Adrian Chatfield's talk at the 2009 Fulcrum Conference
Fulcrum Conference London 2009
Saturday 16 May 2009, 10am to 4pm
Spirituality of Unity
Adrian ChatfieldDirector, Simeon Centre for Spirituality, Ridley Hall, Cambridge
Forty one years ago, I arrived at Leeds University from the West Indies, a product of the Middle Passage and of the carving up of the British Empire into Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic territories. The Caribbean, after the 1830s, was ceded by CMS to SPG. I knew nothing of Anglicanism Evangelicalism, and it was a while before I heard that there had been some kind of meeting at Keele a year before.
What I met was a group of young, keen, argumentative, competitive and extremely zealous Christians my own age – I eventually married one, but that’s another story! I soon learnt that I was probably not a Christian, certainly not a sound one, and either I needed to be converted, or put straight, or filled with the Holy Spirit, or all these. Over the months that followed, somewhat bemused, I discovered an underlying faith that was deeply attractive (that is, beautiful, magnetic, welcoming), energetic, exciting, which made sense of my clear, deeply-held pietistic Catholicism, and which has held me ever since.
What I received from speakers like David Watson, David McInnes, Michael Harper and Arthur Wallis, but more from my fellow students, was both invitation and challenge to understand my faith, give an account of it whenever it was called for (they called it giving your testimony), explain it to scoffers and doubters, proclaim it to the ignorant and experience it profoundly. It felt like waking up, so much so that I have been happy to call myself an evangelical with a small ‘e’ ever since, though the internal politics and finer points of the capital 'E' version have often passed me by.
En passant, this open evangelical thinks that the spirituality of evangelicalism must be spelt with a small ‘e’ and a capital 'U', and my conclusion will be that the spirituality of evangelicalism is, ipso facto, a spirituality of unity.
Cross and New Birth
I already knew that the atoning death of Christ on the cross was an objective act of grace in which I was not a participant, but a recipient. This I knew from the creeds, the scriptures and the great ceremonies of Holy Week. I had learnt that this was sheer grace – but the distribution of this grace occurred through the seven sacraments. I now discovered that this was no mere conduit of God’s saving work from the cross through the church, ministered to us by its priests. This was grace for me, wretched sinner, received back as the Prodigal Son through repentance: truly I stood at the foot of the cross. This cross would imprint not only my understanding of my entry into the Kingdom, but the whole of the rest of my life. Roy Hession's The Calvary Road, a popular target for theological ridicule on the internet these days, helped me to see that for the rest of my life I would take my stand ‘beneath the cross of Jesus.’
When I gave my testimony that I too knew Jesus as my Saviour and Lord, indeed couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t, at a barn meeting in Beresford Dale in Derbyshire, they sang for me ‘I don’t know what day it was, but somebody touched me’ and rejoiced with me. This was a deep experience of unity in Christ, through the cross. Calvinists, Charismatics or even Catholics we may have been, Anglicans, Baptists and the rest, but what held us together was a common experience which levelled us all, and then raised us jointly to the status of saints. I felt as if I was coming home.
The spirituality of unity is the spirituality of a people united through the blood of Christ, and until the institutional church reasserted its control, we were free together – overwhelmed by joy. I have no doubt that this was a strong and rich form of British Pietism, of the kind that informed much of the 18th century revivals through the influence of the Moravians, and the Second Evangelical Awakening of the 19th century, and I long for its resurgence. It is for me also the spirituality of revival.
In an early mental draft of this talk, I thought of grounding it in a series of scripture passages. If I had done so, this section would have been an exegesis of 1 Corinthians 1, which is precisely about the unity of spirit that comes from knowing Christ, and him crucified, so let me conclude Part 1 with a few verses, set within the warning to ‘be in agreement and that there should be no division among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.’ We are called into the unity of the cross of Christ crucified, which to those who are called, ‘both Jews and Greeks, [is] Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’
Those of us who were undergraduates in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, evangelical or otherwise, were regarded with considerable suspicion by the rest of the CU because we did more than read the Bible and interpret it with the current hermeneutic, either cessationist or ecstatic. We critiqued it, examined it, tore it apart (and the late 60s was the age of analysis rather than of synthesis). We struggled with the scriptures. Sometimes we didn’t like them, or we found that they didn’t quite contain the ready-packaged answers when lives fell apart, when we dried up and couldn’t pray, when tragedy struck.
I had grown up in a home where the Bible was taken for granted as the Word of God, but that didn’t mean package, solution, or badge of honour. Being amongst evangelicals who – at least among the theologs – read the Bible as an open text, from God, absolutely inspired, often unclear, we felt that we were facing an alien text, spoken by another, which both drew and repelled, terrified and yet opened doors into a world we were only just belonging to glimpse. The Word of God was a living Word, sharper than a two-edged sword, and we cut ourselves on it often.
What has this got to do with the spirituality of unity? First, that we were united in a journey of exploration, as disciples of Christ, who knew that there were risks involved, but that we were journeying with Christ. Though that might be a bruising experience, it would be the way of the cross, and lead ultimately to the Father. Secondly, and related, we often fought each other tooth and nail, but we fought as friends and colleagues who knew that wrestling together led to a greater intimacy with God and with one another. We made mistake after mistake, but I am often comforted by the fact that many – probably most – of us are still in key Christian roles in what I would call evangelical contexts, certainly not ordained (and that’s part of the evangelical levelling), but in the battlefield. We fought like only family can fight, but much of the time, we fought each other, and at the same time fought to stay together. Dare I call this koinonia?
Thirdly, there were boundaries, and though we often walked right up to them, we knew that there were limits. This is something that I have always wrestled with. I know that there must be boundaries. There are signs in the Kingdom of God that say No Entry. There were people who walked through and got hurt; a few lost their faith. So we knew and experienced the fact that some of our friends went beyond the pale. I think it is true to say, however, that most of the time they placed themselves beyond the pale: we rarely excommunicated them. Our spirituality was not crypto-Amish, exercising the ban at every possible opportunity. We loved those who strayed; we wept for them; we railed at them, precisely because they were our friends.
We were, after all, blood-brothers and sisters, united by the blood of Christ, and one of my abiding memories of then, and of evangelicals with whom I work now, is of the extraordinary hospitality, generosity of spirit, and such a hunger to hear of what God is doing that every Christian who crosses the threshold brings a blessing from God.
Again, in ending this section, from Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer of John 17, strong words in his plea to the Father for unity: ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I cam from you; and they believed that you sent me.’
So for me, a spirituality of unity is  cruciform;  rooted in the Word (I don’t like Bebbington’s word ‘biblicist’1); and  missional – he would say activist, which always sounds to me like a recipe for stress and disorder. It’s what, at the first so-called World Conference on Missions, one speaker called a true missionary spirit, which depends on the number of truly converted hearts, and which excites and maintains a spirit of vital godliness and living faith. Though they did not know the word, and might have eschewed it in its later manifestations, the proceedings of the conference were marked by a spirituality of unity rooted in the common purpose of saving souls. Let me read further:
'The object of our missionary enterprise is the ultimate ruin of the empire of Satan by the establishment in every heart of the throne of the Lord Jesus. The human means for accomplishing this object is the proclamation, in all its simplicity, of that gospel which is "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth;" and which we are bound by the command of the everlasting God to proclaim "for a witness to His Name," and "for the obedience of faith." It follows, that none but the subjects of divine grace can be animated by a true missionary spirit. The increase of the missionary spirit, therefore, depends upon the number of truly converted hearts. Therefore every labour for the advancement of true religion, and all that tends to excite and maintain a spirit of vital godliness and living faith, will tend to excite and maintain a missionary spirit; and although a revival may not be attended by an immediate increase in the aid afforded to Christian missions, yet such revival will speedily multiply the zeal, the self-denial, the money, the men, the missionary prayers and thanksgivings, which indicate the existence of a spirit of aggressive Christianity in a church, and in individual disciples of the Redeemer.'2
It’s a simple principle: an outward-looking spirituality, which cares more for a dying world than for the internal politics of the church, is a spirituality which unites us, because we share a common God-given cause, serving the Missio Dei by breaking the chains of captives, physical, social and spiritual. Only the other day I was encouraged by talking to a catholic-minded bishop who said to me, 'I have grown to appreciate evangelicalism, and value sacred scripture much more than I did when I was at College.' And then, speaking of one of his evangelical clergy, he said how much he valued his evangelistic ministry in the diocese, the change it had brought in the church, and how much he missed him. Catholic bishop and evangelical charismatic priest held together in a spirit of unity by an outward focus on the work of God.
Limits and constraints
All the while I have been speaking, there has been a contrary [contrary?] voice in my head, which keeps asking the question how far I can go. I know that my human psychology predisposes me to minimise the differences: I am a pastor, a reconciler, an eternal optimist. But the gospel contains a strong thread of judgement, and the obverse of the love of God is the wrath of God. Is there ever a time when I must, in the name of truth, draw the line, pull up the drawbridge, or, to mix my metaphors, desert the sinking ship? When must I set aside Jesus’ high priestly prayer for the sake of the holiness of the church?
Over the years, and not just in the present situation, I have resolved three things in answer to this:
- The Anglican church remains a true part of the church of Jesus Christ as long as the cross is central, salvation is received rather than earned, the Bible is received and read as the inspired and living Word of God, and our obedience to God is lived out missionally. This remains true of Anglicanism both in formularies and in practice, not throughout, but extensively. It is especially true of Anglican evangelicalism. And as long as it remains a church, we are called to reform, revive and renew it – as Michael Lawson reminded the Ridley Hall community last Thursday. We are not called to create a new church.
- I am comfortable with this as long as I and those with whom I share this vision have the authority, the ability and the energy to engage with other like-minded Anglicans to bring about change. Speaking popularly, I’m damned if I'll let the unorthodox or the revisionists get control. I'm in for the fight.
- And God - as I read my church history - continues to work on both sides of such conflicts, as we now see of the 16th century Reformations, though at the time, most did not believe so.
I surprised a group of Cursillistas two months ago by saying that I was proud to be an Anglican, and that I thank God that I was raised in the faith by committed Christians of this ilk. I stand by this, and thank God further that the unity of the church resides not in our success or failure to agree, but in Christ himself. He has invested too much in the church for me to throw it away on his behalf, and I am confident enough that in 20 years time, I will still be fighting, and still calling myself an Anglican.
1 To David Bebbington’s fourfold  conversionism;  Biblicism;  activism;  crucicentrism; Michael Lawson added  preaching and  metanarrative, as marks of evangelicalism. See Bebbington’s The Dominance of Evangelicalism.
2 Conference on Missions Held in 1860 at Liverpool, London: James Nisbet, 1860, page 59
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum