Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Personal Journey 14: From Evangelical Anglican to Orthodox Christian

I just about managed to post yesterday and today is the same. Absolutely frantic here in the run up to Christmas. It's fun though! I wish I could have expressed today's post better as it is at the heart of my journey. I hope it is not too unclear!

Personal Journey 14: From Evangelical Anglican to Orthodox Christian

If you have been following this somewhat tortuous story, you may remember that when I left Moreton, I still described myself as an evangelical Anglican. While at Bedford, I remained an Anglican by virtue of the fact that I was licensed by the Bishop and paid by the C of E. I had to go light on Anglicanism in my ministry, however, as I was the Ecumenical Chaplain representing all of the churches. When asked to preach, I could as easily find myself in a Methodist Church as in an Anglican one. But what about the ‘evangelical’ part of evangelical Anglican?

In my teaching and ministry at Bedford, I remained fundamentally evangelical in my theological convictions. However, I saw my ministry in an inclusive sense wanting to encourage people to think about Christian faith and to be open to going to church, even if they were reluctant to do so. It was often the old adage, ‘liking Jesus, not liking the Church’, though to be fair, their impression of church was often formed without having had much contact with either the Church in general or a church in particular. It was the image of the church that they were reacting against.

In my work with students, many evangelical attitudes did not seem so much wrong as irrelevant to lives and experience of the people I was working with. Let me relate an incident, which I think helps to explain what I mean. Early on in my time at Bedford, a local evangelical Vicar had come to speak to the Christian Union. The Christian Union was made up mainly of students who had come straight from school and who belonged to evangelical churches in the town. The Vicar speaking about Jesus related how Jesus had mixed freely with sinners, drunk wine, and gone to parties. Of course he told them, we as Christians should do none of these things. In practice what this meant was that he was telling them that, basically, they must cut themselves off from the social life of the College.

I felt this was bad evangelistically as well as a somewhat illogical conclusion to draw from what he had said about Jesus. As one of the ways I personally got to know the students was by going to the college bar, joining their social gatherings and events, and mixing freely with them without passing judgment on them, I obviously felt we had a fundamentally different approach.

It is also true to say that, increasingly, I did not actively seek out evangelical company. I didn’t attend the evangelical clubs and conferences, for example. In retrospect, I think I should have been selective and attended some. Again, I felt that I needed to be able to mix with Christians across the spectrum of what is described as churchmanship. I also valued the space I felt being outside of evangelical culture. Having said that, my sermons would have been perfectly at home within an evangelical environment and, oddly, were well received, when I went to preach at an evangelical church. Now I would probably use the label post-evangelical to describe myself, but that was not very common then!

When I got to Banchory being back in a parish church, I had to make up my mind on what basis I would approach my ministry in a church setting. Leaving England helped! In England, individual parish churches were, and are, very much of a type: some evangelical, some catholic, some liberal, some charismatic, etc. They can get away with this exclusive type of approach because if someone does not happen to like one parish church, but still wants an Anglican church, there is normally one not far away that they will like. In Scotland, that is not the case generally speaking. If you are an Anglican, and it matters to you that you go to an Anglican Church, your local Anglican church is often the only one for quite some distance. In any case, as I have explained, there are fewer Anglican churches in Scotland. Some Rectors (what we call Vicars in Scotland) consciously decided to make their church evangelical. Fewer were evangelical in the first place.

Within the congregation at Banchory were a mixed group of Christians. Some were evangelical in outlook and some were more Catholic with all types in between. I decided at the start that was how I wanted it to stay and that I would seek to be inclusive of all who wanted to worship with us. Having got out of English sectarianism, I came to believe that Anglican worship could allow for a very inclusive approach once you got over certain difficulties!

The trouble with inclusive approaches, however, is that they can take a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach and end up saying nothing. I wanted to be inclusive, but I wanted us to have an identity that as many as possible would respond to and find spiritually satisfying. In practical terms this meant wearing vestments, identical to those worn by Roman Catholics in fact. This had been a big no-no with all the evangelicals I had ever known and I had never worn them myself before Banchory. When I came to Banchory I agreed to do so. At first this was about reaching out to more catholically minded Christians and also not wanting to offend those for whom this was important. It was to come to mean something much more important and more significant. More about this in the future!

Again early on in my time at Banchory, Bishop Bruce asked the churches in the Diocese to each produce a mission statement. What he was trying to do was to get churches to think beyond survival and from looking inwards to growth and looking outwards. Whatever you may think about mission statements, it at least made a point.

The fact is that many churches just left it to the Rector to write and then commented upon it. Banchory was no different. Preparing the statement, however, was a useful exercise for me. In England, churches would have used this to signal if they were evangelical or not. I wanted to say that I wanted the church to believe in the authority of the Bible without committing us to a particular cultural expression of what that meant. The phrase I used in 1993 is one that I am pleased to say many more are adopting. I wrote that we were orthodox Christians who believed in the authority of the Bible and the historic creeds of the Church.

I realized that this was what I did indeed believe and that this was where my journey so far had taken me. I have always believed in the Bible and its authority. I do think it is trustworthy. Of course it has to be interpreted, but that does not mean that you can lose huge sections of it or simply ignore others. This I think is why I could preach without difficulty in an evangelical church without necessarily being comfortable there for other reasons. Nor do I think that there are no limits to interpretation. I believe that the Holy Spirit did truly guide the Church into all truth when the Ecumenical Councils framed the creeds.

This conviction has grown and I am encouraged lately to see other Christians coming to much the same conclusion. I believe that this is a position of integrity that gives us the freedom to express and explore the Christian faith without losing the faith that ‘was once and for all delivered to the saints’. Bishop Bruce’s exercise may not have had all the consequences he may have wished, but it helped me for one define where I was coming from.

In my ministry, I sought to continue to make the Bible the basis of my ministry and teaching, the Creeds the fundamental definition of what I believed the Bible taught, and mission a fundamental priority of church life. I also endeavoured to adopt an open and inclusive approach to church membership.

It was, and I believe is, a good place to start, but how to translate it into practice?

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