T his coming Sunday – the Fourth of July – my wife, our two sons and I will be admitted into membership of Christ Lutheran Church in Orpington, a suburb of south-east London. In doing so we will be joining the only confessional Lutheran denomination in the UK, one which boasts a grand total of 14 congregations and maybe 1,000 members – less than 0.002% of the UK population.
Given that Lutheranism is such a tiny and marginal force in modern Britain, how does an Englishman – not to mention a Reformed Anglican evangelical – end up as a Lutheran? One major reason is that Lutheranism reconciles two aspects of Christianity that are usually found only in tension – if not in outright opposition – within the rest of the church, particularly within Anglicanism: an “evangelical” commitment to the Gospel and to the truth of the Bible on the one hand, and a “catholic” emphasis on the sacraments on the other.
This has also been a personal tension for me. My childhood background was moderately Anglo-Catholic, which left me with an abiding love for the Anglican tradition of church music and Prayer Book worship. However, when I returned to faith ten years ago – following a period as an atheist in my teens – it was to the Anglican conservative evangelicalism typified by the likes of John Stott and JI Packer.
As a result, on the one hand I was deeply committed to the truth and reliability of Scripture and to the doctrines of substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone. On the other, I found myself out of step with contemporary evangelicalism in a number of areas. These included a continuing conviction that the sacraments should matter more than they do to most evangelicals: in particular, that infant baptism was both valid and desirable, and that the Lord’s Supper was more than a mere memorial meal (though I lacked any clear, positive understanding of what the sacraments actually do). More generally, I was frustrated by the shallowness and novelty of much contemporary evangelicalism, which often seems determined to give the impression that Christianity was invented in around 1960; and I retained a love of the historic liturgy, not just for aesthetic reasons, but as a perfect vehicle for the Gospel.
US Anglican clergyman Kendall Harmon (of the Titus One Nine weblog) uses the terms “reappraisers” and “reasserters” to describe the two contending sides in the Episcopal Church. When I first came across these terms, they seemed a rather clumsy alternative to the usual terms “liberals” and “conservatives”. However, if one test of terminology is its power to unlock explanations in unexpected areas, then the “reappraising” and “reasserting” terminology is actually rather useful as a means of analysing the problems I had in finding a church home within the mainstream of UK evangelicalism.
In short, in the Church of England it seems that one cannot simply be a “reasserter”. I belonged to that group within Anglicanism who would describe themselves as “conservative evangelicals”, and thus reasserters in terms of biblical doctrine and the essentials of evangelicalism. This position is well represented by a book such as John Stott’s Evangelical Truth, in which he summarises the cardinal points of conservative evangelicalism as the revealing work of the Father, the redeeming work of the Son and the transforming work of the Spirit.
However, in practice, churches that are “reasserting” on the Gospel tend to be quite radically “reappraising” when it comes to what goes on at church “gatherings” (the currently-fashionable word for what used to be called “the Divine Service” – see the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer). This was typified by our nearest really “sound” conservative evangelical church, whose minimal-liturgy services bore virtually no resemblance to any authorised Anglican service, and whose ministers’ preferred choices of “vestments” were either fleece jackets or rugby shirts. The low-point was watching the vicar and curate singing hymns with their hands in their pockets. All in all, this was “low” church to an extent that I find not merely “not to my taste” and distracting, but actually unbiblical.
Even in less extreme cases, the use of the historic liturgy – especially the Book of Common Prayer – is now almost unheard of in Anglican evangelical churches. As an evangelical who loved the 1662 Prayer Book, I was already in a small and diminishing minority.
On the other hand, churches that “reassert” the historic liturgy tend then to be “reappraisers” towards the Gospel. To give just one example as a “case study”, the chairman of the Church of England Liturgical Commission is the Bishop of Salisbury, the Right Revd Dr David Stancliffe. In a book published last year, Dr Stancliffe made the rather bizarre suggestion – reminiscent of pre-Reformation works-religion – that priests should withhold the blessing from their congregation if the people in the pews had failed to do enough good works or give enough money to charity during the previous week. Dr Stancliffe has also called for the Church to abandon its opposition to the blessing of same-sex unions and ordination of practising homosexuals.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is another senior Church figure who combines an apparent love for the Book of Common Prayer with a liberal theological agenda.
So in the Church of England, it seems you can either be a Gospel reasserter but liturgical reappraiser, or a liturgical reasserter but Gospel reappraiser. When push comes to shove I always knew which one really mattered, but it still saddens me that there seems no room left for the viewpoint that the historic liturgical tradition of the Church of England (whether in traditional or modernised language) is itself a wonderful vehicle for communicating sound, evangelical truth.
In the light of all this, it was wonderful to discover a Christian tradition that is able to combine both an evangelical commitment to the Gospel and a sacramental and liturgical approach to worship (and, indeed, the Christian life generally). This is by no means the only factor that drew me to Lutheranism – I could go on, and in future articles probably will, to mention the centrality and clarity of Lutheranism’s emphasis on justification, its sharp distinction of Law and Gospel, its emphasis on the theology of the cross, its doctrine of vocation, and so on. To quote GK Chesterton (a besetting sin of mine), “a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it”, and this is emphatically the case in my conversion to Lutheranism.
However, in terms of daily living, few aspects of Lutheranism have so great an impact as this reconciliation of the evangelical and the sacramental/liturgical – this weekly focus on the free gift of the forgiveness of sins, won for us by Christ in His death on the cross for the sins of all, and distributed to us in the Word and Sacraments. And I am convinced that this is one of the greatest gifts which Lutheranism has to offer the church as a whole, particularly in England, where the Church of England’s early exclusion of Lutheran ideas is surely one reason for the constant struggle to combine the Church’s “evangelical” and “catholic” traditions in harmony within the same church body: this ability to reassert both the Gospel of justification by faith alone on account of Christ alone, and the historic liturgy of the Divine Service as the principal forum in which we receive that gift of salvation.