Evangelicals and Liturgy

Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral

Last week, whilst in Salisbury, I attended choral evensong at the cathedral. Such a service is not traditionally where I would be found; as a Bible-believing, evangelical Anglican I place great importance on the faithful teaching of the Word. Consequently, I usually attend services that would generally be described as somewhat ‘lower’, with more emphasis on funkier worship songs, and a lengthy, expository sermon.

Over the last few years, however, as I have got older, I have found myself drawn more and more to traditional, liturgy-heavy services. Whilst at the service in Salisbury, I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to sit in silence, let the music and spoken word flow over me, and reflect on the words of the liturgy. The whole experience was both refreshing and spiritually uplifting.

In the light of this, I was interested to read this post (from July 2013) on TheChristianPundit.org which suggests that, in America at least, many young Christians are leaving ‘low Protestant’ churches and moving over to Catholic or high Protestant churches. The writer suggests that this might be because the experience seems dated, perhaps associated with their parents. She also quotes Andrea Palpant Dilley who says that liturgy reminds her that she is “part of an institution much larger and older than myself.”

One paragraph is worth quoting in full:

The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them. The world can give them hotter jeans, better coffee, bands, speakers, and book clubs than a congregation can. What it can’t give them is theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. What the kids leaving generic evangelicalism seem to want is something the world can never give them–a holy Father who demands reverence, a Saviour who requires careful worship, and a Spirit who must be obeyed. They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.

I happened to write a piece for Crossring yesterday (published today) on Matthew 5:13, a verse during the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus states:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

In my reflection, I stated:

Jesus warns his followers of the importance of maintaining their distinctiveness. Christians must not seek to conform to the world or to limit their Christian-ness around their friends and colleagues. We must be wary of ‘making Christianity more relevant’ to the world of today.

Now, I’m not for one minute suggesting that ‘generic evangelicalism’ is in any way an example of the Church losing its saltiness – my own faith has been bolstered, and indeed continues to be bolstered – through the ministries of many evangelical churches – but I think such churches do need from time to time to reappraise their strategy. Perhaps by conforming too much to the prevalent culture of the day – singing led by big, guitar based bands, lattes after the service, and a dress down culture in which anything goes – churches might be losing some of their distinctiveness. Perhaps, by stepping away from the liturgical tradition of the Church, which stretches back hundreds of years, as well as from the sense of shared experience across the generations, the Church may in fact be taking people away from the opportunity to meet with Christ in commune with other Christians.

I’ll give the final word to my good friend, Phill, who mentioned in a comment on Facebook:

I wonder if liturgical services invite participation and reflection, whereas ‘generic evangelical’ churches tend to have a service more as performance?

What does Easter mean to you?

ishtarToday it is Easter Sunday. I wonder what that means to you? For many millions of people Easter is about chocolate, about bunnies and the Asda Chick (you’re better off with Asda). But actually, you’re not better off with the Asda Chick at all. You’re better off with the Christian message of hope that Easter brings.

The myth of Ishtar

This year there has been an attempt to undermine the Christian festival of Easter with a Facebook meme. You’ve probably seen this posted to the Facebook profiles of some of your friends. As is so often the case, however, there is very little truth in this particular meme. Easter, we are told, “was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. This is a somewhat dodgy assertion, since the name ‘Easter’ has no connection at all with Ishtar, other than sounding vaguely similar. The name Easter (which is peculiar to the English language) probably comes from ‘Eostre’,who was apparently an Anglo Saxon goddess. I say apparently because there is almost no evidence at all to support this idea. The only reference we have to Eostre is to be found in the writing of the English monk Bede, who writing in the eighth century, commented that during Eosturmonap (the month of April), pagan Anglo Saxons had held feasts in Eostre’s honour, but that this tradition had been replaced by a Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

So it is not a certainty that anyone, Pagan or otherwise, believed in Eostre. It is therefore not the case that a pagan celebration was “changed to represent Easter.” The only connection between the possible pagan festivities and the Christian festival is the timing. It just so happened that in England Christians celebrated Christ’s death and resurrection in a month that retained a pagan name. (Much like, for example, July is named after Julius Caesar, but that doesn’t mean that we celebrate the successes of the legendary Roman during this month).

Constantine and Easter

Constantine is also referred to in this Facebook meme. Apparently after “he decided to Christianise the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus.” This is just plain wrong. Firstly it is unlikely that Constantine, would have known much about Eosturmonap (despite the rather dodgy belief of some that he was born in England), since the name of the month in which the English celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus was not used widely beyond these shores. Constantine would probably have known the Christian festival by the name Latin name, Pascha. It is also unlikely that he would have had any knowledge of the possible Anglo Saxon goddess Eostre from which the name of the month derives. The idea, therefore, that Constantine sought to change a pagan festival “to represent Jesus” has little truth. What is true is that at the Council of Nicaea, which he summoned in 325, two rules were laid down regarding Easter. The first established the date of the Christian festival independently of the Jewish calendar, which had previously been used by Christians to set the date. The second tried to establish worldwide uniformity of the date, so that Christians all celebrated the date on the same year. These were certainly not about “changing Easter to represent Jesus.”

The roots of Easter

Apparently, at its roots, Easter “is all about celebrating fertility and sex.” Now if that’s how you want to celebrate Easter, be my guest. Don’t think for one minute, though, that you are continuing some ancient tradition. The roots of the Easter festival of today (which perhaps be would be better off referring to by the Latin, Pascha, to avoid confusion), lie in a deserted garden in Jerusalem. In this garden there was a tomb. Jesus, having been crucified and killed on Good Friday was buried in this tomb. Three days later, some of Jesus’ female followers visited the tomb to embalm his body, only to discover that it was not there. In their shock, an angel appeared to the women and told them “do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”

Jesus, having died, rose again, smashing through death and defeating it. Death could not hold him in the ground. Death was not the end. Death was only the beginning. In the same way, for those who follow Jesus, death is not the end but the beginning. Just as Jesus was raised to life by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will raise to new life all of Jesus’ followers after their bodily deaths.

This is the true root of Easter, that thanks to Jesus death cannot hold us. We do not need to fear death because Christ has defeated it for us.

And today, you’re not better off with Asda. You’re better off with Jesus.

Introducing my new book, “The Shepherd God”

christ-the-redeemer-statue-rio-de-janeiroI am pleased to introduce my latest book, The Shepherd God: Finding Peace, Worth and Purpose in a Busy World. The product of four years of hard work, prayer and reflection, this book is an extended reflection on Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd.”

I began writing this book after experiencing God whilst walking in the rain on Reigate Hill. For several months I had been suffering from acute depression but one day I was brought to my knees by the words of the Beth and Matt Redman song, “You Never Let Go.” This powerful song led me to open my Bible at Psalm 23. God spoke to me through the words of that incredible Psalm and reassured me that he was with me and that he would remain with me through all the highs and lows of my life. Sitting in the rain on Reigate Hill I began what would amount to several months of careful and continued reading of and reflection on the words of the Psalmist as I sought to make sense of the words of an ancient shepherd and tried to apply them to my own life.

What I uncovered was a wealth of Biblical advice and guidance that pointed me firmly towards Jesus as the embodiment of the shepherd that David describes in his Psalm. As I picked David’s words apart and prayed over them I realised more than ever before that if we want peace to be restored in our lives, if we wish to have a sense of worth, and if we want to uncover the purpose of our existence we need to turn to Christ and join with David, the shepherd, in saying, “The Lord is My Shepherd.”

“The Shepherd God,” my third book, is radically different to my previous writing projects but I believe that it is the most important. I am excited to finally bring this book to the book-buying public and hope that you will be just as challenged by the words of this seemingly irrelevant shepherd as I was.
In the book I work carefully through the Psalm, using a wealth of scriptural quotes to uncover the true meaning of David’s words and to uncover the application of this ancient text in the twenty-first century. Each chapter concludes with a number of questions and a suggested prayer, making this book suitable for both personal reflection and for group study.

“The Shepherd God” is due for publication soon, and will be available both as an ebook and a paperback. Check back soon for more details or follow me on Twitter to be kept fully informed.