Sunday, 3 November 2013

Finding a home in a liturgical Church

Something strange is happening among evangelicals. They are beginning to sense that not only have liturgical churches got something to offer, but that what they do offer is an ancient deep wisdom whose roots reach all the way down into the New Testament. I write this as one who has not really appreciated this over the 40 years I have been an Anglican but who, as I wrestle with the current situation in the Church in Wales decline is now beginning to appreciate its real, true riches.

Partly my thinking has been affected by asking questions about the Church. What did it look like in the early centuries, especially in the immediate aftermath of Jesus Ascension into heaven?  Who decided which books were included in the Bible and which books left out? Why were some books considered in the first place and on what basis were they left out, and what, if anything, have they to offer us now? Also what did the undivided Church look like up until it first split in 1054 and then again in the 15th century?

But my thinking about the subject has also been piqued by the articles that are being written on the internet and in various Christian magazines like Christianity Today, about evangelicals who are starting to drift and gravitate towards the more liturgically ordered denominations like the Anglicans, or in some cases the Roman Catholics (I have been reading two books by former evangelicals who have become Catholics) or Eastern Orthodox.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article on Christianity Today which illustrate the examples I am thinking about.

In a 2007 a conference was held in Wheaton, that bastion of American Evangelicalism on the them of "The Ancient Faith for the Church's Future." Here, the words spoken 15 years ago by Drew University theologian and CT senior editor Thomas Oden rang true: "The sons and daughters of modernity are rediscovering the neglected beauty of classical Christian teaching. It is a moment of joy, of beholding anew what had been nearly forgotten, of hugging a lost child."

The conference's Call for Papers likewise rejoiced:
"One of the most promising developments among evangelical Protestants is the recent 'discovery' of the rich biblical, spiritual, and theological treasures to be found within the early church." In particular, it said, evangelicals are beginning to "reach back behind the European Enlightenment for patterns and models of how to faithfully read Scripture, worship, and engage a religiously diverse culture."

Baylor University's D. H. Williams, author of Evangelicals and Tradition, testified at the conference to the recent upsurge of evangelical interest in patristics (the study of the church fathers in the first seven centuries of the church):
"Who would have thought, a decade ago, that one of the most vibrant and serious fields of Christian study at the beginning of the 21st century would be the ancient church fathers? There has been an opening of new avenues, especially among free-church Protestants, by the almost overnight popularity of bishops and monks, martyrs and apologists, philosophers and historians who first fashioned a Christian culture 1,500 years ago."

In 1978, Robert Webber begun his groundbreaking 'Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity' by throwing down the gauntlet:

"My argument is that the era of the early church (A.D. 100–500), and particularly the second century, contains insights which evangelicals need to recover."

Twenty-five years later, he could rejoice in the pages of his Younger Evangelicals that they "want to immerse themselves in the past and form a culture that is connected to the past, a culture that remembers its tradition as it moves into the future." Webber observed—with what we now know was not mere wishful thinking—that evangelicals had entered the new millennium by surging into the past.

In 1977, upon the urging of Robert Webber, Donald Bloesch, and Thomas Howard, 45 evangelical academics and leaders gathered to pen "The Chicago Call: An Appeal to Evangelicals," whose prologue declared evangelicals' "pressing need to reflect upon the substance of the biblical and historic faith and to recover the fullness of this heritage." This historic document began by issuing a "Call to Historic Roots and Continuity":

"We confess that we have often lost the fullness of our Christian heritage, too readily assuming that the Scripture and the Spirit make us independent of the past. In so doing, we have become theologically shallow, spiritually weak, blind to the work of God in others and married to our cultures. … We dare not move beyond the biblical limits of the gospel; but we cannot be fully evangelical without recognizing our need to learn from other times and movements concerning the whole meaning of that gospel."

One person speaking about his own experience of coming to faith in an evangelical/charismatic setting and yet feeling that "something was missing" writes:

I gave my life to Christ in a Canadian charismatic church. It was a modern-church setting with a giant, auditorium-like sanctuary that someone had decorated to look like a suburban living room, complete with sea foam green carpeting and rubber plants. On Sunday mornings, I would walk in and feel the palpable presence of the all-powerful and all-loving Lord. On Saturday nights, at cell-group prayer meetings, I was mentored by wise "fathers and mothers in the Lord." On Monday nights, I participated in the music ministry of a dynamic youth group.

Yet through the years, though this wonderful church formed me in the joy of the Lord that was my strength, I felt like we were missing something. As a stalwart outpost of the kingdom in a threatening world, our faith seemed somehow precarious. We stood, as we faced that world, on a foundation made of the words of our favorite Bible passages—our "canon within the Canon"—and the sermons of our pastors and a roster of approved visiting evangelists. There was utterly no sense of the mystical massiveness of a church that had stood firmly for 2,000 years. No sense that our foundation actually stretched down and back through time. I didn't have a clue who John Wesley, Martin Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Ignatius of Antioch were. I just knew that I felt like I was part of a church that was in some ways powerful, but in other ways shallow and insecure in a threatening world that did not share our faith.

I now see that my early sense of the church's insecurity stemmed from what J. I. Packer has called evangelicalism's "stunted ecclesiology," rooted in our alienation from our past. Without a healthy engagement with our past, including historical definitions of "church," we are being true neither to Scripture nor to our theological identity as the church. Though Packer doesn't put it this way, it is easy to see ways in which their stunted ecclesiology has led evangelicals to allow the world to shape the church."

Journalist Colleen Carroll Campbell discovered through her research among young Christians that the informal, spontaneous style of many free-church Protestant groups does not give these young adults enough of an anchor. In Massachusetts, Campbell spoke with Sharon Carlson, a young woman raised in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a free-church tradition that eschews liturgy, tradition, and hierarchy. Carlson described the Communion experience as "tearing up bread and passing around cups of grape juice after men in the assembly spontaneously stood and repeated the words that they felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to say," and she felt that was no longer enough. As Campbell reports, " 'I want to be more connected to history, the history of the Christian church,' said Carlson, who relishes the knowledge that she is worshiping the way Christians have for centuries. 'There have been generations of people before me saying the same prayers.' "

Carlson found it difficult to attend emotional, upbeat, and impromptu services on those days when she did not feel the fervour to worship. When she encountered liturgical worship as a student at Gordon College in Wenham and during a year in Oxford, England, she noticed herself gravitating toward the Anglican churches, where she could reaffirm her beliefs with a creed, regardless of her feelings. She also liked following a church calendar that connected the seasons of the year with the seasons of Christ's life. Now Carlson uses the Book of Common Prayer regularly and worships at Christ Church, a theologically conservative and highly liturgical Episcopalian church.

In this shift, Carlson is not alone, writes Campbell. Her new church has attracted "throngs of students and faculty" from evangelical Gordon College. Many of these became full-blown "converts" to the liturgical style of Episcopalians. This, despite the misgivings many share about the theological directions of that denomination. Surely something is afoot among the younger evangelicals.

You can read the entire article here but the points raised are interesting ones and touch on the kind of thinking that is occupying me at the moment. As an Evangelical I want to remain true to the bible and the core doctrines of the faith, but I am more than aware that that concern was the Church's well before the 15th century and Luther and Calvin and continues to be the concern of much of the Church I have been wary of because of the way that they "dress it up" in liturgy. The truth however is that the liturgy, far from dressing things up actually helps preserve, communicate and protect the faith handed down (2 Timothy 1:1-14). True it can be repetitive and perhaps less "exciting" than some of the worship you find in the Pentecostal and other free churches, but what it lacks in excitement it makes up for in depth, consistency and importantly orthodoxy.

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