The Trinity and Mission

A friend got the ball rolling on Facebook concerning the important question of missiology and theology, and that we should have theology that is intrinsically linked with mission. I was reminded of this piece of mine from a couple of years ago.

Classically Christian

These are musings brought upon me by my friend Rick (who blogs over here) in an e-mail today as I plan some seminars on the Fathers. One of the hard sells these days can be the deep theology of the Church Fathers. What does homoousios have to do with me? I already know why Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong; why discuss the patristic discussions of Christology? Isn’t it more important just to accept Jesus in your heart? This is all so impractical.

But Rick just sent me an e-mail challenging all of that. Where do we evangelicals tend to get our vision of mission? The Great Commission. What do we see happening there?

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus has appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All…

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Llull in Cyprus

Re-post from 2007

I should be in bed, but Douglas Adams is just as addictive now as he was 9 or 10 years ago when I read the first four books of the Hitchhiker trilogy. And I’m sure maybe something about the Resurrection would be appropriate, but the book this passage is from (Other Middle Ages, previously quoted) is due soon. So here it is, a passage from the medieval biography of the Blessed Ramon Llull; this passage drew me only because of Cyprus. I, too, was a missionary in Cyprus, after all . . .

Thus Ramon approached the king of Cyprus [Henry II Lusignan] and asked him whether he would encourage the infidels–namely Jacobites, Nestorians, and Monophysites–to attend his sermon and disputation. After he had done this in order to edify his listeners, he asked the king of Cyprus to send him to the sultan, who is a Saracen, and to the king of Egypt and Syria, in order to inform them of the holy Catholic faith. The king did not, however, provide for any of this things. Placing his trust in him who “spreads the Gospel with much virtue” [Psalms 62.12], Ramon began with only God’s help to act manfully among them by means of preaching and disputations. In the end, persisting in his preaching and doctrines, he suffered no small physical weakness. Two persons were serving him, a cleric and a manservant. Not “taking heed of God” and neglecting their own salvation, they thought of extorting money from this man of God through their evil hands. Thinking that he had been poisoned by them, Ramon dismissed them from his employ.

At Famagusta, he was graciously received by the Master of the Templars, staying in his house in the city of Limassol [how does that bit of geography work?] until he recovered his health. Ramon then returned to Genoa . . . (pp. 99-100)

Saint of the Week: Ramon Llull (& Mediaeval Missions)

Re-post from 2007.

Ramon Llull preaching
Ramon Llull preaching

Ramon Llull (1232-c. 1314) was a Spanish (Majorcan) polymath who, after a mystical conversion involving dramatic visions in 1263, devoted the rest of his life to mission to Muslims. He did this largely through a huge corpus of works – 243 confirmed, including some in Arabic – as well as exhorting and equipping European Christians to engage in missionary work with Muslims instead of Crusade and attempting the establishment of missionary schools that would equip friars, especially in the Arabic language. He himself engaged in four missionary journeys, three to North Africa (1292, 1307, 1314) and one to Syria that ended in Cyprus instead where he debated Nestorians and Monophysites.

I originally wrote this post just after handing in an undergraduate paper on Llull that focussed on his reception in North Africa and factors that contributed to both his welcomes, deportations, and martyrdom. The original post continues ... I’m thinking of changing the tagline for this blog to “The Mouthpiece of the Revolution”, given the content of several of the last posts. If so, Llull is a man we can all learn from. Here are a few interesting things from my journeys through scholarship surrounding Ramon Llull. Some are quotations from authors I read, others are thoughts from elsewhere. We’ll see if I put them in order . . .

First of all, Llull was part of a fairly large effort on the part of the Franciscans and Dominicans to convert North Africa in the 13th century, beginning in 1219 in Morocco. It was to die fairly soon into the 13th century, though. Robert I Burns writes:

As time passed the dream of conversion flickered, fitfully dimmed, and died. . . . For a moment of time, nonetheless, influential people had favored sheathing the sword, sitting down in dialogue with the immemorial and hated enemy; for a moment, many men had groped for some common ground that was not a battlefield. The dream failed. It had amounted to a reaffirmation of a traditional, more profoundly Christian approach to the dissident. (p. 1434)

Llull’s main method, both in his disputations in Tunisia and with Muslims in Spain, was that of logical persuasion. Unlike some mediaeval thinkers, such as Ramon Marti, he believed firmly that Christianity could be logically defended and demonstrated, even proven. To this end, he had an Ars given him by God, by which any claim could be examined to determine whether it was true or not. He travelled through several European universities, most notably Paris, that great centre of learning and theology, expostulating and demonstrating this Ars. Many loved it and extolled its virtues – finally, a way by which the infidel could be entirely persuaded to the truth of Christ! And Muslim intellectuals enjoyed disputing with him; some may even have been converted during his first missionary journey.

If the idea that reason alone can convert a person seems a wee bit naive, some factors must be taken into account. First, the mediaeval Christian “assumed that the Muslim intellectual at bottom could hardly take the dogmas of Islam seriously” (Burns, 1433).

Second, Llull himself did not imiagine that Muslims would be convinced by reason alone. E Allison Peers in Fool of Love demonstrates that many of Llull’s works have the unbeliever go through a sudden turn-around during debate due not to logic but to divine Grace. As well, Hillgarth notes that in The Book of the Gentile, the pagan Gentile, having heard the doctrine of a Christian, of a Jew, and of a Muslim, leaves scene undecided, implying the role of grace “in perfecting the work begun by reason” (24).

Finally, similar to the previous point, throughout the Middle Ages, and in Llull as well, is a belief that “miracle rather than rational argument is the best proof of the truths of the faith against its heretical, Jewish, and other opponents” (Goodich, 65).

An interesting aside: Urban II, he who called the First Crusade in 1096, declared 8 years earlier to Bernard, Bishop of Toledo, “strive by word and example, god helping, to convert the infidels to the faith.” I’ve a feeling that the Crusade did not go entirely as the Pope intended . . .

And a note on Aquinas (mostly so I don’t forget after all this). In his missionary handbook, “He admonished his colleagues that, though Muslims were open to argumentation, one could not convert by reason; philosophy served ‘not to prove the faith but to defend the faith.’” (Burns, 1397)

But back to Llull. One of the reasons Llull is notable is because he understood the principle that one had to get under the skin of a culture if one is to reach it for the gospel. Hillgarth expresses Llull’s attitude far better than I can:

Conversion . . . was to be by persuasion and persuasion had to be based on knowledge, on a study of the manners and life, the philosophy and mode of reasoning of the different non-Christian peoples. . . . Lull [is] exceptional for his knowledge of Islam among the Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages. He understood its psychology, he celebrated the beauty of its liturgical language, the depths of its religious spirit, and he recognized how close it was to Christianity. (25)

We would all do well to be like Llull. He spent lots of time in prayer, especially the contemplative prayer of the mystic. When he wasn’t praying, he was studying about Islam so that he would be able to present Christ to the Muslims effectively; he was writing, either to persuade Muslims the truth of Christianity or to encourage and equip Christians for the work of mission; or he was engaged in evangelistic contact, be it with Muslims and Jews in Spain, Muslims in North Africa, or heretics in Cyprus. If only we were so diligent!

To follow: Ramon Llull in Cyprus . . .

Further Reading on Llull

Read Fool of Love by E Allison Peers for a good introduction to the saint (London: SCM Press, 1946). It’s a short little book and gives insight into Llull as a mystic, philosopher and missionary. If you don’t have time for that, try The Catholic Encyclopedia, although Peers’ book is highly superior.

The Other Works I’ve Cited:

Burns, Robert I. ‘Christian-Islamic Confrontation in the West: The Thirteenth-century Dream of Conversion.’ In The American Historical Review, 1971, pp. 1386-1434.

Goodich, Michael, translator and editor. Other Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Hillgarth, J. N. Ramon Lull and Lullism in Fourteenth-century France. Oxford: Clarendon Prss, 1971.

Missiology and Christian History

Caesarius giving his ‘Rule’ to two nuns (MS c. 990, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Lit.142, fol. 65)

I am spending all of tomorrow at a day-conference about Caesarius of Arles (470-542; bp of Arles 502-542). The opening lecture by William Klingshirn of CUA, tonight (Friday), discussed scholarship on Caesarius, past, present, and future, 1970-2042. One of the interesting points he brought up, and this is something he also discussed in his 1994 book Caesarius of Arles: The Making of a Christian Community in Late Antique Gaul, was the re-interpretation of Caesarius as an evangelist (I’ve only read the introduction, though, so don’t blame him for what follows).

The traditional image of Caesarius of Arles is that he was a great evangelist of Provence and helped drive out the paganism and superstitions that were present in the more rural areas, establishing Christian orthodoxy as we know it.

There is probably truth to that.

But Caesarius as ecclesiastical reformer does not necessarily mean Caesarius vs. paganism and superstition. This is the same sort of image we have of the Reformers everywhere they went, burning statues and smashing stained glass. The truth of these encounters is more nuanced than that, and this is where more recent scholarship is heading.

What Caesarius represents is the ascetic-monastic vision of the Christian life from Lérins, strongly influenced by Augustine and Cassian. What Caesarius represents is the official hierarchy, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy of the organised Christianity of the monasteries, the cities, Rome. What he counters could very well be ‘baptised’ pagan practices. It could also, and here I conjecture based on other examples brought up by Peter Brown in The Cult of the Saints and Authority and the Sacred, be different visions of Christianity, different ways of celebrating that arise in the local context from their encounter with the gospel.

Some things that people like Caesarius and Augustine are fighting against are laudably combatted, such as turning feast days into opportunities for gluttony and drunkenness; some of their positive actions are also helpful such as seeking to install biblical morality in a local population. Other things, such as sacred springs, sacred oaks (such as the one St Boniface [saint of the week here] famously cut down), and so forth, which are favourites of men like Caesarius and Boniface, are probably remnants of paganism, indeed.

The difficulty that happened in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages when Christianity left the cities and went into the countryside of Gaul or the wilderness of Armenia or northern Europe was figuring out where superstition ends and local culture begins. Does the city need to worship like a monastery on Lérins? If people don’t make it to Matins, is it because they are half-pagan still?

This is the problem facing Christian mission at all times. And our standard response, particular moments of inculturation notwithstanding, is to impose the entire Christian system of our own cities, monasteries, cultures, lives upon those of others, be they central such as the truths of the creeds or adiaphora such as particular feast days or certain modes of worship.

What the church must do in all cultural situations is negotiate these boundaries, and seek to present Christ to new peoples and help create worshipping communities that worship in spirit and in truth as part of the trans-temporal, trans-cultural communion of all saints. And as we do so, we need to be open to the gifts and strengths of the new and the old believers in the cities and cultures where we work, rather than always assuming a paternal position that we have authority and are right — on which, see this post at George in Exile.

Why secular academia (and not ‘professional’ ministry)

After reading my post, ‘What Being in Cyprus Does to Me‘, some of you (Nemo, perhaps?) were probably thinking, ‘Why doesn’t this guy bite the bullet and become a minister or missionary? Why does he persist in pursuing a PhD in the academy?’ An important pair of questions.

There are some basic reasons why I want to go into academia regardless of the question of ministry:

  • I enjoy teaching. I very much enjoy teaching Latin and wish also to teach Roman history
  • I enjoy research
  • I like the look of my own writing
  • I am enamoured with the ancient world to such a degree that sometimes I chortle in my glee when visiting archaeological sites and viewing Roman art

These are the sort of normal reasons that have led me to pursue a career in academia. But alongside them, given the pleasure that Christian ministry gives me and my concern for the mission of the Church in post-Christian Europe, there are, inevitably, other reasons. However, I believe that these reasons would not be able to hold me in the Ivory Tower if reasons such as the above were not part of it all as well.

First (in order that things come to me), the academy is as secular a place as you could find in today’s world. The idea of faith commitment impacting research, even in many divinity schools, is regarded as transgressing the sacred secularity of ‘objective’ research. Many academics view belief in God as naive and foolish and, quite frankly, stupid.

Thus, the academics need Jesus. And they need fellow intelligent people there working with them, doing the same job to the same standards to show them Jesus. They need Jesus shown to them not just in proclamation but also in deeds — how one treats fellow colleagues, how one treats family, how one treats students, how one treats spare time. I want to be the clever but odd Christian known for his holy love of faculty and students who prays and takes Sundays off but works hard every day at the uni.

Second, Europe and ‘the West’* are leaving behind the Faith. They appreciate Gothic architecture, but care not a whit for its spirituality (this link, too). There is something to be said for Bach as a musician, but not as a person who actually believed in the events of the St Matthew Passion. If we want to bring a churchless, unchurched generation to the foot of the Cross, we need to bring the Cross to them. This is the what Sts Francis and Dominic did, as well as John Wesley. I don’t recommend open-air preaching outside of Africa and South America, but I do recommend breaking out of the Christian ghetto.

By being in secular academia, I will rub shoulders on a daily basis with the citizens of post-Christendom, whether scholars or students or administrators or cleaners. Although leaving behind the Faith, anti-God academics notwithstanding, some of these people are searching for something spiritual. They aren’t looking in the Church. So I will be the Church in their midst.

Third, students need people who can treat them with respect. Christian students, as well, need people of faith in their midst as they go through the challenges presented by the academic world. So many of our young people leave the Church during university. I think Christian faculty can help stem that flow, even without breaking rules and saying, ‘You know, I actually do agree with the Bible/St Irenaeus/St Anselm.’

Fourth, the academic world is the world of ideas. Some of these people (the ones who write books people actually read) are culture-shapers. If I could influence them for Christ, then they could influence the world for Christ. Alternatively, if I have the chance, I want to write some books for a popular audience, myself. Help them see certain glimmers of gospel in the ancient world.

We live in a different world from that of my father’s generation. My father’s generation — the hash-smoking hippies with tie-dyed shirts and two-tone trousers — helped make this world. But they all grew up in church. They all knew these stories, and a lot them went back to church in middle age. Their children and grandchildren are growing up churchless. They don’t know the stories or the message.

In 1973, my dad went to seminary to help change the world. I think he has. My brother has followed in those footsteps, working in rural parish ministry in southern Saskatchewan. I don’ feel called to that. I feel like the city is where I belong. Cities with their cafés of unchurched or de-churched young people, with their pubs of drunken metaphysicists, with their growing plethora of religious ideologies, where the idea of going to church isn’t on anyone’s radar. Here, as part of the intelligentsia, I may be able to make an impact, to help people rediscover that very old-time religion that they rejected when smoking pot in the ’60s or swallowing Ecstasy last night. Or when they were sexually abused by their priest. Or emotionally abused by their church-going father. Or cheated on by their Jesus-loving wife.

We need new thought-patterns for ministry. And I think non-professional, unpaid people with normal jobs are the secret and the key. Give us a knowledge of God and the Scriptures, give us a bit of training, and root us in the spiritual disciplines, and we can go forth to set this world on fire, whether IFES or the local church is paying us to do it or not.

*This generally means ‘where affluent white people live’, right?

Episcopal (papal and otherwise) retirements as opportunities

The big news of last week was not that I was in Florence, as it turns out. Rather, the big news was that the Bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) announced his resignation, effective 28 February. This comes only a few months after the retirement of his fellow academic-turned-bishop Rowan Williams. Both of these are moments of opportunity for the historic Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

Will they take these opportunities?

Both men have been alternately loved and hated by those of whom they were to be the spiritual leaders. Both are writers of academic theology that many find deeply powerful and strong, even when they disagree. Both have left behind churches divided by ‘liberal/progressive’ movements in a declining West and a burgeoning ‘conservative/traditional’ movement in the Global South.

Anglicanism in its home countries has lost its way in many respects. Obsessed at times with issues of sexual ethics, not dealing with proper, outright heresy, losing sight of the Gospel many times in many places with declining numbers that different routes of ‘relevant’ are being touted as the solution — whether it is jettisoning the BCP or liturgy altogether or having a U2charist or putting left-wing art on the sides of the churches or reciting ‘alternative creeds’ or turning church buildings into community centres or adding a rock band to the liturgy … and so forth.

Will Welby be able to hold together the vast, spinning network of ideologies that is the Anglican Communion, or will the final ruptures come about in his episcopate? We shall see.

Roman Catholicism has, under B16, has introduced a needed update of the Missal that was sadly unintelligible in many parts, but also engaged in a proactive campaign of Bible accessibility and translation for the masses at the Masses. The New Evangelisation has continued. But there are still the paedophilia scandals, the emptying churches, the awkward 1970s music at ‘modern’ Masses, potential money-laundering scandals in the Vatican — plus a litany of Protestant concerns still unaddressed satisfactorily since the 1500s.

Both communions, that is, have issues. And so new leadership is always a moment of hopefulness and concern.

Let us pray for Justin Welby when he takes on his new role. And let us pray for the conclave when they meet to elect a new Bishop of Rome at the end of this month — whether you think the Pope is the Anti-Christ or not, the Church of Rome needs your prayers!

May both communions rediscover, far and wide, the dangerous and glorious Gospel of God’s dramatic rescue of the human race through His incarnate Son, Jesus. And may they worship him righteously. And may they, fuelled by His worship, bring that dangerous and glorious Gospel to a lost and dying world that greatly needs it!

May God grant wisdom to the new bishops, then. And may the New Evangelization focus primarily on Gospel and Jesus and only secondarily  missals and liturgies and culture wars.

My Seminar on ‘Trinity and Mission’ & the Cappadocians

Trinity KnotLast Thursday, I gave a seminar on ‘Trinity and Mission’ at the Greek Evangelical Church. It began with a run-through of the history of Christology — this is something I blog about often, so I’m not going to repeat everything here; just follow the links around my blog. I started with Irenaeus’ Rule of Faith and recapitulation, moved on to Athanasius, then the Kappadokians, before sliding into Cyril and Chalcedon. I closed with the Trinitarian exegesis of Matthew 28, as found in the blog post Trinity and Mission.

Not really discussed here before, however, is the following that flows from the Cappadocians — this is consciously following Zizioulas’ reading of them in Being As Communion, which I have heard has some problems; I’ll have to read all of what they say as well as the criticisms some day. Until then, here we go.

The result of this Trinitarian theology, whether expressed by Greek theologians such as the Kappadokians or Latin theologians such as Ambrosios and Augustinos, or even the Syriac theologians Aphrahat and Ephraim, has important implications. As expressed classically by the Kappadokians, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct prosopa or hypostaseis who are all homoousios — they share an ousia. And, following the logic of causation in classical philosophy, God is the principle at work behind all things and the Creator of all things, the unmoved mover — as in the magnificent image of Gregorios’, that Jesus is ‘the founder of the universe who steers its course’.

Therefore, this give-and-take of ousia in fullness of koinonia between the Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit lies at the heart of the created order. The universe is run by a koinonia. And here I mention our first ethical implication of classical Trinitarian doctrine — we are all made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). God is a Trinity of Persons in complete harmony, homonoia.

When we look at our fractured churches in Protestantism, churches that splinter every time you turn around, when we look at our families who sometimes never talk at all or are never willing to discuss things of substance, when we look at our broken relationships all around us, when we observe a fracturing world at our doorstep — Turks in the North, Israel vs. Palestine, internal unrest in Syria — we realise that we are not living as God, the Trinity who exists as self-giving love in perfect communion, intends us to.

If we are to live in accordance with the theology of ancient Christianity, we should be peacemakers, in our homes, our workplaces, our churches — even our nations if the possibility presents itself. All humans are made in God’s image, and all of us were meant to live in loving communion with one another. I imagine that this union of selfless love is what instilled God to inspire our Lord to pray for unity, St Paul to exhort the Corinthians to unity, and for the early Christian writers of the late first and early second centuries, such as Clement of Rome and Ignatios of Antioch, to strive for unity so forcefully in their letters.

Time and again, Ignatios, who was martyred by the Romans around 117, calls his readers to homonoia, to harmony, to a cessation of dissensions and loving accord. Koinonia is a divine attribute; let us live in it. As the Psalm says, ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.’ (Ps 133:1)

As far as mission goes, the koinonia of the Trinity should encourage us to work together; Christians of different sorts who work together provide a united face for the Gospel to an unbelieving world. I have seen this in Lefkosia in the Nicosia Community Church using your building, in the Nicosia International Church using the Anglican church — and I understand that Rick at NIC works together with the pastor at NCC in preparing their sermons.

When I worked for IFES here, we ran the Place at the Anglican church hall jointly with the Anglicans, NIC, and New Life International Church, reaching out to the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims who come to study in this beautiful city. This sort of gospel partnership should be the lifeblood of mission in post-Christian Europe.

What being in Cyprus does to me

In St Onouphrios' church, near Machairas Monastery
In St Onouphrios’ church, near Machairas Monastery

I leave Cyprus tomorrow.

Having come here for the second time since the academic year 2005-2006 has moved me. Last time, it was for the joyous occasion of my friends’ wedding. I was basically a tourist the whole time. A fantastic way to see the island. As this other blog attests, I’ve done my share of touring in the past week and a half!

However, besides the touring, I gave four seminars on patristics over three days, preached this past Sunday morning, and took a trip to North Cyprus to visit with the students and leaders involved in ministry in one of the unis there. This meant I spent a lot of time preparing — last minute touches on the seminars, including two last-minute PowerPoints, prayerful sermon prep, practising the seminars, that sort of thing.

And the third thing — dinner with friends. Coffee with friends. Sitting around with Rick and Madara and talking. Talking, talking, talking. Talking about the student ministry of seven years ago. Talking about how it’s changed. Talking about the changing face of church in Europe and America. Talking about what a disciple is. Talking about making more disciples. Talking about what the Church Fathers have to say about a whole host of things. Talking and dreaming and hoping for flourishing ministry on this island and across Europe that can conform people to the likeness of the image of God’s Son –whether those people are Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or have yet to enter the Christian fold.

And I find myself missing life seven years ago.

Oh, Cyprus Team! We all had long hair. I think we still do — I’ve lost contact with one of my team mates. But it was brilliant. Despite our team leader’s husband’s deportation and our sudden orphanhood. Despite the loneliness that left me crouched on my side on my couch one time crying, ‘I’m so alone.’ Despite the crooked taxi drivers. Despite ‘Stephen’ getting arrested for drunken disorderliness (he tried breaking into a periptero; these things happen). I tell you, it was brilliant.

There was The Place. International students could come to the Anglican church hall and have some coffee/tea/squash, play board games/ping pong/badminton, listen to music, and hear some Gospel presentation.

Those who were interested in learning more about Jesus could go out for coffee with one of the team. Or ice cream. Or just walk around in the Old City. Or maybe do a one-to-one Bible study. Or join one of a couple of Bible study groups.

The exhilaration of sitting down with a bunch of Hindu and Buddhist Nepalis to read the Bible! The freshness these guys would bring to the Scriptures, the fresh eyes that hadn’t read the stories of Jesus 100 times, the fresh ears that hadn’t heard the deep resonances of Christian doctrine.

I remember the pleasure one of my Nepali friends had when I got him his own Bible. He was so pleased to be able to read the Bible for himself!

Another guy, an Egyptian who had spent years in and out of prison for converting from Islam, was happy just to have me over to his flat to eat copious amounts of food over and over and over again. I learned that hanging out can be tiring, but I also learned how much joy simply being there can bring to a lonely heart.

I remember travelling up to Kyrenia and Famagusta to talk with students there, to hear about what sorts of things Jesus was doing on their campuses in the North.

I remember first meeting the Orthodox, reading my first pages of The Philokalia, seeing my first frescoes, up in the Troodos Mountains.

I remember the Hindu asking what he had to do to be baptised. I remember getting into the baptistery with him and our pastor/friend and helping baptise him in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I remember, two weeks later (to the day!), his Buddhist friend saying, ‘Matthew, I think I have to get baptised.’

I remember being part of something big. Doing something where I could tangibly feel that what I did mattered. Where I wasn’t sheepish about being either Christian or ‘conservative/evangelical’. Where I was praying often and opening up the Scriptures with people on a regular basis. I remember being somewhere where what I did really mattered.

Cyprus fills me with longing.

And it’s not the Gothic architecture or the mountain monasteries or frescoes or black-robed priests or any of that I long for.

Empty Churches

When we first moved to the beautiful city of Edinburgh, one of the first churches we encountered was St. John’s “Tollbooth” Highland Kirk. Except, actually, we didn’t. Instead, we met the Hub, a cafe, art space, event venue, and headquarters for the Edinburgh Festival.

The Hub's doors

Since then, we have seen many “empty” churches. Some are actually empty, such as the Tron Kirk:

The Tron Kirk: Empty

or that church on Lauriston Place:

The Paint-peeling Door of an Empty Church

Others have found second lives as nightclubs such as Sin:

Note: Not my photo of Sin Nightclub

or as theatres, such as the Bedlam Theatre:

Note: Not my photo of the Bedlam Theatre

or as street-health clinics:

Church reborn as hospice

or as the brass-rubbing centre:

Me at the Brass Rubbing Centre, formerly Trinity College Chapel

or as beautiful venues, such as the Mansfield Traquair Centre:

The Mansfield Traquair Centre, Chancel

St. John’s Highland Kirk is probably the highest spire in the city, in part due to its location on the same hill as the Castle — it’s the spire to the left of Edinburgh Castle if a friend ever sends you a postcard. Yet it and the Tron Church are not churches anymore, and they are two out of the three notable spires in this view:

The Royal Mile

The explanation for the abandonment of two of the Royal Mile’s churches is the fact that the Old Town of Edinburgh, which boasted 52 400 people in the late 1800’s has but 4000 residents today. Most of its space is shops, restaurants/bars, and offices with the odd tourist attraction thrown in for good measure.

Thus, St. Giles’ (the “crown spire” visible between St. John’s and the Tron Kirk) together with Carubber’s Church, Old St. Paul’s Scottish Episcopal, and Canongate Kirk along the Royal Mile are able to serve the Old Town, along with St. Columba’s Free Church and St. Columba’s by the Castle Scottish Episcopal on Johnson Terrace, St. Augustine’s United on George IV Bridge, and Greyfriars Kirk. There is also St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church down on Cowgate.

That’s a lot of churches for the Old Town.

Yet if you tally the worshippers on any given Sunday in the churches of Edinburgh’s Old Town, I doubt you will get anything near 4000 congregants assembled.

The dome of West Register House, Charlotte Square

Charlotte Square, home of a beautiful old parish kirk that is now West Register Office, along with the rest of the New Town, has suffered a similar fate as the Old Town. People just don’t live there anymore. The churches have very few congregants, although Charlotte Baptist Chapel is able to pack ’em in like sardines.

Another cause of un-kirking in this city is the death or amalgamation of some denominations. This was the case for Mansfield Place Catholic Apostolic Church, now the Mansfield Traquair Centre. The Catholic Apostolics thought the Second Coming was due in the 1920’s, so they made no plans for succession for their Apostles. By the 1950’s, Mansfield Place Church was closed.

When the bulk of the Free Church of Scotland reunited with the Church of Scotland, the Free Church’s “High Kirk” become the library at New College, which means that students of New College get to study amidst some lovely stained glass!

However, when we recall my statement that even with so many churches in the Old Town, the 4000 inhabitants still don’t fill them, we return to the main cause of un-kirking, and it is that people are no longer warming or filling pews.

Mansfield Traquair Centre Wall Painting

At a certain level, this makes Phoebe Traquair’s angel cry.

People’s butts keeping pews warm as they did ever since they put the first pews in European churches in the centuries following the Reformation is not really what Christianity is about. Getting lots of people into your church doesn’t mean a thing in some ways.

Yet those butts warming those pews are human butts. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to become one of them. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to die for them. They are the butts of people who need to hear and know the message of the greatness of the glory of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

At least if they are at kirk each Sunday, they stand a chance of hearing this message and being transformed by it.

The un-kirking of Edinburgh and Europe is a phenomenon that, I understand, has been going on since at some point in the 1960’s. People just stopped going to church. Fewer and fewer people go to church every year. Even in the USA, which is imagined by many to be a “Christian” nation, the average Sunday attendance in 2005 was 80 persons — the megachurches are not offsetting the exodus.

My friend Rick, pastor of an international, multicultural, “evangelical” church in Cyprus, says that the European church has entered a phase of exile. Our mission and ministry have different needs than ministry in places where the church is exploding in size, as in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Our churches are dwindling, and people need the Gospel.

Maybe we don’t need David Wilkersons per se in Europe. But we do need people who are willing to invest in these cities and the people who populate them. People willing to walk past the empty spires and remember the One Whose Cross is raised high above.

People who are willing to love their unkirked friends to the bitter end.

People who are willing to live across from drunks and junkies and love them ceaselessly and endlessly.

People who are willing to truly befriend atheists and agnostics and take them seriously as people, not projects, not simply arguments with bodies.

We need Columbas and Ninians. (Too many reservations to want another Knox, really.)

Saint of the Week: Charles Wesley

This week’s saint is Charles Wesley (1707-1788), given that the day for his and John’s commemoration was two days ago (John Wesley was saint of the week here and here). Charles is the less famous of the two famous Wesley brothers, and I think this is a bit of a shame.

Charles Wesley was as much a man of action as his elder brother. He, too, was a founding member of the “Holy Club” at Oxford, meeting with friends to read the Greek New Testament and to transform their lives. He, too, lived a disciplined life — a discipline with method, thus Methodist and Methodism.* He, too, was an ordained priest of the Church of England. He, too, was involved in the evangelical revival and preaching the Gospel amongst the poor of England. He, too, went to preach the Gospel in Georgia. He, too, sought Christian Perfection.

Charles, however, was not merely a man of action like unto his brother. He was also a man of action in opposition to his brother. An example of such opposition was when he burst in on John’s first wedding and dragged his brother out, explaining to the elder Wesley that he wasn’t exactly suited to marriage. My understanding is that John’s second attempt at getting married succeeded but without happy product — proving Charles right.

Unlike John, Charles was happily married, to Sarah Gwynne. Sarah Gwynne, like their mother Susannah Wesley, probably counts as one of the many intrepid women of the Faith, for she accompanied her husband on his evangelistic journeys.

Charles eventually ended his itinerant lifestyle, which probably helped keep his marriage a happy one. He looked after the Methodists of Bristol from 1756-1771, then relocated to London, where his ministry included Newgate prison.

Charles also differs from John in virulent opposition to any schismatic activity on the part of the Methodists. He wished to keep Methodism a movement within the Church of England, and thus he wrote a hymn against the event of John ordaining Coke rather than celebrating it.

Hymn-writing, of course, is what we best remember Charles Wesley for. He wrote over 5500 hymns in his lifetime, so, although his prose works are few (are there any?) compared to John’s, his own literary output is not inconsiderable. Amongst this enormous corpus are such favourites as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “And Can It Be?” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

Despite confusing moments such as when he writes in “And Can It Be?” that Christ “emptied Himself of all but love,” these hymns demonstrate Wesley as one of the great devotional minds of the English language. Indeed, the nearness of the Divine in these hymns their clarity of the Gospel and its impact on the Christian life make them among the works of wondrous, clear theology. They are praise of God worth singing, the sort we encounter far less often in the newer songs of today.

Charles Wesley was also a clever man in his hymnography, for his words could be set to the tunes of drinking songs. This made them very memorable for the poor, drunken souls for whom the hearts of the Wesleys burned. And so Gospel truths could be sung and remembered as cast in the simple poetry of Charles Wesley. This is a very great gift to the English people, and one not to be underestimated.

So, to close, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” by Charles Wesley:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

*I’ve heard it said that the terms actually come from how John organised the movement; yet I have also heard that it was a nickname applied to the Holy Club back in their Oxford days, so I think that it’s probably both — certainly the latter is more likely to be what people think when they hear, “Methodist.”