Title: The Eternal Crisis of the Gospel and Long-Term Spiritual Formation in a Stopgap Society
Author: Joshua Heavin
This essay argues that the recovery of historically Christian, and distinctively Anglican, practices of catechesis and spiritual formation is vital to cultivating a theological and ethical imagination capable of offering faithful worship and sustained witness amidst a wide range of contemporary social crises in our rapidly changing Western culture. Initially, this suggestion may seem naïve; “if the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?” Historic Anglican liturgy and practices of spiritual formation have been tried, it might be argued, and found wanting before the challenges of secularization and modern society; surely leaning even harder into these traditions and expecting different results will prove ineffective, if not maddening.
However, the disorienting complexity and volume of social crises that pervade contemporary life, both within and without the church, require not only courage and perseverance to resist an overwhelmed apathy or a helpless despair. Furthermore, only a disciplined allocation of our finite time, energy, and attention will effectively relate to the challenges of our time that range from international wars, global pandemics, gender and sexuality ethics, sexual abuse, racism, poverty, deaths of despair, violence, climate change, abortion, the politics of identity, denominational decline, and much else. “Speaking the truth in love” not only involves the usual difficulties of exercising the courage of one’s convictions amidst peer-pressure, while simultaneously acting with humility and mercy, but proves exceptionally difficult if we are only acquaintances with and not intimate friends of the truth, and thus liable to being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14–15). I contend that rediscovering practices of spiritual formation, which have withstood and the ebb and tide of history, offers a reliable path forward amidst the chaos and fragmentation of liquid modernity.
On one hand, Oliver O’Donovan is correct, that “there are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.” Arguably, many within our churches are overly preoccupied with du jour controversies. The church of Jesus Christ offers a powerful counter-testimony against the lordless powers of our age when it refuses them the attention and idolatrous worship they so desperately crave, instead attending faithfully to the often small and quiet matters of eternal significance in hidden lives. Simultaneously, fixation on matters of ultimate significance is not to be confused with cool detachment or indifferent retreat, which are neither desirable nor possible before such challenges – undesirable, because the church’s mission is to be ambassadors of the kingdom of God in word and deed; impossible, because a privileged position above the fray is forgone through union with Christ, which creates a solidarity with brothers and sisters in Christ, evident in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe in “the communion of saints,” as we are bound together in a common baptism to act wisely and charitably amidst controversies roiling many of our churches and personal lives.
In Part I of this essay I situate contemporary ecclesial and ethical action within an ironic historiographical situation: though all ages are beset by presentism, absolutizing contemporary challenges as though they were unprecedented in scope or scale, the church in our own historical moment is especially prone to these errors due to a combination of poor catechesis, technological, and material factors. Rightly discerning how contemporary social and cultural challenges variously are, or are not, unprecedented in scope and scale is vital to effectively handling them. In Part II, I suggest three distinctive contributions of the Anglican tradition to the church catholic for redressing these problems; by imbibing the Scriptures, Catechesis, and Sacramental Liturgy deep into the lives of our churches, we will be better poised to commend the faith to future generations and to have a missionary encounter with our non- or anti-Christian context. Finally, in Part III of this essay I argue that our contemporary moment between a waning Christendom and significant challenges in the horizon, we must consolidate the integrity of our churches from within rather than being so preoccupied by challenges from without as to become hollowed out. While appropriate engagement with the issues of our time is necessary, over preoccupation with the crises of today can leave us disconnected from ancient wisdom and render us utterly unprepared for the unknown challenges of tomorrow. Yet, even the best of our traditions will not in and of themselves suffice to equip the church for action that is truly effective in relation to contemporary social crises; only the ongoing work of the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is our hope.
John Jewel’s 1562 Apology for the Church of England, one of the foremost historical defenses and expositions of the Church of England, begins with an observation that what is popular is not necessarily true. Across the ages, the same problems afflict the people of God under various guises, from the sacred history of Israel to God’s action in Jesus Christ, to this very day, as the truth continually seems strange:
It hath been an old complaint, even from the first time of the patriarchs and Prophets, and confirmed by the writings and testimonies of every age, that the truth wandereth here and there as a stranger in the world, and doth readily find enemies and slanderers amongst those that know her not. Albeit perchance this may seem unto some a thing hard to be believed, I mean to such as have scant well and narrowly taken heed thereunto, specially seeing all mankind of nature’s very motion without a teacher doth covet the truth of their own accord; and seeing our Saviour Christ Himself, when He was on earth, would be called the Truth, as by a name most fit to express all His Divine power; yet we, which have been exercised in the Holy Scriptures, and which have both read and seen what hath happened to all godly men commonly at all times; what to the Prophets, to the Apostles, to the holy martyrs, and what to Christ Himself; with what rebukes, revilings, and despites they were continually vexed whiles they here lived, and that only for the truth’s sake: we, I say, do see that this is not only no new thing, or hard to be believed, but that it is a thing already received, and commonly used from age to age.
The timeline within which the church of Jesus Christ exists is defined by the events of the gospel, namely, that “the creation of the Father, ruined by sin, is restored in the death [and resurrection] of the Son of God and re-created by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God.” The gospel announces not merely “an improvement in the human situation,” but “nothing less than the dawn of the new creation” in the crucified and risen Messiah and those who are united with him. The Spirit presently manifests Christ’s resurrection life and power in self-giving, cross-shaped lives in the reconciled community, whose faith, hope, and love are a sign which testifies against the powers of this age and testifies to God’s coming reign that has already been secured in the risen Messiah and Lord. As such, the church lives at the overlap of the ages, where the kingdom of God is like leaven hidden in bread, like a discovered pearl left buried in the field, like a seed that grows imperceptibly apart from human striving, or like a field where crops and weeds intermingle before the harvest (Matthew 13). As Augustine concluded, “these two cities [the City of God and the City of Man] are interwoven and intermixed in this era,” so the church can take heart that amongst the world there are people destined to belong to the City of Man who might not realize it yet, while the church also must remain watchful, as it cannot presume that everyone who associates with the church indeed is journeying towards the City of God.
As such, the providential history within which the church lives is not reducible to human actions and scheming, but nor can the church’s history be identified in an immediate way with God’s being or acts. The God who lives in freedom has determined to be God with us and God for us in Jesus Christ, establishing a covenantal bond in the God-man for the healing and reconciliation of the broken creation, such that, as the Barmen Declaration rightly observed in opposition to German Christian capitulation to Nazi ideology, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death,” which precludes that “the church in human arrogance could place the word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans,” as though the Word of God were an object we could exploitatively lord over others rather than ourselves be ruled by, or as though the church were a political voting bloc rather the Body and Bride of Christ, an outpost of an eternal kingdom.
The opening chapter of Ecclesiastes provides an outlook on history which many of us would prefer to ignore, but one that can aid the church in resisting captivity to every idol that might capture our gaze. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes observes that “all things are full of weariness,” particularly because “what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” (Eccl 1:8–11). Instead, if we falsely imagine ourselves as living within unprecedented times, a wholly novel epoch requiring emergency powers, exceptional ethics, and extreme measures for extenuating circumstances, it becomes far easier to justify arbitrary whims. Simultaneously, there is no small danger in dismissive presumption that we have nothing to learn about the challenges of our times, or in premature association of contemporary challenges with problems the church has faced in the past. But in every age, the church has been tempted to regard its situation as facing utterly unprecedented challenges in scope and scale, from the earliest generation of Christians, to those after the destruction of the temple in AD 70, to those who witnessed both the conversion of the Roman Empire and then its demise, to those in the 14th century who witness the Black Death and three popes each anathematizing one another.
However, ours is an age particularly prone to presentism, “the view that only present things exist.” In no age has it been easy to cultivate a deep knowledge of the past and to diligently fashion mental furniture that lends itself to wise, collective memory. But now that the overwhelming majority of people spend hours every day looking at screens, we are swimming so deep in presentism that we can hardly recognize it any longer, particularly as we watch entertainment-news television with flashing, urgent notification messages, as we read 280-character tweets, watch short TikTok videos, and consume other content that by its very design is made to be ephemeral, arresting our attention for a short few seconds before leading us to the next momentary spectacle that will capture our hearts and minds. As Anglican political theologian Jon Askonas observes in The New Atlantis, the decline of social institutions that once fostered a shared picture of the world means that “consensus reality” is in decline today. Thus, the church today occupies an ironic historiographic situation, namely, that while every age is vulnerable to the dangers of presentism and absolutizing its problems as unprecedented, ours is arguably the most presentist generation of them all. While in no age has attentiveness or the learned skill of just “being” been easy, ours is especially vulnerable to presentism since, as Hannah Arendt develops, effective propaganda need not concern itself with persuasion but only must confuse and exhaust – in sum, distract, and “totalitarian propaganda thrives on escape from reality.” But in Christ, reality itself has encountered us, whether we like it or not.
Part II: Tools for Spiritual Formation
Given the overwhelming complexity of the challenges against speaking the truth in love well in our contemporary contexts, there is likely not only one solution that is required. By no means do I mean to suggest that only historic Anglican practices for spiritual formation can stem the tide, nor are they a panacea. Nonetheless, distinctively Anglican approaches to liturgy and daily Christian living contribute extraordinarily valuable resources for imagining an alternative Christian community and way of being in the world, and this tradition is worth understanding, enriching, strengthening, and commending to future generations, not only for the known challenges of today but the unknown challenges of tomorrow as well.
First, Anglican worship works the Word of God into the people of God, week in and week out, both in the public reading of Scripture, and in the Daily Office. The 1549 Preface to the Book of Common Prayer recalled the practice of the ancient church that all or almost all of the Bible was read over once each year, and “by daily hearing of Holy Scripture read in the Church should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.” William Tyndale’s dying wish, that the ploughboy would know as much Scripture in the vernacular as the Pope, could scarcely imagine our contemporary situation, where we have unprecedented access to the Scriptures and scriptural teaching but our hearts are taken captive by endless opportunities for novel distractions on our phones, such that biblical literacy is in stark decline, even amongst consistent churchgoers. The discipline of the lectionary compels us to continue working through even those parts of Holy Scripture that we might otherwise avoid, and we have no hope of speaking the truth to our generation if we are unacquainted with – let alone if we have not meditated upon, imbibed, and re-read again and again – the Word of God. Not only on the Second Sunday in Advent, but routinely we Anglicans need to pray, “Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Second, catechesis has been a hallmark characteristic of Anglican church life throughout all ages except perhaps for our own. While not every Christian is necessarily called to enter a classroom as a student or to learn multiple research languages and master an area of expertise as a scholar, nonetheless everyone who is in Christ is a theologian, for better or for worse, because eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3). The question is not if our churches are filled with theologians, but only what kind of theologians we funcatoinally are, and which modes of theological inquiry will be used tomorrow in the practical lives of our clergy and laity for the complex challenges on our moral horizon. Do we have a functioning theological system in our churches and our lives, with proportionate doctrines interacting with one another? From St. Augustine’s On Christian Teaching to the great catechisms of the magisterial Protestant Reformation, Christians have long sought to instill the basic doctrines of the gospel into the lives of every Christian, particularly through expositions in questions and answers on the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer as a summary of Christian living. The venerable literary history of the Book of Common Prayer has always included some form of catechism, and the ACNA’s 2019 To Be A Christian well continues this hallowed tradition. Yet, catechesis remains something routinely overlooked not only by Christians in general but even by Anglicans today, perhaps regarding it only as an elementary course for children before confirmation that one graduates from, rather than an opportunity to continually re-discover the astonishing wonder of the gospel’s profundity and simplicity. Under the tyranny of presentism, an endless stream of pressing controversies demand our attention now, urging us to “say something now” on matters which we might scarcely understand. There are an endless number of worthy causes the church can – and should – devote its time, reflection, and action towards. Yet, polling of American parishioners consistently demonstrates that the most basic of Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity or the person and work of Christ, are routinely misunderstood, let alone functioning as distributive doctrines that undergird the whole of salvation and the whole of the Christian life, which we then might use to navigate various anthropological, social, and political challenges that emerge. J.I. Packer is right: “the catechumenate – all-age pastoral instruction – has got to be revived. There are many ways of doing it right. The main thing that is not right is to not do it.” Planting, watering, cultivating, and pruning deeply-formed Christian persons means setting down deep roots that can withstand storms and the change of seasons, and it requires a quiet faithfulness and resolved determination to continue putting the things that matter most deep into our churches and our individual hearts.
Finally, Anglican worship that follows the Book of Common Prayer, both in its unity and diversity, is an aid to conforming churches and lives to become more and more like Christ in this world. Through participation in Christ, as Richard Hooker wrote in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, “his body crucified and his blood shed for the life of the world, are the true elements of that heavenly being, which maketh us such as himself is of whom we come,” because as truly divine and truly human “Christ is… that true vine whereof we both spiritually and corporally are branches,” abiding in him in life, death, and hope of resurrection. In our own era where the population center of Anglicanism is in the Global South rather than England or North America, any discussion of Prayer Book liturgical traditions needs to be attuned to the reality that Anglican worship means neither uniformity nor arbitrariness, but discerning a unity amidst a variety of missional improvisations. But the basic pattern of Anglican liturgy, from the summary of the Law to our confession of sin, the assurance of pardon, and the canticles we read and sing, works the gospel into us as a people – whether we have an ecstatic experience of its power or are wavering in our faith and full of unrest. Anglican liturgical and sacramental tradition sets the gospel before us and before the world week by week, and year by year through the liturgical calendar, that we are the community of scoundrels and beggars, from every walk of life, who gather around a table where Jesus is both the Lord and the servant, where in faith we do this in remembrance of him, in love have participation in Christ presently, and in hope proclaim his death until he returns. Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann observed that in the modern a world, made “frightening not just because of its hatred, division, and bloodshed” but also because “not God but man has become the measure of all things,” even some churches and theologians in the West have replaced a Christian vision of truth, beauty, and goodness, the world at the service of God, for a reduction of everything to power struggles, economics, psychology, and politics – yet, nevertheless, the Eucharist “is the source of that renewal for which we hope.” We are those who eat from one loaf; we have been washed in the waters of baptism, all alike sharing one common name of God into which we were baptized, the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In so doing the church can become an alternative community amidst a broader social and cultural context where people are arguably more isolated and lonelier than ever, and also ever-more increasingly less likely to spend time with other people who do not share their niche political preferences or algorithm-determined entertainment affinities.
Part III Our Only Comfort in Life and in Death
However, the only hope and the necessary focus of the church to effectively address the unique challenges of our age must be the God who lives in Freedom, who has determined to be God for us and God with us in Jesus Christ.
Decades ago, British missionary Lesslie Newbigin profiled how Christians in the West have not merely declined numerically or lost political influence that might have been held in past centuries of Christendom. Furthermore, the situation in which we presently find ourselves is one of missionary encounter, where we cannot assume that the basis of Christian and faith and practice will even be intelligible to our rapidly secularizing and religiously multi-cultural society. That distinction is crucial: not merely has the Christian faith become one amongst other options in how late modern people might choose to live their lives, but it has become an almost unimaginable, almost unthinkable option to many of our neighbors, coworkers, and even our own children. The gospel of a crucified Messiah as risen Lord of the cosmos necessarily must contradict the claims of rival lords. But many of us in the late modern West are becoming less and less comfortable than we have been in past decades in our relationship to broader non-Christian society. Where once self-identifying as a Christian in some circumstances might have provided some social capital, today self-identifying with traditional forms of Christian doctrine and ethics can create more of a social liability than cachet.
In such environs, it is imperative that the church consolidate from within, and shore up the ruins, lest a frenetic preoccupation with an endless stream of urgent crises without weakens our integrity to the point of breaking. I am not suggesting that the church’s public witness and the private work of Christians in any number of areas need to only be confined to internal activity; far from it. By no means is the gospel unconcerned with matters of racial injustice, climate change, gender and sexual ethics, poverty, care for the weak, the sanctity of human life, care for those with disabilities, the elderly, mass incarceration, hospitality for refugees, and much else. A gospel we might focus on, to the exclusion of or retreat from the world to which God has sent us to be his ambassadors, is not a gospel that has been sufficiently grounded in the doctrines of creation and new creation, and probably misunderstands the nature and extent of the fall, sin, the incarnation, and more. Simultaneously, many of us are prone to so fixating on these challenges that they crowd out essential matters of Christian faith that are perennially to be the church’s preoccupation, or we might so drastically re-define historic Christian doctrines to make them expedient for our concerns today as to become emptied of any connection to the communion of saints past or future. What is necessary is not some mediating course between our polarized, binary social and political options today; what is needed is a heavenly course that the world will find either compelling or confounding, a way that defies conventional categories like that taken by Oxford martyr Nicholas Ridley, who died a slow and painful death by burning at the stake for teaching the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation and was also “was noted for preaching on social justice” and whose advocacy for the poor established two hospitals.
If our current moment is indeed one of gathering and storing away provisions before a likely quite brutal winter on the horizon, then we can spend our remaining days of summer and Autumn on sanctimonious trivialities, or we can use what precious little time we have to prepare. If Christian theology is chiefly about God, and all else in relation to God, then we need to audit our current priorities. Do we live in such a way as to keep our deaths ever before us, with a longing for the beatific vision? How well are we training ourselves and our churches for martyrdom? How susceptible are our churches to baseless conspiracy theories and propaganda, do we relate wisely or naively to the challenges of public discourse in era of fragmentation and social media? Are we cultivating an ethos in our churches that remembers our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and are we ourselves honoring God with our functional sexual ethics, as we discern how to be Christians in an age where progressive sexual ideology is becoming increasingly dominant in the public square? Are the foremost determinative pressures on our personal and corporate outlook on matters of racial reconciliation and racial justice the pressures of the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture, or the latest talking-points and peer pressure of left- and right-wing commentators or our social media newsfeed? While God’s kingdom endures forever, have we so misidentified certain political figures or parties with the cause of God’s kingdom that we scarcely distinguish between them, thereby ensuring our churches will last no longer than their rise and inevitable falls? Is the suffering and injustice undergone by our brothers and sisters in Christ our own, or held at a remove? As we assess how to handle crises of abuse and trauma, do we avail ourselves of helpful tools from secular psychology to protect and care for hurting people, without allowing secular psychology to dictate the church’s theological anthropology? Are we a God-intoxicated people, a people desperate to know and love Jesus Christ, a people so filled with the Holy Spirit as to forego peer-pressure and material comforts in order to be agents of truth and mercy in this world, burning with desire for the Holy Trinity, lost in wonder, love, and praise? Regardless of what we theoretically tell others and even ourselves, functionally are we ashamed of the gospel – or does our witness to the world by Word and Sacrament issue forth from a sincere faith that cannot stop speaking and singing about what God has done, is doing, and will do in Jesus Christ?
Th distinctively Anglican practices related to Scripture, catechesis, and sacramental liturgy are enormously useful resources towards forming our churches and individual hearts to better relate to the crises of our time and place. However, in and of themselves, if we are left only to ourselves, we are doomed inevitably to fail. As former archbishop Michael Ramsey wrote, “the credibility of the church of God, and the credibility of Anglicanism, lies not in its own virtues or successes, but in the Lord of the church. And the Lord of the church is Jesus, crucified and risen, who through his church still converts sinners and creates saints.” So may we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, have grace to take up our cross and follow him.
 Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 175.
 Matthew Lee Anderson, “Oliver O’Donovan on the American Political Environment,” Mere Orthodoxy (2010): <https://mereorthodoxy.com/oliver-odonovan-on-the-american-political-environment/>.
 Kevin Hargaden, “Locating the ‘Lordless Powers’ in Ireland: Karl Barth, Novels, and Theological Ethics in the Aftermath of the Celtic Tiger, Irish Theological Quarterly 84.3 (2019): 243–258.
 See the Heidelberg Catechism, Q.&A. 55; The Anglican Church in North America, To be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 101–103.
 John Jewel, “The Apology of the Church of England,” Project Gutenberg (2006): <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17678/17678-h/17678-h.htm>.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, ed. by John Bolt, trans. by John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), vol. 1, p. 112.
 J. Louis Martyn, “The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians,” Interpretation 54, no. 3 (2000), 250.
 St. Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. by Henry Bettenson (New York, NY: Penguin, 2003), 46.
 Eberhard Busch, The Barmen Theses Then and Now, trans. by Darrell and Judith Guder (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 19.
 David Ingram and Jonathan Tallant, “Presentism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Spring 2022 Edition): <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/presentism/>.
 Jon Askons, “What Happened to Consensus Reality?” The New Atlantis, Sprint 2022: <https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/what-happened-to-consensus-reality>.
 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1958), 352.
 The Book of Common Prayer, The Anglican Church in North America (Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019), 794.
 John Foxe, Actes and Monuments of These Latter and Perillous Dayes (London: John Day, 1563), 570.
 Brent A. Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grands Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).
 BCP 2019, 598.
 J.I. Packer, The Heritage of Anglican Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 344.
 W. Bradford Littlejohn, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015),173.
 Gerald Bray, Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021), 160–166.
 Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, trans. by Paul Kachur (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), 9–10.
 Myles Werntz, From Isolation to Community: A Renewed Vision for Christian Life Together (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022).
 Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988).
 eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams, Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 52.
 John Webster, ‘What Makes Theology Theological?’, in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, 2 vols (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), vol. 1, p. 217.
 Michael Ramsey, The Anglian Spirit (New York, NY: Seabury Classics, 2004), 134.