The Sunday Assembly, ‘godless congregations’, have been in the news a lot recently. (CNN Belief Blog has just reported on a schism within the movement.) But I wonder if they’re actually a rebirth of the nineteenth century phenomenon of secular societies (which probably never really went away)? I was just reading Timothy Larsen’s Crisis of Doubt, about nineteenth century secularists and atheists who reconverted to Christianity, contrary to the accepted mythology around the ‘crisis of faith’ in the Victorian era. Many of the capsule biographies he provides feature men who became practically preachers for secular societies, giving regular addresses to their meetings, with ‘outreach’ type rallies at other points. It’s an interesting historical phenomenon; I’d like to see the parallels and divergences considered.
A sign at the front of my parish church, St Martin in the Fields, records that the building was erected in memory of the sons and daughters of the suburb of Kensington who served and died in war. Today was the celebration of its sixtieth anniversary; the memory of the dead would still have been fresh in 1953. There are other connections to the military. We prayed today for chaplains serving the defence force. On the wall is an honour roll of the dead. We also hold a special ANZAC service each year.
I am a pacifist, and believe non-violence is a central part of the ethics of the kingdom. But the Anglican Church is never going to be a pacifist denomination, or even have a general tendency in that direction. It still holds the vestiges of its status as the state church, serving as a place for communities to mourn dead soldiers and make spiritual sense of war. I have sympathy for that; the juggernaut of war crushes ordinary people and leaves survivors needing to make sense of it. Yet, naturally, it is a point of great tension for me.
Imagine my joy, then, of learning that I attend a church named for a conscientious objector. Martin of Tours is a wonderful saint for Anglicans – a soldier wrestling with his conscience. In a wonderful irony, he was born in 317, during the reign of Constantine, a period which can be seen as the turning point toward a militarized church. He was a Roman soldier who eventually decided his faith in Christ prevented him from fighting. Jailed as a conscientious objector, he offered to go before the enemy army unarmed. In some versions of the story, the enemy army fled; in others, the battle didn’t happen as peace was negotiated first.
This would be an interesting point at which to probe our saint’s example. Are we called, too, as Christ’s saints to lay down the sword, and refuse to kill our enemies? The temptation is to see Martin of Tour’s actions as the extreme, somewhat legendary, and completely unrealistic actions of a saint called to perfection, while the rest of us have to live in the real world. Yet the message of saints is surely meant to be that one does not have to be Jesus Christ to attempt to live a holy life, and that real men and women who follow Jesus can do it also.
Perhaps Martin of Tours was chosen as the name of the parish because he is the patron saint of soldiers and it seemed appropriate for a memorial church. It seems a historical irony, or perhaps a holy paradox that he would be designated thus. Built into the designation is the call to each soldier who calls on him to wrestle with their conscience as he did and decide what it means to be a “soldier of Christ”.
I had a chance to give a lecture on the Anabaptists to a church history class last week, with the focus on Menno Simons (1496-1561) and his theology. I noticed my current interest in biography affecting the way I read Menno. Where once I would have only taken notice of the final form of his doctrines, this time I was drawn to the developments in his thinking, and the interactions between what we know of his life and what he was writing.
Menno rebuilt Dutch Anabaptism after the Munster tragedy, in which Anabaptists had seized the city and held a brief, bloody and immoral apocalyptic reign. He ministered to a scattered and persecuted people for decades.
Yet he didn’t leap into this role. He spent ten years as a Catholic priest with an uneasy conscience, reading his Bible and developing in conviction. I think of him in that long liminal period, where he was probably trying to tell himself that he could remain in the Catholic church, hoping that he would not be called to something more drastic. His theology began very individualistically, focused on the individual believer, and it was only over time that he was to develop a radical ecclesiology. As Munster raged, he wrote a tract against the Munsterites, but it was never published, only found nearly a century later when his daughter died – its authenticity questioned. I could not find much information on the execution of his brother in relation to Munster, but again – biography must have shaped his theology so strongly.
Reading some of his writings, I had a stronger sense of a man at a particular time and place, in hiding, and his preoccupations shaped so strongly by that historical situation. I was warned against the “biographical fallacy” studying literature at uni, and was steered away from biographical readings, yet what choice do we have, if we want to attempt to understand any writing in sympathy with how it was written? It can be overdone, of course, but its surely helpful.
None of this is startling; my main point is the simple one that looking at Menno with biographical eyes gave me a new appreciation.
I spent a few years in the house church movement, and within it there is great emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Anabaptism emphasises this too; In Body Politics, Yoder writes of the idea of the religious specialist as something God is at work reversing, most profoundly in the experience of the giftedness of all believers in the early church. For a time, I was whole-hearted in embracing this thinking – to the point where the house church I was in had no formal leaders, and everything was decided on consensus. These days I’m ambivalent.
I don’t see leadership as a dirty word any longer. There clearly are designated leaders in the New Testament. Yet I remain critical of the way leadership happens in churches today; I think we’ve been too quick to embrace secular models of leadership and the pastor as CEO. I don’t believe megachurches are a good model of church, and if your church is not a megachurch you probably don’t need a CEO-style leader.
The idea of a priest in the Anglican church takes things in a different direction again. The robes and the special functions only priests can perform set them apart from the congregation. Yet perhaps no more than the professionalisation of large non-conformist churches has set their ministers apart. A layperson in a large Baptist church has little more hope of giving the sermon or officiating at the Lord’s Supper as a layperson in an Anglican church.
I see the importance of the long training and ordination process priests go through in the Anglican church, and I think there’s a lot to be said for it. (Baptists have a similar accreditation process.) The apostles’ three years of discipleship and formation with Jesus was far less structured, but today, if there isn’t a formal process, it’s unlikely to be done well. So the house church movement’s desire to return to more ‘biblical’ models of formation (such as Timothy-Paul type apprenticeships) is unlikely to happen in reality – many house churches are led by people who have not gone through any process at all.
I think I’m happily agnostic on the question of priests and professionalisation at the moment. I accept how things are done at the church I attend, and I see the good side of it, while being aware it’s in tension with my beliefs of the past.
Religion is a terrible thing, was the message I got as a child. Religion is what Pharisees – and Catholics – do. Our church is not religious – we all have a relationship with God. Being religious means trying to please God with rituals. Wearing special robes. Reciting prayers out of a book. That’s why I faithfully told other kids at school that I wasn’t religious, just born-again.
These days, I embrace the word ‘religious’, mainly in reaction to how demonised the poor word is. I don’t have a developed theology about this, but attending an Anglican church, I am experiencing the joy of being more religious. Let me explain.
Free church (Pentecostal, Baptist, Church of Christ) worship services are so often deliberately “unreligious”, especially to the extent they have been influenced by the church growth movement. In wanting to be accessible to the non-Christian, in wanting to minimise the cultural barriers, worship leaders banter about football and families. God-talk is casual, prayer is spontaneous (yet usually very familiar), God is translated into everyday language. There is a determination to make a relationship with God seem a normal part of a middle-class existence. There are good reasons for all these things, but it is a mode of worship I have never been at ease with.
For me, what is lost in “unreligious worship” is the mystery of God, the strangeness and ancientness of the Bible and a sense of connection with the two thousand years of the church. Church-growth influenced worship mirrors the complacency of our culture in its embeddedness in a perpetual present, without a sense of history, without an awareness of the wisdom of the ages – without, I suppose, a consciousness of tradition.
Thus, for me, worshipping in an Anglican church this year has restored some missing things. The prayerbook service is theologically deep and draws so deliberately from the riches of two thousand years. I am taken through repentance and forgiveness, thanksgiving and intercession. The language, while not arcane, is more exalted than everyday language. It conveys some of the mystery of faith.
Sometimes the many rituals go from seeming strange to seeming momentarily silly or tedious. But overall, the ritual and structure have been good for me, good for giving me space to encounter God in a new way. This is what I mean by the joy of being religious.
On Good Friday of this year, I began attending a local Anglican church. It was not a theological decision, but a practical one. We’d moved house and needed to find a church we could both attend; this was the one which was mutually agreeable.
I’ve changed churches a number of times over the years, yet for both theological and personal reasons it has felt significant to find myself at an Anglican church.
In a sense, it feels like a homecoming. My grandfather (pictured), Rev. Ron Hobby, was an Anglican minister in WA for sixty years. My parents’ move to a Baptist church in the late 1970s was controversial. I grew up Baptist, yet with Anglicanism as a kind of mother country. Can I have been in exile from a church I never belonged to?
I lived with my grandfather when I moved to Perth to study as an eighteen year old at the end of last century. His was a moderate evangelical Anglicanism – ecumenical (except when family members wanted to become Baptist), yet staunchly orthodox without being Reformed. Perhaps the Anglicanism of C.S. Lewis and Lesslie Newbigin. I visited the cathedral with him several times, and there was some possibility at that point of me becoming Anglican – I was keen to experience a form of worship different from conservative Baptist, and I knew that I was definitely not drawn to the smooth showmanship of megachurches. But what I embraced instead was a radical restorationism, which led me into the house-church movement and Anabaptism. Fourteen years later, I still identify with the latter (no need to retitle the blog just yet) but not the former.
I loved Grandad deeply, and wanted his respect; yet we were both such principled, idealistic people that our conversations would sometimes become clashes, and we both took theological and political disagreement personally. By the time he died in 2006, my vehemence against the established church was such that attending an Anglican church was an unforeseeable possibility. I like to imagine how he would react to the news that I am, now, somewhat Anglican. I think with a great deal of joy, and a note of triumphalism and pride.
These days, I would be less determined to set him straight on exactly where I stand theologically. I would not feel the need to qualify my news with a loud insistence that I remain Anabaptist in outlook.
What does it mean, for a believer who holds Anabaptist convictions and works for Baptists to attend an Anglican church? I’m still working that out. I intend to do some of my thinking out loud, on this blog. I want to explore the beauty and spiritual renewal I feel in this new church – my appreciation of the church year, of liturgy – and the theological problems it presents for me.
I’ve co-edited a book, and it’s launching on Tuesday:
Vose Seminary began as the Baptist Theological College of Western Australia in 1963. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary, this book brings together a collaborative history of the seminary with essays examining shifts in the church and theology over those fifty years. The contributions from twenty-five Vose staff, students and graduates demonstrate the generous evangelicalism which marks the seminary.
The book is an account of where Vose Seminary has been over the last fifty years and an attempt to define the task which lies ahead for theological educators in equipping the church for the future.
The story of our seminary is an important one for the church in Perth. The different contributors reveal some interesting things, such as the story of Ruth Snell, an early student who went on to become the first woman to be a Baptist senior pastor in Australia. Reading Karen Siggins’ essay on women at Vose Seminary, I was struck by how far we have come, and yet how much further we have to go.
I wrote a history of the library for the book, and it was a project I found particularly interesting. Unearthing the traces of the past revealed a lot of gaps and misunderstandings in the oral traditions I had heard. The research process was a treasure hunt, the thrill at finding a mention of the library in a newsletter from decades ago, or of Lynn, one of the previous librarians, uncovering important documents. I don’t know how interesting the history of a library can be for those who aren’t involved in it, but I tried to make it so. I begin the essay with this:
More than any other part of Vose Seminary, the library bears traces of its past—an accumulation of books, journals, shelving and paraphernalia from throughout its history. Since I began as seminary librarian in 2008, just as BTCWA was about to become Vose Seminary, I have been intrigued by these pieces of the past woven into the library.
Many books bear the names of previous owners; there are hundreds from some donors—Noel Vose, Geoffrey Wild, A.C. Maynard, Ruth Atkins. A separate collection of history books bears the name of Professor Herbert Hallam, a medieval historian at the University of Western Australia; they were donated in 1994 after his death. Many others bear the stamps of defunct libraries, such as the Perth Diocesan Library. A number of books still have the borrower cards which became obsolete with automation. There are always familiar names written on these cards; it is a particular kind of pleasure to know a friend or mentor read the same copy of a book a decade or two ago.
You can buy the book from Mosaic Resources (the publisher) – https://mosaicresources.com.au/titles/9781743240960. Or you can come to the launch and buy a copy there! It’s happening on Tuesday 27 August at 5pm at Vose Seminary Library, 20 Hayman Rd, Bentley. RSVP: http://www.vose.edu.au/view/news/vose-50th-celebration-service.
Here’s a full listing of the contents, because you won’t find it anywhere else on the web.
A Note on Style and Sources
PART ONE: FIFTY YEARS OF VOSE
A Kingdom of Mustard Seeds
Ministerial Training (1895—1962)
BTCWA Under Dr Noel Vose, Founding Principal: As Sole Full-time Faculty (1963—1978)
Reflections: Fred Stone
Reflections: Arthur Payne
Reflections: Ashley Crane
BTCWA Under Dr Noel Vose, Founding Principal: The Faculty of Three Era (1979—1990)
Reflections: Roland Maxwell
Reflections: Ann Mallaby
Reflections: Neil Mactaggart
Supervised Field Education: Bob Clark
Fellow-Workers Program: Jennifer Turner
BTCWA Under the Second Principal, Dr John Olley (1991—2003)
Reflections: Mark Wilson
Reflections: Lynn White
Reflections: Alex Okhrimouk
A “Principal for Change”: From BTCWA to Vose Seminary Under Dr Brian Harris (2004—)
Reflections: Evelyn Ashley
Reflections: Carolyn Tan
Fifty Years of Students: The Changing Demography of the Vose Student Body
The Experience of Women in Theological Education: From the Fringes Towards the Centre
A History of Vose Library
PART TWO: FIFTY YEARS OF CHANGES IN THEOLOGY AND THE CHURCH
Biblical Studies—Whence and Where? Reflections on Fifty Years
David Cohen and John Olley
Baptists and the Bible in the Twenty-first Century
Developments in Pastoral Care in the Last Fifty Years
Who Stole My Pastorate?
Theology of Everyday Life
Learning from the Emerging Threads of Mission 1963–2013
Faithful Thinking: The Task Ahead for Christian Higher Education
Appendix A: Commencement and Conferral Speakers
Prepared by L-J du Heaume
Appendix B: Senior Students
Prepared by L-J du Heaume
Appendix C: Books Written or Edited by Vose Faculty and Tutors