Chaplain’s Letter: Looking Back and Going Forward

This months Chaplain’s Letter is written by the Reverend  Sam van Leer, Honorary Associate Chaplain for the congregation of Grace Church Groningen

Last Sunday after worship, I had a chat with one of our members of Grace Church about his hobby: rowing. He loves it not just because it keeps him physically fit, but because of the spiritual replenishment it gives him. It provides him active but quiet time to meditate and reflect on life and its meaning. Moreover the counter-intuitive way that rowing works — one looks backward while producing effort to move forward, not always knowing precisely what lies ahead — can be seen as a metaphor for faith, where one relies on wisdom of the past and on prayer and the signs one sees in the present, with the help of the Spirit, to move into a trusted but unknown future.
A recent survey of what our congregation saw as our strengths and weaknesses connects with this. Given the average age of worshippers in Groningen (30s or under) I was surprised, but perhaps should not have been, that one thing people really appreciated was how our services combine contemporary and traditional elements – ‘Ancient and Modern’, as it were. But I should not have been surprised, as that continues to be one of the core values of Anglican liturgy, a gift that I have experienced as something that keeps us from being either irrelevant or directionless.

As Richard Hooker summed it up in his great opus, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Anglican Christians, in doing theology and trying to live faithfully and ethically as Jesus taught us, tend to refer to three main iritual sources: Scripture, Reason and the Christian Tradition (in that order, but also in combination with each other, and inspired by the Spirit).
“Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next where-unto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth.” (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, book V, 8:2)

So, in a way, it has always been part of the Anglican ethos to look back in order to go forward, to delve into the great wealth of wisdom of the Bible as well as the spiritual treasures of faithful thinkers down through time, all in order to discern more clearly how the Lord wants us to live the faith by the Spirit in the present. Looking to the Bible and to Tradition is not an effort to live in the past; we can but live in the present, of couse. But hopefully we continue to learn from all that has been given us. Just as a rower can see whether she or he is moving in the right way by keeping an eye on the wake behind the boat, too. David Ford, a Cambridge Professor of Divinity once put it so well: ‘our calling is to improvise in ways which surprise and delight and yet ring true with the past.’ And this is a gift we have to share, particularly in modern Western culture, where often only the latest and snazziest trends seem to attract attention.

The Revd James Lawrence of the Church Pastoral Aid Society recently gave a seminar on leadership to our clergy, and noted how important it was to explore Christian wisdom on leadership. Metaphorically, we were asked to take a mental stroll through a typical city. There we might see a glossy new commercial enterprise overshadowing an old church building.

Yes, the latest business schools may have fancy architecture, technical gadgetry, and new expertise, but there is an uninspected mine of information and thinking about good leadership to be found in the Church and its sacred Scripture and other writings in the Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition of the last several thousand years. It would be desperately unwise to ignore that. We must often look back in order to move forward well. Think of the wealth of teaching in the Old Testament wisdom literature on relationships, of Jesus’ brilliant insights on servant leadership, of the monastic tradition on healthy spiritual discipline, rest and cooperation, just to name a few.

Christ, our prime example in all things, took his own faith tradition very seriously, not wishing to diminish it but to remain faithful to it and re-interpret it in the love of God and by the Spirit: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17)
I hope that we will continue to be diligent in our prayer, Bible study, and learning from Christian classics, as we seek to witness to Christ and His wisdom in today’s ever-changing world. Let us live in the present, but fully aware of the treasures of the past, as the Spirit draws us to God’s purpose.

Yours in Christ,