Why I am not Anglican: A Response to Rachel Held Evans

old celtic cross mossWhy should I be, after all? Of all the many branches—or scattered splinters—of Christianity, why should I address this particular and peculiar English Episcopalian one?

Some already assume that I am Anglican, simply because I am engaged in the project of C.S. Lewis’ spiritual perspective. A great number of readers of this C.S. Lewis & Friends blog are Anglican. There are perhaps advantages to those that can share Lewis’ pew-perspective, but I did not come to Lewis because we shared the same altar. Far from it. Lewis has that peculiar ability to say out loud some of the things that I have been thinking inside. But we don’t share the same approach to faith.

Anglicanism does factor into my family tree. My grandmother was Anglican. It is a kind of family secret, actually. Not a secret that she was born Anglican: in Prince Edward Island, one’s religious roots are a matter of public record. If you visit here, someone older might ask your last name, and you can see they are doing some mental ancestral arithmetic. Born Anglican, my grandmother married someone from the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement—the churches of Christ/Christian churches—a tradition that I have inherited. We are adult-baptism folk, and they are fiercely committed to that point. We put Baptists to shame, really, despite the name. My grandmother used to criticize the changes that we made to church life. “It’s only proper,” she would say, “that a person comes forward one Sunday, gets baptized the second, and gets their Bible the third.” A free Bible was part of the master plan of evangelism, it seems.

As my grandfather was dying, a thought struck me. I had been through all the church records, and wrote a sort of amateur history of the local church when I was in college. I had never seen my grandmother’s baptism recorded anywhere. As my grandfather was a church Elder for many decades, it would be highly irregular for him to have a non-baptized partner. So, when he was in the hospital dying in his quiet and firm way he always had, I asked him:

New Glasgow Christian Church“Did Grammie every get baptized?”

“By immersion?” he asked.

“Dunked,” I answered.

“Not that I recall,” he said. “But you never know.”

My grandmother, then, staunch traditionalist of the dunk-tank way, had never converted to the tradition.

My cousin, Dawn of the “Flags of Dawn” blog, is an Anglican priest. We met at a Larry Norman concert, and then at a national theological conference. This was quite a surprise, because it is always unlikely fact that there will be two Dickiesons in a room who so misunderstood social norms that they think a life of ministry worth pursuing. Some years later my family was able to worship at her church in my mother’s hometown. We still have a picture of my son, dressed as a biblical shepherd in the garb of a Saudi oil baron, participating in the most impromptu nativity play I have ever seen. Confederates in the challenges of ministry and the struggle of living Christian faith in this strange world, we still talk on until hours disappear. Dawn makes me want to be an Anglican, though she has never once tried to draw me in—at least as far as I can tell.

There is also my years working with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, where Anglicans/Episcopalians are stable features in a dynamic group that tries to hold a diverse and rapidly changing community together. IVCF was a vibrant period for me, a community that excelled at Mere Christianity in action. At Regent College and Vancouver School of Theology the Anglican ministry candidates impressed me. My PhD program is at a Church of England school, a 19th century seminary in a cathedral city that is now a university of the future bursting at the seams. I have recently spent a month in the U.K., visiting churches and attending cathedral services. And there are my friends, scattered across the world, who after years or decades of Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism are finding their way into Anglican, Episcopalian, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. The liturgy calls many to Anglicanism; the strength of history others; the elastic orthodoxy to still more.

All these features—and especially the latter—draw me in. Still, I am not Anglican.

And still I keep wondering why.

searching-for-sunday-rachel-held-evansNot long ago I read Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. The very first thing I read about this book, released last year, was that it was Held Evans’ story of how she left evangelicalism. Although I did not know her personally, and had never read any of her books or followed her blog, I could immediately guess why she might leave. I was certain that she was frustrated with particular aspects of American evangelicalism, particularly its stance on women in family and ministry, its anti-science posture, its investment in commercialism, and the blood it has shed in the culture wars. Rachel Held Evans is the snapshot of a frustrated older Millennial/younger Gen-Xer. Her story is in very many ways my story.

As I found the courage to begin the book (at the urging of digital friend Jennifer Neyhart), I was pleased that Held Evans’ was more than just my story. Far from it.

Truly, I have never been a woman growing up in a fundamentalist family in the deep American South who lacked the theological conversation partners to work through her faith questions. I doubt I ever will be. In fact, I had almost no spiritual upbringing. My church experience growing up was severe nuns in shades of grey, moralistic teachers, and hundreds of farm-folk crammed into an over-heated church for mumbled Christmas recitations and misfiring hymns. Church was that thing that happened to other people that I had to do from time to time. Christianity smelled to me of manure on rubber boots and wood-stain, not the great incense-filled cathedrals of so many. Even my childhood polemic against the church, really just the distaste of my parents, was half-hearted. I was a very poor atheist, longing for a God I knew didn’t exist and fearing a god I was told by others would punish my sins.

rachel-held-evansMy faith came in young adulthood. I landed in a conservative evangelical church, like Rachel Held Evans describes. There was a critical difference, though: my first church was one that encouraged my questions. Occasionally shocked and more than a little dismayed, they nurtured my faith and gave space to my doubt. As a newly drenched believer, still mostly heathen, habitually atheistic, dangerously drawn to the arts, and perhaps one part pagan, I was probably the recipient of more prayers and the beneficiary of more mentoring moments than any other Canadian youth in the mid 1990s. Yes, they bemoaned evolution and were invested in male leadership patterns; these church walls cheated to the right. The music was poor and the preaching was loud and there may even have been a plastic bobble-head Jesus on a dashboard or two in the parking lot. In all likelihood I owned, at one time or another, a DC Talk t-shirt. But it was a place of growth and challenge and, occasionally, a place of beauty.

Rachel Held Evans’ journey of struggle and doubt does lead her out of her childhood Christian movement and ultimately into an Episcopal Church. For Held Evans, the discovery of the majesty of liturgy and its rejection of Mall-of-America-Christianity, combined with a space for women in leadership and a reasonable approach to sexual, political, and scientific questions, meant that Anglicanism would be a good landing space. At least for the moment. Her story, as is true of most of our stories, is still being written.

cd-talk-jesus-freakSearching for Sunday is a beautifully written book. It is moving in parts, and often uncomfortable. It lacks an architectural structure that could bear much more weight, and yet the deftness with which she treats her story makes it essential for so many who need to hear it. While she could easily reject so much, throwing out baby, bathwater, and tub, Held Evans holds on, even tenuously, to the evangelical community. I was drawn into her great doubts and struggles. Yet I was not left with the kind of cynicism that Gen Xers tried to pass on to me. Rachel Held Evans critiques the baseline of cynicism, drawing her criticism back toward her own limitations and ideas. In the end, I am left with stronger faith, and new energy to engage with my spiritual community.

A spiritual community that is not Anglican, but still has within its diverse and elastic right-leaning walls all the things that frustrate Held Evans. And me.

I am especially frustrated with my (non)denomination’s approach to gender. I am an ordained minister and have been a church elder, but I will not return to leadership in a male-leaders-only church. I am also concerned that my denomination has sold out not to the image of Christ on the cross, but to the “pattern of this world”: marketing campaigns, political movements, self-help books, and charismatic male leaders on a bright stage leveraging a radically disengaged flock in a quickly shifting spiritual landscape. Most of all I’m concerned with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps spirituality that has overtaken much of evangelicalism. Can’t get your life together? Just try harder.

It pains me—and not me alone, I think, not least because my heart wants to give it to it.

So why not leave? Why not join a movement that combines the rootedness of Scripture with the trunks of history and the lifeblood of reason? Why not become part of a denomination that gives space for what I believe is biblical Christianity? Rachel Held Evans is just one of a great number of people my age that have made this very move. Why not go to the Anglican church down the road.

It isn’t just because I’m scent-sensitive and the incense does weird things to my head. Liturgical churches do make my eyes water and my nose itch—in ways that are less spiritual than you would like. I like the bells better than the smells. But I would make the sacrifice if I thought I should.

Even then, though, I don’t prefer the bells either. I’m sure that the great majesty of the Christian liturgy draws people into the magnanimity of God’s presence. My bad eyes don’t help. I can’t read the liturgy most of the time. But it is more than that. I love the great big worship world of evangelicalism globally. I like the acoustic guitars and full bands and drums and repetitive choruses. This strange mix of adult contemporary and Coldplay-era Brit rock, typically played with much gusto and not quite enough skill, is actually a musical space that allows me to move to that interior castle. It isn’t entertainment for me: it is an invitation for my body and voice and heart to move together. I take my glasses off in worship, setting aside my questions to live in the presence.

christ_church_cathedral_oxfordI have gotten liturgical chills before, at Christ Cathedral in Oxford, or as the boys sang in the C.S. Lewis’ Magdalen chapel. Even then, I preferred the charismatic worship across the street at St. Aldates, where they sang Jesus-is-my-girlfriend worship songs and a young woman prophesied for half an hour. It isn’t just because I almost knocked down the modesty rail at the Cathedral, which would have certainly cracked the funereal stones that have lain intact for centuries beneath the feet of worshippers. In that St. Aldates evangelical-charismatic community on that muggy Sunday evening, in a room with dozens of denominations and nations gathered together—there is where I find the space to make worship not about me. I would make the sacrifice to move into liturgy, but I would still sneak across the street from time to time.

And I wonder about my son. Where do I want Nicolas to grow up? Right now he is in a community that loves him, that challenges him, that gives space for him to serve and ask impossible questions. Why would I change that?

So I have quite a complex answer to why I am not an Anglican—an answer that no one has required except myself. My theological perspective and reading of Scripture sit within the overlap space of the Venn diagram between the Anglican communion and my own. There is a lot of space in that intersection of two sets, even if the communities look so radically different. I am a little hesitant that the Anglican communion does not consider my ordination valid, but I can set that aside and choose another path. In a crass cost-benefit chart I would gain more than I lose in my work as a Christian theologian with the Church of England as my home base.

greek bibleMore than my comfort or my preferences or my fear of doing something stupid in the liturgy, more than my desire to have my son grow up in a community that I think is more consistent in reading Scripture in the world today, more than a yearning for a deeper biblical theological conversation—more than any of these is my sense of calling. I feel called to engage with a community that has taught me so much. Perhaps I am wrong about our areas of disagreement, and they can draw me into greater authenticity and truth. Or maybe I can help our community navigate the choppy waters of culture today.

Either way, I am called to engage.

You will still likely see me sneaking over to the Anglican church across the street from time to time. And I am studying Anglicanism, continually, always. But I will remain a part of this frustrating, problematic, flawed, and beautiful global communion that gave birth to my faith and gave me space to question everything—even when it made them afraid. This Sunday I will raise a shot glass of Welch’s grape juice to my Anglican sisters and brothers out in that big, wide world. Perhaps I will also dig out that old DC Talk t-shirt and see if it fits, even if I’m not doing a denominational Nu Thang.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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44 Responses to Why I am not Anglican: A Response to Rachel Held Evans

  1. Wow! Loved that article, I fellowship at a non-denominational church that is Calvary Chapel and the chapter by chapter bible sermons and worship and wisdom, understanding for me as I was going through the worst trial, my last church that I left because I longed for chapter to chapter teaching and I had an infant who cried across town and I needed someplace closer was also wonderful and supportive during that worst trial, it was a non-denominational Free Methodist church. I can honestly say the Holy Spirit is moving some evangelicals to a steadiness of the whole scripture, a wisdom of the nature of God that would encompass the creeds and a moving away from prooftexting, judgementalism etcetera.

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    • Thanks for popping in! I have a friend whom I admire who comes from Calvary Chapel stock and has lead things in our church. “Steadiness” is a good image. I’m glad that you found a place that can be home–which is a big factor in my family.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Charles Huttar says:

    Thank you, Brenton, for this very thoughtful (and helpful) post. I like your Venn diagram image — I too am in that space, though I came down on the Anglican side long ago, have grown and been enriched there over the years and found how very much variety there is within it — not all smells and bells as it’s sometimes caricatured — and more and more find MY calling there. Much more to say; I hope we can meet again soon and talk about it. Charles

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    • I think most urban centres and many places in England that have Anglican churches that would be as diverse as any Protestant spectrum, wouldn’t they? Here in PEI, I don’t know if that’s there, though I have made good friends with Anglican church folk.
      I should note that I’m broadly open on denominational things. I’m tracking a number of Anglican candidates and emerging leaders, and just wrote a recommendation for a United Church of Canada ministry candidate. I often have a lot of the Baptist and Roman Catholic engaged youth in my classes.
      Would love that chat soon!

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  3. You say, “engage” and to me it sounds like you are staking out a traditional protestant position of, well, protesting from within. I like that. But at what point do we decide that if our community calls something unclean that God has called clean, in this case women in ministry/leadership, that we must part ways – if your son was a daughter, would that change your mind? And as a theologian, when you recognize your movement’s unwillingness to read the Bible beyond its strict blueprint world view, is there a point at which you move your family into another community that is reading the Bible more dynamically?

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    • Hi Brian, thanks for this. The blog needs approval on first time comments, so sorry for duplication.
      I think you’ve worked some of these key questions for yourself. We’ve talked about them–though in other language (prenatal? prehistoric language?). I’ve had tension for a long time in the Restoration movement. Women and men in leadership and family is one point, but being theologically charismatic is another (if living in the UK, that would be a draw on the Church of England). The vacuity of evangelical poetry has long been another (the Jesus is my girlfriend songs have descended to factory style motifs that run in circulation). I look elsewhere for art, literature, and theology, but our movement has some interesting history. All of that is there.
      The two sticking points for me were gender and hermeneutics:
      1. On women, in working in government and education where systems are officially egalitarian, it sometimes makes the little male-led church looking positively feminist. I am dissatisfied culturally, not just in church. I am part of a church that is more broadly egalitarian, and chose not to use power as an elder to leverage it further. Perhaps I erred there. I feel the pain of being in a “denomination” where womens’ voices and calling are often negated, but I have found that to be true of the world. I want to remain engaged, and hopefully change that.
      2. On biblical hermeneutics, I am not in the Jack Cottrell school, to say the least. I am not a fundamentalist, or a strict biblicist or reform-style inerrantist. I largely agree with C.S. Lewis that no person can have complete access to reality, though none of us have no access. As a cultural theologian, I cannot see “restoration” as pulling any idea or doctrine from a Greek or Hebrew text and placing it in English on Main Street or the suburb and expect it to have a meaning in a pseudo-mathematical way. That’s not how it works. It’s not how I teach or do theology.
      A lot of the mitigation of these tensions is my own local church, which has fed me again and again and has richness in its fumbling awkwardness. I have pulled back from almost all denominational work until I complete my studies, so I’m not in a position to make change there. But when invited I speak to the concerns I have.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. brianmrnc says:

    You say, “engage” and to me it sounds like you are staking out a traditional protestant position of, well, protesting from within. I like that. But at what point do we decide that if our community calls something unclean that God has called clean, in this case women in ministry/leadership, that we must part ways – if your son was a daughter, would that change your mind? And as a theologian, when you recognize your movement’s unwillingness to read the Bible beyond its strict blueprint world view, is there a point at which you move your family into another community that is reading the Bible more dynamically?

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  5. Jennifer says:

    I didn’t realize your background was the same as mine in terms of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement churches of Christ/Christian churches. My dad and my grandfather were both preachers in Restoration Movement churches.

    Also, thanks for the shout-out! 🙂

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    • We are–Charlie Starr and I taught at sister schools. I have no preachers in my background, but my family was involved in one of the first churches in the 1820s (which later joined up with the global community, but began independently).
      Keep on reading Jennifer!

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  6. Callum Beck says:

    Being from the same denominational background as Brenton i can partly relate and partly not. Going to an Anglican church in North America does little for me but every time I am in England it seems the only place I feel spiritually at home. Not sure why but the geography changes my spiritual sensitivities.

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  7. Jared says:

    Yet again, my day’s richer for reading you. You are nothing if not faithful and full of integrity.

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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Lewis, in his account of Richard Hooker in his OHEL volume, seems very good about Anglicanism, and what may be a distinctive feature in the ‘modern’ (i.e., 16th-c. on) world, the recognition of other ‘churches’ as also ‘the Church’ (though one disgrees on sufficiently earnest points to keep a distance as well, in practice). That recognition did not keep the C of E from (largely) enforcing itself within England for centuries (including killing people in horrible ways as well as fining them heavily for not attended C of E services). The Vatican II document, Lumen gentium, in its section 15, seems to me to have certain similarities to this, though it has not only the category ‘ Churches’ but that of ‘ecclesiastical communities’ (in which, I suspect, the C of E and other Anglican Provinces, etc., would be places). I don’t know what Patristic/Early Church ‘roots’ either of these ecclesiological approaches have.

    About a century ago, another step was taken, in Kikuyu, in East Africa, when at a meeting of C of E, Methodist, and Presbyterian missionaries, the Bishops of Mombasa and Uganda invited the non-Anglican Christians to receive Communion. This proved very controversial, yet seems in recent decades to have become standard practice (with relevant Canons regulating it). Then again, from its early days, the C of E has included not only ‘diverse’ – St. Aldate’s is as officially C of E as Christ Church cathedral and Magdalen College chapel – but warring elements. (In a book published 60 years ago, a Dutch professor who had moved from Dutch Protestantism to Communion with Rome, thanks to his experience of the C of E (!: he became a Newman scholar|), noted all sorts of gradations from orthodoxy to ‘free-thinking liberalism’ among both Anglican Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, and Calvinistic-, Arminian-, Lutheran-, and Free-Church-orientated groups among the Anglican Evangelicals, and among Anglo-Catholics, Eastern-Orthodox-, Old-Catholic-, and Roman-Catholic-orientated ones! And I think complexities have only multiplied since then…)

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    • You are right about the multiplying complexities. Have the capacities to absorb complexity increased as well? I suspect so. In the end, I think what will threaten to splinter (not just split) Anglicanism globally will be gay marriage, not the meaning of communion, the role of tradition, the expressions of worship, the authority of Scripture, or any creedal interpretation.

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  9. Wayne Stauffer says:

    I also grew up in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement in central Illinois. After I went to college, I felt somewhat impoverished from the lack of liturgy in the independent Christian church brotherhood… i also did not like the attitude of “if you don’t go to our church/congregation, you’re less a Christian than we are.” maybe that was just the way we mid-westerners thought…

    wayno Sent from my iPad

    >

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    • Thanks Wayne. No, it isn’t just your area–or that movement. I always struggled with the organist would play a hymn written by a Methodist then the preacher limit salvation so it excluded Methodists. The midwest is far more saturated with these churches than our area, for sure.

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  10. robstroud says:

    Interesting. As a confessional Lutheran, I understand the draw of the sacraments. I obviously believe they are biblically sound and apostolically initiated in origin. And I could never find myself at “home,” in a non-sacramental religious community, no matter how much I enjoyed the music, fellowship, etc.

    However, as an evangelical, who shares your love for Lewis’ “mere Christianity” ethic, I am a bit surprised to see you citing one of the things you find attractive about Anglicanism being: “the elastic orthodoxy.” That’s one of the elements I find the most off-putting. But then, maybe you and I mean something different by that term.

    Traditional Anglicanism still boasts much that is praiseworthy, but I fear that much of the denomination in the West (e.g. the Episcopal Church here in the US) has been captured by the heirs of the “Episcopal Ghost” Lewis describes in The Great Divorce.

    I stand in a tradition that looks back to the Reformer (not new-church-starter) Martin Luther. He was by his own admission a miserable sinner, and his writings were sometimes tainted by that very humanity. However, Luther was led a great personal risk to devote his life to the restoration of the Gospel in the church… whereas Henry VIII had other motivations for starting the Church of England.

    Enjoyed your reflection here… especially the reference to Larry Norman, whose music I’ve enjoyed since the early 70s.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Have you read A.G. Dickens’s The English Reformation? Reflecting on this post had me longing to reread it (my copy’s away in storage!). He gives (to my memory) a good sense of the complexity of the English Reformation, and (so to put it) the opportunity Henry gave for various ‘reforming’ motives to come into action, and interact. (Williams’s Canterbury Festival play about Thomas Cranmer might also be interesting to consider from this perspective: the opportunities, challenges, dangers presented to Cranmer by Henry’s decisions.) Dickens does not put it that way, but I wonder if Henry wanted something like a return to the autocephalous churches of the Patristic/Ecumenic Conciliar period (and how much 14th- and 15th-c. conciliar thinking may have fed into this)? (Dickens was a Methodist, grateful for being among the undergraduate historians whom Lewis tutored in Political Philosophy – from Platonic Communism to Lenin’s State and Revolution in 10 weeks!)

      Somebody else worth mentioning (who led to Lewis writing an interesting little note published posthumously as ‘Modern man and his categories of thought’), is Stephen Neill and his Anglicanism (1958), in the annotated bibliography of which he says, “Throughout I have learned a great deal from Professor C.S. Lewis’s History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (excluding Drama) (1954). Mr. Lewis could not have written better on the theologians if he had himself been a professional theologian.”

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      • Just a note to say that I once had the pleasure of giving A.G Dickens a lift to the station after he had come to my theological college/seminary to lecture on William Tyndale. He was charming company on a 20 minute journey and very kind to the young man that I was in those days.

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      • robstroud says:

        No, I haven’t read Dickens’ history. I did enjoy taking a seminar course on Cranmer at Cambridge while I was stationed in the U.K. though.

        I certainly agree with Neill’s assessment of Lewis’ ability to get to heart of many theological matters at least as well as most “professional” theologians.

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    • Hi Rob. “Elastic Orthodoxy” is probably a careless term, though I’ll leave it stand. I like Anglicanism’s flexibility for dealing with Reform and Methodist ideas and expressions, and its housing of Charismatic communities, monastic communities, the high, low and in between. That’s a couple of examples. I would like better conversations in my community on hermeneutics, and those are in the Anglican traditions. That’s sort of what I mean. I don’t want to comment on an issue that might shred Anglicans globally: LGBTQ peoples and ethics.
      Yes, there are those who have lost the plot, people that will win at any cost, people whose theology has no foundation–by all this I mean it is a human organization.
      My own community is sacramental (baptism, communion weekly).
      I got to have dinner with Larry a couple of times in the 90s.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. wanderwolf says:

    While the expression goes: the unexamined life is not worth living, you could say the unexamined faith is not worth having. People say that faith is about what you believe- it shouldn’t have to be explained… But I had a problem with blindly believing something. I was maybe a bit of a Thomas. Now I realize that I was doing what every Christian needs to do- find the religion that reflects his/her faith.
    This was an interesting article, and while I’m still not sure you’re convinced yourself about what church you want to belong to, it’s none of my business, and maybe seeking to reevaluate and reaffirm is the point.

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    • Nicely done. I wouldn’t want to push this so it is too elitist–not all of us can consider cabbage yield in the garden when robbers are stealing the icebox. But for those of us who live in the midst of education, technology, and access to community, we should live as life-examined/faith-examined people. I spoke at a conference this past Spring about how doubt helps cultivate rooted faith.
      I know what local church I want to belong to, but you are right about the denomination. I am not done that journey, and if we ever move there will be some family conversations.
      I’m also biased to not leaving a local church unless it is impossible to do otherwise. Divorce has had an emotional cost on western societies.

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  12. Wow! You are certainly generating a lot of conversation here, Brenton! I really appreciate your thoughtful reflection.
    I was brought up an Anglican in a very gentle way in a country village not far from Oxford where my father ran a farm. Home, the village school and church seemed to flow into one another in an entirely natural way. Later I attended a boys boarding school of the kind that from Thomas Arnold and his reforms at Rugby School in the 19th century promoted a particular kind of Anglican Christianity in the English establishment. We had prayers every evening at 9 pm except Friday and Saturday (you got a weekend off Christianity, but not from sport or study!) when the senior boys, me included would sneak out of a back entrance and head for the pub. We all had to attend school chapel on Sundays and I would sit there in that wonderfully arrogant teenage fashion despising what I now saw as establishment religion. Of course, I also had to despise the happy childhood that I enjoyed in Oxfordshire. I thought it was required of me.
    At University I met evangelical students and by the end of my first term I had experienced what I believed was a conversion. It was certainly a commitment to be a follower of Christ and I will always be grateful to those who persuaded me to make my mind up. I attended a student fellowship and an independent evangelical church and got baptised for a second time as a “believer” this time. I had not changed my mind about my childhood nor about the establishment Christianity of my boarding school.
    It was in teaching at an ecumenical boys boarding school in Zambia that things changed. It was the minister of my evangelical church who encouraged me to go there when I expressed my desire to go to Africa. He believed that in choosing not to live and work in an evangelical hothouse that my faith would deepen and my skills as an evangelical apologist would develop. It had the opposite effect. My colleagues included liberal Canadians and Americans. I never became a liberal but I liked them a lot. I will always be grateful to the American chaplain who introduced me to Thomas Merton. There were also English Methodists, Roman Catholics, French Protestants and even a priest of the Syrian Orthodox Church from South India as well as Zambian colleagues of the United Church of Zambia. I knew that that I was gradually leaving the expression of Christianity of my student days and when the headteacher asked me to take on chaplaincy duties in the school after the departure of the chaplain I have referred to I knew increasingly that I was being called to ordination but I did not know with whom!
    On returning to England I was invited to attend a week of debriefing my 6 year African experience with some wonderful facilitators (Methodist and Roman Catholic) who helped me think through all that I had been learning. There came a point in the week when I suddenly knew that I was going back to where I started. To my Anglican beginnings. And that journey has been going on ever since. At first I trained in an Anglican evangelical college but now I am increasingly in the happy, kind and hospitable Anglicanism of my childhood but in a very conscious way. And I realise that this kind of Anglicanism is not fashionable here in England anymore and that I am out on a limb. In the parish in central Birmingham where I was ordained a congregation has been planted with leaders from London that meets in a converted old warehouse building. I like small country churches that seem to have grown out of the ground and the rock. Of the images that you posted the one that caught at my heart was the tiny overgrown chapel in the woods. Images like that have been entering my imagination for some time now and I long to know what they mean.
    So thank you for your reflection and blessings be upon you and your family in your pilgrimage. I really had not intended to write this when I began to comment. It sort of insisted on being written and eventually I will find out why!

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      “I knew increasingly that I was being called to ordination but I did not know with whom!” I’m at a loss for a adequate adjective/-ival to characterize that observation – ‘fascinating’ seems so weak, ‘familiar’ is not exactly true, ‘thought-provoking’ is true but does not get very far in the thought provoked – but it seems richly to deserve thinking about!

      I came back here wanting to add something about the ‘ecclesiology’ of the preface to Mere Christianity – Lewis’s application – and imaginative, reflective elaboration – of the image of ‘Father’s house’ and ‘many mansions/rooms’.

      As I read down, wanderwolf’s comment seemed to tie in, though I think Lewis would (and did, there) formulate the matter differently than “find the religion that reflects his/her faith”: it would be good to ponder the formulations in comparison (as well, perhaps, as Archdeacon Julian Davenant’s in Charles Williams’s War in Heaven, about deciding what to believe).

      Liked by 2 people

      • I noted wanderwolf’s comment too. My own experience was not so much to choose but a sense at a point in life (I was 30 at the time) that an Anglican road seemed to make sense of what had happened so far. And I am deeply grateful to the generosity of those who guided me then. I watch with some sadness the so-called discernment process of those seeking guidance now with its psychological testing and endless interviewing. Mine, after a conversation with a priest in Salisbury was a meeting with the wonderful John Neale, then Bishop of Ramsbury and then a selection conference to which he had recommended me. That was it. He simply backed his judgement and made a decision.

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          “I watch with some sadness the so-called discernment process of those seeking guidance now with its psychological testing and endless interviewing.” Indeed! Formalities abounding (as distinct from appropriate care and thoroughness), with all sorts of unimpressive results (as far as I can see), both as to who gets weeded out and who succeeds. (I know of ones more like yours, in Africa, though.)

          Liked by 2 people

    • Stephen, I am getting a lot of comments and am quite behind! Thanks so much for the generous response and telling your story.
      I wonder how often this is a thing for people: “I also had to despise the happy childhood…” I am fortunate I didn’t have to do this, but I rebelled in many ways–and my Christian conversion fueled that rebellion in not always healthy ways. As it turns out, evangelicalism is a kind of third-way rebellion, rejecting both established religion and “the world” while reinventing our own worldly religion (which I love in many ways, don’t get me wrong).
      You suggest your evangelical minister wanted to deepen your faith–well, isn’t that what happened? As NT Wright said once, not all slippery slopes go to the left. You deepened, but in this case it was a vocational and ecumenical deepening, and the beginning of a clarification of your theological and missional spaces.
      I love the image of the old stone church in the woods. It is a sad image too, of cultures who transform out of existence. But beautiful.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The generosity of the writing really wasn’t much a matter of my choice. I found myself writing it and decided to post it once I had finished. It has been a week of this kind of reflection.
        You have given me much to think about in your response and I will take time to do so in the next days.
        The chapel in the woods makes me think of the times in LOTR when the members of the Fellowship encounter things of the Elder Days. The passing away of those days is something that I want to think about. Tolkien certainly thought about it a lot. All I can say is that when I look at the image of the chapel it is not a longing for the past that takes hold of me but something about my present and future.

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          It reminds me of the many and various hermits in Arthurian romances – I feel confident they must have been well documented and discussed, but I’m not sure where to start looking (seaching ‘Hermits’ at the Camelot Project returned 87 results, but none was a topical overview article). Just before returning here, I ran into a notice of a lecture occasioned by the 1700th anniversary of the birth of St. Martin of Tours. Probably the first 1200 of those were fairly replete (if to varying degrees) with opportunities to run into real-life hermits in the woods (among other places) of the west. What seems ‘romantic’ about them in the romances in the past three or four hundred years, probably did not, or not in the same sense, to their original readers – but ‘special’, nonetheless. I know from Desmond Seward’s The Monks of War that there was at least one (I think, late) Military Order where the members could be married and have their wives with them. I can’t presume to say anything about your future in particular, but perhaps our (near?) future will feature sorts of eremitical families with chapels. (An Anglican blogger and liturgical scholar of my happy acquaintance – thanks first to a friend in the Oxford Lewis Society – Fr. Anthony Chadwick, has something of the sort in France, where he celebrates in the Use of Sarum.)

          Liked by 1 person

          • I am sure that you are right when you say that the image of the chapel in the woods has something eremitical about it. It is also true that I feel strongly drawn to this in some way. How that works out for a married man whose children are at that critical point in life of the journey out of childhood to adulthood and many other “promises to keep” I do not know. I will trust that God does know.

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            • Isn’t that part of the beauty of its image? Are any truly beautiful things completely unambiguous?

              Liked by 1 person

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              You’ve somehow suddenly got me thinking about how The Kilns was perhaps analogous to this in some ways – farmy and still rather on the edge of things (though a neighbouring street was soon added on one side), no chapel, but something like a none-too-long walk down a country lane to Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry, and all the varied family-like small community aspects of it, Maureen Moore like a younger sister, then children evacuated during the war (there’s a lovely, vivid interview linked from the Wikipedia “June Flewett” article), someone else who had nowhere else to turn living (I think for years) in a little house on the grounds, varied (old student friend) visitors (like Martin Lings), then Joy, David, and Douglas, and those boys grown and away.

              Liked by 1 person

  13. louloureads says:

    I really enjoyed this post, and it’s very close to my heart. Although I did not grow up in the US, the conservative evangelical church I grew up in (in the UK, but run exclusively by ex-military white South African men) often felt like an outpost of the Bible Belt. My questions around gender roles and science were often brushed under the carpet. I’ve grown up into a happy spinster and female scientist, greatly to the disappointment of some of my childhood mentors. The church’s approach to science (e.g. if you have any questions about the six-day creation v evolution thing you aren’t believing hard enough) nearly led me to leave church altogether, because I thought I didn’t have enough faith to be a Christian. I’ve also spent years trying to untangle some of their teachings on marriage, which, if followed to the letter, lead directly to emotionally abusive husbands and trapped wives. (Not that I think all the marriages in the church were abusive–I think many couples were paying lip service to those teachings and then adopting a more egalitarian approach).

    However, that church also loved me and nurtured me and gave me many of the tools I need in my faith. When my dad got sick and couldn’t work, the church provided food for us for literally months. I was a lonely teenager and the younger adults in my church used to consciously include me in their socialising, even though I was should technically have been with the youth, because they wanted me to feel like I fitted in somewhere. On one occasion when I was in my teens, my brother and I had nowhere to go when my dad was very ill, so we just turned up unannounced at one of the elder’s houses. He and his wife fed us dinner and sorted it all out. That church, like all families, is made up of people and is therefore too complex to dismiss as entirely bad or embrace as entirely good.

    I’m still in a conservative evangelical church, though the one I’m in now welcomes difference and is open to discussion. I’ve just been asked to be part of the women’s ministry team, partly *because* I have very different views about gender roles to the women who are currently serving there. That is very exciting to me. I’ve also seen massive change happen in the church I grew up in, albeit often at a glacial pace, and it no longer feels like a stressful place to visit. I would rather be in that tradition (for want of a better word) and bang on about the issues near to my heart, than move to somewhere that’s better for women but doesn’t share some of the other teachings that I believe are fundamentally biblical. The essential issues for me are what a church teaches about salvation and about Jesus’ nature as both fully human and fully God. If there are issues with any of that then I’ll leave, but otherwise I’d rather stay and fight. It’s been so wonderful to see the changes both in my current church and in the church I grew up in, and I want to be a part of that going forward.

    (This is a very long comment. I apologise. It’s just something I care about a lot).

    Like

    • louloureads says:

      (In hindsight I don’t know if the church provided food for us for *literally months*, but it felt like it at the time).

      Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Hurrah for long comments like this!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much for this comment. You capture the nuanced (not-reactive) view of a difficult and beautiful community. So many in media and culture reduce people to only the bad or good, rather than all the parts in between. I am glad that community was there as support, even if they weren’t there for all your questions.
      We may also see a difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. They overlap a lot, but they actually have different operating principles in key ways. This right here is very close to my approach: “I would rather be in that tradition (for want of a better word) and bang on about the issues near to my heart, than move to somewhere that’s better for women but doesn’t share some of the other teachings that I believe are fundamentally biblical.”
      Part of that is an authenticity factor too: I like being with flawed and awkward humans (like myself) who want to live faithfully. I want to stay, but would like to fight less if I can find other ways to make that challenge (like this blog, trying to get people to see other points of view, here other stories, think about their faith, etc.)
      I must say, this phrase struck me: “I’ve grown up into a happy spinster and female scientist, greatly to the disappointment of some of my childhood mentors.” You note that the pathway to saying this was complex, but I am quite moved by it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • louloureads says:

        Recently I read Raised Right by Alisa Harris, which explored her experience leaving behind the religious right principles she was raised with and figuring out how to keep her faith. I didn’t love it, but it might be an interesting read in light of all the discussion in the comments.

        Also, I emailed your post to my mum and we had a lovely chat about it for nearly an hour, so thank you for that.

        Like

  14. Pingback: On Listening to Your Life in Frederick Buechner’s “The Sacred Journey” | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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