The article that caught my eye this week in the Church Times (which I read every week) was a fascinating reflection by Philip North, the bishop of Burnley, on his visits over the summer to three different Christian ‘festivals’. He visited: the Keswick Convention, a bastion of conservative evangelical devotion, shaped by free church evangelicals more than Anglicans; New Wine, the charismatic evangelical event initially establish by St Andrew’s, Chorleywood under the leadership of David and Mary Pytches and influenced by the Vineyard movement; and the Shrine of Walsingham, Philip’s home territory at the heart of the Anglo-catholic movement in the Church of England.
The piece was customarily witty and insightful—Philip has a wonderful way with words in person and in print—but was most noticeable for its generosity and fairness in observing the strengths of each of these. You might not expect the Church Times to include honest praise of Keswick, but here it was:
At Keswick, the gospel is a serious affair. The worship leader takes us through a selection of traditional hymns and seemly worship songs without so much as dreaming of cracking a smile. Well-thumbed, leather-bound Bibles are clamped like life jackets beneath the arms of earnest Evangelicals. People come for the preaching, which is sound, gimmick-free, and grown-up, the crowd clinging to any opportunity for a polite laugh with the tenacity of Harry Potter with the snitch.
But there is a simplicity and an honesty to Keswick which makes it oddly attractive. It is a gathering that is proud of its long history, entrance is still free of charge, and there is a pleasing wholesomeness to the event. The preaching is enormously impressive in its intellectual rigour and, while it may not be to everyone’s taste, the purpose of the conference — to sit beneath and be converted by the Word — is never diluted.
His assessment of New Wine was (I think, as an attender of 23 years standing) equally fair and insightful, and pointed to an important contrast:
A New Wine, by contrast, the gospel is a very jolly thing. Everyone is happy and smiley, and, while it was my first visit, the impression that I had stepped into an alien environment dissolved three minutes in with the first hug. There is a powerful sense of the immanence of God, which means that anything could happen, and it usually does. Arms were waved, tears were shed, miracles happened, and spontaneous laughter erupted…
A significant difference is the teaching. While the preaching at Keswick is about the reinforcement of a traditional Protestant atonement theology, New Wine has a strong desire for a proclamation that is relevant to the immediate needs and aspirations of the culture. Although, at times, the scriptures appear to be more illustrative than fundamental, there is no doubting the immediacy and attractiveness of this, and it is surely a reason for the huge growth of this movement.
Not surprisingly, his comments about Walsingham (where he was the preacher) were also positive—though perhaps, for that reason, less incisive.
It would be unwise to comment on the preaching, because I was doing it, but its theme was identity as the young pilgrims explored what it means to imitate Mary in finding their true selves through relationship with her Son. The level of response and engagement was profoundly moving. If you think that sacramental and liturgical worship lacks what it takes to convert the young, you need to come to the Youth Pilgrimage.
What were we to learn from this exploration of strength-in-diversity? I hope we might learn from not just the content but the tone of what Philip wrote, marked as it was by a respectful acknowledgement of the positive virtues of traditions not our own, and a willingness to learn from them. I have a feeling that Philip wanted us to take more away than that, as suggested by his introduction:
It is an exquisite irony that black-scarf conservative Evangelicals, arm-waving Charismatics, myth-busting liberals, and incense-swinging Anglo-Catholics all claim to be faithful members of the same communion. To other denominations it is bizarre and inexplicable. To us Anglicans, despite the odd fallout and blow-up, it is a matter of delight.
But I think I took away some rather different insights. The first is that each of these three traditions sits in a slightly different relationship with the Anglican tradition. The seriousness—sometimes bordering on severity—of Keswick bears a rather striking resemblance to the ethos of the Church’s Book of Common Prayer, and you would find Anglicans who attend Keswick more than averagely fond of the BCP’s ethos as well as its theology. You might not guess it from exploring your average local C of E service, but C of E clergy still commit publicly to own this text, not as a mere historical artefact, but as the thing which defines Anglican belief.
You actually have to do rather more work to see the Charismatic Movement as inherently Anglican; even if its strengths arise from the power of experience and its cultural affinity with the importance of emotion, for me it comes through the authority of the Scriptures, and the New Testament’s depiction of the centrality of the Holy Spirit in theology, discipleship and Christian living. If Jesus and his incarnation tie us to the historical particularity of God’s revelation, the Spirit commits us to its contemporary relevance as we seek to ‘proclaim afresh in each generation’ the unchanging good news of God’s redemptive love to a broken and fallen world.
Ironically, although it has much deeper historical roots, the Anglo-catholic tradition, born out of the ritualist ‘Oxford’ movement of the nineteenth century, is arguably further from the core of historic Anglican theology than the Charismatic Movement. Disputes about ritualism go all the way back to the time of the BCP, most notably advocated by William Laud, but (though it is not Puritan) at key points the BCP defines the worship of the C of E over against Catholic theology and practice.
My second observation is rather the opposite to Philip’s overall presentation. He deliberately describes each of these traditions in isolation from the other, contrasting biblical seriousness with ecstatic expectation and colourful liturgy—but should these really stay so separated? Would not Keswick be enriched by more embodied expression of worship to counter its cerebral tendencies? Would the (at times) unpredictable emotion of New Wine find better anchor in a more disciplined use of the Scriptures? And would not Walsingham gain from engaging with Scripture as much as tradition, and engaging with contemporary culture as much as its historic heritage? Of course, at one level, the presenting differences mask many similarities; rituals are as present and embedded at Keswick and New Wine, though perhaps in a less flamboyant register, as they are at Walsingham.
But perhaps the main thing I take away from Philip’s observations is the importance of having a strong, distinctive culture to thrive as a Christian group in secular, post-Christendom Britain. This was the week when the British Social Attitudes Survey revealed no halt to the decline in nominal affiliation to Christian denominations, and the Church of England in particular.
For the first time, more than half the population say they have no religion, and the generation gap on religious affiliation is widening…Among all adults in Britain, only 15% consider themselves to be Anglican, compared with almost one in three at the turn of the century, according to BSA data. Nine percent overall identify as Catholics, 17% as “other Christian” and 6% say they belong to non-Christian religions.
It was the first statistic that grabbed most of the headlines, but the next level of statistics are the ones worth pondering. It has been generally recognised that the change to the headline figure is largely a reflection of a change in culture more than a change in actual belief: why call yourself ‘C of E’ or Christian if you never actually go to church? Ironically, this is a result that committed Christians, particularly evangelicals, have actually wished for. We would like a little more honesty, and a little less nominalism—and we now have that in spadefuls. But it is interesting to me that, in a country where being a committed Christian is now seen to be significantly out of step with prevailing cultural values, 41% still identify as ‘Christian’. Much comment was made on the figure for identification as ‘Catholic’ which has hardly changed over two decades. Why is that figure so resilient? Surely it is largely shaped by the refusal of Catholic Church leaders (rather in contrast to many Anglicans) to tailor their doctrine and teaching to contemporary mores, the most striking recent embodiment of that being the interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg on breakfast television. Do watch till the end.
I was genuinely surprised that the Archbishop of Canterbury has offered no comment on the survey; he was at the time engaging in a debate about the impact of economic strategy. But the Spectator leader offered a surprisingly upbeat response, arguing that Christian faith is not only historically important, but the direction we still turn at times of tragedy. In amongst its observations, it noted the point about growth amongst those traditions who are most distinctive:
Where congregations have increased sharply, it has tended to be among evangelical churches which, while dispensing with the smells and bells, have tended to preach a more censorious message on same-sex relationships. In the Catholic Church, meanwhile, traditionalist parishes are thriving while more liberal ones disappear.
In much of the discussion, optimism or hand-wringing has been expressed in relation to the future of the Church as an institution. Stephen Cottrell was quite right in his reflection on this when he said: ‘The Church is not an institution. The Church is that community of men and women whose lives are centred on Christ. We do care about numbers, but only because we care about people.’ But I cannot help feeling he sold us short in his next comment:
But most of all, we care about that vision of justice and peace for all that is given us in Christ, and we will get on with living and sharing that vision with a few dozen people, a few thousand people, or a few million people: whoever it is that responds to the call of God in Christ.
The good news is not about justice and peace alone; it is about sin and estrangement, about the offer of a costly forgiveness and hope, and the call to repentance and change as the path to peace with God and with one another. (I am trying to think of the last time I heard an Anglican leader mention this in the media…?) When I worry about declining church numbers, I feel despair not for the Church but for our nation, in all its confusion, shallowness and frustration. ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace…’ (Luke 19.42). In response to any news of declining numbers in surveys like these, we should weep with Jesus—not for ourselves but for others who have yet to hear and accept the good news.
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