Podcast No. 7 is now available. It is called “I Just Want To Go Home,” and it is about 10 minutes long. To download it as an mp3 file, click here. To listen to the podcast now, click on the button below. This podcast is also archived on the “Podcasts” page of this blog. Thanks for listening.
Last Monday, I had lunch with a good friend. Our wide-ranging conversation included references to mutual acquaintances, most of whom neither of us had heard from in some time. When the name of Arthur Lough came up, however, I was quick to mention that I had just spent an hour or so with Arthur on the previous Saturday afternoon.
“And how is the old curmudgeon?” my friend asked. “Arthur and I are the same age,” I reminded him.
“Oh, I wasn’t referring to his age so much as his irascibility,” he replied, smiling. “Don’t you think that Arthur has gotten a bit, well, crusty in recent years?”
“I hadn’t really noticed,” I said. “But if he has, I think he might have good reason. Life hasn’t been easy for Arthur the past few years.”
“Life hasn’t been easy for any of us,” he shot back. “But Arthur seems to have the knack for making a bad situation worse. He has made some choices that alienated him from his peers and colleagues, so I’m certain he feels isolated and cut off from the circles he used to move in.
I’ve not had the best of luck with Facebook status updates lately (as I noted in my blog post of November 9). Still, I ran across a series of updates which I published last May (Yes, I keep a file. Do you think I take Facebook a bit too seriously?), and I felt they were worth repeating. In fact, upon reflection, I decided to use them as the basis for a blog post. They will help me say something I have wanted to say for a while.
When I wrote the status update which I published on May 3, I had no idea it would be the first installment in a short series. I don’t recall what prompted it. I only know that, over the course of a week, I published five status updates, all of which conformed to the same pattern.
That is, in each of them, I reflected on the ways my life had been affected by the qualities and characteristics of the major Christian traditions with which I had identified over the years. Instead of saying more about that series of posts, I’ll simply share them with you again, as they appeared on my Facebook wall from May 3 to May 10, 2012.
Most of the readers of this blog are not Anglicans and do not come from a liturgical or Prayer Book tradition. Rather, they identify with the Free Church tradition in American Christianity, represented by denominations such as Baptists and Mennonites, quasi-denominational networks such as the Vineyard churches, and multitudes of congregations which classify themselves as independent or non-denominational. I grew up in that tradition but, as I have noted countless times in these blog posts, about ten years ago my wife and I began to be drawn toward a more liturgical form of public worship. That led, in time, to our confirmation as Anglicans and, in the spring of 2011, to my ordination as an Anglican priest.
As I reported in a post on November 9, my credentials as a priest have recently been de-activated by my request, I have been released from both the privileges and responsibilities conferred upon me by my Bishop when I was ordained a priest, and I am no longer authorized to carry out sacramental ministries (such as celebration of the Eucharist) in congregations associated with the Anglican Church in North America.
A few of my readers have asked me to say a bit more about that matter, including what led me to request “laicization” only eighteen months after ordination, and what all of this means for my future ministry. I have decided to use this post (which is far longer than usual) to address some of these issues, and then I intend to move in an altogether different direction in future posts.
I’ve told this story before. A couple of years ago I took a graduate-level course in the history of Anglicanism. One day, well into the course curriculum, I found myself responding, yet again, to what I perceived to be an unwarranted and misguided criticism, from one of my fellow-students, of some aspect of the Free Church tradition, where I had spent more than thirty-five years in vocational ministry.
After several minutes of “spirited” exchange, the professor waded into the fray. After confirming that my learned opponent was indeed misguided in his critique, at least on that particular point, the instructor leaned across the lectern and looked directly at me. “You’re not an Anglican,” he said. It wasn’t a judgment or an accusation, and there was not one note of rancor in his voice. He was simply making an observation. “You’re not an Anglican,” he repeated. “You’re a liturgical Anabaptist.”
He later explained that he wasn’t challenging my commitment to Anglicanism nor suggesting that I should not be preparing for Holy Orders. Rather, he was voicing his opinion that my Anabaptist convictions were so deeply ingrained that they naturally informed my response to criticism of the Free Church tradition and infused it with passion. I have to say I think he was right.
Last winter I wrote a blog post called “My Debt to Anabaptism.” I meant everything I wrote there. Since that time, however, I have had occasion to think more about my quarter-century sojourn among Mennonite Anabaptists, the lessons I learned and the convictions I developed there, and the relationship of that chapter of my pilgrimage to my current identification as an Anglican priest.
One such opportunity was occasioned when I heard that Gene Herr had died. In response, I wrote a blog post called “Gene Herr Was My Hero” to express my appreciation for the testimony and example of a man who grew up as a Mennonite Anabaptist but was drawn toward the liturgical tradition later in his life. I admired his courage in following his convictions and his insistence that these two traditions could strengthen each other.
More recently I stumbled onto the online musings of Tim Chesterton, an Anglican priest in Canada, who developed an interest in historical Anabaptism and its contemporary expressions and drew conclusions similar to those of Gene Herr regarding the compatibility of Anabaptism with the liturgical tradition and the mutual benefit which he believed Anabaptism and his own Anglican heritage could be to each other. He spent a sabbatical studying Anabaptism and compiled his conclusions into a series of blog posts. I found them fascinating.
All of this convinced me that I needed to write another post in which I would update the conclusions I expressed in my earlier post. This, then, is that.
My professor was right. I am a liturgical Anabaptist. I might still be a Mennonite if I could have found a place, within the particular group of Mennonites with whom I was serving, where my growing convictions regarding the importance of the liturgical tradition would be acknowledged and appreciated. Finding no place like that, I had no choice but to turn in another direction. I became an Anglican with Anabaptist convictions instead of an Anabaptist with liturgical sensibilities.
I love Anglican worship, and I don’t think I could ever feel at home again in a tradition in which the celebration of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) was not the pinnacle of the church’s corporate worship. At the same time, I miss a lot that I had come to love and appreciate as an Anabaptist. Yes, I miss the tradition of a capella congregational singing which some Mennonite churches still cherish. And, oddly enough, I miss the sense of “family-ness” which pervades much of the Mennonite community, even though I always felt that I was a guest at the table and not really a member of the family.
Here’s what I miss most about Anabaptism, however. I miss the serious conversation I used to engage in with other Anabaptists, many of them my colleagues in ministry, concerning the interface between the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, their interpretation by Paul and others in the NT Epistles, and their practical application amidst the contemporary culture. I didn’t always agree with my fellow Anabaptists, but I always respected their viewpoint (even though I’m certain that more than a few of them would be surprised to hear me say that).
Like most traditions, and like me when I was serving among them, Anabaptist Christians talk a better game than they play. But I miss talking that game with them, and I’ve concluded that, at least sometimes, the more you talk about something the more likely you are to do something as a result.
My experience among Anabaptists sharpened my sensitivity to injustice in the world and strengthened my convictions regarding “biblical nonresistance.” (See Matthew 5:43-48.) That is a perspective almost completely absent from the circle of colleagues among whom I move as an Anglican. I miss it terribly. (It is not absent from Anglican sensibilities altogether, however, as this quote by Desmond Tutu illustrates.)
So, in this update to my post titled “My Debt to Anabaptism,” I am going on record to declare that, whatever the context of my future ministry as an Anglican priest, I will be making it clear that the shape of my Anglicanism will be strongly informed by my Anabaptist convictions. And now that I know that men like Gene Herr and Tim Chesterton share my convictions in that regard and have left a written record to serve as precedent for me, I am even more energized and encouraged.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote that “what’s past is prologue.” I don’t know how long I still have to serve Christ and His Kingdom, but whether it is two weeks or thirty years, I plan to serve it as an Anglican Anabaptist (or should that be an Anabaptist Anglican?). I am totally convinced that my pilgrimage has not been a series of disjointed meanderings. I feel enriched and empowered by my exposure to these two traditions—Anabaptism and Anglicanism—into which God has providentially guided me over the past thirty-five years. They are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, mutually beneficial, and I am grateful to God for allowing me to experience the benefits of both communions… separately in the past and blended in my future ministry.
For some specific descriptions of ways in which this union of Anabaptism and Anglicanism may manifest itself it my future ministry, stay tuned to my future blog posts. Thank you for reading, and as always…
Soli Deo Gloria.
On July 11, I sent an email letter to my bishop. In it I asked him to advise me as to the protocol I would need to follow in order to resign my ordination as a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. I knew that becoming an Anglican priest had been a long and complicated process. I assumed that leaving the priesthood might very well be the same.
That request was not an act of desperation. I had not fallen into a deep pit of despair to which I wanted to draw attention by doing something dramatic. I had not been rebuked or embarrassed or offended. I was doing what I believed I ought to do in light of my circumstances. I was doing what I felt my situation required me to do. Here’s what I mean.
My wife and I received the Sacrament of Confirmation as Anglicans in April 2009, after nearly forty years of service in the Free Church tradition. The transition to Anglicanism was difficult and costly. Still, it was necessary, given the convictions regarding worship and the church which God had planted and cultivated in us over the preceding five or six years.
Since God had called me to vocational ministry while I was still in high school, and since I had served in some ministerial role for my entire career, it stood to reason that, if God had led me to Anglicanism, He had also prepared a place for me to fulfill my calling and exercise my gifts within this new communion.
Accordingly, in the summer of 2009, I made my first inquiry into the process I would need to follow if I were to seek ordination as an Anglican priest. I have described all of this in earlier blog posts as well as in the document called “My Spiritual Pilgrimage,” which you can access by clicking on the tab at the top of this post, if you are interested.
In response to my inquiry, the priest who was serving at that time as chair of the Vocations Committee for the diocese assured me that, given my background and experience, he felt sure that I was qualified for ordination. “What I don’t know,” he went on to say, “is where we will find a place for you to serve after you are ordained.”
Again, I have written elsewhere about how foreign this statement was compared to my previous experience in ministry. For forty years, except for the time that I was in school and perhaps one or two other brief periods, I had always been involved in service to the church for which I was monetarily compensated, i.e. paid—not a lot, but paid nonetheless. In short, ever since God called me to vocational ministry, He has always opened doors to areas of ministry where I could use my gifts and, at the same time, earn my living.
That is until now.
The chair of the Vocations Committee had made it clear that I could not be “generically” ordained. In other words, I would need to have in mind some sphere of service, some role or position or slot which my ordination would equip and authorize me to fill. That would be difficult, he noted, since there were precious few ministerial openings among the parishes of our brand new diocese.
In all candor, I was not terribly concerned. For nearly forty years, God had consistently opened doors for me, using different sorts of circumstances to bring me into contact with groups of His people who recognized my gifts and my calling and were eager to have me serve among them. In every case, these same people understood that, if I were to use my gifts in serving them, they would need to help meet my material needs through their faithful financial stewardship. That has been the pattern which has played out in my experience over and over.
When I met with the bishop in the fall of 2010, prior to my ordination the next spring, he agreed with me that, given my experience in teaching college-age young people and my special affection for that age group, it seemed only logical that a good “fit” for me would be to serve as a priest in a church near a college campus. There was only one problem. There was no such church in our diocese, at least not one with an opening for a priest on its staff. If such a church were to develop, it would have to be planted.
That problem did not seem insurmountable. After all, I live near Columbus, OH, the home of The Ohio State University with its more than 50,000 students. There is not one, single, orthodox Anglican church within ten miles of the OSU campus. And OSU is by no means the only college located in Columbus or the immediate vicinity. That an Anglican church with a vision to reach out to college students is legitimately needed should be a no-brainer, right? That’s what I thought. And that’s what the bishop believed when he ordained me to the priesthood in May 2011.
It is now more than a year later. The vision for St. Patrick’s Church and Ministry Center (which I have summarized in the Prospectus; you can access it above) has not materialized. God has not brought together a core group of people who are willing to commit themselves sacrificially to see this vision become reality. Nor has He made it possible for Shirley and me to move to the city where we had hoped to plant the church.
Since I have not been able to accomplish, in more than a year, the ministry for which I was commissioned at my ordination, I determined that the only reasonable thing for me to do—an action that reflected integrity and sincerity —was to resign my Orders. That, then, is what prompted my letter of July 11.
In response to that letter, the Archdeacon, a priest who assists the bishop in the administration of the diocese, told me that I cannot resign my ordination since I received Holy Orders from a bishop who had been consecrated in Apostolic Succession. I have been ordained a priest forever in God’s “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Truth be told, I was actually glad to learn that. It is altogether consistent with the gravity and solemnity of the process of preparation for Holy Orders and the vows I made when I was ordained.
I was further told that, if I insist that I want to be released from the sacramental authority and responsibility of my ordination, I can request to be “laicized.” In that case I would be relieved of my sacerdotal (priestly) authority. I could no longer, as an Anglican priest, celebrate Eucharist or carry out any of the other sacramental functions which a priest is ordinarily authorized to perform.
On July 25, I met with the diocesan Canon to the Ordinary, another priest who assists the bishop and, in this case at least, serves as something of a “chaplain” for the clergy of the diocese. It was a good meeting, and as a result of that conversation I have agreed to take my request for release from my Orders off the table for the time being.
I’ve now had a couple of weeks to think and pray further about this matter in light of what I have recently learned. If you’re interested, I’ll be addressing some of the conclusions I’ve reached in a future post, perhaps the next one.
For now, I want to emphasize that my inquiry regarding release from my Orders was not an act of desperation nor an ill-conceived emotional eruption. There is nothing in the world more important to me than faithfulness to the calling and gifting which God extended to me more than four decades ago and which have been regularly affirmed by the people of God.
I know that I am likely looking at the last chapter of my active ministry (I am 62 years old). Still, I hope and pray that it will be a long and fruitful chapter. But time is passing, and I seem to be treading water. I’m trying to maintain a spirit of confidence and hopefulness. Thanks for your prayers. I do have more to say on this subject, but I need to save it for another time and bring this posting to a close.
Soli Deo Gloria.
As I have noted in this blog many times, God and I entered into a pact around forty years ago. He called me into vocational ministry. I responded to that call. He promised to open doors of opportunity for me and to care for all my legitimate needs. In return, He asked me to devote all my energy and use all my gifts in the service of the Kingdom of God. I have tried to be faithful to my side of the pact. He has always been faithful to His, even if on occasion (like now) it hasn’t been immediately clear how He was bringing it to pass. He always has, eventually.
God made my side of the bargain easier by limiting the gifts and the skill set He gave me. I haven’t had to struggle with the temptation to forsake my calling in order to be a professional athlete or a business entrepreneur or a rocket scientist. I’ve never had to resist the allure of the Broadway theater or the silver screen or the concert stage. I simply don’t have either the gifts or the desire to pursue those vocations. I am, however, a pretty good teacher.
For most of my life, I have had ample opportunity to exercise my gifts as a teacher—either in pastoral ministry or in the classroom or as an itinerant speaker/lecturer, traveling across the country and across the church to serve as a preacher in Bible conferences, a teacher in local Bible institutes, and a presenter for workshops and seminars. My schedule was as full of meetings of this type as I wanted it to be until a few years ago when I fell into heresy.
Heresy is not a pretty word. In fact, it’s not even a word with which most people are familiar these days. It was used more frequently in an earlier era when more attention was paid to doctrinal precision and religious orthodoxy within the Christian community. In those days, heresy was the word used to denote deviation from accepted doctrine or a rejection of orthodoxy. A practitioner of heresy was called a heretic.
Throughout the history of the Christian church, the term heresy has been applied to a wide variety of perceived heterodoxy. Its broadest usage has related to variation within or denial of the classic and creedal assertions related to the character and attributes of Jesus Christ. Denial of the classic Christian belief that Jesus was God in human flesh has always constituted heresy. Generally, a rejection of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ and the suggestion that there are other ways to God apart from belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord have fallen into that category as well.
In some quarters of the church, where speaking in tongues is not practiced, those who advocate that the gift of tongues should be normative for the life of the church are viewed as heretics. Likewise, Christians who believe in evolution may be guilty of heresy in the eyes of Christians who don’t.
My descent into heresy was particularly egregious. I remain orthodox in my commitment to the Nicene Creed and its clear pronouncements of the deity of Jesus and His role as the Savior of mankind. Where I went off the rails was in suggesting that the church would be well-served if we actually recited the words of the Creed as part of regular public worship.
Add to that my inexplicable and inexcusable insistence on the celebration of Communion as the high point of every worship service, and the relegation of preaching to a less significant place in the service, and you can begin to see how the downward spiral accelerated.
I suppose it was inevitable, given what I have just admitted, that it was only a matter of time until I began publicly to refer to the four weeks before Christmas as Advent, the forty days before Easter as Lent, and the seventh Sunday after Easter as Trinity Sunday. Looking back on it now, I can only lift my hands in amazement and cry out, “What was I thinking?”
Yes, dear friends. As unthinkable as it must seem to many of you, I became totally and inextricably caught up in… liturgy. I fought it for years, but its hold on me was too great. I tried to hide my involvement in it for as long as I could, but I knew that was a futile exercise when, one Monday morning, a colleague pulled me aside and surreptitiously whispered in my ear, “I know where you went to church yesterday.”
I tried to quit, but I couldn’t. I found that, if I didn’t, on a weekly basis, eat a wafer and sip some wine that had been consecrated as the body and blood of Christ, I suffered something akin to withdrawal. Sometimes at night, I would be startled awake by the image of a priest uttering the phrase, “The Lord be with you.” More than once I found myself uncontrollably responding, “And also with you.” One particular night, I remember it well, I slumped back against my pillow and heard myself saying, “That’s it. I’m liturgical. The best thing to do is just admit it and take the consequences.”
From that moment it was only a short time until I had to make a clean breast of my obsession. I was warned that, if I couldn’t control my attraction to the liturgical tradition, I might lose my job. I was told that, if I couldn’t curb this consuming desire to kneel when I pray and make the sign of the cross, I would lose my credibility among those who had once engaged me for preaching and teaching missions. “Don’t you care that you are making yourself unemployable?” they asked, plaintively.
And they were right. I did lose my job. Invitations to preach in Bible conferences and to teach in local Bible institutes dried up. My phone stopped ringing, and my email inbox gathered dust.
I cried out to God, “Why is this happening? I’m still an orthodox, evangelical Christian. I’m still committed to the Anabaptist distinctives of radical discipleship and biblical nonresistance. I still believe in the importance of spiritual formation and the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.”
“That may be true,” I seemed to hear God say in reply. “But can you really expect people to invite you to preach to them or to teach their young people if you are constantly using words like ‘eucharist’ and ‘absolution,’ and if you call your pastor “Father” and your bishop “Your Grace”?
And so, I have had to learn to live with the ignominy that has accompanied my public confession of a compulsion to liturgy. It is the cross I must bear, and as an unrepentant Anabaptist, I know a little about cross-bearing discipleship.
Pray for me. I’m trying to find my way within the community of other liturgy addicts, but it’s not easy. Every Sunday I feel the eyes of the congregation on me, as the people think, “Does he really mean it when he prays the Lord’s Prayer, or is he just saying the words?”
It’s getting easier, though. Little by little, I am finding individuals and groups who are at least willing to hear me out. More and more people are listening to my story with interest, and some are even telling me that their experience is similar to mine. And so, maybe I will eventually feel at home in this new communion where so many are heretics just like me.
Like many Christians, I grew up with what I now believe to be a grossly deficient view of the role and purpose of the church. My parents were Baptists. I was baptized, and eventually ordained, in that tradition, which is characterized by a strongly congregational polity (i.e. form or system of government). That is, while Baptist churches may link together for certain kinds of cooperative endeavors, each local congregation is viewed as an autonomous entity, not subject to any kind of outside authority so far as its decision-making apparatus is concerned.
In some Baptist churches, the form of government in the local congregation is something close to a pure democracy, where a vote of the membership is required for virtually every decision of any significance. Others operate under a system in which the pastor, as the lone “elder” in the church, pretty well runs the show, assisted to some degree by a board of “deacons” who presumably advise the pastor and, in rare cases, may actually possess sufficient authority to override a pastoral decision.
A similar polity is favored by “independent, non-denominational” churches, many of which use terms like “Bible Church” or “Community Church” in their names. My first two pastorates were served in churches of this sort, without denominational identity but decidedly congregational in polity. I was in my thirties before I began to think of “church” as anything other than a local, autonomous assembly, responsible for its own program, accountable to nobody except its own membership, and sometimes not even to them.
Well, that’s not entirely true. As a Bible college graduate, I understood the term “church” to be used in the New Testament with reference to the “body of Christ,” composed of all Christians, everywhere, across the centuries of “church” history. But this “universal church” was sometimes called the “invisible church,” and a church that you could not see was, in practical terms, nonexistent. The only church I knew anything about, so far as personal experience was concerned, was a local, independent entity, operating according to its own perception of Christian doctrine, and often in competition with similar local churches in the same general area.
Eventually, I came to believe that affiliation with a local church assembly alone, to the exclusion of formal and official identification with a broader, more diverse community of Christian believers (as in a denomination), revealed an inadequate understanding of the concept of the church as the “body of Christ.” I had read the Nicene Creed, with its declaration that “we believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” and I wanted to do something, in terms of formal identification and official membership, which reflected my commitment to that church.
The proliferation of Christian denominations, I maintain, is one negative consequence of the Protestant Reformation. Thus it is not possible, in organizational and institutional terms, to identify formally and officially with the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Even the Roman Catholic Church, since Vatican II, recognizes that there are genuine Christian believers not covered by its umbrella. The best we can do, or so it would seem, is to identify with a denomination—ideally one with worldwide membership—which also recognizes its place within the family of churches, denominations, fellowships, coalitions, and alliances which, ostensibly, worship Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and King of the Universe.
That was the decision to which I came, nearly thirty years ago, when I became a member of what is now Mennonite Church USA. MCUSA is a tiny denomination, but it is linked to a worldwide Mennonite/Anabaptist network. Moreover, at the time, affiliation with even a small denomination was a big step for someone with my background to take.
I took that decision seriously. I could have embraced many of the distinctives which drew me to Anabaptism—an emphasis on radical discipleship, Biblical nonresistance, simplicity, and a commitment to social justice, for example—without actually joining the Mennonite Church. But I was ready to identify with an entity that included brothers and sisters in Christ outside of my local congregation.
Twenty-five years later, I was captivated by the beauty and mystery of liturgical worship. For a time, I tried to “scratch the liturgical itch” without identifying formally with a denomination in the liturgical tradition. Initially, I wanted to be an Anabaptist with liturgical sensibilities. The more I learned about Anglicanism, however, the more I was drawn into the communion as much for its polity, its history,
and its worldwide witness as for its liturgy. Today I consider myself an Anglican with Anabaptist sensibilities.
Anglican polity is decidedly not congregational or democratic. It is episcopal, which is the English form of a Greek word often translated “overseer” and is the etymological root for the English word bishop. In Baptist churches, authority rests with the congregation. In Anglican churches, authority rests (or is supposed to rest) with the bishop. The bishop’s authority extends to a specified number of local congregations (known as parishes) which all together comprise what is known as a diocese.
In congregational polity, the local church is the fundamental unit of ecclesiastical identification. In Anglican polity, it is the diocese. Local parishes exist to embody the vision and mission of the diocese in a particular community. They are the means by which the diocese interfaces with a specific neighborhood. Clergy are not members of a local parish. They are members of the diocese only, and their role is to represent the bishop in the parishes where they serve in a variety of roles.
This system of government, which is based on a particular understanding of terms and patterns found in the New Testament, has some weaknesses, but overall it is workable and efficient. Its efficiency and its effectiveness depend on the character and competence of the bishop and the faithfulness and commitment of the diocesan clergy to the system and to their vows of loyalty to the bishop.
I believe that episcopal polity (i.e. parishes in a diocese living under the watchcare and authority of a bishop) is not only efficient and effective (at least in theory) for the organization and operation of local churches or parishes. It is also tailor-made (again, in theory) as a mechanism for the planting of new parishes.
Here’s what I mean. A single local parish within a diocese may not possess sufficient resources, either human or material, to support the birth and development of a new church in its area, even when the need for such a new congregation is obvious and indisputable. By pooling the available resources from all the parishes in the diocese, the cost of planting a new church could be underwritten for a year or two. As the new church grew and took on responsibility for its own support, diocesan funds could be re-directed toward another area with a need for a new church. In this way, each new church would be a joint effort of the diocese, and the entire diocese could rejoice in its success and benefit from its ministry.
I have proposed a pattern such as this for consideration by the parishes in my own diocese. So far, it has gone nowhere. That makes me sad, since I have pretty much concluded that this approach may be the only way our vision for St. Patrick’s Church can be realized. And it may be the only mechanism by which I can find a context for vocational ministry in the Anglican communion.
I have been an ordained minister for more than forty years. I have actually been ordained three times in three different theological communions: first as a Baptist in 1970, then as a Mennonite in 1982, and finally (and I do mean finally) as an Anglican priest just over a year ago.
As a minister in three communions who has served in a variety of ministry settings and in several different ministry roles (as a pastor, a broadcaster, a parachurch executive, and a college professor), I’ve seen it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly of evangelical church life in America. In fact, I have very few colleagues in ministry whose experiences within and among the American evangelical community are as varied and touch as many different traditions as mine. There are both assets and liabilities associated with that, but they are not the subject of this post.
What is the point of this post? I’m glad you asked.
My wife is away for a week or so, visiting her family in another state, and on those rare occasions when we are separated for more than a day or two at a time, in addition to missing her like crazy, I always seem to wax nostalgic and spend some time thinking back over the course of our life together.
I am writing this on a Sunday evening, at the cIose of a day in which I preached in the worship service of the church we attend, sat in on a meeting of the church’s leadership team in the afternoon, then came home and fell asleep while nursing a pounding headache (altogether unrelated to the earlier events of the day… I think). All of those elements have contributed to the direction my thoughts are taking me tonight as I reflect on where God has brought me after four decades of vocational Christian ministry.
I am a teacher. That is my primary ministry gift. As a pastor, my preaching ministry was marked by a distinctive teaching style. As a broadcaster and a parachurch exec, much of my ministry consisted of carefully prepared public presentations in which I was explaining something or advocating on behalf of something or issuing some sort of challenge—and all of this made use of my strengths as a teacher and communicator.
I am also an introvert. When I was in seminary, my faculty advisor looked at the results of some personality type-indicator test I had taken, sort of shook his head a bit, looked at me over the top of his glasses, and said, “Hmmm. An introvert in an extravert’s job.”
“Should I look for another line of work?” I asked. (Of course he knew I had no intention of forsaking my very clear call to vocational ministry.) “Not at all,” he replied. “Just be prepared for the toll that your ministry will take—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” He was right.
Because I am an introvert, and because I have gifts that are more suited to a classroom or some other context where the environment is conducive to thoughtful interaction without a lot of fanfare or excitement, I have never looked seriously at a ministry like church planting, which, I have always believed, requires a more outgoing, aggressive personality than mine and involves the use of entrepreneurial gifts which I don’t possess.
Ever so slowly, however, I am observing an evolution in my thinking and my perception of my own gifts as well as the possible shape of the final chapter of my active ministry.
Much of this new thinking is the product of simply facing reality. I am entering the Anglican priesthood at the very moment that the orthodox Anglican communion with which I am identifying is coming into existence. While the leadership of the Anglican Church in North America wants to highlight the proactive character of its mission, and rightly so, it cannot be denied that most of the parishes which comprise the new communion were formerly associated with the Episcopal Church.
I applaud the courage and fortitude which leaders at every level have shown as they have undertaken this necessary, but often gut-wrenching, act of conscience. I fully support and endorse the vision and program of the ACNA. Among the consequences of this decision, however, is the unavoidable reality that numerous parishes have been forced to abandon buildings they had paid for and assume new financial obligations which are made more substantial by the fact that, in the move from TEC to ACNA, most parishes retained all their clergy but not all their members. So the heavy costs are being borne by a smaller giving base. Thus, the hard fact is that there are almost no opportunities for ministry in established parishes to which people like me, new to the communion and with gifts not traditionally associated with church planting, can be called.
So far as the future health and vitality of the new communion is concerned, this is not a bad thing at all. Christianity has always thrived under pressure. It has been said, in fact, that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” Evangelical Christianity, especially, is marked by a pioneering spirit that flourishes when it is required to face new challenges, break new ground, blaze new trails, or move into uncharted territory (pick the analogy you prefer).
That’s precisely where orthodox Anglicanism is at the moment. Mainline churches in the liturgical tradition are in steep decline. As painful as the experience of separation has been for ACNA, the liturgical tradition in the United States and Canada has actually been given an opportunity for spiritual renewal. The rich heritage of this communion proved irresistible to me, and I believe it can do the same for many others.
This post was sparked by an email from the rector of the church I am currently attending. In it he forwarded an email he had received from the pastor of one of the largest evangelical churches in central Ohio, if not the nation. The subject was church planting. The association of churches to which that large super-church belongs comprises about 550 congregations nationwide. That group of churches has taken up the challenge of establishing 750 new churches within the next decade.
In order to reach their goal, the national leadership of that association of churches is calling on each of their current member churches to assume a portion of the responsibility, commensurate with their size and setting. The large local church in our community has taken upon itself the task of planting twenty new churches as its contribution to the overall goal. They are marshalling resources, both human and material, and unapologetically calling for the kind of commitment and sacrifice that a venture of that magnitude will require. I applaud their zeal, and I wish them well in that endeavor.
The vision for church planting which is energizing this network of churches is not simply a desire to increase their numbers or enlarge their influence. Their vision was prompted by facing some disheartening, even disturbing, facts about the state of Christian faith in contemporary America. Here is a quote from this prominent church leader’s email.
It may seem odd, at first glance, to spend much time or money planting new churches in the U.S. when it seems to the casual observer that “there is a church on every street corner in America.” But when one scratches below the surface, one discovers some very troubling trends in American church life. Four out of five churches are either plateaued or are in steep decline. Put another way, research reveals that 80-85% of churches in America are on the down-side of the growth cycle, moving from plateau to decline to death.
The decline is particularly steep among Anglo-Roman Catholics and among mainline Protestants. Research demonstrates that just about the only thing that is keeping Roman Catholicism afloat in America right now is the massive influx of Latino Catholics. In terms of actual people in the pews, the Catholic Church has lost roughly one-quarter of its strength over the last 35 years. And attendance at mainline Protestant churches has simply fallen off the table. Whereas about 11% of Americans attended a mainline Protestant church service in 1973, today there are only about 4% (and the majority of these are over 65 years old).
But there is still more depressing news on the American church front. When researchers examined the World War II generation, they found that only about 5% of that generation claimed no religious affiliation when they were young adults. That doubled to more than 10% among the Boomers (those who came of age in the late 1960’s through early 1980’s). But it doubled again to about 20-30% among post-Boomers (those who came of age in the 1990’s and 2000’s). In other words, with each succeeding generation, Americans are becoming less attached to organized religion (primarily Christianity), and less inclined to attend church.
So why do we need to plant new churches in the United States? Simply put, we need to plant new churches in order to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission. Churches that are in decline or are dying are not likely to fulfill the Great Commission, and there is an increasing number of people (primarily young) who are utterly detached from church. There is a desperate need, therefore, to plant innovative, entrepreneurial, highly evangelistic, and Christ-centered churches to reach the increasingly unchurched population of the U.S.
I wish every church leader at every level of the ACNA, from the Archbishop to the parish priests, could read this email. This is a vision and a challenge which we orthodox Anglicans can and must embrace. And we need to do it with the same kind of sacrificial commitment of resources which this nationwide network (the Vineyard churches) recognizes will be required to see the vision become reality.
I’m going to stop there… for now. But I have much more to say on this important subject. Stay tuned.
I’ve often wondered why I so much like to watch cooking shows on television. It’s not just because I like to eat. I mean, I like to travel, but I find most travelogue programs mind-numbingly dull. I love to read, but I find most programs on which authors are interviewed to be about as exciting watching paint dry.
Well, in the past couple of weeks, I believe I have gained some insight into my fascination with chefs and cooking techniques. It came through a story told by one of America’s great preachers, Will Willimon, the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke and now a United Methodist Bishop in Alabama.
He was writing about the first time he was asked to teach a seminary class on the significance of Communion. As part of his preparation, he sought the counsel of an older colleague who told him that, if he wanted to fully appreciate the value of Communion, he should learn to cook.
Willimon must have looked perplexed, so the older man went on. “You will never understand the meaning and value of Communion until you learn to prepare a meal and then take pleasure in the joy of those who have been satisfied by what you have prepared.”
That story reminded me of something one of my own Bible college professors once told me.
“When you’re preparing to preach, think of yourself as a cook or a chef in a well-equipped kitchen with a well-stocked larder. You have the best ingredients, the best utensils. Now get to work, and fix something good.”
The connection between preaching (or teaching) and food preparation comes right out of the New Testament. Remember the exchange between Jesus and Peter, up in Galilee, following the Resurrection, recorded in John 21.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Peter) said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” (Jesus) said to him, “Feed my lambs… (Be a shepherd to) my sheep… Feed my sheep. ”
Later Peter, in chapter two of his first letter to some early believers would describe fundamental Christian truth in these terms:
2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
As important as “spiritual milk” is, it’s not an adequate diet for growing Christians. Paul wrote, for example, in his first letter to the Corinthians…
3:1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready.
And the author of Hebrews wrote, in chapter 5…
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
It should be clear, then, that the New Testament intends for us to think of the process by which we acquire the spiritual nourishment which enables us to “grow in grace…” and to progress toward maturity, as eating. And the means by which preachers and teachers (pastors and shepherds) contribute to that process, through their public ministry of scriptural exposition, the New Testament calls feeding.
To make this image even more graphic, and to etch its importance even more deeply into our thought patterns as believers, Jesus, on the night that He was betrayed, as He ate a final Passover meal with His disciples, took bread; and after He had blessed it, He broke it and gave it to them and said, “Take… eat… this is my body which is broken for you. As often as you eat it, remember me.”
The most sacred religious observance which it is possible for us, as Christians, to participate in—the Eucharist, Holy Communion—was instituted by our Lord around a dinner table. Why, we even refer to it, sometimes, as “The Lord’s Supper.” The elements which Jesus identified as representative of His body and blood were the bread and the wine which, only moments before, had been items on the evening’s dinner menu.
And it seems clear that Jesus did not intend for the bread and wine, consumed as part of the Communion observance, to be mere symbols which call to mind what they stand for. He could have accomplished that by sanctifying some object which could be put on display, constantly reminding us of the spiritual reality behind the symbol.
Instead, Jesus sanctified—that is, set apart and made holy—both the elements (bread and wine) and the means by which their significance is made real to us (take… eat… drink).
We Anglicans believe that, when Jesus established the Communion meal as an ongoing observance which the Church is to practice until Christ returns, He filled it full of meaning and substance. Not only do the broken bread and the wine represent the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. They also remind us of the constant need for spiritual nourishment through the milk and meat of the Word. But even beyond that, these elements, in some indefinable but nonetheless real way, actually feed our spirits and nourish our souls. That’s why Communion is a part of our service of worship at least once a week.