradition. In scripture I think this is the place of the Deacon.
  4. Christians need to be more visible in the practical working out of their faith –  This is to help mentor others in the community of faith and in serving one another everyday encourage growth and a missional witness. It also provides something only obtainable through a physical gathering of believers.
  5. Communal life needs to be more prominent – Placing a greater emphasis on the shared life of the church helps guards against individualism. It is also something that can’t be purchased and places an emphasis on aspects of the faith not so caught up in the practice of buying and selling.
  6. Christians need to move past copyright – We currently promote our music, Bible and theology through systems like copyright. This means that the material we produce will always come from a place motivated in part by profit motive. If thats our aim that is one thing, but if its not and we believe what we produce has significant cultural or theological value then we should perhaps explore positive options like the Creative Commons or variations on this. The situation we find ourselves in today is a relatively recent one in church history with no shortage of alternatives.
  7. Place a greater emphasis on the sacraments – We worship Jesus Christ, who came and dwelt among us. Theres no better way than to ground and bring the church together through regular and persistent celebration of the sacraments. This is the pattern of the church since its foundation. This is how we encounter God and his grace in our lives, without charge.
  8. Encourage Bible reading for the sake of reading – We live with the greatest access to the Bible in history yet is often bemoaned how illiterate Christians are. A 2008 study suggests that whilst 87% percent of church leaders say the Bible is taught regularly only 68% of church attendees say the same thing. Which if nothing else suggests a disconnect in the perception of leaders and those attending churches when it comes to the place of scripture in the church. Both in church and at a personal level we should encourage people to interact with the Bible on its own terms and read it for the sake of reading it instead of necessarily trying to sermonise and analyse it constantly. Why not start a Bible book club?
  9. Accountability and discipleship as essentials rather than extras – I’ll be honest, I’ve never gone to a church (despite attempts otherwise) that has done accountability in any meaningful way. Nor one that has offered a consistent definition or handling of discipleship. The culture is very firmly against it today but these are things explicitly outlined in the New Testament as integral to the life of a Christian that can’t be bought or sold. We do these not as transactions, or because we pay people to, but because we are asked to love one another as followers of Christ. If we, the church, don’t have the time for people then people won’t have time for the church.

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

Is there a distinction between pastor and preacher?

Is there a distinction between pastor and preacher?

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

Acts 20:28

It isn’t so much the case in the Anglican church but theres a convention out there for the elders of a non-episcopal church community to refer to themselves sometimes as Pastor. Pastor can mean many different things practically but principally I always understood the word to be synonymous with the term that used in the passage above ‘shepherds of the church of God’. I was always warned against those who practiced ‘Sheperding’ when I was young. Yet I think the term addresses a distortion of what is meant when the term is used in the New Testament Letters.

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A little while ago I was reading Charles Dickens’s ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ and came across the account of his witnessing the aftermath of a horrific shipwreck (the Royal Charter) from the perspective of a tiny coastal village near Anglesey. The thing that stood out to me in the whole account was the actions of the clergyman in that village. He converted the church building into a morgue for the deceased, helped identify them, comforted the distressed in his own home and wrote to the families of the victims. Dickens himself wrote of the man..

It was the kind and wholesome face I have made mention of as being then beside me, that I had purposed to myself to see, when I left home for Wales.  I had heard of that clergyman, as having buried many scores of the shipwrecked people; of his having opened his house and heart to their agonised friends; of his having used a most sweet and patient diligence for weeks and weeks, in the performance of the forlornest offices that Man can render to his kind; of his having most tenderly and thoroughly devoted himself to the dead, and to those who were sorrowing for the dead.  I had said to myself, ‘In the Christmas season of the year, I should like to see that man!’  And he had swung the gate of his little garden in coming out to meet me, not half an hour ago.

So cheerful of spirit and guiltless of affectation, as true practical Christianity ever is!  I read more of the New Testament in the fresh frank face going up the village beside me, in five minutes, than I have read in anathematising discourses (albeit put to press with enormous flourishing of trumpets), in all my life.  I heard more of the Sacred Book in the cordial voice that had nothing to say about its owner, than in all the would-be celestial pairs of bellows that have ever blown conceit at me.

Charles Dickens – The Uncommercial Traveller, Chapter 2: The Shipwreck

The passage to me underscored the distinction between that of a mere leader or preacher and a minister or shepherd. This disaster had struck the parish and the priest took it upon himself  to not just to care for the living, but also the dead. It wasn’t a concern for preaching and teaching but his attentiveness to his flock, whatever its condition.  The flock itself was everyone, in whatever condition that he came across. He was a shepherd and a good samaritan. This man was genuinely a pastor in the traditional sense of the word which in turn transforms him into an icon of Christ himself.

I think we should all strive to display this love for those around us but I can’t help but be left feeling that many who call themselves Pastors today loosen the definitions of the term to something lesser. I know few ministers today who bother to visit their congregants anymore or even have the time for their congregants to visit them. I will be honest I do not know what takes up the vast majority of a Pastor’s time despite being married to the child of one and a peer to a number who aspire to become such eventually. The impression I have been left with, barring few notable exceptions, is that outside of their immediate circle many ministers have little interaction with their congregation throughout the week unless in the event of some pressing emergency. In many cases I think it far more honest for many non-‘episcopal’ ministers to be called lecturers or preachers as that is the extent of their interactions with most and occurs purely within the confines of the church building. We talk about ‘Churches without walls’ but this implies the sole intention of the church is missional, it is also incarnational and sacramental (which I think leads to mission) yet we rarely encounter this outside of the walls of our churches today. Dickens’s clergyman is a much more practical, down to earth expression of the Church truly without walls beyond any mere ‘mission’.

I do not mean to disparage, I appreciate the job is a tough one. I also think our churches have changed significantly to that which Dickens depicts, not least via the avenue of technology facilitating much higher capacity congregations which makes personal interactions with ministers difficult for the average congregant. Maybe thats an argument for smaller churches? Maybe its asinine of me to make such remarks when I have no idea of what its like to minister. The problem is I grew up in an Anglican church plant run purely by laypeople which was deeply involved in its community and shared the various responsibilities between its members. It was only later on when I moved away that I encountered elders and pastors who by comparison, to be blunt, most (not all) didn’t have any time for you. It was only later in returning to the Anglican church that I realised the fundamental difference between the Pastor as vocation and the Minister as profession. The parish model too taught me that we belong to a place, not just a people. We are always the Church in a place, not a Church in general.

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If you Pastor doesn’t really know all that much about you or those around you, and isn’t interested or see any importance in addressing this – you can have access to preaching without necessarily the preacher today thanks to the internet. A seemingly increasing number of churches, particularly in the US, now take to broadcasting their teaching from somewhere else on a Sunday. I’ve known people who just opted out of attending a church in favour of watching these broadcasts and confess no deficiency in it compared to what they were experiencing prior to the change – the worst bit is the Pastor of the church they were attending never even knew they had left and the individuals actually had more time in their week as they didn’t have to support a buildings infrastructure with their time and effort any longer. Theres no accountability, no discipleship and a superficial level of community which the Pastor, as a role, increasingly plays an infrequent and distant part in.

These are just my thoughts, I have only anecdote to inform my opinion, this isn’t absolute. I haven’t seen any quantitative studies on how Elders use their time or the duties they carry out. Maybe its the demographic I find myself in, maybe young men (married or otherwise) aren’t seen as needing as much input by Elders as others. I don’t have a problem with Preachers or Teachers – I just think the word Pastor suggests more than what is often actually carried out in some cases. I don’t expect every Preacher to personally be involved in the life of those who attend the gatherings they preach at, but at the same time being called a Pastor is disingenuous then. Perhaps administrator is more appropriate. Perhaps we need to make more of a point of separating out and even delegating the role of Pastoring when required and cease to merely conflate it with the act of Preaching and Administration.