For you and for many (on "lay" presidency)

As this is again being discussed, I thought I’d bring it back to the top of the blog.

First posted July 2007, with a more personal follow-up here.

In the ‘I confess’ post, I said:

“I confess: that the idea of lay presidency appals me. It’s either a redundant aim (because communion is celebrated by everyone) or it’s simply an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology. Priesthood is a differentiation sideways, not vertically, so what precisely is being objected to? I can’t see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost.”

This has caused a bit of comment (off-line as well as on!) and it’s certainly something which is being discussed here in Mersea. So I thought I’d expand a little further. Click ‘full post’ for text.

This is still in the style of summary points:

– the role of the ordained minister is not ‘above’ the people, which would undermine the priesthood of all believers, but ‘alongside’ the people – separated out to perform a particular role on their behalf – if they were all one part where would the body be?;
– if a bunch of Christians were stuck on the proverbial desert island without an ordained minister, then clearly it would be good for them to celebrate together; it is the community gathered which does the celebrating (even when not on the desert island) – but I would lay odds that they would choose one person to do it, and not just take turns (unless they were already formed in that theology!) – NB there’s a thread in Lost that explores this, but I haven’t finished series 2 yet, so I don’t know where it’s going;
– a community celebrating because there cannot be an ordained minister present is very different from a community celebrating because they choose not to value what the ordained minister represents (ie unity with the wider church) – one is acquiescence to necessity, the other is an elevation of separation;
– it is precisely that elevation of separation which is the core problem with lay presidency, so far as I understand it, ie it is a mark of the local community gathering all authority to itself, saying to all outside their self-defined boundaries ‘we don’t need you’, whereas I see one of the essential tasks of the ordained minister as being to represent the wider church to the local community, and call it to account, not least through being the sign of fidelity to apostolic teaching;
– accepting ordained ministers is therefore accepting a wider church and all that that entails – it’s the definition of catholic, in its proper sense, and it’s the opposite of sectarian. It’s about being a part of something larger than the individual ego, or even a gathering of individual egoes;
– the task of the ordained minister is balanced – to represent the wider church to the local and vice versa – and the ordained minister is the one who has overall pastoral and teaching responsibility within a particular community – presiding at the eucharist is the function and sign of that authority, not the source of it;
– the ordained minister therefore also has important disciplinary functions – eg the excommunication of unrepentant sinners; the rooting out of bad theology – which cannot be delegated – or is this also included in ‘lay presidency’?!? I have visions of a church version of the grand Mexican Stand Off: ‘I excommunicate you!’ ‘No, I excommunicate YOU!’ ‘NO, I EXCOMMUNICATE YOU!’;
– of those whom I have met who advocate lay celebration, none actually want _anyone_ to do it, that is, they wouldn’t be happy if a stranger walked in from the street; nor even if some particular known members of the congregation performed the duty (for various reasons). Moreover, the idea that the person doing it should be trained up to do it is uncontentious – and this leaves open the real issue which is about the laying on of hands by the wider church, and the value of sacramental theology as such;
– in other words, what is being objected to isn’t the idea of some members of the community being allowed to preside rather than others, it’s the idea that being ordained by the wider church body represents something important – and so we are back to the idea of the local congregation being an authority unto itself, without any accountability to the wider church, either in space or time;
– at bottom, my strong reaction against this notion is a belief that it is yet another example of the idolatry of choice that has infected Western society, whereby each person is their own little God able to muster tributes according to their own taste (much the most insidious form of slavery) and where worship simply becomes an agglomeration of common preference, leading to the ten thousand things (denominations) rather than a unity with a Body much greater than oneself. I think this is one of the core things that identifies me as ‘Anglo-Catholic’ – though this is supposedly ‘whole-Anglican’ theology;
– I find great comfort in the idea that my ministry and authority does not rest upon meeting the particular standards of a local community but is bound up with the wider church as a whole (as signified by the laying on of hands). Without this form of acknowledged authority it seems that each congregation goes its own separate way, in smaller and smaller splinters, in more and more egotistical forms (even when the egotism isn’t exercised in a personal way, it is still a function of a theologically elevated egotism as such). One tyranny has replaced another (and the New Testament is hardly silent on the idea of ministerial authority). There seems to be no distinction between the idolatry developed in Western theology in the late Middle Ages, which separated priests from people, and the theology developed by the church – the same church that was inspired enough to put the Bible together – which progressively delineated who had authority to preside. Hence my comment that I see advocacy of lay presidency as “an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology… I can’t see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost.”

None of this is to say that an ‘agape’ isn’t something wonderful, and to be encouraged, eg in small group ministry, only to differentiate it from ‘Holy Communion’ – that foretaste of heaven which is the celebration of the catholic church, local and universal. The ordained minister is the sign of that wider unity. ‘Just’ a sign? Only in the sense that the bread is ‘just’ a sign of the Body of Christ! It’s not an accident that the idea of lay presidency is most closely associated with the least sacramental understandings of the Eucharist. If what happens in communion isn’t ultimately that important, then it’s not that important who presides – but if what happens in communion is a means of grace and essential medicine for the soul – then it’s much more important that it is done rightly. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” – and ‘the body’ here isn’t simply the bread, it’s also the communion of saints, in heaven and on earth.

The authority of Scripture

First published: 19/12/07
Archbishop Rowan – peace be upon him – says in his Advent letter “a full relationship of communion will mean… The common acknowledgment that we stand under the authority of Scripture as ‘the rule and ultimate standard of faith’, in the words of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral; as the gift shaped by the Holy Spirit which decisively interprets God to the community of believers and the community of believers to itself and opens our hearts to the living and eternal Word that is Christ. Our obedience to the call of Christ the Word Incarnate is drawn out first and foremost by our listening to the Bible and conforming our lives to what God both offers and requires of us through the words and narratives of the Bible. We recognise each other in one fellowship when we see one another ‘standing under’ the word of Scripture. Because of this recognition, we are able to consult and reflect together on the interpretation of Scripture and to learn in that process. Understanding the Bible is not a private process or something to be undertaken in isolation by one part of the family. Radical change in the way we read cannot be determined by one group or tradition alone.”

Sadly I’m coming to see that I don’t agree with this. This post explains why – and it ties in with a conversation about fundamentalism that John, Doug and some others have been having. This is really a post about my view of Scripture, and it’ll overlap with some of my recent Learning Church talks.

I think the first and most important thing to say, and the root of my disagreement with Rowan’s letter, is that I don’t see Scripture as my highest authority; I don’t see Scripture as “the rule and ultimate standard of faith”; and I don’t see Scripture as that which “decisively interprets God to the community” (my italics). To be honest, I’m surprised to hear that from Rowan, but there is a fair bit of evidence that his views have developed over the last several years.

Now why am I saying this? Am I turning into a liberal backslider? I really don’t think so. It’s more that I start from a different place – and a place that I described when discussing the Chicago Statement of Faith. I see Jesus Christ as the Word of God; the Word Incarnate; the Word made Flesh. And I understand ‘word’ to be a mere shadow of what is meant by the untranslatably rich word λογοσ – so all of the emphases relating to all things being created through him and nothing being made without him are very real and meaningful to me. Now I see that Word – the living Christ – as the highest authority, the Lord to which we are subject, and I have difficulty with something other than that Lord being put in his place! Which seems to be what Rowan’s language is doing.

Strangely enough I consider myself to have a high view of Scripture. I would want to talk about the authority of Scripture, and I would want to flesh that out with some description of what it means to live under the authority of Scripture. So, for example, I would want to say that Scripture is a) the principal witness to the Incarnation – and thereby an irreplaceable source for how we know Jesus (and that not being restricted to the Gospels, or even the New Testament); b) independent of my own preferences; and c) something which has the capacity to question and interrogate me, and overthrow my self-delusions. Yet what is often missed is that Scripture testifies about itself that it refers beyond itself. The point of Scripture isn’t that we get to know Scripture, it’s that we get to know Jesus, that we get to know the God who is revealed in Jesus. When this part of the process gets missed then we are stuck with the Pharisees who spend time searching the Scriptures and don’t realise what they are for.

What this means is that Scripture neither captures nor controls Jesus. It is of supreme importance, but it doesn’t have a lock on the living Christ. I believe that there are two other ways in which Christ can be known. I don’t believe that these ways conflict with Scripture – that is, they needn’t conflict with the proverbial ‘right interpretation’ of Scripture – but when Scripture is absolutised in this way then these other forms are needlessly, and recklessly, diminished.

The first way is through the community of the church, most particularly the sacramentally shaped community. Jesus said that wherever two or three were gathered in his name, there would he be in the midst of them. He also said that those who loved Him and obeyed Him would abide in Him, and the Father would make his home with them. This seems to me to describe an independent access to Jesus and the Father, one which is not mediated by Scripture. The community comes first; the praxis of the community drives the formation of the language which shapes and structures the community; and then Scripture captures that language and records it for posterity. Yet the life is not reduced thereby – it remains independent. I believe that Jesus can be known – and his life can be shared, in fact it IS shared – by a community gathered in His name which is concerned to love Him and obey Him. That community will undoubtedly revere Scripture, yet it need not give to Scripture the role which Rowan describes. Jesus will be found in such a community – he will be known in the breaking of the bread – and that knowing is not circumscribed by Scripture, however much the knowing in one way is interpenetrated by the knowing otherwise.

There is also, I believe, a third way in which Jesus is known – and that is by direct revelation. This need not be Road-to-Damascus style dramatics, it may be simply a long, slow dawning realisation that ‘here is Christ’, or ‘this is what Christ requires of me’. Jesus told us that at Pentecost the Spirit would come to give us all that is from Him, and that the Spirit would lead us into all truth. In other words the disciples around him did not have all truth. I don’t believe we yet have ‘all truth’, though I am sure we are more deeply embedded in it. Neither Scripture nor the community can capture the Spirit, for it blows wherever it will – but it will accomplish all that Jesus promised it would.

So I believe that there are three ways in which one can relate to the living Christ at this present time – and I do not believe that Scripture can be so construed as to become hegemonic over the other two.

Let us return to my triangle, which I have amended:

The origin for this triangle was Hooker’s three legged stool, which I’ve always understood as the ‘classic’ Anglican approach, but I’ve made two explicit changes to it as I don’t take Hooker to have the last word(!). I have changed the word ‘tradition’ to the word ‘community’ to better reflect the nature of that field. I could have used the word ‘church’ instead, for that is what I am thinking of but I think that the word ‘community’ is less ambiguous and question-begging. (I also think that Scripture is itself a tradition!) Secondly, I have changed the word ‘reason’ to the word ‘culture’. I was never happy with ‘reason’ as the third element as reason is simply a tool not a source of authority, and as time has gone on it hasn’t captured what that third strand is really about (neither does “experience” which seems to be to be irretrievably compromised by Enlightenment metaphysics, but that’s a whole other story). What seems to be at stake in the third strand is what it means for the community informed by Scripture to incarnate in a particular time and place – not simply what is it to be faithful to Christ, and bear his witness in Scripture and Community, but what is it to be faithful to Christ here and now, in this place and this time, with these people holding these beliefs?

So I see these three sources of authority – in other words, these three ways in which the living Christ can be known – as both interdependent and themselves subject to Jesus himself, who is represented by the yellow area at the centre. I was asked, when discussing this in my lectures, about mysticism, and where it fitted in. Mysticism is the yellow area – it is where our path of discipleship is tending – it is where Christ lives in us and we live in him – and each part of the triangle is capable of leading us there.

No area of the triangle can preclude access to Christ from anywhere else and – possibly more importantly – each of the areas need the others if they are to have a full understanding of Him. The outer ‘spikes’ represent what happens when one of the areas believes it can travel alone. So the outer green represents fundamentalism; the outer blue represents a dead tradition and ritualism; the outer red represents the logical culmination of liberalism in atheism and cultural collapse.

The mid-points also represent something.

Firstly, opposite the red cultural area is a mid-point between tradition and community. This I see as ‘conservative’ Christianity, opposed to innovation, concerned to safeguard the faith that we have inherited; as opposed to the opposite side which might be seen as the ‘liberal’ emphasis in the faith – that which is most concerned to be understood in the culture as it actually exists.

Secondly, opposite the blue community area is a mid-point between scripture and culture. I see this as charismatic Christianity, concerned to express the living reality of worship and being filled with the Spirit; as opposed to the blue Anglo-Catholic area (where I would situate myself) which is most concerned to carry forward the gifts, blessings and commands which Christ gave to his body, the church.

Finally, opposite the green area is a mid-point between culture and community. I see this as liberal Catholicism – Affirming Catholicism territory – which seeks to renovate the inherited traditions of the church in such a way that babies are not discarded with bathwater; as opposed to the green Scriptural area which is concerned to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture, the Word of God written down for our instruction, God-breathed and useful. This tensional line, between the liberal Catholic and the Scriptural is clearly the one presently dividing our Communion, however differently it is described elsewhere (in other words, it’s not simply a conservative-liberal argument).

We need all the different elements in order to be complete.

Which is why I have real problems with Rowan’s letter, and the language he uses – however well supported and affirmed they might be within Scripture and the tradition of Anglicanism. What Rowan seems to have done is exclude any way in which Christ might make himself known in a new way. For undoubtedly Christ does do so, and sometimes we are called and commanded to change both how we interpret Scripture and how the community functions; that is, even when Scripture and tradition are unanimous on a matter, that is still not sufficient to capture Christ. That happened with regard to slavery; it is in the process of happening with regard to women’s ministry. The argument at present is whether it should happen with regard to homosexuality. What Rowan seems to have done, through using the language that he has, is made such a development impossible, given the form of authority that he here recognises.

My qualm is not that the changes that TEC have made are necessarily right (though I become more persuaded that they are, however many tactical qualms I have) – it is more that the schema that Rowan here endorses precludes the possibility of change as such. I can’t believe that Rowan intended this wider consequence, but nor can I see a way for the Spirit – understood as potentially conflicting with “Scripture” and “Tradition” – to be allowed to lead us into all truth.

One final aspect to all this. I feel as if I am at one and the same time finally becoming a Protestant, in the sense of abandoning catholic ecclesiology, at the same time as realising that Protestantism is an historical phase which is coming to an end. In that latter sense it is not a matter of ecclesiology but of culture, of relationships to texts and the written word, which was dominant in North-Western Europe for (say) five hundred years from the invention of the printing press to the invention of the cathode ray tube. I don’t believe that a Christian living in the contemporary world can ever have the same attitude to Scripture – indeed, to any text – as would have felt so natural as to be unobservable in the Modern era.

So I am a little troubled by the way my thoughts have gone. Yet I simply can’t see Scripture in the way that Rowan seems to require, and I suspect that I am not alone in this. So I shall continue to worry and fret about the choices that will soon be imposed upon us, yet my mind is also gaining clarity as to what is at stake, and therefore what is right. Above all, I shall continue to trust in Him who is my highest authority, revealed to me in Scripture and through my sacramental community, and who wishes for me to reveal Him here, and now, on Mersea.


OK – I’m back, and I’m happy :o)
Here’s some things that I’ve enjoyed reading whilst on holiday:
A snatch of old song (or, why I might take up scything)
The dimensions of things (eg Pakistan flood)
Nine challenges of alternative energy
Biblical Christianity is bankrupt
How to save the music industry
Why we shouldn’t be afraid of fear
A philosophical look at penal substitution
How much is left?
Why Green Wizards will get us nowhere (or: Transition vs JMG – a good example of where there is more in common than there is separating)

That’ll do for now.

What I think about the Bible, reposted

First posted in February 2007; reposted as an answer to Paul’s meme

The I-Monk interviewed himself (go read it here, it’s very interesting) and I thought I’d steal the “Ten Questions About the Bible”

1. State briefly what you believe about the Bible.
Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation; it witnesses to Christ – and in Christ is eternal life. (John 5.39)

2. How is the Bible inspired?
‘God-breathed’ – God is the subject of the text. Also: at each stage of the process: composition; collation; reading.

3. So is the book of Judges inspired, or only the Gospels?
At what point does the valley become the mountain? God was present at the time of the Judges, the book of Judges records what the community understood of Him at that time. The understanding of the gospel writers was significantly in advance of that.

4. How is the Bible authoritative?
The Bible carries the authority given to it by the church – so, for the Church of England, it is the controlling authority, which is best understood with the help of tradition and reason.

5. Is the Bible a human book?
All books are human. There is a docetic suspicion lurking behind this question – an assumption that because something is human it cannot also bear the stamp of divinity.

6. Are there aspects of the Bible that are not divine?
All of it. And none of it. The Spirit, being the relational part of the Trinity, is what is needed for anything to become divine. It is not ‘inertly’ divine (that seems more like the Islamic understanding of the Koran).

7. Why do you call the Bible a conversation?
Because there are lots of competing voices in it. The way to read the Bible, the way for it to help you to walk in the Christian way, is to listen to the different voices and get a handle on the common subject – then you are in a position to take the conversation forward in your own life.

8. What do you believe about canonization?
Canonisation is the process by which the church discriminates between those writings which give life and those which destroy life. I trust its discernment. I also don’t see any canon as final; I think the church universal has the capacity to amend the canon, either positively or negatively.

9. Do you reject the inspiration of some books?

10. Anything else you want to say?
Inerrancy is never claimed by the Bible. It is an alien importation from the doctrines of men and represents a crippling disease in the Body of Christ.

11. is your theology “inconsistent?”
God knows.

Even if it’s not explicitly a meme, I’d be very interested in other people’s answers to these questions.

(Picture taken last week; chosen because you can’t sail on a reflection, even if a reflection can tell you an awful lot about the original…)

Framing the Good Samaritan

(from this morning’s sermon)

Consider the framing of this story. A lawyer comes to Jesus and asks him ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ What must I do…? Jesus does not answer the question by saying ‘Do? Do? It’s not about doing, you can’t earn your way to heaven by doing good works you silly boy! It’s all about faith!! Accept me as your personal Lord and Saviour here and now and you will be saved!’ Which is simply a way of saying that Jesus lived two thousand years ago, not five hundred years ago, and his approach was different to what is commonly our approach.

For Jesus, as he taught very clearly in several different places, not least when he talks about separating the sheep from the goats, it is actions that count. Not in the sense of earning our way into heaven, but in the sense that this is the form that the grace of God takes in the life of a believer. We can prattle on about holy things for as long as we like, but if the words never take shape as deeds then they are hollow words, fit only to be forgotten. The biblical notion of faith is not abstract and cerebral – it is not simply a matter of knowledge but of the orientation of the heart, and if the heart believes rightly, then it becomes faith, and faith is inevitably expressed in life, in action. In other words, your actions display what you truly believe. If you truly believe that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth then your actions will reveal that truth…

The Bible is a perfect Bible

Another little spat about inerrancy going on in the blogosphere, which I’ve got caught up with here (well, it was my day off – and it’s relevant to my Learning Supper talk this coming Sunday night).

I just wanted to share a more positive thought: the Bible is perfect for what it is.

The reason why I dislike language of ‘inerrancy’ is because it brings in the idea that scientific truth is the highest standard of truth (and this is clear if you explore the origin of the fundamentalist movement in the United States – they wanted the ‘most scientific’ form of authority).

For me, because I see other forms of knowledge as being more important, most especially personal knowledge, it is not a problem to the overall authority of the Bible to say that it errs on matters of scientific fact (eg Jesus saying that the mustard seed is the smallest of all possible seeds).

This requires discrimination as to genre, and the avoidance of turning mythological material into scientific material (eg Genesis 1-11).

It also means that the divergent voices in the Scriptures, running all the way through the Biblical accounts, is a facet of the perfection of the Bible, not a flaw. It is perfect because it contains contradictions, because that is what God wanted it to be.

In other words, I think that the Bible is an inspired and authoritative collection of Scriptures, which perfectly accomplishes what God wants it to accomplish. I just disagree that this means that it is inerrant in the fundamentalist sense.

Obligatory Wittgenstein quote: “God has four people recount the life of his incarnate Son, in each case differently and with inconsistencies. Is this not just in order that the literal word is not taken too seriously, and that the spirit may be given its due? In other words a mediocre account is to be preferred…”

The Bible is a finger pointing at the moon. It points perfectly to the moon. The problem comes when people insist on making the finger into the moon: they search the Scriptures for eternal life, but they don’t find the one in whom that eternal life rests.

Evangelicals and the Bible

Just been reading two assessment reports, of Wycliffe Hall and St Stephen’s House in Oxford (both theological colleges = seminaries in US speak). Lots of interesting stuff in them, but I had to laugh when it was pointed out that the evangelical college was deficient in its use of the Bible in worship! A trend that I’m coming to associate with evangelical styles.

This is the relevant paragraph in full:

“We were also surprised at the very limited amount of biblical material in the daily
services. A psalm is required to be used on Monday mornings, and a psalm was
said on one other day. A short reading from the New Testament is recommended
on three mornings, and a short reading from the Old Testament on two mornings.
The Hall lectionary provides for reading ‘the whole range of biblical literature’
over a four year cycle on three mornings a week for 32 weeks of the year. However,
no student spends four years in the Hall, and such an arrangement does not
encourage students to read the Bible themselves ‘in course’ on days when there is
no corporate worship in chapel. Therefore we do not think that this practice is
consistent with the Anglican tradition of reading the psalms and the greater part of
the Old Testament and all the New Testament, in course, during the calendar year.
This is intended to immerse the Church’s ministers, and the laity, in Scripture, and
thereby to familiarise them with the great sweep and variety of salvation history
and literature in the Old Testament, and with all the gospels and letters and the
Revelation to John in the New Testament. Attention should be paid to providing
more extensive use of the psalms, and the biblical canticles, which praise and
thank God for his intervention in his world in the incarnation of his son, Jesus
Christ, for the salvation of his creation; and for publicly reading the Old and New
Testaments in course.”

Quite so.

40FP(5): John 5.39-40

This came up in Morning Prayer today.

“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Why is this a favourite passage?

This is Jesus in argument with the Pharisees and other religious authorities (the ‘Jews’ in John) and I love these verses because it is an explicit statement by Jesus of the purpose of Scripture – that they point to Jesus himself, and that Jesus himself, as the living Word, is the source of life. The Scriptures only give life in so far as they mediate Him. This was the burden of my last Learning Supper talk when I argued that through Scripture there is an ongoing evolution in how “the Word of God” was understood, moving through at least five stages: i) prophetic inspiration; ii) the Law; iii) Scripture; iv) the Gospel (kerygma) and ultimately v) Jesus himself. So long as we keep Jesus as the summit we can interpret the others aright. When we distort that hierarchy, eg through pushing iii) to the top of the tree, then we end up missing the point. That is what Jesus is criticising: mistaking the finger for the moon.

A relevant quote from John Stott that I love:
Interviewer – You didn’t mention the Bible, which would surprise some people.
John Stott – I did, actually, but you didn’t notice it. I said Christ and the biblical witness to Christ. But the really distinctive emphasis is on Christ. I want to shift conviction from a book, if you like, to a person. As Jesus himself said, the Scriptures bear witness to me. Their main function is to witness to Christ.