A reflection for the Week of Prayer for Christian unity

Just over two years ago Caroline and I began to worship at Chelmsford Cathedral.  To my amazement, today we feel very much at home in this Cathedral church.

I guess that other friends of ours are amazed too.  After all, both of us come from good Baptist stock.   Caroline’s grandfather was the Principal of the South Wales Baptist College, and my father was Principal of Spurgeon’s College.  Both of us were baptised as believers when we were in our early teens.  We met in the Robert Hall Society, the former Cambridge University Baptist Society.  We were married in a Baptist church. I was ordained into the Baptist ministry. We served for two years with the Baptist Missionary Society. Later I pastored two Baptist churches and was also Principal of Spurgeon’s College.  What’s more, I wrote the Baptist best-seller, Radical Believers: the Baptist way of being the church, which went through two editions and was also translated into Czech, German, and Norwegian.

So what happened to cause us to worship in an Anglican cathedral?  The simple answer is that it was circumstances, and not convictions, which brought about this change.  Initially I had thought that after a break of six months or so we might have been able to return to worshipping in my church.  But this proved not to be possible.  So I began to look around.  We felt we couldn’t move to one of the other our city’s Baptist churches – they were too small or us to be ordinary worshippers; indeed I feared that that I would then have to put my shoulder to the wheel and hand out hymnbooks!   For various reasons none of the other Free Churches in the locality seemed to be right.  In the end, we opted for the Cathedral, which is less than a mile away from where we live.  The congregation at the 9.30 a.m. Parish Eucharist is relatively large and therefore is undemanding in terms of how we might continue to serve God.  However, what sealed our decision was the welcome we received – both from the clergy as also from many others in the Cathedral community.

Yes, I confess that I have found it challenging adjusting to a new way of doing church. The style of Sunday worship is very different from what I have known – there is no worship band at the Cathedral, the sermons are short, and the Eucharist is central. However, I enjoy singing traditional hymns and songs again – always accompanied by first-rate organists. I have developed an appreciation for the Anglican liturgy – and have been surprised at the variety present within the common liturgical framework. Although from my perspective the sermons could sometimes be better constructed, I have enjoyed the thoughtful presentations and have almost always come away feeling I have been ‘fed’ from God’s Word. I have come to love the  weekly opportunity to ‘feed’ on Christ within the context of the Eucharist, although I still find it strange to have so little time to meditate at the altar as I receive the bread and wine.

There have, of course, been some theological challenges. On the whole I have no difficulty with the language of the Anglican baptismal liturgy however, without wanting to be rude to Anglican friends I do find the baptism of infants a ‘nonsense’. Thankfully most infant baptismal services in the Cathedral take place in the afternoon!

The Cathedral does not have an Evangelical tradition – but odd as it may seem to some of my fellow Evangelicals, this does not cause me difficulty. Rather I find it an enriching and stretching experience to listen to clergy seeking to expound Scripture with different perspectives from those of my own.  In contrast to the practice of most Baptist churches, the reading of Scripture takes a major place within the service.  Furthermore, in ‘Breakfast with the Bible’ sessions prior to the Parish Eucharist, there is often more depth and erudition than there is in many a so-called Evangelical church. Theological labels can be unnecessarily divisive.  Inevitably a Cathedral is a very diverse community; however, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (19-25 January) I thank God for the very real sense of Christian fellowship which I experience Sunday by Sunday. As a result every Sunday I wholeheartedly affirm the words of the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church”.

2 comments

  1. Interesting Paul, I recall many years ago you saying to me that while you like so much about Anglicanism, infant Baptist meant you could never sign up! I find myself in a Methodist context for the last 8 years after a through Baptist grounding. I too have found the theological diversity enriching. In my minister’s support group we have one way out liberal, one tight evangelical, another brought evangelical and me – a kind of broad evangelical charismatic. This is all good fun until it comes to the mechanics of church life and church growth. Then it becomes a little more frustrating and a lot more complex!

  2. Dear Paul,
    I found your comment very interesting and am so glad you have both settled so happily at the cathedral. It would suit me, too. In fact I have had a very checkered life denominationally speaking- brought up Presbyterian (simply because it was the best local church and my parents had a slight preference for nonconformist worship) then continuing with Prongsoc at Cambridge though always involved also in chapel worship and SCM, Great St Mary’s on Sunday evenings,..ending up in a URC /meth church since but from time to time attending anglican, catholic services, quaker meeting, – so something of a spiritual mongrel. I also find silence helpful, so meditation is also part of my worshipping experience. I’ve always been a questioner (and a bit of a doubter) and tend to find the theology of modern hymns (like John Bell ) and some old ones more helpful than the modern songs. But I’m prepared to have a go at almost anything! Thanks, A

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