I’ve been musing about the interplay between two events that happened yesterday. One was a conversation which took place over a Costa latte with a member of an HTB church plant. The other was a chance visit to the Anglo-catholic church in South London where I was baptised and confirmed. A dialogue between these two was inspired by reading a chapter this morning about stages of spiritual growth in ‘The God You Already Know’.
As I drove past the church of my childhood, I noticed that the chairs on which I first sat 58 years ago in Sunday School were being replaced by new upholstered chairs. Shock number one. Shock number two – the new incumbent has reverted to using the high altar at major festivals and altar 30 yards away, raised 15 steps above the congregation, back to the people. I rebelled against this distanced relationship with the congregation 30 years ago. I prefer to worship in a congregation visibly gathered together around the altar.
The stages of spiritual growth chapter affirmed my present experience of being in the third, individual stage of development, where it is possible to be creative in handling paradox, complexity and ambiguity. My criteria for action and belief come from my intuitive, inner contemplative life and are not simply those inherited from church, society or family. I am also frequently frustrated by conservative theology, teaching and practice – use of distancing high altar on the one hand and the use of proof texts against LGBT people on the other. I can do adult and mature in some areas and revert to childish frustrations in others.
HTB churches seem to embody a duality which I fail to understand. The theology and teaching, biblically-based, seems to come from the first stage of spiritual growth, conformist mentality. Rules are important and the leaders take to themselves authority to tell others how to think and behave. Things are seen in black and white with little allowance for individual difference and independence of thought. How do otherwise mature, intelligent adults survive in this environment?
At the same time in many HTB and evangelical churches there is a freedom and openness of experience and expression in prayer and worship and enthusiasm and warm, loving friendships in the congregation, all of which are more characteristic of later stages of spiritual development. Many Church of England congregations would me more attractive and feel far more alive and might experience God more intimately if they had something of the HTB fervour and joy.
There are no individual wrongs here, no judgement - just people at different stages of spiritual growth. But I observe that HTP churches are run by leadership teams which exclude those not deemed to be kosher – gay men, for example – and impose their will unilaterally on the entire congregation who are not consulted. We are going to be a FoCA church and support ACNA, people are told.
Hierarchical, authoritarian leadership can be a problem in any congregation. The schismatic developments in the Anglican Communion are being driven by individuals operating from a first stage of spiritual growth mentality where control, order, orthodoxy and authority are paramount. This results in tragedy, not just for LGBT Christians but for those maturing into the second and third stages of spiritual growth.
It’s a tragedy also for the growth, mission and ministry of the universal church. The church is failing to provide resources which nourish people and give them confidence to trust the God they already know and follow their mature intuition, leaving behind childhood images of God and ways of praying and risking trust in the God whose creation is good and whose love is universal and infinite.