Tag Archives: anglicanism

On celebrating diversity within the church

What follows is the crystallisation of a few thoughts prompted by a recent Guardian article on what it perceives to be a crisis in the Church of England and how it is being taken over by a dastardly sect called evangelicals. This was followed up with a few conversations in various places on similar topics.

The thing that often frustrates me is that when Anglicans use the term ‘evangelical’ they often mean something rather different than when evangelicals use it. When one word is used to denote (or connote) different things, then a mutual lack of understanding can often, needlessly, ensue and can result in hostile, or otherwise unhealthy attitudes between members of the same faith. If one claims that evangelicalism is a “wing” of the Church of England, that’s a misleading statement. Evangelicalism is a far broader, richer, more varied church that can be contained within any denomination (even the largest of them). Rather than try to re-tread well-trodden ground to state who is and who is not evangelical, I attempted to demonstrate that the question wasn’t quite that simple via the use of a Venn diagram that I put together during the last 10 minutes of my lunch break.

 Christian expressions

The point in the diagram was not to highlight differences or to show “why I am not like you” or anything like that. It was rather the opposite. It was to celebrate the breadth and diversity of different expressions of christian identity. It was also to counter some of the overly-narrow focus that some expressions have of themselves, placing them in a broader context. It wasn’t meant to be a complete or accurate representation of all expressions of christianity, merely an improvement to that offered by The Guardian (which in turn, echoed a sentiment I come across frequently, particularly among those who have a phobia of evangelicals). If one were so inclined, you could find at least a dozen things to take umbrage with, and indeed some chose to deliberately miss the point by doing so.

To give example of a kind of unhealthy attitude referred to above,  take someone who is indoctrinated to think that a church must be liturgical in order to be whole, fully functioning, etc. The reason it’s unhealthy is because it gives rise to ecclesiastical snobbery and a hatred towards to the more ecclesiastically liberal churches that can have a well-rounded theology, with healthy worship that have no need of liturgy. Indeed just the other day I read a comment that expressed a fear of any involvement of evangelicalism within that person’s denomination, describing it as “theologically impoverished”. Such a view is not borne of understanding and love, but of ignorance and hatred.

I am not saying that evangelical churches are beyond reproach. There is a time and place for fair, reasoned and loving critique to help build one another up. Even if that sometimes takes the form a rebuke. Yet one must recall “the plank in your own eye” if you find it necessary to speak up about another church/tradition than your own (see here for a recent take on the Evangelical Alliance). Those critiques that carry the most weight come from those that can recognise the weaknesses in their own tradition. It’s fine to pick your particular strand of christian belief, be it Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, etc. but such an identity must be held to lightly, rather than clung on to in white-knuckle defensiveness.

One of the other illustrations that I like to use is that of dog breeding. You can have any number of different types of pedigrees and you have cross-bred mongrels. Pedigrees can look beautiful. But the preservation of the purity of their identity comes at the cost of poor health in some. In contrast, mongrels can be ugly things; one can spend time trying to work out the different breeds that have gone into making the dog what it is. Yet for their ugliness, they tend to be healthier dogs.

In this (yes, flawed, analogy) I’m a mongrel christian. I find my home in the Ichthus Christian Fellowship, but on the weeks when we don’t get to meet, I will regularly visit other churches. In the last 3 years alone, I’ve been to Assemblies of God, Baptist, Church of England, Congregationalist, FIEC, Methodist, New Frontiers, Pioneer, Redeemed Christian Church of God, URC and other independent churches. There are several attitudes one could take when visiting another church. One could go with a kind of sneering snobbery that seeks to see how they “do things wrong”, determined to see the bad and to leave with a smug sense of superiority about one’s own church. I much prefer to think of it as going to worship with a slightly more distant relative and seeing what good things they do that my home church doesn’t.

I’d encourage you to visit churches outside of your normal experience every once in a while. It’s possible you may find something very weird, compared to your regular worship experience, whether that be being asked to kneel in front of someone dressed in robes or seeing someone wave a flag. If you decide to not go back, preferring the ways you are familiar with, that’s OK. But at least if you go and engage with others, then you can come away having shared fellowship with a wider circle of christians than you otherwise might, and you get to experience a different part of the christian life first hand, rather than rely on 2nd hand accounts and scare stories.

Some choose to see different denominations as signs of division within the church. But try seeing it as a sign of diversity instead. Then sample that diversity. If your diet consists of knowing the nuance between different types of potato, then you’re not really having a varied diet. Likewise with churches. To taste and see just how good the Lord is, it helps to sample from a different dish every now and then.

Book Review: Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann

I first came across Rachel a few years ago via Twitter. Since then I think she’s published two books, of which this is the first (The Risen Dust being the other) but I only got round to purchasing this at the Greenbelt festival last year when we passed each other like ships in the night.

Opening with the full trio of a foreword, an introduction and a preface, we get to see that this is a work of testimony, intertwined with theological musings.

We begin with the tonka truck Christmas, where, as a 5 year old boy who was struggling with their gender identity, a decision was made to try to embrace masculinity. But this didn’t last and as one could tell from simply reading the back cover, Rachel underwent a sex change. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Citizen Kane and the role of rosebud, only the tonker truck had the opposite effect if anything.

The book has a certain flow to it, but it doesn’t feel like a sequential memoir. So of those I’ve read recently, it is most unlike Moltmann’s and much more like Augustine’s (though with a similar level of swearing to Hauerwas’). It is quite confessional in tone, almost as though we are hearing Rachel tell her story a little after after she had first recounted it painfully and fragmentary to family, a close friend or psychologist. But by now the story has been thought through in whole, seen afresh and told with a purpose. So although the reader is taken along a journey, the author knows in advance where we are going, even if the reader doesn’t.

At times, particularly early on, one feels as though Rachel is beating us over the head with an array of philosophers who are name-dropped by way of referencing how they viewed things and how aspects of their thinking were adopted. Being relatively poorly read in philosophy, I struggled to get a grip of the points being made. But given philosophy was the subject Rachel studied at university and lectured on for a while, this is a forgivable point. I mention it here so that any potential reader may consider themselves duly warned that there will be some mental exercise needed.

One thing you cannot do is read through it at a jaunt. For all the way through the reader is made to stop and think. It’s not that Rachel implores us to do (so rid yourself of the awful triteness of Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle) but her writing compels us to. It varies from page to page, either where she looks at something in a different light, sometimes implicitly asking the question “[have you seen things this way]” or “[how does your church deal with this]”. So as I read it, mostly on public transport, I couldn’t help but keep looking out of the window at the world going slowly by and trying to marry up the grotty end of south London that I pass through with the world as Rachel see it.

One of the reflections that was always going to capture my attention was Rachel’s take on the evangelical church, for this is the broad end of the spectrum where I find home within the larger Church. Now I read various takes on the evangelical churches, some of which are fiercely defensive, overlooking the flaws (both historical and present) and some which are wholly condemnatory, with a haughty “older brother” attitude, presenting evangelicalism as something that one ought to grow out of. Neither are views I find helpful, but thankfully Rachel doesn’t go too far into either one. Rather, there is critique that is carefully measured and an acknowledgement of the good the evangelical churches have had in her life.

One of the aspects that I confess I struggled with was the appeal to poetry. It’s an art form I’ve never really “got” and, aside from the war poets (who she does cite), those parts of the book that rely on an appreciation of poetry were rather lost on me. I guess I’m too much of a rationalist. But if poetry is your thing, then you’ll get more out of this book than me and you may well want to follow up with The Risen Dust.

One phrase that I don’t think Rachel used but that came to mind more than once as I was reading was the phrase “an incomplete gospel”. In her critique of evangelicalism, one of the concerns that comes across is that the gospel preached by the churches she visited or was a part of didn’t quite reach the place where she was. As someone who had undergone a sex change and who was also a lesbian, I hope it’s not transphobic or homophobic to say that that’s a fairly niche place that isn’t too well populated. Regardless, any gospel preached by any church must be one for all. That’s a message of Rachel’s that I wholeheartedly agree with.

One of the running themes of the book is the idea of the “dark God”. Coming again at the incomplete gospel from another angle, we often speak of God as light, not least in reference to John 1. Yet Rachel’s contention is that God has a dark side. This isn’t an assertion of dystheism, but rather saying that when we speak of gospel bringing people out of darkness into light, Rachel contends that sometimes God will stay with us in the darkness. I may have misunderstood, and while I could see some merit to it, I wasn’t wholly convinced. I did wonder if, as many do (myself included), God is envisaged as a projection of ourselves and that the dark God was Rachel’s expression of such a projection. I might be wrong about that. While I would certainly agree that God does meet us in dark places, what I was less sure about was the idea that he would stay with us there and not lift us into the light.

There’s much more to the book than I have space for here. For example, I’ve not mentioned her health struggles – especially with Crohn’s disease or her call to be ordained (although she uses the term priesthood, I wouldn’t echo this, holding as I do a priesthood of all believers). I will leave that for you to discover. As I said in the introduction, this is a work of testimony. I conclude then with an amendment to that: it is a work of testimony that I recommend you read, listen to, think on and grow with.

Book Review: Being Christian by Rowan Williams

Disclaimer: This was gifted to me by the publishers, SPCK, as a reward for making a pun on Twitter. I think it was something about their authors to food, and I mentioned Rowan-berry Williams. I was not asked to review the book and do so, as ever, wholly of my own initiative.

This little book, subtitled Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, is based on a series of sermons he gave in the final week running up to Easter, though the year wasn’t specified. Williams has identified what he sees as 4 characteristics of the christian life (a point for discussion may be whether these 4 are the best choice, though I wouldn’t say they are bad at all). This isn’t a deep theological treatise, but it has hints of depths for us all to explore. As an example, I might cite a single sentence where he sums up the entirety of liberation theology: “For many people in the 1970s and 1980s it was surprising to realize [sic] what the story of the exodus, for example, meant to people in deprived communities in Latin America.” The book is suffused with such sentences that hint that there is more to things than are shown here, even if it’s like walking down a corridor, being shown doors that are slightly ajar. We are given a fair impression of what may lay behind these doors, but we are left to explore them by ourselves.

This is aided by a number of questions at the end of each chapter which may be used either by oneself or as part of a group study.

It is worth noting the title carefully, or rather, what the title isn’t. One other review I read of it made a criticism that Williams said nothing about how to become a christian, particularly noting that there was nothing about repentance. This is not a fair representation. For starters, Williams does talk about repentance, even though it’s not a section in its own right. More than that, though, the book is not called Becoming Christian. This is not a piece of apologetics nor does it describe the ways by which one might come to faith. There is an assumption here already that the reader has some idea of what the 4 headers are about and of who Jesus is.

Baptism

Readers here should be aware that I grew up in a baptist church which had a very deep, developed theology of baptism. It is usually one area where I differ from my anglican brethren, though it was rather lovely to see that Williams didn’t advocate any of those aspects that I normally cringe at: specifically, the advocacy of infant baptism or a functional (as opposed to symbolic) view of baptism. Some of the latter is hinted at, but Williams doesn’t quite go so far as to say that baptism makes one a christian.

Rather, he gently looks at the idea of being buried and raised with Christ and what that means for the individual. Interestingly, he cannot resist jumping ahead of himself and writing about prayer at this point. What I found most interesting was a comment that prayer is not something that ought to be striven for, but is a natural reaction in the life of the christian, much the inevitability of sneezing.

Bible

This was a chapter I must say I found quite intriguing, not least because I found Williams’ take again quite unexpected. He makes a very sharp distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament in terms of their historicity. Williams seems to view the whole of the OT as being an identity-creating narrative but whose historicity is unimportant.

For my part, I am unsure as to whether the historicity of the Old Testament can be downplayed quite so much. While I would agree with Williams that the primary purpose is that of a forming a cultural identity, I am less easily convinced that the historical basis is unimportant. The fact that there is a relative paucity of corroborating evidence, either in literature or archaeology should be something that troubles us. If it were somehow proved the Abraham never entered into a covenant with God then I believe that that would have a profound impact on New Testament theology.

Talking of which, Williams has no such qualms about the historicity of the NT. He emphasises the centrality of Jesus as being the primary means of revelation. For the christian life is one of listening and God’s own voice is not more clear than when speaking through Jesus. There isn’t space here for a huge discourse on source or form criticism, so please don’t come to Williams’ writing with that expectation.

Eucharist

Going back a bit to my baptist upbringing, one of the other areas I would tend to disagree with the anglican mindset regards what Williams calls here Eucharist (which I recall Roger Forster describes as being a fancy way of showing that you know a bit of Greek), but which in the low church is more often referred to as communion or breaking bread.

Williams does stick to the Anglican party line in this chapter, more than he did in baptism, by advocating a highly functional view of the eucharist, even going so far as to mention transubstantiation at one point. So you will not be surprised to read that I profoundly disagree with him on this point. That is not to reject the chapter entirely. Even for the nonconformist, there is a gentle richness here so that one can see the world through the eyes of one particular tradition. He reminds us that communion can be approached in different ways, as a remembrance of the sacrifice that Jesus made and as a celebration of the resurrection. All this, though, is enabled through the Holy Spirit. I wonder whether it occurred to him quite how charismatic this sounded.

Prayer

In this final chapter, Williams takes a slightly different approach, with the bulk of it taken from 3 figures from fairly early on in christian history: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian. I must admit, though reasonably familiar with Origen and having heard of, but been unfamiliar with, Gregory of Nyssa, I had never previously heard of John Cassian. As one might expect, the Lord’s Prayer plays a fairly prominent role here as a model by which we pray.

Williams has more surprises up his sleeves here. In emphasising the personal nature of prayer, Williams advocates the notion of a priesthood of all believers, again something not one might expect from a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet he also emphasises another aspect of prayer, whereby we do it as part of a community; a community who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Overall, I got the impression that the book tried to be a spiritual classic. There wasn’t an awful lot to tie it to the time and place in which it was composed. It didn’t speak to a particular demographic, but had a feeling of timelessness to it. However, that’s not universally true and a few hints here and there could become dated in years to come, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

I’m posting this review comparatively late to when I finished it, so can look back and see what stuck. The overriding sense I get now is that it is a book that I should have read much more slowly than I did. At less than a hundred pages, I thought I was going slowly to eek it out at one chapter per day. It isn’t a work of theology, but it should hold a mirror up to our theology and praxis and remind us of some of the basics of christian living that distinguish us from the rest of the world at large. Such reminders are no new thing in christian literature, yet I have a feeling that this will be read more times and recommended in years to come than many a more plain effort.

There is far more in this small volume than I could cover here, for to do it justice might require a page of writing to unpack each paragraph. So while it may not take you long to read, it will be hard to resist turning back to it and noting the quotes that the publishers highlight for the reader to ponder. If what I’ve touched on sounds interesting, then this is definitely a book for you.

The requirement of the law (A Personal Catechism #4)

Link to Introduction
Link to most recent post

Q: What does the law of God require of us?

A: Christ teaches us that briefly, Matt 22:37-40, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment; and the second is like unto it, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Response

There’s really very little that I can say about this, other than “I agree” in a variety of different ways. Having done quite a bit of reading on the ‘new perspective’, I have changed my view somewhat on the nature of the law, which I sketched in part 3. But the law as it stands is best summarised as stated above.

Love is a tricky word in the English language, as it doesn’t always convey quite the senses that can be carried by the words in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. In the quote above, the Greek word is Agapeo. The concordance I have describes it as “in the N[ew] T[estament] usually the active love of God for his Son and his people, and the active love his people are to have for God, each other and even enemies.” The idea seems to be that it is a very practical action; love is not merely some sort of fuzzy feeling. It’s not affection or fondness. Though that doesn’t mean it is devoid of emotion (see below).

What are we to love God with? The list nature as it appears strikes me as a piece of rhetoric which seems to say “everything”, only in a more poetic way. If we can provide love, hands-on, with all that we have, then we are getting somewhere close to what was intended. Yet the list of ways does prompt another thought: that people who have different personalities love in different ways.

For example, I am not a particularly emotional sort of person. Even though I tend to go to fairly charismatic churches, which are generally known for a higher than average level of emotional engagement, I remain much more of a thinker than anything else. So one might well say I love with my mind more than anything else. Tendencies to love in one way or another may attract people to certain kinds of churches. So those who have a more emotional reaction may lean towards the charismatic churches. In my experience, Anglicans tend to be better than most at loving with all their strength. i.e. very practically, as are the Salvation Army. In a similar vein, of the Quakers I have come across, they are always very thoughtful and are amongst the deepest thinkers I know; they embody very well the idea of loving God with all your mind. I try to learn from each of these not only to embody such love in myself but to encourage those in the church around me (both a local community and the digital community) to do likewise.

The other thing I might point out is the phrase “hang on”. The Greek word which appears in Matthew is kremannymi, a word which doesn’t come up very often in the new testament. When it does, it appears to have the same connotations as we have in our modern English. For example, in Acts 28:4, it describes a snake hanging off Paul’s hand after it bit him in Malta. What it does not seem to say is that “These two commandments encapsulate the law and the prophets.” So these are the foundation of a Judeo-christian ethic. How we live in this world is a complicated matter, living in different climates, cultures, political and economic systems, but if you peel back any individual or any community behaviour within that, we can ask, does it meet these two criteria?

Yet in this personal catechism, recall that I haven’t really defined God. I’m not convinced that trying to fit God into a neat little pigeonhole so it can be examined really works. So for now the commandment stands as an instruction to love something we don’t quite know or understand. Yet if we love our neighbours as ourselves, is that really so very different? If our neighbours ultimately encapsulate all those who live around us, then I have several million neighbours within a 10 mile radius. Can I possibly understand each of them individually or even as a collective? Of course, the two cases aren’t identical. I hope you get the general gist of the point.

I must admit that I am troubled at times by the phrase “as thyself”. What if someone has lost any and all self-respect, having replaced it with self-loathing? There is an implicit assumption that people will want to live to act in their own self-interests, therefore it is good and proper to act in the interests of others. If the first part is true, then there may be a case for arguing capitalism; it would certainly be indicative of an insight into an element of human nature that spans cultures and time. Or maybe it was an assumption that is commonly true but not universally. If so, what if a person hates themself tries to love others as they love themselves? Does it not then become a command to hate others? I know this is thinking at the extreme edge of some circumstances, but I think christianity should stretch far enough to be able to encapsulate such extremes. To say it another way, if we are to reflect God to the world, then if our love does not extend to its most extreme ends, does that mean that those who inhabit those spaces are beyond God’s love? To this, I would answer ‘no’, though that is a kind of love which is easier said than done. To fully grasp what this kind of love is, is to look up a great mountain. You might climb for several hours, seemingly nearing the top, only to come over a ridge and see before you an even greater peak in an even more inhospitable climate.

But who ever said love was easy?

Alternative answer

It seems hard to present, an alternative answer, especially, as the original is a quote. But if you will forgive me for paraphrasing to something that is not found in scripture:

“Love God with everything that you have and everything that you are. If you have any self-respect, then love others as you would want to be loved. To be self-emptying in love is hard, but if a community is made of those who are so loving, then you will continually fill one another up to overflowing. This is the cornerstone of our communal ethic and a significant part of our identity.”