Friday, January 02, 2015

Moving from Advent to Christmas

In the lead up to Christmas Alison and I helped produce an Advent series for our church: 'Waiting for the King'. This is taken from something I wrote for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, on  the transition from Advent to Christmas. It's largely built upon some work I did for college in 2014 on the theology and practice of gratitude

How do we move from Advent to Christmas? Advent interrogates the desires of our hearts in light of the coming of Christ; Christmas celebrates his first coming – God with us. If Advent is the preparation, then Christmas is the feast. It’s the celebration of God coming into his world to liberate it from the darkness and brokenness that holds it enthralled, to set us free along with it from death and our own sin.

This aspect of Christmas can easily be lost amidst the stuffed stockings and Christmas ham. But it may surprise you that the solution lies not in stripping these things back from our festivities. The gospel’s solution is to receive these good things with thanksgiving. Every good part of creation – even the toys and the food – is to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4.1-5). It’s gratitude which prevents a mindless consumption at Christmas, and instead allows us to view the presents and the meals as good gifts of our generous father, as an echo of his extravagant generosity towards us in giving us his Son that first Christmas.

So as we move from Advent to Christmas, will you celebrate with gratitude and thankfulness in your heart?

One of the most extraordinary thanksgiving prayers ever written is found in the Anglican prayer book. It’s a prayer which connects our ordinary life with our salvation in Christ Jesus. It’s printed below, and you may like to use this Christmas to give expression to your heart’s delight in all of God’s gifts to us.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving kindness to us and to all men; we bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace; and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us that due sense of all your mercies, that our hearts may be truly thankful and that we may declare your praise not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, now and forever. Amen.
Photo: Ben Garrett 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Societas 2014

Since 1919, the students of Moore Theological College have published an annual magazine: Societas. I've been involved with the team that produces the magazine of the last two years, and the 2014 edition was launched last Friday. It contains articles from the students, along profiles of the college's students and faculty which I've found very useful in praying for the college.

Described as "a highlight of the diocesan calendar", Societas can be viewed online. Hard copies can also be obtained by contacting the college: 02 9577 9999 or email

Monday, September 29, 2014

Our Humble and Hearty Thanks

"There is something about gratitude that is so fundamentally different to grumbling." 
Back in February I wrote a piece that prescribed thankfulness as an antidote to grumbling, and speculated that the authors of the Book of Common Prayer had noticed the same dynamic. Well, it seems that the good folk at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation are also aware of this dynamic, as David Powlison - editor of the excellent Journal of Biblical Counseling - describes in this video:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parish Family Tree

Long term readers of hebel will know of a slow, on going project to map the parishes of the Sydney Diocese.

View Sydney Diocese Parish Boundaries in a larger map

Partly this comes out of an appreciation of the Anglican parochial missiology. But it also comes from the present inaccessibility of parish maps. Well, related to this project has been an interest in the history of the formation of parishes in Sydney. Thanks largely to pre-existing family trees at St Philip's Church Hill and St Peter's St Peters, I've begun to compile a family tree of Sydney Anglican parishes. You might like to check it out below (click to expand):

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

From Sinner to Singer

Jesus said that it is not what goes into a person that makes them unclean, but what comes out of their heart. Out of the abundance of the heart come all kinds of sin: evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. This failure of heart, what Christian theologians have described as concupiscence or our tendency to sin, is described by the Apostle Paul in a tight little passage as the consequence of false worship.

Despite the beauty and delight of the world around us, we refused to respond to our Creator with a due sense of thankful or praise (Romans 1:21). Instead, we turned to from the Creator to the creation, worshipping it in his place, desiring the things he had made rather than our maker (Romans 1:23, 25). Through idolatry, our hearts became just as darkened and our thinking futile as the things we worshipped.

Paul is probably picking up on the idea prevalent in the Old Testament that we become what we worship. This is seen in Isaiah; the prophet is commissioned to preach to his idolatrous generation with the result that they deaf, blind, and dull hearted (Isaiah 6:9-10) – just like the idols they worship (Isaiah 42:8, 17-25)! Hence why one of things the Servant of the Lord brings is the restoration of sight to the blind.

Likewise, the Apostle John can describe our hearts in this manner. John can urge his readers to guard against idolatry (1 John 5:21; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:7, 14) because he knows that our concupiscence lies in our love of things in God’s good world (1 John 2:15-17). The problem lies not out there; it lies in mangled love or over-desires: ‘the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, pride in possessions’.  It is not hard to imagine as Andrew Cameron does that this is John’s commentary on that moment in the garden when sin was let loose on the world: (cf. Genesis 3:6) good for food’ [desire of flesh]; ‘pleasing to the eye’ [desire of eyes]; ‘desirable for wisdom’ [pride].[1] What John describes is our thankless, obsessive, destructive misappropriation of the Creator’s creation. Our love for the wrong things has bent us out of shape.

It was his reflection on these verses that led St Augustine to describe our propensity to sin as disordered love. Human beings are liturgical creatures – we are made to worship something. In our refusal to thank and glorify God, our hearts have turned to find something else to worship.
These are thy gifts; they are good, for thou in thy goodness has made them. Nothing in them is from us, save for sin when, neglectful of order, we fix our love on the creature, instead of on thee, the Creator.  (City of God, XV.22)
What is needed is for our misdirected hearts to be reordered, for our hearts remain restless until they come to rest in that for which they were made.

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)
Millennia later, the former Augustinian monk Martin Luther diagnosed the human condition in a similar way. According the Luther, our life and worship is incurvatus in se, turned in on ourselves.

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake. (Lectures on Romans)
In like manner, John Calvin wrote in his Christian Institutes that “the human heart is an idol factory” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I 11.8). Our hearts and minds are perpetually industrious in imagining new things to love and worship. This long tradition of equating sin with idolatry was neatly summarised a few years ago by moral theologian Oliver O’Donovan:

 [I]t is possible, notwithstanding the truth that we love and know only the good, also in a sense to love evil. We love evil by resting in the pattern of loves and dreads that comes immediately to us, treating our dreads as though they were equally real with the goods we love. ... This is perfectly expressed in the traditional Christian doctrine of original sin, described memorably by Martin Luther as an incurvatus in se, a self-enclosure. In sin we divide the good world God has made into two “worlds”, one good and the other evil, and we make our own contingent perspectives the criterion for the division. And this gives a new, negative sense to the term “world”, which we have hitherto spoken of positively as God’s creation. This negative sense is characteristic of the New Testament, and points to the reality a constructed world, a world of our own imagination, pitched over against the created world and in opposition to it.[2]
The great human tragedy is that despite being the divinely commissioned image-bearers in the world, we turned from reflecting that image to the creation and love of other images. We exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped idols of our fashioning. Out of the abundance of the heart comes all kind of impurities, and our hearts had grown ruinous. Yet whilst the human heart spewed forth impurity, the Jesus Christ – the very image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15) – came forth to heal our hearts. His work is summarised by Hebrews 1:3 as such:

He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…
Hebrews goes on to say that this purification came through Jesus’ own blood (9:14). He has put away sin once and for all (9:26), enabling those purified by him to serve the living God. The end result as pictured in Hebrews 13 is a life issuing forth as a sacrifice of praise. Those purified by Jesus the great high priest are enabled to live a life of worship to God. Along the same lines Paul encourages the mind set on the Spirit to be transformed, as the body worships God (Romans 12:1):

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
This is the antithesis of the perverted worship of Romans 1. Whereas in Romans 1 humans were dishonoured in their bodies, worshipping and serving creatures, disapproving of God which issued in a depraved mind, in Romans 12 Christians are instructed to present their bodies in the service and worship of God, which leads to the renewing of their minds, that they may approve God’s will. The achievement of Christ is to turn God’s enemies into those who are by the Spirit conformed to the image of God’s Son. We are set free from sin to respond to God by grace. In other words, we are turned from sinners into singers. We do not live under slavery to sin. The prayer of conversion is, with John Donne, that God would “Come | And recreate me now grown ruinous.”   We are made fit to worship the true and living God. Far from being hostile towards and unable to please God, I am someone who lives for the praise of God’s glory. Rather than being incurvatus in se, I live (in another of Luther’s phrases) coram Deo; that is, before God, before his face, and in his presence.

This is not to deny the presence of sin in Christians, what Don Carson describes as “shocking, inexcusable, forbidden, appalling, out of line with what we are as Christians.” But to be a Christian is to have one’s darkened heart renewed by the Spirit, so that the abundance of this heart, by God’s grace, produces fruit. Having been purified by our high priest, we are transformed from idol makers to glory reflectors, from incurvatus in se to coram Deo, from sinners to singers.

We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:6)
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. (Hebrews 13:15)

[1] Andrew Cameron, Joined-up life: A Christian account of how ethics works (Nottingham: IVP, 2011), 52-53.
[2] Oliver O’Donovan, New College Lectures 2007: Lecture 2 ‘Admiring’.

Friday, August 15, 2014

For Christ’s sake, stop calling me a sinner

Language is important. The language we deploy shapes our imagination of how we perceive the world and ourselves. Christians, committed as we are to an ontological and moral realism in creation, have a peculiar interest in the way we use language. We hope that our language reflects the order God has created, preserved, redeemed, and will one day prefect, all for the sake of his Son. This is a humble project; the finiteness of our creaturely minds, and the disordering of our hearts, makes us dependent upon revelation to be to understand the world. The way Christians speak of themselves and the world around them is contingent upon God’s revelation to us in Christ Jesus, the one through whom and for whom all things were made. It is the particular work of the Holy Spirit to renew our minds, thereby freeing us to attend to and participate in this moral order.

One contemporary linguistic glitch in the Christian world today is the way in which Christian’s are described as “saints and sinners”, or using the term coined by German reformer Martin Luther, simul iustus et peccator. This phrase seeks to capture the ongoing presence of sin in a believer’s life, alongside the reality that in Christ they are cleansed and renewed. It gives account of one’s experience besides gospel truth. 

It is curious to note though the absence of the term “sinner” in Paul’s description of Christians. Whilst “saint” is used throughout the Pauline corpus to describe Christians, including six of Paul’s introductions (Romans 1.7; 1 Corinthians 1.2; 2 Corinthians 1.1; Ephesians 1.1; Philippians 1.1; Colossians 1.2), the term “sinner” is nowhere used to describe those who belong to Jesus.  This is not to deny the ongoing presence of sin in a believer’s life. The task of sanctification and perfection is ongoing. Sin may mar our lives, but we are charged with presenting our bodies in worship for the renewing of our minds, the re-ordering of our heart as St Augustine would put it. We who live according to the Spirit no longer live according to flesh; we are to walk in the light, and not the darkness. What is most true of us is not sin, because it has no mastery over us. Despite the presence of sin in my life, I am not sinner, but a saint who trusts that the same God who justified me will bring that work to completion in my sanctification. The gospel shows me that I am much more broken and stained by sin then you could ever imagine;. Yet his grace has appeared; God has adopted me as his child, declaring me to be a saint of the Most High.

It seems then that the description of saints as sinners is a category error. Archbishop Glenn Davies comments that:

“Clearly the Bible affirms the presence of sin in the life of the believer will continue until their death, but this is not to be equated with the term ‘sinner’. […] To use the term ‘sinner’ is to fly in the face of the whole teaching of the Bible, that those who belong to God’s people are ‘the righteous’ and not ‘the wicked’.”
The Apostle Peter, following the lead of Psalm 1.5, uses this dichotomy of wicked/sinner against the righteous in his first letter:

‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?’ (1 Peter 4.18)
Biblically and theologically, we are dealing with two diametrically opposed categories: saints and sinners. Those in Christ, and those outside of him. To be a sinner, is to be, as Luther described it, self-enclosed – incurvatus in se. But conversion and repentance is the beginning of a reordering of our love. Apprehending Christ’s work of salvation done to me and for me, we cease being curved in upon ourselves, as we are sanctified in him. Clearly then, Christians can only belong to one of these theologically laden categories.

If language matters, then the practice of describing believers as “sinners” is dangerous. We are allowing our experience to drive our theology. The reality is that through our union with Christ, we are ontologically and theologically speaking freed from slavery to sin. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described it, “I am all at once what Christ is, ' since he was what I am”. If anyone does sin, our advocate in heaven is able to cleanse us, and the perfecting work of the Spirit continues to redirect our desires towards Christ. I take that the part played by regular confession in corporate worship inducts into this dynamic of sanctification and grace; us we hear the call to repent, make confession of our sins, and assured of our forgiveness, we respond with praise and thanksgiving to our God and his Son who freed us and cleansed us by his blood. When we call one another “sinner”, we fly in the face of this glorious gospel truth: that Jesus, the friend of sinners, died my death, securing my adoption by our heavenly Father. We are saints of the Most High. For Christ's sake, will you stop calling me a sinner?

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Why Liturgy?

Alison and I recently put together a Lenten supplement to our work last year during Advent. What follows here is the introduction I wrote for the resource, briefly outlining the place of worship in formation. You can view the rest of the resource here.

One way of approaching Christian anthropology is to say that humans are lovers. We are what is known as Homo Liturgicus; liturgical animals, who can‘t not worship. That before you say anything else about humans, whether it be as rational beings or believers, you must say that we are lovers. The centre of gravity of a human person is not the brain but the kardia – the heart. Although there is deep and complex relationship between our heart, mind, will, affections, and body, we are, when it comes down to it, made to love and be loved. 

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
                                                                                    (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”
                                                                                    (Matthew 22:36-39)
"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."
                                                                                    (Augustine of Hippo)
It follows then that one of the major changes wrought on humans by the entry of sin, evil and death into God’s good world was on our heart. We become people who loved the wrong things. We love the creation rather than the creator. We make good things ultimate things, instead of receiving them as gifts of a kind and gracious Father. And instead of cherishing something for the thing itself, we use and abuse them, as we look to them to give something they weren’t created to provide. Our desires are disordered.

The work of the Holy Spirit amongst who have been united to Christ and justified by grace through faith is to reorder our desires so that we love in the right way. This is the work of sanctification, grounded in our justification that changes our hearts to love in a right way. One of the ways this happens is through worship – as we apprehend the generosity of our heavenly Father and the work of his Son, our affections change. As we hear the gospel again, we apprehend the beauty and majesty of Christ, and so worship him. And this happens with our bodies. You and I are embodied beings. We inhabit a body. As we stand, sit, or knell, as we sing, pray, or declare, as we partake in the sacraments, we worship with our bodies. And what we do with our bodies has the power to shape and drive who or what we love. That is to say the practices in which you habitually engage have such power to shape what you ultimately love. Our heart’s desires are shaped and moulded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate daily and weekly.

Worship plays a transformative role in our growth towards Christ likeness. And liturgies – the practices that we habitually partake in – when they are charged by God’s word and his Spirit, they reorder our hearts and minds to desire God and his kingdom. It expels the disordered loves that have occupied our heart, and brings forth a new affection. Worship forms who we love. And we are what we love.*

* James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom.

Thursday, February 06, 2014


"I am troubled, Sir," said I, "because that unhappy creature doesn't seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn't wicked: she's only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and one feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would put her all right."

"That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler."

"I should have thought there was no doubt about that!"

"Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman-even the least trace of one-still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there's one wee spark under all those ashes, we'll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there's nothing but ashes we'll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up."

"But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?"

"The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye'll have had experiences . . . it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.
    – C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
It has been suggested that our habits serve as a fulcrum to direct our love.* That is to say the practices in which you habitually engage have such power to shape what you ultimately love. Our heart’s desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate daily and weekly. If that is true, there is then perhaps no other habit more destructive than grumbling. The Bible consistently warns against it. Repeatedly throughout their time in the wilderness Israel are reported to have grumbled against the Lord: the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your grumbling against the LORD. – Exodus 16:7
“How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me." – Number 14:27
And reflecting on those years in the wild, Paul writes:

We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. – 1 Corinthians 10:9-10
It was Jesus’ own assessment of those who rejected or doubted him during his ministry (John 6:43). It is presented as an opposite habit of Christlike humility in Philippians 2 (cf. v.2), whilst Peter contrasts it with genuine love and service, which are to be free of grumbling in the way Christians show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:8-9). And the Apostle James, who has much to say about the power of the tongue (James 3:1 ff.), cautions against grumbling in these last days:

Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. – James 5:9
Whilst the normative Christian practice is one of patience and waiting, grumbling kills our steadfastness. Instead of feeding and strengthening our hearts as James encourages Christians to do, grumbling poisons our desires, our love, our heart. Instead of waiting it leads to impatience and hastiness. Instead of building one another up in love, grumbling turns us against one another. It kills our endurance, leading to the double minded instability James warns his readers against. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the cultivation of the habit of grumbling leads to an expectation that things can never change. Grumbling kills our hope, leading to malice, bitterness, and cynicism. It is a serious soul killer, as C.S. Lewis vividly portrayed in his description of the woman who has so habitualized grumbling that she herself has been reduced to a grumble.

What then is the balm to grumbling? Thankfully, there are what James K.A. Smith describes as habits, virtues and practices that are so charged with the gospel of God that they feed our hearts and direct our love more and more towards God, his church and his world. Thanksgiving seems to play an important role in producing endurance without double-minded grumbling (cf. James 1:2-8). The cultivation of receiving gifts with thanksgiving from God’s generous hands is a counter habit to grumbling. I suspect actually that this is why the Anglican divines incorporated so much thanksgiving into the Church of England liturgy. The practice of kneeling side by side with your brothers and sisters as you thank the “Father of all mercies” with the “…most humble and heart thanks for all they goodness and loving kindness to us and to all men [sic]” forms a humility and patience. After thanking God for the bounty of creation and all the blessings of this life, you thank him for his “inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ”. And as you pray this prayer of thanksgiving, you hear again the gospel and God’s extravagant generosity towards you; and this melts your heart, so that you worship anew the Lord who is compassionate and merciful (James 5:11).

There are of course many other habits and practices that can be employed against grumbling. But thanksgiving is foundational to producing the patience and endurance during good times and bad that firstly continues to hope for the coming of the Lord, and secondly serves others with love and imagination until the end comes, and all things will be made new.

* See Practice Makes Perfect? Exploring the Relationship between Knowledge, Desire, and Habit, Michael R. Emlet, JBC 27:1 (2013), 26-48; Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies), James K.A Smith, Baker Academic 2009.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Advent Project

Christmas is only two weeks away!

Things have been relatively quiet here at hebel, but I have been kept busy in the wider blogosphere. Alison and I have been working on The Advent Project, a labour of love that we have been planning and writing since 2012. Now we are in Advent and our blog has been live for a couple of weeks. There is (if I may say so myself) a great collection of music, poetry, quotes, art, DIY ideas and book reviews to help reflect on the Advent season, which reminds us that our celebration of the first coming of Christ is an anticipation of his second coming. Please have a look, and I hope you find something interesting and edifying.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Parish Matters

Geography and Creation
At heart, the decline of the parish system is a neo-Platonic view of the world that has shadowed Christianity for two millennia. The modernist project of reducing humans to their mind and reason jettisoned Christianity’s anthropological conviction that we are embodied creatures, leaving in its wake a church with nothing to say about the emotions, about beauty, and about place. This is part of what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as the excarnation; a disembodied Christianity that seperated the "physical" from the "spiritual".

Admittedly there are mitigating circumstances for this development. The transitions of cities from the original space you could move around by foot to suburbia, not only allowed for the sprawl of mountains beyond mountains of suburbs with no end in sight, but also gave people for the first time freedom to chose where they work, live and play. At the same time as the 20th century saw the construction of countless miles of freeways, customary geographical loyalties began to breakdown. No more were you bound to buy bread from the shop around the corner. No more were you bound to play sport for the team of your local area, let alone support them. I grew up supporting the Balmain Tigers in Rugby League, without ever living within traditional Tiger territory.
Churches adjusted to this commuter consumption, competing against each other to have the better preaching, the better children’s ministry, the better whatever itch I want scratched. And in the process they frequently severed the connections with the local community, drawing upon an ever expanding area to draw members from. One consequence of this was the emergence of homogenous congregations based around age, culture, or occupation. 

The result was that at a time in Western history when the church was becoming increasingly marginalised from society, individual churches sat in an uneasy relationship with their local community. And whether intentionally or unintentionally, what this mode of church communicated was a disinterest in space, in place, in locality. As if life in the Christian community and mission could be conducted without any reference to these three things. It exhibits a staggeringly unreflective attitude towards matter, having more to do with a disembodied dualism that one would struggle to find in Scripture: the Christian is focused upon the God who is named as the maker of all things, the same God who took on flesh and blood, becoming incarnate when his creation was placed in bondage. This same God triumphed over his enemies that had sought to oppress and destroy his good creation, rising from the grave and sending his church out into all the world, making disciples of all gentiles. And the Christian hope is firmly fixed on the day when God will come and dwell amongst his people and creation is set free from sin, death and evil once and for all. Thus New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham can describe the Christian narrative as driven towards the universal realization of God's kingdom in all creation.
“God identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Israel and Jesus in order to be the God of all people and the Lord of all things. Moreover, in the narrative world of the Bible the people of God is also given its identity in this movement from the particular to the universal, an identity whose God-given dynamic we commonly sum up in the word 'mission'. God, God's people and God's world are related to each other primarily in a narrative that mediates constantly the particular and the universal."
The often heard objection to the parish system is that locality is irrelevant. The argument is made that in today’s mobile and transaction world, people are more closely tied to social and professional networks beyond their local neighbourhood. However this is a highly contested assertion amongst sociologists and demographers; researchers have found that in contemporary western societies social networks are still significantly embedded in local places.[1] Geography is a massively important feature of people's experience of life (cf. Bauckham). The local neighbourhood remains a central space for community. 

The Parish and Creation
Stanley Hauerwas has recently stated that “The parish is the ecclesial form that has tied the church to place.” The assumption behind the parish system was the belief that “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’” Working from this assumption, the whole world was organised into dioceses and parishes. The purpose behind this was not territorialism or factionalism; that was be a disaster. Christ's victory includes a victory of the principalities and powers, the elementary forces of the world that divide and enthral humans. The parish system was neither about dividing up the world for the sake of drawing boundaries on a map. The intent of the parish system was that in every part of the world, there would be a church responsible for proclaiming the gospel in that area and ministering to local the community – the cure of souls as it was once described. 

There have many problems with the parish system over the years. This has been particularly true when (the sometimes arbitrary) lines on a map are treated as sacrosanct for all time, like the law of the Medes. But even then, this problem is symptomatic of the failure of churches to trust one another and work together. Nevertheless, the parish system was a design intended to point the church outwards to the world. It has stood as a reminder that churches do not exist for themselves, but are a part of God’s mission to bring all things under the lordship of Christ. It is a design that reminds us that salvation is for all people; that, at least in the Anglican context in which I come from, we are not attempting to reach only the rich, the poor, the cool, the young, the old, the professional, the tradie, the culturally homogenous etc. The diversity of any particular parish church would reflect the diversity of the church universal, and in doing so reflect the unity of both the universal and local church that confesses on Lord and one God. Reflecting on the Sydney Diocese's Connect09 campaign, Andrew Nixon had this to say:
"I know the parish system (or more accurately parochialism) presents many difficulties for our diocese. Whenever you form people into tribes and draw lines on maps you just know that sin will be crouching at the door. Yes, there are problems. But I pray that we can address and overcome them together...What is wonderful about the parish structure is that it is suited to local mission; it covers everyone. It says that together, we will take responsibility for every soul in our area, every square inch of our city. Even the hard places."
Surprisingly, the word parish has its origins in Koine Greek. The word as we have it today is first attested to in the thirteenth century, derived from medieval French paroisse, which in turn from Latin, paroecia. But there is good evidence that parish was first introduced into England during the late 600’s by eighth Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore of Tarsus. Theodore referred to Anglo-Saxon towns as paroikia, a term which comes directly from the Septuagint and the New Testament (πάροικος – adjective; Acts 7:6, 29; Ephesians 2:19; 1 Peter 2:11. παροικία – noun; Acts 13:17; 1 Peter 1:17). In the New Testament πάροικος and παροικία are both used by the Apostle Peter to describe the identity of Christians. They are aliens and strangers to those they live alongside, living as exiles in the world. This transient nature of Christian living feels as far removed from the sense to parish as you could get. Yet πάροικος carries with it a sense of permanence about it too. It is the word used in Acts to describe Israel's 400 year stay in sojourn in Egypt before entering the promised land. Likewise Peter’s description is not of temporary aliens; the Christians he writes too are long-term sojourners in a foreign land. That is how the term was used in early Christian literature, such as 1 Clement: 
“From the παροικοσα of the Church of God at Rome, to the παροικούσῃ of the Church of God as Corinth…”
The early Christians saw themselves as colonies (that is the word used for παροικοσα in the Stamforth translation) of heaven, living in the world in anticipation of the new creation. 

In fact, this is at the heart of classic Anglican missiology. Although unmentioned by the Articles of Religion and The Ordinal, and generally assumed by the Book of Common Prayer, the parish system remains the Anglican missiology – seeking to serve all people. This is part of Paul Barnett’s “Ten Elements of Historic Anglicanism, namely that "‘historic Anglicanism’ affirms both creation and society. It is concerned with the common good, for the ‘welfare of the city,’ to use Jeremiah’s words.” The parish system grounds the church’s mission in the creation that is groaning, awaiting the unveiling of the children of God. It stands as a reminder that churches do not exist for themselves, but are a part of God’s mission to bring all things under the lordship of Christ.

[1] cf. Oldenburg (1999), The great good place: cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of the community. On this point I am indebted to conversations with Alison Moffitt.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Naming Culture

Having just finished a very stimulating series of Annual Moore College lectures from Dr Bill Salier on the κόσμος, I though I'd share some of what I've been reading in James Davison Hunter's To Change the World. Hunter offers eleven propositions on culture that prove useful in defining this slippery term. Firstly are seven propositions on culture:
1 Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations.  But these truth claims and moral obligations “are embedded within narratives that often have overlapping themes and within various myths that often reinforce common ideals.”

2 Culture is a product of history.  Any given culture “takes form as the slow accretions of meaning in society over long periods of time.”

3 Culture is intrinsically dialectical.  On the one hand, this dialectic is played out in between ideas and institutions.  “One must view culture, then, not only as a normative order reflected in well-established symbols, but also as the organization of human activity surrounding the production, distribution, manipulation, and administration of those symbols.” On the other hand, this dialectic is played out between individuals and institutions.   

4 Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power.  This resource “is not neutral in relation to power but a form of power.”

5 Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of ‘center’ and ‘periphery’.  

6 Culture is generated within networks, not the ‘great persons’ view of history. The “key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks.”

7 Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent.  Culture “is mixed together in the most complex ways imaginable with all other institutions, not least of which in our own day are the market economy and the state.” Moreover, culture is composed of innumerable fields.
Hunter rounds this proposition off with four propositions on cultural change:
8 Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up. "...the deepest and most enduring forms of cultural change nearly always occurs from the 'top down'. In other words, the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide direction and management within spheres of social life. Even where the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites."

9 Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside of the center-most positions of prestige. Following proposition five, "when change is initiated in the center, then it typically comes from outside the centers nucleus. Wherever innovation begins, it comes as a challenge to the dominant ideas and moral systems defined by the elites who posses the highest levels of symbolic capital."

10 World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap. "The impetus, energy, and direction for world-making and world-changing are greatest where various froms of cultural, social and economic and often political resources overlap."

11 Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight. The work of institutions and elites is to legitimize and legitimize different understandings of the world. "Every field of culture and thus, culture itself represents terrain in which boundaries are contested and in which ideals, interests, and power struggle." 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Body of Liturgy III

Humans are embodied creatures, who cannot be reduced to their mind, soul, or even belief. We are heart, soul, mind and strength. Following a Biblically informed anthropology, liturgy is able to minister to the whole-person by encouraging whole-bodied love for God. That is the argument of theological anthropologist James K.A. Smith; Christian liturgy is designed to minister to the whole person. Within corporate worship, liturgy deepens our imagination for the Kingdom: reading and teaching the word, prayer, confession and assurance, welcoming and hospitality, sending out, the ecclesiastical calendar and singing. Indeed, the call to worship in song follows the call of the Psalms to fulfill our vocation as humans who worship their creator (Psalm 95:6-7). Even in the sacraments, we are given a tangible enactments of the gospel, depicting God’s grace towards us in Jesus Christ.[1] Through touch and taste and sight, their rhythms remind us that we live by faith, remembering the past in anticipation of the future: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Christian liturgy is formative because it is charged by the word and the Spirit in embodying the gospel.[2]
Christian liturgy invites us to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). The liturgical habits of corporate worship, and the flow-on affect they have in the daily liturgies of the week, offer practices which are “dense” and charged with formative power through the Spirit. As Cranmer noted, these liturgies encourage “the most perfect and godly living”.[3] Insomuch as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is re-enacted through these habits, our hearts are also directed towards loving God and desiring his kingdom. The habits of corporate-worship are a guard against alternative secular-liturgies that also seek to from our hearts and desires.

[1] The same is true of Israel’s festivals outlined in Deuteronomy 16. See David Peterson, Encountering God Together: Biblical Patterns for Ministry and Worship (Nottingham: IVP, 2013), 63-66.

[2] Cf. James K. A. Smith, ‘Sanctification for Ordinary Life’, Reformed Worship 103 (March 2012), 20.

[3] Thomas Cranmer, ‘Of Ceremonies: Why Some be Abolished, and Some Retained’ in The Book of Common Prayer 1662 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), xii.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Body of Liturgy II

Whilst scripture generally discourages the practice of consulting the advice of demons (1 Timothy 4:1), we may allow an exception in this instance: 

“At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.” - C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 16.
The truth that Screwtape refers to is that humans are fully embodied creatures (Genesis 2:7). We are not merely cognitive beings; humans are whole-persons composed of mind, body, soul, desires, emotions, etc. The anthropology that emerges in the Bible is that humans are an intended part within the good creation, made in the image of God and for communion with God (Genesis 1:26-31).[1] Our purpose is liturgical in the sense that we live for the praise of God.[2] The antithesis of this reality is humanities failure to worship God, described by Paul a refusal to glorify or thank God (Romans 1:21).

Humans cannot be reduced to their soul, mind or worldview because we are liturgical beings. “To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are.”[3] The question then is: ‘What do we love?’ If Smith’s is correct in assessing that there are a whole range of secular liturgies nurturing people’s love and their imagination of human identity, then we are loving and being shaped by things that lead us to deny God the glory and thanksgiving that is his due. Keller articulates this as whatever captures our desires and imagination also captures our heart, becoming an idol.[4] However, Smith’s suggestion is that whilst liturgies can confirm our idolatry, they can also be used to nurture our attachment to the Kingdom of God and our love for Jesus. Not only can our love be aimed away from God, it can be aimed towards God.[5] The particularly Christian approach to this has been through liturgy, or worship. Liturgy is so effective in forming the whole-person – head, heart and hands – because of its bodily practices. Kneeling, standing, singing, head bowing, clapping, tasting bread and wine, all these embodied actions stoke the imagination for the Kingdom of God.

“Worship forms us and aims us because its concrete, material practices catch hold of our imagination. This is why worship is more like art than science, more like literature than logic. Worship is fundamentally aesthetic.”[6]
The necessity of liturgy was recognized by Broughton Knox, who wrote that without it congregations are reduced to an audience.[7] But if these liturgies are to have any effect, they must not be artificial or spectacle, otherwise they fail to be liturgical. All liturgies are not just symbolic and ritualistic; they are enacted stories that are (1) repeated and (2) participatory. Christian liturgy re-enacts the gospel, bringing body and mind together.[8]

[1]Kevin Vanhoozer, ‘Human Being, Individual and Social’ in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (ed. Colin E. Gunton; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 164.

[2] Vanhoozer, ‘Human Being, Individual and Social’, 166-167.

[3] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 51.

[4] Timothy J. Keller, ‘Talking About Idolatry in a Postmodern Age’. n.p. [cited 29 May 2013]. Online:

[5] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 54-59.

[6] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 144.

[7] D. Broughton Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’ in D. Broughton Knox Selected Works: Volume II - Church and Ministry (ed. Kirsten Birkett; Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2003), 82-83.

[8] Cf. Timothy J. Keller, ‘Reformed Worship in the Global City’, in Worship by the Book (ed. D. A. Carson; Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2002), 214-217.