Rev Dave Tomlinson, an Anglican vicar, and writer of The Post Evangelical is in NZ with World Vision speaking to his book "Re enchanting the Church". I was fortunate enough to take our staff team to listen, process and reflect on our own ministry context.
Tomlinson is a fascinating individual with a very interesting story - including significant periods in the Brethren, Pentecostal and house church movements and playing a part in some of the early alternative worship initiatives in the UK - "Holy Joes". He is now an Anglican priest, which I think amuses him as much as this former lawyer is amused by his own transition from atheist lawyer to pastor!
His thesis is simply this: orthodoxy has traditionally been the subject of conversation, argument and progressive revelation. He cites not surprisingly the formation of the biblical canon over many years (including Luther's attempts to get rid of James and Revelation) and the establishment of the creeds out of periods of debate and conjecture. Thus his central tenet that orthodoxy is not orthodox if it is prescribed and pre packaged. In fact he sees the pre packaged brand of orthodoxy as a distortion. In contrast he advocates for a brand of orthodoxy which he describes as “progressive orthodoxy”, an orthodoxy that is:
• Fed and nurtured by its rootedness in past events
• Shaped and energised by a dynamic interaction with the world
He defines this orthodoxy within his own tradition as an ongoing conversation between scripture, reason, tradition and experience. How very Wesleyan of him although I suspect he might a little beyond Wesley's orthodoxy! All very interesting, but nothing earth-shatteringly fresh and he didn't pause to tease out some of his more developed and controversial views beyond laying this brief foundation.
What WAS interesting was the subsequent practical stuff on connecting church to community. This was what I had come to engage. Tomlinson is convinced that contemporary western culture is more spiritual than it has ever been, and that it is not difficult to connect with this spirituality as a Christian, but that the taste of the age is not for the pre packaged version of "tick the boxes" faith with which some brands of Christianity are identified.
What I took from this was that the journey towards faith is something we need to work hard to create room for in our churches while remaining unfailingly receptive and encouraging of people actually coming to faith on whatever timetable God has in place for them. Some nuggets I will spend some time thinking on:
> The community of the church as "umbrella" - the possibility of multiple activities occurring within the broader influence of the church without these necessarily being simply funnels to the main event of Sunday worship
> The recapturing of the parish model in terms of gaining traction as a "church for the community" in more than just name - this requires some very particular activity by the pastor in particular it would seem
> Creating space for spiritual seekers to explore spirituality as part of the richest tradition of Christian spirituality
> Work on the balance between extrinsic and intrinsic faith ie from belief-based to spiritual journey (note I am glossing this as a balance rather than as a movement to an extreme)
> Work out paradigms for engagement of the "spiritual atheist" - Tomlinson contends that humanistic atheism is basically dead but that there are spiritually minded atheists who need help approaching what they see as an arid, suffocating view of God within Christianity - need to do some more thinking about this one!
> Reflect some more on Tomlinson's suggestion that churches need to find ways to become places for existential spirituality within the Christian tradition rather than merely centres for devotional worship - a challenging thought
All in all a very stimulating day which led me to think more deeply about modes for engaging the community and shaping the church for that engagement. It was great to do this with the staff team and to test out our understandings, responses and thoughts for change (as well as sneak in some Burger Fuel). Some of the very real pastoral implications of what can happen when broken people become part of the church community were worthy discussion points.
The trajectory towards getting one's hands dirty with mission, but in more than just the traditional "care for the poor" way, was the biggest takeaway - what Tomlinson was really challenging me towards was understanding the spiritual and social context in which we seek to engage people. In that sense, his evangelistic leanings were as palapable as his pastoral ones.