Like G. K. Chesterton (as I noted in my blog a few years ago), I feel a little like the intrepid explorer who, with a boat full of supplies and arms, sailed bravely into the unknown in order to discover new lands and riches for the Crown. After battling on the high seas for many a month, he espies land on the horizon. Dragging his boat onto the beach, and armed to the teeth, he intends to plant the British flag on this new territory, but soon discovers the natives already speak English. About an hour later—having realised he has landed on the south coast of England—he is sheepishly enjoying a pint of best bitter in the Ship Inn and, frankly, enjoying being back at home and having a good laugh.
Now my journey is not like Chesterton’s in that he left, and then returned to, the same place—Catholicism. But I do sympathise. But before we go any further, I would like to say that honest journeying (even dishonest journeying) is never wasted. Travels away from ‘home’ always gift the traveller with perspective; he or she may return to the same old haunts, but never as the same person. Travels of any kind—academic, geographic, cultural, or whatever—are, in my view, one of the best antidotes to fundamentalism for they open one’s eyes to the parochialism and short-sightedness of ‘village’ life. For villages, as I have noted elsewhere, thrive on convention and do not suffer travelling fools gladly.
I have always been a traveller. There has always been a restlessness in my spirit; a sense that there is more to be discovered. And growing up at the tail end of the hippie era, I heard many stories of exotic spirituality and divine encounters in distant lands that called me from beyond my mundane horizon. The publication of books such as ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’ (predicting the imminent apocalypse) did little to encourage, say, a career in law. So I left home, took a ferry to Norway, and started hitch-hiking to Australia.
I will not bore you with a traveller’s tales, especially as my journey was more interior than exterior. ‘Surely,’ I thought, ‘if Christianity is real, there has to be more than this?’ I suppose that—for a naive and broadly anti-establishment guitarist—‘this’ was the world of convention, of respectable (dissenting) Christianity where nothing much of substance seemed to happen (from my perspective), and where this earthly life was painted as something to be endured rather than celebrated on the basis that the afterlife would bring the longed-for bliss. But I was not prepared to wait for the afterlife, and so I travelled.
Now I promised not to bore you. So to cut a long story short, five years later I had a job that I disliked, a mortgage, and a settee in the lounge (albeit bought in a second-hand shop). But the restlessness persisted. This was expressed in my somewhat chequered career: I could never really focus on my work as an engineer, always feeling that somehow I was in a backwater; that I had somehow missed the boat. And for many years I dutifully tried to lead worship in various churches (independent and Anglican): the power of a Baptist upbringing is strong, and I felt guilty for missing church on a Sunday, guilty for not tithing (in one church where I worked, I was expected to give 10% of my salary straight back to the church), and guilty if I was not fully involved in church life. In fact, my life was shot through with guilt. I frequently repeated the question: ‘Surely there has to be more than this?’. It compounded the sense of guilt, for others seemed happy: was there something wrong with me? Was I too self-centred?
For a while, I found myself leading worship at ‘conferences’—a misnomer since, like dissenting churches and unlike their academic counterparts, questions (that is, ‘dissent’) were not encouraged. These were emotional lecture clubs attracting sometimes thousands of people. I found myself seduced by the euphoria of playing to large crowds, but unease began to grow. I will not speak more of this (and I don’t want to imply that it was all bad—for me, and many others, these were positive and life-changings events, and while leading worship I did my level best to help people to worship God), but let’s get straight to the main issue. The post-Reformation world of dissent (and by this term I mean the whole spectrum of independent churches and movements—from inflexible legalists to ‘flexible’ charismatics—that rejected traditional historic Christianity primarily because it was seen as a tainted puppet of the State) is fundamentally characterised by an inherent divisiveness borne of a fundamental(ist) conviction of rightness. As noted in previous posts, the attitude—if only subliminal—is: ‘we’ are right, and ‘you’ are wrong.
Now there is a spectrum of conviction on this score, and this hard-line attitude is often softened by soothing words as well as ‘ecumenical’ practices, but it seems to me that deep down—in many settings—the root of Enlightenment foundationalism has never been dug up. Like a gardener who weekly mows his lawn, in the middle of which is an old tree stump, and every week mutters to himself, ‘I must dig that up,’ so, much of dissent, in my view, continues to grow very good grass but is not addressing a central issue.
I don’t want to over-labour the point (or be over-critical), particularly as one has to balance this by recognising that the church transcends human institutions. Furthermore, dissent (and the Reformation itself) clearly brought fresh life and vision to a struggling European church, and was a pivotal force for renewal in the U.K. But I struggle with one particular issue: my experience is that fundamentally dissenters don’t like dissent (or, if you prefer, independents don’t like independence); they reject orthodoxy for some new theological emphasis that then becomes ‘orthodox’, and frown on those who question the new orthodoxy. Much psychological pressure can be put on those, like me, who have an innate tendency to rock the boat. The extreme is, of course, sects centred on manipulative charismatic individuals who promote a warped orthodoxy through psychological manipulation and abuse.
My point here is I am not a very good dissenter, and I feel like apologising to those many good pastors who have genuinely tried to care for this travelling sheep. I should have realised this years ago and given up trying to find a spiritual home in little independent fellowships—it would have saved others, no doubt, some heartache. For in each new fellowship I joined, before too long I would get ‘cabin fever’, feeling confined in a ‘system’ to which I could not give my wholehearted support, combined with a call from beyond the visible horizon to search for new lands.
Now some of my readers will no doubt accuse me of self-centredness, of not having a ‘servant heart’, and of failing to commit humbly and wholeheartedly to those churches I gravitated to. They will no doubt remind me that no church is perfect, and I should have done more to stay engaged. Well, all I can say is that we will have to agree to disagree. For me, the Christian life is intrinsically, quintessentially, a pilgrimage towards the heart of God, and if inflexible earthly structures become obstacles in this quest, then it is best to leave.
So a couple of months ago I got a circular email from the Anglican Chaplain here in Prague (my wife and I attend the Anglican church): ‘the Bishop is in town,’ he wrote, ‘would anyone like to be confirmed?’. For me, it suddenly became clear that, like Chesterton, I had landed back on an English beach and needed to make a commitment. I wanted to renew my baptismal vows and reconnect with a historic stream of Christianity. Unlike Chesterton, though, I made a conscious decision to say goodbye to my childhood religion, dissent. Not that I would turn my back on my independent brothers and sisters, or consider myself somehow superior; I simply felt that I could no longer commit to a form of Christianity that I found I could no longer fully endorse. I wanted to be part of an episcopal church, and—as an Englishman—I knew the Anglican church was to be my home from this point on.
Now some will (rightly) point out that the Anglican church has a ‘dissenting’ history in that it is a protestant body that broke away from Rome, and that Henry VIII’s antics leave much to be desired, that it also has numerous problems, and so on. Let me give you some key reasons why I am an Anglican.
First, one of the dangers facing local, independent Christian fellowships is theological naivety. Some deal with this better than others, but I have observed many times that in small independent churches, as well as in insular denominations or movements, because of a lack of theological training or an understanding of church history and so on, very unwise decisions are made—particularly relating to how people are managed. I have numerous friends who have been damaged and abused in the name of the church and have simply given up. Calvin’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers (a cornerstone of dissenting theology) is an admirable reminder that all believers may have a direct, personal relationship with God (rather that going through a priest), but the disadvantage is that it opens the door to theological (and ‘spiritual’) nonsense. Particularly so if openness to the Holy Spirit is not balanced by rootedness—a stable biblical, theological, and traditional foundation. The episcopal system addresses this by providing a pastoral support system that values traditional and theological reserves (the magisterium in the Catholic Church), resources that are centuries old as well as recent, which are the fruit of saintly and academic rigour. In studying the writings of those such as F. D. Maurice, J. H. Newman (we forgive him for defecting to Catholicism), or, more recently, Rowan Williams, I am struck by the depth and humility of the writing. As a theologian myself, I am conscious that the role of theology is less about proclaiming what is true as providing a framework for truth. What I appreciate within Anglicanism is the freedom to think, to move, and to breathe, and yet still have the security of being part of a worldwide thinking and living community.
The second related point is that I appreciate the security and safety that an episcopal system brings. Of course, the Anglican Church is not perfect, and there is the danger that position in the Church can be used for personal ends, but my experience of Anglican bishops and clergy is that there is a genuine understanding of Christ-like servant leadership. It may appear to be a hierarchy, but it is based on servanthood, not power. In contrast, I have noticed that in dissenting denominations or independent fellowships who pride themselves on autonomy and the lack of central control, pride and power is often (but of course, not inevitably) a serious issue.
My final point is this. That despite its suspect genesis, the Anglican church is a historic community of 80 million people whose roots, like Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, are traced back through the Fathers to the New Testament church. As Bishop Robert laid hands on me at St Clement’s (one of the oldest church buildings in Prague going back to the 12th century) I felt, after my many wanderings in foreign lands, to have come back home.In my next blog I will expand of these thoughts a little more and consider the broader picture. Hope you found this helpful!