I recently came across this article from the Scotsman.com about the church I have been attending here in Scotland since 2010, St. Andrews Free Church. The former minister, who was here for basically my entire PhD experience, leaving only this past October, was a great preacher and pastor named Alasdair MacLeod. Time and time again I was reminded of the power of the Gospel through the clear, faithful, sensitively-applied biblical exposition of Alasdair. I’m really grateful for his service at the Free Church and his continued ministries.
Here is what I found particularly interesting about the new minister: He’s an Anglican! This might not strike you as strange but with the Free Church of Scotland we’re talking about a denomination that is Presbyterian in its governance, polity, ecclesiology etc. However, because the Anglican Church really is a Reformation church, with many emphasizing Reformation and even Calvinistic theology (and a plain reading of the 39 Articles, even without any historical knowledge of its background displays a strong lean in the Reformed direction in my opinion), folks like the new minister of the Free Church, Rev. Paul Clarke, an ordained Anglican, can easily minister in this setting. This is especially so if one belongs to a lower church segment of Anglicanism, in which things like liturgical order, and the episcopate are in some sense second-order.
I mention this here on my blog because as some of you may know, I was officially received into the Anglican Church in North America in 2012, and had been Anglican for some time before that since 2010. I’m also pursuing ordination in the Anglican Diocese of New England. But, why then worship in a Presbyterian church that doesn’t have weekly Eucharist and doesn’t function under a Bishop (two major distinctive elements of Anglicanism)? Why attend a low church Presbyterian congregation, if you’re a person with a major draw to worship in the Great Tradition with its ancient liturgy which (among other places and traditions) is beautifully articulated in the Book of Common Prayer?
When I read about, and then worshiped with and sat under the preaching of the new Senior Pastor Rev. Paul Clarke at St. Andrews Free Church, I thought, this would be a perfect time to reflect on why I, like Rev Clarke, an Anglican, ended up worshiping in a church of an entirely different denomination and style, and why I found it so refreshing and eye-opening, not only for my evangelical and biblical faith in general, but as a corrective guide to keep me focused on the things I love so much about and things which can become distracting about Anglicanism, paradoxically, through worshiping in a Presbyterian church.
I’ll break this up into a few posts focusing on different elements of my experience worshiping in the Free Church of Scotland. Once again this post is serving as a reflection tool for me, hopefully to help me grow as a person and disciple of Christ. I invite you to follow along if you’re sufficiently intrigued. If not, then the short of it is that I learned and was reminded of the Reformation principle that the Church, in its most basic form, must consist of a body of faithful people where the Word of God is preached and the Sacraments faithfully ministered. You can have the most elaborate, ornate liturgy, and miss this, if you miss the centrality of the preached Word. However, I also was deeply reminded through not worshiping liturgically, that for me Evangelical is not enough, to use the words of Thomas Howard, and that there is a deeply rooted longing in my soul for the inclusion and emphasis of a broader communion (despite the divisions within global Anglicanism at the moment) and the Great Tradition which emphasizes more frequently and centrally the sacraments, the Creeds, and the Communion of the Saints.
So, this is not a post to idealize the Free Church, but to appreciate and give thanks and grow from my having learned from them and worshiped with them, and to celebrate what it means to be an evangelical, which is an ethos and root commitment to the Gospel and the fundamentals of the faith (i.e. the Holy Scriptures as the inspired and infallible Word of God written, the virgin birth, the vicarious atoning death, the bodily Resurrection, the miraculous ascension, and the return in judgement of Jesus Christ etc; i.e. mere Christianity) which crosses denominational lines, and allows a unity which transcends, without making light of, second-order issues particular to denominations. This is why a Methodist can come together with a Reformed Baptist and a Presbyterian, Anglican, and Congregationalist, a non-denominational Pentecostal and an anabaptist and worship Jesus together, and even take communion together. I think we need to articulate better to the world that even though there are 30,000+ Protestant denominations, this doesn’t necessarily mean disunity but rather can signify a rich diversity in unity in the core faith once delivered. To me Evangelicalism itself as an ethos and core commitment to the basics of the Christian faith is a way to experience, envision, seek and speak about this unity in the Gospel.
So, back to the topic. I’ll focus today on this question: Why would a fairly new Anglican, and a seriously life-time liturgically-formed person (in the Roman Catholic tradition) end up in a Presbyterian, non-liturgical church?
When I first moved to St. Andrews I was about 6 months into worshiping in the Anglican Way via a daily Morning Prayer discipline in the Book of Common Prayer. Previous to the move, I had also been attending Wednesday 6am Eucharist services at Christ the Redeemer Church in Danvers, MA, which was very close to my seminary at the time (Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary), and the service of which consisted of a simple, but rich Rite II Eucharist with 5-6 people and no music. During my time in seminary, and for the 7 years before seminary, I had been worshiping in a great Acts 29 Network evangelical church plant that was of the non-denominational sort in terms of liturgy and ethos. Oddly, I had also been leading worship since high school at the evening Contemporary Worship Service at St. Mary’s Church in Lynn, which is a Roman Catholic parish.
I had been raised (baptized and confirmed) as a Roman Catholic, but in 2002 had experienced a major conversion into a more evangelical understanding of theology, church, and my own personal faith walk. At some point during seminary, the South Hamilton campus of Gordon Conwell became a hotspot for evangelical Anglicans realigning and reforming a new province in North America under the GAFCON movement (now known as the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans) and the Bishops of the Global South due to their differing theological and social positions with the Episcopal Church USA. I took classes with these folks, had them for professors etc. At right about the same time that all of this was occurring, I was feeling a sense of discontent and a lack of “fit” with A29 in terms of who I was becoming theologically and liturgically. I was sensing that my staying on and “helping out” at the Roman Catholic parish after having become an evangelical was actually about more than just some extra stipend cash and doing the priest a favor by staying on (although that’s what I told myself at the time). It was instead, that I was discovering and discerning a deeper recognition, appreciation and longing for liturgy, and for the historical rootedness (as are so many others) which came with the Great Tradition. I found myself so drawn to the aesthetics of liturgical worship that I ended up attending the early morning Anglican services to experience the fusion of Reformation theology with Catholic aesthetics, i.e. Anglicanism, i.e. Reformed Catholicism.
When we relocated to St. Andrews, I was thrilled to discover that there were not one, but two Episcopal (Anglican) churches in St. Andrews. This is a town that you can easily walk in its entirety in 20 minutes so the fact that there were two Anglican churches here was quite unbelievable. I looked forward to and for a few months, enjoyed worshiping at All Saints Episcopal Church, and worshiped once or twice at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, both of which are member churches of the Scottish Episcopal church, but for numerous reasons came to a point where, despite my desire, need, and draw to liturgy, I knew these particular congregations were not “right” for me, not only in terms of “fit” and “style” but in terms of core principles and practices.
Don’t get me wrong, both churches are excellent places, and very certainly full of rich fellowship and worship. One (All Saints) is very much on the Anglo-Catholic side of Anglicanism. It was aesthetically gorgeous but theologically, for me, not reformed or evangelical enough in terms of its preaching and ethos for me to feel comfortable there long term. When the novelty of worshiping in a truly beautiful church in the best of Anglo-Catholic style wore off, I realized I was hungry for the simple preaching of the Word, and to me, at that point the liturgy became a distraction, almost mocking me in its great beauty while never satisfying me ultimately. In the ACNA, the emphasis is really on the coalescing of Three Streams (Charismatic, Catholic, and Evangelical) within each congregation. No doubt, each individual ACNA congregation naturally emphasizes and leans toward one or two of the streams more than the other, but on the whole, the denomination functions within the unique paradigm of the celebration and fusion of the three-fold ethos. So, for example, at Christ the Redeemer in Danvers I experienced a very liturgically catholic aesthetic, but always felt situated or infused with the evangelical, missional ethos as well. I experienced the same ethos in talking with Bishop Bill Murdoch, the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese in New England. He strikes me as very mission focused and evangelical, but also very in tune with the Catholic order, aesthetic, and ethos of the faith. The difference seems to be (realizing that I’m somewhat generalizing here) that in the UK the various streams of Anglicanism seem to be a bit more separated and at odds with one another whereas in the ACNA there is more fusion. And so in the UK, congregations tend to be either Broad Church or Evangelical low Church or Anglo-Catholic, but the streams don’t seem to mix as much. This was less compelling to me and left me wanting more. Either more evangelicalism and emphasis on the Holy Spirit (in the Anglo-Catholic congregation here in St. A’s) or more Catholic spirituality and ethos (in the Broad Church episcopal congregation here in St. A’s).
St. Andrews Episcopal church is the ‘broad church’ Episcopal congregation referred to above, and second of the two Episcopal congregations in St. Andrews. At the time, I just did not feel right there. It seemed more broadly Protestant, and less Catholic (i.e. I didn’t notice folks crossing themselves, which is an important liturgical gesture to me). It reminded me of a USA Episcopal mainline type of Church. It felt like “Church” to me which made it seem predictable and lacking in umph and unction.
I finally decided that I needed to opt out of Scottish Anglicanism when I realized, via one of the local priests, that the particular Church considered themselves in communion with the Episcopal Church (which is fine), but not ACNA (my province). Now, I have many friends in TEC and harbor no ill feelings, but I felt like I was personally not comfortable worshiping in a church following the trajectory of the Episcopal Church USA over against ACNA, especially since many of my friends and mentors had been booted out of that denomination. I felt too much internal friction in being a part of a Church which was not aligned with my province, though I wish them all the best and consider them dear Christian brothers and sisters.
One Sunday morning, Christmas morning actually, I ventured out to one of the local Anglican churches, and ended up in one of those pageants where the kids dress up as sheep and Joseph and Mary etc. These are very popular in the States and in the UK in many churches. Having been a part of an evangelical ’emerging though theologically conservative’ type church for the better part of 10 years, this was not something on my radar. I just knew that,”Man, this is not me.” I kept thinking: “I wonder if I can escape without being noticed.” That particular day the massive, creaky door which was the only perceivable exit to the Church was closed with a loud bang that reverberated through the entire sanctuary right before my planned mid-service ‘sneak out.’ I knew that I would not able to escape undetected :). So, I watched the goofy kid Christmas pageant but was hungry and desperate for the preaching of the Spirit inspired Word of God.
After the service, I booked it down the street to the Baptist church where I knew the Free Church met during the next hour. This was my first time there. It was only metrical psalms and acapella hymns and praise songs at the time, as the Free Church had not yet voted to allow instrumentation. The service was totally bare, very simple, but ironically exhilarating and profoundly refreshing precisely because of the basic liturgy and the centrality of the Word preached.
I began attending the evening service of the Free Church soon thereafter. This service was even more basic in terms of liturgy, and it took place in the upper function room of a Church of Scotland building. We set up and broke down chairs and there was a bare lectern up front from which the Word was clearly preached every Sunday. I was reminded that despite my real desire for worship in the Great Tradition of the Book of Common Prayer, at the very basic level, for me, the preaching of the Word must be central, powerful, contextual, expository, and clear. This both corrected my idealism in regard to liturgy, but also informed my Anglicanism in regard to the necessity of the evangelical Word preached without which the liturgy is never fully transformative.
Whatever the case, I feel really grateful to have experienced both the beauty of liturgy of the Scottish Anglican churches, as well as the Word-centered ministry of the Free Church. The Church which my soul longs for is somewhat of a fusion of the two. A place where folks can set up chairs, very simply, in an empty room, with a basic lectern and worship, but in the context of an ordered, ancient liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. One in which the Word is always dependably emphasized through intentional expository preaching through the Bible in the context of a liturgy with unites us with Christ through the Sacraments (weekly) and the Word, and with each other and the Communion of Saints through the ages through participation in the Great Tradition. As I return to Boston, planning to continue pursuing ordination and ministry with the Anglican Church in North America, I count it a great blessing that I received this worship experience which served as spiritual food and as a reflection upon the power and possibilities (both negative and positive) of this our great liturgical tradition of worship of the Triune God.
In the next post on the Free Church, we will look at some of the distinctive elements of Free Church worship, alongside the preaching of the Word, which I found spiritually compelling and refreshing. Particularly we will look at the Church’s use of Metrical Psalms and their Reformed understanding and practice of the Sacrament of Baptism.