Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Post The Post Evangelical Post

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.


Frank said...


The Post Evangelical was a very formational book for me as I was "losing" some of the thoughts I used to hold and moving into something bigger, riskier and more challenging (both to myself and the people I was interacting with). I didn't/don't agree with all of Tomlinson's conclusions, but I love his process and I love the way he melds both his doxa (thought) and his praxis (action) and sees no divorce between the two.

Gustavo Guteirrez in his work A Theology of Liberation back in 1972 talked of the danger of divorcing the science of theology from our praxis and the danger of adhering to a doxa that is not grounded in the reality of life... he talks about how the two exist to shape one another.

Interestingy he uses pastoral care as an example, talking about how we do not do pastoral care simply because our studied theology tells us we should, but we do it because we are human and our instinct drives it - our theology then, rather than being master of our action (in this instance, pastoral care) helps us critically analyse our action so we can do it better and where our theology falls short in meeting the needs of the world around us, our action in the world helps us reshape it. Our doxa serves our involvement in the world rather than being master of it and our involvement serves the shaping of our doxa.

Turning theology into a thought science that removes the theologian from engagement with the world has in some instances done Christianity a great disservice I believe.

It's that desire for and sense of involvement that drives someone like Tomlinson.... I love it!

BJ said...

Yes, I think you capture him well. I read an excellent article on John Calvin this week that reminded me of my first encounters with him - through the discipline of history - today Calvin is almost deified by some as a theologian but his contribution as a historic figure was so much more than that. He was so completely immersed in the life of his community and was a figure of huge influence but much of this in his lifetime was not primarily theological in nature.

Now I'm not anti-theology - in fact I probably like theology a bit too much! But what I enjoyed was hearing the accounts of what St Lukes is doing as a local church, and some of it is just brilliant. A practitioner speaking with other practitioneers. In that regard, I often find UK voices easier to synthesise into the NZ context because the culture is similar in some ways (although vastly different in others!)