Sunday, October 27, 2013

Nairobi Communique

Every Anglican should read the Nairobi Communique and Commitment that has just been produced by the second GAFCON.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Open Baptism and Evangelism

Following on from my last post, and tying in with some recent comments from the Church of England, I thought it would be worth saying something about the relationship between baptism and evangelism.

In some parts of the Anglican world, there is an 'open' baptism policy. That is, some church leaders are committed to the idea that the rite of baptism ought to be available to anyone who's interested in it, without qualification. For some, this is not just a passive position, but one that's quite actively and publicly promoted. The most notable recent advancement of the open baptism policy came from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who has given his thoughts as they've been prompted by today's baptism of Prince George. You can watch him on it here.

I think there are a couple of great things going on behind this policy. The first is that those who are pushing it understand that connecting over a baptism provides a great opportunity for talking about Jesus. No doubt this is what ++Justin is trying to do with his video for the royal baptism. And that's fantastic. The second thing in the open baptism policy is the desire to show that anyone can become a member of Jesus' church. By saying all can come for baptism, there's a good chance to reinforce that there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female when it comes to salvation. Anyone and everyone can become a member of the body of Christ. That is also an excellent thing to say. But good as it is to communicate these two things, the open baptism policy misses many other, most critical, things. It misses belief, faith, repentance, submission, commitment - it basically misses out on the idea that people actually need to lose their life to Jesus in order to gain it eternally through him. The open baptism policy says that just an interest in Jesus, or a generally positive disposition towards him, or the church, is enough.

To be fair, I'm sure that not all open baptisers want it to end there. Some may be universalists and think that all will be saved in the end and so don't see why baptism shouldn't be administered quite freely. But I suspect others don't think that at all - and I doubt that any of them are praying for a church full of nominal Christians. I imagine that for some, what they're really hoping is that the baptisee's positive experience of the church will make them want to keep coming back, and as they do, that they will become more and more convinced of the claims of Christ. Again, this is a very commendable intention, but the open baptism approach really means that baptism is being used as an evangelistic strategy, as a winsome missional tactic, not as the symbolic marker of the people of God.

The baptism-as-evangelism approach is very mixed up and just doesn't reflect the Bible's purpose for baptism in mission. In the New Testament, it seems quite clear that baptism is not part of an evangelistic strategy, but it's what is appropriate to mark someone's conversion to faith in Jesus. The idealised process would seem to be something like: A person becomes interested in Jesus > Christian believers tell them about Jesus > by God's grace they accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour > we mark their conversion by baptising them to symbolise their being washed clean of their sins and their rising to new life. Given this, if you baptise an inquirer who hasn't yet accepted Jesus, it's hard to understand what anyone thinks is going on. You might be communicating universalism. You might be communicating that Jesus is satisfied with a little bit of interest. You might be communicating that the church really is 'lovely', but that it doesn't have any firm convictions about what it means to be the set aside people of God. You might be communicating that the church will change its beliefs to cater for the preferences of punters that it desperately wants to become new members...

The real challenge in all this actually has to do with how we connect with, welcome, love and give real time to people who are inquiring. I think these things are what many open baptisers are wanting to do, and they are most excellent things to want to do. Surely though, we can do them without compromising the sacraments.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Chink in the Credobaptist Armour

Mark Driscoll is the founding pastor and preacher of the huge and still growing Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He is famously strong willed, strong minded and strong worded, and he consequently tends to polarise a lot of believers - which is a bit of a shame because even if we're not convinced of everything he says (which I'm not), we should all still be able to appreciate his incredible gifts in church leadership and preaching, and his undivided passion for Jesus (which I do). Anyway, I don't want to get into any of that now, but I do want to think about baptism in light of something Driscoll posted online yesterday.

Driscoll is a committed credobaptist. He believes that infants should not be baptised, because baptism is the sign that's meant to accompany an individual's conscious profession of faith, something that infants are unable to make. Like many credobaptists, he tends to picture paedobaptists - those of us who will baptise babies - as being a superstitious and 'religious' bunch who trust in the rituals of church institutions for their salvation, instead of in Jesus Christ alone.

Now in preaching on the commandment against murder, Driscoll has taken a fresh look into some of the hard cases concerning the fate of the dead. In particular, he's asked the tough question of what happens to babies when they die. I found his post on this to be pastoral, biblical, balanced, and even genuinely touching. You can read it here. But what was also interesting about it was that he acknowledged the possibility that babies who die are redeemed members of the elect and that they therefore go to heaven. Driscoll rallies a number of theologians and Bible texts to support this view, and I think there are even more that could be added. It seems then that credo- and paedobaptists alike agree that infants can be saved. But then what does that mean for infant baptism? That is, if some infants can or may be saved, why should we withhold baptism from them.

I think at one level, this really drives us back to what we think baptism is all about. If we agree that baptism symbolises something rather than does something, then we need to ask exactly what it is that we think it symbolises. It seems to me that for credobaptists, it symbolises not just our salvation, but our choice or our profession and that is why the symbol is closely synchronised with the timing of that choice or profession. To some extent, they believe its emphasis is on our response to God. For paedobaptists, however, when babies are baptised, it represents God's covenant or election. That is, the emphasis is on his initiative. These are quite different views of baptism. Not completely at odds with each other, but with the focus in different places.

Of course the screaming hole in the paedobaptist argument is that it's impossible to know if God has or hasn't elected a baby. But what even Driscoll has said is that we must make proper room for the very real possibility that he has. And so again the question: If baptism doesn't do anything towards salvation, why withhold it from babies who may well be elect? Aside from coupling baptism with choice or profession, one of the strongest practical answers that credobaptists give to this is that infant baptism breeds nominalism. It makes people, families, denominations and even nations believe that they are all safe and Christian because they were baptised as babies, and this no doubt an incredibly dangerous thing. There is real wisdom in calling for only mature people to be baptised after they have freely professed their faith because that forces them to make a clear choice for Jesus and prevents nominals from thinking they're in the same boat. This perspective is so good that I nearly want to go for it. But then, I just don't believe baptism is so strongly anchored to choice or profession. I do believe it's also a sign of God's covenant and election. As such, I think baptism is appropriate for the babies of believers, who I think ought to be considered as though they are in the covenant family of God more than they are considered to be out of it.

One story and two practical, principled points might bring my position home.

The story is of a baby I baptised a number of years ago who was quite seriously mentally disabled. The parents were - and still are - passionate believers and actively involved in the life and mission of the church. They raise their children in line with their clear faith in Jesus. Now, I think it's a real possibility that this child may never be able to articulate that faith in Jesus and so I wonder if a credobaptist would ever allow them to be baptised or if they would instead say that the child could live their life within the fold of the church, but never be marked by its identifying symbol. I know this is an extreme case, but thinking about it helps us to clarify our beliefs about infant baptism.

The two practical and principled points.

First is that I don't think we should baptise the babies of unbelievers. That would be like giving communion to unbelievers. It seems to me that the church should be wide open to all people and should love all people and witness to all people, but it should still make the distinction between those who are in the family of faith and those who aren't, and it seems to me that the sacraments mark the lines in the sand. (For the same reason, I don't think unbelievers should be encouraged to take communion.) If churches were strict with this baptism policy - and given what the Book of Common Prayer says, Anglican churches should be - then I think the paedobaptist position becomes a lot more credible. If we're sloppy with this policy, paedobaptism - and baptism in general - becomes somewhat empty even of its own claims and breeds that unhealthy nominalism.

Secondly, I would more properly describe myself as a paedo- and credobaptist. That is, I have been blessed to be in churches where there has been an active mission to unbelieving adults and where some of those adults have come to faith. When this has happened, we've then had them publicly and joyfully profess their trust in Jesus as we've baptised them! These are actually some of my most precious memories of church. And here's the rub - I actually think this is what we see in New Testament. Credobaptists will often say that the only baptisms we see in the New Testament are of new converts, but that's precisely the point! They are converts. They were unbelievers who were outside the people of God and who were evangelised and converted by God's grace, so of course they should have been baptised at that point - that was the first time they knew the Lord. Theirs is quite a different experience to that of children raised in believing families. And of course the New Testament focusses on these conversion stories because it's a mission manifesto. While the Old Testament deals a lot with the internal life of the people of God, the New Testament shifts the focus onto the mission to unbelievers. This is why there is no place in the New Testament where we clearly see children of believers getting baptised. And for anyone who wants to run that fact as an argument against paedobaptism, the response is that neither do we find in the New Testament any examples of children of believers being held back from baptism so that they can save it for the time of their mature profession. This seems to be what credobaptists think should happen with the children of believers, but the Bible does not show that at all. Not once. In fact, the pattern of the Old Testament is that people who are born into the family of God must be regarded as 'in' until such time as they choose not to be. That's not to say they're saved by family or race, but they are to be counted 'in' by covenant grace.

This has been a long post and while I've been pleased to make the paedobaptist case, I do want to say as clearly as possible that I'm not anti-credobaptist. I know that denominations have split over this one, but for me, so long as there is common understanding that Jesus, and not the ritual, is the Saviour, then we can share good fellowship.


Just after posting this, I saw a tweet from the Church of England pointing to this page. There is some wriggle room in what it says, but in light of what I've written above, I have to say that I'm not comfortable with what its message seems to be. At very best, it's unhelpfully ambiguous.

** This post has been edited - nothing substantial, just a bit of tidying up.

Cool Furnishings at Holy Trinity Cambridge

Q: Why is this one of the most historically important cabinets for evangelical Anglicanism?

A: Because of this -

So, while I'll never be able to say that I've preached from Simeon's pulpit, I can at least say that I've left my wallet and keys on it while I was playing music with the Holy Trinity band.

Another cool, historical piece from HT is the communion cup.

Notice the date it was made? 1569!

I've just finished some work looking into what Anglicans believed about the Lord's Supper during the early Elizabethan years so it's pretty cool that my church has a chalice from those days.

Cambridge has been a great place to live, study and share fellowship for tons of reasons. These are just two of the minor notes that have added to it.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

An Obvious Implication

After a conversation with a friend about all things Anglican the other day (well, some things Anglican), I made a connection that I hadn't made before - despite the fact that it's pretty obvious. So, forgive me if this something that everyone else realised ages ago... sometimes I'm a bit slow...

I realised that if an Anglican diocese chooses to ordain women into teaching and oversight and roles, then they can never again have bishops who are conservative on this issue (notwithstanding a synod- or province-level about face on the issue).

That is, as Anglicans worldwide battle over the question of whether the biblical prohibitions on women leading men in churches are culturally or circumstantially specific on the one hand, or universal on the other, they're actually deciding who they will allow into church leadership roles in more than one way. If a diocese comes down on the egalitarian side of the debate and chooses to welcome women into the priesthood, then they're also saying that they will no longer welcome any bishops who won't ordain women to that office.

Again, it's all kinda obvious, but I do wonder if every diocese that's gone down this path has consciously realised that in doing so they've ruled out many otherwise eligible candidates for future episcopal roles. I suppose that a gracious egalitarian archbishop who was genuinely committed to including and representing the breadth of views in their diocese could appoint a conservative suffragan / coadjutor bishop and give them a special dispensation to abstain from the ordinations of women to the priesthood. But really...

Anyways, as a conservative myself (though hopefully not a redneck conservative!), I've often felt that the fear-mongering among fellow conservatives on this issue has been a bit overplayed. But this simple connection has made me realise that the squeeze is on us perhaps a little more than I'd previously thought. At the moment, the egalitarian dioceses that I know best are still willing to ordain and welcome the ministry of people who are conservative on this issue, but now I guess it's those conservatives who will have a glass ceiling over their heads! Again, perhaps it's only my slowness that thinks the ceiling has the transparency of glass. At any rate, that's quite a turnaround.

Oh well, I guess we can at least relax happy in the knowledge that gospel ministry is about service and not about titles and power and institutional advancement. I'm pretty sure that Jesus isn't going to line us up by our worldly ranks on the last day!

Monday, September 23, 2013

History can Confirm

So someone has asked for some thoughts about Confirmation - that ritual of the Anglican (and Catholic) Church that confuses lots of people - and that some credobaptists love to have a go at! After all, isn't Confirmation just proof that our children really missed out on something by not being able to choose to be baptised for themselves? And doesn't this just make a mockery of the gospel that doesn't see us saved by our family affiliations but by each person's individual faith in Jesus as Saviour? As a convinced paedobaptist, I have responses to all the common objections, but I don't want to make them the point of this post. Perhaps for another time... But also, in order to understand Anglican Confirmation properly, baptism isn't the place to start anyway, church history is. Let me explain.

In England the Church is established. Christianity is (currently) the official religion of the nation. The people have lived under Christian monarchs for countless generations and - before the rise and rise of cultural pluralism, mass immigration and hyper individualism - the expectation has been that all English people were Christians. By default, this also meant that they were all also members of the Church of England. Now, we might all agree that there's a level at which this is pretty fanciful stuff: there's never been a nation where all the subjects were truly Christian; this is a sure way to breed rank nominalism; etc; etc. But none of that's really the point for now. The point is just that the English Church has historically been cleaved to the machinery of the State.

Now, this is significant here because it used to be that you couldn't participate in English civic life if you weren't a Christian. Just as there was once a time when women or black people weren't given a vote, so too there was a time when non-Christian people couldn't hold public office or take up a full place in society. In England, a non-Christian used to be persona non grata. So, how then did the State know whether you were a committed Christian or not, given that most everyone was baptised as a baby? It was by Confirmation. The bishop would come and publicly examine the confirmee on their understanding of the basics of the faith as expressed in the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer, and you had to pass to be a full member of the national Church and a full citizen of the State.

Now there's an upshot of all this for anyone who thinks it's worth people learning something about Jesus and Christianity. It's that it meant that in preparation for their big exam, every person in England was schooled in those three formulae, which were, and still are, the basis of the Church Catechism. And consequently, the Church Catechism did, and still does, make up the bulk of the Anglican Church's Confirmation service that's in the Book of Common Prayer.

So, that's where Confirmation comes from. It was a formal rite of passage for both the Church and the State. Now, let's jump forward and ask about today. What's the point of Confirmation in a post-Christendom society where Confirmation no longer confers any privileges at all?

Well, it certainly has less significance now, and its certainly not something that Anglicans consider to be mandatory (unless you want to be ordained). But it still does allow children baptised as infants to make a public profession of their faith if they feel they want to. It's a way they can say to the world that they've owned the faith they were brought up in at a personal level. Of course, their participation in the life of the church might make the same statement anyway. And they can have this involvement because Anglicans don't exclude their children from full participation until such time as they've been through a public ceremony. (Which, in a nice irony, makes us far less enslaved to church ritual than some of the credobaptists at this point!)

But aside from its reduced relevance, there are some real problems with modern day Confirmation. One is that it's often not done 'by the book' and involves no real interrogation by the bishop at all. Sadly this means that it's not always completely clear what the service is meant to be confirming. Is it the fact that the confirmee wants to partake in a ritual of the Church? Is it that their pastor thinks they're a really decent guy or girl? Is it that they want to own their Anglican heritage? Or are we confirming that they believe the basics of the Christian faith as expressed in the Creed, that they they want to uphold the Ten Commndments and that they they've learnt to approach God the Father through the prayer that Jesus taught - without necessarily even referring to those things in the service at all?

Another problem is that sometimes confirmees can simply be going through the motions in compliance with the wishes of their parents or other significant adults. That is, it's no more about them choosing to declare their faith in Jesus than their baptism was (ok - so there's one pitched up for you credobaptists to have a swing at!) But despite these problems, it would be unfair to reject the whole idea of Confirmation because any dimension of religion can be corrupted by hollow ritualism. Everything can be broke.

So then, two sentence summary: Confirmation used to have an important social function as it was the way of entering into full participation in England's Christendom society. Now its significance is much less, although it can be one great way for those baptised as infants to confirm that they love being part of the family of Jesus' saved people.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Anglican Communion

Ok - so this one's a bit sooner than expected. Having been in conversation about the Lord's Supper in Anglican Churches yesterday, I thought I'd put down a few thoughts here.

Although it wasn't the only issue in the Protestant Reformation, the theology and practice of the Lord's Supper was pretty front and centre. It was one of the key issues over which the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church. Without going into all the details, the English rejected the ideas that the body Christ was physically present in the Communion and that the act of taking communion was in any way meritorious. They weren't purely memorialists like the Swiss (although they came pretty close at a couple of points), but believed in a spiritual presence of Christ in the bread and wine that was conditional upon the faith of the recipient.

Interesting as all this is (!), the thing I've been discussing lately is whether or not anyone cares anymore. In the sixteenth century, this stuff was considered to be so important that endless hours were spent developing more and more complex, refined and detailed theologies, and whole movements were prepared to break away from each other over their differing beliefs. Those separations still exist today in the form of different denominations and national churches, but are we still concerned about this big issue that was so important to the split in the first place?

That last question is sparked by two of the approaches that I've seen to the Lord's Supper in Anglican Churches, both of which seem strange to me. One is effectively a return to something like the Catholic Mass, with the sense that more is going on in the Communion than the Reformers would ever have been happy with. I wonder if in some cases, churches that have this 'Anglo-Catholic' approach to the sacraments got there via an attraction to the aesthetic of Catholic worship, rather than a conviction about non-Protestant theology. I suspect that in some cases these kinds of churches don't like the separatist flavour of Protestantism and are wanting to express their endorsement of the 'universal' ideal of the Catholic Church. Although both of these things might be ok as far as they go, I do think that for integrity's sake, once you step over into Catholic sacramental theology, you should probably consider whether or not it's time to leave the Anglican Church and formally join the Catholics.

The second thing that I've seen tends to happen in those Anglican Churches with a more evangelical bent and it's the downplaying of the sacraments altogether. This can even get the point where Communion is shared very infrequently and when it does happen, the minister seems to feel the need to offer an extended apology for it - or almost to even explain it away. I suspect this happens out of a fear that no one present should fall into the trap of thinking that what's going on is the same as what goes on in Catholic Churches and, to be fair, I think for many punters, this distinction is necessary. But sometimes it can get to sounding like the Lord's Supper has been downgraded, which is not at all what the first Protestants did. They didn't marginalise or diminish the Supper, they reformed it - or even attempted to restore it to its proper biblical pattern. They maintained a high view of Communion, even if not a Roman view. The other thing that sometimes happens in these sorts of churches is that a lot of effort goes into explaining what Communion isn't, but not much goes into explain what it is, and why it matters. This is a problem because negative information about something never builds up a positive understanding.

A wise friend once said to me that a person's sacramental theology reveals a great deal about their entire theological framework and I believe that's worthy of some reflection. If you have a semi-Catholic view of the Lord's Supper, do you have a semi-Catholic theology overall? Does that matter? If you have a low view of the Lord's Supper, do you have a low view of theology overall? Does that matter? And if you just have an underdeveloped view of the Lord's Supper, do you also have an underdeveloped theology? And does that matter?

I'm actually putting these as more than just rhetorical questions too. Given that, on the whole, we don't seem as fazed by sacramental theology these days as we were five hundred years ago, does any of it really matter? Was the big Reformation blow-up really a storm in a teacup (or a chalice)? Is the looser grip that we now seem to have on these questions actually a better reflection of gospel priorities? Have we progressed or regressed since the early days of the split with Rome?

Breaking the Silence

It's been quite a while since I've posted anything here but I've noticed that the blog is still getting constant hits - thanks for your interest!

Mainly, the reason I've gone quiet is that I've had my head down the books as I've been trying to complete some study over the past year. But my hope is to revive things again in the months ahead (in reality, probably not much before November).

Any particular Anglican-related matters that I should tackle when I get back to it?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Lest we Forget

It was 460 years ago today (19th July, 1553) that Mary Tudor was proclaimed Queen of England.

Now, over the past generation, the scholarship had made it quite clear that any one-sided, purely Protestant view of English history is inadequate. We can no longer buy the line that everything Edward did was great, everything Mary did was pure evil, and everything Elizabeth did was kinda mixed but ok overall. Nonetheless, it remains true that the burnings which took place during 'Bloody Mary's' reign were a real low point in the history of England and its Church. However much they may have secured some re-establishment of Roman Catholicism, they certainly served to put a lot of people off too. And, when coupled with the fact that Mary had no children, they probably ensured that England would never again be Catholic.

The first martyr under Mary was John Rogers who had produced the first authorised English Bible, Matthew's Bible. Among the others were, of course, Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer. She also exhumed Bucer and Fagius and had their corpses burned for their heresies right here in Cambridge. It was all pretty awful.

Mary died after having only ruled for five and a half years and, almost unbelievably, Cardinal Pole, who replaced Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, died on the same day too. This cleared the way for Elizabeth and Matthew Parker to begin the work of settlement and restoration of much of the Protestantism of Edward and Cranmer. Mary and Elizabeth are now both buried in the same tomb, built by James I, in Westminster Abbey.

Old Arms

Long time no post. So how about this...

Here's a pic of one of the Royal Coats of Arms in the dining hall at King's College, Cambridge. It has the red dragon and sliver greyhound which have since been superseded by the lion and unicorn - presumably because one mythical beast and one foreign wild animal are better than one mythical beast and one domestic animal.

Notice also the early inclusion of the emergency exit symbol.

What does all this have to do with the Anglican Church? Well, apart from the fact that the Tudors founded the independent Church of England in the sixteenth century, I don't really know. But perhaps there are connections I haven't yet thought of...