By Chaplain Mike
It’s probably clear to many of you by now that I have a great deal of sympathy for the Ancient-Future path as a hopeful way of revitalizing evangelicalism in this post-evangelical era.
But I’m afraid people may have the wrong conception of what I’m talking about when I refer to the Ancient-Future path. I understand some of the confusion, because those who talk about it (including me) make regular reference to such things as historic churches, liturgical worship, and other traditional practices.
It’s important, however, to realize that there is no single uniform way of walking the Ancient-Future path.
For Robert Webber, it meant leaving free church evangelicalism and becoming an Episcopalian. Dr. Thomas Howard joined the Roman Catholic church, while John Michael Talbot became a Franciscan monk. Peter Gillquist and Franky Schaeffer found a home in Eastern Orthodoxy. On the same path, Thomas Oden has remained a Methodist and D.H. Williams continues to practice his Baptist faith.
Michael Spencer, our beloved iMonk, remained a Southern Baptist, but struggled with regard to his true church home. He continued to teach in a Baptist school, minister in Baptist and Presbyterian churches, attend Anglican services whenever possible, and maintain an appreciation for Thomas Merton, all while advocating a return to the “broader, deeper, more ancient, more ecumenical church” through Internet Monk.
For many pilgrims, following this path has led them back to their roots in the traditions of their youth. Others have not deemed it necessary to leave their churches or “return” anywhere, but have found new spiritual vitality in discovering ancient practices such as praying the hours. Kathleen Norris became an oblate in a Benedictine monastery. Richard Foster learned to celebrate the practice of spiritual disciplines and the wisdom that may be gained from the spiritual classics. Marty McCall took ancient texts, the prayers of 17th century Anglican Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, and contemporary liturgies, and wove them into an album of contemporary Christian music. Shane Claiborne and others have found inspiration for their work on behalf of the poor and social justice in the Anabaptist tradition. John Armstrong heard the Spirit speak through the words of the creed and John 17, and has committed himself to advocating for the unity of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”
There is no single uniform way of walking on the Ancient-Future path.
That is because “Ancient-Future” is not a formula. It is a mindset. It is a different approach, a different way of looking at what it means to follow Jesus as his church. In general, evangelicalism does not have the same perspective. When people take to the Ancient-Future path, they are embracing an alternative point of view, not just certain practices.
I would like to present some clarifications here today so that we can look below the surface of the Ancient-Future way and understand some of these more fundamental perspectives.
1. Ancient-Future is not about “older is better”. Rather, the perspective is this: we should respect the wisdom and practices of those who came before us and continue to draw strength from them, while at the same time being open to new leadings of the Spirit. And while older does not necessarily mean better, it may mean time tested. Many who walk the Ancient-Future path are longing for the kind of solidity that proven ways provide.
2. Ancient-Future is not about being “high church”. Proponents may sometimes give the misleading idea that this path is all about ornate sanctuaries, vestments, incense, stained glass, and priests chanting the service. Although aesthetics and formality are attractive to many on the path, they are not necessary. The simplest worship service before the most unadorned altar may be informed by the Ancient-Future perspective. Think Paul and Silas in prison, Roman Christians in the catacombs, the testimonies of the martyrs, the poor who receive the sacrament in villages all around the world.
3. Ancient-Future is not about being liturgical vs. non-liturgical. Ancient-Future types believe that liturgy is the means by which we worship God. Furthermore, they understand that everyone has a liturgy.
The Baptist pastor of my youth would have been appalled had anyone suggested his church was liturgical. But every week, he simply took the bulletin from the past Sunday, crossed out the specific hymn numbers, texts, and sermon topic, and wrote in new details for the next Sunday. Everything stayed in the same order. Once a month he added communion. We were as strict and standardized as any Mass.
Most “contemporary” churches claim to be “free,” but that has not been my experience. Those on the Ancient-Future path are not seeking liturgy in contrast to non-liturgy. They are seeking better liturgy in contrast to insufficiently thoughtful and purposeful liturgy.
4. Ancient-Future is not about using only traditional music or elements of worship. It is true: many Ancient-Future pilgrims are choosing traditional forms out of reaction to what can only be termed the cultural snobbery of contemporary evangelicalism. In August, 2009, Michael Spencer wrote:
We are nothing short of idiots for getting rid of [hymnals], and I choose that word carefully. Who in the world decided that we would throw out two thousands years of worship because it didn’t fit in with our current plan to sound like the secular music of the last 40 years? Good grief, what a demolition job this has been. I know a lot of young people “like” the new music, but we have a responsibility to those who came before us, not to prefer or like what they did as much as they did, but to use it with respect and honor for the value that is in it. Handing the entire musical and lyrical heritage of two millenia of Christianity over to a “worship leader” to be eradicated in favor of contemporary music only is insane.
A mature Ancient-Future perspective seeks a more appropriate balance. In the end, it is not about contemporary vs. traditional. It’s about honoring the heritage of our family, including and celebrating the time-tested music, hymnology, and worship forms that teach us about Christ and his work through the ages, and mixing in the best new music and creative liturgical practices.
5. Ancient-Future is not about ceasing to be Protestant (or…whatever). You and I don’t have to become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, join a monastery, or accept a certain understanding of the Eucharist in order to walk the Ancient-Future path. To be sure, some have come to the conclusion that the only logical choice in the end is to join “the one true church.” And I will suggest below that our theological perspective may need to change, but this does not mean that we must abandon all conviction in favor of some mushy ecumenism in order to embrace our heritage in the “one holy catholic and apostolic church”.
If these characteristics do not define the Ancient-Future way, what is it all about?
1. Ancient-Future is about embracing a theological perspective of “classic Christianity”. The theologian who most fully articulates the perspective informing the Ancient-Future path is Thomas Oden, whose three-volume systematic theology has been republished as Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. His approach, which has also been called “paleo-orthodoxy” is expressed here:
My basic purpose is to set forth an ordered view of the faith of the Christian community upon which there has generally been substantial agreement between the traditions of East and West, including Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. My intent is not to present the views of a particular branch of modern Christian teaching, such as Roman Catholic or Reformed, but to listen single-mindedly for the voice of that deeper consensus that has been gratefully celebrated as received teaching by believers of vastly different cultural settings, whether African or Asian, Eastern or Western, sixth or sixteenth century. (emphasis mine)
This post is not the place to argue Oden’s approach, merely to state that those who walk the Ancient-Future path join with him in seeking the deep creedal consensus of Christian faith that undergirds the church despite differences that divide its various branches. As the Vincentian Canon of St. Vincent of Lerins (AD 434) states, “We take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”
Once again, this does not mean we have to give up the distinctive perspectives and convictions that inform our own traditions. We may well disagree with our brethren on matters, and some of these may be significant matters! Do you know any family in which this is not true? However, the basis of unity with our fellow Christians in all traditions runs deeper; it lies in Christ, the Christ we confess through the apostolic teaching summarized in the ecumenical creeds and in the consensus wrought by the Holy Spirit from the earliest centuries of the church concerning our faith.
2. Ancient-Future is about maintaining a vital, organic, respectful connection to our Christian history and heritage. Evangelicalism and contemporary evangelical churches have, by and large, cut themselves off from their family history. Their roots are shallow. It is, as Michael Spencer named it, “The Church of What’s Happening Now.” What’s happening now is not unimportant, but unless we have some historical perspective, how can we properly evaluate it?
Father Ernesto’s testimony from earlier this week is an eloquent statement in this regard:
The Church Fathers come already vetted by centuries of thought, discussion, and (yes) Holy Tradition. I can read them through the filter of the long history of the Church, through the filter of the generations of holy bishops (and even some unholy ones), through the filter of the hierarchs that are over me today. But, even back then, when they were yet to be Church Fathers and were only bishops and priests trying to explain the faith, they did not rely on “moves of the Spirit” but on Scripture, prayer, reflection, fasting, consultation with their fellow theologians, and even on the counsel of the Church as expressed in Holy Council. Only at the end of the process would they use phrases like that found in the Book of Acts, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . . The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written. . .” And so, I can also read Scripture through the same long history of the Church, and while I learn “new” things, I always seem to find out that they are very “old” things.
The Ancient-Future path seeks to maintain a vital, organic, and respectful connection to the past — that is, to realize that what the Holy Spirit teaches us today is linked to what he taught people in the past. Ours is a living tradition of a living Word spoken to people by the life-giving Spirit.
3. Ancient-Future is about restoring a robust doctrine and practice of the church and her authority in the life of the faithful. In the final analysis, for evangelicalism the church is important but optional. It is commonly presented as one of the helps God has given so that individual believers can grow in their faith. In our consumerist culture, church is what I shop for and choose according to my style preferences and felt needs. Church is the family-friendly religious activity center for all ages.
Those on the Ancient-Future path long for more. They long for the family of God, a family into which we are born, in which we are nurtured, in which we grow, where we reenact the family story, learn to live by the family rules, where we learn from the wisdom of our elders and treasure our heritage. It is not simply a place where people who like each other get together for convivial fellowship and activities. It is where we belong, whether we want to or not, whether we agree with everything or not, whether it’s designed to “meet my needs” or not.
To use Robert Webber’s language, it is the community in which we are confronted with divine mystery and transcendence; where we participate in genuine worship through the living Word and sacramental reality — God with us in human flesh, leather and paper, bread and wine, water and oil; the home in which we discover our “roots” — our family heritage from Abraham to the apostles, from the earliest church fathers to today’s saints; and the school, library, and workshop in which we are taught a purposeful path for spiritual formation.
The church is the living corporate reality in which we, as believers in Jesus, live and move and have our being, not the club with which we choose to associate.
4. Ancient-Future is about practicing liturgical wisdom and integrity in our worship. As mentioned above, every congregation has a liturgy by which they worship. Evangelical services are known for music designed to stir the emotions followed by preaching/teaching designed to lead listeners to a decision. This is the revivalist liturgy that is about 200 years old.
The basic form of the traditional liturgy is different. Though specific elements may vary in different incarnations of the liturgy, the church’s worship has been defined traditionally as “Word and Sacrament.” Therefore, the liturgy is comprised of two primary sections: the Service of the Word and the Service of the Table. The beginning of the service, prior to the Word, is a time of gathering before God in praise, confession, and prayer. The ending of the service, following the Table, is when we receive God’s blessing and are sent into the world to share the Good News.
- Gathering: We come before God
- Service of the Word: We hear his Word and respond with confessions of faith and prayers of intercession
- Service of the Table: We give thanks and are nourished at his Table
- Sending: We are sent into the world to serve as God’s blest people
For those on the Ancient-Future path, this order is attractive. Whether it is worked out in an elaborate high-church service with a multitude of elements and formal style, or in simple fashion without a lot of accoutrements, the service focuses on Christ and the drama of redemption. Every Sunday, God’s people are immersed in the Gospel through the liturgy, which begins with acknowledging the worthiness of God, then confessing our sins, then hearing and responding to his Word, then receiving grace afresh at his table, and finally being sent into the world empowered by his Spirit.
There is no single uniform way of walking on the Ancient-Future path. But there is a path. On it, many are finding great hope.