I have always held (and still hold) to the view that doubting is something that is a common experience for Christians. Over the past 30 years, like all other Christians) I have had doubts, what I call the ‘What ifs’
- What if… the Bible is not true?
- What if… there is no God?
- What if… Jesus did not rise from the dead?
- What if…
I am pleased to say that I am that point in my walk with the Lord Jesus that these doubts are more what I call residual doubts that belong to my Christian life from long ago. However, during my first curacy, I experience a doubt of which I was not prepared for, nor the insidious way it crept up on me. Let me explain.
My curacy was spent in a diocese and a parish that was/is predominantly like the majority of Anglican dioceses around the world, a diocese that is liberal catholic. Liberal Catholic Anglicanism is an unusual beast in that it has the outward forms of Catholicism with liberal theology. Now in spite of this, there were positive things about my curacy.
It was during my curacy that my quiet times were transformed by being introduced to the Daily Offices. I had not even heard of this practice and at first, I found it to be very dull, repetitive and pedestrian. But after doing it every morning and every evening with my supervising Rector, I realised that my prayer life and Bible reading was changing. No longer was my quiet time dependent on how I felt on any given day when it came to prayer and Bible reading. Time was no longer an issue as it was a scheduled non-negotiable part of my day. When my supervising Rector retired, my new supervisor introduced me to doing Morning and Evening Prayer using the BCP. The theology of the BCP so encapsulated the theology of the Reformation that I was hooked. So now it is my norm to do the daily office using the BCP. I believe the Book of Common Prayer is a wonderful blessing to the English speaking world and that more Anglican Christians will be blessed by using it.
It was during my curacy that I experienced the blessing of taking the Lord’s Supper weekly. Before this, I was more interested in the sermon than the sacrament. I took the Lord’s Supper for granted and deemed it of minor importance. I was encouraged to ask and answer the question, “Have I been shaped more than I know by a superficial and reactionary church culture that says there is wisdom in not making too much of the Lord’s Supper and not taking it too often?”
However, as I reflect on my curacy and in spite of the wonderful highlights I experienced; a doubt crept in. A doubt that I was totally unprepared for. It was like someone was whispering into my soul, so ever softly, almost imperceptible at first… What if…my sin has not been forgiven?
It was a whisper that slowly over time became a voice. And the doubt led to fear and it became very spiritually immobilising. At first, I did not know what fed this doubt. But eventually, I put it down to three things: three things that all Anglican clergy face in dioceses where forms and theology exist that are not consistent with Anglicanism as established by the BCP, 39 Articles, and the Ordinal and the Anglican formularies. In other words – Aberrant Anglicanism.
- Penal Substitutionary Atonement is either denied, minimised or avoided.
- Semi-Pelagian theology is practiced
- Being in the theological minority
Penal Substitutionary Atonement was either denied, minimised or avoided – The great truth of the gospel is that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. Although I aimed to preach this great truth, I was constantly exposed to a context and culture where penal substitutionary atonement was either denied, minimised or avoided. A result of denying this truth leads to sin also being denied minimised, which abrogates the necessity of assurance for those who did not believe in sin, or that they are sinners. Thus the assurance of sin was declared, but not the basis of it. However, for a newly ordained clergyman who sinned daily and was very aware of their own sin, this lack of assurance over a period of time only fed the doubt.
Semi-Pelagian theology – One of the crown Jewels and strengths of Anglicanism is our liturgy. The prayer book I think is gold. However, there is a practice that is very common amongst liberal Catholic Anglican parishes. In the parishes I served (before and during my curacy) we had Holy Communion every week (brilliant). However, within Holy Communion was semi-pelagian theology. This was evident by a prayer that was sung entitled the Agnus Dei. The Agnus Dei is not in the BCP, it is a prayer where the Priest and congregation pray together. It is said just before the bread is broken and it goes like this:
Priest: Jesus Lamb of God:
All: Have Mercy on Us
Priest: Jesus Bearer of our Sins:
All: Have Mercy on Us.
Priest: Jesus Redeemer of the World
All: Grant us your peace.
I suppose one could pray this prayer during confession of sin, though the Biblical norm is to pray to God the Father. However, this prayer abrogates the true meaning of the sacrament. Instead of the Lord’s supper being a sacrament/sign where we go to the table as Forgiven sinners, who have been redeemed by the once and for all sacrifice of Christ at the cross in our place; we go to the ‘Altar’, praying that the Lord Jesus will have mercy on, bear our sins and grant us his peace when we eat ‘the body of Christ the bread of heaven’ and drink ‘the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.’ So in practice, one gets the sense that by taking the Eucharist we are contributing to our salvation.
It is no wonder that for many laypeople in liberal/catholic Anglican parishes, the Eucharist is the high point of the service and is what they value most about church. What do I have to do to contribute to my salvation? What if I have not done enough? Or my question of doubt:
What if…my sin has not been forgiven?
Answer: Take the Eucharist. For taking the Eucharist solves this…hopefully. I asked two Priests, one of whom was liberal catholic, the other is less liberal and more catholic, how Christ is present in the Eucharist if not physically, and they both said, “it is a mystery.” The sad thing is that I suspect that many laypeople, when asked if they are going to heaven when they die, will respond the same way, saying “It’s a mystery”.
This is tragic because the heart of the gospel is not a mystery, in the gospel the mystery has been revealed (i.e Eph. 3:1-6). Furthermore, The Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles make it abundantly clear that the Lord’s Supper is not a sacrifice, that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone.
Being in the Theological Minority – Reformed-Evangelical Ministers face in liberal catholic diocese/parishes face many difficulties. From my four years in such a diocese, each minister had their own way of dealing with them. One of those difficulties was not being in touch with like-minded clergy. It only fed isolation and doubt. Don’t get me wrong, the clergy who I served alongside with were easy to get along with, and were some of the warmest people I had met within the church. But be that is it may be, there were certain subjects that one simply could not bring up. If I had, I would have been simply told most likely that I was wrong, that what I believed to be the gospel was at best a theory of the atonement, or at worst, wrong. Being one of a small minority who believed in Penal Substitutionary Atonement, who believed that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone, by grace alone; who believe sin is rebellion against God rather than “not living our lives the way in which God would want us to live – “transforming unjust social structures”; there was simply not the voices of encouragement to assuage my fear and the secondary doubt that came from being in the theological minority, “What if they are right about me being wrong?”
The Death of Doubt
So what did I do? I did what every Christian does when they should fear and doubt. I put on the armour of God. I delved deeply in the reservoir of God’s quenching Word; devoted myself to prayer; spoke with like-minded Christians in other places, whether it be by phone, email or SKYPE. When it came to Holy Communion I reminded myself (and was reminded by like-minded clergy in other dioceses) of the two-fold action of the Lord Supper: firstly, our action – deliberate remembering, calling him to mind, joyfully contemplating him, praising him, praying to him; secondly, God’s action – renewing our gratitude for grace, our confidence in forgiveness by grace, our hope for glory, and our strength for service, all by the Holy Spirit. I was encouraged to think of the bread and wine as coming to us by the hand of Christ himself and His guarantee to us in love, and that He will nourish us spiritually forever.
I kept on preaching the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to myself and I kept on preaching God’s Word and God’s gospel to others. Remembering verses such as John 3:16; Romans 1:16-17; Romans 3:21-26; Ephesians 2:1-10 1 John3:16; Titus 3:5-6 and many others. I actively listened to the right voices – most importantly God’s voice, which is heard when one submits to the Word of God; and secondly, the voices of those who aimed to preach God’s Word and His gospel faithfully.
Thankfully God, through His Word and His people reminded me afresh of the truth and beauty of the Gospel, and the wonderful assurance that goes with it. The doubt died and thus when faced with the liberal and or catholic/semi-pelagian aberrations I could ignore them. It meant when it came to authentic Anglican liturgies, I could embrace them.
Aberrant Anglicanism is spiritually dangerous, and in this piece, I hope to have highlighted one of the more insidious dangers that come with exposure; of how it can lead to erosion of assurance, erosion of confidence in the Scriptures, erosion of confidence in the gospel. It can happen slowly over time, just like erosion. I now serve in a diocese, in a context where our Bishop and every Anglican clergyman believes God’s Word and believes His Gospel wholeheartedly, yet I never ever want to forget what it was like during that first curacy. So how important is it that those of who are in senior leadership do all we can to encourage curates who are serving in hard places.
Which is why movements such as GAFCON are so important.