Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Deep Church

C.S.Lewis, talking about his conversion to Christ, quotes Francis Thompson's famous poem "The Hound of Heaven" to explain how he felt relentlessly pursued by God. Francis' own story is an interesting one.  As a young man he studied medicine, hoping to find meaning and purpose. It did not work so he got involved in drugs. He came to such despair that he contemplated suicide. In the poem Thompson describes how he latched on to various philosophies that denied God: "I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind." He tried to distract himself with sensual pleasure, but it all turned sour. In the end he heard God say, "all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!" God sought him like a bloodhound. In the end Francis Thompson allowed God to find him. Weary, he fell into God's arms.

The reason why I mention C.S.Lewis and Francis Thompson is that at the moment I am feeling a bit like they did. That God is relentlessly pursuing me in some way. Which is a bit odd because over 34 years ago I believe he found me and called me into full time ministry in his church. However in recent years I have been questioning my faith a lot, not in the sense of whether God exists, or Jesus died for me, or whether I am a Christian or not, but about whether the sort of Christian I am is really the right or the true sort.

Part of my calling is to teach the faith and ensure that it is passed down to the next generation of believers. This is something the Bible takes very seriously in both Testaments. But as I sit down and prepare what I want to teach I find myself asking all kinds of questions about the topics before me. A prime example is the Nicean Creed. Originally written in 325 AD and then expanded a little in 381 at Chalcedon, it is a beautiful summary of what the Church believes is the essence of the Christian Faith. But as I slowly went through it I found that it powerfully challenged me, in a way that I have not felt challenged for a very long time.

Years ago I would not have given the Creed a second thought. It was part of the liturgy which was repeated every week in a kind of lifeless drone and so I took to dropping it occasionally, then more often as I considered it less and less important to the 'real' work of worship. I remember one morning when I left it out for the fourth or fifth week running when a lady from the congregation, who had clearly taken umbrage, confronted me at the Church door and told me that I shouldn't leave it out because after all, it is what Christianity is all about! In my arrogance I dismissed her criticism and told her something to the effect that Christianity was about more than a list of religious sounding phrases repeated every Sunday morning. The church would not fall down if we left out the Creed.

However returning to the words of the Creed I am beginning to seriously change my mind. Perhaps removing it is like taking out a lintel over the door in a house. The wall looks strong enough without it, and for a while all looks normal. But then cracks begin to appear like little streams down the wall and you begin to hear creaks and groans as the weight of the walls settle more and more on a wooden frame which is not designed for that purpose. You realise that maybe the lintel was more important than you previously thought.

Okay that maybe somewhat of an exaggeration as plenty of churches seem to get by without referring to the Creed in any shape or form. But what if the cracks have been appearing for years, even decades, as the church at large decides it can jettison or live without something it considers too old and antiquated for us 21st Century sophisticates? And what if those cracks are widening as more and more churches chase after the novel, the sensational, and the superficial in order to appeal to a population that has turned its back on Christianity? Desperation leads to compromise. Pastors - like everyone - want to feel loved and so fall for the temptation to embrace worldly techniques in order to appear relevant and 'interesting' to those who walk past every day.  But as they do something is lost, their churches cease to be what Paul once termed "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15) and so after a while their congregations dribble away or become increasingly less able to follow Christ or practice their faith in any clear and distinctive way.

These questions have been gnawing away at me as I look across the church today. It could be that I am just getting older and more conservative in my faith. It happens to everyone I guess. But what if, in the process of slowing down, God is taking His chance and calling me to a new sort of conversion? Not to Christ, but deeper into Christ? What if God is behind all of this and pursuing me to start thinking about what I am doing, what this is really all about, rather than coming up with ever new ways of trying to be church?

I am convinced it is God rather than my age. Why? When God is on your case all kinds of things happen in your life that seem to act in concert. I am reading a book I heard a review of online called "Deep Church Rising" by Andrew Walker and Robin Parry. The subtitle is "Rediscovering the roots of Christian orthodoxy." In the blurb on the back we are given a summary of what the book is about. It reads:

"The major cultural changes in Western societies since the Reformation have created a serious challenge for the church. Modernity in particular has been inhospitable to Christian orthodoxy, and many have been tempted to reject classical versions of the faith. This has led to a division within churches that Walker and Parry name 'the third schism', a divide between those who embrace what C.S.Lewis called 'mere Christianity' or 'deep church', and those who do not. This book is a call to embrace 'deep church', to remember our future, to make a half-turn back to pre-modernity - not to repeat the past but to find often forgotten resources for the present."
Wow! Talk about God speaking to you? Just now there are too many coincidences popping up in my life. All the questions that I had considered answered are being asked again. My 'version' of Christianity is being called into question and I am forced to avoid just trotting out all my learned responses and try to look at things from a different perspective. Its scary, and I feel very very vulnerable. But it begs the question, who or what is my faith in? Is my faith first or second hand? The things I have been taught over the years, have I closely examined them or just taken them on trust? Where does authority lie?

I need to take a fresh look again at the Bible, especially the New Testament, and try and remove my denominational filters as I do so. I also want to talk to folk from other, older, parts of the Church to see what I can learn from them. I want to read books and letter from the early Church - especially around the time of the Nicean Council. Maybe there is something I missed? Maybe I have got things wrong? Watch this space.



 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Uncovering the Gospel of Luke

The following website is an excellent resource for those wishing to explore faith. It's produced by Tynedale House, Cambridge and is scholarly without being too academic. It focuses on Luke's Gospel and is meant to accompany a copy of a book based on it called "Uncover". But there is enough here to learn something without getting a copy. Enjoy

http://uncover.org.uk/

Church for beginners?

In her book "The Word on the Wind" Alison Morgan makes reference to a young woman Sharon who was a respondent to a survey about ...