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Calling On the Spirit in Unsettling Times: Discerning God’s future for the church by L. William Countryman

October 14, 2015

COTSI like this author and the stuff he writes. Indeed, I have met him.

However, the gist of this book is that we need to stay and grow together in then Anglican Communion and he takes a long time to say this and it is all a trifler too pious.

He evaluates the various strands within the Communion – evangelical, liberal and catholic though, oddly, he sees C. S. Lewis as an evangelical.

My abiding memory of this book is the bit where the author talks about the use of, often disparate passages of, scripture in the daily office – the Anglican tradition throws us into the deep end of scripture so that we learn to swim in it.


There is a hymn “I sing a song of the saints of God,” written for children, though it has a broad following among adults, too. It makes the saints sound rather cozy at first: “One was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green…. ” I particularly like the part that comes further on: “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea…. ” It’s that bit about meeting them at tea that catches me, since I’m basically devoted to meals and the good things that can happen when people are enjoying food and company around a table.

And it is no contradiction to note that some of the people lurking behind those descriptions also went on to live lives of heroic sanctity: doctors who risked their lives to save others; queens who saw the distress of the poor and left their palace life to go and help. That shepherdess on the green was St. Genevieve, patron of Paris, who lived a life of austerity and prayer, worked miracles, and was said to have saved Paris from the armies of Attila partly through her prayers and partly by figuring out how to bring provisions in by the river. Tea with any of these folk would be a high-powered occasion.

In Hebrew tradition, however, priesthood has always had a broader role, of which animal sacrifice was only an inci­dental part. The old priest Eli, under whom the young Samuel served, remained a priest in terms of his intimacy with God long after he handed over the heavy labor of sacrifice over to his sons. He lived, quite literally, in God’s house, the temple at Shiloh. And when Samuel first heard the voice of God but did not recognize who spoke, it was Eli who could tell him who it was and how to respond (1 Samuel 1-2).

In the most basic sense, a priest is one who lives in the presence of God and can assist others who enter that pres­ence. A priest is anyone who can help you stand in the presence of God and understand something about what you experience there. This kind of priesthood is still very much alive. In fact, it is going on all around us, all through our lives. We all perform priestly acts, and we are all ministered to in priestly ways—not only by ordained priests, but by old friends, by wise mentors, even by complete strangers.’

Such priesthood is not limited to a narrowly religious con­text. God, after all, is not constrained by the boundaries of religion; God is at work everywhere, at all times. ….The principal scriptural source for speaking of Jesus as priest is the Epistle to the Hebrews, a mysterious book whose author, as the early Christian theologian Origen said, is known to God alone. Here, Jesus is interpreted as “a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (6:20). At the same time, Hebrews acknowledges the basic literal truth that Jesus was a layman. He was not a priest in terms of Israelite religion, because he was not descended from the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron (7:13-14). He was not an ordained rabbi, either, as he had had no teacher to instruct him and ordain him. Jesus was a layman.

This may be one reason why the author of Hebrews chose the analogy of Melchizedek to interpret Jesus’ priesthood. Melchizedek was not a descendant of Aaron. In fact, he was not even an Israelite. He was a Gentile. Hestood outside the whole religious system of ordination. His priestly act was to bring Abraham bread and wine and to pronounce a blessing over him as Abraham returned from defeating the marauding kings of the East. And Abraham acknowledged him as a true priest who could assist him as he stood in the presence of God (Gen. 14:18-20).

From Jesus this priesthood devolves upon the whole Christian people. In 1 Peter, we hear ourselves addressed as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (2:9). Every one of us has some experience of being in God’s pres­ence—an experience and understanding that is crucial for the world around us, even if we do not know exactly when or for whom. Even for the ordained, this priesthood—the one they already had before they were ordained and still have—is basic. Ordained priesthood can become a starved shadow unless it is enmeshed with the priestly life more broadly con­ceived.

COTS 2Jesus’ priesthood emerges from his identity as a person completely at home with God, completely intimate with God. People could see this intimacy in his words and actions, from the very beginning of his preaching. Mark’s account of the initiation of his ministry is brief but astonishing: “After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the king­dom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1:14-15). Typically, we hear the words “the kingdom of God has come near” as a threat. Only a priest with intimate knowledge of God would dare reverse that and declare that God’s nearness is good news, not bad. Our Eng­lish translations have gone back to making it sound like bad news when they tell us that the correct response is “repen­tance.” Doesn’t that mean that we are in deep trouble and we had better show remorse or we are done for?

What are some of the gifts and virtues of evangelical Angli­canism? It has great enthusiasm for the word of God, the scriptures. It has a zeal for encouraging a strong sense of per­sonal relationship with God. It has been willing to encourage a certain warmth of emotion that other Anglicans may be a little squeamish about. It is capable of summoning people to sacrificial living. In the past, Evangelicals have sometimes shown great zeal against oppression. One thinks of the Clapham Sect and its role in the abolition of the international slave trade. On the other hand, in the nineteenth-century United States, evangelical Anglicans were strong defenders of slavery and there is still perhaps a certain tendency for Evan­gelicals to care more about individual morality than the well­being of the larger society…….One such problem is that Evangelicals often show an un­necessary narrowness of spiritual vision. Rather than embrac­ing the true breadth of scripture, they have tended to narrow the spiritual path down to three steps: recognition that we are rightly damned; acceptance that we are redeemed by Christ’s atoning sacrifice (usually interpreted in terms of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement); and the em­bracing of a new life of sanctity. One can, in fact, find all this in scripture—though the pedigree of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is pretty hazy; the problem is that it leaves so much out. It seems to be a requirement, for ex­ample, that Evangelicals should reject the possibility that any of the original blessing of creation could have survived the fall. But the Bible is really not this systematic and to reduce all of Christian faith to a single formula excludes much of the ancient and medieval portion of the communion of saints, in­cluding some of our greatest spiritual writers. Indeed, it ex­cludes too much of the Bible itself……….. At worst, Evangelicals no longer return to the actual scriptures in their fullness, which are after all confusing and poorly organized and apt to mislead the public. It is easier simply to reiterate evangelical theology, prefaced by “As the Bible says…. ” A Baptist colleague of mine, who long taught at a major university in the American South, once told me that her students there had changed over the years. Once they had actually known the Bible fairly well, but as conservative Evangelicals increasingly dominated all Southern churches, her students proved increasingly ignorant even of the most basic and familiar passages. What they knew were just lists of proof texts that supported the doctrine of their home congregation.

………liberal Anglicans. Again, there is much to be said about the contributions these folk have made to our tra­dition as a whole. They have shown great respect for educa­tion and for contemporary thought. They have been willing to engage with it, not just defend against it. They do not as­sume that people living in the fourth or the twelfth or the six­teenth century knew everything there is to know. They have the courage to look around them and pay attention and think new thoughts. If it weren’t for liberals in the history of Chris­tianity, we would have become completely paralyzed long ago. The Nicene Creed, the vision of the Franciscans, the the­ology of Thomas Aquinas, the Reformation—you name it—all the work of liberals, even if some of them later got turned into conservative idols for the convenience of their successors.

Liberals have also displayed a strong critical faculty that can cut through a lot of pretense and get rid of what no longer serves the gospel. Bishop Jeremy Taylor was punished for his rejection of the doctrine that unbaptized infants go to hell, but it would be hard to find an Anglican today who would not agree with him. The biblical scholar, mathemati­cian, and missionary bishop John William Colenso looked like a frightening radical in his own day when he published his Zulu dictionary and translated the scriptures into the Zulu language; he now looks like a prophet with his witness to the necessity for the gospel to become at home in every culture. Liberal Anglicans helped us deal with the nineteenth-century sea change in geology and biology and astronomy. Thinkers like F. D. Maurice helped us raise our sights toward a more ecumenical outlook. Liberals have stayed on the alert, decade after decade, to see what new questions are being raised about God and the meaning of the world. They have helped keep our voice from becoming stale and tedious…. But in itself, the message about what you don’t have to believe does not help people build an intimate per­sonal engagement with God. It may be one part of the good news of Jesus, but it is not the whole story…. It is not enough to dismiss one’s opponents as ignorant, as one hears done with some frequency. The most ignorant Christian in this world may have more faith than the best ed­ucated. God is no respecter of persons or of degrees….. Liberals may embrace ruthlessness in a different form—”po­litical correctness” rather than the “plain sense of scripture” or “the universal tradition of the church”—but the results are the same. One is confident of being always in the right.

I’m grateful for the catholic pi­oneers of the nineteenth century who brought back a fuller range of color and light and ceremony to Anglicanism. I’m grateful for the recovery of the monastic life. Even though I figured out in my early twenties that I wasn’t cut out to be a monk, I have profited deeply by the contributions of the re­ligious orders to our church’s life. Catholics have continued to delve deeply into the mystery and meaning of the sacra­ments, and they partnered with other Christians in the Litur­gical Movement and brought Anglicans in general toward a renewed sacramental focus.

So where are the problems? Some of it is a certain sense of entitlement. We see ourselves as allied with history, as the proprietors of tradition, as the default arbiters of authentic Anglicanism. We somehow thought we had the power of the veto. When you have thought for so long that you were his­tory’s friend and ally, it’s a rude shock to wake up some morning and find the church’s sense of the tradition’s been moving off in another direction. I felt that way about the or­dination of women in the beginning. “What’s wrong with the way things have been? Why make changes at this late date? Why separate ourselves from two thousand years of our his­tory?” Over time, I began to realize that I had given far too much credence to a definition of tradition that overstated its clarity and unchangingness…. The nineteenth-century Cambridge Movement gravitated to the high Middle Ages, and catholic Anglicans wound up with some liturgical practices that came straight out of medieval court ceremonial. The Liturgical Movement of more recent times decided that, no, the model had to be the church of the fourth and fifth centuries. Well, with my enthusiasm for an­tiquity, I’m happy with that. But sometimes we have become so adamant about reproducing the model of another age, that we have not thought to look round and see exactly how it does or doesn’t fit the very different world we are living in.

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