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.