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.

11 comments:

Harvey said...

Helpful thoughts here, you are spot on. The "Wimberization of the Church" is worth some more flashing out. Did you experience this in America as well?

Richard Kew said...

Harvey, what has happened in the Church of England is unlike much of what has happened in the Episcopal Church. I think it has to be said from the outset that the two environments are entirely different from one another, so comparing responses to changing circumstances and patterns is rather difficult.

American Anglicans have at times learned from the Vineyard movement, but this has not been at the expense of the root Anglican tradition -- which is what seems to have happened here. Indeed, my observation of the Vineyard in the USA is that in many places it is a two-way street with them discovering some of OUR riches like elements of our theology and liturgy.

American Anglican evangelicals tend to glory in their ecclesiastical and liturgical heritage, while Anglicans in Britain almost seem to be ashamed of it. Liturgy seems to be seen here as a burden rather than God-given resource to bring us into the presence of the Lord of Hosts.

I cannot tell you how tired I already am of the endless repetition of contemporary songs and hymns that seem designed more to evoke emotion than edify the mind, heart, and soul by focusing my attention on the God who has revealed himself.

When I was a young priest in England before moving to the USA there were plenty of my contemporaries who either said or thought that they were part of the Church of England "because it was the best boat to fish from." It would seem that this mentality has now won the day among evangelicals, and the Wimber-ization of the church is the outcome. One has to ask, perhaps, what the next fad might be...

Jim Baker said...

Hello Richard,

It is nice to hear from you again.

I believe you see liturgy from a different perspective than folks who are unfamiliar with liturgy and church of any kind.

I am reminded of a statement in Toward 2015..."our job is to make Christians not Anglicans". If we are to do it in todays ipod, iphone world....we have to do in a way to connect with unchurched or folks unfamiliar with Anglicanism. That is don't change the message...change how we deliver the message.

We have been in a new plant since 1993 using the technology and music which connects with the folks we are trying to reach. We have gone from an ASA of 400 and growing to an ASA OF about 100 because of 2003 but more so because clergy have tried to bring us back to the fold. Rather than been innovative and evenagelical its back to the status quo.

I believe we can reach those not part of us, guide them on their journey and change lives by knowing and connecting with who our "customers" really are....yet doing it within a liturgical context.

Regards from the colonies,

Jim Baker
Cary, NC

izzy said...

Wimberization: term whose use is to elevate ritual and liturgy in one christian church tradition over another.

Would you say "grace" at a meal prepared and attended by the one who created us?

Harvey said...

Richard, I think I am beginning to understand you, and please, be free to correct me if I am not reading well.

"Wimberization" as you put it seems to have affected the British church more than it did in the USA. And I think this is a wonderful observation.
But having observed the two contexts, I think this is understandable, which makes your stance really helpful.

The mainline churches in UK have experienced something that the American context has not seen yet, a post-Christian west. As a result, they are more willing to adapt to this new and different context of post-Christianity, even to the point of letting themselves to be "wimberized." Even though it downplays the rich heritage that the Anglican church has, it helps encourage some people to stay in church that would not otherwise.

I once visited one Anglican parish in Durham, England. They had two services, one for the traditional Anglican Mass and the other for contemporary worship. Yes, the Wimber stuff. The same bishop presided over both masses, but in the second service, he did not wear the robe, and he actually played the acoustic guitar for the worship team.

Now, I know this is not very Anglican as we have known the Anglican church over the years, but the second service attracts a certain cultural group that can never feel comfortable in the traditional mass.

And if Wimber helps us reach them, why not employ him?

Richard Kew said...

Harvey,

Yes, the cultural contexts are rather different, and the sort of things that the church is struggling to address here will be very much on the agenda of the churches in the USA in years to come.

However, I think behind this are more than externals of how worship is conducted, etc., but a whole understanding of the church, its message and its ministry.

I have learned a lot over the years from the late Robert Webber, who spoke movingly of the church being Ancient-Future. That is, the church is rooted in its history yet looking forward to what is to come culminating, of course, in the fullness of Christ's kingdom with the wrapping up of all creation. I think Bob Webber was absolutely right.

What is missing here in the UK is a sense of the value of what is ancient, and instead there is a sense that what is ancient and received from the past is a bit of an embarrassment that needs to be swept on one side. There are great dangers, of course, when we ignore our history, and I think this is one of the shortcomings here.

While style is obviously part of the issue so also is the philosophy and theology that is behind that style. Reaching out to a culture that in many places is six or seven generations removed from Christian awareness means that we have to approach what we are doing rather differently, but I would suggest that it does not mean we should abandon the whole of our heritage.

izzy said...

Richard,

Is evident by your perspective and your deeds (at least previously here in the states) that the Anglican church tradition as you understand it is a most high priority.

I base that assessment on what I have personally seen of you, read from your writings, and seen firsthand, when you caved to the anglican leadership and reneged on your own commitment to a small congregation in Tennessee that no one forced you to make in the first place.

I pray that our Dad continues to confound us with his love for us and that he draws his own to him however he pleases, anglicanism, wimberization, catholicism, methodism or any other perspective or exclusionary practice, including my own be damned.

For sure Dad will not care a bit about my ability to regurgitate man-made doctrine when I am in his presence.

I count on Dad reminding me to see value in what he sees value in.

harvey said...

Richard, Harvey again. I am greatly impressed by your concerns, and believe me, you got me thinking in some new directions.
I will bring something to your attention that I believe you already know: St Augustine's "Semper formanda, semper reformanda." Yes, always forming, always reforming. In other words, always changing.

I am reminded of Hans Kung's statement that “All too easily the Church can become a prisoner for the image it has made for itself at one particular period in history.” (The Church, p. 4). The sad effect of this is a detachment between the church and the very people she means to be a missionary to.

There is no culture-free gospel. Be it in Masvingo in Zimbabwe, Mansfield in England, or Mankato, MN in the USA, the church is always located in a cultural context that demands its relevance. What if the wimber-ization is simply a way of being culturally relevant? And may be in the words of Kung, it is just moving along with the times, avoiding being stuck with an image that was relevant in the 17th century?

FrDarryl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FrDarryl said...

Greetings Father Richard! Yours is now one of the 'Blogs I Watch'.

We haven't corresponded since you've come back to UK. So welcome home!

I think you'll note my subtle irony in the salutation. I'm sure you were happily called 'Father' by at least a few faithful Evangelical Anglicans in Tennessee!

We're sort of mirror images in a way. I was raised and ordained in TEC, specifically the Diocese of Dallas, and came over here to do further training as a first post assistant curate. I will doubtless have go back to Dallas at some point to practise priesthood - for various reasons not least being by widowed mother. (I am an only child.)

Like you I was shocked upon arriving here by the intense Balkanisation of the Church of England.

You've got the 'Evangelicals' who often reject canonical liturgical theology as unnecessary and irrelevant. I recently 'presided' in another parish at their home-grown Communion service. I could find no discernible Trinitarian shape; it seemed almost Sabellian. To my surprise, Evangelical clergy here are never called 'Father' nor - heaven forbid! - may anyone dare, without looks of withering disapproval, make the Sign of the Cross at the absolution of the blessing at the 'Service of Holy Communion'.

Then you've got the 'Catholics' who eschew canonical moral theology. They happily call their priests 'Father' but, more often than not label as unnecessary and irrelevant issues of morality - apart from 'social justice' of course, which at least in Anglican parlance, e.g., minus the sanctity of human life and the family, is often just baptised political correctness.

I am currently a piggy in the middle, i.e., 'liberal Catholic', who may affirm the former but never the latter in my parish conversing and preaching.

That said, I love authentically Anglican liturgy where it is allowed to continue unabated, and that is done with robustness here at St Michael's Church, Bishop's Stortford (just down the M11 at Junction 8).

I am really pleased you've also connected with a village parish church where Evensong is done properly. I have the privilege of officiating and precentoring at ours quite often, and that in addition to singing the odd bass solo, e.g., Dyson in F for the Nunc Dimittis.

You're welcome to join us on 19th October (6.00pm) or anytime if you like. Our Director of Music is a brilliant young Cambridge grad who still lives in Cambridge with his bride. He oversees a solid choir of trebles and adults.

Please say hello Dean Kevin Martin whilst you're over there next week! I was ordained Deacon at the Cathedral Church of St Matthew and in many ways my heart is still in Dallas. Plus I'm still canonically resident!

Blessings,
Fr Darryl+
(Do you miss being able to sign your name as a priest, i.e., with an appended cross?)

Matt Wardman said...

>One has to ask, perhaps, what the next fad might be...

Engaging in a long-distance superificial reflection, I'd suggest that those who dive back into their own tradition will create the future.

More interestingly, I'd suggest that the significant forms of renewal need to be community-based (i.e., ministry as a community not in the community). Interesting forms are lay orders (e.g., TOM, the Order of Mission - which you must have met in a year) and lessons to learn from the "Christian Community" movement (e.g., The Liberation of the Church by Rev David Clark.).

So the need is to recover traditional forms of organisational renewal as well as liturgical/worship renewal.

As you say, getting stuck with Wimberized Worship is no more use than being locked into any other straitjacket - lots of wind, no Spirit.

Rgds