Friday, September 05, 2008

The Church of England after a Year Back

St. Andrew's Church, Impington, Cambridge, approx. 1900

Yesterday was one of the wet and windy days that seem to have been the trademark of what passes for a summer in Britain, but there was a brief sunny break early in the evening which gave me an opportunity to take the dog for a walk. We went to a favorite place, one of the ancient trackways northward out of our village along which cattle were driven to market for hundreds of years. As we turned the slight corner along the very wet and muddy drove there on the horizon, shining in the evening sun, was Ely Cathedral, nine or ten miles away.

I have often wondered what it would have been like for men and women hundreds of years ago when they saw such a massive building as they trudged toward the ancient city in the heart of the Fens. The cathedral is 175 yards long with two towers, one of which rises more than two hundred feet. There was an Anglo-Saxon abbey there before the Normans came along and started work on the present building. Next year the Diocese of Ely will celebrate its 900th anniversary, making Cambridge University look positively youthful at 800 years old next year!

These are the sort of buildings inhabited by the Church of England, evidence of the long and remarkable Christian heritage that there is in this country, and they give the illusion of Christian rootedness here. While it is an illusion to think of England as a Christian nation, folk religion still survives and it has been shaped by the established church. Whatever anyone says, the Church of England remains the church of the English people, the one from which they stay away -- and woe betide you if you threaten the church build which neither they nor their forebears attend!

Having been born, raised, and ordained here, these historic buildings are as much part and parcel of my identity as is my own name. In a very real sense the Church of England is my spiritual mother. However, coming back to be part of the life of the English church last year after all these years away I realized that I had tumbled into something that I no longer really properly recognized or understood. Some of the most difficult elements of returning to the UK have been focused on readjusting to the good old C. of E., an entity that is simple to parody and always provides an easy target for journalists when there is a slow news day.

The media trumpet the Church's shortcomings endlessly, and seldom is there any good news shared with the general population, many of whom are six or seven generations away from realistic contact with the church. That innate religiosity that pervades much of American life is just not there in this country, and probably hasn't been in the major industrial cities since the Industrial Revolution or earlier. The British people are quite happy to sing "God save the Queen," especially at football (soccer) games, but have little idea who that God they are asking to save her actually is.

The great untold story of the Church of England is that of faithful persistent ministry in season and out of season. There are impressive batallions of laity and clergy who receive very little affirmation for their constant labors, their care for the sick and needy, the conduct of worship, bouts of evangelism, and the maintenance of these expensive historic buildings that crop up in even the tiniest community littering the countryside everywhere. These are good and faithful servants, and they have their parallels in the other Christian traditions and denominations in the UK.

Alongside this very traditional continuity of the church there is also what is called "Fresh Expressions." This, I think, illustrates that the Church of England's life is not trapped in crumbling medieval piles but is seeking to reach beyond the culture of the churched to the culture of the totally unchurched. This movement has a long way to go but seems to be gathering encouraging momentum. New congregations and other expressions of church are coming into being which may not look anything like what the Church of England is meant to be, but are an open door and threshold over which the spiritually hungry might come without feeling alienated. We have Fresh Expressions leaders training at Ridley Hall, and I have to say that while their commitment to Christ and mission is rich they don't look or sound like previous generations of pastors and clergy!

It is, perhaps, too early to tell where all this is leading, but I find it very encouraging even if it is rather alien to the likes of me. But then, coming back from the USA I have found much of what the Church of England has become rather alien. I suppose that as a result of my years in the States I have become a bit of an oddity -- a liturgical evangelical Anglican. Nothing innately abnormal about that in America, but here I'm truly out of step with the mainstream of evangelicalism.

Perhaps I should say mainstreams, because Anglican evangelicalism has fragmented since I left here in 1976. When I was ordained we were a disdained minority who stuck together for comfort and fellowship. Today evangelical Christianity is the tradition with the most significant life and vibrance in the English church. It has produced some of the finest scholars (Wright, McGrath, and younger generations nipping at their heels), many dioceses realize that if it weren't for their evangelical congregations, and especially the larger ones, they would be in an even greater degree of trouble. Perhaps 80% of those training in theological colleges are of the evangelical persuasion (although there are weekend courses that produce clergy whose flavor is more varied), and if our experience in Cambridge is anything to go by we are seeing some of the fruits of Alpha training for leadership and ordained ministry.

Yet there are differing flavors of evangelical and I am not sure that I have yet worked out the lines of demarcation and nuance. At one end of the spectrum are the 'open evangelicals' who have followed the lead of the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Keele University in 1967 that has seen itself as part of the whole church and seeks to be integrated into the church's life. Open evangelicals believe that other traditions bring an enrichment that we should learn from and not ignore. Then at the other end of the spectrum are conservatives who have maintained the historic suspicion that evangelicals have always had for the church and its structures, and have their eyes skinned for what they consider to be compromise.

This whole evangelical hotchpotch has been profoundly influenced by charismatic renewal, while at the same time in certain quarters a significant adherence to classic Reformed theology and historic Protestantism remains. Perhaps one of the most apparent things about evangelical Anglicanism here is what a colleague of mine has called "The Wimber-ization of the Church."

The average American Anglican coming to the UK often exclaims that evangelical parishes, both large and small, feel more like Vineyard churches than what they understand Anglicanism to be from their North American experience. They are right, because John Wimber seemed to have had a profound influence here 15-20 years ago, and the fruit of that is still working through. From an endless torrent of renewal songs that are often weak on content and sentimentally egocentric to the absence of a robust sacramental theology and practice, we find in many places something that only vaguely resembles the tradition from which all this has grown (although often they are merely pale imitations of the model that came across the water to them).

This is disturbing because while I recognize that there is a great need for diversity of worship styles and approaches in a country like this, you can readily reach a point where the baby has been flushed out with the bathwater. The transcendent is often missing, and in its place is something that might be described as believing in "My big bro Jesus." This clearly leads to a poverty-stricken faith very quickly, and I think we are seeing some of the fruit of this. The casual (even sloppy) also reigns supreme now in the UK generally, and particularly in evangelical environments there seem to be few means whereby believers can appropriate the presence of the great high transcendent God.

All that I am saying is probably a vast over-simplication, but I present it to make the point. If you want to worship God in an Anglican church in Britain today it is almost as if your choice is a dry recitation of the liturgy, or little liturgy at all and a great deal of real or manufactured vibrancy where the contemporary reigns supreme.

But then a wholesale abandonment of the old, tried, and true is probably a prevailing characteristic of Britain itself today. Organizations with venerable names are suddenly called something else, the traditional and historic is frowned upon, and often the great heritage from the past (with its warts as well as its plaudits) is something to be embarrassed or ashamed about. Ancient-Future does not go down here as well as Contemporary-Future (and let's forget anything more than 25 years old). I suspect that some of this is over-reaction against the past, and there are signs that there might be a redressing of the balance starting to take place.

Last year when I got here I needed to find a church to which to belong. I decided to begin at a parish church in a neighboring the village where I live, but their website was down the weekend I intended to go there so I couldn't find service times. Instead, I went to another neighboring parish. The congregation was older, but no sooner had I arrived than I was welcomed, invited to coffee after the service, and made to feel at home. The worship was fairly traditional, the preaching not stunning but certainly truthful. At the coffee hour I was invited to a men's breakfast the following Saturday. Within a week I was hooked and never went anywhere else. Welcome is the parish's secret weapon, I think.

We have come to love the people at St. Andrew's, Impington, and are seeing the church gradually grow as a result of the faithful lay leadership it has. Not only that, but every now and again younger folks are appearing... and some of them are staying. St. Andrew's is not doing many of the things that are now considered de rigor here if a congregation is going to grow, but something is going on that is both lovely and intriguing. I say this about our congregation to illustrate that despite what I have said generalizations about the Church of England ought not to be taken too literalistically.