Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) and Amorphous Affiliations; Part 4: ‘(Post) Evangelical Anglican Wimberite’?

*Links are highlighted.

This is the fourth and final post in a series wherein I attempt to explore the nature of my evolving Christian faith. In part one I sketched a vague backdrop of my own experience of (re)embracing Christianity, and by proxy Western Evangelicalism, as an adult convert. In part two I expanded upon some of my formative encounters with the Pentecostal-charismatic movement, and reflected upon how they began to shape my journey as a new believer. This post also dealt with the significant influence of pastor Bill Johnson and Bethel Church, Redding, upon my inherited outlook and understanding of a distinctively pentecostal-charismatic spirituality. Following Johnson’s endorsement of Donald Trump at the apex of the recent US election, I finally arrived at a place where, after much soul searching and reasoned reflection, I felt that I could no longer self-identify with North American Evangelicalism.[1] Rather than continue to glibly accept the label ‘Evangelical’ as a descriptor of my faith, I decided instead that “simply ‘Christian’ will have to do”.[2] In my most recent post, I grappled with the reality that I am therefore now some kind of ‘post-evangelical’, and very briefly discussed the relationship between ‘Evangelicalism’ and ‘fundamentalism(s)’In closing, I considered to what extent I had unwittingly absorbed ‘fundamentalist literalism’ within my emerging understanding and experience(s) of the Christian Faith; Having reflected upon this at length, I have decided that the time to jettison this particularly unhealthy influence is now long overdue.

As an unintended consequence of engaging in some critical reflection upon my own faith tradition, I shall now delve into a book by the Anglican theologian Martyn Percy called Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism, before sketching my currently ‘amorphous’ affiliation to both the Vineyard movement and Anglicanism (broadly conceived). I stumbled across Percy’s (albeit, somewhat dated) book in one of my recent charity shop raids, and simply could not resist its ephemeral allure. Given that he focuses almost exclusively on John Wimber (founder of the Vineyard Church movement) throughout his study, it seemed uncannily relevant to my present circumstances. Alongside Percy’s work, I have also selected a number of other resources which provide useful insights for ongoing reflection upon my deepening relationship with the Anglican Tradition whilst being part of the Vineyard movement.[3] 

John Wimber: A ‘Sophisticated Fundamentalist’?[4]

Writing in 1996, Percy described Wimber as a ‘pre-eminent contemporary fundamentalist in the revivalist tradition’.[5] Having set out his own (highly nuanced) fivefold understanding of the characteristic marks of ‘fundamentalism’, Percy identifies four key reasons why Wimber was a useful and important figure to study at the time. Firstly, ‘his appeal is international and crosses denominations’, which of course means that Wimber has been particularly influential upon the UK Anglican church.[6] Secondly, ‘Wimber fits well with [Percy’s] fundamentalist criteria’, particularly as regards ‘the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy’.[7] As such, [Wimber’s] fundamentalism makes ‘such a fascinating case study’ because he expected ‘his followers [to be] actually experiencing and promoting ‘signs’ of God’s presence’.[8] Thirdly, Percy describes ‘Wimber’s fundamentalism [as] a tendency’ consisting of a desire for ‘the spiritual renewal of the Church’ by way of ‘propogating a whole host of phenomena’ such as ‘spiritual gifts’, ‘signs and wonders’, ‘healing’, ‘prophecy’, ‘deliverance’, and ‘speaking in tongues’.[9] Finally, Percy notes that:

Wimber’s ‘particular theological methods, with their tactile emphasis, form the basis of his social organisation in all its distinctiveness, as well as characterising his opposition to other belief systems. [10]

Thus:

Analysing his work will highlight how this form of fundamentalism offers a complete interpretive framework for participants in which their understanding of God, the self and the world is formed through the words that are used and the experiences and behaviour that are valued.[11]

Whilst Percy’s critique focusses primarily upon Wimber’s written and recorded works, he has visited Wimber’s conferences in order to ‘experience first-hand how Wimber and his followers operated in their preferred context’.[12] At the very least, this ought to mitigate against those who might be tempted to dismiss Percy’s criticisms as being solely ‘academic’ or detached from lived realities. As one might expect from a thinker of Percy’s calibre, his subsequent observations are acutely insightful.

Power Play?

One of the most troubling, sobering, and yet strangely reassuring aspects of Percy’s thesis is his analysis of power as a ‘principle of coherence’ for his interpretation of John Wimber’s theology and praxis. [13] As he puts it, Wimber’s ‘insistence that the power of God is by nature a visible, tangible phenomenon’ means that Wimber ‘locates power in God’s activity’, which necessarily excludes ‘other avenues in which God’s power might be manifest’.[14] This is particularly (and notably) the case with respect to the lack of any sense of a revelation of God in ‘failure, sickness, or powerlessness’.[15]

Power, in the sense that Percy describes it, ostensibly results in individuals and even entire congregations, denominations, and movements becoming subject to a crass, authoritarian hegemony which lays claim to a divine mandate for exercising emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and functional oppression. Such a hypothetical worst-case scenario is surely more anti-Christ than Christlike? Or do Jesus’ words about the nature of Christian leadership (read: servanthood) not apply to pentecostal-charismatic leaders like Wimber et al? (E.g. Matt 20:24-28, Mark 10:41-45, Luke 22:24-30, 1 Pe 1:1-5). 

Indeed, Percy notes the significant issues and power dynamics that arise when influential leaders claim to speak for God:

…in Wimber’s churches ‘words of knowledge’, reputedly supernatural in origin, are used to persuade, convict, and transform individuals in order that they might respond to God (Power Evangelism, 47). Although there is some biblical precedent…the problem with Wimber and his followers’ use of words of knowledge is that they frequently do not permit a free response, or constitute an invitation. They can be tools for persuasion, alteration, and coercion.[16]

Percy goes on: 

So the speech of God for Wimber, here in words of knowledge, is a notion of the power of God that competes with the freedom God has given in creation, ultimately quashing it…this view of power has an implication for church communities, though it is masked in authority structures. Some of Wimber’s followers… believe in what they call the recovery of the ‘Ananias and Sapphira scenario’ amongst their churches (Acts 5:1-11). Followers who resist or lie to leaders are…lying to God, and are therefore immediately liable to the power of God in the form of judgement… Thus, the room to respond to a word of knowledge is severely restricted…[17]

I find Percy’s observations strangely reassuring since they have confirmed my own latent concerns with evangelical and pentecostal-charismatic power language and dynamics. I am disturbingly reminded of my own experiences of church and para-church settings wherein presentations of Christianity seem to be replete with words like ‘power’, ‘revival’, ‘victory’, ‘breakthrough’, and relentless triumphalism twinned with fundamentalist certitude and saccharine sweet positivism. All of these sinister platitudes are typically expressed in both song and sermon alike, wherein the latter is proclaimed by untouchable ‘anointed’ leaders bereft of accountability. I get profoundly uncomfortable when I ponder the reality of these situations routinely playing themselves out on any given Sunday. 

Unfortunately I have seen, imbibed, and thoughtlessly regurgitated the kind of prosperity driven power language that Percy describes all too often. Reading his initial critique of Wimber is thus unsettling, to say the least. Therefore, to the extent that any evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic spirituality becomes conflated with an imbalance of power within the Church, my instincts are to resist and reject such practices as being wholly inconsistent with Jesus’ Gospel. For the Vineyard and those sympathetic to/influenced by the movement, any legacy of John Wimber’s theology and praxis that equates to a power play must be jettisoned just as quickly as similarly toxic elements of Evangelicalism, or indeed Fundamentalism(s).

None of this is to say that every aspect of the baby that is Vineyard theology needs to be thrown out with the evangelical bathwater of course. Discernment must be balanced with faith; at least as far as I am concerned. Nor is it merely the evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic movement(s) that need to beware of the misuse of power within their ranks; all denominations and expressions of Christianity are arguably flawed and ridden with sinners like you and I. Power must be kept in check and brought to the foot of Jesus’ cross, even (especially!) in more well established traditions and institutions like the Church of England. Friends, the grass is never greener, and I’m sure that I’m already preaching to the choir on that front. 

Anglicanism?

Amidst all of this lengthy, verbose, meandering diatribe (of sorts) against aspects of Western Evangelicalism, and the pentecostal-charismatic movement(s) in particular, one could be forgiven for asking the question (as a friend of mine did recently): So what? Why has this faith-shift of yours led you to embrace the Anglican tradition?

Good question. The answer is undoubtedly more complex than I can realistically articulate. However, since that is the very purpose of this blog series, I shall attempt to do so anyway (however ham-fistedly). Firstly, as various commentators have noted, Anglicanism is a ‘broad’ model of church indeed. Within the Church of England alone, numerous contrasting theological emphases somehow manage to coexist despite the inherent tensions such diversity necessarily brings. As Stephen Hunt puts it: 

There exists under the same umbrella theological liberals, conservative Evangelicals, Charismatics, the New Age fringe, not to mention a few agnostics and a handful of committed atheists.[18]

Indeed, I would suggest that the usual (somewhat arbitrary) approach of dividing the Church of England up into three streams, such as Conservative Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic (Liberal & Conservative!), and Pentecostal-charismatic, does not do justice to the lived realities that Anglicans encounter on a weekly basis within their own parishes and dioceses. 

Nevertheless it is clear that even from a cursory view of the tradition that British Anglicanism is, daresay it, refreshingly complex. It is for this reason amongst many that I have felt uncharacteristically drawn towards the Canterbury trail; there is room for a post-evangelical, pentecostal-charismatic thinker like me to feel oddly at home alongside a wide range of misfits. Within the confines of the English steeples, theological astuteness is not necessarily frowned upon as detrimental to one’s faith. Unity really need not equate to uniformity.

Re: Baptism?

As I have written about previously, my first formative encounter with Anglican liturgy was at the church service I attended back in the summer of 2015, wherein some friends of ours had their baby baptised (or christened for hardened credo-baptist folk!). Since then, I have come to realise that there are in fact solid, biblical reasons for embracing infant baptism as a Christian. For starters, Jesus rebuked the disciples for attempting to hinder little children from coming to him despite their youth (Matt 19:13-15). Whilst I have neither the time nor the space to address this more thoroughly here, suffice to say that I have moved from my prior theological convictions in this particular area. Consequently, the floodgates have opened for me to begin being immersed in the richness and depths of the Anglican tradition. After all, if I can accept their model of baptism, why not other aspects of Anglicanism? 

Liturgical Robes

As peculiar as the simile may read, I have found that a more consistent exposure to the liturgy at our local Anglican church has been akin to the comforting sensation of snuggling up inside a warm winter garment on a freezing February afternoon; indeed, for me it has felt remarkably reminiscent of a woolen blanket or even some kind of thick, pleated robe. It is almost as though liturgy has insulated me from the worst effects of my disorienting faith-shift, as if the tradition itself reached through the annals of history to envelop me in a protective cocoon and keep me from falling away.

I have discovered that there is something powerful (yet not coercive!) about reciting words which are saturated by the scriptures, and which have been passed on by our ancestors in the reformed faith as a gainful deposit for future generations to orient themselves God-ward. Reading aloud the ancient ecumenical creeds, confessing our common trinitarian faith, engaging in corporate repentance, intercessory prayer which isn’t simply a free for all of hapless babbling (punctuated by dubious tongues speech and/or overly frequent repetitions of the word ‘Just’, ‘Father’, and ‘would you’), and having moments of silence to reflect and humble ourselves before God are all elements of any given Sunday at our local church that resonate deeply within my soul. 

When I consider the hyped, multimedia saturated, rock concert aesthetic of many contemporary Evangelical churches I have attended, the distinct lack of all of the liturgical features I have just described seems glaringly apparent. Some might counter by comparing ancient liturgy to a dead form of obsolete ritual. Yet having been on both sides of the aisle, I would now beg to differ.

The centrality of the Eucharist

This factor is definitely the most stark contrast I can think of between independent evangelical/pentecostal-charismatic churches, and the Anglican tradition insofar as I have experienced it thus far. Every time I go forward with my family for communion at our local church, I rediscover the significance of sharing the Eucharist with my church family. The bread and the wine are not mere accoutrements of an outdated and sterile religious system, they are in fact the very body and blood of our crucified Lord and saviour.

Jesus promised to manifest himself to the disciples via the spirit, and this is surely something that pentecostal-charismatic types such as myself yearn for during sung worship; a genuine encounter with the spirit of the risen Lord. Yet in communion, we can not only encounter the Lord’s real presence (communing with God, and others), we can in fact partake of Jesus’ body and drink his blood, which scripture claims has the power to cleanse us from all sin and even grant us eternal life (1 Jn 1:7, c. f. John 6:53-59).[19] 

I have found myself profoundly affected by the simple rhythms of partaking in the Eucharist on a regular basis in an Anglican setting. Whilst I do not think that God’s presence is in any way restricted or even bound to the communion wafers and wine such that either a) God must manifest Godself this way, or b) God cannot manifest Godself elsewhere (particularly during sung worship, for instance), I have had what I might describe as ‘powerful’ (though not coercive) experiences during the Eucharist.

Sometimes, collapsing to my knees at the Lord’s table is all I can muster after a challenging week! Thanks be to God for grace and mercy!

A Via Media?

Some final thoughts include my relatively long-standing affinity with the notion of the great via media within the Anglican tradition; the middle road between two opposing extremes. I use this term as much in the philosophical sense of moderation as I might in the way some Anglicans have used it to define the tradition in the following terms: 

The term via media when used in reference to the Anglican tradition generally refers to the idea that Anglicanism represents a middle way between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.[20]

For me, the via media means (amongst other things) that I am no longer faced with binary questions such as: Am I a Vineyard person, or an Anglican one? Pentecostal-charismatic, or sacramental/Anglo-catholic? Conservative evangelical, or liberal progressive? Credo-baptist or reformed such that I embrace infant baptism? Such dualistic thinking is quite simply untenable for me now. The simplest answer to such questions for me would thus be: Well, yes.

I might therefore suggest that it is entirely plausible for one to reconcile aspects of the Vineyard movement with historic Anglicanism, particularly where responsiveness to the Spirit is concerned. Quite how one might go about doing this on an individual basis, or even a corporate and/or institutional one remains to be seen. However, as Hunt suggests:

The structures of the Anglican church are sufficiently pliable to allow for considerable adaptation of Wimber’s ministry. The church provides ministry for both Charismatic Evangelicals and the pastorally minded.[21]

Doubtless, my own journey shall continue unabated. Perhaps I shall be able to merge my pentecostal-charismatic spirituality with the Anglican tradition in a relatively straightforward manner. Time will tell.

In Sum

So, what to make of all this? It would appear that I am indeed some kind of odd, hybrid creature; a post-evangelical Anglican Wimberite who is attempting to learn how to do academic theology at Master’s level whilst raising a family and earning a living. I might frame my present state of mind as follows:

I am therefore in pursuit of a revived, renewed, and reformed pentecostal-charismatic spirituality, twinned with an irresistible tug towards ancient tradition, which seeks a reasoned via media between the innumerable false dichotomies of our current 21st century context as regards faith, religion, and spirituality. In so doing, I submit that to be truly Christ-like is to be willing to eschew power and one’s own self interests in an act of reckless, worshipful, wanton abandon toward God and in so doing learn what it means to love the other; particularly the ‘least of these’ (Matt 25:31-46).

Without further ado…

M

End Notes:

1. By proxy, this has also involved a concerted effort to consciously distance myself from Bill Johnson’s/Bethel’s particular brand of charismatic theology, which has necessitated a deliberate, self-imposed moratorium on my prior tendency towards voracious media consumption (particularly Christian pop-rock songs and recorded sermons by Bethel). Additionally, to cite Johnson does not lay the blame for my own emerging faith shift away from Evangelicalism solely at his feet; many other white male pastors (E.g. Wayne Grudem, although he later recanted) endorsed Donald Trump, and this particular issue was (for me at least) very much a case of the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. It would be unfair (and inaccurate) to refer only to Bill Johnson and the Trump phenomenon as the catalyst(s) for my own disillusionment with Western Evangelicalism.

2. See the conclusion to part two.

3. Full disclosure: For any readers who may be unaware, I am currently part of a new Vineyard Church plant in Cambridge, and have engaged with some of Wimber’s written works at length. I have a great deal of natural affinity for the Vineyard movement’s approach and emphases. Consequently, I do not approach this topic lightly, or as a dispassionate, detached observer. On the contrary, I am involved, and to a large extent personally invested in many aspects of Wimber’s ‘tendency‘ towards an experiential faith, Church renewal, and so forth. Nevertheless, in light of my previous post about ‘fundamentalisms’ and controlling people (see conclusion to part 3), the central thrust of Percy’s analysis is one I take very seriously: the use, misuse, and potential abuse of power.

4. Percy, Martyn, Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996, 13.

5. Ibid, 14.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid, 15.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid, 16.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Percy, Words, 23.

17. Ibid, 24.

18. Hunt, Stephen, “The Anglican Wimberites”, PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 1995, 114.

19. This is, in many ways a disastrously naive interpretation of Johannine theology as regards the body and blood of Jesus. Nevertheless, it sprung to mind as I wrote so I felt led to include it (make of that what you will).

20. See <http://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/doctrine.aspx&gt;

21. Hunt, Anglican, 116.

Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) & Amorphous Affiliations – Part Three: (Post) Evangelical?

*Links are highlighted.

This is the third post in a series wherein I attempt to explore the nature of my evolving Christian faith. In part one I sketched a vague backdrop of my own experience of (re)embracing Christianity, and by proxy Western Evangelicalism, as an adult convert. In part two I expanded upon some of my formative encounters with the Pentecostal-charismatic movement, and reflected upon how they began to shape my journey as a new believer. This post also dealt with the significant influence of pastor Bill Johnson and Bethel Church, Redding, upon my inherited outlook and understanding of a distinctively pentecostal-charismatic spirituality. Following Johnson’s endorsement of Donald Trump at the apex of the recent US election, I finally arrived at a place where, after much soul searching and reasoned reflection, I felt that I could no longer self-identify with North American Evangelicalism.[1] Rather than continue to glibly accept the label ‘Evangelical’ as a descriptor of my faith, I decided instead that “simply ‘Christian’ will have to do”.[2] I shall now begin to articulate, at least to some extent, what this means for me going forward. Without further ado:

(Post)Evangelical?

A UK based Anglican priest called Dave Tomlinson latched onto the phrase ‘post-evangelical’ in 1993, and subsequently published an influential book by the same name. This was of course during the murky morass of the dark ages before the widespread adoption of the internet, and I was a mere schoolboy (so it’s a somewhat dated term by now!). Dave describes the process on his website as follows:

What is a post-evangelical? I suspect the term had entered our consciousness surreptitiously a couple of years earlier, but no one had ever got around to elucidating what it meant. The next day I awoke, determined to have a go. The Post-Evangelical, was published in the UK two years later, just in time for the 1995 Greenbelt Festival.[3]

And so:

The book is, in fact, a pastoral essay directed at people who struggle with the restrictions in evangelical theology, spirituality, and church culture—yet who still want to journey with the Christian faith.[4]

He elaborates:

The post-evangelical impulse does not necessarily imply a move away from Christian orthodoxy or evangelical faith – though it does for some. Rather it demonstrates that in order to remain true to a tradition, we must come to terms with its changing cultural context so that an authentic expression of that tradition can be found…[5]

The desire for authenticity in the midst of rapidly changing global contexts seems particularly relevant to my own evolving faith shift, which apparently fits with many an anecdotal account of the purported postmodern mindset that tends toward a hermeneutic of suspicion, particularly where absolute truth claims, authority figures, and institutions are concerned.[6] Whilst the book itself is only just finding it’s way onto my never-ending reading list, Dave’s short blog post provides enough insight into what a post-evangelical looks like  for me to co-opt his broad definitions. For instance, he describes some of the correspondence he has received from many Christians, in response to his book, in the following terms:

The letters told stories about the struggles people experienced trying to make sense of their faith in churches where their questions were far from welcome. Some talked about intellectual tussles with doctrines they couldn’t swallow, others of longings for a deeper spirituality. Some were frustrated at the lack of social and political engagement in their churches, others cringed at self-righteous moralizing. Most found the evangelical subculture insular, self-congratulatory, and often, embarrassing.

Many of the letters I received also voiced exasperation at the sense of certainty and hype experienced in some evangelical churches, where they found it particularly hard to express disquiet or to question prevailing attitudes. In my opinion the fundamentalist tone in much charismatic theology fuels this post-evangelical impulse.[7] – (Emphasis mine)

All of the scenarios mentioned above seem very familiar to me as I consider my own sense of disquiet and longing for greater spiritual depth in my walk with God. The words ‘certainty’ and ‘hype’ also stood out to me as being far too reminiscent of my experiences in Evangelical charismatic churches. As for the ‘subculture’, well, that could take up a whole separate blog series! It is fascinating to me that Tomlinson equates the influence of a ‘fundamentalist tone in much charismatic theology’ as being relevant to the droves of people who seem to be adopting the term ‘post-evangelical’. I have quite recently stumbled across a number of similar references with regard to fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, which merit some attention in the next section of this post. It seems that Tomlinson is not alone in making this connection.

It is worth remembering at this stage that my writing here is driven by a number of questions which relate to the title of this post. Firstly, in light of my previous blog post: Am I now ‘post-evangelical’? It would seem so. A concomitant question might be: “What does that really mean?” In order to answer these, a more pressing question might be: “What is an Evangelical?” To all of these questions, we shall now turn.

Evangelical Identity?

A helpful study on this very topic was compiled relatively recently by David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones. The introduction to Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom During the Twentieth Century provides a number of useful starting points for a brief discussion of the matter in question. For instance, Donald Dayton is cited as a voice of scepticism which casts doubt upon the notion of forming any meaningful definition of the term ‘evangelical’:

Evangelicalism, [Dayton] argues, is a diverse patchwork whose constituent elements possess so little in common that an overall definition is impractical.[8]

By way of contrast, the editors also summarise David Bebbington’s broad definition of ‘evangelicals’ as Christians who define their faith by stressing a number of crucial factors.[9] As Bebbington himself puts it: 

There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.[10]

Both perspectives ring true to me. On the one hand, Evangelicalism is far from monolithic; like any complex movement it is undoubtedly nuanced, fuzzy, and inherently difficult to clarify with any degree of serious, all-encompassing precision. On the other hand, it does not utterly defy a definition of any kind. Bebbington’s ‘quadrilateral’ arguably offers a very useful rubric for understanding the key features and tropes that characterise the movement as a whole; albeit only in a vague, limited, and generalised manner within the blurry boundaries of the ‘diverse patchwork’ that Dayton describes. 

My own journey has consisted of a staggeringly disorientating sense of uncertainty as regards ‘evangelical’ identity. Why do so many ‘evangelicals’ (especially close friends and acquaintances) hold radically different views on how to interpret Scripture, and where do I stand on any given issue that is being disputed? Whose ‘evangelical’ am I? Why do I seem to sit in the ‘progressive’ camp on some matters, and yet remain entrenched in the ‘conservative’ one on others? Studying for an MA in Theology has been enormously helpful in answering some of these questions, and at the same time has also added innumerable layers of complexity to my understanding (or lack thereof) of the Christian faith, and Evangelicalism in particular. 

To clarify, ambiguity is surely inevitable since the postmodern turn, insofar as one may conceive of the contextually bounded limitations of all human knowledge and endeavour; Uncertainty is arguably inescapable (though this is, of course, far from certain!). Thus, defining the meaning of ‘evangelical’ Christianity in any kind of detail is not a straightforward task; nevertheless, at least in terms of historic Western Evangelicalism, it has a vaguely discernible shape. 

Thus, despite such prevalent uncertainty I have in fact observed the distinct fourfold pattern that Bebbington describes. In my experience ‘evangelicals’ do indeed emphasise conversion (my own being a case in point!), activism (I have been on the receiving end of and engaged in evangelism, outreach, etc), biblicism (The Bible is held to be ‘authoritative’), and crucicentrism (Jesus Christ crucified and the implications of this event constitute the ‘main thing’). Even now, in the broad sense that Bebbington describes at least, I remain steadfastly ‘evangelical’, although the devil remains hidden within the details of how one actually defines each of these factors and, as ever, translates theory into practice. One may ask, for instance, to what extent is one person’s ‘Evangelicalism’ functionally synonymous with another person’s ‘fundamentalism’? Answering such a question may prove to be source of considerable discomfort and tension for many hapless, oblivious ‘evangelicals’ (I would include myself in such a category until very recently!).

For me, becoming ‘post-evangelical’ is, as Tomlinson noticed, driven by a desire to eschew what I consider to be numerous negative attributes which (my understanding/experience of) ‘Evangelicalism’ has imbibed from ‘fundamentalism’. Yet even drawing this comparison is problematic, as we shall see.

Evangelicals & Fundamentalism?

As the authors of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism have also noted, ‘Fundamentalism is more complex to analyse’ than Evangelicalism, the latter of which they claim ‘is more or less understood’.[11] At present, insofar as the study in question is concerned, the authors assert that ‘Fundamentalism [has] emerged as a trans-confessional phenomenon’.[12] In other words, it is not confined to North American Protestantism, or indeed any single world religion or sociopolitical movement (or expression thereof). Thus, much like Dayton’s critique of attempts to clearly define Western Evangelicalism: 

Fundamentalism is not best seen as a single worldwide impulse channelling generic religious energies in a particular direction. Rather, as it has been argued, fundamentalisms must be regarded as plural.[13]

In Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Malise Ruthven illustrates the extraordinary challenge of attempting to capture and summarise the plurality of potential meanings, connotations, and associations that a term like ‘fundamentalism’ conjures; all of which effortlessly and indiscriminately criss-cross within and beyond the somewhat arbitrary geographical borders and historical epochs of human culture(s). Some of his particularly relevant insights include:

Fundamentalism, according to its critics, is just a dirty 14 letter word. It is a term of abuse levelled by liberals and Enlightenment rationalists against any group, religious or otherwise, that dares to challenge the absolutism of the post-Enlightenment outlook.[14]

And:

The F-word has long since escaped from the Protestant closet in which it began its semantic career around the turn of the 20th Century…Put at its broadest, it may be described as a religious way of being that manifests itself in a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identities as individuals or groups in the face of modernity and secularization.[15]

Ruthven applies Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblances’ to construct his discussion of ‘similarities and relationships’ between varying ‘fundamentalisms’, which, by virtue of their inherent diversity, defy scholarly attempts to produce ‘a single, defining feature’.[16] That said, Ruthven does aver that:

Fundamentalists everywhere tend towards a literalist interpretation of the texts they revere…At it’s starkest, literalism means that the letter or exact wording of a text carries the whole weight of its meaning, excluding any unmentioned or extraneous data. [17] – Emphasis mine.

With the benefit of the foolish wisdom of hindsight, it is this particular quality of religious fundamentalism(s) that most frequently springs to mind when I consider my past experience of, and participation in, Western Evangelicalism. I have, to my shame, both uncritically embraced and espoused far too many examples of fundamentalist literalism throughout my short time as an adult Christian convert. After all, if “the Bible says it”, and “I believe it, that settles it”.. right?[18]

Biblicism defined in this (admittedly very narrow) way, is one of the less helpful reoccurring features of my numerous encounters with diverse expressions of Western Evangelicalism that I am keen to shed. Familiar rhetoric springs to mind immediately, such as “the Bible clearly teaches…(read: it doesn’t, but I’m right and you’re wrong)”, “God’s word is clear, sharp, and precise…”(read: and I shall now proceed to stab you with it), ‘X’ preacher is “bringing the word of God” (read: their unqualified, biased, and oftentimes exegetically disastrous interpretation of various proof texts) to any given congregation or gathering; so one must suspend all intellectual faculties, eschew critical scrutiny, informed dissent, or open minded enquiry, and “submit”to the teaching in question (no questions asked). 

Perhaps most disturbingly, I recall numerous instances wherein a given charismatic preacher says something along the lines of “God/The Lord has told me/is saying.. [insert contentious assertion here]…So if you want to respond [obediently] come forward”. At this point either they, or one of their ‘ministry team’, can slap their palms upon your forehead after a time of “worship” (read: enthusiastic singing), and the Holy Spirit (read: or perhaps the power of suggestion and/or a firm shove through your center of balance) might just force you to the floor.[19] Apparently this is how one recovers authentic New Testament Christianity in certain pentecostal-charismatic circles.[20]

In short, this virulent variant of ‘evangelical’ biblicism is all too often nothing less than a sinister weapon which is used to manipulate and assert control over unwitting (albeit, oftentimes willing) participants. Fundamentalist literalism of this kind can be a dark, blunt instrument in the hands of both well meaning and malicious zealots. Either way it has the propensity to bludgeon the mind, body, and soul into submission to various ‘evangelical’ agendas such as ‘complementarianism’ (read: the functional subjugation of women), syncretism with nationalism, white supremacist ideologies, just war theories, anti-intellectualism, social conservatism, and so forth. Granted, some ‘evangelical’ agendas may in fact be consistent with Jesus’ life and teaching, although the examples cited are clearly (arguably) not.

I am increasingly ‘past’ the kind(s) of Evangelicalism(s) that adopt fundamentalist literalism in such a way that transforms so called ‘evangelical’ theology and practice into toxic, pernicious ideologies that bear all the hallmarks of ravenous wolves and false prophets.[21] In contrast to any such Evangelicalism(s), I am unashamedly ‘post-evangelical’. This clearly needs to be fleshed out, and my negative assertions must be balanced out by positive and constructive suggestions (particularly as regards my embrace of the Anglican Tradition). However this post is already out of hand and far too long! Until then:

Teaser: Next Post 

In my next post, I shall attempt to engage with Martyn Percy’s penetrating study of John Wimber, which is entitled Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism.  In so doing, I intend to offer a sketch of what my developing spirituality and mixed denominational affiliation is starting to look like: That of a ‘post-evangelical Anglican Wimberite’!

Comments are welcome!

M

End Notes:

1. By proxy, this has also involved a concerted effort to consciously distance myself from Bill Johnson’s/Bethel’s particular brand of charismatic theology, which has necessitated a deliberate, self-imposed moratorium on my prior tendency towards voracious media consumption (particularly Christian pop-rock songs and recorded sermons by Bethel). Additionally, to cite Johnson does not lay the blame for my own emerging faith shift away from Evangelicalism solely at his feet; many other white male pastors (E.g. Wayne Grudem, although he later recanted) endorsed Donald Trump, and this particular issue was (for me at least) very much a case of the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. It would be unfair (and inaccurate) to refer only to Bill Johnson and the Trump phenomenon as the catalyst(s) for my own disillusionment with Western Evangelicalism.

2. See the conclusion to my previous post.

3. http://www.davetomlinson.co.uk/post-evangelical/.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Whether such a hypothetical ‘postmodern’ mindset actually exists in the concrete lived realities of the human condition is itself, of course, a proposal to be highly suspicious of. Quite how one defines ‘postmodernism’, beyond a vague reference to Jean François Lyotard’s infamous ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’, is another story entirely (well, almost).

7. See [3].

8. Bebbington, David W., and Ceri Jones, David (eds), Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom During the Twentieth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 1-2. See also: Dayton, D. W., ‘Some Doubts about the Usefulness of the Category “Evangelical”’, in D. W. Dayton and R. K. Johnston (eds),  The  Variety  of  American Evangelicalism (Knoxville, Tenn.,  1991),  245–51.

9. Ibid.

10. Bebbington, D.W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s, London: Routledge, 1989, 2-3.

11. Bebbington, Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, 2-3.

12. Ibid, 3.

13. Ibid. See also: C. H. Partridge, ‘Introduction’, in C. H. Partridge (ed.), Fundamentalisms (Carlisle, 2001), pp. xv–xvi.

14. Ruthven, Malise, Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 5.

15. Ibid, 5-6.

16. Ibid, 6, 53, 122, etc.

17. Ibid, 40-41.

18. Wrong. Drastically so.

19. As dreadful and provocative as this caricature may be, it is a fairly accurate (albeit it mildly sarcastic/playfully mischievous) representation of many experiences I have had in distinctly Pentecostal-charismatic settings. I have mentioned it previously, however it seemed worth reiterating once again in this context.

20. It’s not of course, but it’s very often framed in this way; we have the real deal, other so called ‘Christians’ are lesser, unbiblical impostors who need to be “set free”.

21. It may be a hangover from my uncritical embrace of fundamentalist literalism, but I see too many kernels of truth in Jesus’ recorded statements warning his people about false prophets and teachers. By their fruits, one can recognise them (e.g. Matt 7:15-20). 

Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) & Amorphous Affiliations – Part Two: Bill Johnson, Donald Trump & Evangelical Reckoning

*Links are highlighted.

This is the second post in a series wherein I attempt to explore and articulate the nature of my own evolving Christian faith. In part one I sketched a vague backdrop of my own experience of (re)embracing Christianity, and by proxy Western Evangelicalism, as an adult convert. In my original plan for the first draft of this (less than) brief missal, I considered the construction of a selective narrative explaining how my spiritual journey has been shaped by various different church contexts in recent years. Recent events in America, however, have led me to refocus my efforts on the specific and pervasive influence that Bethel Church in Redding, California has had on my encounter with a distinct subset of UK Evangelicalism throughout the past ten years. Apologies in advance for any subversive, grammatically obtuse hilarity that may ensue.

Feel The Burn

I can still recall my first charismatic ‘encounter’ at a church ‘worship’ service on a Sunday evening (worship in this case meant singing, with no sermon or communion etc). The setting seemed innocuous enough at first, and consisted of a rented space above a set of tennis courts. I cannot remember the precise nature of the music, but at some point there was an altar call and eager worshippers were encouraged to take a step forward as a physical act of pursuing God. Being a zealous, recent convert, I complied. What happened next took me by surprise.

*Boom* – I received prayer for the Holy Spirit to fall upon me. The (customary) palm was placed upon my forehead, and before I knew what was happening I ended up flat on my back as my whole body buckled (does one fall or is one pushed?). Seemingly, I was now under the influence of some unseen, spectral entity. Thankfully, I was gently lowered to the floor by a group of volunteers, whom I discovered were known as ‘catchers’. Clearly, collapsing Christians were to be expected, since apparently this phenomenon was commonplace in charismatic church circles. I vaguely remembered the pastor calling out to God for ‘unquenchable fire’ (which I later discovered had distinctly eschatological connotations; Matt 3:12). As I lay on the floor, with my eyes closed, I had clear visions of an exalted Jesus Christ like figure against the backdrop of a blue sky, surrounded by cumulonimbus. This really was a full blown religious experience unlike any I had received before, and marked my introduction to the Pentecostal-charismatic movement.[1] It would be entirely fitting to describe the whole scenario as a baptism of fire.

Over the years that followed this experience, I found myself in similar contexts on many occasions. Church services, conferences, ‘worship’ nights, and prayer meetings with various charismatic church groups all had one thing common: an expectation of some kind of powerful ‘encounter’ or experience with what participants were taught was the Holy Spirit. Preachers would ‘share’ messages that were at times scripted (with varying degrees of precision), and at times purportedly unplanned and led by the Spirit. So called ‘prophetic words’ were part and parcel of such meetings, as speakers and members of the congregation offered what they believed was divinely inspired speech (viz. speaking on behalf God), which may or may not (oftentimes not) have involved references to Scripture. People in such settings were frequently overwhelmed by their religious experiences to the extent that they would cry out, shake, rattle, and roll, emit strange grunting sounds, animal noises, and babble in tongues, fall over, twitch uncontrollably, burst into spontaneous fits of laughter, and be reduced to tears. On occasion, people might even fall to their knees or lie prostrate in acts of reverence to their unseen perception of the divine. Then, there were the ‘fire tunnels’:

Do the Holy Cokey

As a youth, I must confess that I enjoyed gyrating my hapless, long haired, wannabe-goth-rocker clad frame around erratically in a vain attempt to ‘dance’ (strong word) or ‘mosh’ to whichever tunes were doing the rounds at the local Rock club. [2] This unfortunate predilection continued well into my early twenties, and was not even entirely dissuaded by my conversion to Christianity; I’ve always loved a good, slightly awkward looking boogie. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that charismatic Christianity, as I experienced it within a predominantly white, middle class, Western context, had more than it’s fair share of interpretive dance moves. From billowing ribbons, to fluttering flags, twirling tasmanian devil-like expressions of tortuous contortions were the order of the day for many a rhythmically challenged worshipper on the third wave charismatic scene.

One of the more intriguing movement based forms of Pentecostal piety that I partook in was the ‘fire tunnel’ (or prayer tunnel, for slightly embarrassed Brits who wanted to tone down the weirdness). Essentially, believers form two parallel lines, facing each other, and put their hands out to pray and/or bless people who form an orderly queue at one end and proceed to walk through said gauntlet. This holy cokey often (allegedly) involves people being overwhelmed by the Spirit as they are continuously prayed for by each pair of believers in the line as they pass through. Sometimes people have to be carried out as the experience is just too intense. Animal noises and rabid babbling may ensue. As peculiar as this practice is, audience participation in questionable modes of collaborative, ecstatic movement is hardly a difficult concept for a man who first crowd surfed to Pantera at the original UK ‘Ozzfest’, and survived several ‘circle pits’ at post-punk gigs and festivals.[3] I’ve been through a fair few fire tunnels, and as wonderfully daft and absurd as it may be, I’d done far worse during my misspent youth. If Anglo-catholic Christians are going to politely line up and receive the real body and blood of Christ in communion, are pentecostal-charismatic types really any more insane for expecting a divine encounter when receiving focused prayer?[4]

Fusing can be Fun

In my previous post, I quoted Kathy Escobar’s book entitled Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart, wherein she describes the early stages of faith as a process called ‘fusing’, which consists of ‘believing‘, ‘learning‘, and ‘doing‘.[5] I believed in Jesus Christ, so I began to learn about him, attend church, and started ‘doing’ various religious activities. Another characteristic of fusing is a desire for ‘affiliation’, ‘conformity’, and ‘certainty’.[6] Borrowing Kathy’s language, I can now see how I wanted to be affiliated with certain church groups, and thus found myself subconsciously learning how to conform to the tacit expectations required within such contexts. I also gradually developed a growing sense of certainty about my faith and the nature of Christianity, albeit filtered through the various churches I attended and the people therein. Charismatic Christians were my brethren, so I adopted the mindsets, language, and subcultural affiliations that were part and parcel of my encounter with the wider pentecostal-charismatic movement in the West.

Experience had played a powerful role throughout my journey to faith, and my fusing process was saturated by subjective sensory stimulation that I readily attributed to God on many occasions. It wasn’t long before I was first exposed to the influence of the American megachurch pastor Bill Johnson, who emphasised a theology of pentecostal-charismatic encounter. As senior pastor of Bethel church in Redding, California, Johnson offered a vision of Christianity that pursued the supernatural presence of God more than many other preachers whom I had engaged with as a new believer. To sweeten the deal, Bethel also churned out a remarkable amount of guitar driven Christian pop-rock music, books, and multimedia resources for believers to consume. I was sold, and somewhat uncritically too at first. If I’m completely honest, oftentimes it was actually a lot of fun to pursue my new beliefs via the medium of corporate participation in bizarre charismatic practices, which usually took place to a familiar soft rock soundtrack provided by the likes of Bethel. I devoured their fodder, and gorged myself on Johnson’s charismatic theology by downloading sermons, podcasts, and reading books on topics such as Hosting [God’s] Presence and The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind. It helped that trusted friends were into the same ideas and bought the same products since after all, one must conform in order to be affiliated, no?

Powerful Promises

Power sells. White power, which promises prosperity and is galvanised by persuasive religious rhetoric, even more so. It is tempting to ignore, dismiss, disbelieve, minimise, and generally refuse to acknowledge the flaws of those whom we admire and trust the most. For many Evangelical Christians like me, Bill Johnson has been an important spiritual leader, guru, mentor, and guide through the labyrinthine maze of how a vibrant, living pentecostal-charismatic spirituality turns faith into praxis. Like many megachurch pastors he is a winsome communicator who tantalises the earnest seeker of all things spiritual with catchy, tweetable soundbites whilst tickling the ears of the uninitiated by appealing to their affections. Moreover, he stimulates and captures their imagination by promising that it is possible for believers to enjoy a miraculous lifestyle peppered with supernatural phenomena. For instance, as Johnson puts it:

God is changing the way Christians think about the so-called impossible. He is teaching us to work hand in-hand with the Kingdom so the reality of heaven comes crashing into earthly problems and overwhelms them. The results are astonishing miracles, great victories over the enemy, healing, deliverance, revelation, and more. It’s not hype; it’s not baseless hope or theory. It’s fact. [7]

And

In the end, nothing satisfies the heart of the Christian like seeing so-called impossibilities bow their knees to the name of Jesus. Anything less than this is abnormal and unfulfilling. [8]

Grounding his argument in an understanding of doing God’s will as the primary focus of Christian living, Johnson elaborates that:

To be effective believers, we must go well beyond the Christian life we have known. We must redefine “normal” Christianity so it lines up with God’s idea of normal, not the definition we have accepted and grown accustomed to based on our experiences (or lack thereof). The normal Christian life begins with the realization that we were put here to do the will of God on earth as it is in heaven.. [9]

Thus:

‘God..wants the reality of heaven to invade this rebel-torn world, to transform it, to bring it under His headship. What is free to operate in heaven—joy, peace, wisdom, health, wholeness, and all the other good promises we read about in the Bible—should be free to operate here on this planet, in your home, your church, your business, and your school. What is not free to operate there—sickness, disease, spiritual bondage, and sin—should not be free to operate here, period.’ [10]

So, for Johnson, the pursuit of the divine will ought to lead to positive change and prosperity. Presumably, if a believer is not experiencing this, they must be ‘confused’, and have been subjected to ‘bad teaching and disappointment’. [11] He sums up and reiterates the potential benefits that Christians can expect in the following terms:

‘What happens when we make this our mission? Lives are set free, bodies are restored, darkness lifts from people’s minds, the rule of the enemy is pushed back in every way imaginable. Businesses grow healthy, relationships flower again, people re-connect with their calling and purpose in life, churches grow, and cities feel the effects of having the Kingdom flourishing within them.’ [12]

For years I stoked the embers of my own dissatisfaction with the all too familiar reality of my own mundane existence by uncritically swallowing Johnson’s Theology of glory; with enough faith I too could enjoy health, wealth, and unprecedented supernatural phenomena on a daily basis. Why not? Surely this was God’s will? [13] If this wasn’t happening, surely there must be something amiss with me? Such were the kinds of questions that reverberated around within my thought world as I digested more and more charismatic theology from the likes of Bill Johnson and his known associates. [14] It almost felt as though regardless of whatever strife or angst I might have been experiencing in my first church, like minded people who defied Christian stereotypes and compelled me to press onwards in my increasingly pentecostal-charismatic faith journey were never more than a click away via podcast/recorded sermon/etc. Even my decision to appraise and critique Johnson’s theological method in one of my early MA papers didn’t dissuade me from listening to his voice, appreciating his perspective, and allowing him to have a significant measure of influence over me as a believer (albeit with a healthier dose of informed scepticism and sobriety). 

Then, Bill Johnson endorsed Donald Trump as President of the USA. Cue minor existential crisis.

Colour Blind?

For someone who has aspirations towards undertaking a career change by pursuing doctoral level research in Theology and Religious studies, it would be extraordinarily naive of me to think that I could even attempt such an endeavour without at least becoming more aware of my own colour blindness. I am a privileged, highly educated, middle class, white, Western, Christian male who simply does not (and to a large extent cannot) appreciate or understand the perspectives of people of colour within my own context or beyond. Racial prejudice is something I read about in the news, and generally never experience. Systemic evil and oppression feature primarily as hip sounding buzz terms in my latest missiology essay, and abstract (albeit genuinely horrifying) concepts which exist largely in my imagination. At best, the sickening realities too many people live with on a daily basis only become more tangible within my British Cantabrigian bubble when they are hidden within the sanitised words of a scholarly article or blog post that I stumble across on Twitter. I am ignorant, uninitiated, and blind to the struggles of race related bigotry and discrimination that perpetuates itself throughout Western culture. God forbid that such topics should ever darken the doors of my local church(es). 

Yet I can acknowledge the evil in our midst. I must, or I will never break free from the endless cycle of apathetic narcissism and sanctimonious (dis)harmony of indifference to real world suffering that Christ followers are surely called upon to challenge, alleviate, and oppose. Make no mistake, the insipid irony of a well respected, white male megachurch pastor like Bill Johnson (who preaches a message that promises believers power, influence, and prosperity) endorsing another white man who promises Americans the same things (albeit a different kind of power from a different source!) whilst branding the majority of Latino immigrants as criminals, drug dealers, rapists and murderers is not lost on me. Johnson wrote at length to justify his own support for Trump whilst ignoring and/or minimising Trump’s racist rhetoric, which has arguably energised the alt. right (read: white supremacist) movement in the USA and provided them with a platform and a sense of legitimacy. Notably, on this issue alone, Johnson has nothing to say about the significance of David Duke, the former head of the Klu Klux Klan, ‘rejoicing’ at Trump’s election victory. After a passing admonition of Trump’s misogynistic views and claims of being able to ‘grab [women] by the pussy’ and ‘do whatever [he] wants’ to them, Johnson dismisses any concerns by appealing to Trump’s public apology for being caught on camera. In addition, Johnson’s silence on Trump’s mockery of a disabled person, alongside allegations of widespread corruption in the former business practices of the President-Elect, suggests that either he hasn’t read articles like this one, and/or he disbelieves/disregards them if he has.  It is difficult to imagine quite how Johnson’s vision of Jesus’ Kingdom invading our earthly sphere of existence can be reconciled with the upsurge in right wing nationalism, racial  hatred, xenophobia, and misogyny that Trump’s candidacy has already enlivened and (to some extent) legitimised.

To say that I found Johnson’s uncritical public acceptance and support of Trump’s candidacy disappointing would be a grotesque understatement. By aligning himself with the legions of white Evangelicals who endorsed Trump, and by proxy his racist and misogynistic ideology (to say nothing of his potentially corrupt business practices), Johnson has shown solidarity with the oppressors of those who most fear a Trump presidency, and the destructive forces that his candidacy has already unleashed. Given Johnson’s influence over pentecostal-charismatic Christians within the broader context of Western Evangelicalism, this feels like a tragic betrayal. Worse still, it feels like an abandonment of the pastoral imperative to show solidarity with the ‘least of these’ over against one’s own interests, and the seductive allure of Empire (Matt 25:31-46). 

Unraveling the Gordian Knot

As the title of this, and my previous post suggest, my faith has been shifting in recent years. Kathy Escobar describes part of the shifting process as ‘unraveling’, in the following way:

Unraveling can be a season of grief and profound loss, where we lose certainty and faith, relationships and familiar structures, and identity and purpose. 

And

In many ways, Unraveling is like a game of spiritual Jenga. Over many years of Fusing we have built a tower of beliefs and practices. During Unraveling, we begin to pull these things out, unsure what it means for the rest of our faith. We wonder, If I take out this piece, is the whole Christian tower going to fall? Will losing this piece end the game entirely? How far can I go before my whole faith crumbles? …the bottom line is this: Unraveling is unnerving. [15]

Consider me unnerved. Whilst I wouldn’t identify with every aspect of the process that Escobar describes (for instance, my faith feels surprisingly robust!), I do recognise much of my journey in what she says. Insofar as Spiritual Jenga is concerned, my question might be: If I take out my reliance on the kind of pentecostal-charismatic theology proliferated by superstars like Bill Johnson, and stop consuming products by Bethel Church, will my faith ever recover it’s sense of urgency and pursuit of a lifestyle steeped in the miraculous? A broader question which I shall attempt to explore in my next post might be: can I still self-identify as ‘Evangelical’ and keep a clean conscience in light of the overwhelming support white Evangelicals like Bill Johnson have given to Trump? Can a white Western male such as myself possibly extricate himself from the pervasive influence of American Evangelicalism and yet retain a lively Christian Faith and sense of missiological purpose?

Emma Green, writing for The Atlantic, puts it well when she talks about The Evangelical Reckoning Over Donald Trump in the following terms:

..For some evangelical leaders, and particularly women and people of color, this election was never about power jockeying or compromise. To them, Trump represents a bigoted, misogynistic worldview and an existential threat…White, conservative Christians may have thought they were just casting a vote for president, but some of their brothers and sisters in the church see their choice as a direct and personal assault.

Thus, for many Christians (including me), whether or not to remain affiliated with Evangelicalism is now a serious question: Would doing so would violate their conscience? Thabiti Anyabwile puts it well when he says that:

Evangelicals in this vote have created a pretty deadly and chilling effect on their witness to Christ and the gospel, and the scriptures…

For that reason alone, my own decision is clear enough. I can no longer identify as ‘Evangelical’; Simply ‘Christian’ will have to do. Quite what any of that might entail, I shall leave until my next post.

M

End Notes:

1. I have deliberately chosen ‘pentecostal-charismatic’ as a catch-all term to denote Christians who believe in the restoration of the so called ‘charismatic’ gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12), which include various phenomena, such as speaking in tongues, healing, miracles, prophecy, words of knowledge, etc.. which are themselves dependent upon the ‘baptism’ or ‘infilling’ of the Spirit as a second blessing subsequent to conversion (and often water baptism). It goes without saying that such a staggeringly broad generalisation has little if any scholarly traction as it is too imprecise. Nevertheless, it shall have to do for now.

2. Yes, I once had long hair, sported an eyebrow piercing, and wore boots, chains, black nail polish, etc. No, I don’t regret it, and no, I don’t think heavy Rock/Metal/Alternative music and the connected subculture/fashion/etc is of the Devil. I still listen to heavy Rock music and I’m fairly sure that Jesus is a wicked guitarist. Make of that what you will!

3. For the uninitiated enquirer, crowd surfing is reasonably self explanatory: get up on top of a willing crowd, and be carried along by their hands, shoulders, and heads until you reach the barrier near the stage at the concert in question. At this point, burly security guards ought to manhandle you (for free!) and deposit you over the safety barrier where you can walk around to re-enter the morass of sweating bodies for another attempt. A circle pit is when a section of the crowd starts rotating around in a big, big circle, oftentimes flinging other people around in the process until chaos ensues. It’s rough, and a bit like a very tame bar brawl (hopefully with less people ending up in hospital or being arrested for GBH).

4. Questions of sanity aside (I’m not saying Anglo-Catholic or pentecostal-charismatic Christians are insane!), many believers report positive after effects of such pentecostal-charismatic practices. It may be pneumatological or psychosomatic, but whatever the case something certainly appears to be happening in these situations. Bizarre? Yes. Unbiblical? In a sense. Yet to be dismissed outright as plain loopy? Not so easy.

5. Escobar, Kathy, Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart, (Kindle Edition) New York, USA: Convergent Books; Crown Publishing Group, 2014, 23.

6.Ibid. 

7. Johnson, Bill, The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind: Access to a Life of Miracles, Shippensburg, PA, Destiny Image Publishers Incorporated: 2005, 29-30.

8. Ibid, 31.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid, 32.

11. Ibid, 31.

12. Ibid, 32.

13. Paradoxically, for what it’s worth, I still think Jesus’ words about his followers doing greater works than him, and that all things are possible for the one who prays with faith, ought to challenge believers to pursue the apparent impossibility of his promises (Matt 21:21, Mark 11:23, John 14:12 etc).

14. E.g. Heidi & Rolland Baker, Georgian & Winnie Banov, Catch the Fire ministries, etc..

15. Escobar, Faith, 67.

Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) & Amorphous Affiliations

Part One:

*Links are highlighted.

What follows is a personal reflection on my own evolving faith journey, as opposed to anything overtly theological or scholarly. Since my last blog post on Anglican Realignment, my family has had the joyous, privileged addition of a newborn baby to both amuse us, and remind us to be thankful for God’s generous provision and grace in our lives. That significant life event, twinned with restarting my Theology MA and getting stuck back into my professional work, has taken up a surprising amount of my time and energy (!). I have thus stayed my scribal hand from verbally excreting more half formed thoughts into the Christian stream of consciousness known informally as the ‘blogosphere’. In an age of disinformation overload within our 21st Century, Westernised digital economy, this is (un)certainly no bad thing. Talk is cheap; ambiguous symbols on HD screens even more so.

Considering all of the above factors alongside the humbling reality that my previous post prompted barely a squeak from the virtual wilderness into which it was jettisoned, I doubt that this one will garner much more (if any) subsequent engagement or feedback. Consequently, I shall be as frank, outrageously verbose, infernally imaginative, linguistically rabid, grammatically arcane, and unapologetically cantankerous as I please (although before you get your hopes up, I may end up being necessarily restrained at points). You have been warned; let the lyrical waxing commence!

Faith Shift(s)

‘What happens when all we once believed begins to become less solid and secure? When we sense that what weve been doing is not what Jesus had in mind for his followers? When we have years of head knowledge but our hearts feel empty and dead? When our tried-and-true methods of connecting with God stop working? When were disillusioned with church and dont know where to turn? When our faith is shifting and it feels like were in a free fall?’ – Kathy Escobar. [1]

‘Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.’ -Brennan Manning. [2]

Both of these quotes were sourced from Kathy Escobar’s book Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart. As I began reading her timely, yet far from timid tome, my somewhat corpulent cognitive and emotional faculties began to quiver like the loose midriff-fat on an over ambitious Russian Cossack dancer. Picture a morbidly hairy giant of a man, clad in obscene circus lycra, who seems hell bent on practising his macabre movements uninhibited in front of a dirty second hand mirror, and you get a sense of my state of mind at the time in question. As my neurological cellulite sprang into a state of perverse, electrified puppetry more akin to a mannequin than the man I’d been, I became dimly aware of a metaphorical energy saving light bulb casting it’s disappointingly (non)incandescent light above my forehead. In other words, I suddenly recognised myself in Kathy’s text, and was rapidly smothered in a soul-searching garment of existential distress.

I knew that my faith had been shifting for at least a year or so, possibly much longer. I had just lacked the foolish wisdom of hindsight and/or opportunity to frame my perspective(s) in any kind of coherent language in order to make any sense of it all. Kathy had just provided me with the grammar and vocabulary to do that. For the first time in what felt like a long time, I realised that not only did I feel alone and disconnected, but I felt doubtful; not so much about the existence of God (been there, done that, done with that), but rather about my place in the world. My purpose(s) and plans as regards serving God in and through the Church seemed to have faltered, and I felt cut adrift in an ocean of discontentment and uncertainty.

Yet, as fortune (or indeed, the Spirit) would have it, I had (inadvertently?) stumbled upon a veritable compendium of kindred spirits who had grown disillusioned with (and in some sad cases been rendered virtually dysfunctional by) their experiences of Western Evangelicalism. Dechurched and disaffected, their collective voices wrapped around my lingering loneliness like a warm, insulated blanket enshrouding a victim of spiritual hypothermia. It was time to face up to some cold hard facts about my own story, and take solace from the (dis)comforting reality that I wasn’t alone after all. Others had already embarked down these less well travelled roads, and the faint flicker of their fading candelabras beckoned me in psiren-like fashion down what I still hope will be the narrow path toward Jesus Kingdom.

Bolstered by this new sense of optimism and solidarity, I refused to allow the serpentine tendrils of middle-aged, sceptical apathy get the better of me (why be apathetic when a quasi midlife crisis is so much more fun?). Thus, after much protracted deliberation (aka procrastination) I recently applied to volunteer for a well respected Evangelical parachurch organisation (who shall remain nameless), which necessitated the formation of a written account comprising a sober, coherent, and honest summary of my past and present spiritual journey. This process was enormously helpful for me, as it forced me to recall numerous aspects of my faith leading up to the point of conversion and beyond; it is all too easy to suffer from spiritual amnesia once one has been a believer for any significant length of time. I had lost sight of where I had come from, was (and in some ways still am) struggling with where I had ended up, and consequently had no idea where I was supposed to be going. Disorientation gripped me like the ravenous maw of a diseased Rottweiler, and furiously thrashed my former certainty to and fro like a canine stress reliever.

A Background Story

My background as a Christian is relatively complex. I was originally raised Roman Catholic and, without really understanding why, I began my first tentative steps as a nascent believer in the tradition by being ‘baptised’ as an infant (yes, I wrote that in order to provoke a gasp of incredulity from my Baptist friends. More on this later). I then ended up attending a Catholic school, going to mass on a regular basis, celebrating my first communion, and even enduring confession. The latter struck me as being particularly farcical since I frequently attempted to fabricate various minor incursions in order to pacify the priest and thereby get off lightly with a few Hail Marys as penance. Smells, bells, rosary beads, and liturgy made a reasonably potent impression upon my earliest memories of the Church. Unfortunately, the tragic revelation (thankfully only by way of our local newspaper) that the priest in charge of our local Catholic Church was a paedophile who ended up doing serious time in prison left an even bigger indent upon my perception of organised religion.

By the age of eleven I was done with the Church (or so I thought!) and was relieved to not have anything more to do with it as my secondary school was thoroughly secular; ‘Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony’. [3] Fast forward nearly fifteen years and I was steeped in the kind of sinful behaviour that would have required more than several bags full of rosary beads and an awful lot of Hail Marys to start even chipping away at my spiritual debt (to say nothing of my material debts!). Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll might be a well worn cliché, yet I had spent the entirety of my adult life up until the point when I came to faith in Jesus Christ relentlessly pursuing all three of them. I found myself hurtling toward rock bottom without a safety harness and had reached the point when I was all but ready to give up entirely.

Salvation & Strife

Cue my first encounter with Evangelical Christianity and lifeline of the Gospel. Without going into too much detail (this is not a testimony as such) I returned to the Church, joined a local independent evangelical/charismatic congregation, and was (re)baptised by full immersion in a heated swimming pool. Before long, despite seeing much positive change in my own lifestyle and mindsets, I also began to have my first notable experience (as an adult) of the kinds of conflict that can occur between rival factions within Christian communities. Sadly, this first church which I attended as a new Christian became what felt like a relentless hotbed of ambiguity and unresolved internal tensions. To this day (at the time of writing), said church has arguably not yet recovered from that difficult period of fragmentation and retrograde motion, wherein the congregation rapidly shrank in numbers and lost any grip of their central focus on student outreach. [4]

Quite why this transpired the way it did and/or the precise details of what went on behind closed doors to precipitate such an exodus is (for the most part) beyond me; it would be easy to blame shift. Yet perhaps the mysterious, murky grey morass of our collective human condition provides enough explanation as to why body of Christ is as much a hospital filled with people suffering from the sickness of sin, as it is a holy temple replete with saints who are gradually moving from glory to glory (Mark 2:17, 2 Cor 3:18). Doubtless, I played my part in the dissolution of that community, even if I was new to the game, it were. It turns out that a fresh Christian convert can be just as much of an ignorant, indignant, narcissistic, blinkered, self righteous prig as the next person (who knew!). Whatever specks I may have perceived in the eyes of my brethren turned out to be mere splinters from the large plank(s) of wood firmly embedded in my own tunnel vision. [5] Whatever the case, people started to vote with their feet. It wasn’t long before I followed suit.

None of this is to say that my memories of my first church are solely negative (far from it!); I have only scattered a single layer of monochrome paint on this particular canvas. If I were to keep sketching a more accurate and balanced picture, this already gargantuan blog post would arguably spiral out of control! Read into that what you will, but suffice to say that whilst I refuse to sugar coat my potted history of recollection and have only mentioned some of the division that existed within this congregation, it would be unfair to castigate the flawed efforts of a great deal of (mostly) well meaning people; my purpose here is not to present a detailed account of every aspect of this churchs life. I am more interested in reflecting on the way I responded to my initial encounter with a revived faith via Western Evangelicalism, which was itself filtered through the already blackened contextual lens of this single, British, independent charismatic paradigm.

Fusing

In retrospect, I can see now that I had begun to enter a phase that Kathy Escobar calls ‘fusing’. She describes this stage in her adopted and adapted model of evolving faith as follows:

…we all experience a formative season in our faith journey that sets the stage for everything that comes afterward. Fusing, the first phase in the faith formation (and faith shift) process, is what most religious converts go through regardless of their denomination or faith tradition…New faith typically causes an ascent in which we move closer to God by moving farther away from where we were. [6]

She goes on to describe what fusing consists of more clearly:

Three steps comprise Fusing: Believing (the point where we come to faith), Learning (where we begin to embrace an influx of theology, spiritual knowledge, and group expectations), and Doing (when we start actively serving, volunteering, and participating). [7]

For Escobar, fusing is also characterised by three values or attributes; ‘affiliation’, ‘conformity’, and ‘certainty’, all of which ‘shape us in significant ways’. [8] Thus, we typically want to ‘belong’ and ‘align’ or be affiliated with groups of like minded people, so we try to conform to the rules (written or not!) and subculture of the groups we join (oftentimes subconsciously), whilst imbibing the elixir of binary thinking; the latter of which Escobar describes as being ’strengthened by a strong net of absolutes’. [9] I am at least vaguely aware now of how I exhibited all of the above markers (confirmation bias notwithstanding) in multiple different contexts over the past ten years. [10] As regards certainty, I even succumbed to the seductive temptations of fundamentalism in my quest for firm ground to build my fledgling faith upon. Needless to say I discovered that, much to my chagrin, the rock solid certainty being offered by many within the ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed’ tribe was in fact little more than a sordid pile of sand which was itself resting on even shakier foundations and unquestioned presuppositions.

Many years and three churches later (yes I know, more on that next time!), my question is: what do you do when your faith begins to shift? What happens when your affiliations change, you resist conformity for its own sake, and find yourself plunged into the maelstrom of uncertainty?

Some might even call such an angst ridden process an identity crisis. I prefer Kathy Escobar’s faith shift model. If I ever get around to writing my next post, I’ll attempt to explore what some of these cataclysmic changes look like for me at the moment. Briefly, I shall consider how a formerly lapsed Roman Catholic can truly embody the parable of the prodigal son by leaving the sheep pen, encountering wolves, realising that he has lupine like tendencies, and returning to a different paddock only to discover that the journey home might require further pilgrimage. It seems that (amongst other things) I am (re)embracing infant baptism within an Episcopal framework which emphasises sacramental piety as a means of encountering the real presence of Jesus Christ. Can a Pentecostal-Charismatic Credo-Baptist *convert* to Anglicanism whilst retaining a firm connection with a distinctively Vineyard spirituality? What does any of that even mean?!

I’m glad you asked! Until next time then…

M

Endnotes:

1. Escobar, Kathy, Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart, (Kindle Edition) New York, USA: Convergent Books; Crown Publishing Group, 2014, 4.
2. Manning, Brennan, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Sisters, OR, USA: Multnomah Publishing, 2005, 23.
3. Name the formative film from which this quote was derived? If you can’t, stop reading and go and find out: you are unworthy of this level of intertextuality. If you aren’t sure what that means, I can’t help you. 😂
4. Size is, of course, no indication of spiritual vitality within a church. Yet the transition from being a thriving city centre gathering with regular attendance figures well into three digits, into a small home group comprised mainly of long standing members does speak volumes about the challenging aftermath of division. It turns out, as Jesus warned us, that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Matt 12:25, Mark 3:24-25, Luke 11:17).
5. Go on, admit it: you probably have just as much propensity to point the finger at others as I do. Often what we loathe in others is a reflection of our own foibles.
6. Escobar, Faith Shift, 23.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid, 29.
9. Ibid, 32.
10. Take for instance: acceptable modes of conversation, leisure activities, lifting hands during sung worship, speaking in tongues (can of worms right there!), etiquette and unfamiliar social norms with regards to interacting with the opposite sex, Christianese, etc.

Anglican Realignment? 

*Links are highlighted*

Harriet Sherwood recently wrote two provocative and contentious articles for the Guardian which highlighted yet more of the (seemingly) prevalent tensions within the Church of England. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her work rapidly generated the usual digital brouhaha over the weekend. After a cursory glance at the tempestuous virtual furore, I felt suitability stirred to pen this brief missal as a means of engaging with the wider conversation around Anglican identity. I do so with a healthy degree of trepidation, in part because I consider myself an outsider who is looking through a glass (darkly) at the broad diversity of the Anglican tradition. I thus feel ill-equipped to contribute much of a meaningful, experience based commentary on the serpentine, schismatic nature of the internecine rivalries that apparently pepper the wafer-thin semblance of unity within the communion.

Nevertheless, for a trainee theologian (of sorts) who has developed something of an appetite for flirting dangerously with Anglicanism as a broader movement, debates such as these are almost irresistible. Controversy within a family that one feels increasingly drawn to is very difficult to ignore; a growing sense of urgent restlessness and calling to serve said family even more so. Indeed, as many of my regular readers will know, in recent months I have been seriously considering the possibility and ramifications of throwing my proverbial hat into the ecclesial ring, by becoming a fully fledged, confirmed member of the CofE. As (un)remarkable as that statement may be to some, I do have a potentially vested interested in the future of the Anglican communion.

So, without further ado, and with one or two cards laid firmly on the table, to the matter in hand:

An apparent Anglican realignment?

Sherwood opens her article called “Top cleric says Church of England risks becoming a ‘suburban sect’.”, as follows:

‘Plans to reverse decline in congregations may alienate even more people, says Oxford dean.

One of Britain’s senior theologians has warned that the Church of England is in danger of becoming a narrow sect “driven by mission-minded middle managers” who are alienating clergy, congregations and the general public.’ – (The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford).

Immediately, her rhetoric is arguably tendentious. Granted, few would question the academic credentials of Professor Percy, who has a long and distinguished career in theological education. He is the 45th Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, a published author, and a recognised voice from within the communion that deserves plenty of thoughtful attention. For instance, one would be wise to listen intently when he critiques the sweeping program of ‘Renewal and Reform’ being foisted upon the CofE in the following terms:

‘It will take more to save the Church of England than a blend of the latest management theory, secular sorcery with statistics and evangelical up-speak.’

And:

‘There seems to be no sagacity, serious science or spiritual substance to the curatives being offered.’

Sherwood marshals his criticisms alongside those of other clergy who are sceptical of the Archbishop Justin Welby’s push to recalibrate the CofE in such a way as to focus more on inner city suburban areas, over against rural ones (such as my own, no doubt).

Yet the paucity of contrasting viewpoints within Sherwood’s article is made all the more conspicuous by the absence of any serious engagement with leading Anglican figures who support and welcome the Renewal and Reform agenda. Sherwood’s 3:1 ratio of perspectives on the current state of play within the CofE is hardly fair, balanced, or representative of the wider communion (despite Percy’s claims to the contrary). As soon as I had read this article I was left wondering if the following ancient Hebrew proverb didn’t speak volumes on the subject matter at hand:

In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines. (Prov 18:17 NIV)

Therein lies the the rub, as it were. Sherwood is under no obligation to be even handed, yet by stating that a ‘Top cleric’, who happens to be a ‘senior Theologian’ within the CofE, is being openly critical (even denunciatory) of the current status quo within the British arm of the Anglican Church, Sherwood arguably gives the deceptive impression that Percy is the solitary voice of reason. She thereby potentially evokes an impression of him as a peerless authority figure who is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of intellect and hierarchy.  His dissent is therefore cast as the result of an informed, intellectually robust mindset that is (presumably) sorely lacking within the ‘mission-minded’ ranks of the clergy who represent the movers and shakers inside the CofE. What is more, Sherwood’s closing barrage of sceptics align to suggest that the Renewal and Reform agenda is hopelessly out of touch with the lived realities of parish ministry. All in all, she presents a withering collective critique. 

Now, it may be that other ‘Top Anglican Clerics..and senior Theologians’ have yet to weigh in on the topic (or feel no need to). I am not au fait enough with the rest of the British arm of the Anglican communion to know ‘who’s who’, as it were. Yet the title, tone, framing, and thrust of Sherwood’s article is clearly not concerned with pursuing much in the way of objectivity. Neither is it even cautiously optimistic or vaguely positive about any of the current developments that Percy and others lambast. For those reasons amongst others, I might prescribe a substantial pinch of salt for any vaguely discerning readers before jumping to unwarranted conclusions. An Anglican realignment is definitely afoot in the CofE, even if the precise nature of the evolutionary process at work remains a hot button topic which is mired in controversy. 

Tradition vs Innovation? 

I find it ironic that despite my own misgivings about Sherwood’s article, I share a degree of sympathy with Professor Percy and others who lament the ‘secular sorcery’ of the CofE’s new church planting initiatives. Urban Evangelical-Charismatic church plants are a widespread phenomenon which I am reasonably familiar with, since I have regularly attended at least three in my time thus far, and technically am part of a fledgling one now. I have written at length elsewhere about what myself and others perceive to be the inherent dangers of large churches adopting branding and/or marketing strategies to stimulate ‘growth’. All too often there is money to be made, influence to be had, and sycophantic Yes-men waiting to follow quasi-celebrity pastor-CEOs who often refuse to tolerate tough questions. Such flocks seem to live on a steady diet of groupthink and hollow religious rhetoric, which is buttressed by proof-texts and devoid of genuine gospel content. All of this is carefully choreographed to a soundtrack of Christian Pop/Rock music, flashing lights, and projectors which cost more than it would to employ two full time staff members. Yes, I clearly have issues to work through, and I’m just getting started. Needless to say, I struggle to see how these kinds of churches can genuinely embody the humble, unpretentious, self-sacrificial lifestyle epitomised by Jesus of Nazareth. 

Whether or not the new church plants that spring up from the CofE over the coming years will end up looking much like their independent evangelical counterparts remains to be seen. Ostensibly some will, some won’t,  and others will fall on a spectrum somewhere in between extremes. Yet what troubles me the most is the apparent push toward embracing new evangelistic methods at the expense of what I find to be one of Anglicanism’s most attractive features: The sense of ancient tradition that suffuses what Percy calls ‘a broad church – capacious and generous.’ Whilst it lacks modern branding, the CofE can point to the unchanging Gospel of Jesus Christ enshrined in Scripture, and enact aspects of that gospel through the mysterious sacraments that have stood the test of time. It can demonstrate it’s unwavering commitment to the episcopal structures that have their roots in apostolic succession by continuing to take the role of priestly ministry seriously, yet humbly (as Christ did). Surely it can persist in striving for that elusive via media between polar opposites, which remains as inherently elusive as it does critical for avoiding stagnation and unnecessary division? Doubtless the CofE must be willing and ready to innovate and adapt to the persistently changing landscape(s) of 21st century British culture. Yet surely ancient Anglican tradition need not be in competition with modern innovation(s)? Time will tell. 

Global Perspective?

Of course, lines will inevitably be drawn in the sand over various issues such as sexuality, gender roles, pneumatology, and so forth. Broad church need not equate to an ‘anything goes’ mentality that risks undermining the very heart of Jesus’ Gospel message. Anglicans, like all Christians, must ultimately clarify their own understanding of the content, nature, and interpretation of the Gospel message if they expect to live it out faithfully. Perhaps it is an apparent failure to do this in a unified manner within the CofE that sparked this kind of statement from the (seemingly) less well known organisation called GAFCON (Global Anglican Futures Conference):

‘In the beginning, the focus of our concern was North America and we thank God that he has raised up the Anglican Church in North America as a new wineskin in that continent. Now our concern is increasingly with the British Isles. A line has been crossed in the Church of England itself with the appointment of Bishop Susan Goff, of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, as an Assisting Bishop of Liverpool. The false teaching of the American Episcopal Church has been normalised in England..’ -The Most Reverend Nicholas D. Okoh, chairman of GAFCON (Emphasis mine).

Though not directly relevant to the topic of Sherwood’s original article, it is fascinating to get a non-European view that pulls no punches in it’s assessment of the spiritual health of British Anglicanism. I doubt many UK based ‘Top Clerics’ or ‘Senior Theologians’ would necessarily concur with Okoh’s opinion, however if nothing else it is clear that Percy is not the only high ranking Anglican to have serious misgivings about the current trajectory of the CofE. My questions in raising the GAFCON card are:

Do British Anglicans need a paradigm shift, not just regarding their evangelistic strategies or pneumatological convictions, but in terms of grasping the bigger picture of what God is perhaps doing in and through our brothers and sisters in the two-thirds world? To put it another way, do we need to be evangelised ourselves and be set free from our own blindness and ethnocentrism? Or do we persist in staring at the trees whilst failing to the see our place in the deep, dark wood?

What kind of Anglican realignment does the CofE really need? Is Justin Welby’s evangelical-charismatic church planting thrust the ticket to divine favour in an increasingly secular landscape? Or does British Anglicanism need to realign itself with the broader spread of the global Anglican communion? 

Over to you, Anglican friends! Father Edward B. Green has already published a swift response to Sherwood’s other article, which touches on similar themes. Another excellent viewpoint on the same broad topic is this article by Wealands Bell. Surely there are other voices like Green’s and Bell’s who can provide alternative perspectives on the Renewal and Reform agenda within the CofE? I for one would welcome more insider knowledge. 

M

Toward A Theology of Encounter

 

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*Warning – This post contains my first attempt at serious academic theology -* 

As I have frequently reminded my readers on here and elsewhere, much of my attention over the past two years has been focused on Master’s level study. Since I have just finished the taught part of the MA, and expect to spend my study time over the next twelve months attempting to write a dissertation, I thought that I would share a few of my better MA papers here. So, without further ado, for the very interested, here is my first MA assignment (long since submitted and graded) which deals with theological method (a major focus of my MA program). Enjoy!

Comments are, as ever, most welcome. Please credit me as per current UK/US Academic citation standards/expectations if you decide to share and/or cite any of my work (not that I’m expecting that mind you, but you never know!). I hope this brief paper gives you an insight into my efforts to develop my thinking as a trainee theologian, stimulates conversation(s), and blesses all who take the time to engage with it!

M

RE: Baptism?

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*Links are highlighted.

‘Anglicanism has a side to it that is not found within the evangelical church. And the opposite of this is true. Evangelicalism has strengths that can enrich and strengthen the Anglican tradition as well.’ – Robert Webber. [1]

Imagine blending these two great traditions with aspects of Pentecostalism, Charismaticism, Methodism, Catholicism (particularly Liberation Theology), and Eastern Orthodoxy. Such is the kind of eclectic, multifaceted, Christian faith that is perhaps arising from the ashes of denominationalism today, and that increasingly typifies my own developing perspective. I find myself, perplexingly, on a peculiar and unexpected journey that refuses to accept the shackles of fundamentalism when the alternative is freedom in Christ via the Spirit. This brief post is thus an attempt to share my muddled, personal thoughts on my own spiritual outlook through the inadequate medium of garbled words and unsubstantiated generalisations; expect no theological treatise or scholarly efforts here (although I can’t help but include some references and footnotes!).

Confessions

My Christian journey has thus far been relatively short. It is less than a decade since I first made my commitment to Jesus Christ, and was subsequently (re)baptised by full immersion in a heated swimming pool, alongside several other people from the first Church I attended as an adult believer. [2] Based on recent church statistics, it seems that I represent a firm minority group in being a bona fide ‘convert’ to Christianity. This is, perhaps notably, contra Roman Catholicism, which was the religious background that I inherited from my family as a child. At the tender age of ten, I rejected the Catholic Church with a spirited indifference to what seemed to me to be a truly meaningless, ritualistic, hypocritical organisation largely staffed by child abusers (the resident priest at our local Catholic Church was arrested on such charges). Whilst I no longer hold such negative sentiments towards Rome (far from it, Papa Francisco!) I remember clearly deciding that, based on my extremely narrow experience, organised religion was certainly not for me.

To be blunt, I ended up considering Christianity to be at best delusional nonsense, and at worst a disparate collection of bigoted, self righteous, right wing, judgmental prudes who seemed obsessed with sex and never had any fun. I was determined to follow my own path, forget about God or church, and have as much fun as I pleased whilst learning how to play the guitar (the latter of which, it turns out, I can do rather well). God apparently had other plans for me.

Testimony

As I have often testified, at the age of twenty five I encountered Jesus and found myself taking a cataclysmic lurch away from what had became a staunchly atheist perspective; Granted, I may have occasionally flickered over the blurry boundary between (un)reason and faith into some form of agnosticism (i.e. believing in the possibility of “something”). Yet despite my occasional flirtations with various new age spiritualities, an eternal chasm separated me from any kind of affirmation or acceptance of the notion that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord of the cosmos. I certainly did not perceive the Jesus of History who was crucified by the Roman Empire to be God in the flesh. Nor did I consider it plausible that he died for the sins of humanity and set us free from the tyranny of death and evil in order that we might be reconciled to God the Father, and receive the free gift of eternal life. [3] I lived in an almost blissful ignorance of such matters. It turns out that Christianity was in fact true and I needed a saviour; Jesus obliged. Just as well really, given the dark, depressive, and debaucherous depths I had begun to sink into at the time.

All of this is to say that when I plunged into the murky waters of Christian (ana)baptism, a monumental change of heart and mind had occurred. [4] For me, baptism by full immersion was very much an outward sign of an inward truth; Jesus is risen and had revealed something of himself to me whilst rescuing me from a state of spiritual death. Life felt different. Cue the first steps on my current journey of faith seeking understanding: what on earth did all of this mean?!

RE: Calibration?

Fast forward nearly a decade, and my faith has begun to show tell tale signs of maturity and evolution. Nearly three years of part time theological education, which have been suffused with divine grace, have undoubtedly helped to broaden my horizons. I am not in the same place that I was in when I emerged out of the baptismal pool. For instance, until very recently I (somewhat uncritically) held resolute Baptist convictions which, amongst other things, would preclude the possibility of infant baptism or finding God’s sacred presence amidst the sacraments. In all likelihood, I absorbed these to some extent from my experiences in independent evangelical churches, and presumed that such ideas were unshakeably ‘biblical’ (meaning that non-baptists were simply wrong). I am not ashamed to say that I currently find myself softening toward the possibility that I was merely misinformed and unduly prejudiced by a particular faith tradition.

In fact, having recently attended several traditional Anglican church services in our local parish, I have been struck by a sudden affinity with both the Liturgy and the Eucharist, which I do not recall experiencing before now. Since then I have also been pondering the previously unthinkable prospect of embracing infant baptism. Just as Jesus himself eagerly welcomed little children when he allowed them to come to him unhindered, I find myself feeling almost compelled to release my own children to do the same, at the earliest possible opportunity (Matt 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16). Admittedly, there is much study, prayer, and dialogue to be had before I (or my wife!) could, with good conscience, fully embrace a different faith tradition which emphasises and defines the sacraments in such a way. Yet the fact that I am even seriously, publicly considering such a move is a testament to how much my theological outlook has changed shape in recent years. I suspect that this apparent recalibration of my faith and doctrinal convictions is to be expected for any burgeoning academic theologian, although it has caught me somewhat by surprise (to say the least!).

I can only assume that all of this is evidence of more divine grace enabling me to admit that I may have been mistaken. Quite how I go about reconciling this turn toward liturgical tradition and/or hold it in tension with what I might describe as a vibrant ‘Vineyard’ spirituality which emphasises (amongst other things) intimacy with God’s real presence in and through sung worship, and ‘prophetic’ (think Neo-Pentecostal spiritual gifts) ministry, remains to be seen.

In Sum

Whatever the outcome, there is no denying the reality that I am even finding myself feeling remarkably drawn towards the richness, theological clarity, steadfastedness, and heritage of longstanding faith traditions such as Anglicanism, and to a lesser extent Eastern Orthodoxy. On a slightly different note, it troubles me to see so many examples of overzealous believers castigating and deriding other faith traditions as being lesser expressions of Christianity than their own; think of throwaway phrases like ‘lukewarm’, ‘less biblical’, ‘powerless’, ‘compromised’, etc. Some, more (non)innovative charismatic groups even advocate ‘Rebaptism’ (yes, for Baptists too!) because, unsurprisingly, such new groups have rediscovered ‘real’ Christianity. They are of course right, and everyone else is wrong. That said, they do seem tellingly oblivious to the name Novation, or the notion that there really is nothing new under the sun. [5] Doubtless, those of us who are suspicious of such groups can learn something from the eschatalogical urgency and fiery, faith fuelled passion they bring to the ecclesiological table; even if the desire for ecumenical dialogue is not currently mutual.

To my mind, it would be extraordinarily naive to think that God has forgotten his universal Church. He is, after all, in the habit of breathing new life into dry bones. Perhaps he is starting with old men like me. I hear dog collars are the new skinny jeans for real Christian hipsters! 😉

M

Endnotes

1. Webber, Robert, and Ruth, Lester, Evangelicals on the Road to Canterbury: Why Evangelicals are attracted to the Liturgical Church (Rev. Ed.), (Kindle Edition) New York, USA: 2012, Introduction.
2. I use the term (re)baptism as a deliberate play on words, which alludes to the Anabaptist tradition that arose during the Reformation. See for example: MacCulloch, Diarmaid, A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, (Kindle Edition), Allen Lane, Penguin Books Ltd, London, UK: 2009, 622.
3. Clearly, this is a very truncated, unqualified summary of the apostolic Gospel, which relies on my own hermeneutical presuppositions and alludes to numerous biblical texts (not cited here).
4. See [2]
5. See MacCulloch, History, 174. Eccl. 1:9.