The Boy Became A Man  ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

Some years ago I first heard a recording made at a wonderful Christmas Festival Concert led by the musician Rob Mathes. A sincere and devoted disciple of Jesus, he brought his amazing musical artistry to the production, which included a number of his own songs. One of them that has remained with me is titled “When the Baby Grew Up.” It reminds the listener that the whole point of Christmas is not a baby lying in a manger, but the birth of a Savior King. In the chorus to that song Rob sings: “But when the baby grew up the boy became a man…and led my soul to the promised land.” It is a reminder needed by all of us.

The Book of Common Prayer, when first published in 1549, included as the Collect for Christmas Day the prayer that all those who were hearing “being regenerate, and made [God’s] children by adoption and grace” would “daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit….” It was a manifest indication that the English Reformation was taking its stand on the clear call of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He came that all who believed might have new life in him, and grow into the fulness of God’s purpose for each of his children. It was a prayer for people to grow up into manhood and womanhood in Christ Jesus.

Modern Christmas celebrations have taken a further and further turn from the hopes of the English Reformers. Slowly but surely the festival has ceased to be one dominated by the church and her family of believers (though the very name still given to the feast signifies Christian worship), and it does little good to complain about this in the West. The culture has largely abandoned the true meaning of the day, but the faithful church has not. We do come still in awe and wonder to Bethlehem. But we do not stop there. The boy became a man. Our joy is not temporary, it is leading us to eternity.

Nevertheless we must face hard truths. All around us are those who decorate their trees and houses, share in gift giving, and even enter into a temporary focus on friends and family, only to resume their lives without God on the day after Christmas. They have not been “regenerated” (born again) of the Spirit of God. They have not become “new creatures” in Christ Jesus, even if they came to our Christmas services. They are focused on the child in the crib for a moment, but they do not understand the story.

No one but the church can tell the true story, and that means the ordinary believer must do it. It will never again be central to this land or its people unless it becomes the pattern of ordinary believers to share it, as led by the Lord, on the other 364 days of the year. Still, if the life is not lived, with convicting grace, the words will fall to the ground. Our churches must become known, again, for a pattern of life so attractive and compelling to unbelievers, that many of them begin the journey home to God who made them.

This Christmas, can we all begin again to pray for this grace to be given to us? Can we begin to pray that the behavior of the whole body will be lifted to a higher place?

 

Next Week: Can A Church Be Reborn?

The Marks of Faithfulness?  ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

There is a clear reality facing the faithful in the 21st Century: The church in the motherland has been in a precipitous decline for well over a century and a half, if not longer. And what is true in England is true wherever the culture of the British People has become dominant. Though there has grown up an Anglican expression of the church in over 150 nations, few of those churches are having a significant influence in their culture, and many of them are in serious decline. It seems increasingly clear that what has been promulgated in many places was often a traditional British Culture, with a Christian Church as part of it, rather than the kingdom of God as preached by the Lord of the Church. This was not what Cranmer saw. He saw a church submitted to Christ.

How did this happen?

The Anglican Church in North America, in their new prayer book of 2019, acknowledges in the preface that “three centuries of colonial expansion…exported the Book of Common Prayer to countless cultures and people groups the world over.” That same preface goes on to suggest that what “Cranmer’s originating vision” points toward a “missional” intent. Yet overwhelmingly the Anglican expression of the faith, in North America  and much of the world, takes on a gathered rather than a scattered, or missional, form. The parish church, with a pastoral leader, has become the norm.

Some time ago a dear brother in Christ taught me the following saying: “If you are not doing it, it is not in your DNA.” If we say we are missional, but are efforts, our budgets, our programs, our documents, even our worship, are focused on those who come through our doors voluntarily – are we truly missionary? If the resources of our local congregations are overwhelmingly used to maintain what already exists, or to enhance it, are we being truly obedient?

The Church of England and her progeny have become captive to a pastoral pattern of ministry that is not apostolic in effect, however much Anglicans protest to the contrary.

But how do we know what the Lord of the Church desires? Faithful Christians have only ever given one answer: We must read the New Testament Gospels. To argue otherwise is to separate oneself from all the evidence of the first centuries of the churches existence. From the moment the Holy Spirit moved in the hearts and minds of the witnesses to write down what they had seen and heard, the church submitted to that written Word. Did the Lord Jesus Christ teach us to repent? We must repent. Did he teach us to come to him in faith? We must come to him in faith. Did he teach us to learn from his teaching? We must learn from his teaching. Did he unequivocally teach us that obedience to his word is the mark of a true disciple? Then we must become obedient to his clear word. These are the marks of faithfulness.

Next Week: The Boy Became A Man

The Pastoral Captivity of the Church    ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

If it is true that Thomas Cranmer set the English Church a godly standard, a righteous plumb line, in the 16th Century – that is that the “doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ” are what a faithful church and people must maintain and live, as I believe it is right to assert, then the question that must be asked is this: Have Anglicans maintained and propagated the essential truths of the gospel as they were first preached in the apostolic era, and as they first came to Britain?

The early Church expanded spontaneously for centuries when those truths were preached and lived, and the same reality accompanied its arrival in Romano-Britain. For centuries there was apostolic and evangelical faithfulness, until nearly every corner of Britain was churched. The truth of the gospel became the heart of the culture for several centuries. Seasons of faithfulness produced stunning achievements, in arts, architecture, and literature. Monastic communities blanketed the land. The age of the cathedrals left a mark that remains breathtakingly inspirational. Yet gradually England became more and more nominally Christian, with periods of grace and light interspersed with darkness. External religion, for many, supplanted the heart reality. By the time of the Reformation the clear preaching of the gospel was rare indeed. When the Reformation prevailed in England the leaders were determined to change that. A Reformed Catholic Church was bequeathed to us.

For nearly five hundred years faithful Christians in the Anglican Family have believed they were maintaining the truths we are discussing. Good and holy men and women died rather than deny them. Yet little by little the effect of that reform has diminished into inconsequence, so far as the great majority of the English People are concerned. The proportion of that nation that is actively involved in the life of the Church of England has been in decline for centuries. Today it is less than 3% of the total. But the patterns of the 16th Century continue unabated. The clergy struggle to care for those in their parishes following ministry patterns that have long since ceased to be effective for the spread of the kingdom of God. Pastoral care defines “the ministry,” rather than obedience to the great Final Command.

The pastoral captivity of the Church did not occur suddenly. The source is written in the DNA of 16th Century Anglicanism, and has continued to express itself in every age since. When men have risen up to challenge it, the institutional forces of the established order have generally done one of two things. The most noticeable is to domesticate them. An old joke runs: “How does the Church of England deal with prophets? She makes them bishops.” The second pattern, and the most common one, is she excludes them. Formally or informally, canonically or culturally, those who do not conform to the received patterns are separated out from the family.

The pastoral care of the converted is a dominical command. But so is the mission of taking the gospel to all people.

 

Next Week: The Marks of Faithfulness?

The Church and Her Missing Mission   ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

We left last week asserting that the 16th Century Reformation in England was focused on the ministry task of bringing the Church in England into a more perfect alignment with the teaching of Jesus Christ, and his command to his followers to be a disciple-making people. We believe it to be irrefutable that the leaders of the Church in that era longed for the community of the faithful to be guided by the Lord of the Church under the authority of the Holy Scriptures. And further, that they believed that much that had  been added to the church through the centuries was not in accord with that godly aim. They, rightly, saw the most critical need of their ministry to be the reform of the clergy and churches of England. But their vision stopped there. The Risen Lord Jesus had left a Final Command to the church to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Faithful followers had brought it to Britains shores, for which the reformers gave thanks, but few saw anything beyond those shores to be their concern.

Using language familiar to us today, we can say that they were almost entirely focused on only a portion of the full ministerial calling said, by the Apostle Paul, to be necessary for the well being of the church and the equipping of her people. They were focused on the pastoral task of caring for and teaching the already baptized. They assumed the conversion of the English People to be something accomplished in the past, and that they now, like Timothy and Titus of old, were to put things in order. All the energy and focus of the clergy was to be on bringing the already Christian to a right understanding and submission to the Word of God. The apostolic task, the prophetic task, and the evangelistic task, so far as they were offices, or ministry assignments, gifted by the Holy Spirit and needed in the Church, all these were a thing of the past.

Historical and documentary evidence of this is available to anyone who has ever spent time with the writings from the 16th Century, with one signal exception. The Ordinal of Thomas Cranmer published in AD 1550. In that Ordinal every priest ordained is said by the bishop (after the solemn invocation of the Holy Spirit) to be called “to the same Office and Ministry” that the Risen Lord Jesus “sent abroad into the world,” that is “his Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Doctors, and Pastors.” Cranmer understood the presbyteral, or priestly, ministry – in a local congregation – to be in direct succession to that of the apostolic era. All the ministerial functions bequeathed to the apostolic church of the First Century were bequeathed to those ordained to care for and strengthen the local congregation.

The theological weight of this fact has largely been lost to Anglican history. We will return to its potential significance in later blogs, but for now we simply focus on one question. What of the mission to the lost beyond the boundaries of the parish?  Overwhelmingly, those ordained to lead in the Church of England, and in all her daughters, have seen their ministry to be to those already gathered. Yet the Lord came to “seek and to save that which was lost.” What about those not baptized? Those not believers? What of those beyond the boundaries? Where is that mission?

 

Next Week:  The Pastoral Captivity of the Church

Cranmer’s Standard Examined (III)   ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

The final phrase in Cranmer’s tri-fold vow, still required of all the clergy, was that which pledged loyalty to “the discipline of Christ.” Again, as we have been arguing, that vow was enunciated and promulgated in the context of the only faith which was received by the Church in Britain from the beginning. That faith was the Apostolic Faith, and to pass it on required discipline. But it was not the discipline of men, adding on to that of Christ, but that discipline which came directly from the Master through his appointed messengers. It was about the things required so that the faith would be truly lived by one generation and also passed on to new generations. “The promise,” said Peter on the day of Pentecost, “is to you and to your children, and to your children’s children. To all who call on the name of the Lord.” Without the “discipline of Christ” this will never happen.

To twenty-first century ears, the word “discipline” conjures up images associated with the correction of error. Sometimes images and memories that are extremely unpleasant. But this is not what Cranmer meant. The word in the 16th century still retained its ancient meaning of “training.” Discipline was the path of learning that which a “master” could teach. When anyone became a Christian they had to submit to the discipline of learning to follow the Master.The only way to be a true disciple of Jesus was to walk in the discipline of Jesus. What Jesus taught was not optional.

It was this discipline that was to be maintained in the church, and upheld by her leaders. This discipline had been corrupted, the reformers believed, and had to be reestablished.

What was that discipline?

It was the discipline that taught a believer to follow Christ Jesus with their whole life, and to be ever ready to help another follow as well. It was to learn to be a true disciple, abiding in the word of the Lord, and one who then proved to be a disciple-making disciple. The discipline was that needed to become dependent on none other than the Lord Jesus, and the discipline that enabled the believer to follow him to their life’s end. This discipline taught how to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, and to be guided aright by his teaching. Every believer was to become a fruitful believer for the kingdom of God. This meant not simply having a personal faith, not only taking their place in the community of believers gathered for worship, but becoming a multiplying faithful follower. This was the purpose of all discipline.

In Cranmer’s day, the outward and visible life and practice of the church was refocused on this outcome. The truth of the gospel was to be preached and lived in the local church, and all the members thereof were to be formed into Christ. “The doctrine, sacraments, and discipline of Christ” were believed to be transformative. Every part of the church’s life and teaching, all her externals, were designed to bring the nations into the kingdom of God. Beginning with England.

 

Next Week: The Church and Her Missing Mission

Cranmer’s Standard Examined (II)   ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

Thomas Cranmer called the leaders of the church in his day to faithfulness to the “sacraments of Christ…as this Church has received the same.” The Anglican clergy of the subsequent centuries have all promised fidelity to this statement. What did the archbishop martyr mean?

The first and certain answer is that he meant the sacraments of the gospel, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.” All other “so called sacraments” were not to be accorded the same place in the life of the church as these two dominical ones. They were the sacraments that gave voice to “the truth of the gospel” in an “outward and visible” way. They did not add to the gospel, they reinforced it. One of them, Holy Baptism, enshrined the necessary understanding and faith required to begin the Christian Journey. The other, Holy Communion, enshrined the necessary understanding and faith required to be sustained on that journey. These sacraments gave liturgical clarity to the “doctrine of Christ” which was at the heart of the churches life and witness.

It is an ancient teaching that what is essential to the Christian Faith is that which is required of an adult at baptism. What then did Cranmer understand to be essential? Clearly he meant to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ sufficiently to repent of one’s sins and turn to Christ. This meant to understand the atoning death of the Lord Jesus on the cross, and to yield one’s life to him. There must be clear evidence that this faith has been wrought by the Spirit of God, and is not just a formal action. There must be evidence that he understands the rule of faith as contained in the creed, the commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. This is the school of preparation. Only then was a man to be baptized. It was a step to be taken by faith.

Having been baptized, the new believer was bidden to come to the Table of the Lord, to receive the “bread of angels” given for all who would follow and serve the Lord Jesus. The communion in the body and blood, the bread and the wine, received by faith, was the only once offered, but to be continually received, spiritual sustenance for true believers. It was not magic, but a holy mystery of the first order, that rightly received united the believer to his Risen Lord, and strengthened him for service. Without feeding upon the Lord it was impossible to grow up into maturity. This sacrament was not to be neglected or despised, since the Lord had commanded it to be at the center of the church’s life on the night before he died. To be “his disciple” and abstain from the Holy Table was to risk proving oneself to be outside the covenant of grace. But no one was to come lightly or unadvisedly to that table, for to do so put one’s eternal salvation in jeopardy. It was a step to be taken by faith.

These two sacraments were the only two received by the Church of England in the beginning. The “doctrine of Christ” was contained in them, and the liturgy of the church sought to make that doctrine unmistakably clear.

 

Next Week: Cranmer’s Standard Examined (III)

Cranmer’s Standard Examined (I)  ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

How then can we decide what is the “doctrine of Christ” that first came to ancient Britain, and that is the foundation for the faith of all those who call themselves Christians  and have received that faith because it first came there? Two answers, and two only, have been given to that question historically.

The first says we must “listen to the church.” The Church of Rome has codified this answer with a rigidity that excludes nearly all other churches from the name “church”, no matter how ancient, or theologically coherent, their claim. The Bishop of Rome, speaking through “the magisterium” of bishops in communion with him has uttered it. To not be in communion with the Bishop of Rome is to not be a true part of the catholic (universal) church. It is the Roman Catholic Church alone that can tell us what is the “doctrine of Christ.”

This answer was rejected by the Church of England in the16th century, and it must still be rejected today. No specifically Anglican version of this answer may be tolerated either. The church does have authority in matters of faith, but it does not invent that faith.

The second answer, anciently agreed, is that the New Testament is the only sure ground upon which the “doctrine of Christ” can be found. From the earliest surviving records we see all the godly leadership of the church appealing to what Jesus taught and the apostles explicated, as that is contained in the scripture. No holy leader dared to undermine what the apostles taught. There were disputes about details, to be sure, but gradually the whole church agreed that God himself had bequeathed the New Testament writings to the church as the revelation binding all believers in Christ. Rightly expounded these writings delineated the boundaries of true faith. This is what Cranmer meant by “the doctrine of Christ.”

This answer was that of the Church of England in the 16th century, and remains her stated claim, once all the manifold accretions to her faith and practice are stripped away. Every attempt to remove this central truth (and there have been and are many) has been resisted by a faithful remnant. Without this answer articulated, believed, and promulgated, the heritage of the Church of England becomes little more than a “mess of pottage.” The doctrine of the church is the apostolic teaching of Jesus found in the New Testament. Faithful leaders are to expound it and live it.

What then can give us detailed clarity for the new day we are facing? What will we say is the “doctrine” in our own time of trial and challenge? The answer is not simple, for the New Testament is a revelation containing manifold perspectives on the one central truth that the Son of God has come among us, and given his life for the sins of the world. Yet, our fathers dared to suggest what was essential by enunciating it in the baptismal liturgy, and the Eucharistic liturgy, of the church. There is found the “doctrine of Christ.”

 

Next Week: Cranmer’s Standard Examined (II)