Thursday, November 30, 2006

Personal Journey 7: Training for the Church of England

I hope that you are still with me and that you do not feel that the journey is going too slowly! Today the journey goes from London to Liverpool and then to Oxford. Meanwhile here in Hong Kong the weather is at last getting a bit cooler. Hopefully it will stay that way for the weekend!

Personal Journey 7: Training for the Church of England

Selling televisions was an education in and of itself! Let’s just say that most of those I was working with were not from an academic background. One or two resented having a college graduate working with them. The company I was employed by did not normally employ graduates for this type of work and, in any case, there weren’t so many around 30 years ago. However, most of those I worked with were very kind and willing to help someone who was, to put it mildly, a bit green. Those my company specialised in selling to were really not very well off and part of my job was debt collection. All in all, it was an unexpecetd and useful addition to my ministerial training.

Both before and during London Bible College, I had believed in the importance of evangelism; of witnessing to those who do not know Christ. At London Bible College, we had all been given ministry placements. I was given a placement that spent one evening a week visiting the halls of residents of students at nearby Brunel University. We went in order to talk to the students about Christ. Surprising as it may seem, most were very willing to talk and argue and some even to listen. During the summers, we were sent on evangelistic missions. For my first, a team of us were sent to conduct a mission at a church on a housing estate in Nottingham. Derek Tidball was responsible for organizing these and asked me to be the team leader. This was a challenge and an honour, not least because I was the youngest member of the team by a long way. Again, these placements gave us opportunities to talk to people about Christ.

But while I had experience of talking to people about Christ, when I left LBC I was not used simply to talking to people who were not Christians. I quickly realised that if I was going to be effective in ministering to people, I had to learn how to talk to anyone about anything. My time selling televisions helped and roughened me up a little!

Max Turner, who lectured in New Testament at LBC, had also taken a part-time post as pastor of a local Baptist Church. He regularly invited me to preach. This was a very good experience for me and gave me the opportunity to exercise a ministry of sorts. I had felt called to the ministry now for all my adolescence, and it always seemed a long way off! The chance to preach from time to time was a great encouragement.

Changes in my personal circumstances and in the company led me to decide to move back to the Wirral. I got a job as a charity fundraiser in Liverpool, and went back home to live with my parents. I was now in a position to pursue ordination having done the requisite time in the world! I was also back permanently at St Andrew’s and had the support and encouragement of my Rector, Bill Persson. The process of getting recommended for training was a process that took over a year, so I worked while I waited, and got more involved in the life of the Church, even joining the choir. I was no longer a ‘youth’ and so the days of the Youth Fellowship had come to an end! Some of us from the Youth Fellowship, who were still around continued to meet together as part of an older fellowship, but it was very different.

I started to think about where I should go for ordination training. Having already obtained a degree in theology, I did not want simply to repeat what I had already done. I began to explore if there was anyway I could do postgraduate study as part of my C of E training. To cut a log story short: it seemed I could if I paid for it myself. Again, I didn’t quite see how I was going to pull this off. The solution I came up with I was, and am still, quite pleased with.

Nottingham University had a part-time route to a Master of Theology degree. This is quite common now, but not many places did at the time. I managed to get accepted by Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, which had a hands-off approach to theological training. I was thus able to combine training for the C of E with a part-time postgraduate degree at Nottingham. It was not exactly what I wanted, but it at least enabled me to do some research in the area of New Testament.

The unbelievable good fortune was that my supervisor was James Dunn. He had written a lot at the time about the Holy Spirit. I wanted to work through some of the charismatic issues, which I felt I still had not resolved, and this was a golden opportunity to do so. I went to the C of E selection conference and was recommended.

Accordingly, in 1979, I went to Wycliffe. In the first year, I did what needed to be done to satisfy the academic requirements for ordination. I was able to do it in a year because I had the maximum number of exemptions, thanks to what I had already done at LBC. In the second, I combined what was required in practical training with studying for my MTh. I was fortunate being in Oxford in that I was surrounded by the academic resources I needed. It was bit weird going up to Nottingham for supervision, but not only was it an option I could just afford, I also had exactly the right person as my supervisor.

I should have been very happy, but I wasn't. It wasn't that I was unhappy, after all Oxford is a wonderful place to live. I used to love strolling around the parks and visiting Blackwell’s Bookshop. I had some good friends and a nice room in the College. However, I found the place rather pretentious and the Church of England’s way of doing things not to my taste. Ironically, given that we were in Oxford, I felt the theological study lacked academic rigour and that the practical training lacked the cutting edge of LBC. But given my background, I needed to gain a broader Church perspective and, even though Wycliffe was itself moderately evangelical, it gave me that.

It was now 1981. It had already been quite a journey from the classroom in Liverpool. I was an evangelical Anglican, who felt called to preach and teach and who had a commitment to theological study.

The next challenge was to find a parish for my curacy.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Personal Journey 6: Committing to the Church of England

If what I wrote about in my last post in this series seemed very theoretical, let me assure you that for me it most certainly was not. It resulted in a major change of direction. One small change was that I felt able to enjoy things that previously I would have regarded as worldly and wrong. More significantly, I found myself moving away from the House Church movement. I came to regard the traditional churches in a more positive light, or should I say that I came to see that no church is perfect and that God can work anywhere. I still very much regarded myself as an evangelical, but was far more comfortable in an evangelical Anglican Church than I had been.

This paved the way for me to think more seriously about ordination in the Church of England. As I have said, infant baptism was a big stumbling block because whatever else priests in the Church of England may have to do, they have to baptize babies. Indeed, quite a few clergy left the C of E because they could not, in all conscience, continue to baptize babies.

This is even more of an issue than it might seem because very often in Anglican Churches people come to have their babies baptized having no prior involvement in the Church and without any evidence of a Christian commitment. The rules do not allow you to refuse to baptize. Some clergy have tried to delay it, or create hoops for people to jump through. This, however, has only served to annoy and hurt those who come for baptism. The problem is that the Church for centuries has said that everyone has a right to have their child baptized by virtue of the fact they live in the parish. Refusing baptism or putting obstacles in the way can sound as if the Church is rejecting people and, more seriously, rejecting the baby. This affects people at a very fundamental level and theological arguments just don’t work!

Anyway, this was to be an issue for the future, the issue now was infant baptism, in principle. Again it was the study of the subject with Tony Lane that led me to conclude that infant baptism could be justified. Tony himself would take a different point of view, but I was persuaded by the arguments and, not least, by the fact that the vast majority of Christians believed in it. Majorities are not always right, but you have to be careful to guard against arrogance here, that is, not to be too quick to think that you are right and everyone else is wrong! I felt that at the very least that it was a valid option for Christians and that as a clergyman I would be representing the Church and not simply my own opinion.

Having overcome this major stumbling-block, I was confirmed as an Anglican on March 20, 1977 at St Andrew’s. I left LBC having decided that my commitment was now not only to individual Anglican churches, like St Andrew’s, but also to the broader Anglican Church. This did not mean I was happy with everything that I saw in the Church of England, far from it. Nevertheless, I felt that it was within this church that I ought to seek ordination and exercise my ministry. That was going to have to wait, though, because in those days the C of E was encouraging people not to go straight from college or university into the ministry, but to get secular work experience first. So after I completed my degree at LBC, I decided to stay on in London working and living near LBC.

It was at this time that I made a commitment to theological study and began thinking seriously about how I could pursue postgraduate study. My theological study so far had been so important to me, and I was absolutely convinced of its importance, not only for myself, but also for the wider Church. I was just not ready to stop studying. I had done reasonably well in my degree and there certainly was no academic reason why I shouldn’t continue. There was, of course, a financial one. I just couldn’t afford a full-time postgraduate course. Looking back, I dearly wish that I had been able to continue full-time theological study, then or after a short break. With what I know now, I think that maybe ways could have been found.

Instead, I went to work for a company selling televisions.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Advent:

Well. the weekend did not go exactly as hoped, but it turned out OK in the end. The weather was not suitable for us to have our church celebration in the Vicarage garden so we went to the church school next door which has a covered playground. Everyone seemd to enjoy themselves. We also had a very large congregation for the service. I have to confess I was somewhat exhausted after it all, but today is a new day! I have to have a root canal done at lunch-time. Help!

I thought that today I would begin a series of four meditations for Advent. I will post them each Monday between now and Christmas. I will also post the next in my Personal Journey series tomorrow.

Have a good week!

Advent: 1. Salvation

We are about to enter the season of Advent: the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Advent, traditionally, has been about the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. I say traditionally because you do not hear very much about these things now. Advent has become a period of preparation for Christmas, not a time for reflection on our eternal destiny. This is significant for it reflects a more fundamental change in the nature and character of Christianity itself. Let me try to explain what I mean.

St Paul writes in his great letter to the Roman Christians that he is looking forward to coming to see them because he wants to share the message of the Gospel with them. He has already explained that the Gospel is the good news concerning Jesus Christ. In a very famous statement he writes:

'For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous by faith will live.’ (Romans 1:16-17)

This is where we normally end the quote, but it is not where Paul ends. Why, after all, do we need salvation? St Paul tells us if we continue the quote, ‘For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of those who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.’

Christianity began, and has been understood for most of its existence, as a message about salvation, or to put it another way, about saving people. Generally speaking, we do not use this language nowadays in our sermons, Bible Studies, and general conversation in Church. We can’t exactly escape it because if you look at any hymn book, it is all there, clear for all to see! When we do find ourselves forced into using it, we focus on what it is we are saved for. The emphasis is on life: how we find peace and fulfilment in Christ, how we can learn to be whole people who know meaning and purpose in our lives.

But you can’t be saved for something unless you have been saved from something. That is what the word saved means. It is the 'from' that we do not wish to discuss, either because we don’t believe it, or think we will be unpopular, or because we simply don’t like it. The problem is that without the from, we do not have the Gospel of which St Paul was so proud to be a messenger and, consequently, we do not have the power of God either. All we have left is a human message, no different in character to any other philosophy or belief.

Christianity is in danger of becoming just another new age movement preaching a message that is not much more than a spiritualized version of the self-help books you can find in any bookshop. You know the ones: those Bridgette Jones was so addicted to which tell you how you can live a full and happy life if you do this that and the other.

Of course, it is perfectly understandable that we should want the positive side of the message, but the Christian good news is only good news because of the bad news. If you go to the doctor because you have symptoms you do not understand, he can only tell you how you can get better once he has understood and explained what’s wrong. It is only once we have understood the illness that we can find the right treatment.

The Gospel can make us better, but only once we have heard what God has to say about what is wrong with us in the first place. Now, like a patient who refuses to listen to the doctor or to take the prescribed treatment, we can do the same with God: that is the freedom that God gives us. But it is a freedom to stay ill, trying all sorts of dubious cures, many of which only serve to make us worse not better. The traditional message of Advent may not be one we want to hear, but it will start us on the road to recovery.

Or, as we used to say, to salvation.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Personal Journey 5

The weeks pass very quickly don't they? This Sunday, we have a major event in the life of my Church. In the liturgical calendar, this Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. It is our patronal festival when we celebrate the founding of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong in 1933. Our Bishop will be coming and we will have a confirmation service. Afterwards, everyone is invited back here to the Vicarage for lunch. It is a bit of an invasion, but great fun. One little worry is that it is meant to be the dry season now, but this week we have been having heavy rain. We are hoping it stays off now, not only so it is dry on Sunday, but so the ground can dry out. We use the garden so we can accommodate everyone! Think of us, and I will let you know how it all went on Monday. Today's post continues where the last one left off.

Personal Journey 5

For my first year at LBC, it was all about settling in and my Christian life continued much as before. The combination of academic study and training for ministry was everything I wanted it to be. For church on Sundays, in the morning I used to go to a local evangelical Anglican Church, Emmanuel, whose Vicar was Richard Bewes and then in the evening to a charismatic Baptist Church called Gold Hill, whose Pastor was Jim Graham. During the holidays, I went home and continued to be part of the Youth Fellowship and St Andrew’s. It was in so many ways perfect. During the second year, however, the implication of what I was studying and learning began to press itself on me. It was to have massive implications for my future.

Study of the Bible was central to life at LBC. For someone from an evangelical background, where the meaning of the Bible is primarily about what it means for ‘me now’, studying what it originally meant ‘for them then’ can be harder than it might at first seem. While it should be obvious that the meaning of the Bible today is in some way connected to the meaning it had when it was first written, it was not so obvious to many evangelical Christians at the time and it still isn’t today. Even here in my own church, which is not especially evangelical, whenever I take time to try to explain what a Bible passage originally meant, people say: ‘never mind all that theology, tell us what it means now’.

It was at first hard and, indeed, shocking for me to be brought face to face with what was the real nature of the Bible. It needed a complete reorientation in the way I looked at the Bible and approached it, but I was willing to try. Having learnt that I needed to listen to the Bible on its own terms, I was, at first, shocked to hear what it seemed to be saying.

It was while looking at the background to the New Testament and to the Gospels, in particular, that I had the biggest shock. To put it in simplistic terms, we were encouraged to see the difference between a Greek way of looking at the Bible and a Hebrew way. As G E Ladd put it in a standard textbook at the time, to see the difference between a cosmological dualism and an eschatological dualism. Cosmological dualism distinguishes between the material and the spiritual. It sees the spritual as good and the material world as fundamentally bad. The physical is either evil or unimportant. Consequently, to be spiritual means to reject the things of this world. Eschatological dualism does not see the material and physical as evil, but it does recognize that material things may need to be sacrificed for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Cosmological dualism is unbiblical, eschatological dualism is not.

I wrote in a previous post that this dualism was the achilles heal of all that I believed after becoming a Christian. And so it was. I had been steeped in a cosmological dualism as, indeed, had many evangelicals. The material was the enemy of the spiritual. The Christian life involved a rejection of that which was worldly. The Christian's ultimate hope was to go to heaven when we died. When we did our soul would be freed from the prison of the body. I am sure many of you will recognize all this, even if it is less common today than it was then.

Studying the Gospels brought me face to face with the fact that Jesus would have been considered worldly by Christians like myself. He drank, went to parties, hung around with a certain type of woman, and seemed to enjoy himself. He had a reputation for being a drunkard and a glutton, not a reputation evangelicals cared for in those days!

Furthermore, the Bible itself seemed far more positive about creation than I was. The ‘earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’. When God created the world he looked at it and ‘behold it was good’. ‘God’, said Paul, ‘had given us all things freely to enjoy’. Enjoying physical things was a new concept. I could go on, but I imagine you get the idea.

Tom Wright has said that he realized he himself was a dualist when he wrote a commentary on Colossians and it was this that changed him. For me, it was studying Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Whatever, the more I thought about it, and studied the Bible, the more I realised I was a dualist and that this was incompatible with the Bible.

On a theoretical level, I remember acknowledging this when it was my turn to take Chapel at LBC one morning. I chose the hymn: ‘Jesus is Lord creation’s voice proclaims it!’ If creation proclaims the Lordship of Christ, how can it be evil? On a practical level, I acknowledged it while taking part in the Holiday Club that the Youth Fellowship organized each year. To relax in a free moment, I and a couple of others went to the pub. This was a highly symbolic act and the end of an era.

What did I feel, liberation? Yes, at one level, I did. The evangelical culture I was used to was suffocating and life-denying. It was wonderful to be allowed to enjoy material things and all with a clean conscience. But there was a loss as well. It is a loss I still feel to this day as it meant, psychologically, a break with the culture and theology that had previously been so important to me. And, if I had been wrong in this area, what other areas had I been mistaken in as well?

This question was answered by my study in church history and historical theology. I had arrived at LBC thoroughly grounded in the evangelical myth of church history. This myth went something like this. The early church of the New Testament was the pure church. After the death of the apostles, the Church fell from the heights of the New Testament, reaching an all time low under the papacy during the middle ages. It was only with the reformation that true doctrine was rediscovered and the light of the Gospel again began to shine. Roman Catholics weren’t Christians, neither were those in the churches who did not subscribe to the reformation doctrines, doctrines such as justification by faith, for example. For those who think this is narrow-minded and extreme, remember that most Roman Catholics thought that Protestants were going to burn in the fires of hell and that Roman Catholics still will not allow non-Roman Catholics to share in communion. Extremism was, and is, not only on one side.

Studying Church history, and Tony Lane was a brilliant teacher, it became obvious that this version of church history was unsustainable in every way. The Holy Spirit had not departed from the Church either in AD70 with the fall of Jerusalem, nor in AD325 with the conversion of Constantine, nor in AD476 with the fall of the Roman Empire. What was more Vatican II had demonstrated that the Roman Catholic Church was itself changing and opening up to new ideas. The Holy Spirit was apparently at work here as well. What is more, while there was much that was good about the reformation, there had been much that was lost. I came to the belief, a belief I still hold, that the split in the Church that was the result of the reformation was a tragedy that protestants should have done more to prevent and, after it had happened, to heal.

As both an evangelical and a charismatic, this was all deeply disturbing. Evangelicals were extremely suspicious of anyone who was not an evangelical. Charismatics were extremely suspicious of the traditional churches who, we believed, had suppressed the Holy Spirit. If the Church from the end of the New Testament period to the time of the reformation had been a true church, and if the Holy Spirit had been active in all the churches, including the Roman Catholic, then where did that leave some of the most cherished evangelical and charismatic beliefs?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Personal Journey 4

I do hope that this isn’t getting too boring and introspective. It’s certainly taking longer than originally intended, perhaps because I can’t resist the temptation to comment as I go. Next week, in order to add some balance, I will also begin a series of blogs for Advent.

I hope to post the next in this series on Saturday.

Personal Journey 4

I remember my first day at LBC. I was happy there from the moment I arrived. I had hated school from the moment I started at primary school and never enjoyed a moment of it. The only good thing about it was the holidays. I have all my ministry been involved in education, I just hope that this involvement may have gone even a little way to making school a bit happier for others than it was for me. But the pendulum swung when I got to LBC.

The people were not perfect, of course, but they were kind, sincere, committed, and diverse. I was, in fact, one of the youngest as a school leaver. Others had had jobs before, were married and had children. Not all, but some. A significant number were from overseas. This created an international feel to the place.

The church backgrounds were equally diverse. At the time, evangelicals were still suspicious of Anglicans and Anglican evangelicals were embarrassed at being Anglican. The common excuse was to say that the Church of England was the ‘best boat to fish from’. For readers not familiar with the Church of England, I perhaps need to explain this.

In England (only in England in the UK, this is important) the C of E is the established Church. In times past, it was assumed that to be English was to be a member of the C of E and this is still enshrined in law. The country is divided into parishes and everyone in the parish has a right to the services of the parish church. The philosophy is to provide pastoral care ‘from the cradle to the grave’, that is, through baptisms, confirmation, weddings, and funerals. Although, as England has become increasingly secular, fewer people avail themselves of these services, many still do, many who are not remotely religious.

This causes some problems for scrupulous clergy who strongly suspect that their clients don’t mean what they are saying. Some clergy refuse to honour their commitments under the parish system; other s honour them and complain. It needs to remembered, however, that the system brings in a lot of money. The Church is paid for its services. The Church of England does not provide this service for free. Later in ministry, having escaped from the confines of England, it used to be my boast that I never charged a fee, but that’s for a later blog!

The argument of evangelicals was that this system gave opportunities for evangelism that did not exist for evangelicals in other churches. It is an argument. I will comment on it later!

Anyway, obviously evangelicals in other denominations were somewhat dismissive of this argument, feeling that evangelicals in the C of E had sold out. There was a very famous argument in 1966 between John Stott (Anglican) and Martin Lloyd-Jones (NOT!) over this. Folk at LBC were at the time more in the Lloyd-Jones camp, but not intolerantly so. In fact, the way LBC welcomed anyone who loved the Lord was really impressive.

I loved the lectures. Being able to spend so much time thinking about theology was heaven to me. I know it is not to others and was not to all there, but it was to me. Strangely, 3 of the 4 lecturers who had the greatest impact on me are still there. I wish I was too! Tony Lane taught church history in a way that made it live and helped you see why it mattered. Max Turner and Douglas de Lacey taught New Testament and gave me a love of academic Biblical study that has never left me, and Derek Tidball showed faith in me that has always stayed with me. This is not for the moment to suggest that the other tutors weren’t special, they were. But these were the four who influenced me most and whose words I still value when I can get them!

Each lecturer had both a Christian commitment and a commitment to thinking seriously about the faith, a commitment that came out of a real relationship with and love of the Lord. Over 30 years later, I believe more and more that we need to rescue theology from the pagans who have taken it over in the universities. Moslems rightly would not accept their holy book, the Qur’an, being taught to them by infidels nor should we allow ours to be. I do not mean that we cannot learn from the secular arts and sciences – of course we can, but the Bible is our book, and we should be the ones teaching it.

During the first year, I continued to attend the Youth Fellowship when I went home for holidays. To all appearances, things were continuing much the same, but the seeds were being sown in my life and thinking that were to change completely both the way I saw the Christian life and also the direction of my ministry.

Things were to come to a head in my second year at LBC.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Personal Journey 3

A Day Late!

I must apologize for having said I would post yesterday and then not doing so. It really was one of those days! I turned up in Central Hong Kong for a meeting at 9.00am expecting it to last 30 minutes only for it to last 3 hours. And it was not a pleasant one at all. One of the most confrontational I have been too in a long time in fact! Fortunately, I wasn’t at the centre of the confrontation, but you do find yourself getting sucked in. This was unexpected. Then I had to have an emergency Dental appointment after damaging a tooth. That was unexpected too. After that, it was a case of trying to do all that was expected! The day closed with a Church Council meeting that, thankfully, was the exact opposite of confrontational.

So a day late, here is the next instalment in my account of my spiritual journey.

Personal Journey 3

Let me also, having acknowledged the problems that the Youth Fellowship must have caused for the clergy in particular, speak about some of the good things. We really did believe in what we were doing and were part of. We genuinely wanted to live a Christian life and do what God required of us. We read our Bibles, prayed and studied Christian books, and not just when people were watching! We discussed our faith and what we should believe for hours and hours. We got involved in our local church and took part in its activites, even when they seemed utterly irrelevant. We were passionately evengelistic and would do all we could to win people for Christ. In the summer, we would go away together and run a Holiday Club for children and combine this with Bible Study and prayer. We wanted to get it right.

Looking back there clearly was an element of youthful enthusiasm, but many of us from this Fellowship went on to full time Christian service so there must have been some depth to it. People may think we got it wrong. I certainly am in two minds about much of it myself, but we were sincere and our motives were true.

We were also very charismatic. This was when charismatic renewal was riding high. The Holy Spirit was being discovered by the churches again. Popular Christian books such as The Cross and the Switchblade, Run, Baby, Run, Chasing the Dragon, and Nine O’Clock in the Morning were suggesting that God could be experienced as well as believed in, and we wanted to share the experience.

There was a new emphasis on speaking in tongues, on the gifts of the Spirit, and spiritual experience, in general. St Andrew’s itself was very evangelical and Bible-believing, but it did not believe in or encourage the so-called spiritual gifts. In fact, it was actively opposed to them. This was a frustration to many of us as we knew that we needed teaching and help on their correct use.

So some of us started visiting a local Christian fellowship that was related to Devonshire Road, the House Church through which I made a Christian commitment. It was called the Longcroft. It was in the days when Norman Meeten was resident there. This was hardline House Church and completely committed to the spiritual gifts and their use. We used to go to a prayer meeting held there on a Monday night. Most of those who were there were much older than us, in some cases very much older. But they never patronised us and welcomed us with open arms.

We used to sing a lot mainly Charles Wesley hymns. We would share testimonies about what God was doing in our lives, speak in tongues, pray for healing, receive prophecy, and listen to sermons that often lasted for an hour and a half, but never seemed like it. There was much that was positive, but the theology was very negative towards traditional churches. In particular, it was deeply opposed to infant baptism. Baptism was for believers who knew what they were doing, not for babies who hadn’t a clue what was happening. This issue became something a battleground between the traditional churches on the one hand and House Churches on the other. It was invested with a symbolic significance, showing which side of the fence you were on.

I was more and more convinced of my own calling to the ministry. There were, however, a number of issues. Firstly, in seeking ordination, which direction should I go in? I was now attending an Anglican Church, while at the same time sharing many of the doubts of the House Churches about it. I did not believe in infant baptism, and so did not see how I could go into the ministry of a church which did. It is here that I must pay tribute to the then Rector, Bill Person. He befriended me and cared for me, even though he disagreed deeply with some of the things of which I was part. He was not impressed with the charismatic movement and believed firmly in infant batism. But although older, wiser, and infinitely more mature, he would debate with me, laugh with me, and take me seriously. He encouraged me to pursue ordination in the Church of England. At this stage, however, I certainly was not ready to commit to the Church of England!

Secondly, I needed to decide what I did after sixth form. I was clear in my mind that I should study theology. I felt then, as I feel now, that the Church needs clergy who have studied theology seriously, rather than having done a couple of years at theological college, or wherever, and then thinking that’s it. At first, I assumed I should go to University as this was what other people my age at my school did. Then I discovered London Bible College, now called London School of Theology. A change of name that irritates me every time I see it, but that’s not my business! London Bible College was inter-denominational and evangelical. To cut a long story short, I applied and was accepted. I also had offers from universities, but when the time came to decide there was never any doubt. London Bible College was about ministry and that was what I wanted to be about too.

I left for London in Autumn, 1974. I was a member of an Anglican Church, but with grave doubts about it, very charismatic, evangelical, influenced by a branch of the House Church movement, convinced that I was called to preach and teach, and genuinely eager to learn. It was the best decision I could have made, and, in the midst of many doubts and changes that were to lie ahead, I have never had cause to doubt going to LBC.

But more about that next time.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Happy Saturday

I felt that it was worth delaying the next post in my series about my own spiritual journey to comment on other issues! I will post the next on Monday. In the meantime, I hope you all have a good weekend.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Focus of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

Taking up my comment about listening, the controversy and furore over Mark Driscoll has led me to follow up his blog about Katharine Jefferts Schori, the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, and, in particular, the Time interview she gave earlier in July to which Mark links. The fluffy bunny and male testosterone stuff in his blog is all unnecessary, but I think it may obscure a far more important issue.

For the first question in the interview, the Bishop is asked:

‘What will be your focus as head of the U.S. church?’

to which she responds:

‘Our focus needs to be on feeding people who go to bed hungry, on providing primary education to girls and boys, on healing people with AIDS, on addressing tuberculosis and malaria, on sustainable development. That ought to be the primary focus.’

I accept that you have to be careful with press interviews and with the way they can twist what people have said. But taken at face value, I personally find this a rather strange set of priorities. As most places in America have primary and secondary education, is she advocating more church schools? And why single out AIDS? What about cancer and heart disease, much bigger killers? The reason is, of course, that she is focusing not on the US, but on the developing world and a headline disease in it.

These are all serious concerns, but why should she as head of a US church focus on issues in other Provinces of the Anglican Communion? Shouldn’t she as head of the US church be focusing on US issues? It’s fair enough to argue that development concerns us all, but are there no specifically US issues that she thinks need focusing on? Isn’t this a religious form of US imperialism thinking it can sort out the rest of the world? Isn’t it arrogance masquerading as compassion?

But much more seriously, where is God? I don’t want to get all fundamentalist, but surely the head of a church, in a country such as the US, should want God at least to be part of her focus. And what about the teachings of Christ? Or reaching those outside the Church? And that’s leaving aside healing divisions within her church and the wider Anglican Communion, and between her church and other churches. Is that also not to be a part of the focus?

It may not ultimately matter for she may be the last presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, because the way things are going there isn’t going to be an Episcopal Church for much longer.

Sadly, I have seen it all before in many churches in the UK. Once you make social issues the focus, why do you need to bring God into it? No wonder, then, that many churches who made social issues the focus in the 20th century simply no longer exist. And the void left by churches who failed to focus on God is being filled today by far more fundamentalist types of Christianity. By the sort that Mark represents, for example.

Of course, as Christians, we have to be socially aware and socially concerned. Of course, the Gospel is a call to love people who are politically and socially disadvantaged. But when a church or its leaders make their focus something other than God himself, then the reason for that church’s existence has gone. The world does not need the Church to become just another development agency. It needs it to tell the truth of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. So don’t blame people for going to Mars Hill to hear about God from Mark. Blame leaders of churches who can’t even list God as one of their priorities.

For me Katharine Jefferts Schori’s answer, as reported, to the question of what will be her focus is deeply troubling. Frankly, far more troubling than Mark’s admittedly silly remarks about fluffy bunnies.
Mark Driscoll Says Thank You

Mark hasn't apologized as such, but he has responded in a very gracious way to those like me who were disturbed by the tone of some of his comments. It is encouraging because it shows he is willing to listen. May we be willing to listen to him!

Read it here:

http://theresurgence.com/md_blog_2006-11-16_thank_you_critics

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mark Driscoll Lights A Fire

Readers of this blog will have know that I have mentioned Mark Driscoll a few times. Mark is a pastor at a fast growing church in Seattle and an increasingly well-known preacher. He has a direct, even combative approach, and strong views. He also takes a 'traditional' approach to the relationships between the sexes. He obviously relishes controversy, but even he must be surprised at the fire he has lit with some of his latest comments. His blogs can be read here: http://www.theresurgence.com/

A couple of his recent blogs have lead to all hell breaking loose. Christians around the world have gone for him and some are even planning to stage a protest at his church early in December. The language being used is often extreme. And, of course, many, many outside the Church are loving it and jumping on the band-wagon. I have been thinking about it and what is the right way to react.

1. I can't begin to see what is to be gained by Christians protesting at a Church service. I seriously question the motives of those doing this. Imagine if fundamentalists were to protest at the service of a church that was liberal. You can imagine the adjectives! Even if people feel passionately that he is wrong, how can this be the right way to deal with it? What sort of a witness to those outside is this?

2. What Mark says is often harmless, it is the way he says it that gets people going. He has a great gift, but there is a dark-side to his gift when he gets it wrong. He has an ability to grab people's attention and make them think. He is an effective communicator. But he has had a lot of success while still young. Most of us in the ministry have to learn to cope with failure, and that is hard enough. Only a few have to learn to deal with success, and that is harder and with fewer around to help! I hope people will calm down and that mature Christians will offer him the help and training that he needs to use his gift as it should be used. Maybe with all the success he has had, Mark has not realized that he, like the rest of us, needs guidance and training. Maybe now he will.

3. For Mark, I pray that he will see how some of his comments affect people. How they hurt, wound, and offend. If he sees this, perhaps he will pause before he speaks or writes. I pray that he will want more to be humble than to be famous. But I also pray that those who are jealous of his success will stop seeking his downfall and humiliation.

4. For myself, I pray that I may learn from Mark and that I will seek to be less cautious in what I say. I realize that the reason why I do not offend people more, isn't because I am a nicer person than Mark, but because I don't have the courage to speak out on what is important in the way that he is prepared to do. Paul asked the Ephesians that God would enable him to speak the Gospel boldly as he ought to. Being diplomatic, being willing to listen, and wanting to enter into dialogue can just be an excuse for spiritual cowardice.

Those of us who argued for compassion and understanding towards Ted Haggard should not be slow to offer it to Mark. I hope he does not lose his edge, and I hope he does not do anything that will lead to his fall.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Personal Journey 2

I thought I would post the next blog about my spiritual journey today rather than tomorrow. I continued writing after I posted yesterday’s blog and have it ready! I hope to post the next one on Friday.

Personal Journey 2

One thing I have not related so far is an experience I had before I made a Christian commitment. Indeed, it was before I had any real idea of what Christianity was. I was in a car on Queen’s Drive in Liverpool talking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. At this point in my life, I did not have the first clue as to what Christianity was about. I was not a churchgoer or a Sunday School attender. I knew no preachers, pastors, Vicars, or priests. But, at this moment, I knew that I should enter the ministry. Whatever that involved. This was why the teacher coming into the room when I was eating lunch was so significant. It explained what it was I was being called to do. It also, I hope, explains why, despite being so young, I was so keen to preach. I wanted to get on with the job I believed I was being called to do.

Anyway, I was sitting in the library of my new school in Autumn, 1972. I was reading a Christian book. I knew no-one and was not very good at making friends. One of the other boys came up to me and asked, 'Are you a Christian?' I said I was. He told me of a Youth Fellowship that met at the house of a curate at the local Anglican Church, and asked whether I would like to come along. The church was St Andrew’s, Bebington. I did not know it at the time, but it was a well-known, well-established conservative, evangelical Anglican Church. The only problem church members at the time would have had with that description is the use of the word, Anglican. It was in the days when evangelicals did not admit to being Anglican. Days that, it seems, may be coming back, albeit for different reasons.

I was pleased that I had met another Christian and happily went. There then followed what I still think of as some of the most incredible years of my life. I cannot begin to describe it. The Fellowship itself was led by a very godly man, and this is one the few instances where you can you use that word without any irony. By his side was his wife, a wonderful, and deeply spiritual woman. Basically, the format of the evening was that we gathered sang some hymns and choruses, studied the Bible, either by listening to a tape or to someone who had prepared a passage, discussed it in depth, and then had a time of open prayer. The evening finished with coffee and biscuits.

The whole format was, to use a contemprary term, counter-cultural. Everyone else our age was listening to rock music, going to parties, and doing what they could to avoid church and anything to do with it, but the Fellowship exploded. It just grew and grew and grew. We met more regularly, prayer meetings were as important to us as anything else in our lives, we lived ate, drank, and slept the Bible. And this was the King James Version. As I write this blog, I still have the two copies that I used in those days before me on this desk.

I know if I were reading this, I would say it was all hysterical, youthful enthusiasm. A religious substitute for all the other things that tenagers would usually be doing. Well, it wasn’t all good, and it was youthful, immature, and, I dare say, at times frightening to outsiders, but for me it was as real as spiritual experience can get.

Quite what the rest of the church made of us I dread to think. They loved the fact that, against all the odds, they had a large, lively, spiritually committed Youth Fellowship. Something every church wanted at a time when young people were leaving the church in droves. But they were less than comfortable with our spirituality. We didn’t call it that back then, of course.

How to describe our spirituality? Absolutely Biblical. Extremely charismatic. Completely evangelistic. Totally prayer based. And fundamentally world denying. By world denying, I mean denying all those things that evangelicals denied in those days: sex, drink, parties, cinema, theatre, secular music, dancing – just add to the list. This was a completely dualistic theology: things spiritual, good; things of the world, bad. As things turned out, this was to be the achilles heal that led to me eventually becoming disillusioned with evangelicalism. But that was to be some time off.

As the Youth Fellowship became more and more important to me, it seemed more and more logical that I should join my friends at the Anglican Church for Sunday worship. This was not without cost. I had been treated wonderfully well by the Methodist Church, and had been given opportunities no-one my age would normally have been given. And I didn’t like just leaving. It also raised the issue of where I was going to end up ministering. I had thought it was to be the Methodist Church and that was why I was training as a lay preacher, but, if I left, that possibility would end with it.

In addition, I had very mixed feelings about going to an Anglican Church. The Anglican Church was the number one hate church of those in the House Church movement to which, in my heart, my loyalty lay. The Anglican Church was, after all, where many House Church members were being recruited from. One of the heroes of the House Church I was converted through was a Church of England curate who had left the Church of England and had joined the movement.

Anyway, inevitably, I left the Methodist Church and started attending St Andrew’s. I don’t think I can even begin to describe the shock of attending an Anglican Church service in those days. It was still when the Book of Common Prayer ruled. The services were everything that the Youth Fellowship was not. Frankly, someone should have been shot. Here were young people immature, young, and arrogant, admittedly, but so committed and so willing to learn. How could you submit them to what we were submitted Sunday after Sunday? But we stood by it because we believed the Bible told us we should be part of the body of Christ were we lived.

I have been an Anglican priest now for best part of 25 years and so can make a good guess as to what pain, heart-ache, controversy, and worry we must have caused the clergy, who were themselves trapped in a system that prevented them from being themselves and doing what they wanted. Their bravery and courage in supporting an out of control bunch of hotheaded charismatics whose theology they did not agree with is worthy of sainthood. This is especially true given where this theology started to lead us.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Personal Journey 1

I come now at last to my own personal journey. It has proven surprisingly hard to write about. Firstly, because I am uncomfortable talking about myself. Secondly, because I am also aware of how easy it is for memory to play tricks as well as how easy it is to succumb to the temptation to re-write history. What follows is at least an attempt to be honest, and even if it’s not the whole truth, I, nevertheless, believe it to be true.

I say all this because there have been so many twists and turns in my Christian life over the 40 years or so since I first made a Christian commitment. I apologize, then, if all this seems too much about me. But relating my own experience gives me the chance to comment on some of the issues my experience raises and the chance to relate and reflect on some of the lessons I have learned along the way. As always happens with these blogs, it is going to take longer than I originally intended.

I am going to entitle them simply, Personal Journey, but they are part of the series on Finding God, which shall be resumed after my time of introspection. I hope you don’t find them too boring and self-centred.

Personal Journey 1

It was while at school in Liverpool in the UK that I first took Christianity seriously. I still remember the moment when a teacher from a local House Church in Devonshire Road started talking about God to me and others while we were eating a packed lunch in a classroom. He had come to lead a meeting of the school Christian Union that was to be held there. Well I stayed for the meeting, and over the weeks that followed various speakers came to the CU meetings, mostly from the same House Church.

This was a time when the House Church movement was still in its infancy, and was offering a radically different view of what the Church should be like. Not only were the speakers passionate about God, they were passionate in their opposition to traditional churches. They did not like what they saw as the unbiblical nature of the mainline denominations: the liberalism, formalism, traditionalism, nominalism, and much more besides.

The traditional denominations were condemned for having been unfaithful to the Bible both in their theology and in the way they did church. Worship using set liturgy was regarded as empty and church buildings as a departure from the New Testament pattern of church. At 13 or so, it’s hard to understand the significance of a lot of this, but I obviously absorbed much of it because it remains with me to this day as a nagging doubt about all I do in my role as an Anglican priest. But more about that in the future.

The House Churches were offering an alternative vision of the Church, and they had a major impact outside of their own sphere. They grew, largely, it has to be said, because they attracted people from traditional churches disillusioned by what was on offer, or rather what was not on offer, in the churches they attended. Charismatic, evangelical, experiential, confident, and vibrant, they were everything that even the most successful evangelical churches were not. The House Churches themselves unashamedly challenged Christians in the denominations to 'come ye out from among them'.

In time, many mainline churches were to respond with an ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ attitude and many traditional churches became charismatic. Even those that did not started house groups and began singing choruses or worship songs as we now have come to call them. (Can some-one explain to me what a hymn is if it’s not a worship song?) The House Churches themselves, surprised by their own success, in turn responded with an ‘anything you can do we can do better’ attitude and started acquiring buildings, big buildings, to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of those joining the movement!

And so you had the paradox of House Churches meeting in buildings that were not houses, and traditional churches setting up house groups. In practice, what this was that the original vision and mission of the House Church movement was lost. What they were doing back in the 1970s was, in so many ways, what the emerging movement is wanting to do now. I wonder whether emerging will succeed where the House Church movement failed?

Having decided to make a Christian commitment, I felt I needed to go to a church. For some reason I do not entirely understand, I did not go to the Devonshire Road Church, but to the local Methodist Church. I have no idea why I went to a Methodist Church, maybe it was because it was near where I lived. It was, however, everything that the Devonshire Road Church preached against. Nevertheless, they made me very welcome and encouraged me, even though I was very young to take on leadership roles within the church.

Increasingly, however, I was being influenced by the theology of the House Church movement to which I was being exposed through the school CU and, inevitably, I was more and more uncomfortable with the social Gospel that was the standard fare in the Methodist Church I attended.

It was to be a family move that led to the resolution of the tension. We moved from Liverpool itself to the posh side of the Mersey, to the Wirral! At first, I joined the local Methodist Church near our new home and was accepted as a trainee lay preacher. I was 15. After the move, I continued to attend school in Liverpool, but, as I was getting older and more independent, I was also visiting churches of Christian friends I had met. These were often Baptist and very conservative in outlook. While the Methodist Church was very tolerant of me, I was less and less tolerant of it, and my theology was becoming more and more fundamentalist and charismatic.

For sixth form, I changed schools to one on the Wirral. It was to be a chance meeting in the school library that changed the direction of my life.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sunday

I don't normally post on Sundays, but Winnie and I have been shopping. I know you are not supposed to do that on Sundays, but we all do, don't we? We had been out for lunch and we were near the shops, and I still like bookshops. I know some of you emerging types think bookshops really passe, but I am older than many of you and remember the old days. Anyway, I came across a book that many of you may have seen already, so forgive me if you have, but I have not seen it in Hong Kong before. It is, The Culture of the Europeans: 1800 to the Present, by Donald Sassoon. It looks fascinating. Winnie said that probably Father Christmas will bring it for me. If you haven't seen it, take a look and consider it for your Christmas reading.

I will give it a review here when I have finished it. Given its size that will be some time off!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Weekend

It's Saturday morning, and I am enjoying a quiet moment and a cup of coffee before it all starts up again. It's been a really busy week, this week. A week of contrasts that illustrates life in the ministry. I am heavily involved in education and educational management here. This week a parent got very worked up because he felt a minor clause in the parent-teacher association constitution had been infringed. No-one else was especially bothered, but it took a lot of time to sort out. While this was going on, I got a call to say that a member of the church was in hospital and in intensive care.

Isn't this just like life? A mixture of the trivial and the serious. The temptation is to dismiss the trivial and not take any interest in it, but if the Gospel is about the whole of life that means taking all of it seriously, even boring matters like constitutional niceties.

Have a good weekend everyone! See you- with the next post in the present series - on Monday.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Emerging Again

Before I continue with my own experience, I would like to comment on Mark Driscoll's paper, which I think readers of this blog have found quite helpful. Mark identifies three types of models of Church. I think it easiest to quote him:

'Church 1.0 is traditional, institutional, and generally marked by the following traits:

· The cultural context is modern.

· The church holds a privileged place in the larger culture.

· Pastors are teachers who lead people by virtue of their spiritual authority.

· Church services are marked by choirs, robes, hymnals, and organs.

· Missions involves sending Americans and dollars overseas through denominations and mission agencies.

As the Church 1.0 model becomes less popular, the Church 2.0 model becomes more prominent. Church 2.0 is contemporary, with the following traits:

· The cultural context is in transition from modern to postmodern.

· A culture war is being fought to regain a lost position of privilege in culture.

· Pastors are CEOs running businesses that market spiritual goods and services to customers.

· Church services use 1980s and 1990s pop culture such as acoustic guitars and drama in an effort to attract non-Christian seekers.

· Missions is a church department organizing overseas trips and funding.

Today, the Church 2.0 model is the dominant American church form, but is being replaced by yet another incarnation of the Church.

The Church 3.0 model is emerging, missional, and bound together by the following traits:

· The cultural context is postmodern and pluralistic.

· The church accepts that it is marginalized in culture.

· Pastors are local missionaries.

· Church services blend ancient forms and current local styles.

· Missions is “glocal” (global and local).'

I am sure that Mark (who I do not know) would acknowledge that this is a deliberate oversimplification, having acknowledged that, it is, nevertheless, helpful in defining church styles - and not just in America. I will discuss my own background and ministry more later, but my present Church is still a Model 1.0 church. Many are and like it that way. Many in our churches love the traditional style of services and remember when the Church had a privileged place in society. This is just as true here, in a former British colony, as it is in the UK. For such Christians, the longing is to stay the same, or even to go back, to what is still a fondly remembered period in church history.

In this thinkers and writers about the Church are often out of sync with where many church members are at. The thinkers and writers are working for a very different church, when church members themselves are simply not ready for the change and, indeed, are resistant to it.

For church leaders, this can cause immense tension. We read the books and blogs, and go to the conferences. We hear about all we should and could be doing, and we are excited by it. But when it comes to reality, to ordinary every day church life, this is not what our congregations want to hear or are interested in.

This is an issue I want the emerging church leaders to address. It is not an issue in newly planted churches because they are beginning from scratch and can establish their own church culture. But for those of us in long-established churches, it is a massive issue. Unless we just abandon exisiting churches, it is hard to know what to do.

I would love somone of Andrew Jones' experience to address this in his excellent blog ( www.tallskinnykiwi.tyepead.com ).

It is something that I don't think emerging church leaders are willing to address at the moment. Their focus is on creating model 3.0 churches. Fair enough, but unless they are careful, they are going to go down the path the charismatic movement went down and attract many who are disgruntled in the churches they are in. In the case of the emerging church, those in model 1.0 and model 2.0 churches.

If you are wanting to be truly missional, this should not be what you want. What you should want is to attract the unchurched. Ironically, if the emerging movement attracts a significant number from the established churches, all it will do is to weaken those churches. The net result ironically may then even be a net drop in people attending any church as those 'left behind' in weakened churches drift away from the Church altogether.

Is this a silly argument? Well, look at Alpha. All the Alpha-ministers tell me that Alpha is growing their churches. But the plain fact of church membership in the UK, for example, is that overall attendance is dropping. Alpha grows some churches, but weakens others. Some may say they deserve to be weakened, and, in some cases, this may indeed be true, but it is hardly a cause for rejoicing.

Andrew quite rightly insists on the missional element of the emerging church. This will only ring true to some of us when emerging/emergent people work with those in the established churches to find a way to emerge together.

It is my earnest prayer that they will.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Emerging Again

Having been crtitical of Mark Driscoll yesterday over his comments in relationship to Ted Haggard, let me now be positive and, at the same time, return to the theme of the emerging church that I wrote about earlier this week. I have just come across this article by Mark on the emerging church and think it really helpful ( http://www.criswelljournal.com/ ) It is in the Criswell Theological Journal Volume 3 Issue 2 [2006].

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Ted Haggard 2

I don't know how many of you have been following the Ted Haggard story, but it seems to be everywhere. I have been quite impressed with the senstivity and gentleness with which most in the Christian community have been handling the episode.

There are awlays exceptions, however, and I was particularly annoyed by the comments of Mark Driscoll who, while maybe not intending to, managed to post a blog that sounded really smug. Basically, his position seems to be: 'I am a wise, heterosexual male pastor whom this sort of thing could not happen to because I protect myself from sexually predatory females who always seem to want to go to bed with me.' (Read his comments and see if you agree with me: http://www.theresurgence.com/md_blog_2006-11-03_evangelical_leader_quits )

In all this we need to say to ouselves, 'let him who thinks he stands, beware lest he falls'. On October 29, the Sunday before all this broke, Ted haggard preached a sermon on 1 Samuel 16 on God replacing leaders. He prayed that God would expose lies and deception. Quite sobering when you think about it.

Monday, November 06, 2006

6. Finding God Again: The Emerging Church

The interetsing thing about writing a series blogs is that you don't know where you are going to end up when you start writing them. This series grew out of some thoughts I had on different understandings of God. This, in turn, led to a series about the way our view of God has changed. This present series really is about thinking about God, but in the course of it I am trying to see how our understanding of God is profoundly affected by our own cultural situation. I had expected to get this to point ages ago. But that's the fun! Thanks for sticking with me so far. I will post again in the series later in the week. I will aim for Thusday, but you may hear the odd thing from me before then!

Have a good week!

Finding God Again: The Emerging Church

Many reading this blog may not have heard much about the emerging church. And describing it is not always easy, as even some who would align themselves with it would readily admit. It is strongest in the US, but is also to be encountered, increasingly in other parts of the world, although I haven’t much come across it here in Hong Kong. I hope, however, some of us are at least addressing the same issues.

I strongly agree with Scot McKnight, a NT scholar and Christian teacher who has aligned himself with the movement, that we should let the movement speak for itself. So as I write this blog, I will give some websites and blogs where more information can be found. I myself have found Scot’s speaking and writing especially helpful (see http://www.jesuscreed.org/). Scot has just presented a very interesting and helpful paper on the movement (for a copy see http://www.foolishsage.com/wp-content/uploads/McKnight%20-%20What%20is%20the%20Emerging%20Church.pdf ).

Although it is hard to define what is a very diverse movement, excellent is Andrew Jones (see http://www.tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/). Andrew’s blog is also a great resource and always provocative and interesting. He also has the distinction of now living in my old Diocese. Andrew has written several blogs attempting to give a definition of the movement. Andrew himself is at the very heart of it and gives links to many blogs by fellow travellers.

Those who are part of the emerging church are asking what we should be like as a Church in the cultural context that we now find ourselves in. They are asking what the implications are of contemporary culture for the way we understand the Gospel, for our presentation of the Gospel, and for the way we live out the Gospel. How do we do church in a way that is authentic and faithful to Jesus and his teaching?

Many in the emerging movement began life within very conservative churches. A leading figure such as Brian McLaren is an example of this. People like Brian, however, felt increasingly dissatisfied with the type Christianity that they found within the churches they belonged to. In this sense, the emerging church can be seen as a protest movement within evangelicalism.

It would be very wrong, however, to see it as only a protest. The emerging church is asking questions that I believe we all need to be asking at this stage in our cultural journey. More than that, within the emerging movement there is a very strong emphasis on mission. On not waiting around hoping that people come to us, but being prepared to go out and meet with them in an open and accepting way.

This means changing the way we do church. At one level, this has meant either reordering traditional churches or abandoning them altogether for more user friendly places. Many are now meeting in homes, or pubs, or coffee houses. But there is more to it than simply the physical geography of the church meeting place, important though this is. The emerging church is rethinking the meaning of the church. This has lead to a much greater emphasis on relationships than has traditionally been the case.

In the past, churches defined themselves by what they believed, by statements of faith and credal confessions: the 39 Articles for Anglicanism, the Westminster Confession of Faith for the reformed, the Catechism for the Roman Catholics, and so on. There were propositions that you had to believe if you wanted to be a member. Often these were overt, written, and required a signature. Other times, they were unspoken assumptions, but you soon knew if you stepped out of line. Emerging folk are very suspicious of this sort of approach. They are happier to live with doubt, stress that all truth is relative, and that each generation sees truth through its own cultural glasses. As one person within the movement has expressed it: ‘I grew up that we’ve figured out the Bible, that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel life is big again – like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in colour.’ Not all, by any means, would want to put it so bluntly, but this quote catches a spirit within the movement.

The emphasis on culture is especially important. For some it is about speaking in a culturally relevant way talking to people where they are now, rather than were they where or where we would like them to be. This can mean keeping a very conservative, evangelical message. I still can’t work out whether he sees himself as part the emerging church movement or not, but Mark Driscoll in Seattle would be a prominent example of this type of approach (see http://www.marshillchurch.org/). As Mark, or Pastor Mark as he is known, will tell you himself, he is one of the most influential pastors in America, based at one of the fastest growing churches, in one of the least churched cities. Love him or hate him, and people do feel very strongly about him, he is having an impact!

For others, however, a more radical approach is needed. Rather than speaking to culture, they are seeking to embrace it. Many believe that contemporary culture has something important even prophetic to say to the church. And that we in the church need to revaluate our message in the light of it. Those who identify with emergent village would take this approach (see www.emergentvillage.com).

This causes some confusion in terminology. Not all emerging church folk would identify with emergent. Those who are critical of the movement have a tendency to equate emerging with emergent to see emergent as typical and defining of the movement. The movement, however, is far more diverse than this and requires a more nuanced critique.

And there have been criticisms. One very notable critic of the movement is Don Carson, a leading evangelical scholar and speaker. Don does not blog, in principle, which is a shame, as it would be good to be able to react with him. He does, however, write! Recently he has written a book on the emerging church, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. I am not sure it is the best book for understanding the movement, it is, however, a very good book if you want to understand the movement’s critics and where they are coming from. Don’t begin with it, but include it in your research if you want to study the movement. You can also find lectures on the movement by Don on the web.

I have been trying to understand the movement for myself. I think it was my work on the Da Vinci Code that gave particular impetus to it as the DVC raises, I believe, precisely the sort of issues that the movement is addressing. I am deliberately calling it a movement and I have even used the word church. Many emerging people do not like this. They do not want to be seen as a potential denomination. They prefer to use the term ‘conversation’ to describe what they are doing.

I like the word conversation, and it is certainly appropriate given that much of the thinking is taking place on the web, using blogs especially. This allows comments and reactions in a very immediate way. The movement itself is still new, original, and exciting. The way that the conversation is taking place means that even if you live in Orkney or Hong Kong, you can still feel yourself to be at the centre of something vital! However, I have used the word ‘movement’ deliberately as I think what is going on has become more than a conversation and that, in my opinion, is no bad thing. I for one am happy to join the conversation and this blog is an attempt to do so.

But more about me next time!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Sad News

Many of you will have seen in the news that a well-known and prominent leader of a huge evangelical church in America has found himself in a 'gay sex scandal'. The pastor is Ted Haggard. I personally share the cynicism of those who question why this was made public now by the male prostitute who allegedly was involved with Ted Haggard. I suspect there is much more to this.

But I would like to join with those like Andrew Jones (on www.tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com) who, while not always agreeing with Ted Haggard, suggest that the only truly Christian response is to pray for him, for his wife, and for his children. This is the time to see the beam in our own eye and not the speck in our brother's.

Tomorrow, at my church, we celebrate All Saints. Perhaps we ought also to have a day in the Church's calendar when we celebrate All Sinners for all of us who believe in Christ are both.

Pray for our brother, Ted, a saint and sinner: as you are, as I am, and as All Saints are.

Friday, November 03, 2006

It's The Weekend

I am afraid that I have been a bit rushed this week, and so only just made the deadline I set myself for posting. I do want to post when I say I am going to though. If you are taking the trouble to read it, the least I can do is to get on and write it!

The weather here has cooled a little at long last. We even have had a typhoon warning, which is very unusual at this time of year, so there was a nice breeze!

I hope to post next on Monday, when I want to start to discuss the emerging church movement and the isuues it is raising. I am now going to get on with my sermon for Sunday on the Reformation. If you are a glutton for punishment you can listen to it, after it has been preached, on my church's website: www.christchurch.com.hk

Have a good weekend! See you next week.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

5. Finding God Again: Truth?

I wrote last that changing times require us to change the way we present our message. This I said was almost to be stating the obvious. However, sometimes the obvious needs stating. Churches are inherently conservative institutions, and we need constantly reminding of the need to speak the language of those we seek to reach. But do we need go further than this, and change the message itself to take into account changed times?

An example of an attempt to move with the times without changing the message is Alpha. Alpha has been very successful in marketing itself with what has been described as a combination of ‘prayer and pasta’. Alpha, in other words, seeks to present a version of the Christian message in an appealing and attractive dress. The message of Alpha is a conservative evangelical understanding of the Gospel. This is in no way meant as a criticism. Many people have found Alpha very helpful, and have come to faith through it. I cite it simply as an example of how one section of the Church is trying to ‘dress up’ the Gospel, which they believe to be the same underneath as it always has been.

Others are arguing, however, that it is the message itself that must be rethought. At first sight, this may seem to be self-evidently wrong. If the Gospel is from God, as Christians believe it is, how can it change? Jesus Christ is after all ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’.

The fact is, however, that while our Lord may not change, our understanding of him and his message does. Each generation and society sees him through its own cultural glasses. At the very least, this means that we emphasize certain parts of the Christian message rather than others. To give examples that are beyond dispute (as examples, that is!) previous generations of Christians have accepted slavery in a way most would not today. The role and place of women in the Church has changed, even amongst those do not support women having positions of authority in the Church, although most now do, whatever theological camp they may happen to be in. And we don’t argue the Divine Right of Kings any more, not even those of us Anglicans who still have the Queen as the head of the Church.

Those who want to hold to the unchanging nature of the message argue that all these examples are about the outworking of the Gospel and not about the Gospel itself. They argue that our understanding of how the Gospel works out in practice may change from age to age and culture to culture, but the Gospel itself remains the same.

There are, however, real problems with this view of the unchanging nature of the Gospel.

Whatever may be true in theory, certainly doesn’t seem to be true in practice. It’s no good believing in an unchanging Gospel, if we can never discover what it is There is a very real problem in the way different periods of the Church have had very different things to say about, for example, salvation. And issues don’t get much more fundamental than the issue of how we can be saved.

The Reformation, which we marked on October 31, argued that the Church had got it radically wrong for hundreds of years. The Reformers saw themselves as restoring the true Gospel in the light of Scripture after hundreds of years of darkness. But recently, some, from within the Reformed Tradition itself, have been arguing that the Reformers themselves did not understand the Scriptures. People such as Bishop Tom Wright have been arguing both for a ‘new perspective’ on Paul and that the Reformers misunderstood Paul’s teaching on justification by faith. This is especially serious as the Reformers themselves thought their understanding of Paul and justification was the very heart of the Gospel. A view many in the Church still hold today.

What those who follow the Reformers and those like Bishop Wright have in common is a belief that there is objective truth to be found and that this truth is ultimately to be located in the Bible. Our job is to study the Bible to find it. In my mind at least, this does raise the question of why it has taken 2,000 years to understand what Paul was really saying on an issue of quite some importance to our spiritual lives and destiny.

It is for this reason amongst others that some in the Church today are arguing that what postmodernism is teaching us is that there is no ultimate objective truth and that, even if there was, it would not be possible for us as finite, culturally conditioned creatures to see it. What we see will inevitably always be determined by our historical and cultural circumstances.

The argument that our understanding of truth is determined by our historical and cultural circumstances has been around for a while. The general reaction of Christians to the argument has tended to be to think of reasons why they reject it and why it is possible to have an objective view of truth. Recently, however some Christians have been arguing that instead of resisting the idea that culture shapes how we understand the truth, we should instead embrace it. And postmodernism with its suspicion of any one version of the truth, instead of being seen as an enemy to be fought should be greeted as a friend to be welcomed.

What would happen if we accepted that no one view of the truth is ever right? And what would be the consequences of discovering that all of us, whatever our theological background, could never be certain our understanding was right or anything remotely like right!

This at last brings me to the emerging church movement.