Category: my spiritual journey

On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #4: Attending the Church of St Martin, a Soldier For Christ


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”.

On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #2: The Joy of Being Religious

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 Becoming Somewhat Anglican #1: Homecoming?

Grandad, the Reverend, in Israel

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.

Climate change scepticism and worldview dissonance

A conversation I had the other day has been on my mind ever since.

It was with an old friend who I don’t see that often, but whose intelligence I’ve always respected, and who I’ve always regarded as being moderate – especially for a reformed evangelical – and considered. He’s always been interested in hearing my outlandish opinions. The surprise was the revelation that he was a climate change sceptic, and a passionate one.

It went deeper than that, actually – my new understanding of his worldview is that he regards the ‘climate change industry’ and ‘alarmism’ are part of a leftist strategy – if not conspiracy. I was surprised to hear ‘the left’ used so pejoratively by him as he expounded on the left’s agenda of curtailing economic growth, redistributing income, and enforcing political correctness. This left you talk about as the enemy, I said at one point – I’m sort of a part of that. Not completely, but my  instincts tend to go that way.

I left burdened and exhausted by worldview dissonance. How was I meant to weigh up his objections to the climate change consensus? I’d encountered them before, reading The Australian every weekend, but my friend has more of a background in science than I do. I felt disturbed considering the world through his eyes and seeing so many things I value and strive for as worse than useless, as what was wrong with the world.

I remain convinced that climate change is a real and present danger, that a simpler lifestyle and society are the answer to many of our problems and that unchecked capitalism is a dangerous and cruel thing. Yet I am chastened, and I now fear, just as I thought that the environment had gone mainstream in churches, that there may be a powerful conservative backlash, not even coming from  fundamentalists but from evangelicals.

Worldview dissonance is an everyday occurrence for me, taking as I do the minority view on so many issues. Why not on this one? How do we ever make up our mind on anything? Should we trust our own judgements, when there are usually wiser and more intelligent people with a different opinion? Welcome to pluralism, hazard of a postmodern society where there is no consensus. Humility required. And put a face to every contrary opinion; there’s probably someone you love who holds it.

Sectarianism and the Trail of Blood

There was a time in my life when I sought the continuity of truth in ‘the trail of blood,’ the communities who defined themselves against the established church. As I began to study the history of the church, I became particularly concerned when I discovered that “the trail of blood” generally included the gnostics of the early church who denied the incarnation and the Catharists of the medieval era who denied the Trinity and practiced communal marriage.
When I turned away from a sectarian view of the church to embrace the whole church with all of its triumphs and failures, I sensed a belongingness to this vast community of people. I also experienced a connectedness to history that broke the arrogance of my sectarian attitude and created a humility that allowed me to be defined by the church as the worldwide community of people to which I belonged. This means that I am able to affirm the whole church in all the various paradigms of history.
– Robert Webber, Ancient Future Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999. p.73.

I read this book when it came out twelve years ago, at a time when my faith was at a formative stage. Reacting against fundamentalism and responding to postmodernism, I’d just started reading theology and I was malleable. I was inspired and influenced by Webber’s book. It was before I’d read Yoder and while I was living with my grandfather, an ecumenically minded evangelical Anglican minister, who probably would have liked Webber very much. Reading Webber I came closer than I ever have in my life to becoming an Anglican.

Reading parts of it again now, it still resonates. This passage stuck out as I read, as you might imagine it would. I’m much less sectarian and much less ‘against’ the mainstream church(es) than a few years ago, say when I aligned myself with the housechurch movement. Working for a denomination has helped me with that, as has preparing some lectures this year introducing theology. I tried to enter sympathetically into a variety of perspectives, and it made me broader.

But still, what am I to do with Webber’s words here? Is to be an Anabaptist to align oneself with the ‘trail of blood’?

And how do we take ‘trail of blood’? Blood spilt or blood shed? Being persecuted and killed for your beliefs (by the mainstream church?) is nothing to be ashamed of, if I read the gospels correctly. Spilling blood for your beliefs – now that is a problem.

Can I have a more nuanced position than the alternatives Webber gives us here? Not every community that defines itself against the established church, but some? The ones that have good reason for distinction?

With his new attitude, could Webber still embrace the sectarian churches? Or are they now excluded from the vast church in all its connectedness through history?

I think the ‘trail of blood’ theory of churches is related to a Landmark Baptist view of church history – that there is a succession of persecuted true Christians culminating in the Baptists. I’m sure it is tied to some terrible fundamentalist ideas. But in a mild form, of at least acknowleding the idea of renewal throughout church history, it has some merit.

I bring the quote from Webber to you because it at once appeals to me and makes me bristle. Yes! And No!

Listening to a military chaplain

Yesterday at church a military chaplain spoke about his work and I’m still feeling upset.

The slideshow had photos of all the chaplains in army fatigues, and of soldiers they were ministering to posing with large guns. Then a photo of a group in army fatigues praying, presumably before going out to do their duty.

I tried to keep my mouth shut, but I spoke up during the talk when he brought Jesus into it, relating how he was giving a sermon to military chaplains during the Iraq War about how they needed to follow the way of Jesus – including, he said, loving your enemy! I don’t understand how you can be giving solace and support to an invading army and talking about loving your enemy.

I think from his perspective he sees chaplains as a restraining hand on soldiers, keeping them comforted and in good mental and spiritual health so they don’t commit war crimes or atrocities, so that in the heat of the moment they don’t shoot civilians.

But I think war crimes and civilian deaths are not an aberration but an inevitable consequence of giving people guns and trying to take over a country or even trying to ‘keep the peace’ by eliminating insurgency. (Try separating insurgents and civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan anyway.)
The chaplain was gracious, and let me ask a question at the end. I asked how, even standing in the just war tradition as he must, he can embed himself with a military force which is fighting wars which do not meet the just war criteria. (And, I wish I’d added, have killed one million people, between the Iraq and Afghanistan War, according to some estimates.)

He said that under the Geneva Convention he is a non-combatant.

I find this unconvincing; you’re in military uniform and you’re supporting troops, meeting their spiritual needs, and thus lending legitimacy to what they’re doing.

I think all disciples of Christ should refuse to co-operate with the military, in every country.

I hate making a show of myself these days  – but I couldn’t let this pass without comment.

I thought that I’d found a church which would be broadly pacifist in outlook. Someone told me that it is important to the church to hear different viewpoints, and hence have a military chaplain speaking. But support for the military gets heard at every church in Perth. I don’t know of pacifist churches in Perth, except the Quakers and perhaps Wembley Downs Church of Christ. And the Peace Tree Community, who are sort of a church. There should be at least a few churches in Perth where non-violence is a non-negotiable, where it’s seen as integral to discipleship. Where we don’t just politely say helping troops is a good ministry to have, but where we say that’s not what Jesus wants.

Leaving Home

Last week we said goodbye to our church of three years, Network Vineyard. It was a sad thing; I believe in church loyalty, and yet here I am leaving a church which isn’t bad and at which there are a lot of people I like.

Three years ago, at the disbanding of our Anabaptist fellowship, Nicole and I joined Network after going there to hear Ray Gingerich, a visiting Mennonite academic, speak. I thought that any church which invites a Mennonite academic to speak and is only a few kilometres from my house has to be good. What’s more, we had been hoping for a stronger experience of the Holy Spirit, and it was a charismatic church. We were also hoping to plant a new house church, and this was the sort of thing Network encouraged.

Planting a house church didn’t work out.  But we stuck around at Network, not happy, trying to make the most of it. It was my first go at a conventional church in quite a while. It’s in a wealthy area, and the profile of the church is busy professionals and busy parents with young children. This, of course, makes strong community very hard. I have little doubt it’s a problem facing most churches, especially amongst certain demographics. I don’t think you can have strong community if everyone’s busy. What can you do? You can try to critique the culture of busyness from the pulpit (which the pastor did) and in small groups; but it’s really hard to defy the spirit of busyness in our society, even if you want to, and most people don’t want to and wouldn’t see it as an aspect of discipleship. (I’m too busy myself, not in a career driven way, but with my jealously guarded time for writing, reading, thinking.)

I grew increasingly cynical toward charismatic-ness, at least to what I saw. I believe there is a strong witness in the New Testament to the outpouring of charismatic gifts on the body of Christ. But just because it’s meant to happen, doesn’t mean it IS happening, even when people stand up and say what they think God is saying to them. In 1 Corinthians 12-14 where Paul instructs the church at Corinth in orderly use of the charismatic gifts, he imagines a church where prophecies and tongues and all sorts of other things come to people. Network, to its credit, attempts to recreate this, with a space for anyone to stand up and say what God has been speaking to them through the worship. But for me, prophecy and the like finds its full meaning in a church which is a strong community. Prophecy means far more when you are involved in each other’s lives and are wrestling with things together. I think genuine prophecy is more likely to come in this situation too. Strong community should be foundational; then we should seek the showy gifts. As it was, I was asked what God was telling me through the worship (nothing – I didn’t connect to the worship in its style or substance) and I wasn’t asked what was going on in my discipleship during the whole week.

I have a theological belief in the diversity of the body, as I’ve written about on this blog, but I can’t live it when it comes to diversity of theology itself. Most evangelicals have such a different understanding of God, a different Jesus. I find it so hard when I feel I don’t have enough common ground to even have meaningful theological conversations. What is an Anabaptist to say to a YWAMer, a Zionist, a creationist? The last few years I’ve been too shaky in my faith to have robust conversation, and encountering so much diversity has only discouraged me. I think I’ve needed to be around similar-minded people to reinforce what I believe for a while. (And I’m saying this, if you can’t hear it, with a strong element of self-critique; I guess we all want reinforcement that we’re right. That’s why we have so many different types of churches. I wish there was one more, an Anabaptist one, in this city.)

There are a lot of people sincerely trying to follow Jesus at Network, and open to the Spirit. I hope they flourish; they’re doing things differently, and are willing to give things a go. I’ll miss them.