Sunday, May 15, 2005

Trinity Sunday, 1970 to Trinity Sunday, 2040

Trinity Sunday this year is the 3rd Sunday in May -- as was the case in 1970. I guess I keep track of this bit of trivia because it was on Trinity Sunday 35 years ago that I knelt before Robert Stopford, Bishop of London, in St. Paul's Cathedral, and was ordained to the priesthood. Stopford was one of the last of the English prince-bishops, a man who had had "a good career in the church," as they quaintly put it in those days. Some of my class of twenty-three who were ordained on that day hoped that they would follow in Stopford's footsteps, others of us intuitively knew that for most people good careers in the church were a thing of the past.

All of us were serving in "Swinging London." Mary Quant had wowed the world with the miniskirt, protests against the war in Vietnam occasionally rocked the streets, the arrival of the pill had changed sexual mores, and in the previous few years the drug culture had left the Bohemian world of art schools and had surged into the mainstream on the coattails of the Beatles. Some things don't change, however, because the Rolling Stones were touring then -- and they are touring still!

Bishop Stopford had had a good career in a church which still acted as chaplain to the wider society, and we had been trained for ministry much in the same way that he was. Yet something we discovered when we had appeared as deacons in our newly-minted collars a year earlier, was that the ministry for which we were preparing when we entered seminary in 1965, no longer existed. The whole culture had totally turned over in those few years that we were digging at the books at the University of London and at seminary.

Much of the confusion in church life in those times was to know what we were supposed to be doing. Our ordination class was rebellious and stroppy, but with good reason: the sort of post-ordination training we were getting had absolutely nothing to do with the issues we were dealing with in the parishes where we served as curates. I remember a day wasted when a sweet old priest came to lecture us on something like the appropriate way to call on the sick in hospital, at the very time I had spent a week chasing a young man around London who was tripping badly on LSD. We had little clue how to deal with this kind of epidemic.

Our ordination class divided into roughly four different groups. There were the socialists with a radical theology who saw their ministry in terms of changing the status quo and bringing justice to housing developments, slums, and downtrodden neighborhoods. There were those who I would describe as the sports jacket and pipe types, whose Jesus was that rather bland figure who emerged from the collision between latitudinarian Anglicanism and watered-down 19th Century liberal theology. You could expect to meet these guys at the pub, and they were bound to apologize first before saying anything about the faith. Then there were the Anglo-Catholics who were so eager to now be called "Fah-ther," and these subdivided into the straights and the lace-clad gays.

Finally there was the two of us who were evangelicals. We were looked upon as rather odd because we married an old-fashioned kind of Anglican Protestantism with a passion for leading people to faith in Jesus Christ, and a commitment to Holy Scripture as God's Word Written. We were in the eyes of our peers more like mainline versions of the Jesus Movement, which happened to be emerging at that time, rather than priests of the established Church of England. Yet, and this is what puzzled our contemporaries, we of all our group happened to be the only ones ministering in parishes that were growing -- and growing younger. How could such a passe approach to believing have any legs?

Yet the Church of England was a big tent, and we were tolerated if not properly understood. Our way of believing, our colleagues were firmly convinced, would disappear as enlightenment advanced. I suspect, however, that the ordination class in the Diocese of London this year is made up predominantly of evangelicals of various flavors, and a few ardent Anglo-Catholics. Of course, what would make today's ordination class different is that it will contain women -- we were all male in those days, and one of the great debates was whether we would see women priests during our active ministry.

I paint this picture not only to reminisce, but also to illustrate how much things have changed as the older ones among my contemporaries are starting to retire -- and some have passed beyond the grave. During these 35 years in the west, Anglican Christianity has been struggling with all other flavors of believing, to work out how from within our rich tradition we can speak the faith meaningfully into a very starkly different kind of world.

Some have emphasized holding onto the traditions so that there is a bastion of security in the midst of sometimes terrifying insecurity. Others have gone with the flow, much as the Episcopal Church has, so that any distinctives are now ceasing to be seen. Others still have been asking and trying to work out how we can speak the biblical truth from the context of a church that is so shaped by our Christendom past that it may appear to all outside it as hopelessly irrelevant.

I am increasingly of the mind that we have yet to reach a tipping point of change. All that I have experienced through my ordained life has merely been preparatory for the crucial decades that now lie ahead of us, decades in which much of our pitiful ecclesiastical in-fighting is going to appear not only ridiculous but counter-productive. That is not to say that truth in unimportant, but we will need to find different ways to defend it.

In 35 years time the shape of my ministry will probably be seen as dinosaur-like as my take on Bishop Stopford who ordained me priest. Everything is heading into the hopper, including the structures that until a year or two ago seemed all too permanent.

I am seriously beginning to wonder, in an effort to be more united in the context of an increasingly hostile environment, whether we will not see some kind of rapprochment between faithful, historic Anglicanism and the See of Rome. I suspect that there will have been all sorts of other reallignments by then in the wake of amicable and nasty splits in every denominational tradition. I suspect also that a lot more of the initiative for the leadership of the church will come from the laity than is the case now, and I also think that the role of priest-pastor-minister will have changed quite radically.

These churches will be working in a very different world, with China as the most likely candidate for dominant superpower, and the Chinese church of some quarter to half a billion, ardently taking the gospel into all the world. It will be a world where global warming will be a real issue that folks will be confronting every day, and who can tell whether diseases like Ebola might have broken out of Africa and spread around the planet. It will be a world in the west that is predominantly older rather than younger, and in Asia where the radical imbalance between males and females as a result of today's selective abortion, will be a major destabilizing circumstance. It will be a world that is far less stable than today.

I suspect also that by that time the social experimentation that is going on now in the west will have shown itself to be immensely damaging to both the morale and the stability of society. In Europe, at least, a new moral fervor will be developing at the behest of the rapidly increasing Islamic population (When I was first ordained I used regularly to pass one of the very few mosques functioning in London, now there are hundreds).

As I say, what I have experienced in my 35 years as a priest has merely been the preface to what is coming. Hold onto your seats it is going to be rough (but at times exciting) ride. But as we look at all that this change will mean, Trinity Sunday reminds us that our God is unchanging: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit living in relationship, and drawing us into their community and fellowship with their One-ness.

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