Tag Archives: Bible

Why ‘The Church’ isn’t Biblical

I have, interspersed with virus related issues – more coming – been running a series about why I left the Anglican church. Some of my issues with it apply to other inter/national chains.

I am now going to argue against these chains from the Good Book.

I invoke my usual proviso about using the Bible as our source:

—is it all from God as a timeless mandate?

—saying that the Bible is God’s only Word limits God as to what he can say and undermines our own intuition, where God speaks best

I am especially wary of cultural differences between Bible times and us, multiple translation, and of using texts out of context. Single half sentences a good argument do not make.

 

But if we were to take the Bible as our starting point to look for support of a chain church of the Orthodox, Anglican and Catholic variety, what would we find?

 

Our focus needs to be on the New Testament, since the Old is about a people whose faith follows a different course. It’s background to Christianity, and it can still be a source of learning and inspiration, but I wonder if the Old Testament is literally The Hebrew Bible: it’s the story of the Jewish people, but the Church’s story begins with the Gospels.

 

We must take Jesus’ ministry as a whole. His whole tone is one of subverting expectation.

What was his Mum’s prenatal hymn?

Swapping the humble and proud, the rich and poor, high and low.

Was Jesus born in a palace, or a stable?

Did he become a chief priest in the national church, or an itinerant independent preacher?

 

I wonder if those who argue that Jesus must’ve been a rabbi are those who are in a chain themselves, and like to think of Jesus being in it. Perhaps those who emphasise his mendicant, dissenting freelance nature are those in independent churches.

 

I think there is more support for the latter: Jesus’ father was a tradesman, not of noble birth

Jesus died as a criminal among thieves and robbers

he didn’t have an army – he wouldn’t even let his followers defend him at arrest

the sermon on the mount…more paradoxes and swaps

Jesus’ fraternising with outcasts, whom he favoured

Paul’s understanding – ‘he has taken the weak things of the world to shame the wise’

Jesus’ life and ministry seems to topsy turvy the established world:

He threw out money changers from the temple, defended the woman being stoned,

and broke their understanding of the Sabbath.

He seemed to hate the controlling abuse of power, and rules for rules’ sake.

His kingdom was and is internal and eternal.

 

And although Jesus said that not a jot or tittle of the law should pass away, he seemed both to fulfil it, and bring it to a new level, but not in the way that was anticipated.

His confirmation as Messiah came from anointing by a prostitute, on the feet, not the head.

 

The question arises: how much of the early church is relevant to us now. Is it background history, or something to emulate – or perhaps just when church planting. Is it the ideal?

If we do believe that the Bible is our model, and certainly our mandate, then we do not have the support of Scripture for the established churches.

 

Neither Jesus nor Paul and his fellow missionaries set up a rival to Judaism, a hierarchical religious chain as we know it. Believers met in homes; Jesus preached al fresco, not in Jewish holy buildings except for the day he said that Isaiah 42 was fulfilled in their hearing, and nearly got stoned.

 

As far as the Bible on church leadership is concerned, we just have Paul’s letters, often which were answering questions and dealing with issues in and from particular new communities.

The types of roles mentioned in Ephesians don’t match the establishment equivalent. For a start, as per the start of my novel, there is no vicar, no one person in charge of a community, no person set apart by a higher person. It doesn’t even talk about training and study.

 

There are deacons and overseers. Note these are plural, even in one congregation. Deacons are what C of E vicars get first ordained as. And what is their first deed at this ceremony (where they swear allegiance to the Queen and the Bishop!)? To administer communion. Like it’s the foremost power they get – not fully invested for another year – along with their new stoles [ceremonial scarves], a sign of authority.

I note that in the Metropolitan Community Church, the celebrant – not necessarily ordained – puts it on for communion with a spiel about a privilege invested in them by the community.

Note that in the early church, there’s no bishops or monarchs required, nor power passed from Masters like in Reiki or Freemasonry.

 

In online debates about the use of church leader titles, there is a divide between tradition and using the Bible. Those only arguing from the Bible point out that “reverend” is used just once, in Psalm 111, and is clearly referring to God. In the New Testament, no-one is styled with any title. Jesus in Matthew 23 speaks against this in an argument which ought to floor any adherent to being called Reverend… especially by appending Right or Venerable! They feel that ‘pastor’ is a better and more biblical name – but I would argue that isn’t a title, just a job description. It’s true that neither Jesus nor Paul nor Peter were given the titles used by clergy. There’s a claim that ‘Magdalene’ is one, but that’s about Mary’s spiritual understanding.

I particularly take issue with “rector” which was a more honorific title referring to the clergyman entitled to take parish tithes, when the whole neighbourhood, not just attending parishioners, had to give a tenth of their income and produce to their local Anglican minister. As this abhorrent prerogative has been abolished, the distinction is purely status driven, for there is no meaningful difference between ‘rector’ and ‘vicar’. If you’re a team minister leader, say so. ‘Rector’ is also related to straightness and rules, which I dislike – and yes, I am aware of another word from that root (chakra!).

The established churches interpret the Biblical Greek words used for church leaders in very different ways to other Christian groups. The word for ‘deacon’ becomes a councillor in the Presbyterian church, which it is at a local level in Baptists; in Anglican and Catholic churches, it’s the priests, traditionally the table servers at communion. Note that the eastern part of cathedrals especially is known as the presbytery – the space for priests alone to inhabit. Typically, the laity – the nonordained – have been disallowed in this space by the high altar; and today, it’s still got an awe and taboo around it and is often roped off or gated.

The higher the church, the greater the gates and the further back they push the laity.

Just like in the old Jewish temple which had various courts for the public (starting, like cathedral naves, with a kind of market), getting ever more exclusive as you got closer to the important bit, until there was the sealed empty room of God’s presence – the Holy of Holies – where the high priest alone may only enter once a year by pulling back the dense curtain.

Ruth Scott Connolly said in her Phoenix blog that the tearing of the temple curtain meant that no longer was God limited to the holy of holies: he came out, and we could go in.

No longer in a place for the high priest alone, God’s presence was now omnipresent.

Thus the role of priest as special mediator between humans and God, carrying out rituals and duties, allowed in certain places that others were not, ended with the Easter story. Paul believed that Jesus was now the great high priest, permanently. There was no need of priests: – yes to leaders, pastors, healers, word spreaders, but the priestly function of the Jewish world ended for followers of Jesus with Jesus. Hebrews 6 states the priesthood of all believers. It means we do not need an intermediary, and implies we can all potentially do all priestly functions.

Hence I wrote phrase that on my bosom when I left the church of England last month.

I do not see a scriptural mandate that only ordained people can administer the meal Jesus instigated. Breaking bread and drinking together is a wide old custom. Jesus is recorded to have said, “do this in remembrance of me”, not “here’s how you get fixed up to be able to do so.” No one in the room had to swear an oath, or put on a special outfit, or get blessed or zapped or gain a degree. Nor did the epistle writers say that. “Do this until he come” Paul exhorts in 1 Cor 12, and simply summarises the story of Jesus’ Last Supper. (These words are the only legal requirement of the church of England eucharist). It’s not: make sure it’s a man; make sure you have been to rabbi/Way school and got a certificate; make sure you’ve got this title and garment, and wear your stole like a Miss World sash until you’re deemed worthy to drape it.

 

The overseer is just that. Not a ‘I live in a palace and have big gardens and a hat shaped like a fountain pen, and a good salary and status.’ In medieval times, these office holders didn’t even necessarily live in or even visit their dioceses, and nor did some other senior clergy!

And as for Archbishops, or worse still, Popes…!!

Where are these in the Bible? God’s rep on Earth is the Holy Spirit; he sent no others.

 

It’s said that Peter was the first pope, but the keys speech doesn’t make him Father on Earth to Christian believers. There are but two people who are my father: my God and my Dad.

I certainly don’t acknowledge priests as ‘father’ as some honorific title.

 

And there’s the whole argument that Mary Magdalene is really Jesus’ successor, culverted by Peter’s followers, but who is re-emerging.

 

Ted Doe, writer of Who Do You Think You Are about Norwich Baptist history, states that the established churches are like old Judaism: “new wine into old wine skins” (Luke 5, Mark 2).

In fact, the wine isn’t very new either.

In fact, it occurs to me that modern Judaism doesn’t have priests and holy of holies. They have ravs and rabbis. Yes, even the Orthodox version. So why are certain Christians maintaining an order and division that even the original faith group doesn’t?

 

‘The Churches’ are too much like the military, and judges. It’s all about stripes and twirls in your wig. I know someone who sent his cassock back because it didn’t have the red edging of a canon on it. But we rarely see cassocks, they’re covered with surplice/surplus robes, outfits that are ridiculous in our culture – not to mention expensive. What better use of the hundreds of pounds these worth might churches make, for general benefit, not just show?

I have much more to critique about how the C of E uses money.

I have an even bigger critique coming of pastoral care – the very heart of ministry, and why I left.

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Anne Boleyn at the Globe

I am having a summer of Tudors. I have had many such summers as I have studied these over a period of 11 years, but I even when I spent a year studying their popular depictions, I have never seen so many plays on Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn in a few months.

I have just seen the production at the neo-Elizabethan Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London, on its opening weekend – a new play which sold out last year, as was the performance to which I went.

In his introduction to his script, playwright Howard Brenton quotes the views of historians David Starkey and Antonia Fraser, reflecting the likely opinion of the public. He does not mention Prof Eric Ives and Joanna Denny whose prominent books depict a very much more positive Anne. Joanna especially – as does Karen Lindsey – writes of the systematic demonisation of Anne’s character. All three remind that our few historical contemporary sources are chiefly Anne’s enemies, none of whom featured in Brenton’s play. Books – both novels and academic – have been ahead by 30 years in showing Anne as a national heroine, but stage and screen still cast Anne as the ambitious, hard siren. Philippa Gregory’s 2002 novel and ensuing films have done much to reverse this positive literary view, which has become in vogue again with most recent publications.

Brenton’s 2010 play promised a view closer to the one I adopted: the Reformist queen, as Joanna Denny calls her: ‘Esther not Jezebel’ – a title I borrowed for my 2006 dissertation. American author Robin Maxwell had Queen Elizabeth reading her mother’s words in her novel The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn; Howard Brenton has King Authorised Bible James reading Anne’s annotated Christian book and realising his connection to the fallen queen of two generations ago who suffered the same fate as his mother. (I never use the phrase that the blurb does – his debt. As you’ll see from my Justice in Banking blog on this site, I have strong views against debt culture). Note too that being executed does not denote failure, but rather a brutal signal of mission accomplished.

I was interested that a play was picking up the religious theme, as often theology is seen as too heavy and dull for entertainment, particularly when we are a multi and often no faith society. But the themes of tolerance and violence and faith recur, and spirituality is again popular though not always in established, orthodox ways. And this 16/7th C period is a seminal one in our history in which the burgeoning of new beliefs is central.

I was drawn to the play because it was written by a man who evidently could see Anne’s merits, significant as I felt anne appealed most to women. But it was Eric Ives in 1986 who said that Anne was an appropriate vehicle for feminism – though few have picked up that gauntlet – and it’s women who have written many of the works which fuel popular imagination that recast her as Jezebel.

It may seem obvious given its performance setting, but I didn’t expect Howard’s play to feel so Shakespearean, in the rowdy audience, bawdy and earthy kind of way. The experience of the Globe merits a few lines – booking fees, standing without umbrella or stick for £5 or, of if you pay £15-37 for a seat, there’s charges for cushions (and the wooden seats have lips which I think are designed to make you need one – but I managed without);- and a foreign group behind me who whispered throughout (translating to a child who was too young to be there) and put their feet on the seats. The atmosphere was closer to comedy than serious theatre, though there were both elements in the play. King James romps in a dress with ‘interesting stains’ with a male courtier whom he kisses; the ghost of Anne brings her severed head out in a bag; and it ends with an all cast jig.

James (Garnon/Stuart) perhaps was the most charismatic character on the stage, his strong Scots accent mixed with a tick, his camp manner helped by his shoes and beard. While we’re on accents – I am infuriated that the country folk once again got that generic West Country which is insulting and ignorant. There are many Eastern and southern counties accents, all quite distinct, and they sounded no more convincing than the Worzel’s Combine Harvester song, which was at least meant to be comedic. It’s like getting all North American or Celtic accents muddled. Actors and dialect coaches, take note!

I was not pleased at Anne’s physical appearance. She is famous for being dark, though Joanna Denny believes this is part of the demonisaton programme as ‘swarthy’ skin was seen as a sign of diabolism – appalling as that notion is. Denny believes that Anne was dark auburn, as per the most likely genuine contemporary portrait of Anne – but nowhere have I heard of her as blonde. Couldn’t Miranda Raison have dyed her hair or worn a wig? And couldn’t Henry be red haired? And why did Cardinal Wolsey have a beard?

I did not like the gore lust of the opening but I did like that Anne begins by assuming the knowledge of her death – which we never see – and by establishing a rapport with the audience. I liked the originality and pertinence of linking her and King James and the amount of material covered in an engaging way. Anthony Howell made a positive King Henry, kind instead of raging over the birth of a girl; but the man who had so many butchered in his name is relieved of too much of his violent, cruel and inhuman side. My favourite Henry remains Ray Winstone, whose complex depiction was the first to show me a man whom I could weep for as well as despise. Sometimes in Howard’s version, earthy comments – such as what Henry really wishes to say in his letters to Anne – mar the real point – the vulnerability of Henry’s enduring, consuming passion which must extend further than his tights to have raged so long and moved so much to be with her.

The audience was too quick to laugh at anything. The person who called out ‘ah’ in sympathy with broken Cardinal Wolsey was more correct that those who giggled, but either response turned this into a panto rather than the moment of pathos. When an important theological tenet dawns on Henry – that he could be king and head of the church without need of the pope and thus have his new wife – again, there was laugher. But it wasn’t the point; it was the turning point of the play and British history. We spent too much of the play in Caliban mentality rather than the Prospero and Ferdinand.

My gripe had been til this weekend that no-one has explained Anne’s swift demise satisfactorily. Brenton shows something I have not found in my research or other books – I hope to discover where he found it. But if it is true, it does account for the scheme to scaffold that in 3 weeks had the most powerful woman in the kingdom’s head in a basket. If Anne knew that Cromwell was embezzling ex monastic funds meant for charity, she had the key in which to bring about his downfall as Wolsey and More. (No temperate, cuddly Mr Northam here; this [absent] More is a torturer). Cromwell would take his advice to Anne earlier in the play, and strike before struck. The charges of multiple adultery and incest – treason in themselves – seem ridiculous, but perhaps an insecure king who could love and hate in equal measure could be persuaded in a very intense period to sign the death warrant.

But the frustration is that Brenton potentially closes one mystery but leaves something else unsatisfactory. The villain we focus on, particularly after Wolsey leaves, is Thomas Cromwell. The slippery faced multi officed politician always features heavily in Tudor plots, and he is usually credited as being the man who brought Anne’s death about. I have not seen him before portrayed as a fellow in faith, aiding illicit Reformist texts and their author’s passage out of the country. Yet his secret Protestant beliefs clash with his vile practices of threats and spying. They also don’t prevent Cromwell’s clandestine bond with Anne turning sour very suddenly and without enough explanation. One moment, they are sharing a prayer; suddenly he’s arresting her, banning her from speaking to or seeing her husband, and making up charges against her. The play – as with many other stories – does not say that Cromwell is executed during Henry’s reign, rather less efficiently than Anne’s French swordsman.

The jaunty dance at the end ruined the power of the ending. It should have ended with the ghost of Anne taking James’ hand – a quiet, poignant gesture. Instead the 150 minutes is augmented by cheering stamping dances that aren’t even fitting, and those final moments are quickly forgotten in their wake.

Ultimately, I am a little disappointed, but that is because it didn’t show my Anne; but that is good, because it leaves the way open for me to do so myself.

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