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.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Resurrecting the Gospel - Redux

Back in 2009 I wrote an article for the magazine Salt, a publication of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES).

AFES have republished my article, which you can find here.

Body of Liturgy

For sometime now there has been a Hauerwas' quote floating around the internet about the value of liturgy. It goes like this: 
"One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend." — Stanley Hauerwas, The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, p.89.
I first came across this quote seven years ago, and at the thought it was overstatement and hyperbole. But recently, thanks to James K.A. Smith and the Journal of Biblical Counseling, I think I now understand how it could be true. What we do with our bodies matters. As embodied beings, our habits and practices are training our hearts and our minds in particular ways.Smith defines liturgy as the habit-forming practices that shape and mould our love and desires:

“Liturgies—whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world.” James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 25.
This is a broader definition of what liturgy is, which usually describes what happens in corporate worship. These include the customary patterns of church, but also include the habits of daily life, including sitting in front of the television for three hours each evening, or visiting the shopping mall. Smith defines liturgies as the habitual practices which have power to shape what one ultimately loves. Inasmuch as liturgies are the embodiment of our desires, they are pedagogical stories told by – and told upon – our bodies, thereby embedding themselves in our imagination, becoming part of the background that determines how we perceive the world. Our habits train our desires, and nurture our love towards something. For example, one does not wake up and suddenly decide to ignore one’s family; it is an attitude that has been formed by years of tardiness and missing family meals.

Habitual actions matter in our sanctifcation, whether  seemingly  mundane  (brushing  your  teeth),  or  seemingly  unproblematic (going to the mall), or presumably serious (participating in worship). “Our heart’s desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate daily and weekly."