Becoming an Anglican: Part 2

This is a continuation from my last blog. Sorry it’s not very bloggish — much too long! But I hope it’s helpful.

I went to an ‘establishment’ secondary school. Every morning before lessons we were required to go to the school chapel and endure the most boring service that could have been invented for a schoolboy. What was known as ‘speech day’ — the annual celebration of the school’s achievements — was also a religious occasion: it took place in the Parish Church (where I still remember the organ was a quarter-tone flat). So I equated Anglicanism with death (and being out-of-tune). In contrast, the Baptist church had a thriving youth group and was (and I presume still is) full of life. So I have every sympathy with dissenters and charismatics, especially as the nineteenth century historical context (for the former anyway) against which they were rebelling was arguably a lot worse. In the early nineteenth century, for example, it was generally held that God ordained one’s station in life: it was God’s will that the poor were born poor and should serve the rich. Being a State Church led by the privileged, educated class (one had to subscribe to the Articles of the Church of England in order to graduate from Oxford or Cambridge) it is hardly surprising that dissent flourished. The Anglican Church was seen as a repressive tool of the State (after all, the Book of Common Prayer is very effusive about the monarchy, probably thanks to Henry) and in a typical Sunday service labourers and servants would have to stand in the presence of their elders and betters who could afford to sit comfortably in rented pews.

We now react with horror against such practices which, of course — especially with hindsight — are ‘obviously’ ungodly. Thanks to the efforts of saintly men like F. D. Maurice, as well as a host of others representing a diversity of religious opinions, the Church was renewed. It was a renewal which allowed such diverse opinions — High Church (Anglo-Catholic), Evangelical (focused on personal salvation), and Broad Church (more liberal) — to find a home, and is therefore, in many respects, a typical healthy family. The frequent squabbles in the Church, which the media love to sneer at, seem to me evidence of life, of thought, and of passion. In fact I would insist, with Hans Urs von Balthasar, that, rather than mere uniformity, ‘genuine unity always creates and sustains difference’.1 Add to this the fundamental claim (at least in England) of being a contributor to State affairs, and it seems to me that Anglicanism is well-positioned to be a force for good.

The relationship between Church and State is, of course, contentious, and in the late nineteenth century there was optimism among dissenters in England that their hour had come and that the English Church — like the Irish Church previously — would soon also be disestablished. Space does not permit a full discussion of this topic. Suffice it to say that while it would be a mistake to look for Christendom on earth (this was Constantine’s mistake in the early fourth century, and is one which appears to be being made by contemporary right-wing American voices who see America as God’s chosen ‘Christian’ land) this does not mean that a State Church has no role. On the contrary, it seems to me that God ‘saved’ the Anglican Church in order that she might influence not only England but many other lands. (And by the way, if God cannot use flawed organisations and people, then we’re all doomed.)

So am I saying the Anglican Church is perfect or better than ‘dissent’? No. Without the latter’s influence we would not have the vibrant and diverse landscape of faith that exists today. All I am saying is that, just as our early nineteenth-century forebears had certain blind-spots, so do we. And if one becomes aware of a blind-spot, one must speak out and take action. Coleridge once provocatively remarked that one should not value Christianity more than the truth, and by the former he meant one’s own necessarily limited vision of Christianity. I sympathise with Coleridge’s view. My observation is that many churches set a high value on unity and ‘commitment’, sometimes at the expense of an honest appraisal of what they really believe for fear of rocking the boat. The quest for unity, one might say, often trumps the quest for honesty, calling into question whether that unity is genuine.

There are two particular issues that have led me towards Anglicanism.

For me, the first issue I am wrestling with centres around defining one’s faith negatively — faith being articulated in terms of what it is against. This, after all, was the driving force of the Reformation which gave birth to Protestantism. Protest against medieval church corruption was, of course, laudable, but I am less comfortable with antagonism as a way of life. Nineteenth-century dissenters — most of them children of the Reformation — in their opposition to a State Church, were (at least in some measure) against the State: they equated being ‘salt and light’ with an adversarial role. The dissenting church in particular saw itself as the conscience of society (in which role, it has to be said, it excelled), a society in whose aberrations the State Church was perceived to be complicit. As I said, space here is limited, but one might note, for example, that F. D. Maurice argued that states were also instituted by God, and that the kingdom of God was not confined to those who took communion on a Sunday.

The broader point is that an adversarial stance towards others who are not yet ‘saved’ is a notable feature of many Evangelical churches who see their role as primarily saving the lost. This may be an admirable (and biblical) calling, but it easily spills over — like the soap-box preacher with a megaphone I saw haranguing shoppers in Oxford recently — into judging and abusing ‘the lost’. The ‘good news’ is reduced to ‘you are damned’. In similar vein, for example, the banner headline on Timothy Keller’s website, a Reformed theologian from the States, proclaims: ‘The gospel says that you are more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe’, before being qualified by the words, ‘but more accepted and loved than you ever dared hope’. The starting point, it seems, in many Evangelical/Reformed circles is always sin and death (rather than, say, the imago Dei) and the ‘gospel’ — as my megaphone-equipped friend insisted — is all about escaping from God’s wrath rather than running to a loving God.

I grew up in the firm belief that I was a miserable piece of humanity, that God hated me, and that it was only because Jesus stood between me and God that I was spared from certain death (or, to be more accurate, eternal damnation). This is, of course, a caricature of the truth in that Jesus was God incarnate, and God was taking the loving initiative to save, but the concepts and language used to express this profound mystery (and it is a mystery that cannot be reduced to schemes and theories) portrayed the anger of God the Father being somehow appeased by the death of an innocent.

This adversarial and negative stance rests on a fundamental epistemological claim: ‘we know what the truth is; we are right’ (and, by implication, you are ‘wrong’ and liable to be damned for it). In other words, once faith becomes defined in terms of believing and doing the ‘right’ things (fundamentalism), it inevitably elides into being expressed negatively: we are true Christians, not so much because we believe this (although you have to believe this to be a true Christian) but because we don’t do that or that, and we certainly don’t believe that!2

You may feel this is somewhat theoretical (and perhaps overstated), but I have encountered it many times. In my evangelical zeal as part of a youth ministry team working in France, for example, we as a team of (fairly naive) teenagers were harangued by the senior pastor of a French Reformed church for an hour (as part of our ‘training’). The central point of his message seemed to be that Catholics were destined for eternal torment, and he seemed less exercised about their fiery end than the fact that his church was the only true church on the planet.

I do not want to tar all of ‘dissent’ with the same brush, but my experience is that this fundamentalism, with its concomitant adversarialism, influences the way that many think, and I must reject it. It may be beneath the surface, but it is still a shaping force of ‘dissenting’ — especially Reformed — identity. The key issue is that when a small (or large, for that matter) fellowship fundamentally believes it is somehow ‘right’, sets itself over and against other churches and the society in which it lives, feels that it has a calling to ‘reach Birmingham for Jesus’ or whatever, and yet has a blinkered and parochial view of Christianity which has lost all connection with wider theological thinking or historical tradition, then people—both within and without that fellowship—will be damaged.

Just to be clear: I have no problem with the diversity of Christian churches worldwide. In a faith claiming to represent ‘every tribe and tongue and people and nation’ (Rev. 5:9, 7:9, 11:9, 13:7) one would expect a diversity of expression, and, indeed, a diversity of theological emphases and strong opinions. What troubles me are those who believe (even if only tacitly) that their version of Christianity is the only true one, and the pride and partisanship that results. I write this ‘musician’s journey’ for those of you wrestling with similar questions. I hope that my honest words might give you pause for thought and help you to grow in faith—and realise that perhaps you are not alone in thinking similar thoughts.

But before I close, perhaps a slightly more technical discussion may help. I will do my best! The point I am making here is that fundamentalism is the root cause of an unhealthy adversarial attitude towards others; that it necessarily leads to the judgemental condemnation of those who express life-issues and faith differently, and that, even though softened by compassion and grace, it lurks destructively under the theological ‘surface’ of many churches.

We live in a postmodern world, which is a world that — broadly speaking — has rejected the modern ‘Enlightenment’ project that put human logic at the centre of epistemology.3 In other words, it rejects the idea that one can dig down and find incontrovertible bedrock truth upon which to build the edifice of epistemology (the science of truth). We live in a world (to borrow a phrase from Grenz and Franke, Beyond Foundationalism) of ‘chastened rationality’. In their words:

Above all, however, postmodern, chastened rationality entails the rejection of epistemological foundationalism. In the modern era, the pursuit of knowledge was deeply influenced by the thought forms of the Enlightenment, with [philosophical] foundationalism lying at its heart. The goal of the foundationalist agenda is the discovery of an approach to knowledge that will provide rational human beings with absolute, incontestable certainty regarding the truthfulness of their beliefs (p. 23).

You will have noticed that I have used the word ‘fundamentalism’ a lot, and I guess this is at the root of my concerns—the idea that ‘absolute, incontestable [propositional] certainty’ can be achieved. Today, in such diverse fields as physics, philosophy, theology, psychology, and linguistics, few would subscribe to such a position. From a linguistic perspective, for example, propositional truth (verbal truth claims) are necessarily contingent on a number of factors such as the context in which words are spoken, the linguistic prowess and heritage of both speaker and listener, their knowledge and use of specific vocabulary, and so on. Furthermore, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis notes that language not only expresses experience, but shapes it; that certain thoughts expressed in one language simply cannot be understood by a different native-speaker. In similar vein, theologian George Lindbeck argues that religious language and practice gives rise to religious experience, not the other way round. Again, you may say this is all very theoretical, but I have experienced both. Linguistically, for example, when I lived in France I began to pray in French, and — like my French friends — used the familiar tu to address God. In one sentence, one prayer, my experience and understanding of God changed—there was a new, previously unknown, intimacy to my prayers. I addressed my friends as tu; the idea of being able to address God as tu was a real eye-opener. Regarding Lindbeck’s proposal, I observed that when you pack excited and credulous believers into an auditorium and say ‘come Holy Spirit’, the expectation of divine visitation is powerful. Someone may cry out, and before long the room will be a cacophony of wailing. But please understand me here: I am not therefore implying that the Holy Spirit was not ‘there’ (however one might understand such a claim), or that such events do not have value; simply that the overall experience is heavily shaped by expectation and the religious ‘packaging’.

To conclude, I believe it is hopelessly naive to believe that the substance of faith inheres in believing the ‘right’ things. This does not mean that our attempts to linguistically express truth are in vain, but that we should speak with humility on the understanding that ‘our knowledge is partial and incomplete’ (1 Cor. 13:9). For truth, in Christianity, is a person, not a statement.

The irony is that I am laying myself open to the criticism that I am doing the very thing that I accuse ‘dissenters’ of — saying that ‘you are wrong’. Curiously, Timothy Keller helped me here. As you know, I am studying the life and work of George MacDonald, and perhaps the turning point in my thinking came when I watched a youtube video of Keller and John Piper discussing George MacDonald. They concluded that MacDonald was ‘not a Christian’. In other words, that he was not simply ‘wrong’ in some of his theological claims (which I can entirely agree with), but that he was ‘wrong’ in the sense of being utterly and completely mistaken about the whole project of life and faith (and therefore, according to their theology, damned).

I found this extraordinary. That a saintly man like MacDonald, doing his best to follow Christ in a rapidly changing world, could be so summarily dismissed as heterodox. But this is what happens when truth is defined in terms of believing the ‘right’ things according to one’s very specific view of orthodoxy. I have no doubt that I am wrong about a good many things, but I know that God loves me and that I am not ‘wrong’. Neither am I suggesting that ‘dissenters’, Pentecostals, or charismatics are ‘wrong’ in this latter sense: all of us (in most cases) are honestly doing our best to follow Christ. I am simply saying that I can no longer subscribe to an essentially negative and restrictive articulation of faith, and that for my own sanity I have to walk away from it. For me, this negative expression leads to an over-judgemental attitude both towards those who as yet do not call themselves believers, and the society in which they live (something I have done in the past for which I repent). It is a scheme which draws too many lines on the religious map. This, in my view, is misguided, but I will not judge those who hold such opinions as ‘wrong’ in the broader sense. The Timothy Kellers of this world have probably achieved more for good in their lives that I ever will, and I thank God for him and those like him.

I am under no illusions that the Anglican Church is perfect, but the welcome I have received, the historical roots that I am now consciously connected to, and a more open theological climate, will, I hope, help me to keep growing towards ‘the measure and stature of Christ’—the ‘author and perfecter of my faith’.4

Notes and references

  1. Theo-Drama, vol. 4, p. 409.
  2. For completeness, I must qualify this. Christianity must speak negatively. It declares a resounding No to ‘the flesh, the world, and the devil’ inasmuch as these have aligned themselves in opposition to Christ. However, the No does not define faith, for faith is a positive: faith is essentially a Yes to Christ as king. In technical terms, my complaint concerns a tendency to say an emphatic No to particulars that for other devout believers legitimately elicit an emphatic Yes, and to base one’s ‘faith’ (it cannot be true faith) on negatives.
  3. This also must be qualified. The methodology of the Enlightenment was a renewed emphasis on rationality — in itself no bad thing and an effective antidote to nonsense. But underlying this move was the hubris that human logic alone could discern truth. ‘Postmodernity’ may be a swing towards a more balanced view of human cognition in that it recognises the value of intuition and other ‘irrational’ cognitive processes, but it emphatically does not reject the idea of human self-sufficiency. Perhaps the latter is even exacerbated by a misguided vision of the autonomous individual at the expense of a more social understanding of the human self.
  4. Ephesians 4:13; Hebrews 12:2.