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

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Chrysostom, 1 Corinthians 14 and (Charismatic) tongues

Chrysostom, 1 Corinthians 14 and (Charismatic) tongues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 14:11 (NIV)

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

Ambrosiaster, commenting on 1 Corinthians 14:14

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

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 14:4 (NIV)

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

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

1 Corinthians 14:3 (NIV)

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

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

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

Matthew 10:19

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

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

1 Corinthians 14:22

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

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

So what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from the Martyrology of Tallaght

Excerpt from the Martyrology of Tallaght

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

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

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

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

Sermons and Songs aren’t enough

Sermons and Songs aren’t enough

Several years ago there was a phase going around Evangelical circles called ‘The emerging church’. The thing that stood out to me about its adherents was (and this is a massive generalisation) they weren’t that big on going to Church on a Sunday and being a part of the audience.

There are several books and many good reasons why Church as a Sunday gathering alone is problematic. The prominence of the internet has only highlighted this. When asked the average lay person will say they go to church for..

a) Worship

b) Teaching (or ‘Feeding’)

Yet today no shortage exists of books, podcasts, feeds and album releases to fuel each of these independently. If you don’t like what you hear on a Sunday you can today simply go somewhere else, start your own thing or opt out of Sunday gatherings altogether. The boundaries between denominations likewise are increasingly porous, a person when they move town might of been attending an Anglican church will go to a Baptist church because thats what works in their new context. Their isn’t anything ultimately bad about this itself (I believe in a sense although this does present problems) but the distinguishing marks of these denominations are lessened as a result giving way to the lowest common denominator. Accountability, discipleship and the sacraments inevitably suffer as a result. We catch ourselves trending towards a theology that affirms our life choices rather than affirming a changed life. We are no longer ‘Anglicans’ or ‘Baptists’ but pragmatists who take what we need when its needed and like magpies construct our own theological nests adorned with the various baubles we find appealing. Our faith has become increasingly personalised, commodified and even commercialised.

We’re all ’emerging’ now

Most people I talk to generally state that the emerging church has failed. It was a phase, a fad and we are all past it now. Yet I believe that the ’emerging church’ was just the tip of the iceberg of a bigger change at work in the Protestant, and dare I say global Christian world. The Church is a body, a family and it always has been but it is no longer a authority. Authority instead is found in those who we find appealing, whether they are a powerful preacher, a teacher, a gifted worship leader or some other character. For many Christians they are more likely to trust and respect their favourite Christian celebrity than their local minister. The honest truth however is that even those voices don’t carry authority, they just create a space for us to form our own opinions and beliefs. In essence we are our own authority – a thoroughly post-modern and emerging tenant.

All of the above comments however come from the perspective of treating our faith as a purely intellectual, emotional or spiritual pursuit. It is those things but the question is – is it more? Is it shared? Is it public? Because our faith today seems private, tailor-made and individualistic.

Life together

The Lord’s Prayer goes as follows..

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Amen.

It uses the word ‘our’ instead of ‘my’, ‘us’ instead of ‘me’, ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ and in doing so betrays itself as a public declaration. Even if said alone its very structure reminds us that we are part of a body. The communion likewise is given and received, it is offered and accepted in the context of the body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’. The church is a body and that is more than merely being present in the same place and at the same time. Too often today we stand alone in crowded halls and rooms of people genuinely unaware of how our brothers and sisters around us are doing. We make gestures but do not move beyond the point of our own inconvenience to be there for one another.

Small groups are one way we try and address this, we meet in the week and read scripture together and pray. Yet these rarely make ground for us to really dig into the meat of the core issues affecting our growth as believers. Despite what some might say, I don’t think this is discipleship. Its also often rather generic and addresses the lowest common denominator of peoples faith due to time constraints and group dynamics. Yet this is something that will keep people coming back as it isn’t attainable online or through media consumption. It is interpersonal, it requires effort and at least is a step in the right direction.

If the Church is to grow I am of the conviction that it needs to recover its communal identity. We need to move beyond consumption to participation. Getting together with other believers a couple of hours a week isn’t enough to sustain a layperson who spends the rest of it being assaulted by the world with its own values, desires and intentions. Our faith needs its distinctives and particulars which aren’t marketable and distributable online. I’ve been challenged personally in my reading of the Book of Common Prayer’s morning and evening prayers and painfully aware of the fact that I’ve never encountered a Anglican church that offers these. I can pray the words alone, but its a pale imitation of what I imagine the real thing to be. These are treated as optional extras and I’m beginning to wonder if the rhythms these prayers offer might be more important than that.

Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

These rhythms mentioned aren’t just liturgical, although I think they can be useful in binding us together, but also those of discipleship. Our society is one that praises the individual, or at least the notion of one in principle. Discipleship or mentoring is something rarely sought out but it is precisely what Jesus called us to as his followers. If we aren’t doing this are we really being obedient to Christ? Are we really calling others and encouraging one another to obey the commands of Christ?

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:19-20

I don’t think discipleship is just exhortation or teaching, it is interpersonal, frequent, prayerful, challenging and at times an intimate interaction. It is apprenticeship and mentoring. If we aren’t willing to do these things for one another what are we really willing to give up for Christ? Preaching sermons and singing songs together on a Sunday aren’t enough – you can get that anywhere these days.

As Christians we have no external differences that set us out from the masses. We blend into the crowds and slip past unnoticed, our differences are in our actions, our inheritence, our creeds, baptism and confessions. They are particular, nuanced and consistent. Leaving one another to ‘do it ourselves’ when it comes to becoming followers of Christ is to confess to the coming of a ‘private’ Kingdom of God and that is to say arguably no Kingdom at all. We need to discover the public gospel if we are to more fully become public Christians.

Towards a ‘Catholic’ understanding of the miraculous

Towards a ‘Catholic’ understanding of the miraculous

The human longing that gave birth to the Pentecostal movement is not bad in itself. The fundamental and basic hunger that is addressed by Pentecostalism is a desire for intimacy with the Uncreated God. This is good and God-given. We were meant for intimacy with the Divine.

But the theological poverty that was the atmosphere of the birth of Pentecostalism guaranteed that the very good desire would be quickly corrupted by weak theological support. And the movement bears this out. All one has to do is turn on religious TV to discover both old and new heresies finding fertile ground in the hearts of ungrounded and disconnected Pentecostal believers.

– Fr Barnabus Powell, Strange Fire – Journey to Orthodoxy

The Church of England, particularly in London, is becoming decidedly Charismatic. Largely under the influence of churches like Holy Trinity Brompton many people are also finding their way back into the Church via its initiatives such as the Alpha course. To be honest a lot of these CofE Churches are Anglican increasingly in name only and bear a closer resemblance to Vineyard, Elim or New Frontiers churches.

This trend is a global one with many of the new converts in the global south being to Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. For a time I consistently attended a Charismatic CofE church and whilst I never bought into or understood the more pronounced tongues, slayings and various other phenomena attended fairly happily for the most part for several years.

However the prominence and focus on the Charismatic externals eventually did in part give cause to move on. Their wasn’t much talk of doctrine, people held very different beliefs on a range of issues but it became increasingly requisite to be onboard with charismata as the church presented it. Orthodoxy was never a problem but charismatic orthopraxy felt like the only means to participate fully in the body and soul of the church.

In talking to many people about this, trying to learn more, I found the people broadly fell into two camps. The Charismatics or the Cessationists, the former believes in the full run of gifts (understood in a particular way) and the latter their absence. That was the way a vicar was putting it to me before asking me to choose what I subscribed to. Yet neither is really the historic position of the Catholic (universal) church nor that of Scripture. The testimony of the saints before us throughout the ages is replete with the miraculous yet is a topic generally neglected by contemporary Charismatics. In fact I’ve come to believe that if contemporary Charismatics would be lead to search their own history they would discover that their ‘new things’ God is doing and ‘fresh waves’ of the Spirit at their best are nothing new and at their worst have nothing to do with the spirit.

There’s nothing wrong fundamentally however with the desire to see God at work in the life of the believer. Yet the preeminence given to the more ecstatic displays you might see on a sunday or the emotional intensity sought has become to some a form of sacrament (The charismatic churches I attended, even in the CoE, rarely shared the eucharist interestingly). This and the pursuit of such encounters blindsides the believer into thinking it is in these expressions that the primary work of the Holy Spirit is being done.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

– Galatians 5:22-24 (NIV)

The other more concerning thing is the presence of what could be considered antinomianism, amongst a proportion of charismatics. Drinking to get drunk, sex out of marriage and antipathy towards theology or doctrine are on the increase alongside a Biblical illiteracy that despite being bemoaned by those in ministry shows little to no sign of improving. I appreciate this isn’t universally the case and don’t mean to hurt or anger anyone yet this is what I have consistently seen over the years living in different cities across the UK. All of this indicative of  our shifting attitude towards faith from the corporate to the individual and the corresponding dearth of actual discipleship present in the church today.

None of these things are seen as problematic to a Charismatic or Pentecostal who takes the ability to speak in tongues, prophecy and exhibit what they believe to be manifestations (some understand as the ‘seal’ mentioned in Ephesians 1:13 and 2 Corinthians 1:22) of the spirit irrespective of how they live the rest of the week. These events are ‘signs’ of the Holy Spirit in the life of one someone who otherwise might be entirely devoid of the fruit Paul outlines that we hope to see. This is perhaps most evident in the Pentecostal heresies of the Prosperity Gospel, New Apostolic Reformers and Oneness Pentecostals. If all these dramatic displays we saw were legitimate in all these churches with conflicting theology departing from orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit must really not be so concerned or grieved by what we do, say or think after all. I know no other way to come to terms with it if the gifts are legitimate.

It’s tempting then to be dismissive of all of this and say it is all questionable yet I think even this is to lose out in our understanding of how God directly intervenes in our world. It is fair to say that perhaps Pentecostalism and its milder Charismatic relative are reactions against a dry intellectualism that has occupied much of Protestantism since its conception and there is a balance needed to be found. For me this is where the lives of the saints come in, they remind us that God still acts in the world today despite all our foibles and can change the lives of the worst of us for his glory. They tempered reason with wonder and loved the church that homed them. As Protestants we should not forget that it is God alone that is worthy of veneration, they are just like us and fallible, but that at the same time they show us the faith “which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Modern day charismatics have brought a lot to the Church by reminding us the intimacy with God is something worthy of pursuit and that he has agency in this world. He is a God who cares about the sick and the hurting enough to be involved directly. Yet theologically it is easily compromised and leaves many Christians like ‘infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.’ (Ephesians 4:14) The historic position of the church is that God is at work through his Holy Spirit in all times and we should neither be charismatic nor cessationist but contextualised by a Catholic (Universal) understanding of the spiritual gifts that are to be eagerly desired. We should stop ‘inviting the Holy Spirit’ into our church services because Jesus already promised us that he is present wherever we gather. That the pursuit of spiritual events are a poor substitute for the progressive sanctification of the individual under God.

Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the adoption of sons, our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory, and, in a word, our being brought into a state of all “fulness of blessing,” both in this world and in the world to come, of all the good gifts that are in store for us, by promise hereof, through faith, beholding the reflection of their grace as though they were already present, we await the full enjoyment.

– St. Basil the Great, “On the Holy Spirit”

On emotional spirituality

On emotional spirituality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S Lewis, God in the Dock