Tag Archives: methodism

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.

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Book Review: Holiness and Mission by Morna Hooker and Frances Young

After finishing Paul and the Faithfulness of God, I wondered how I might follow that up in terms of my ‘religious’ reading. I had thought that I would go with something completely different and had in mind Julian of Norwich’s ‘Revelations of Divine Love‘. However, that work shall remain on my shelf for a little longer. For having bought Holiness and Mission in a sale last year, its title seemed to jump out of the concluding chapter of Wright’s work. I got the impression that instead of going for something different, I ought to take the next step in that same mode of thought.

Subtitled ‘Learning from the early church about mission in the city’ another part of my motivation for reading was to learn something about how to apply New Testament theology to my own location, having changed to city life last year.

As my header implies, this is a co-written book between two authors. How this manifests itself is that the preface and introduction are credited to both, followed by two chapters by Hooker and then two chapters by Young. The fifth chapter than alternates between the two. There is then an appendix which is taken from a Q&A session at the symposium which the two attended, from which this book sprang. That meeting was a celebration of 250 years of Methodism in the West End of London.

So let’s first look at the two chapters by Morna Hooker. She begins her study by a look at the issue of what holiness is and our call to it. This is little more than a sketch but would make a very welcome basis for a sermon. It touches on the nature of God and a summary of the gospel. That said, I wouldn’t wholly agree with the picture of the gospel that Hooker presents. While the shape is sound, I might quibble over some of the hues and shading.

So far, though, this is exegetical work. One could describe it as ‘theoretical theology’ which may enrich the intellect, informing us but not enabling us. To take it into the more practical realm Hooker then turns to the nature of cities. One might well question how closely one can take the life of cities in the first century and translate them to cities in the 21st. So while this is enlightening, there are few practical ideas that seem workable.

Picking up where Hooker left off, Frances Young takes us along a little later in church history. The emphasis here is on the Roman Empire; first how the early church operated within the empire and then looking at the legacy of Constantine. For those unfamiliar with this period of church history, then this serves as a good primer.

The real interest is in Young’s second chapter, though, entitled ‘The Challenge of Establishment’. Here, her history moves onto the figure of Constantine. Young asks many questions and prods at the answers, but remains somewhat coy about giving firm answers. Such questions include: “Was Constantine even a christian?” As one might guess from that, this is a provocative chapter. Yet it is open-ended enough that one may read it different ways depending on your background. Young notes that with Constantine, christianity took a quite different direction than it had previous to it being any kind of state religion. It was during this period that such things as iconography, liturgy and a growing interest in relics developed (not least the ‘true cross’ which was said to have been discovered by Constantine’s mother). From my nonconformist perspective, I view all of these as unhelpful elements of paganism that were unhelpful. If you doubt the damage done by an unhealthy obsession in relics, then I would recommend to you Geoffrey Hindley’s book on the Crusades. However you approach, or leave, this chapter, I would hope that you find it as stimulating as I did.

So far, the book has had very little directly to say about modern mission in 21st century cities. That said, I couldn’t help but think through some implications as I was reading and I would think that most readers would already have joined a few dots before Hooker and Young make their own connections towards the book’s conclusion.

There is much that could be analysed in great detail here, though I did think it could have been expanded and firmed up. As it stands, this seems to be the outline of a good framework of ideas, but with little flesh and muscle on it to make it move. What I noted from it in particular was the section on models of evangelism, noting that strategies that have worked in the past (with particular reference to the Methodist revival) may well not be the most suited to today’s cities. This, I think, is particularly worth heeding.

One other point caught my attention. Young made an almost throwaway line regarding her son, Arthur, about whom she has written more recently in ‘Arthur’s Call‘. She states that “he was baptized as an infant, therefore [he] belongs to Christ” (emphasis added). What surprised me was that such a functionalist view of baptism would be expressed by a Methodist, who I have always understood took a more symbolic approach. Hence it is the use of the word ‘therefore’ which I, as one who subscribes to the symbolic view, would disagree with. Though I am interested in following up on this with Young’s more recent book at some point in the future.

This section concludes with both Hooker and Young looking briefly at the topic of pluralism. They both express a welcoming attitude to pluralistic views, though Young seems a little more overly-liberal than Hooker. I couldn’t escape the idea, though, that both somewhat ignored Jesus’ maxim: “No comes to the Father except through me.”

The comments from ‘Voices in the city’ that occur at the end are intended to showcase snapshots of the views of others who live and work in cities, most notably London. Whether this then has appeal to those in other UK cities or even those further afield may be questionable. I would hope that others do pick up helpful thoughts, though I couldn’t guarantee that. In fact, the last chapter seems to detract somewhat from the rest of the book, as it is little more than a collection of paragraphs, with no overall narrative or direction.

With those few detractions noted, this little book provides the reader with some seeds for thought and a little food to help that soil grow. It is not a guide as to how mission should be done, though it does explain well the link between holiness and mission. It is not the final word in these subjects, but it is up to us to pick it up, read it, learn from it and then to work out the next steps.

Book Review: Hannah’s Child by Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is a name probably more familiar to you than to me. It’s a name I’ve seen written about an increasing amount over the last few years. Yet I have still never heard his name mentioned out loud, so I remain unsure how to pronounce his surname. I had not read anything of his previously, though after reading this, I will be endeavouring to read a little more. You may well have read some of his other work, so may approach this from a different angle.

This is not a theological tome by any means, the subtitle was what caught me: A theologian’s memoir. It seemed fascinating to me to get under the skin of someone who has spent their life studying theology to see what makes them tick, what influences they have had and to see how that has shaped their work. He opens by asking what it means for him to be Stanley Hauerwas.

To answer this question, he goes right back to his childhood in Texas, learning the bricklaying trade under his father’s supervision. What may surprise some readers, it certainly surprised me, was that at times Hauerwas opts to maintain authenticity by using the rather coarse language of the building trade. As matter of fact as it might have been, one cannot help but think that Hauerwas encourages the reader to see a little metaphor for his later career as a theologian. In learning the trade, Hauerwas had to work in a time and place when racism was rife. Yet he was working alongside those who were marginalised as an equal, which may well have helped inform his later views. Though the coarse language aside, some of the other turns of phrase made me feel a little uneasy given their racial overtones.

What he doesn’t set out to do is to give an itinerary of his life, though the places he visits do form an unobtrusive background. One of the major themes of the book is how Hauerwas dealt with the erratic behaviour of his first wife, all the while developing as an academic. Punctuated by reflective musings, Hannah’s Child is a marvellous account of the behind-the-scenes workings of an influential writer and speaker. His love for his son radiates through the book, as does some of the anguish of dealing with psychotic episodes. For much of the book, one may feel overwhelmed looking at the names of writers and other academics that Hauerwas came across and worked with, each having an influence on him in one way or another. One could quite happily put together a reading list to last a few years based on those mentioned.

I cannot recommend this enough to you, whether you are familiar with Hauerwas or, like me, a novice.  There is much to prompt one into thinking, not least about the question of what it means to be a christian. But it would not only be to christians that I would recommend this. To those who view religion with a critical eye, this may serve as a helpful insight to see how a theologian works and what it means to the individual.