A friend of mine who heads up a very fruitful and busy ministry has just finished a sabbatical, his first for twenty years. In his latest letter to supporters he reveals that two of his priorities for this time were rest and prayer – doing them, and also reflecting on them with the help of books. This chimes with similar themes emphasized by Andrew Murray, the late 19th century missionary, writer and teacher on spirituality whose works I’m dipping into at the moment. Murray explores two commands of Jesus: “Come to me” (Matthew 11:28) and “Abide in me” (John 15:4). The invitation to approach Jesus in faith continues with the promise of rest for the soul. The simple instruction to remain connected to the Vine, the life-source, carries with it the promise of fruitfulness. Another little book with a similar two point summary of the faith is “Bookends of the Christian Life” by Bridges and Bevington, in which they focus on the grace of God found at the cross of Christ as ‘holding up’ the start of the Christian life; the power of the Holy Spirit for transformed living as being the other ‘bookend’.
So the life of discipleship is oscillating between rest in God, and fruitful action in the world; both undergirded by active, unhurried, worshipful, compassionate, sometimes agonized prayer. It constantly moves between the two poles of wonder at the sacrifice of Christ dealing with my sin and winning my forgiveness, and engaging sacrificially with others, enabled by the indwelling divine living presence. There is an enormous richness in teaching over the centuries, in different church traditions, on Christ-centred prayer, and on maintaining these two poles, sometimes paradoxical, of inward and outward life, rest and yoke, of abiding and being productive, of atonement and empowerment. Yes there might be imbalance in the teaching of different groups, just as each of us because of our personalities tend to prefer contemplation or activism. But that doesn’t mean we are at liberty to reject clear teachings of Scripture or go searching outside the Christian tradition when Jesus commands us to come to him.
But sadly this is exactly what Rowan Williams advocates in a recent interview.
The whole article is about Williams’ morning spiritual disciplines – what evangelicals might call his “quiet time”. He begins encouragingly by talking about the ‘Jesus Prayer’ (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”) – one would think that this could be a great opportunity to explain its meaning to the secular readers who clearly are interested in this detail of the personal life of a celebrity. But the phrase does not prompt reflection, in order to worship or pray to the living Christ – it is simply repeated as a mantra, as part of a Buddhist-inspired technique of focusing on one’s body living and breathing in the moment. The former Archbishop does not give any indication at the end of the interview that God might really exist out there, a divine person separate from us, calling on us to repent and come to him in Christ. Rather “God ‘happens’: a life lived in you, and the uncomfortable meditative technique is apparently a way in which anyone who puts in the work can become aware of this “inner light”.
Is Rowan Williams embarrassed about embracing and articulating fully the Christian story and the wonderful resources that Christ offers his followers by grace? Does he feel that Jesus is not enough, and the insights and practices of others faiths are needed to get closer to God, to feel loved, to have strength to face the day and help others? Or perhaps he believes that in synthesizing aspects of different religions, he is modelling inclusivity and helping to promote community cohesion between the different faith groups in Britain? This is suggested by his recent appearance as a speaker at the Living Islam Festival at the Lincolnshire showground. But again, is modern Britishness best achieved by a synthesis of Christian, secular, Islamic and Buddhist – and if so, how, given the radically different worldviews of these four faiths?
Christianity is in retreat, yet secularism and Islam are becoming more confident in demanding the hegemony of their values. Many orthodox Christian leaders are responding by self-ghettoisation: increasingly arguing that faith is a private matter and that Gospel values, the ethics which flow out of taking on the yoke of Christ and being fruitful in him and on which the best “British values” are based, are only applicable to the converted. We continue to thank God for groups like Christian Institute and Christian Concern who have resisted this route. Liberal thinkers such as Rowan Williams want to engage in the public square, but seem to do so with embarrassment about the apparent former dominance of Christianity: the result is the articulation of a more “generous and inclusive” faith which synthesizes, merges with and ultimately submits to other worldviews rather than confronting, challenging and transforming them.
No-one can be a better example of this than American author and speaker Brian Maclaren, who shared the podium with Archbishop Williams at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, and whose ‘emerging [or ‘emergent’] church’ movement is now seen to have reached its 25th birthday. Maclaren has always claimed to follow Christ and the Bible, but wants to reinterpret Christian faith for new generations. As a recent interview illustrates, Maclaren holds that “theological conservatism”, in other words believing that the Bible is true, is the problem – it is “inhospitable…modern…colonial”. It represents a desire to maintain the status quo, to merely continue a dry and often unloving tradition (for example, on issues of sexuality), instead of “making a new road by walking it”. Like Rowan Williams, Maclaren is unable to proclaim Jesus as the true Vine, the one to whom all should come to find rest for our souls – instead he talks about religions all having good and bad points, and meeting round “a table of respect”.
I have been closely involved with at least one church and seen how the influence of Brian Maclaren and his ilk on the leadership has led to a gradual abandonment of confidence in Scripture and commitment to evangelism, where social concern is rightly emphasized but personal ethics are neglected or even derided. Rest for the soul is promised, often accompanied by charismatic-style worship, but taking on the yoke of Christ, submitting to his Lordship in all areas of life, is not adequately explained. The result has been “church lite”, little or no growth, and no increase in members’ well-being and sense of purpose.
Thankfully there are many churches which have not followed the teachings of Williams and Maclaren; churches whose leaders are personally centred in Christ, with regular rest in him, whose vision for individual, church and nation flows out of a biblical understanding of cross and Spirit, and whose fruitfulness comes from connection to the source of resurrection life. What we need is for the corporate wisdom of such churches not to be confined to congregations and conferences of the faithful, but also to be brought to bear again on the culture, to support the good and publicly oppose what is wrong even when it might be unpopular. Such witness does not have to be from a position of power and influence. In fact it may have more power if it comes unplanned and unbidden, through visibly suffering as a minority. Could this be part of the yoke that we are called to bear?
The Rev. Andrew Symes is Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream (UK).