Christianity in Transition

From Supernaturalism to Humanism

Darryl Milner, BA(Hons.), Dip. Theol.
(Anglican) Vicar of Northcote, Auckland.
On May 11 2002, the Auckland Central group held a one-day conference, on the theme: Christianity in Transition, From Supernaturalism to Humanism. Lloyd Geering spoke first tracing changes in our understanding of religious experience since the Enlig htenment.
The second speaker was Reverend Darryl Milner, who spoke from the point of view of a parish minister, applying the conference theme to how we retain and live by the lasting Christian values from the past, in a very different world. This is Darryl's tal k, in full.
"How do we retain, and live by, the lasting Christian values of the past in a very different world".
I was enormously honoured when Owen Lewis rang me and asked me to be one of the two speakers at today's conference - particularly as Lloyd was to be the other speaker. Lloyd has long been an inspiration to me and one of the clearest thinkers and lecturers I have ever had the privilege of hearing. I said "Yes" without any hesitation. It was only when I had got off the phone that I realised what I had let myself in for! Following Lloyd is not an easy task!
One of the things that makes Lloyd a mentor figure for me, is, that like Don Cupift, he is always that much further ahead of me in my thinking. Whenever I had doubts about where my thinking was taking me, I looked up and saw Lloyd and Don out there, ahead of me, and they hadn't sailed over the edge of the world yet!!
I am a Parish minister open to the new insights that Lloyd, Don Cupitt and the Jesus Seminar scholars are presenting to us. This does not mean I agree with everything they say, but disagreeing often helps me to clarify what it is I do think and believe. And whenever any of my Parishioners are troubled about what I am saying, I can always comfort them by reminding them I am not as radical as either Lloyd or Don!
It is from my position as a parish minister that I want to address the second part of the theme for today: "How do we retain, and Iive by, the lasting Christian values of the past in a very different worid". Although I struggle with the Church, living in a mixed love/hate relationship with the institution, I recognise that it has shaped me irrevocably, and I believe, if only it will honestly face up to the challenges facing it, it can still contribute significantly to the emerging new world. The unwillingness and inertia of large sections of the church, to openly debate the deep theological issues confronting it, in my worst moments, tempt me to despair of it, and I see more hope for the future in the emerging alternative faith communities that someone like Rosemary Neave has been exploring and which she shared with us at last year's Sea of Faith Conference. But I haven't given up on it yet!
I will be speaking quite a lot about my own experience, and that of my parish, in this talk. This is not to claim that I, or we, have found the answers to the question we are addressing. The topic is a vast one and I feel I can only speak out of my own experience, and offer that of my parish, as a 'case study', or illustration, for you to use as you grapple in your groups with the issues of our conference. I welcome vigorous challenge and criticism of what I say, and because some of it is personal, I trust it will enable, rather than inhibit, your discussions.
I find my thinking closer to that of two other Anglicans, both Bishops. One is Richard Holloway, the retired Bishop of Edinburgh. He is quoted in a review of his recent book, Doubts and Loves, in the latest SOF Newsletter as saying that:
"The needle on my own dial trembles midway between non-realism (God is a human invention) and critical realism (there is a mystery out there, but we are inextricably involved in its interpretation and can never get it with complete purity). Holloway is haunted by the sacred, the other, the sheer strangeness of existence which invites us to wonder."[1]
The other is Bishop John Spong. To many of you neither of them may appear very radical, but to most people the Church, both are considered very radical, while Lloyd and Don have disappeared beyond their horizons!
I find myself in full agreement with these words of John Spong:
"I believe that God is real and that the insatiable human quest for meaning is found in that reality. This means that in the last analysis I do not accept the premise that there is nothing to religious systems except human constructs built only by human need. I do not believe that the rellgious yearnings of human beings are simply the infantile projections of a frightened, dependent creature. I rather am convinced that something within human life always drives us beyond our limits into otherness, into the experience of transcendence, into the core of being itself that I can still use the word God to describe. I experience this God as the depth dimension of my humanioty, and I believe this dimension is not an illusion, but a reality which I trust."
"...the distinction must be grasped between an experience of God which I regard as both real and timeless and any subeequent explanation of that God experience which is always compromised, and transitory. In our generation it is the God explanations that have become bankrupt, not the primary experience which called these experiences into being. Every human explanation is always and inevitably time bound and thus warped by the particularity of the one doing the explaining I consign to the world of explanation — our scriptures, our creeds, our liturgies, our doctrines, our dogmas and all aspects of our theological systems. I regard none of them as eternal and I am convinced that all of them are capable of being abandoned by believers, at least in any literal sense, without abandoning the reality of the experience of God, even the God experienced in Christ. To that extent I am called by some of my critics a non-realist. But my commitment to non-realism ceases when I move beyond the explanations of the experience on which the explanation rests. For the God I meet experientially, the God who cannot be described intellectually, the God who cannot even be named without distorting the reality to which that flame points, that God I am convinced is real."[2]
And to clarify, he adds this footnote:
"I agree that all god talk is a human construct. But I believe that we have god talk because there is a reality to which the word God points, and that reality is more than a human construct."[3]
I think it only fair to clarify that, so that you know roughly from where I am coming as I speak to you today — a position of 'critical realism'.
Now to business!
We have heard Lloyd speak about how our perception of the world has changed. We will never recapture the way of looking at the world our predecessors took for granted. The whole way we expressed our Christian faith must therefore change. So Robert Funk, writing in his introductory essay to the book The Once and Future Church says:
"We need to conceive a faith that reconciles our need to know historically and scientifically with our need to create symbols and form myths ... The initial problem we face is the extent to which we know, or think we know, contravenes the myths we have inherited ... Many of the biblical myths we have inherited are at odds with aspects of our knowledge of the physical universe. We cannot simply ignore these discrepancies."[4]
We have to think differently about prayer and worship, two of the most characteristic expressions of 'faith' in the past. I thought I would use my hour today to share with you some of what I have tried to do in a fairly ordinary, typical Anglican parish over the last 20 years to help people 'retain, and live by the lasting Christian values of the past in a very different world.' Much of the change we have managed will, perhaps, seem rather too little too late to the more radical amongst you, but I have had to keep a parish together, a parish made up of the usual diverse mix of conservatives and radicals, caring for them all, and not alienating anyone more than is absolutely necessary.
There is more to it than simply that. The research of James Fowler and the writing of M. Scoot Peck about the stages of spiritual development have made me aware that different people are at very different stages in their personal and spiritual development. I have shared some of what I have learned about this with both the Auckland Sea of Faith Group and with a workshop at last year's annual conference, but it may be helpful for others if I summarise, as briefly as I can, the analysis found in M Scott Peck's book Further Along The Road Less Travelled[5]. His analysis is based on the work of James Fowler, a Professor at the Chandler School of Theology at Emory university and especially his book Stages of Growth. Scott Peck simplifies Fowler's six stages into four, but is saying essentially the same thing, though his understanding comes directly out of his own life experience and work as a psychiatrist.

Stage 1. Chaotic/Antisocial.

Scott Peck calls this stage Chaotic/Antisocial. This stage probably encompasses 20% of the population.
"This is a stage of absent spirituality and people at this stage are utterly unprincipled. I call it antisocial because while they are capable of pretending to be loving, actually all their relationships with others are self-serving, and covertly, if not overtly, manipulative. Chaotic because, being unprincipled, they have no mechanism that might govern them other than their own will. Since the unharnessed will can go this way one day and that way the next, their being is consequently chaotic. Because it is, people at this stage will frequently be in trouble or difficulty, and often in jails or hospilals or out on the street. Some of them, however, may actually be quite self-disciplined from time to time, in the service of their anthion and may rise to posidons of considerable prestige and power. They may even become presidents or famous preachers."[6]
Such people sometimes get in touch with the chaos of their own being. The devastating pain of this may lead them to therapy, suicide or sometimes "conversion as unconsciously they seek liberation by submitting themselves to an institution for their governance. So it is that they "convert" to Stage Two.

Stage 2. Formal/Institutional

Institutional because at this stage the person is dependant upon an institution for their governance. For some it may be a prison, for many, the army or a highly organised business corporation. For most people it is the church! The majority of churchgoers fall into Stage 2, the formal/institutional stage. Scott Peck calls it 'formal" because people in Stage 2 are very attached to the forms of their religion and become very, very upset if someone starts changing the forms, or rituals, altering their liturgy or introducing new hymns! They depend upon these forms to some extent for their liberation from chaos. In this stage their vision of God is almost entirely of an external being. They think almost totally of God as 'up there', 'out there' and have almost no awareness of God as immanent, dwelling within the human spirit. God is usually masculine. He is loving but with a kind of punitive power he is not afraid to use on appropriate occasions.
"It is a vision of God as a giant benevolent cop in the sky. And in many ways, this is exactly the kind of God people in Stage Two need."[7]
The children raised in the home of such churchgoing Stage 2 parents will grow up in a stable, loving home and be treated with dignity and importance because that is what the church teaches. They will absorb their parents religious principles — whatever religion it happens to be — like mother's milk. By adolescence they will have been internalised or engraved on their hearts. Once this happens they will have become principled, self-governing beings who no longer need to depend upon an institution for their governance. So they start saying, "Who needs these silly myths and superstitions and this fuddy-duddy old institution?" To their parents' horror they will begin, often in adolescence, to fall away from the church and become doubters, agnostics or atheists! They have begun to 'convert' to Stage 3!

Stage 3. Sceptic/Agnostic

Although not "religious" in the ordinary sense of the word, they are ahead of people in Stage 2 in their spirituality. They are not the least bit antisocial. They are often deeply involved in the life of their community and environmentally aware. They make committed and loving parents and are invariably truth-seekers, often with a scientific bent. If they search deeply and widely enough they begin to catch glimpses of the "the big picture" and see that it is not only beautiful but also strangely resembles the primitive myths and superstitions of their Stage 2 parents and grandparents! It is at this point that the y begin to "convert" to Stage 4.

Stage 4. Mystical/Communal

Mystics are the sort of people who have begun to see below the surface of things and find connections between men and women, between humans and other creatures, between people walking the earth and those who aren't even here. They speak often of paradox. They love mystery.
"They love to solve mysteries, and yet at the same time, they know that the more they solve, the more mystery they are going to encounter. But they are comfortable living in a world of mystery, whereas people on Stage Two are most uncomfortable when things aren't cut and dried."[8]
One of the things that characterises all of the world's great religions is that they seem to have the capacity to speak to people in both Stage 2 and Stage 4. It is as if the very teachings of a given religion have two different translaUons
"To take an example from Judaism. Psalm 111 ends with "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". At Stage Two this is translated to mean "When you start fearing that big cop in the sky, you really wise up." That's true. At Stage Four it is translated to mean "The awe of God shows you the way to enlightenment" And that is also true".[9]
This quality of being able to hold two or more equally valid ways of being understood is what makes the great religions "great"! The problem is that this duality is the very thing that creates a sense of threat within these religions.
Scott Peck writes:
"... to some extent, we all may be threatened by the people still in the stage we have just left, because we may not yet be sure or secure in our new identity. But for the most part the threat goes the other way, and we particularly tend to be threatened by people in the stages ahead of us.
People in Stage One will often tend to appear like cool cats — seemingly nothing bothers then very much. But if you are able to penetrate that facade, you will find [that] they we terrified of virtually everything and everyone.
People in Stage Two are not particularly threatened by the Stage One people: the sinners. They love the sinners, seeing them as fertile ground for their ministrations.
But they tend to be threatened by the skeptic individualists of Stage Three, and more than anything, by the Stage Four people, who seem to believe the same thing they believe in and yet believe with a kind of freedom they find absolutely terrifying. Stage Three people, the skeptics, are not particularly threatened by the unprincipled people of Stage One, or by the Stage Two people, whom they simply toss off as superstitious idiots. But once again, they tend to be threatened by Stage Four people, who seem to be scientific-minded like them and know how to write good footnotes, yet still somehow believe in this crazy God business."[10]
We need to remind ourselves that appearances can be misleading. People can appear to be in one Stage and yet in reality be somewhere else entirely. For example, some people appear to be faithful church attenders and at first glance appear to be firmly in Stage 2, but inwardly they are dissatisfied with their religion and sceptical of it and have become very scientifically minded. Dr. Savage calls them "Cynics". Others, of course, are known as "backsliders", slipping back from Stage 2 to Stage 1, sometimes repeatedly! Others bounce back and forth between one stage and another, particularly at times of stress, not fully developing within the next Stage into which they have begun to grow.
Scott Peck says that it is not possible to skip over any of these stages, though some people develop through some stages more quickly than do others. It is also quite possible to get "stuck" or arrested in one or other Stage. He also says that no matter how far any of us develops, we all retain vestiges of earlier Stages and in times of stress it is easy to regress. But we all, also, have the vestiges of the more advanced stages within us. As Oscar Wilde put it, "Every saint has a past and every sinner a future." And always we need to remember that Stage Four is only the beginning, he says.
These differences need to be understood and respected. One of the jobs of a parish minister is to help people along their developmental journey. This is not a process that goes to any one simple time-table. It cannot be rushed or forced. It can be encouraged by example. Just as I have been encouraged by being able to look up and see Lloyd and Don out ahead of me when I felt threatened or uncertain about where my thinking was taking me, so a minister who is willing to share the journey he is making, with all its ups and downs, can encourage members in his congregation. They can look at him and see that these 'radical' ideas won't make them "lose their faith" or end them up outside the church. The minister can also offer new perspectives and paradigms, exposing people to idea which challenge and stretch them without threatening them so much that they simply close down and retreat into dogmatism. All this takes time, and requires, I believe, a long-term commitment of the minister to the people in his or her congregation.
Because I am a Pastor, much has had to go slowly. But as l, and many in my congregation, look back over the last 20 years, we realise just how much we have moved — first in our theological thinking, and more latterly even in our liturgical expressions — pulling our worship closer to the theological positions with which we are now comfortable and which enable us to feel more honest as we meet for worship.
These are some of the steps we have taken:

1: Theological education.

One of the most important tasks of the parish minister, it seems to me, is to share what he or she has learned at his or her theological college with his or her parishioners. (For ease and convenience I am going from here on to use just one pronoun. As I am a male, the male gender comes most easily to me. I hope you will bear with me and understand that this is not intended as sexist). Reading and study must continue to be basic to his life and work. He must continue to be open to new learnings and to share these with the busy people with whom he works, who often do not share the privilege he has [had] to read, think and pray their way through the challenges posed to faith in today's world. I have tried to keep up-to-date by constant reading, attending seminars and lectures like those given by Lloyd under the auspices of the University's Continuing Education Unit and conferences like that our annual Sea of Faith. I have then tried to share what I have been learning with my parishioners. Some of this has been done in the Sermon time on Sunday mornings. One is limited, however, in what one can do in 10-12 minutes! But even there something can be done!
During my first Lent in the parish I preached a series of sermons which were available after Church in written form, and a variety of groups then met in people's homes during the subsequent week to discuss the ideas in them. I had appended some suggested questions to spark off their thinking and talking. One advantage was that all those who never go to a 'course' at least heard the sermon ideas. What I said was considered "way out"! By the second week I was being told that people felt I was up the creek with these new ideas. By the third week, many was convinced not only that I was up the creek, but definitely there without a paddle!
Discussion was lively, in homes, workplaces and the shopping centre. I had a series of phone calls and people calling in to discuss with me what I was suggesting. At the end of Lent I was asked to repeat the same format the next year, but to elaborate on the concept of God that I was proposing. People were finding it hard to accept the idea of a non-theistic, non-interventionist God — I was heavily in to panentheism and process theology in the 1970's!
I have also endeavoured never to say something in a sermon which I couldn't defend to a radical critic. I have also tried not to be unnecessarily confrontational. So I have tried to be sensitive to the feelings of a diverse and, when I first arrived, a fairly conservative group of people. Sunday worship isn't always the most appropriate setting to raise controversial issues because the congregation seldom has the time or opportunity to question or discuss the issues raised. I have tried to change that and quite often I invite questions and discussion if I think people need that to deal with what I have said, and, after some initial hesitation — we are Anglicans, you know — people are now more than willing to join in, contradict me and offer another point of view.
We also started study courses on weekday evenings as a better venue for looking at the thinking of radical theologians whose writings were challenging much of the tradition with which we had grown up. We usually try to hold two six week Study Courses each year. We take on some quite 'meaty' works, and work our way through them, taking time to discuss, clarify and argue. From the outset I made it clear that these were not propaganda classes. No one who came was expected to accept or agree with what we were studying. Radical ideas were offered as the opinions of scholars that needed to be considered, not evaded or ignored. Given the chance to grapple in an atmosphere truly open to any question, many felt an enormous sense of relief and began to discard the 'glass slippers' they had felt constrained by the church to wear all their lives, and instead began to dance barefoot on the grass. Only a small percentage of the parish family actually attend these evenings, but as word spread, people with some or no church connections, — John Spong's 'Church Alumni Society' — have started to come regularly and from across greater Auckland. Their enthusiasm inevitably has repercussions and as they speak to others about what they are learning the ideas spread both inside the parish and outside it.
These same ideas gently, and unconfrontationally introduced, Sunday by Sunday in teaching sermons centred on the Biblical passages set for the day, have gradually began to make a difference, even to some who were theologically the most conservative and resistant. Not long ago, one such dear lady, went to stay in Wellington with her best friend. In times past they had shared the same outlook, and her friend had continued to be part of a conservative church. Our parishioner was so looking forward to being where she wasn't always being challenged, and arguing with the vicar. When she got back she came to see me. "I had a terrible ten days!" she said. "Every time we started to talk about our faith I found we were disagreeing with one another. I heard myself explaining things to her, and thought, 'But thats what Darryl says'! I never knew how much I had changed, and how impossible it would be for me ever to fit back into that old way of thinking!" It was one of the best compliments I have ever been payed!
In The Once and Future Church, one of the contributors challenges the way in which most preaching in our churches still centres in the Lectionary and the Bible. He starts by quoting a letter he received from one of his friends:
"'Why do I go to a church that insists on the adherence to a biblical lectionary approach which each Sunday attempts to look for the truth laid down in scriptures long ago? Why does so much of mainline Christianity seemingly turn a dull ear to any new gospel? Why am I not paying more attention to the present than the past?' and goes on, ' ... The lectionary preacher is ... ineluctably working with a broken paradigm ... If theological fundamentalism is untenable, then the vestiges of fundamentalism that survive in our rhetoric are untenable also ... Jesus was not what we call a biblical preacher: it was not his habit to appeal to the authority of scripture as the basis of his preaching. Rather his habit was to make frequent use of parables and aphorisms, forms of rhetoric that expect their hearers to think for themselves and that seek to persuade them to accept his teaching because they recognise its truth, not because it is based on the authority of scripture. In short, Jesus offered his contemporaries what might be called 'a religion of insight' as an alternative to the religion of authority represented in his day by a priestly hierarchy, Temple ritual, and sacred texts ... Taking one cue from Jesus, one might say that to preach the gospel is to cultivate the imagination and wisdom to see our lives as under the rule of God's unfailing generosity and enduring goodness, which means among other things, as not necessarily confined or conformed to the way things are arranged by the culture and the ruling powers at the present are ..."[11]
and Robert Funk in his introduction to The Once and Future Church writes;
"The final barrier that had to come down was the canon. The authority of the New Testament gospels is the ultimate defensive line of orthodoxy. Once Q is admitted into the picture, and the Gospel of Thomas becomes an independent source, the mythical matrix created by the narrative gospels stands out in bold relief"[12]
That's a challenge with which I am still grappling. So, in one of our liturgies, at the point where we normally have The Ministry Of The Word, I have inserted a rather different rubric to that you would mostly expect to find in an Anlican Church. It reflects the re-thinking we have done about the Incarnation, the exclusive claims made by the church, and our growing acceptance of the pluralism that marks our emerging world. I have been very involved, from its very beginnings, with the Auckland Council of Christians and Jews, and am the founding Chairperson of the Auckland Chapter of the World Conference of Religion and Peace, a multi-faith organisation, and more latterly have been a member of the Auckland Council of Christians and Muslims. This deep engagement in interfaith dialogue has made me very conscious of the spiritual richness in other faith traditions and within their scriptures. So in a recent liturgy I prepared you will find this rubric after the heading The Proclamation:
Here follow some readings, taken from the Christian Scriptures, the Scriptures of other Faith Traditions, and from the writings that have given, and continue to give, insight, hope and inspiration to the human family. Our resources are limitless. It is usual for one reading to be taken from the Christian Gospels. Between the readings silence may be kept, music played, or a hymn or psalm sung.

2: Liturgical Changes

(a) Understanding the language of Liturgy metaphorically — using the family silver differently.

Let me explain what I mean. It took a little while of gentle teaching for people to begin to grapple with the idea that much of the language of Scripture and Liturgy was poetic and not literal. We are so used to thinking that what we read is to be understood literally and taken as a description of what actually happened, that we forget what a supple and powerful thing language is. So we talked about language and thought of examples that clarified what we meant.
As an example, some of my congregation were keen supporters of the Church Missionary Society, an evangelistic church group with a fairly conservative theological outlook. They were familiar with texts like, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me."[13] Taken literally this was a powerful incentive to support the work of evangelism and conversion! So I offered another way of hearing words like this. "My wife, Maureen, is the most beautiful woman in the world." Is that to be taken literally? How can we get all the wornen in the world together in one place to see if its true? More difficult still, how are we to agree a set of criteria by which the truth of that statement can be measured? It is soon apparent that it cannot be taken literally. In fact it tells us nothing at all about Maureen. What it does tell us is about how I feel about her. It is expressive language, not literal or descriptive. Once that distinction was grasped, we could begin to see how much of the language of the New Testament, and especially of the Liturgy and the Creed, is that sort of expressive language, telling us about the way its writers felt about Jesus and indicating the overwhelming influence he had had upon them, rather than telling us anything directly about Jesus. This was experienced as an enormous liberation by most of the congregation. It invited them to re-think what it was they actually believed rather than what they had been told to believe! A study of John Hick's splendid book The Metaphor of God Incarnate was an exciting experience then, and not a threat. Once we were freed from literalism and understood metaphor more clearly, it freed us also to continue to use many of the best-loved prayers and hymns with a new sense of honesty. They expressed our heart's devotion not our intellectual convictions.
Another analogy was also liberating. I once saw a magnificent and elaborate piece of Victorian silver, shaped like a nautilus shell. It had a hollow cavity that had been designed to be filled with boiling water, and the heat from this warmed the large silver serving spoons placed in the opening of the shell so that wlth warm serving spoons the food was kept hot! Well no one would dream of using it for that now. But it was 'family silver', part of this family's heritage and a valuable antique. Should one throw it out or melt it down because it no longer served the needs of today? This family decided instead to keep it, but find a new use for it. My hostess used it to hold a splendid flower arrangement in the middle of the dinner table. There it was in all its splendour, speaking of a bygone age of imperial opulence, and full of the memories of other special family meals down the years and generations, still loved and used, but now for a different purpose.
So, we mostly use the Creeds like that. They once expressed, in a powerlul way, the faith of our Christian forebears. They have been used as part of the Eucharistic Liturgy for centuries. They no longer do that for most of us. Should we throw them out, or, like the Episcopal Church in the USA, remove them to an appendix at the back of the Prayer Book called "Historical Documents of the Church"? I like the honesty of that our A New Zealand Prayer Book still puts them in the Liturgy, though with a rubric that says that the Creed "may be said or sung". It is not mandatory and we often (mostly? I'm not sure) don't use them because more and more of us find them uncomfortable to say. Some of the congregation still like to use them, however, and so when we use them I usually preface their recitation by saying something like, "Now let us stand and use the words of the Creed, to express our faith and trust in the goodness that underlies our lives and which will meet us in every new situation in this coming week." Increasingly we use a specially composed Affirmation of Faith, that sums up an experience or insight we have shared during the Service. Unlike a Creed this is not a carefully considered expression of doctrine, but much more a paean of praise, an outpouring from the heart.
So, for example, in the same Liturgy from which I quoted the rubric a few minutes ago, we used this Addirmation written by Dorothy McCrae-McMahon:
We experience the holiness of God
In wonder of creation
and endlessness of sky and sea:
In breathless beauty
and quiet bush;
in acts of coumg.
and silent heart
We are Christians
because in the face of Jesus Christ
we have seen the glory of God
in gifts of healing
and liberations of life;
in recognitions of love
and callings to serve;
in sufferings of others
and glimpses of grace.
We have often seen these too
in the faces of others.
So we live from God's Spirit
in moments of faith
in dreams beyond hoping
and in rhythms of new energy.
We name the God who is our centre.
We claim the goodness
that is ours in God.
We believe
in the community of faith,
which is born of our humanness,
is nurtured in sharing
and grows whole in our struggling
and celebration
as one people of God,
called to love the earth,
to live humbly in the web of relationship,
and to live In hope
as we walk on
into God's new day.[14]
Our experience has been that both conservative and radical members of our church family have been able to use this, and other similar Affirmations meaningfully.
This same Liturgy opens with an introduction that acknowledges the variety of places from which we come as we gather for worship, and that some, indeed, may not even be sure what the word 'God can mean today. After greeting the people informally and giving out any noflces, the Minister says:
Let us worship God. As I say these words, dear God,
I am aware that many of us struggle with how
we may think and speak of you, in a way that makes
sense, in our lives and our world,

As we struggle, we continue to address you ...
the ground of our being. ..the Spirit within...
yet we believe that somehow you give meaning to our lives -
we believe that if you are about anything
then somehow you are also everything.
And so you are in our unknowing and searching
and in our groping after truth.
You are in our aloneness and our vulnerability;
in our anger, envy and inner chaos,
and in our struggle to be free.
You are part of our impotence
and you are our empowering.
You are in the emptiness
and also the filling up.
You are at the roots of despair and brokenness
and also the way that leads to connection.

In mystery and grandeur
we see the face of God.
In earthiness and ordinary
we know the love of Christ

In heights and depths
and life and death
The Spirit of God is moving among us.
Let us praise God.
Despite all this, some of the most radical, like some of you here, may still feel with Roy W. Hoover, in his essay, "Incredible Creed, Credible Faith" in The Once and Future Church, that
"The various attempts to 'translate' this archaic speech by proposing that it should be read metaphorically or symbolically are only half-way measures even after all the arguments in support of such 'solutions' have been made. The residual literal meaning of the original literal language weighs down the 'symbolic' and 'metaphrical' interpretations and too often turns it into a form of religious mush. This lends itself to the perception that when such interpreters make a religious statement it is never quite clear whether they really mean it or not. The attractiveness of this 'solution' appears to be that you can live in a state of blessed ambiguity: you can believe almost anything you like and think that you are being thoroughly modern and thoroughly traditional at the same time, when actually you are neither"[16]

b) Changing language — the underlying images.

Another area we are trying to tackle is changing the language, the underlying images, mythic framework, we use. Arthur Dewey and Stephen Patterson in their contributions to the same book ask:
"How are we to understand the death of Jesus? Dewey argues that we should read the passion narrative non-realistically ... 'A non realistic reading reads Jesus death in a variety of ways, depending on the community in which the story is being interpreted.' ... 'Thus, in related ways Patterson and Dewey have opened up the delicate issue of why Jesus died'"[17]
John Spong has written that:
"The biblical tradition explained the humnan sense of alienation by defining human life as sinfil, fallen, unable to save itself and in need of rescue. Our liturgies are full of references to that definition ... The Jesus story was told against this understanding of human life. ... So according to the traditional explanation Jesus became God's final almost desperate act to reclaim the world from the power of evil. Again first century Jewish images shaped the explanation ... Around these themes the church organises its liturgical life. ... This became the content of the church's doctrine of the Atonement and thus the frame of reference upon which the power of the Christian church was built. The church was to be the place where the salvation affected (sic) by Jesus became available. Outside the church all human beings were still lost in their original sin. Since baptism and the Eucharist were the sacraments, said to be necessary to salvation, and since the only people who could validly perform these sacraments were the church's ordained priests, the church's grip on salvation was complete. 'There is no salvation outside the church' became the cry that was repeated in very generation as fragile people claimed they had the only, the infallible, the inerrant key to salvation."[18]
Their essays seems to me to open up great possibilities for Liturgy, enabling us to dispense with, for instance, the language and imagery of sacrifice, substitutionary language about the atonement and so on.
My first real attempt was to write a Sunday Eucharistic Liturgy that didn't use any of the sacrificial language normally associated with the Eucharist. I hoped it would be something with which we would all, conservative and radicals, feel more comfortable. I also tried to get as far away as possible from the sort of grovelling penitential language so characteristic of The Book of Common Prayer. I tried consciously to expel all the imagery which implies original sin, the fall, redemption etc., and replace it with an acknowledgment of our frailties, but always in a context that suggests hope, and renewal and offers another way of understanding the continuing significance of the Eucharist.
In the light of modern science, we know that there was no original sin and thus no need for divine rescue, no sacrifice of Jesus, no saving blood. The whole explanatory story collapses. It cannot be patched or revived. The primary Christian myth has become inoperative. So in one of our experimental liturgies those parts of the Liturgy which are reserved to the ordained minister in Anglican tradition, the Absolution and Consecration Prayer with the Words of Institudon, I re-wrote so that the whole congregation said these parts together. In the next Liturgy, having dropped all the sacrificial language, The Great Thanksgiving interpreted what we were doing with these words:
"So today we share bread and wine together
as a sign that we are one humanity,
as a pledge that we will work for justice,
as a foretaste of that which can be
despite what is and has been.
May the Spirit that guides us all
be present in this feast,
taking this bread and wine,
the concerns we have expressed,
the lives that we lead,
and transforming them all
for the unity of creation
and the service of love.

God, whose body is all creation,
may we come to know you in all the earth
and feel you in our blood.
So will no part of us, or the world,
be lost to your transforming grace.
And after the Invitation before Communion, "Come God's people, come to receive these sacred mysteries", I attempted to be as inclusive as possible and to recognise the diversity of places on the journey at which people are. It tries to affirm and recognise the validity of each person's spiritual journey, neither trying to force change or imply that any one approach is better than another. "Different not better" is our motto:
All who seek to love God, however they conceive the Divine Mystery, and who try to serve the world, are welcome to share this Holy Communion that links us to Holy Wisdom and to one another and to all creation.
After using this Service, in which the shape of our Eucharistic Liturgy remains unaltered, while the thinking and wording has changed, I received not one word of criticism — even from our most conservative members. The shape was still familiar and unthreatening and the words were unexpectedly comfortable too. Some of the more radical said that it was the first time in many years that they had worshipped and felt no sense of discomfort or unease, or the conscious need to re-translate. Now they want more and more radical change! And so far we have kept all aboard! This links to my next heading:

c). Experimental 5th Sunday Liturgies

We have kept this sort of Service for 5th Sundays — i.e. four or five times a year. The conservative are willing to take a risk if its not too often — and some are even beginning to ask for this sort of Service more often!. Radicals have been sensitive about the speed at which change can be introduced, and because they do not feel threatened or forced to change, the conservatives are discovering that new things can be good. We are offering other 'special' worship times, without disrupting the regular worship patterns of the regular congregation. These are an 'extra', rather than a substitute. They rely very little on words, but use extensive silence, music, both recorded and live, and space for symbolic actions like the lighting of candles, the offering of stones and other symbols, and reflective readings from a wide range of sources.

d). Using more images of God.

We have made the journey most of you will have made when feminists challenged the patriarchal nature of so much of our language. Their voices have not been strident in our congregation, but quietly persistent and almost unconsciously we have begun using more and different images for God. We still have a long way to go.
We have not, however tinkered with the language of well-loved hymns and prayers. Just as I feel it wrong to update Mozart and play him on synthesisers, or paint over Raphael's people to dress them in twenty-first century clothing, so I feel it is wrong to take the words of poets and change them. So we still use many of the old hymns unchanged, recognising that they reflect the time in which they were written. We use them because we love them and find they still speak to and for us. Some we have found we simply cannot use, and we have 'retired' them rather than 'adjusC them. Some we sing, acknowledging that we do so out of a sense of nostalgia and because of the memories they bring back, and the sense of connection they give us with our past and our roots. As that becomes more and more self-conscious, we find they gradually slip out of use too.
Alongside these 'golden oldies' we include a wide repertoire of modern hymns and songs. This is one of the areas in which we feel most in need. We are exceptionally fortunate that in New Zealand we have people like Shirley Murray and Colin Gibson writing hymns in language that is fresh and speaks to and for us. We sing from four Hymn Collections — Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised, for all the 'golden oldies' of our Anglican tradition, Hymns for Today, a supplement to AMR of 200 modern hymns, Alleluia Aotearoa and Faith Forever Singing, for modern new Zealand hymns. My guess is that we have a wider repertoire than most congregations.


The end of this slow, twenty year project is that we have a loving and accepting congregation. Members respect the different places at which others find themselves. The radicals do not try to make the conservatives change, and the conservatives do not cry "heresy" when the radicals introduce something new.
We have created a congregation in which quite a number of people who would otherwise have left the church now have a spiritual home, and to which others, who had left the institutional church have found somewhere they are still welcomed.
Yet others join us for however long or short a time is appropriate for them. People well beyond our parish boundaries are glad to find a place where they can engage in demanding and stimulating thinking about ideas which still matter deeply to them. They know they can say anything and ask any question without causing dismay or distress and where what they say will be listened to with respect. There are not many other places for people who want to engage with others in clarifying their beliefs and values as they confront the complexities of our rapidly changing world. In all of this, I believe we have something valuable to offer to our community, as we explore what it is to be human.
Once again it is John Spong who captures what I mean:
"I ... propose a God who is beyond such explaaations as theism but not beyond the experience of what is real, holy, other and eternal; a Christ who is beyond the explanations of incarnational thinking, but not beyond the experience of timeless divinity erupting in human life; a church not as the doorway to salvation but as the community created to deepen life and enhance humanity; liturgies designed not to pay homage or to flatter an external deity, but to increase our God consciousness, expand the boundaries of human community, and to break down the barriers that divide the human family. Prayer will no longer be adult letters to a Santa Claus God requesting what only an intervening power not bound by the laws of our world could accomplish, but a way to live into and share the God presence that surrounds us. Ethics will be not a code of conduct, dictated by a theistic God and written in a book or on tables of stone but will rather be grounded in the principle that since God is met as the source of lift, the source of love and the ground of being, any action which enhances life, increases love, and heightens being is both godlike and good. Any action which diminishes life, depresses love and shrinks being is evil. Finally I propose a view of eternal life, not as a place where goodness is rewarded and evil punished, but where eternity is a present reality that we enter in a process of living family, loving wastefully and being all that we can be and from that eternity, I maintain we can never depart."[20]
It may not seem much, but it is what we can do to retain, and live by, the lasting Christian values of the past in a very different world.


[1] Nicholas Rundle: Review of Doubts and Loves
[2] John Shelby Spong: The Once and Future Church: Polebridge Press, 2001, p68
[3] ibid p69
[4] Robert Funk: A Faith for the Future p13
[5] M. Scott Peck Further Along The Road Less Travelled, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1993
[6] ibid p121, emphasis mine
[7] ibid p123.
[8] ibid p123
[9] ibid pp125-126
[10] ibid pp 126-127
[11] Roy W Hoover: Incredible Creed, Credible Faith in supra note 2, pp95-98
[12] supra note 2: p9
[13] John 14:6
[14] Dorothy McCrae-McMahon: Echoes of our Journey — Liturgies of the People: The Joint Board of Christian Education, Melbourne, Australia, 1993.
[15] ibid
[16] supra note 2: pp90-91
[17] ibid p13
[18] ibid pp 75-77
[19] supra note 14
[20] supra note 2, p80



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