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Can You Be An Anarchist Christian?


What does it mean to be a Christian? After sixty-five years of trying to be one, I thought I had got the general idea. In particular, I thought I had got what it meant to be a member of the Church of England. I had thought that the point of Anglicanism is that you don’t need to be a theologian to be one. For those who think like me, Jesus offered an executive summary:

And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

Mark 12.29-31 KJV

For all these years, I had taken it as read that the Church of England encompasses such a wide spectrum of theology and ecclesiology that, whereas all would presumably go along with this ‘rule’, any further detailed prescription would result in schism. After all, we have always teased priests that buttons could be left undone on cassocks to indicate which of the Thirty Nine Articles caused them problems. And it is apparently even possible to be an atheist priest, though I am not advocating this.

And then the diocese in which I happen to live decides to impose a few rules on the rest of us.

Strategic Priorities

Under God, delighting in His grace and rooted in the Diocesan rule of life, we will be a Diocese in which:

  1. We grow authentic disciples, going out as individuals passionately, confidently and courageously sharing their faith, and coming together as creative church communities of prayer and worship that live out Kingdom values.
  2. We re-imagine the Church intentionally connecting and engaging with our local communities in culturally relevant ways. We will rejoice in the richness of the “mixed economy” of all ministry and proactively promote vibrant parochial and breathtaking pioneering ministries amongst ‘missing’ generations, eg children, young people, under 35s.
  3. We are agents of social transformation using our influence as a Diocese to transform public and personal life. We will demonstrate loving faith at work in local communities and across the globe bringing healing, restoration and reconciliation, eg through education, social enterprise, health care, spiritual care teams.
  4. We belong together in Christ, practicing sacrificial living and good stewardship of all that God has entrusted to us. We will combine radical generosity, care and capacity building with a clear focus on directing finance into the mission of Jesus. Sharing and multiplying local good practice, using people, buildings and other resources wisely, we will seek to boldly prune, plant and invest in building for the Kingdom.

All right, it is the spelling and style of the above which offends me as much as anything else. If someone targets advertising at you which is illiterate, do you not simply dismiss it?

But the chilling part of this document – apart from the fact that it has a whole page to itself on the diocesan website – is the expression ‘Diocesan rule of life’. What on earth is this? Not in my name, at least. I gather it is based on the Benedictine Rule, a splendid document. However, I am not a Benedictine. Nor do I aspire to be one. And if I did, it would be my own business, emphatically not that of the diocese. I might choose to be a Franciscan, Ignatian, Augustinian, Thomistic…., by what right does the diocese I happen to live in aspire to dictate the characteristics of my spirituality?

I find it disconcerting, to say the least, that my bishop and I have completely different understandings of what it means to be a member of the Church of England. But a shepherd’s crook is meant to guide the sheep, not to be a set of handcuffs supplemented by a prod. I am pretty sure that the bishop cannot impose his rule of life on me, not in this sceptred isle, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

So I reassert my life as a pew-sitting Anglican in the parish of my choice, free to classify myself as a liberal catholic if I choose.

And then my friend, and occasional sparring partner, Peter Ould, puts a teasing message on his Facebook page:


Steps to break through a liberal’s theological nonsense.

1) Ask the question “Do you want to live a life that is surrendered to the will of God for you?”
2) Ask the question “Do you think it’s unfair that God would permit you to have a sexual desire you shouldn’t act out on?”
3) Repeat asking questions 1 and 2 until the penny clicks.


I try this for several days. The penny does not click. I think my problem is that Peter assumes that if you are a Christian you will have to answer his first question in the affirmative. Whereas my answer is more like ‘sometimes, yes, sometimes no’.

But for me, this is the wrong question about the nature of my relationship with God. Perhaps because I am a cradle Anglican, even my confirmation was an affirmation of everything that had gone before and a hope for things to come rather than any road to Tarsus.  I know there are ten commandments and thirty-nine articles and many other suggestions for our lives, but I do not wake up in the morning filled with a desire to learn and obey all the rules. It is rather like good manners and etiquette. If you understand that good manners is consideration of other people, you do not need the rules of etiquette, they flow from the understanding of the general principle.

For me, Christianity is like that. It matters not whether you know or care about the finer points of theology – so long as you love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might, and your neighbour as yourself, all else flows from this. Or, as Jesus put it, ‘On this hang all the law and the prophets’  (Matthew 22.40).

There are many hymns which make the same point. What about ‘Immortal love’?

Immortal love, forever full,
Forever flowing free,
Forever shared, forever whole,
A never ebbing sea!

Our outward lips confess the name
All other names above;
Love only knoweth whence it came,
And comprehendeth love.

Blow, winds of God, awake and blow
The mists of earth away:
Shine out, O Light divine, and show
How wide and far we stray…

But warm, sweet, tender, even yet,
A present help is He;
And faith still has its Olivet,
And love its Galilee.

The healing of His seamless dress
Is by our beds of pain;
We touch Him in life’s throng and press,
And we are whole again.

Through Him the first fond prayers are said
Our lips of childhood frame,
The last low whispers of our dead
Are burdened with His Name.

O Lord and Master of us all,
Whate’er our name or sign,
We own Thy sway, we hear Thy call,
We test our lives by Thine.

The letter fails, the systems fall,
And every symbol wanes;
The Spirit over brooding all,
Eternal Love remains.

26 comments on this post:

Phil Groom said...

To be a Christian, one must be an anarchist: so says St Paul and it makes sense to me. All the requirements of the Law are fulfilled by, in and through Jesus — Jesus himself makes that point in the Sermon on the Mount — and so we are set free from the Law to live under grace by the law (if law it be) of love, baptised into Christ’s death and raised to new life in the Spirit. This is elementary, as basic as it gets, but sadly, all too often, the Church doesn’t get it.

As for Peter Ould’s conundrum: he’s welcome to it. We all experience desires — sometimes sexual, sometimes otherwise — that we shouldn’t act upon. Is that unfair? It’s life, dear people: life isn’t fair; and fairness or unfairness are irrelevant to reality. Is it fair for God to permit ostriches to have wings too small to fly with? Was it fair for God to allow the dinosaurs to be wiped out by a meteor strike? Is it fair for God to permit malaria and ebola to be rife in the countries least capable of providing decent health care? Is it fair for God to allow me to sit here typing with my laptop whilst some people don’t have clean drinking water?

If there’s any “theological nonsense” to “break through” here, it’s in Peter’s thinking; and repeating it simply magnifies the nonsense.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thanks for this, Phil. What is behind my post, I suppose, is the worry that both ends of our Church, as it were, seem obsessed by the rules. At my end, the minutiae of how priests and people behave at the eucharist, for example, is taken extremely seriously, as are any infringements. I can’t help thinking Christ would tolerate this, but be a little baffled at this missing of the main point. And at the other end, I am concerned that Evangelicals are so obsessed with going over and over the finer points of Leviticus in its different translations – to me, this must leave Christ equally baffled.
Do you think we are an endangered minority?

Phil Groom said...

I guess anyone who has discovered the freedom Christ brings must be baffled by legalism, whatever form it takes; but I suppose that’s one of the enigmas of freedom: those set free are at liberty to enslave themselves all over again. The problems set in when they insist that everyone else should be enslaved as well. Sad.

A minority? Feels that way at times; but seeing the growth of the CA fb group encourages me; so endangered? I think not.

Lay Anglicana said...

Yes, I feel you are right. Ultimately our cause is one of love, acceptance and embrace. This must trump legalism in the end.

29 August 2014 19:54
29 August 2014 19:36
29 August 2014 19:22
29 August 2014 18:01
minidvr said...

For me, one of the joys of being Anglican after being raised in quite a stifled and authoritarian and paternalistic regime in the Roman Church was to be accepted as a member just on the basis of faith and perhaps on obedience to those two greatest commandments, which I read on my first ever BCP Service when they gave the ‘Summary of the Law’. It opened my eyes to the beauty of the language, but also to what Christ was telling us to do AND TO BE. Faithful, loving people disciples. Set on Godly things, not worldly things.

And being an anarchist is part of that story. The CofE needs to re-grasp that which it is losing, being the ‘Big Tent’ or perhaps in the words of John 14.2 My Fathers House has many rooms, and I’m going to prepare a place for you?. This is the Vision that inspires me. If Jesus is preparing places for each of us, than surely we as his disciples should be prepared to take all without exception into those rooms prepared for them in the Church.

Peter Ould is obsessed with the question of sexuality and sin. His view is that people should resist their nature on pain of sin. That they should repress that very, God given nature to be something which they are not created to be. So, his bit of fun, only poses the question that he asks himself every day, and which if his view is held widely, has done and will continue to do huge harm to the innocent who are fearful of mans perceptions of human sexuality, rather than God’s. And God hasn’t expressed a view either way. Although, we’re told that in heaven there will be no sex or gender, just us, rejoined to our loved ones in eternal worship and praise of our creator.

Sexual repression is unnatural and unhealthy. I’m not advocating a free for all, just that people living together in committed, loving relationships are fulfilling God’s purpose for us, whatever their gender or sexuality. If that’s anarchy, bring it on.

29 August 2014 20:26
Lay Anglicana said...

Hear, hear, Ernie!

29 August 2014 20:32
tgflux said...

I don’t have a problem w/ Ould’s first point (i.e., yes). But the second? It’s total BS that Ould is reducing ***God-given orientation*** to “a sexual desire”! Ould is playing a “Heads: I win/Tails: You lose” game w/ that penny, and he can STICK it!

30 August 2014 04:39
Joyce Hackney said...

Laura, I always hesitate, tempting as it is, to use the term ‘uneducated’ about anyone because these days everyone in this country can go to school,although I can never think of a suitable alternative word. However, I believe that anyone who produces writing that would have got me kept in at playtime is not worth paying attention to.( Sorry about the position of the preposition. )
Were I you, I would not want to accept the authority of anyone for whom I could not produce an adjective, nor of any body that authorised the publication of this nonsense. For a start, I have trouble growing tomatoes so I’m sure I could never grow a disciple, let alone an authentic one. However passionately I tried, were I in a greenhouse or a diocese, however many infinitives I split, however many Cs I substituted for Ss, however much compost I used, my efforts would be unsuccessful.

Treat the thing as junk mail. These newspeak-writing thickheads are no Caesars so you don’t need to render them anything.

As for Mr Ould’s false syllogism, the teacher who told us Her Majesty was worth twenty shillings used to respond to ‘It’s not fair, Sir’ with, ‘Well done for noticing that.’

30 August 2014 15:08
Lay Anglicana said...

Oh, Joyce, thank-you! A voice of sanity in cyberspace :>)
‘I have trouble growing tomatoes so I’m sure I could never grow a disciple, let alone an authentic one’

I did need that laugh…

‘My’ bishop is the fourth most senior bishop in England. And these are his priorities, sorry ‘strategic’ priorities (I wonder what his tactical priorities look like?). I am rather worried about where we are all headed. But I take comfort in the fact that it is unlikely to be effective on the population as a whole, if it has this effect on me ( a combination of ‘Lock Up Your Daughters’ and ‘Where’s My Handbag?’)

Joyce Hackney said...

I’m glad you find me sane, Laura. 🙂
I can imagine a lot of laughter when congregations read these rules. I bet most of those old enough to remember Mr Kruschev’s shoe-banging episode, and those too young but i-savvy enough to have watched it on youtube, will give the British Prime Minister’s response.
Moreover, they’ll say it’s a pity bishops appear no longer to employ secretaries. Grammar, spelling and vocabulary are an essential part of a typist’s training.

30 August 2014 21:25
30 August 2014 15:30
June Butler said...

“Diocesan rule of life” leapt out at me and smacked me. What on earth is that? I guess we don’t have them in the Episcopal Church. It seems to me that Jesus taught against proliferating rules, and centered his teaching on the rule of love and the Golden Rule. As for “vibrant parochial and breathtaking pioneering ministries,” I can’t even imagine what the ministries would look like, much less would I know how to “proactively promote” them, alas.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for this, June. I knew we were right to oppose the Anglican Covenant, and here is one of the reasons why. If you once let bishops and diocesan officials believe that it is their role in life to lay down the law to the rest of us, every level in the Church will start doing it. Can you imagine an Altar Guild having a ‘rule’? In many English parish churches, those who do the flowers are certainly a law unto themselves, and any postulant must first undergo a series of tests. A little authority soon goes to the head!

June Butler said...

Thanks to the heroic votes in the dioceses in the Church of England for dealing the coup de grace to the odious Anglican Covenant. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church could only muster a weak “declines to take a position on Anglican Covenant”, though everyone knew that the covenant would never be accepted.

30 August 2014 22:08
30 August 2014 21:49
30 August 2014 21:38
Hugh Valentine said...

What a great thread! I’m still reeling in surprise at your diocesan Strategic Priorities document. Having looked at some other material on the Winchester site it looks as if it evolved through a half-baked group and Post-It exercise so popular these days with the corporate mindset (and one of the PowerPoint slides to accompany all this has the deliciously naïve injunction “Trust the Bishop’s Team to deliver a quality roll out programme!”). To answer your question, I’d say that being a conscientious follower of the mysterious Nazarene certainly requires – how shall I put it? – deep-seated anarchist tendencies (informed and humanised by your properly prized ‘executive summary’ from Mark (12.29-31)).

layanglicana said...

Thank-you, Hugh, how nice to hear from you! I think you are absolutely right about the origins of these priorities, they seem to have come out of a week-end for the great and the good (ie not including me) at the beginning of +Tim’s episcopate. I think it may have been flawed in having pre-selected only those of like mind, as well as those given to gobbldegook. So there was no one to point out that it needed re-writing in English if the intention was to engage the diocese as a whole.

I have a feeling that rules are probably good for one’s health. And no doubt I should be a better Christian if I were more disciplined. But I was at a girl’s boarding school for seven long years and it left me determined never to be bound by the rule book ever again in my life. So I do probably over-compensate, and over-indulge my inner anarchist. I think the patterns are probably too deeply ingrained to do much about it now, so I will just have to keep trying to follow the Brother Lawrence route and hoping for the best :>)

31 August 2014 19:58
31 August 2014 12:50
Joyce Hackney said...

A quality roll out ? Not the way I make pastry it isn’t. Any pie that was fit for me to take home from school was the one the teacher had made because she was too afraid for her own reputation to let me leave the premises with mine.
I have some lovely blackberries in my garden but I’m making a crumble of them today, not a pie. I recommend adding one apple and half a packet of Jane Asher crumble mix. Lazy, rather than anarchic, perhaps. Or it could be called acknowledging superior skill.
Thinking of Miss Asher ( not yet Dame Jane, alas, but give her time ) and other well-spoken adults who do not mangle The Queen’s English, reminds me that our Supreme Governor, Defender of the Faith is always comprehensible and correct when using her own words rather than those written by Prime Ministers since 1991. So long as we respect her are we truly anarchists although we disdain adolescentilic half-literate bishops ?

layanglicana said...

You’re on a roll, Joyce! First of all, thank-you for the time-saving tip on the crumble (blackberry crumble is my favourite of all puddings, I think, and a great compensation for the fading of summer).
Secondly, I think you are absolutely right about our Supreme Governor. I’m pretty sure she would sympathise with our horror at the ‘strategic’ priorities.
In fact, I also think she could give our new Archbishop of Canterbury a tip or two about his relations with the rest of the Anglican Communion –

31 August 2014 20:05
31 August 2014 15:06
minidvr said...

I’ve always treated rules with the respect that they deserve. If soundly based, than by all means observe them in the spirit if not the breach. Rules are made to be bent, manipulated or interpreted by those supposed to observe them.

If they’re in the category of #blueskythinking though the wrong end of a pair of binoculars (like this stuff) than they’re obviously applicable to the Church of Rome and not to the Church of England. And of course if +Tim wants to be let by the nose by the fools who put this strategic vision together, than perhaps he should be on the other side of the Tiber.

The tactical rules for escape and evasion seem appropriate for all Clergy and Laity in Winchester diocese who don’t #Like this stuff.

Joyce Hackney said...

Tremendous, minidvr. ‘With the respect they deserve’ :).
I can’t see past poor English I’m afraid. I was brought up to poke fun at it unless it came from a child or a foreigner. The respect from me and mine would be none.
How much of that attitude comes from spending the first third of my schooling in Wales and the rest of it in an English industrial city where – with the exception of a small private commercial college for over 13s – there were no independent secondary schools, I can’t say. My whole family’s like me but I don’t think they’re exceptional. Remember the ‘Don’t Drive Tired’ advertising campaign which had to be withdrawn ?
Were I in Linda’s shoes I’d send the document back to the bishop with the red marking.
I love your link. Very funny.

01 September 2014 14:16
01 September 2014 07:40
Pam Smith said...

It looks like pretty standard fare for Diocesan vision statements, which are usually heavy on where they want to get to and a bit more vague about how they’re going to get there.

I remember when we looked at the Rule of Benedict for Lent at Coventry Cathedral, one of the major problems my group had was trying to interpret its harshness into what might be acceptable nowadays, but the larger one was that the Dean of the Cathedral did not and cannot equate to the Abbot of a monastic order. Joining a monastic order – even as an oblate – is a very different thing from joining a church, or even a Cathedral.

Similarly, i-church, which was ‘founded on Benedictine principles”, has spent 10 years working out what that looks like when members are not necessarily familiar with the Rule, when we are not a monastery, and therefore do not have an abbot. Without the monastic community, the rule comes down to some important principles like simplicity of life. listening to others and silence – all of them very valuable but I don’t see how they translate to something like a Diocese. It would be interesting to enquire how you are meant to go about following this Rule, or even what it is.

Lay Anglicana said...

Many thanks Pam. When you say ‘standard fare’, I am surprised if other diocesan vision statements are quite as peremptory as this. Most of it could be redrafted to say much the same thing (I would do it myself, but am unlikely to be asked!). If it had been headed ‘vision’ anything, we would understand that it was a set of pious hopes. The diocese is quite entitled, according to me, to have these, and also to suggest that we read the Benedictine rule, which we ‘might find helpful’ etc.

It is the Winchester language which is borne out by other straws in the wind suggesting that the diocese is expecting to exert its power on the populace, de haut en bas. There is no suggestion of any wider discussion, or any idea that the diocese might adjust its ‘strategic priorities’ according to the views of the parishioners. The reference to ‘using people’ is a failure of punctuation, but actually reveals an all too real tendency to use people as a means to an end, not as an end in themselves. The bishop is given to repeating at regular intervals that the Church of England is ‘synodically governed but episcopally led’. He seems to be taking this literally, and has not noticed that there is no mention of ‘we the people’ except as sheep robots. Sheep humans, on the other hand, since the days of Magna Carta and Wat Tyler, cannot be relied upon to obey unquestioningly.

As you say, Pam, joining a Church – or even a cathedral – is a very different thing from joining a monastic order.

Pam Smith said...

“the diocese is expecting to exert its power on the populace, de haut en bas”

To which the reply from the seasoned church watcher is “Exert away!” 😀

01 September 2014 10:55
Phil Groom said...

Perhaps the good Bishop needs to be gently reminded that his role is to serve, not to lead? Leadership is best left to Jesus, the Archanarchist, who leads by freeing us from rules and regulations.

Lay Anglicana said...

Absolutely right, Phil. Now the problem is just to find someone willing to attempt to bell the cat

Pam Smith said...

It’s a bit picky, but I have a personal prejudice against being told that people are “under God”. Do they think I need reminding I’m subject to God’s will, or are they reminding themselves?

02 September 2014 00:30
Lay Anglicana said...

I so agree! I think it is a pre-emptive strike, daring any reader to disagree. Since they claim to be speaking on behalf of God, how can anyone challenge what they say?

02 September 2014 02:19
01 September 2014 12:35
01 September 2014 11:00
01 September 2014 10:46
01 September 2014 10:23

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