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.

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