Easter Saturday: Not St George's Day

St George slaying the dragon, by Gustave MoreauAs I wrote at the time, St Patrick’s Day was moved from 17th March 2008 because Easter was so early that year. This year, because Easter is so late, it is St George’s Day which has fallen foul of the rule that Holy Week takes precedence over regular saints’ days. So, as 23rd April falls this year on Easter Saturday, we English are not supposed to celebrate our national, if perhaps mythical, saint on his regular day.

The Church Times confirms that the Church of England, and not just the Roman Catholic Church, is officially observing this rule – while also noting that most people are ignoring the date change. Apparently St George’s Day has officially been postponed to Monday 2nd May.

This seems an odd choice of date except that it is a bank holiday, here in the UK. If this was the reason for changing to 2nd May, perhaps a better choice would have been Friday 29th April, to coincide with the royal wedding day, also a bank holiday. That way we English would only need to break out the bunting and patriotic flags once.

Thanks to Archdruid Eileen for the tip. This is apparently not one of the Easter myths that she is debunking.

Enjoying Christian music is not worship

Sam NortonChurch of England rector Sam Norton writes:

it is possible to appreciate religious music (or art or whatever) in such a way as to gain some benefit from it, even spiritual benefit – but this is not the same as worship. I think I would want to describe the difference as being between a consumer of religiously flavoured produce and being engaged in a conversation with something other than our own desires and perspectives. It is the latter that counts as worship, not the former.

Indeed. Perhaps this is the real story behind the controversy last year when Sam “sacked” his choirmaster, which reached the Daily Mail.

It is easy for someone like me to say Amen! to sentiments like this when directed at traditional church music, which is probably what was called “a substitute” for religion by the non-Christian professor Sam quoted. This is surely the kind of music which Sam’s old choir loved to sing, so different from Sam’s preferred Leonard Cohen.

But the same point also needs to be made about modern Christian music. It is easy to attract young people with no church background to Christian concerts and even “worship” services if the style of music and the atmosphere are right – and if enough money has been spent on high-tech audio-visual equipment to give an apparently authentic rock concert or disco experience. But listening to or singing along with such music is in itself no more worship than is listening to or singing along with classical oratorios.

So what should the church do?

First, I would say, it needs to provide an appropriate style of music for its congregation, or for the one it wants to attract. That, I suspect, was the problem Sam had: the music that his 100-strong congregation liked was not appreciated by the rest of his parish’s population of 7000. I’m not sure if they preferred Leonard Cohen! My own current church, Oasis Warrington, is seeking to reach unchurched young people, and so it offers a service with a rock concert atmosphere, and music from Hillsong and Abundant Life. That works in getting a good number of the 200,000 people of Warrington through its doors, but would probably not go down well in Sam’s village.

However, the important part starts once the people are inside the building, and have stayed through the opening musical selection. This is when the message needs to be put across that religion or being a Christian is not just about enjoying the music. That can be done in many ways – even by firing a director of music who has lost the right perspective. But it is probably communicated most clearly in the preaching of the gospel message, without compromise on its content although its form needs to be adapted to the congregation.

Anyone who visits Oasis Warrington to enjoy the music, and perhaps hoping to be moved in a vaguely religious way, will before the end of the meeting be challenged to something quite different, to giving their whole life to Jesus Christ in true sacrificial worship. The same should be true, whatever the style of music, at every church.

Why is Easter so late this year?

A Roman Period tomb with a rolling stoneEarly in 2008 I asked Why is Easter so early this year? That year Easter fell on 23rd March, one day later than the earliest possible date according to the current calendar. This year, 2011, it is more than a month later, on 24th April, one day earlier than the latest possible date. It will not fall on that latest date until 2038, and the previous time was 1943. So this may be the latest Easter in my lifetime.

The basic reason for the late Easter is that its date is tied to the phases of the moon. As I wrote in 2008, the dates each year, as recognised by the western churches,

are determined by complex calculations which go back to the 6th century: Easter is the Sunday after the first full moon on or after 21st March, supposed to be the day of the spring equinox.

This year the relevant full moon dates are Saturday 19th March and Monday 18th April. The former was before the spring equinox, so the Easter full moon is on 18th April – and the Easter celebrations have to wait nearly a full week until the following Sunday.

This late Easter is again causing difficulties with school holidays, at least here in the UK. Here in Warrington the holidays are finishing this weekend, and then children are back at school for less than a week before their four day Easter break. But a friend living here who is a teacher in a nearby borough only starts her school holidays today, because that area has chosen to tie its holidays to Easter. That would be very difficult for her if she had children at school in Warrington.

Another undesirable side effect of this late Easter, again in the UK, is that it falls only one week before the May Day bank holiday weekend. This year the situation is made even worse by the extra royal wedding bank holiday on 29th April. This leaves only three working days between two four day breaks. It is hardly surprising that some companies, e.g. Toyota, have taken the opportunity to close down for those three days and take a break for nearly two weeks. That is not a good way to stimulate our struggling economy.

Meanwhile Ekklesia reports that Work continues for a common date for Easter:

The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches has urged Christians to give this year’s celebration of Easter a clear ecumenical profile and to work for a common date of Easter for the future, noting that this year it falls on the same day 24 April for both eastern and western traditions.

“In a world divided by poverty and violence, it is important that we are one in our witness to the crucified and risen Christ in actions as well as in words,” said the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit.

As is clear from another Ekklesia article, it seems that the problem is with getting agreement from the Orthodox churches. In principle, it seems, they are happy to move to a common date, although they would prefer a moveable date to a fixed one. But in the politically and religiously volatile environment of eastern Europe it is difficult to get these churches to come to a formal agreement on anything.

We can only hope and pray that eventually churches will agree on a common date which makes sense for everyone – and enjoy our break at the end of this month.

Physics can say nothing about the end of religion

The BBC has a provocative link on its website “Physics predicts end of religion”. I think even they have realised how stupid that claim is, for the article at the end of the link seems to have been renamed, less controversially, Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says. Well, at least the BBC is accurate there: that claim is being made, in a study “reported at the American Physical Society meeting”.

In all of the nine nations in the study:

Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland

the main religion is Christianity. So the claim is essentially that the church will become extinct in these nations. And most of these nations are similar enough to the UK that any results could probably be extrapolated here – although probably not to the USA where the religious scene is very different.

So what can these physicists possibly have to say about religion? Have they discovered some fundamental particle which makes people religious, and which is decaying? No, nothing like that. As far as I can see, all they are doing is analysing the statistics showing a decline in religion, and tying them in with some theory, or speculation, about the “utility” of being a member of a social group.

Now it seems to me that here the physicists are dabbling in social science, outside their proper field of study. They may indeed have a better statistical model to offer, based on “nonlinear dynamics”, than the often flawed ones used by social scientists to make long term predictions – see my 2008 post Lies, damned lies and church attendance statistics, and the following discussion. But they can hardly claim to be experts on the central issue of their study,

the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

Indeed they seem to have completely missed the point here by presupposing that people call themselves religious because of “social motives”. Their study

posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.

Now this may be true of social clubs. It may also be true of minority language groups, as was suggested in a previous study which may be of interest to my minority language Bible translator friends. It may also have some validity for the kind of traditional churchgoing for social reasons which is indeed in steep decline, but not yet extinct, here in the UK. But it seems to me to miss the point completely concerning true biblical Christianity, which is in fact now growing here, to the extent that overall, as I reported in 2009, UK churchgoing is no longer in decline.

Although I was once a physicist, I make no claim to be a social scientist. But I have studied enough sociology to see a fatal weakness in the physicists’ argument. There are indeed social groups which people join because of their “social status or utility”, but there are others which they join because they are committed to a particular cause, which may be political, or perhaps semi-political like the environmental movement, or may be religious. The social dynamics of such groups are quite different from what the physicists seem to have modelled. Admittedly such groups tend to be small minorities; they can grow much larger but as they do they tend to change their character. But they can be large enough, and active enough, to be by no means “extinct”. Since the physicists seem not to have taken into account religious groups which follow this dynamic, their predictions are fundamentally flawed.

Anyway, sociological explanation is only part of the story. The physicists have left God out of the picture. But God is at work in his church, and we can be confident that he will not let it become extinct. Religion as a social club may indeed die. I would not be sorry to see this, although sad that it might mean the end of any Christian witness in some neighbourhoods and villages. But the true people of God, brought together not for “utility” but because they are committed to the cause of Jesus Christ, will continue to grow in strength and in numbers.

New Testament Scandals: Female church leaders

I just received by e-mail a link to an article by David Instone-Brewer, of Tyndale House in Cambridge, entitled New Testament Scandals: Female church leaders. This is part of a new “e-newsletter” from Christianity magazine. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I linked last year to Instone-Brewer’s teaching on divorce and remarriage – his site on this subject is now working.

Instone-Brewer gives interesting insights on the position of women in the early church. Here is a sample:

The guilty secret of the early Church was that it did rely to some extent on female leaders. In public women had to keep quiet, literally. Paul allowed them to attend teaching sessions (which would be frowned on by Jews and Romans) but he didn’t allow them to join in the discussion (1 Corinthians 14 vs34-35). Timothy was warned not to let women teach because, like Eve, they weren’t sufficiently educated (1 Timothy 2 vs12-14). But quietly, in the background, some women got on with leadership roles in spite of these restrictions.

Now I’m not sure that I agree with his understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; after all, elsewhere in the same letter Paul explicitly permits women to speak out loud in Christian gatherings. But he is surely right in interpreting 1 Timothy 2:12-14 in the light of the situation of women at that time.

It is interesting to see how he deals with the biblical material on women apparently in leadership positions in the church. Concerning how the names Junia and Nympha were changed to Junias and Nymphas, he writes:

Why did later scribes make these laughable attempts to hide the female leaders in the early church? Because it was a shameful – but true. The truth is confirmed by two other early documents. The heroine in a 2nd Century novel ‘Paul and Thecla’ is told to ‘Go and teach the word of the Lord’. Although this is a novel, the author assumed his audience would regard this as normal. He elaborated at length how Thecla was saved from execution by burning and by wild animals (which he expected his audience to be awed at) but he merely mentioned in passing that she became a Christian teacher, because he didn’t expect his readers to be surprised by this. The normality of female church leaders is confirmed in Pliny’s report about Christians in 112 AD. His report was for the emperor, so he collected information from the highest available source – he arrested two local church ministers and tortured them. The fact that he tortured them means they were slaves, and his word for ‘ministers’ is ‘ministrae’ – ie female. So two female slaves led the church in that area!

Instone-Brewer concludes with:

The whole world has now caught up with Paul’s teaching that all humans, however different, are equal. This teaching enabled the early church to do what it didn’t want to admit in public – it allowed some women to work quietly as leaders and teachers. It is therefore ironic that the few modern institutions that don’t follow this early church practice are mainly churches.


The last bastion of complementarianism collapses!

I was astonished this morning. At my church the last bastion of complementarianism, of separate roles for men and women has collapsed. No, we haven’t appointed a woman pastor yet – although we probably have a 50/50 chance of getting one next time round. It’s something far more radical, perhaps even unique. We have appointed a MAN to be in charge of the flowers in church!

I’m sure my friend James, who grows flowers as a hobby, will do an excellent job.

You Cannot Pastor for God and Mammon

Essex vicars Sam Norton and Tim Goodbody have both posted about the difficulties of their tasks as Church of England incumbents. Sam memorably compares his job with piloting a plane and trying, not always successfully, to avoid crashing it. Tim, apparently facing similar issues, writes of the stresses of balancing “great new ideas” for the work of a parish with the preferences of “the elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been.”

Tim also speaks of this as “the paradox of collaborative ministry”. But I disagree. I tried to disagree with a comment on his post, but Tim quite reasonably responded

Sorry mate, I reserve the right to be the only one who rants here; if you want to rant feel free to do so at GW

I wonder, would he have allowed Jesus to comment on his blog? Certainly not along the lines of Matthew 23! But I am taking his advice and responding here at Gentle Wisdom, and in more depth than in my rejected comment. Judge for yourselves whether this is balanced or a “rant”.

This is how it seems to me, from the limited details which they give and from my own experience of life in various Anglican churches: the problem which Sam and Tim have, and which probably nearly every Church of England incumbent (i.e. pastor in charge of a church) has, is that they are trying to reconcile the wishes of those who genuinely want to serve God with the wishes of people who do not. The latter are people who, while claiming to serve the true God, are in fact serving other gods like mammon (materialism), their families, their culture and traditions, or their personal comfort. For example, it is clear that Tim’s “elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been” are not serving the God who makes it his business to make all things new.

Now this is not a peculiarly Anglican problem. Many other church congregations are mixed multitudes of the same kind. But it is perhaps especially serious in the established Church of England because of its parish system and its claim to represent in some way all the people of England. These make it all the harder for a vicar to suggest that a difficult congregation member find a different church where they might be more at home.

Of course I realise that it is not possible to divide congregations neatly into those who serve God and those who put other gods first. Any attempt to do this is bound to fail, not least because many people are genuinely torn between two different allegiances. Indeed we all need to examine ourselves to check that we are not slipping in this way.

Nevertheless there must be something wrong when an incumbent gets to the position that Tim is in, in which he has to reject “great new ideas” “because he knew he would get it in the neck from the elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been.” Of course not every great new idea is from God. But if Tim is finding himself rejecting ideas which are from God to avoid criticism from people who quite clearly do not have in mind the things of God, then I would want to suggest that he has abandoned serving God for serving the gods of his congregation members. This is not at all to single Tim out, for his point is that this is what the Church of England system more or less forces incumbents like himself to do.

To put it bluntly, what is happening here is that the servants of mammon and of other idols are being given a veto over the work of God in his church. This cannot be! As Jesus said, it is impossible to serve both God and mammon, and that applies also when that service is directed through their worshippers. So every pastor, in the Church of England and elsewhere, needs to decide which they will serve, the true God or the idols of their congregation members. If they try to serve both, not only will God’s work be thwarted, but also a plane crash is inevitable.

Yes, of course a pastor needs to show love and be pastorally sensitive towards those difficult or unbelieving congregation members. But that is quite a different matter from allowing them to control the church. Jesus was pastorally sensitive to individual Pharisees like Nicodemus and Simon, but he didn’t bend an inch to their model of religious practice.

So I call on Tim, Sam and all others in similar positions to take a stand for the “great new ideas” which they really believe are from God, and ignore the protestations of the “keep the church the same as it has always been” brigade. Or if they are unable to do so because those people have a majority in the PCC or whatever, or because those in higher authority, bishops etc, intervene, then they should accept that their position is untenable and resign. Perhaps they will be forced to conclude that the Church of England is not the place for them if they are not to compromise their position.

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
“I will live with them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be my people.”
17 Therefore,
“Come out from them
and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
18 And,
“I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
7:1 Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.

2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 (TNIV)

P.S. In case any of you wonder why despite this I remain an Anglican, I will point you to this post. I wrote it nearly two years ago, but I stand by most of it now. The main change since then is that there is now a greater chance of me moving on from my current congregation in the rather near future.

Essex vicar: "worship is useless"

I don’t always agree with blogging Essex vicar Sam Norton. Indeed only a few days ago I expressed my strong disagreement with one of his posts. But in his current series Some thoughts on Worship I have found many sentiments that I can accept, along with some that I cannot but have certainly made me think. While being puzzled by his insistence on worship being “sacramental”, I agree with his concern that some charismatic (e.g. “New Wine”) worship is not explicitly Christian and not grounded in the Scriptures, and with his reasoning:

not least on grounds of spiritual warfare.

Sam’s latest post in this series, subtitled “worship is useless”, is especially interesting. Here he first expresses then expounds this rule:

Sam’s first rule of worship: worship is useless, and as soon as worship is used for something else, it ceases to be worship.

Indeed. If we make our worship a tool for doing something else, whether mission, performance or political activity, it ceases to be true worship of God. Indeed, although Sam misses this point, the same is true if we make worship a tool for teaching, whether through hymns packed with doctrine rather than adoration or through a sermon about practical Christian living. Sam is right that in worship our focus must always be on God.

But I think where I would differ from Sam is in something I infer from his words, that all of what the church does together, at least on a Sunday, should be worship in this sense. Now there is rightly also a sense in which everything that Christians do together is or should be worship. But that is a different, broader sense of the word. The church should be doing useful things, like mission and social action. It should also be teaching its members about doctrine and the practicalities of Christian life. These things, at least on Sam’s definition, are not worship, and should not be the focus of worship services. But it would be quite wrong to use this as an argument that the church should not be doing these things.

Nevertheless Sam’s point is right, and aligns well with the material I linked to yesterday from Frank Viola. The church needs to be focusing first of all on God and on Jesus Christ, and this should be the core of its worship. Then, in Frank’s words,

it no longer chases Christian “things” or “its.”

But these “things” or “its”, in so far as they are good and right, should flow out of this worship, into teaching, mission and practical service to the world.

Christian doctrine can make one mean

Frank Viola has posted on Deep Ecclesiology, taken from the Afterword of his book From Eternity to Here. I found in it this interesting passage, from which I have emphasised a very quotable quote:

After I got off the eschatology bandwagon, I was introduced to something called “Christian theology” and “Christian doctrine.” I was taught that the most important thing that God wants for His people is that they know and embrace “sound doctrine.” So I rigorously studied the Scriptures, along with the views of Calvin, Arminius, Luther, and many contemporary theologians and scholars. …

But during that season, I made another discovery. Namely, that Christian doctrine can make a person downright mean. I observed that the men who were the most schooled in Christian doctrine and the most concerned about “sound theology” did not resemble Jesus Christ at all in their behavior. Instead, they seemed to center their lives on making the unimportant critical.

The spirit of the Lamb was altogether missing. They were harsh personalities who appeared to almost hate those with whom they disagreed. Granted, there is a doctrine in the New Testament. But majoring on Christian doctrine and theology can turn Christians into in­quisitors. The words of Thomas Aquinas are fitting: “Lord, in my zeal for love of truth, let me not forget the truth about love.”

This is only one of several areas of today’s Christian life about which Frank expresses his concern. Others include “Revivalist Theology”, “The Power of God”, and eschatology. Frank describes his personal journey through all of “things” until he realised that

We do not need things. We need Jesus Christ. … Jesus Christ is the embodiment of all Divine things.


Frank then goes on to apply this to his vision of the church. Read it. Almost at the end he sums up his message:

When a church is centered on the ultimacy of Christ, it no longer chases Christian “things” or “its.” Knowing Christ, exploring Him, encountering Him, honoring Him, and loving Him becomes the church’s governing pursuit.

Manifold ministry

Christian leadership is a contentious issue. Not long ago I was having to defend the very concept by posting that Jesus does speak about Christian leaders. Then yesterday the issue came up again as I asked Who is Catholic, but not Roman? – because for many people one of the defining characteristics of the Catholic or universal Church is a particular threefold model of ministry: bishops, priests and deacons. This is claimed to be a biblical model, but others, especially in newer churches, teach a fivefold model of church leadership taken from Ephesians 4:11: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

The threefold model certainly has the benefit of great antiquity. Indeed its proponents would date it back to the New Testament period. But it is somewhat ironic that the Greek words for these three orders of ministry are in fact all very ordinary words whose meanings are not at all technical: episkopos “overseer”, presbuteros “elder” and diakonos “servant”. Originally they referred to the kinds of roles which people would naturally have taken in gatherings within that society. It is only in church tradition that these three Greek words have been transliterated and distorted into technical terms in English for orders of ministry: “bishop”, “priest” (or “presbyter”) and “deacon”.

There is indeed biblical teaching about these three orders. The qualifications for overseers (KJV “bishops”) are outlined in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9. The role of elders in the church is described in 1 Timothy 5:17 and Titus 1:5-6, among other places. And the requirements for servants (KJV “deacons”) are given in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. From this biblical teaching the three orders developed. But most exegetes today understand the biblical teaching to refer to only two distinct orders of ministry, overseers and servants (bishops and deacons), as apparently in the church in Philippi (Philippians 1:1). The term “elder” may have been synonymous with “overseer”, or may have referred generically to overseers and servants.

It is anyway very hard to argue from the Bible that having these three distinct orders of ministry is an essential characteristic of the true church. Nevertheless it is traditional, and at least to avoid unnecessary divisiveness it is good that the Church of England follows it – although the office of deacon is currently a rather nominal one: almost the only deacons are men and women in effect serving a probationary year before ordination as priests.

So then, how should this threefold model be compared with the fivefold model relatively recently reintroduced into some churches on the basis of Ephesians 4:11? One of the extras in the fivefold model is the recognition that even in the church today there are those who fulfil the roles of apostle (although not of course on the level of the original Twelve) and of prophet.

In practice this new ministry of apostle corresponds to some modern ideas about bishops: they are leaders in the church at a higher level than the local congregation and with a broader perspective. But there has been a tendency in the church to expect every priest working with a local congregation to fulfil within it the tasks of prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. There has been no real recognition in the church that these are four different ministries requiring different giftings, best exercised by different people. This has led to ineffectiveness and burnout, as priests, or those with the title “pastor”, attempt to fulfil ministries for which they are not gifted – and frustration among the “laity” who know they could do a better job than their pastor in some areas of his ministry, but are not given the opportunity because they have not been formally trained and recognised.

The sheer variety of biblical descriptions of leadership and ministry in the church, with no one model clearly repeated in more than one place, should caution us all against trying to set up any one model as the correct one and the mark of the true church. As Christians we are good stewards of the manifold grace of God (1 Peter 4:10 KJV). We should not try to squeeze this grace into the constraints of a threefold or a fivefold model, but instead allow it to be expressed in manifold ministry, each believer serving the Lord not according to a predefined job description but as he calls each one individually.