Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Two Worlds: the Puritan and the Anglican (To Max)

My dear friend,

I will try to answer your question in the following way.

We are talking about two worlds- the term "world-view" is so hackneyed now that I will avoid it.

On the one hand is the world bequeathed us by the Puritans, not the Reformers, per se, but the English Puritans.  Of them, C.S. Lewis writes

"…the marks of a puritan, in my sense, are a strong emphasis on justification by faith, an insistence on preaching as an indispensable, almost the only means of grace, and an attitude towards bishops which varies from reluctant toleration to implacable hostility."  English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, page 18.  (emphasis mine)

Our heritage from the Puritans in the contemporary evangelical churches is that which centralizes preaching, almost to the diminishment of every other thing.  The recovery of worship in these churches over the past twenty or so years with praise songs and the contemporizing of old hymns seeks to remedy this, and, as such is laudable.  But, in the circles you and I have traveled in, preaching is central and supreme.  And, preachers are central and supreme, as it must follow.

Here, is the source of what I have criticized as "the personality-cult" among evangelicals and especially contemporary Reformed evangelicals.

Now, preaching is a means of grace, a gift of the Holy Spirit, and a blessing to the Church. The same things must be said of those who are extraordinarily gifted to preach. The problem lies in our fallen tendency to exalt and idolize the gifts of God, even the spiritual gifts of God, to an impertinent and perverted place.  This is the tendency of our hearts with everything, so we should not be surprised to see it in action in the realm of preachers and preaching.

The result of this in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries was that preachers were exalted and people went to hear preaching as people now surf the Net.  Those who went to hear the preachers at St. Giles, Cripplegate, had to do so very early in the morning, and they did for years.  The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries were the same.  These were centuries of "great preachers," the greatest being Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 1834-1892.  Spurgeon may be called the first "rock-star" preacher (though some would grant this to George Whitefield, 1714-1770, who was Spurgeon's "idol preacher").  Spurgeon is the first preacher whose success was based, not just on his extraordinary spirituality and oratorical gifts, but on a wave of marketing methods employed primarlily by his publishers, Passmore and Alabaster.  This, I think, along with the availability of cheap (and excellent) printing, made the Victorian age of preaching the father of the modern marketed church, with it many marketed preachers. There was the market: in those who loved preaching; there were the marketers: like P and A; and there were the preachers, who too often (always?) failed to see what this might mean to the spiritual health of the larger Church.  In this sense, I might venture the opinion that Passmore and Alabaster were the grandfathers of the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the 700 Club.  (I am exposing myself to fiery missiles here!)

The free church tradition of Spurgeon and others, was always (like their Puritan fore-fathers and mentors) hostile to the Liturgical Tradition of the Historic Church as being popish and foppish.  Preaching became central and, as the result, the "great preacher" became paramount.  This period gave rise to sobriquets like "the prince of preachers," "the kings of the pulpit," and,"pulpiteer." Woe to those who suffered from what Spurgeon called a "slender apparatus" (inferior gifts)!

This has carried over into the present situation.  The new favorites are John Piper, Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, et al, who are men of saintly spirituality and extraordinary gifts of personality and oratorical skill.  Given the milieu that they and their followers come from- the preaching-centered and liturgically skeptical one- it is inevitable that a cult of personality has grown up around each of them, and sometimes around them together.  While it is possible to live in such an atmosphere without it going to one's head, it is extremely rare and the situation created by it is spiritually dangerous and sometimes, fatal- to the preacher and the devotees.  I could name many examples, but it would make for sad reading.

What I have been trying to say in my other communication with you on this subject is this: The Liturgical Tradition of the Historic Church (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and Anglican) avoids this dangerous and sometimes fatal set of circumstances by having the Right Things in the Right Place, including preaching (though I will not vouch for this in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Communions because I have no real experience of them).

Nor will I place my imprimatur on all Anglicanism.  It is well known that contemporary Anglicanism is in a real mess.  But, I will speak for my own denomination, the Reformed Episcopal Church (though my experience is limited, even here).

From the beginning the Reformed Episcopal Church under the aegis of founding Bishop, George David Cummings, 1822-1876, sought to give the Lord's Supper and preaching their right place as the right things in the context of the Liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer.

What this means to me and other worshipers in our Communion is this:

1.  Preaching takes place in the environment of worship, i.e., confession/absolution, praise with Psalms and hymns, the reading of the Psalms, Old Testament and New Testament- the written Word of God, the confession of our Faith in the Creeds, the offering of ourselves and our worldly goods to God, and the Holy Communion, and prayers, prayers, prayers!

2.  Preaching is seen, ideally, as preparation for the Eucharistic Meal at the Lord's Table, where we receive by faith in the Gospel, the Real Presence of Christ Himself and enjoy fellowship with the Holy Trinity and all the saints, in heaven and in earth.

3.  Preaching is controlled by the Collects, the Propers, and the Lectionary of the Church.  This keeps us from running off on our personal tangents and riding our personal hobby horses.

4.  Preaching is done under the scrutiny of our Rector and Bishops.  If we get off often enough, we are called on it.  This protects the congregation and ourselves.

5.  Preaching, then, is a means of grace but not "almost the only, means of grace" Lewis, ut supra, nor even the central and supreme means of grace.  It is a servant of the the Liturgy and the Holy Communion, and therefore of God and His people.

Thus, we can have poor preaching and still be fed on the Word of God and the Flesh and Blood of Jesus.  We can, as preachers, have a bad preaching day and the people are still ministered to by the Holy Spirit and Word.  We can be unexceptional preachers (as most of us, alas, are) and still be good, faithful, and useful preachers in the Church of God.

And we and our hearers are thereby protected from the noxious and toxic "personality cult" I am so critical of.  (I do not say, for a moment, that we are not subject to the temptation to this, or that we never fall into it.  But, when that happens our Pastors, the Bishops come a'calling and you really don't want that to happen…if you know what I mean.)

So, dear Max, this is the long answer to your short question.  I am sure we can flesh it out even more in further conversation and I hope to do this with you personally this summer.

The Lord be with you and with all whom you love.

In Christian love,



  1. Found you through a posting of Dan's on Facebook. Didn't know we're Rabbi Tbone.
    The article was on what a wonderful guy you are (shortened version). Just wanted to comment and put my two cents in that one of your most life affirming attributes is that wonderful smile and the ability to remember people. Your wife isn't too shabby either!
    We at St. Michael's will not forget you soon.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Fr. Thom. Keep writing and teaching, and I will keep learning!

  3. So glad I saw this. I'm totally ignorant of the Episcopal church and like what I read here. Love to you and Kathy.