Saturday, July 18, 2009


Continuing my series on the arrival of the 1995 "Bedford Blessing" at Dereham Road Baptist Church. This series was written in 1997, but only now has been released for general view.

The scene on that day in the early spring of 1995 was, however, fascinating, and in many respects was replete with historical significance. History hadn’t stopped, but time was marching on there and then, presenting a new transition and a new puzzle, a puzzle that, if there is much more history, will one day be looked back on and seen as deeply mysterious. Historians of those future days will wish for a time machine in order to solve the enigma. But I needed no time machine; I was privileged to watch as history was deposited before my eyes. Here, in one environment, was the superposition of three layers of Christian culture: First, the mediaeval period, whose symbolism could just be discerned in the pseudo Gothic architecture; second, the pulpit period, and its “Logos culture” which had at its heart the ministry of words, the sermon and message; third, the post-modern crypto-priesthood period with its “holy spirit” culture, having at its heart the ministry of gnosis and God’s touch in a variety of forms. And the latter two periods vied with one another. But for all the differences between the hi-pulpits of hi-reason and the hi-priests of hi-mystique, they have, at their extremes, profound similarities. Behind the pulpit ethos, derived from the reformation, of a desire for the Bible to be a book open to and interpreted by all, is some kind of overcompensation; an overcompensation seen in the overpowering and central presence of the pulpits, overstated in their height and grandeur, like mini ramparts defending the Bible’s message against those who would attack it. Likewise, in those crypto-priesthoods, with their patriarchy, mystique, and their living pulpit of supporting followers, who hang onto their words not daring to fault them, we also find an overpowering and overstated presence engaged in some kind of overcompensation; an overcompensation seen in their tendency to closely identify the power of the Spirit with a gnosis that is experienced rather than learnt; an adaptive response, I believe, to help cope with a world that seems increasingly spiritually sterile, and with which those crypto-priesthoods have failed to come to terms with, or make sense of. The ironic truth is that they have never really understood or accepted the work of the Spirit of God, except perhaps when it appears to them as some novel kind of magic. In them has Christian thought sunk to its nadir: They cannot account for the depths of space; they cannot explain the meaning of atomism; they cannot throw light on evolutionary theory; they cannot bridge the gap between consciousness and matter. In short they can offer no explanations at all to a secular culture that ponders the meaning of these things. One may well ask, however, "Who can explain them ?". But our spiritual patriarchs are likely to claim that no explanations are required; fearful perhaps of a threat to their authority they prefer to believe that spirituality can in no way be a function of such things. Instead they bypass the difficulties these questions create by stressing the superiority of a deeply felt heart knowledge which is often caricatured as an almost a fidiest state of mind that should be independent of the products of the enlightenment. They therefore depict Christian experience as primarily finding its solace and resting place in a kind of gnosis which does not need to feed on reason. Thus is faith disconnected and therefore protected from the awkward challenges of the material world. With the loss of credibility in Christian rationales, both within the church and without, the pride in the ministry of words which those huge pulpits once represented has gone and their sheer size has become an embarrassment. The church has therefore withdrawn somewhat from the intellectual role it once played preferring instead to enhance the personal and social dimensions of its community life; something that in these days of social anonymity and disruption it can usefully engage in and retain self respect. The crypto-priesthoods, however, have diffused into niches created by the need for stable religious communities by inventing themselves as patriarchal overseers, their vaunted closeness to God offering a little bit of the divine on Earth and therefore, some might feel, a much needed sense of the presence of God.

But it may be even worse than this. At the extremes of the dichotomy of pulpit and priest the unspoken message one gets from both is the same: With their overstatement, their kudos and their overpowering and sometimes intimidating presence, that message is: "We give and you receive", "We teach and you learn". It is, therefore, in return, very hard to teach them anything, the spiritual traffic being mostly one way, and to attempt to open a dialogue with them is to put yourself up as a rival and to be the cause of an affront. They do not willingly and knowingly draw from traditions different from their own because they are usually unacceptable to them, whether or not those traditions have a positive faith in Christ. Here we have a demonstration of a very ironic yet important moral fact: Receiving is something that is actually harder than giving, a nigh on impossible task for the spiritually proud. It is, nevertheless a moral duty, just as, say, providing alms for the poor. But this is hardly a surprise: Christianity is, from the outset, more about receiving than giving, a religion that requires one to repent of sins and through Christ receive forgiveness and the Spirit of adoption by which we cry "Abba, Father". What need is there for anyone to tell us this and to administer this spirit to us when it is written: “You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth ... it remains in you and you do not need anyone to teach you”.

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