Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction to Evening Prayer, 1662 BCP

This is the year which holds the writer

This text was originally posted in the entry ‘I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book’ by A Clerk of Oxford. I think its appropriate to post this on All Saints Day.

This is the year which holds the writer: the thirty fifth year of the reign of the glorious and invincible Henry, king of the English. The sixty-ninth year from the arrival in England, in our time, of the supreme Norman race. The 703rd year from the coming of the English into England. The 2,265th year from the coming of the Britons to settle in the same island. The 5,317th year from the beginning of the world. The year of grace 1135.

This, then, is the year from which the writer of the History wished his age to be reckoned by posterity… this computation will show what point in Time we have reached. Already one millennium has passed since the Lord’s incarnation. We are leading our lives, or – to put it more accurately – we are holding back death, in what is the 135th year of the second millennium.

Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year. In those days, of course, Antoninus ruled Rome with his brother Lucius Aurelius, and Pius the Roman was pope. Lucius, who was of British birth, ruled this island, and not long after this time, while those emperors were still in power, he was the first of the British to become a Christian, and through him the whole of Britain was converted to faith in Christ. For this he is worthy of eternal record.

But who were the other people who lived throughout the countries of the world at that time? Let our present kings and dukes, tyrants and princes, church leaders and earls, commanders and governors, magistrates and sheriffs, warlike and strong men – let them tell me: who were in command and held office at that time? And you, admirable Bishop Alexander, to whom I have dedicated our history, tell me what you know of the bishops of that time.

I ask myself: tell me, Henry, author of this History, tell me, who were the archdeacons of that time? What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What benefit was it to them, who came to this?

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens. I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if – as my soul strongly desires – it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.

Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford, 2002), pp.118-9.

The church and gender disparity

The church and gender disparity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Wilson, The New Centre of British Evangelicalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the blood of the martyrs really the seed of the church?

Is the blood of the martyrs really the seed of the church?

The phrase attributed to Tertullian is one thrown about a fair bit during times we hear about the suffering of Christians around the world. In some ways its true, the church has always grown it seems and theres always been resistance to the church worked out in violence.

Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

John 12:24-25 NIV

We may qualify what exactly ‘the seed’ is but I’ve always associated it with growth in light of the above passage. With recent events however I’ve begun to wonder if this is always true. Take a look at the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) today, home to people like Tertullian, where history tells us the church has been ground down over centuries of persecution in places that were once its heartlands.


Morgan Lee writing for Christianity Today actually addresses this directly in his article ‘Sorry Tertullian‘. In it he highlights the words of several experts on church growth who give mixed responses to the quote in the light of history years later. The most appropriate, I thought, came from Stuart George Hall.

Stuart George Hall, a historian at University of St. Andrews, notes the church isn’t mentioned in Tertullian’s original quote. Rather, Tertullian is arguing that martyrs have “done more to win people to patient endurance of pain and death than all the work of admirable philosophers like Cicero,” said Hall. “Their blood is not so much the seed of the church as the seed of virtuous living and dying.”

Morgan Lee 2014, ‘Sorry Tertullian’ in Christianity Today

To my understanding the original quote is more along the lines of ‘The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of Christians’. The quote can then be understand in terms of virtue in the face of suffering which is picked up by Justin Long who adds.

Long believes persecution initially harms churches because it interrupts networks and prompts emigration. But given that “in times of persecution, people choose what they believe and refine their faith,” he said, persecution can boost church numbers once suffering has ended.

Morgan Lee 2014, ‘Sorry Tertullian’ in Christianity Today

Statistically however the traditional understanding of this quotation isn’t true. We use this quote at times to take comfort at the sound of bad news for the church, I also think to make peace with a form of fatalism these events can inculcate in us. This fatalism can help us to keep going in times of struggle, but it can also leave us hesitant to change our circumstances or those of others, we just accept it. More pressingly, the quote neglects to touch on the existential nature of persecution for the church in some parts of the world, like that in the MENA region currently where we see ancient Christian communities disappearing altogether.

For many of us the suffering of many Christians happens without us knowing about it, when we do hear about it a saying like that of Tertullian’s can actually comfort us into inaction, such things are ultimately in the hands of God. This is problematic, because we have a responsibility for one another. The blood of the martyrs says more about us fellow Christians in our response to such things than the violence inflicted against Christians itself.

Domine quo vadis?


As Christians we shouldn’t shy from suffering, Jesus himself told us he didn’t come to bring peace but the sword. I think for many of us theres some fascination with the subject of suffering for the faith, because we hear so many stories in some ways so drastically removed from our own position in the West. Ever since I first heard the apocryphal story of Peter encountering Christ whilst fleeing persecution in Rome. Peter asks the Lord ‘Where are you going?’ to which Christ replies ‘I am going to Rome to be crucified again’ and Peter turns back to accept the martyrdom waiting for him. As a story its powerful but then part of me wonders, if I was a peer or friend of Peter – how would I respond? Happiness? Fatalism? Resignation? Would I join him? Beg for him to save himself? Simply watch from the sidelines? Peter himself was willing to fight to protect Christ when he was arrested but was that an exception for Christ? If its not should we likewise not resist the suffering of other Christians? Another relatively well-known saying of Tertullian was “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” Peter in this context was rebuked for protecting Christ, if the Church is Christ’s body should we hold to the same attitude?

If a person being persecuted was my neighbour would my response differ to that of someone a world away? I don’t know the answer to these questions. Part of me wonders if I should accept persecution for me and mine, to turn the other cheek. Yet I feel an obligation to help and support Christians in places where its far tougher to follow Christ, even ending their suffering if possible. Then I wonder should we have the same attitude for those close to us if they experienced similar things? Yet if I take Tertullian’s saying at face value the implication seems that I shouldn’t lament the suffering of other believers because its good for the church in its witness. Should we then not seek to alleviated the sufferings of believers elsewhere if it is a witness? To what degree do we consider other Christians expendable for the sake of the Churches witness to others? Or is it not about being a witness but instead responding appropriately to love of God? Do we really love one another if we’re not willing to save one another from the hands of persecutors?

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:9-21 NIV

I don’t know the answers to the questions I’ve asked here. I think though this saying of Tertuellian is wrong, or requires such nuance that it isn’t of much help. History bears out that martyrdom doesn’t correlate with the growth of the church quantitatively. If this doesn’t bear out in practice, it does little good for us the opposite to be the case. We can redeem some good from the martyrdom of others, but does this make martyrdom ultimately a good thing for the church? The martyr goes to be with God, but it is the Church left behind that suffers from their absence. What happens when the church in a region disappears entirely as a result? What happens when such persecution is systemised and legitimised in laws? Is it enough to shrug our shoulders, bring it to God in prayer and then leave it to him? Aren’t we in some measure responsible for one another?

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act.

One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Martin Luther King Jr. – A Time to Break Silence, at Riverside Church

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.


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.

The problem with finding ourselves

The problem with finding ourselves

Choice is a value we prize highly as a society in the West. Our media promotes narratives replete with individuals who choose their own path and our popular music often focuses on people defining themselves as individuals outside the crowd. Coming of age in our society has no ceremony, instead it’s a process of figuring out who we are or choosing what kind of person we’re going to be. The idea of young people finishing education and going out to ‘find themselves’ has become normative to us. None of this is inherently bad in and of itself, but it is a recent thing and it does have its problems.

The process of finding ourselves is also a decidedly secular idea, it assumes that we aren’t really anything unless we choose it. This is increasingly being applied to the most basic parts of our identity including our gender, a more recent belief that empties the idea of our biological sex containing any inherent values in and of itself outside of the anatomical.

Its interesting too that forms of Christianity that emerged more recently, modern Evangelicalism for example, prioritise and praise road to Damascus style conversion experiences over inherited forms of faith. If your testimony isn’t suitably dramatic theres the chance that people might question the sincerity of your faith in the first place. In this we see a distinction from ‘mainline’ or traditionally ecclesial church movements and these opt-in conversion orientated churches that descended from non-conformist or holiness movement backgrounds. The same bears out on attitudes towards infant or believers baptism, paedo or credo baptism. I say this as an advocate of credo baptism. Its also why we see an embrace of increasingly unorthodox Christian movements and theologies being promoted by both Christians and Atheists alike. This fits in with our contemporary society, and theres a market for it. As a culture we prioritise the selfs choice and are less trusting of the answers of previous generations dressing them up in the language of oppression. We do this as they threaten to place limits on our self-determination, our choice.

Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.

Spoken by the Satan after his fall from heaven in John Milton’s Paradise Lost – Book II

Choice can be a genuinely good thing, the setting of many dystopian novels is that in which the protagonist becomes aware of the choices he’s been disallowed by the State, of the world outside what the State decides is appropriate and desires to experience it always at great personal cost. The idea of these novels isn’t to leave us depressed but to encourage us to see that choice is a valuable and necessary part of human experience. For a more practical example, the isolationist community of the Amish practice something we know as Rumspringa which encourages their youth to go into the world and live in it for a time. This is to help them decide whether or not they truly want to become a part of the community. The choosing and conscious acceptance of tradition can bring a new understanding to that individuals participation and relationship to the community they find themselves participating in. Something which wasn’t arguably present before the choice was made.

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“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.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Chapter 17

In the Abrahamic faiths choice is not something that features so heavily. To be Jewish today is less of a religion in some instances and more akin to an ethnicity. This isn’t recent, even in the Bible the Jews are known as the children of Jacob,the grandchild of Abraham, later known as Israel. In Islam they are not so much bound by ethnicity but practice, at birth the first thing a child should hear is the whisper in their ear of the Islamic call to prayer by their father. A child of a Muslim parent in many places around the world is considered a Muslim whether the child later wants to be considered such or not. Christianity differs in the relationship of the individual to the church, the process and timing of baptism has differed over time and been a normative or selective act in various cultures throughout history depending on the standing of Christianity within that culture. Jesus himself not being baptised until he was in his 30’s and yet entire households later being baptised simultaneously once the Church had begun.

Choice isn’t something we see prized to the same degree outside of the West and it is argued by some that it is Christianity’s attitude towards the individual that is atleast partially responsible for this modern secularism. Historian Tom Holland writes..

The origins of much that seems most modern to us can in fact be traced back to the distant past. Neutrality between different religions, as it is practised in Europe today, can never itself be culturally neutral, for the simple reason that it depends on a philosophy that is ultimately Christian in character. That the world can be divided into church and state, and that these twin realms should exist distinct from each other: here are presumptions with which many Muslims, for instance, would disagree profoundly. Certainly, there is nothing in the Quran equivalent to the New Testament injunction to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Muhammad, unlike Jesus, had neither the slightest hesitation in formulating a fiscal policy nor in laying claim to political authority. For those who imagine that the western model of the multicultural state can emasculate Islam as readily as it has de-fanged Christianity, this should be a detail of more than merely theological or antiquarian interest.

Tom Holland, Uncomfortable Origins – Article in the New Statesman

What we see today then is not a ex-nihlo secularism from the void but an attempt at Christianity without Christ. In place of Christ we have placed our own self, idols not like the Philistines had of stone and wood but of flesh and bone. Increasingly its not ourselves properly but the idea of ourselves, idealised in the electronic age through the use of cameras, retouching and selective editing enabling people to choose the brand of themselves they present to the outside world in an effort to be more appealing. This desire for affection and appeal leads westerners to imitate those seen as more attractive than themselves in both the shapes they take and actions carried out. People increasingly delight in those less fortunate or successful then themselves in an effort to reaffirm their existing standing in the eyes of others. This primacy given to the self and choice can prove overwhelming. We find ourselves in a culture which is increasingly defined less by what is true than by what is popular at any given time. This makes us especially susceptible to populist political and social movements like we are presently seeing in both the UK and the US.

Too much choice can also feel as stifling as no choice at all. In a post-industrial, geographically mobile, unstable familial, individualistic and diverse sexual environment men in particular are showing signs of struggling. Whatever your views on masculinity healthy rolemodels are just something which are increasingly rarified. Those in existence have to compete with mass media, both the centralised and decentralised forms, in order to be heard. Some might say that this is affording us the opportunity to be more flexible in our understanding of men and women but this is in the context of a population that is increasingly medicated to handle social ills, unable to deal with diverging viewpoints and struggling at times to find a reason to keep going. If this is a social experiment, it is a costly one, if this is societal love of the self at the expense of the actual self then it is tragic.

Choice as a component of our decision making is something which is useful, their is a dignity to ascribing an individual agency over their own fate. Raising up our ‘authentic’ self as an idol, as the end goal to which everyone works, erodes the dignity of all our choices by depriving us of the means to discern if we are making sufficiently good or bad choices. This is why the Teacher of Ecclesiastes writes..

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

In trying to find ourselves we retreat into private narratives that preclude the devaluing of the beliefs, history, culture and values we once held in common. As people, as Christians, we are defined in context and relation to others, our neighbours and God himself. Wherever we are its important to recognise that choice is a component of our life and not our bedrock. We don’t exist in a vacuum but find ourselves in a much broader narrative, a narrative that shapes the world as God works through his Church. Just as it shapes the world we should likewise be willing to let it shape us.