Lessons from faith-history as solid ground
“I will utter hidden things, things from of old…
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from our descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord.”
The film ‘Waterworld’ was released in the mid 1990’s, and starred Kevin Costner as a solo adventurer making a living on the high seas, in a dystopian future where global warming had resulted in most of the land being under the ocean. At the time the movie was panned by the critics for its overblown budget and (to their minds) ridiculous premise. But consequently, commentators have praised the film for the message of its themes - not only environmental, but cultural and philosophical. Just as the characters in Waterworld can only live day to day, in the present, with all trace of humanity’s past submerged, no reference points for guidance and an uncertain future - isn’t that how we could describe the spiritual state of many in the West in the 21st century?
Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. But what if we don’t know the past, or only those stories which those who control the culture choose to tell us about, to reinforce their preferred narratives? It is ironic that we live in an age where information about almost everything in our past is available at the touch of a button to almost everyone in our society, and yet so many have little knowledge of the most important foundation, Christian faith.
Perhaps as much as 75% of the bible is historical narrative. Those who compiled the Jewish Scriptures, and then the canon of Old and New Testaments that we have today, were unashamed about this. “We will not hide the past; we will tell the next generation about the things of God” says the author of Psalm 78. The knowledge of the living God is found in accounts of what he did in the past, which show his character, his plans for humanity, and what we must do to live in relationship with him forever.
It is knowledge of God’s gracious dealings with his people in the past which give us reference points and resources for today, and guidelines for the future. As we see how our ancestors in the faith understood God, worshipped him, and interpreted events around them in the light of faith, so we can live with our feet on solid ground instead of endlessly surfing the waves of contemporary fashion and our own sinful and confused feelings.
Children in schools who are taught to practice ‘mindfulness’, for example, and encouraged to “be true to yourself”, but do not learn about the bible, the nature of faith, or the Christian foundations of our European nations, are in a spiritual and psychological ‘Waterworld’. When churches begin to abandon the clear teaching of the bible, for example about sex and marriage, it can in part be traced back to a failure to follow the advice of the Psalmist to focus on telling the next generation about the Lord and his salvation. As a result the landmarks appear to have been lost, and the church has ended up following what the world thinks and does.
We have the bible, which is completely trustworthy as God’s word. And we also have 2000 years of church and mission history, and more recent accounts of how God has been working among us, much of which has not been written down but is in the form of personal and group testimony. We can learn from this, be warned by mistakes, be encouraged by successes, be strengthened in our faith in Christ who is the same for us now as he was then.
Recent lessons from faith-history: the beginning of Gafcon
As Anglicans who face uncertain times ahead, we must continually look to these sources of inspiration and guidance. In particular it would good to revisit the events which led to the formation of the Gafcon movement. Some of our readers were there at the time and remember it well, but the new generation needs to hear about this recent example of faithfulness to what the bible teaches, so that “they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds, but would keep his commands” (Psalm 78:7).
One easily accessible account of the origins of Gafcon is the book published by Latimer, entitled ‘Being Faithful: The Shape of Historic Anglicanism Today’ (2009).
It takes the form of a commentary on the ground-breaking Jerusalem Statement from the first Gafcon meeting in 2008, and which contains the 14 point Declaration which serves as our ‘Basis of Faith’. The Introduction to this commentary asks key questions which help us to go beyond narrow debates about biblical interpretation and church politics, and see the broader picture of how we are to live as faithful followers of Christ in the increasingly hostile and unbelieving contemporary world. These questions include:
- How did the Anglican Communion come to be so seriously divided? Radically different understandings of sexual ethics caused broken fellowship between Anglican Provinces in the early 2000’s, and “tore the fabric of the Communion”. Behind these divisions were “complex cultural challenges”, as “churches in large sections of the West have allowed [secular] culture to dominate their church’s belief and behaviour” (p16).
- What was the tipping point? When member churches of the Communion changed their doctrine, liturgy and appointment processes to suit secular ideas in direct contradiction of Scripture and the mind of the global church, division occurred, not initiated by those who broke fellowship as is sometimes claimed, but by those who arrogantly and unilaterally decided they knew better than ”the things our ancestors have told us”.
- How did Gafcon respond? By convening a globally representative conference of “confessing Anglicans” to re-state the biblical faith which we seek to live and proclaim, and by setting up a Primates’ Council to “restore order in the Communion”, and provide means of oversight for authentic Anglicans who can no longer remain in structures where orthodox faith has been abandoned.
Reminding ourselves of key principles from this recent story are helpful as we navigate the latest attempts to cause Anglican churches to repudiate our historic heritage and bring in innovations which seem life-giving to some, but which lead to division, confusion and estrangement from our solid rock, our loving Creator and Saviour. Further reflections on “Being Faithful” will follow in the November editorial.