Somewhat Anglican #6: Ash Wednesday

The first time I’ve marked Ash Wednesday has also been my thirty-third birthday, the age at which Jesus died. The coincidence led to incongruities. The season is meant to be one of denial; our impulse is to celebrate birthdays with luxury. I am such a bad Anglican I left the Ash Wednesday service quickly to make it in time for a booking at a restaurant to drink Chianti and eat fine food.

It felt medieval inside St Martin’s in the March evening heat, the sparse lighting illuminating the altar and leaving the congregation in dimness. The colours had changed to purple. The priest mixed the ashes of last year’s palm crosses with healing oil and smudged it in a cross on our foreheads. In the sermon she asked us to discern what it was we were holding onto which was not life-giving.

Somewhat Anglican #5: The church year as antidote to Easter eggs in January


Each year, understandably, my Facebook feed lights up with Christians bugged by Easter eggs in January and Christmas trees in October. Living in Australia in the 21st century, our calendar is shaped by commerce and patriotism. Two central Christian seasons, Easter and Christmas, are co-opted by shops as seasons of consumption, with their own products and sales traditions. There are others with some religious connection too – Valentine’s Day and Halloween. To these are added the patriotic celebrations – Australia Day and Anzac Day. There are special ways to consume for these events too, particularly Australia Day, as well as the media solemnising the occasions with wraparound souvenir editions or special reports. We know what season we’re in because of what display Coles has and what ads are playing on the television.

I contend that the free church traditions are missing out on a powerful alternative to the secular calendar in not properly observing the church (or liturgical) year. Most people in the free churches didn’t mark Epiphany last week, and may not even observe Lent or Advent at all. Being somewhat Anglican now, I know what season it is because we celebrate a different phase of Christ’s life with many other churches around the world. The shifts are marked by  distinctive colours in the church and a change in liturgy. I have an antidote to the secular calendar because church is shaping my sense of the year unfolding. It is, week to week, centred on Christ and helps me to live my life with a grounding in Christ’s life.

It needs to be done together like this, the whole church following roughly the same calendar (even if it has to be modified according to denominational differences), because when each church is left to set its own calendar, there is not a strong sense of an alternative to secular time. There’s just an individual church decreeing that January will be the month we do a series on King David and February the month we look at relationships. I call on free churches to give up some of their independence for the sake of the wider church and adopt more fully the church year.

Atheist churches – rebirth of 19th century secular societies?

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.

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”.

Menno Simons and the influence of biography on theology


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.


On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #3: Priests and Professionalisation

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.

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.