I’m at the point then where I can reasonably assert that my faith is not simply a habit, or something persuaded or imposed on me by others, but an understanding of how things are that makes some sense to me. The God “who is seen in Jesus”, to once again quote David Jenkins, works for me as an understanding that I think can defend, because the qualities and values that are seen in Jesus in the New Testament narrative are the very best that have been seen in humankind. Yes his followers have often misunderstood, misused and abused that which is seen in Jesus – perhaps most notably in the centuries before the scriptures were available to a wide circle of people. As that situation changed with the advent of printing and so on there have emerged, thankfully, those who would question and criticise and challenge the self serving positions often adopted by the establishment. The truth though, and in our privileged position in C21st we have a clearer view of this than ever, is that where people in power have used the name of Jesus to abuse and control the lives and actions of others they have been wrong to do so and have in a real sense broken the ancient commandment that tells us not to take the Lord’s name in vain.
I feel that I have two more areas to explore then. The first is to do with the church and “organised” religion. The second is to do with personal spirituality, prayer and worship. I need to remind myself though that in neither of these quests is my task to criticise the church in general, the Church of England in particular or indeed any of my fellow travellers on the road of faith. My concern is only to understand myself more clearly and to illuminate my own way ahead.
Fact: I am a priest in the Church of England. I was ordained deacon in 1977 after three years at theological college in Nottingham, and then ordained priest in 1978. So I have been a priest for 40 and a bit years. Remembering back, in that corner of the CofE where I grew up, the notion of “priesthood” was barely mentioned. This was a conservative evangelical church in suburban south London, and the call to which I responded was a vocation “to the ministry”. My second ordination then was little more to me than the passing of a probationary year and the entry point into a complete parish ministry. In particular of course it meant that I could preside at the eucharist (although as I recall even that inoffensive word was little used, it was either Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.). I would add here that that understanding (ie of ministry rather than priesthood) is one that has stayed with me ever since, no matter what else has changed in my theological outlook, and with which I am more than just content.
My first opportunity to take that eucharistic role came, somewhat to my surprise, in an invitation to do so in a small bible study group in the home of one of the regular participants. That I did, very willingly, and we sat around a coffee table in a front room and shared a bread roll and a glass of wine to make our eucharist. I’ve been in that position many times since, although inevitably much more often in the more formal “Parish Eucharist” context, standing behind a communion table (I still refuse to call it an altar!) with silver chalice and patten, mouth of the roof sticking wafers and odd tasting communion wine. It’s very clear in my mind that the “style” with which I am more comfortable is the former – the informality of a group of Christians eating, drinking and remembering in response to the command of Christ – is by a considerable margin where I would prefer to be. Indeed I find myself wondering if that small group situation might not be very important for the future of the Christian community in this country. Increasingly parishes are bowed down, even sometimes ground down by the need to finance the clerical establishment (the parish share in Anglican terms) and to maintain beautiful but ridiculously impractical buildings. Choosing to release ourselves from that burden could have the effect of freeing up a deal of energy, time and imagination which would surely better serve the Kingdom of God.
Returning though to my personal preference for the small group setting, that preference of course begs the question “why?”. There are several contributing factors I think. I rather suspect that small group simplicity and informality has about it a New Testament authenticity, as the early chapters of Acts suggest. That said, if the Maundy Thursday upper room gathering at which our conception of the eucharist began was in fact a Passover meal, there would I guess have been some formality and tradition, certainly some sense of order, involved. Though there is still order in the “agape” style informal communion, it’s just that the order is less important.
Flexibility is another – to some extent consequent upon the first. The informal gathering can be shaped, ether physically or liturgically, to match the mood and context of the group, using for instance music (whether sung or recorded), silence or spontaneous individual participation. It really doesn’t matter who says the words of consecration (actually I don’t really think it matters all that much at the Parish Eucharist either, but that’s another issue!) as long as the group is comfortable. Neither does it matter which words are used, whether formal liturgical words or something extemporised, as long as the central notion of eating, drinking and remembering is there. It also means we can ditch those wretched wafers and use decent bread, best of all home baked bread, and a drinkable wine. The God who is seen in Jesus, according to John, turned dusty water into an excellent vintage after all!
Aesthetics ….. yes, I think so. I’ve dressed up in robes for liturgical gatherings for all those years, and I find myself ever more relieved when I don’t have to. Added to which the small group gathering escapes the ecclesiastical feng shue of serried ranks of congregation facing clergy who stand or sit at least beyond if not actually above them. To be sat in a circle where all are at the same physical level just feels right to me.
I guess the truth is that I’m never after all these years going to be truly comfortable acting in the “priestly” role, and perhaps in fact less so than ever as time goes on. That doesn’t necessarily make an argument for not doing it any more; I suppose that if I can act skilfully and professionally in that role then I might enable the worship of others who find that formal context more helpful, and that’s a worthy enough objective. I’ll have eventually to face up to the question of how long I choose to continue though.
As a congregation member, which I am on many Sundays now, I find myself feeling oddly drawn to the idea of an early morning communion service, preferably using the rite from the Book of Common Prayer. That surprises me, and will surprise some of those who know me! Early morning (well – 8.00am) because such services tend to be small, quiet and without hymns, but why BCP? I think it’s because that language, Shakespearian in its beauty and cadence, has a somewhat surreal quality to it for the C21st ear that speaks of “the other”. So much of contemporary worship and in particular contemporary worship music seems to me (and this is very subjective) to be an attempt to make worship, faith and even God rooted in our time immanent rather than transcendent. Now, this is difficult, and I’m not sure I understand it entirely, in particular because Marcus Borg, whom I quoted in the first part and I repeat the quote below, seems to suggest that it is that of God which is immanent which we can experience in our lives.
The notion that God can be experienced is foreign to many in the modern world. Atheists of course deny that such experiences are possible, and agnostics are sceptical. But even many Christians in our time find the claim strange. To a considerable extent, this is because the most common Western concept of God, shared by Christians as well as by many atheists and agnostics, is that the word ”God” refers to a person-like being separate from the universe. Because this “superbeing” is not here, but somewhere else, “out there”, beyond the universe, God is not a reality that can be experienced.
The term commonly used for this way of thinking of God – as being separate from the universe – is supernatural theism. This form of theism seems orthodox to many Christians because of its familiarity (from the Bible) …….. but when taken as a concept of God, as the meaning or referent of the word “God”, it is misleading and inadequate, for it is only half of the biblical concept of God. It speaks only of God’s transcendence, God’s beyondness.
The Bible also speaks of God’s presence everywhere and in everything. …… Paul suggests that God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) …… God is not somewhere else, but right here, all around us, the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is. ……. God is everywhere, God is omnipresent ….. this is God’s immanence. …… for orthodox Christian theology through the centuries, God is both transcendent and immanent, both more than the universe and present in the universe.
A term increasingly used to name this way of thinking about God is panentheism (which) affirms that everything is in God, even as it also affirms that God is more than everything.”
In fairness he does go on to say, quite rightly, that God is both immanent and transcendent. I wonder then if it’s right to suggest that prayer and worship, the activity that we term “spirituality” has the capacity to move us from the immanent to the transcendent at least for a moment, and thus to take us to a place (the mountain-top) where we might be spiritually resourced in order to deal with that which awaits us in the valley below. The form of spirituality that “works” for individuals is perhaps as individual as they are and so is almost entirely subjective, and in fact probably varies anyway for each one of us with changing mood and circumstance. If that’s so, then that’s actually quite an important understanding for me in that it “gives me permission” to feel what I really do feel in relation to church, liturgy, formal and informal worship and so forth without fearing that I’m losing the plot spiritually. I remember writing at the end of the first section that going to the gym isn’t the only way to keep fit – I could add to that the thought that for me at the moment, it’s not by any means the best way to keep fit, and that for a whole set of reasons. What matters is to do what I do …… I dare to think that the same basic principle holds in relation to my faith as a Christian and to my spiritual life.
I want to add one more thing in this section which is the appeal of Quakerism. I have been at a number of Quaker worship meetings over the years and have found them to be very helpful; I could quite easily persuade myself that such a period of silence, interspersed perhaps by the contributions of those gathered, is a more fruitful way (for me) of worship than an Anglican Parish Eucharist. I acknowledge the dangers of an easily distracted mind, a trap I fell into repeatedly, but that might simply be an issue of practice and focus – and anyway a distraction may well open up a line of thought. For Quakers who are also theists (and I know that not all are) might this not be a way of inviting the God who is immanent to be involved transformationally in my life and the workings of my mind and thus move me from where I am to a better place? That might then become a style of prayer which is indeed (to quote myself from the opening page of the essay) “that searching for a power, a force, a spirit …. that transforms the purpose in humanity from a mere instinct for survival to a sometimes self sacrificial generosity to others (which) finds a resting place in “the God who is seen in Jesus” (to quote David Jenkins).
I’m not sure how much sense this might ever make to anyone else who reads it, but it begins to make a kind of sense to me, and that’s the object of the exercise.
That’ll do for now …… more to come.