Christianity in Transition
From Supernaturalism to Humanism
Darryl Milner, BA(Hons.), Dip. Theol.
(Anglican) Vicar of Northcote, Auckland.
On May 11 2002, the Auckland Central group held a one-day conference, on the theme: Christianity in Transition, From Supernaturalism to Humanism. Lloyd Geering spoke first tracing changes in our understanding of religious experience since the Enlig
The second speaker was Reverend Darryl Milner, who spoke from the point of view of a parish minister, applying the conference theme to how we retain and live by the lasting Christian values from the past, in a very different world. This is Darryl's tal
k, in full.
"How do we retain, and live by, the lasting Christian values of the past in a very
I was enormously honoured when Owen Lewis rang me and asked me to be one of
the two speakers at today's conference - particularly as Lloyd was to be the other speaker.
Lloyd has long been an inspiration to me and one of the clearest thinkers and lecturers I
have ever had the privilege of hearing. I said "Yes" without any hesitation. It was only when I
had got off the phone that I realised what I had let myself in for! Following Lloyd is not an
One of the things that makes Lloyd a mentor figure for me, is, that like Don Cupift,
he is always that much further ahead of me in my thinking. Whenever I had doubts about
where my thinking was taking me, I looked up and saw Lloyd and Don out there, ahead of
me, and they hadn't sailed over the edge of the world yet!!
I am a Parish minister open to the new insights that Lloyd, Don Cupitt and the
Jesus Seminar scholars are presenting to us. This does not mean I agree with everything
they say, but disagreeing often helps me to clarify what it is I do think and believe. And whenever any of my Parishioners are troubled about what I am saying, I can always comfort
them by reminding them I am not as radical as either Lloyd or Don!
It is from my position as a parish minister that I want to address the second part of
the theme for today: "How do we retain, and Iive by, the lasting Christian values of the
past in a very different worid". Although I struggle with the Church, living in a mixed
love/hate relationship with the institution, I recognise that it has shaped me irrevocably,
and I believe, if only it will honestly face up to the challenges facing it, it can still contribute
significantly to the emerging new world. The unwillingness and inertia of large sections of the
church, to openly debate the deep theological issues confronting it, in my worst moments,
tempt me to despair of it, and I see more hope for the future in the emerging alternative faith
communities that someone like Rosemary Neave has been exploring and which she shared
with us at last year's Sea of Faith Conference. But I haven't given up on it yet!
I will be speaking quite a lot about my own experience, and that of my parish, in
this talk. This is not to claim that I, or we, have found the answers to the question we are
addressing. The topic is a vast one and I feel I can only speak out of my own experience, and
offer that of my parish, as a 'case study', or illustration, for you to use as you grapple in your
groups with the issues of our conference. I welcome vigorous challenge and criticism of what
I say, and because some of it is personal, I trust it will enable, rather than inhibit, your
I find my thinking closer to that of two other Anglicans, both Bishops. One is
Richard Holloway, the retired Bishop of Edinburgh. He is quoted in a review of his recent
book, Doubts and Loves, in the latest SOF Newsletter as saying that:
"The needle on my own dial trembles midway between non-realism (God is a human
invention) and critical realism (there is a mystery out there, but we are inextricably
involved in its interpretation and can never get it with complete purity). Holloway is
haunted by the sacred, the other, the sheer strangeness of existence which invites us to
The other is Bishop John Spong. To many of you neither of them may appear very
radical, but to most people the Church, both are considered very radical, while Lloyd and
Don have disappeared beyond their horizons!
I find myself in full agreement with these words of John Spong:
believe that God is real and that the insatiable human quest for meaning is found in that
reality. This means that in the last analysis I do not accept the premise that there is
nothing to religious systems except human constructs built only by human need. I do not
believe that the rellgious yearnings of human beings are simply the infantile projections of
a frightened, dependent creature. I rather am convinced that something within human life
always drives us beyond our limits into otherness, into the experience of transcendence,
into the core of being itself that I can still use the word God to describe. I experience this
God as the depth dimension of my humanioty, and I believe this dimension is not an
illusion, but a reality which I trust."
"...the distinction must be grasped between an experience of God which I regard as both
real and timeless and any subeequent explanation of that God experience which is always
compromised, and transitory. In our generation it is the God explanations that have
become bankrupt, not the primary experience which called these experiences into being.
Every human explanation is always and inevitably time bound and thus warped by the
particularity of the one doing the explaining I consign to the world of explanation our
scriptures, our creeds, our liturgies, our doctrines, our dogmas and all aspects of our
theological systems. I regard none of them as eternal and I am convinced that all of them
are capable of being abandoned by believers, at least in any literal sense, without
abandoning the reality of the experience of God, even the God experienced in Christ. To
that extent I am called by some of my critics a non-realist. But my commitment to
non-realism ceases when I move beyond the explanations of the experience on which the
explanation rests. For the God I meet experientially, the God who cannot be described
intellectually, the God who cannot even be named without distorting the reality to which
that flame points, that God I am convinced is real."
And to clarify, he adds this footnote:
"I agree that all god talk is a human construct. But I believe that we have god talk
because there is a reality to which the word God points, and that reality is more than a
I think it only fair to clarify that, so that you know roughly from where I am coming
as I speak to you today a position of 'critical realism'.
Now to business!
We have heard Lloyd speak about how our perception of the world has changed.
We will never recapture the way of looking at the world our predecessors took for granted.
The whole way we expressed our Christian faith must therefore change. So Robert Funk,
writing in his introductory essay to the book The Once and Future Church says:
"We need to conceive a faith that reconciles our need to know historically and
scientifically with our need to create symbols and form myths ... The initial problem we
face is the extent to which we know, or think we know, contravenes the myths we have
inherited ... Many of the biblical myths we have inherited are at odds with aspects of our
knowledge of the physical universe. We cannot simply ignore these discrepancies."
We have to think differently about prayer and worship, two of the most
characteristic expressions of 'faith' in the past. I thought I would use my hour today to share
with you some of what I have tried to do in a fairly ordinary, typical Anglican parish over the
last 20 years to help people 'retain, and live by the lasting Christian values of the past
in a very different world.' Much of the change we have managed will, perhaps, seem rather
too little too late to the more radical amongst you, but I have had to keep a parish together, a
parish made up of the usual diverse mix of conservatives and radicals, caring for them all,
and not alienating anyone more than is absolutely necessary.
There is more to it than simply that. The research of James Fowler and the writing
of M. Scoot Peck about the stages of spiritual development have made me aware that
different people are at very different stages in their personal and spiritual development. I
have shared some of what I have learned about this with both the Auckland Sea of Faith
Group and with a workshop at last year's annual conference, but it may be helpful for others
if I summarise, as briefly as I can, the analysis found in M Scott Peck's book Further Along
The Road Less Travelled. His analysis is based on the work of James Fowler, a Professor
at the Chandler School of Theology at Emory university and especially his book Stages of
Growth. Scott Peck simplifies Fowler's six stages into four, but is saying essentially the same
thing, though his understanding comes directly out of his own life experience and work as a
Stage 1. Chaotic/Antisocial.
Scott Peck calls this stage Chaotic/Antisocial. This stage probably encompasses
20% of the population.
"This is a stage of absent spirituality and people at this stage are utterly unprincipled. I
call it antisocial because while they are capable of pretending to be loving, actually all
their relationships with others are self-serving, and covertly, if not overtly, manipulative.
Chaotic because, being unprincipled, they have no mechanism that might govern them
other than their own will. Since the unharnessed will can go this way one day and that
way the next, their being is consequently chaotic. Because it is, people at this stage will
frequently be in trouble or difficulty, and often in jails or hospilals or out on the street.
Some of them, however, may actually be quite self-disciplined from time to time, in the
service of their anthion and may rise to posidons of considerable prestige and power.
They may even become presidents or famous preachers."
Such people sometimes get in touch with the chaos of their own being. The devastating pain of
this may lead them to therapy, suicide or sometimes "conversion as unconsciously they seek liberation
by submitting themselves to an institution for their governance. So it is that they "convert" to Stage Two.
Stage 2. Formal/Institutional
Institutional because at this stage the person is dependant upon an institution for
their governance. For some it may be a prison, for many, the army or a highly organised
business corporation. For most people it is the church! The majority of churchgoers fall into
Stage 2, the formal/institutional stage. Scott Peck calls it 'formal" because people in Stage 2
are very attached to the forms of their religion and become very, very upset if someone starts
changing the forms, or rituals, altering their liturgy or introducing new hymns! They depend
upon these forms to some extent for their liberation from chaos. In this stage their vision of
God is almost entirely of an external being. They think almost totally of God as 'up there',
'out there' and have almost no awareness of God as immanent, dwelling within the human
spirit. God is usually masculine. He is loving but with a kind of punitive power he is not afraid to use on appropriate occasions.
"It is a vision of God as a giant benevolent cop in the sky. And in many ways, this is exactly the kind of God people in Stage Two need."
The children raised in the home of such churchgoing Stage 2 parents will grow up in a
stable, loving home and be treated with dignity and importance because that is what the
church teaches. They will absorb their parents religious principles whatever religion it
happens to be like mother's milk. By adolescence they will have been internalised or
engraved on their hearts. Once this happens they will have become principled,
self-governing beings who no longer need to depend upon an institution for their governance.
So they start saying, "Who needs these silly myths and superstitions and this fuddy-duddy
old institution?" To their parents' horror they will begin, often in adolescence, to fall away
from the church and become doubters, agnostics or atheists! They have begun to 'convert'
to Stage 3!
Stage 3. Sceptic/Agnostic
Although not "religious" in the ordinary sense of the word, they are ahead of people in
Stage 2 in their spirituality. They are not the least bit antisocial. They are often deeply
involved in the life of their community and environmentally aware. They make committed and
loving parents and are invariably truth-seekers, often with a scientific bent. If they search
deeply and widely enough they begin to catch glimpses of the "the big picture" and see that it is not only beautiful but also strangely resembles the primitive myths and superstitions of their Stage 2 parents and grandparents! It is at this point that the
to "convert" to Stage 4.
Stage 4. Mystical/Communal
Mystics are the sort of people who have begun to see below the surface of things and find
connections between men and women, between humans and other creatures, between
people walking the earth and those who aren't even here. They speak often of paradox. They
"They love to solve mysteries, and yet at the same time, they know that the more they
solve, the more mystery they are going to encounter. But they are comfortable living in a
world of mystery, whereas people on Stage Two are most uncomfortable when things
aren't cut and dried."
One of the things that characterises all of the world's great religions is that they seem
to have the capacity to speak to people in both Stage 2 and Stage 4. It is as if the very
teachings of a given religion have two different translaUons
"To take an example from Judaism. Psalm 111 ends with "The fear of the Lord is the
beginning of wisdom". At Stage Two this is translated to mean "When you start fearing
that big cop in the sky, you really wise up." That's true. At Stage Four it is translated to
mean "The awe of God shows you the way to enlightenment" And that is also true".
This quality of being able to hold two or more equally valid ways of being understood
is what makes the great religions "great"! The problem is that this duality is the very thing that creates a sense of threat within these religions.
Scott Peck writes:
"... to some extent, we all may be threatened by the people still in the stage we
have just left, because we may not yet be sure or secure in our new identity. But for the
most part the threat goes the other way, and we particularly tend to be threatened by
people in the stages ahead of us.
We need to remind ourselves that appearances can be misleading. People can
appear to be in one Stage and yet in reality be somewhere else entirely. For example, some
people appear to be faithful church attenders and at first glance appear to be firmly in Stage
2, but inwardly they are dissatisfied with their religion and sceptical of it and have become
very scientifically minded. Dr. Savage calls them "Cynics". Others, of course, are known as
"backsliders", slipping back from Stage 2 to Stage 1, sometimes repeatedly! Others bounce
back and forth between one stage and another, particularly at times of stress, not fully
developing within the next Stage into which they have begun to grow.
People in Stage One will often tend to appear like cool cats seemingly nothing
bothers then very much. But if you are able to penetrate that facade, you will find
[that] they we terrified of virtually everything and everyone.
People in Stage Two are not particularly threatened by the Stage One people:
the sinners. They love the sinners, seeing them as fertile ground for their ministrations.
But they tend to be threatened by the skeptic individualists of Stage Three, and more
than anything, by the Stage Four people, who seem to believe the same thing they
believe in and yet believe with a kind of freedom they find absolutely terrifying.
Stage Three people, the skeptics, are not particularly threatened by the unprincipled
people of Stage One, or by the Stage Two people, whom they simply toss off as
superstitious idiots. But once again, they tend to be threatened by Stage Four people,
who seem to be scientific-minded like them and know how to write good footnotes, yet
still somehow believe in this crazy God business."
Scott Peck says that it is not possible to skip over any of these stages, though
some people develop through some stages more quickly than do others. It is also quite
possible to get "stuck" or arrested in one or other Stage. He also says that no matter how far
any of us develops, we all retain vestiges of earlier Stages and in times of stress it is easy to
regress. But we all, also, have the vestiges of the more advanced stages within us. As Oscar
Wilde put it, "Every saint has a past and every sinner a future." And always we need to
remember that Stage Four is only the beginning, he says.
These differences need to be understood and respected. One of the jobs of a
parish minister is to help people along their developmental journey. This is not a process that
goes to any one simple time-table. It cannot be rushed or forced. It can be encouraged by
example. Just as I have been encouraged by being able to look up and see Lloyd and Don
out ahead of me when I felt threatened or uncertain about where my thinking was taking me,
so a minister who is willing to share the journey he is making, with all its ups and downs, can
encourage members in his congregation. They can look at him and see that these 'radical'
ideas won't make them "lose their faith" or end them up outside the church. The minister can
also offer new perspectives and paradigms, exposing people to idea which challenge and
stretch them without threatening them so much that they simply close down and retreat into
dogmatism. All this takes time, and requires, I believe, a long-term commitment of the
minister to the people in his or her congregation.
Because I am a Pastor, much has had to go slowly. But as l, and many in my
congregation, look back over the last 20 years, we realise just how much we have moved
first in our theological thinking, and more latterly even in our liturgical expressions pulling our worship closer to the theological positions with which we are now comfortable and which
enable us to feel more honest as we meet for worship.
These are some of the steps we have taken:
1: Theological education.
One of the most important tasks of the parish minister, it seems to me, is to share
what he or she has learned at his or her theological college with his or her parishioners. (For
ease and convenience I am going from here on to use just one pronoun. As I am a male, the
male gender comes most easily to me. I hope you will bear with me and understand that this
is not intended as sexist). Reading and study must continue to be basic to his life and work.
He must continue to be open to new learnings and to share these with the busy people with
whom he works, who often do not share the privilege he has [had] to read, think and pray their way
through the challenges posed to faith in today's world. I have tried to keep up-to-date by
constant reading, attending seminars and lectures like those given by Lloyd under the
auspices of the University's Continuing Education Unit and conferences like that our annual
Sea of Faith. I have then tried to share what I have been learning with my parishioners.
Some of this has been done in the Sermon time on Sunday mornings. One is limited,
however, in what one can do in 10-12 minutes! But even there something can be done!
During my first Lent in the parish I preached a series of sermons which were
available after Church in written form, and a variety of groups then met in people's homes
during the subsequent week to discuss the ideas in them. I had appended some suggested
questions to spark off their thinking and talking. One advantage was that all those who never
go to a 'course' at least heard the sermon ideas. What I said was considered "way out"! By
the second week I was being told that people felt I was up the creek with these new ideas. By
the third week, many was convinced not only that I was up the creek, but definitely there
without a paddle!
Discussion was lively, in homes, workplaces and the shopping centre. I had a
series of phone calls and people calling in to discuss with me what I was suggesting. At the
end of Lent I was asked to repeat the same format the next year, but to elaborate on the
concept of God that I was proposing. People were finding it hard to accept the idea of a
non-theistic, non-interventionist God I was heavily in to panentheism and process theology
in the 1970's!
I have also endeavoured never to say something in a sermon which I couldn't
defend to a radical critic. I have also tried not to be unnecessarily confrontational. So I have
tried to be sensitive to the feelings of a diverse and, when I first arrived, a fairly conservative
group of people. Sunday worship isn't always the most appropriate setting to raise
controversial issues because the congregation seldom has the time or opportunity to
question or discuss the issues raised. I have tried to change that and quite often I invite
questions and discussion if I think people need that to deal with what I have said, and, after
some initial hesitation we are Anglicans, you know people are now more than willing to
join in, contradict me and offer another point of view.
We also started study courses on weekday evenings as a better venue for looking
at the thinking of radical theologians whose writings were challenging much of the tradition
with which we had grown up. We usually try to hold two six week Study Courses each year.
We take on some quite 'meaty' works, and work our way through them, taking time to
discuss, clarify and argue. From the outset I made it clear that these were not propaganda
classes. No one who came was expected to accept or agree with what we were studying.
Radical ideas were offered as the opinions of scholars that needed to be considered, not
evaded or ignored. Given the chance to grapple in an atmosphere truly open to any question,
many felt an enormous sense of relief and began to discard the 'glass slippers' they had felt
constrained by the church to wear all their lives, and instead began to dance barefoot on the
grass. Only a small percentage of the parish family actually attend these evenings, but as
word spread, people with some or no church connections, John Spong's 'Church Alumni
Society' have started to come regularly and from across greater Auckland. Their
enthusiasm inevitably has repercussions and as they speak to others about what they are
learning the ideas spread both inside the parish and outside it.
These same ideas gently, and unconfrontationally introduced, Sunday by Sunday
in teaching sermons centred on the Biblical passages set for the day, have gradually began
to make a difference, even to some who were theologically the most conservative and
resistant. Not long ago, one such dear lady, went to stay in Wellington with her best friend. In
times past they had shared the same outlook, and her friend had continued to be part of a
conservative church. Our parishioner was so looking forward to being where she wasn't
always being challenged, and arguing with the vicar. When she got back she came to see
me. "I had a terrible ten days!" she said. "Every time we started to talk about our faith I found
we were disagreeing with one another. I heard myself explaining things to her, and thought,
'But thats what Darryl says'! I never knew how much I had changed, and how impossible it
would be for me ever to fit back into that old way of thinking!" It was one of the best
compliments I have ever been payed!
In The Once and Future Church, one of the contributors challenges the way in
which most preaching in our churches still centres in the Lectionary and the Bible. He starts
by quoting a letter he received from one of his friends:
"'Why do I go to a church that insists on the adherence to a biblical lectionary approach
which each Sunday attempts to look for the truth laid down in scriptures long ago? Why
does so much of mainline Christianity seemingly turn a dull ear to any new
gospel? Why am I not paying more attention to the present than the past?' and goes
on, ' ... The lectionary preacher is ... ineluctably working with a broken paradigm ... If
theological fundamentalism is untenable, then the vestiges of fundamentalism that survive
in our rhetoric are untenable also ... Jesus was not what we call a biblical preacher: it was
not his habit to appeal to the authority of scripture as the basis of his preaching. Rather
his habit was to make frequent use of parables and aphorisms, forms of rhetoric that
expect their hearers to think for themselves and that seek to persuade them to accept his
teaching because they recognise its truth, not because it is based on the authority of
scripture. In short, Jesus offered his contemporaries what might be called 'a religion of
insight' as an alternative to the religion of authority represented in his day by a priestly
hierarchy, Temple ritual, and sacred texts ... Taking one cue from Jesus, one might say
that to preach the gospel is to cultivate the imagination and wisdom to see our lives as
under the rule of God's unfailing generosity and enduring goodness, which means among
other things, as not necessarily confined or conformed to the way things are arranged by
the culture and the ruling powers at the present are ..."
and Robert Funk in his introduction to The Once and Future Church writes;
"The final barrier that had to come down was the canon. The authority of the New
Testament gospels is the ultimate defensive line of orthodoxy. Once Q is admitted into
the picture, and the Gospel of Thomas becomes an independent source, the mythical
matrix created by the narrative gospels stands out in bold relief"
That's a challenge with which I am still grappling. So, in one of our liturgies, at the
point where we normally have The Ministry Of The Word, I have inserted a rather different
rubric to that you would mostly expect to find in an Anlican Church. It reflects the
we have done about the Incarnation, the exclusive claims made by the church, and our
growing acceptance of the pluralism that marks our emerging world. I have been very
involved, from its very beginnings, with the Auckland Council of Christians and Jews, and am
the founding Chairperson of the Auckland Chapter of the World Conference of Religion and
Peace, a multi-faith organisation, and more latterly have been a member of the Auckland
Council of Christians and Muslims. This deep engagement in interfaith dialogue has made
me very conscious of the spiritual richness in other faith traditions and within their scriptures.
So in a recent liturgy I prepared you will find this rubric after the heading The Proclamation:
Here follow some readings, taken from the Christian Scriptures, the Scriptures of other
Faith Traditions, and from the writings that have given, and continue to give, insight,
hope and inspiration to the human family. Our resources are limitless. It is usual for
one reading to be taken from the Christian Gospels. Between the readings silence may
be kept, music played, or a hymn or psalm sung.
2: Liturgical Changes
(a) Understanding the language of Liturgy metaphorically using the family silver
Let me explain what I mean. It took a little while of gentle teaching for people to
begin to grapple with the idea that much of the language of Scripture and Liturgy was poetic
and not literal. We are so used to thinking that what we read is to be understood literally and
taken as a description of what actually happened, that we forget what a supple and
powerful thing language is. So we talked about language and thought of examples that
clarified what we meant.
As an example, some of my congregation were keen supporters of the Church
Missionary Society, an evangelistic church group with a fairly conservative theological
outlook. They were familiar with texts like, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me." Taken literally this was a powerful incentive to support the work
of evangelism and conversion! So I offered another way of hearing words like this. "My wife,
Maureen, is the most beautiful woman in the world." Is that to be taken literally? How can we
get all the wornen in the world together in one place to see if its true? More difficult still, how
are we to agree a set of criteria by which the truth of that statement can be measured? It is
soon apparent that it cannot be taken literally. In fact it tells us nothing at all about Maureen.
What it does tell us is about how I feel about her. It is expressive language, not literal or descriptive. Once that distinction was grasped, we could begin to see how much of the
language of the New Testament, and especially of the Liturgy and the Creed, is that sort of
expressive language, telling us about the way its writers felt about Jesus and indicating the
overwhelming influence he had had upon them, rather than telling us anything directly about
Jesus. This was experienced as an enormous liberation by most of the congregation. It
invited them to re-think what it was they actually believed rather than what they had been told
to believe! A study of John Hick's splendid book The Metaphor of God Incarnate was an
exciting experience then, and not a threat. Once we were freed from literalism and
understood metaphor more clearly, it freed us also to continue to use many of the best-loved
prayers and hymns with a new sense of honesty. They expressed our heart's devotion not
our intellectual convictions.
Another analogy was also liberating. I once saw a magnificent and elaborate piece
of Victorian silver, shaped like a nautilus shell. It had a hollow cavity that had been designed
to be filled with boiling water, and the heat from this warmed the large silver serving spoons
placed in the opening of the shell so that wlth warm serving spoons the food was kept hot!
Well no one would dream of using it for that now. But it was 'family silver', part of this family's
heritage and a valuable antique. Should one throw it out or melt it down because it no longer
served the needs of today? This family decided instead to keep it, but find a new use for it.
My hostess used it to hold a splendid flower arrangement in the middle of the dinner table.
There it was in all its splendour, speaking of a bygone age of imperial opulence, and full of
the memories of other special family meals down the years and generations, still loved and
used, but now for a different purpose.
So, we mostly use the Creeds like that. They once
expressed, in a powerlul way, the faith of our Christian forebears. They have been used as
part of the Eucharistic Liturgy for centuries. They no longer do that for most of us. Should we
throw them out, or, like the Episcopal Church in the USA, remove them to an appendix at the
back of the Prayer Book called "Historical Documents of the Church"? I like the honesty of
that our A New Zealand Prayer Book still puts them in the Liturgy, though with a rubric that
says that the Creed "may be said or sung". It is not mandatory and we often (mostly? I'm not
sure) don't use them because more and more of us find them uncomfortable to say. Some of
the congregation still like to use them, however, and so when we use them I usually preface
their recitation by saying something like, "Now let us stand and use the words of the Creed,
to express our faith and trust in the goodness that underlies our lives and which will meet us
in every new situation in this coming week." Increasingly we use a specially composed
Affirmation of Faith, that sums up an experience or insight we have shared during the
Service. Unlike a Creed this is not a carefully considered expression of doctrine, but much
more a paean of praise, an outpouring from the heart.
So, for example, in the same Liturgy from which I quoted the rubric a few minutes
ago, we used this Addirmation written by Dorothy McCrae-McMahon:
We experience the holiness of God
In wonder of creation
and endlessness of sky and sea:
In breathless beauty
and quiet bush;
in acts of coumg.
and silent heart
We are Christians
because in the face of Jesus Christ
we have seen the glory of God
in gifts of healing
and liberations of life;
in recognitions of love
and callings to serve;
in sufferings of others
and glimpses of grace.
We have often seen these too
in the faces of others.
So we live from God's Spirit
in moments of faith
in dreams beyond hoping
and in rhythms of new energy.
We name the God who is our centre.
We claim the goodness
that is ours in God.
in the community of faith,
which is born of our humanness,
is nurtured in sharing
and grows whole in our struggling
as one people of God,
called to love the earth,
to live humbly in the web of relationship,
and to live In hope
as we walk on
into God's new day.
Our experience has been that both conservative and radical members of our
church family have been able to use this, and other similar Affirmations meaningfully.
This same Liturgy opens with an introduction that acknowledges the variety of
places from which we come as we gather for worship, and that some, indeed, may not even
be sure what the word 'God can mean today. After greeting the people informally and giving
out any noflces, the Minister says:
Let us worship God. As I say these words, dear God,
I am aware that many of us struggle with how
we may think and speak of you, in a way that makes
sense, in our lives and our world,
As we struggle, we continue to address you ...
the ground of our being. ..the Spirit within...
yet we believe that somehow you give meaning to our lives -
we believe that if you are about anything
then somehow you are also everything.
And so you are in our unknowing and searching
and in our groping after truth.
You are in our aloneness and our vulnerability;
in our anger, envy and inner chaos,
and in our struggle to be free.
You are part of our impotence
and you are our empowering.
You are in the emptiness
and also the filling up.
You are at the roots of despair and brokenness
and also the way that leads to connection.
In mystery and grandeur
we see the face of God.
In earthiness and ordinary
we know the love of Christ
In heights and depths
and life and death
The Spirit of God is moving among us.
Let us praise God.
Despite all this, some of the most radical, like some of you here, may still feel with
Roy W. Hoover, in his essay, "Incredible Creed, Credible Faith" in The Once and Future
"The various attempts to 'translate' this archaic speech by proposing that it should be
read metaphorically or symbolically are only half-way measures even after all the
arguments in support of such 'solutions' have been made. The residual literal meaning of
the original literal language weighs down the 'symbolic' and 'metaphrical'
interpretations and too often turns it into a form of religious mush. This lends itself to the
perception that when such interpreters make a religious statement it is never quite clear
whether they really mean it or not. The attractiveness of this 'solution' appears to be that
you can live in a state of blessed ambiguity: you can believe almost anything you like and
think that you are being thoroughly modern and thoroughly traditional at the same time,
when actually you are neither"
b) Changing language the underlying images.
Another area we are trying to tackle is changing the language, the underlying
images, mythic framework, we use. Arthur Dewey and Stephen Patterson in their
contributions to the same book ask:
"How are we to understand the death of Jesus? Dewey argues that we should read the
passion narrative non-realistically ... 'A non realistic reading reads Jesus death in a variety
of ways, depending on the community in which the story is being interpreted.' ... 'Thus,
in related ways Patterson and Dewey have opened up the delicate issue of why Jesus
John Spong has written that:
"The biblical tradition explained the humnan sense of alienation by defining human life as
sinfil, fallen, unable to save itself and in need of rescue. Our liturgies are full of
references to that definition ... The Jesus story was told against this understanding of
human life. ... So according to the traditional explanation Jesus became God's final
almost desperate act to reclaim the world from the power of evil. Again first century
Jewish images shaped the explanation ... Around these themes the church organises its
liturgical life. ... This became the content of the church's doctrine of the Atonement and
thus the frame of reference upon which the power of the Christian church was built. The
church was to be the place where the salvation affected (sic) by Jesus became available.
Outside the church all human beings were still lost in their original sin. Since baptism and
the Eucharist were the sacraments, said to be necessary to salvation, and since the only
people who could validly perform these sacraments were the church's ordained priests,
the church's grip on salvation was complete. 'There is no salvation outside the church'
became the cry that was repeated in very generation as fragile people claimed they had
the only, the infallible, the inerrant key to salvation."
Their essays seems to me to open up great possibilities for Liturgy, enabling us to
dispense with, for instance, the language and imagery of sacrifice, substitutionary language
about the atonement and so on.
My first real attempt was to write a Sunday Eucharistic Liturgy that didn't use any
of the sacrificial language normally associated with the Eucharist. I hoped it would be
something with which we would all, conservative and radicals, feel more comfortable. I also
tried to get as far away as possible from the sort of grovelling penitential language so
characteristic of The Book of Common Prayer. I tried consciously to expel all the imagery
which implies original sin, the fall, redemption etc., and replace it with an acknowledgment of
our frailties, but always in a context that suggests hope, and renewal and offers another way
of understanding the continuing significance of the Eucharist.
In the light of modern science, we know that there was no original sin and thus no
need for divine rescue, no sacrifice of Jesus, no saving blood. The whole explanatory story
collapses. It cannot be patched or revived. The primary Christian myth has become
inoperative. So in one of our experimental liturgies those parts of the Liturgy which are
reserved to the ordained minister in Anglican tradition, the Absolution and Consecration
Prayer with the Words of Institudon, I re-wrote so that the whole congregation said these
parts together. In the next Liturgy, having dropped all the sacrificial language, The Great
Thanksgiving interpreted what we were doing with these words:
"So today we share bread and wine together
as a sign that we are one humanity,
as a pledge that we will work for justice,
as a foretaste of that which can be
despite what is and has been.
May the Spirit that guides us all
be present in this feast,
taking this bread and wine,
the concerns we have expressed,
the lives that we lead,
and transforming them all
for the unity of creation
and the service of love.
God, whose body is all creation,
may we come to know you in all the earth
and feel you in our blood.
So will no part of us, or the world,
be lost to your transforming grace.
And after the Invitation before Communion, "Come God's people, come to receive
these sacred mysteries", I attempted to be as inclusive as possible and to recognise the
diversity of places on the journey at which people are. It tries to affirm and recognise the
validity of each person's spiritual journey, neither trying to force change or imply that any one
approach is better than another. "Different not better" is our motto:
All who seek to love God, however they conceive the Divine Mystery, and who try to
serve the world, are welcome to share this Holy Communion that links us to Holy
Wisdom and to one another and to all creation.
After using this Service, in which the shape of our Eucharistic Liturgy remains
unaltered, while the thinking and wording has changed, I received not one word of criticism
even from our most conservative members. The shape was still familiar and unthreatening
and the words were unexpectedly comfortable too. Some of the more radical said that it was
the first time in many years that they had worshipped and felt no sense of discomfort or
unease, or the conscious need to re-translate. Now they want more and more radical
change! And so far we have kept all aboard! This links to my next heading:
c). Experimental 5th Sunday Liturgies
We have kept this sort of Service for 5th Sundays i.e. four or five times a year.
The conservative are willing to take a risk if its not too often and some are even beginning
to ask for this sort of Service more often!. Radicals have been sensitive about the speed at
which change can be introduced, and because they do not feel threatened or forced to
change, the conservatives are discovering that new things can be good. We are offering
other 'special' worship times, without disrupting the regular worship patterns of the regular
congregation. These are an 'extra', rather than a substitute. They rely very little on words,
but use extensive silence, music, both recorded and live, and space for symbolic actions like
the lighting of candles, the offering of stones and other symbols, and reflective readings from
a wide range of sources.
d). Using more images of God.
We have made the journey most of you will have made when feminists challenged
the patriarchal nature of so much of our language. Their voices have not been strident in our
congregation, but quietly persistent and almost unconsciously we have begun using more
and different images for God. We still have a long way to go.
We have not, however tinkered with the language of well-loved hymns and
prayers. Just as I feel it wrong to update Mozart and play him on synthesisers, or paint over
Raphael's people to dress them in twenty-first century clothing, so I feel it is wrong to take
the words of poets and change them. So we still use many of the old hymns unchanged,
recognising that they reflect the time in which they were written. We use them because we
love them and find they still speak to and for us. Some we have found we simply cannot use,
and we have 'retired' them rather than 'adjusC them. Some we sing, acknowledging that we
do so out of a sense of nostalgia and because of the memories they bring back, and the
sense of connection they give us with our past and our roots. As that becomes more and
more self-conscious, we find they gradually slip out of use too.
Alongside these 'golden
oldies' we include a wide repertoire of modern hymns and songs. This is one of the areas in
which we feel most in need. We are exceptionally fortunate that in New Zealand we have
people like Shirley Murray and Colin Gibson writing hymns in language that is fresh and
speaks to and for us. We sing from four Hymn Collections Hymns Ancient and Modern
Revised, for all the 'golden oldies' of our Anglican tradition, Hymns for Today, a supplement
to AMR of 200 modern hymns, Alleluia Aotearoa and Faith Forever Singing, for modern new
Zealand hymns. My guess is that we have a wider repertoire than most congregations.
The end of this slow, twenty year project is that we have a loving and accepting
congregation. Members respect the different places at which others find themselves. The
radicals do not try to make the conservatives change, and the conservatives do not cry
"heresy" when the radicals introduce something new.
We have created a congregation in
which quite a number of people who would otherwise have left the church now have a
spiritual home, and to which others, who had left the institutional church have found
somewhere they are still welcomed.
Yet others join us for however long or short a time is
appropriate for them. People well beyond our parish boundaries are glad to find a place
where they can engage in demanding and stimulating thinking about ideas which still matter
deeply to them. They know they can say anything and ask any question without causing
dismay or distress and where what they say will be listened to with respect. There are not
many other places for people who want to engage with others in clarifying their beliefs and
values as they confront the complexities of our rapidly changing world. In all of this, I believe
we have something valuable to offer to our community, as we explore what it is to be human.
Once again it is John Spong who captures what I mean:
"I ... propose a God who is beyond such explaaations as theism but not beyond the
experience of what is real, holy, other and eternal; a Christ who is beyond the
explanations of incarnational thinking, but not beyond the experience of timeless divinity
erupting in human life; a church not as the doorway to salvation but as the community
created to deepen life and enhance humanity; liturgies designed not to pay homage or to
flatter an external deity, but to increase our God consciousness, expand the boundaries of
human community, and to break down the barriers that divide the human family. Prayer
will no longer be adult letters to a Santa Claus God requesting what only an intervening
power not bound by the laws of our world could accomplish, but a way to live into and
share the God presence that surrounds us. Ethics will be not a code of conduct, dictated
by a theistic God and written in a book or on tables of stone but will rather be grounded
in the principle that since God is met as the source of lift, the source of love and the
ground of being, any action which enhances life, increases love, and heightens being is
both godlike and good. Any action which diminishes life, depresses love and shrinks
being is evil. Finally I propose a view of eternal life, not as a place where goodness is
rewarded and evil punished, but where eternity is a present reality that we enter in a
process of living family, loving wastefully and being all that we can be and from that
eternity, I maintain we can never depart."
It may not seem much, but it is what we can do to retain, and live by, the lasting
Christian values of the past in a very different world.
 Nicholas Rundle: Review of Doubts and Loves
 John Shelby Spong: The Once and Future Church: Polebridge Press, 2001, p68
 ibid p69
 Robert Funk: A Faith for the Future p13
 M. Scott Peck Further Along The Road Less Travelled, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1993
 ibid p121, emphasis mine
 ibid p123.
 ibid p123
 ibid pp125-126
 ibid pp 126-127
 Roy W Hoover: Incredible Creed, Credible Faith in supra note 2, pp95-98
 supra note 2: p9
 John 14:6
 Dorothy McCrae-McMahon: Echoes of our Journey Liturgies of the People:
The Joint Board of Christian Education, Melbourne, Australia, 1993.
 supra note 2: pp90-91
 ibid p13
 ibid pp 75-77
 supra note 14
 supra note 2, p80