I've travelled such a journey over my Christian life. I was reflecting on this a week or so ago when I attended a meeting I go to once a month in the city nearest "my" jails. It is for ministry leaders and most of us are clergy but not all. One of the things we have in common is that we would all be termed "evangelical", at least by those who disagreed with us, even if not by ourselves. I think the word "evangelical" can be most unhelpful at times and I wouldn't introduce myself as evangelical any more as I see how it is a loaded word. If you say it, a lot of people immediately think of some of the worst examples of American tv evangelists on the God channels on television, promelgating a prosperity gospel or making money out of very earnest but simple-minded viewers. I'm SO not one of them. To be perfectly honest I don't care any more what term somebody cares to apply to me, and that's an example of what a long way I've come.
I grew up a church goer. I had no choice as my dad was the minister! I don't think my dad would describe himself as either left or right, high or low, liberal or evangelical. At least I've never heard him use any of those terms of himself. My faith was real when I was a child but of course I didn't understand any theology or doctrine. When I was thirteen I went to a Scripture Union camp. On Good Friday (Friday the thirteenth, lol) 1979, I suddenly understood what the cross was all about and I look back on that as the moment when I stopped being one of God's grandchildren, with an inherited (though real) faith, and became one of His children. No, that's not true. God doesn't have grandchildren. I was one of His children anyway, but now I understood it. Or whatever. I don't mind any more. Such is the change in me.
As a young adult I had a wee spell going to a Baptist church and a wee spell going to a charismatic independent church. But almost all my life I've been in the Church of Scotland, which I love although I'm often exasperated by it!
Christians the world over, we believe, are brothers and sisters in Christ. We believe we are one body with many parts. We believe these things about ourselves, and yet there are thousands of different protestant denominations, plus the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. When I first learned about the number of protestant denominations I literally cried. It's so sad.
However, now I'm old (!) I understand that although the divisions are indeed sad, they are not evidence that Christians are all nasty horrible squabbly quarrelsome types. Rather I now understand that most of the divisions have come about because people earnestly want to do what pleases God. It's just they can't agree on what that is! For example, my being an ordained minister is controversial in the Christian world where many of my brothers and sisters (and that's how I see them) think that I'm disobeying the Bible. I'm not offended in the least by that. Actually I can see how they arrive at their position, though I disagree with it. I can see both sides of the debate about infant versus adult/believer's baptism too, and could argue both cases (and have done).
Most splits in church history have occurred because people were earnestly trying to do the right thing.
However, the splits are still really sad, and even though the motivation wasn't bad as such, the results were. God is no doubt pleased that people want to please Him but I have come to the position now when I think that nailing down every finer point of doctrine is NOT the way to go about pleasing God. He'd be much more pleased with us if we left off worrying about all that stuff, and got on with the business of loving people, and indeed loving each other and loving Him.
I said I'd come a long way in my Christian life. When I was at university studying for my bachelor of divinity degree, in the early nineties, I used to get frustrated by Calvin's Institutes (pictured). We had a two volume edition, great big tomes of the sort people use to prop up their bed if it collapses. I used to get frustrated with John Calvin becaue I felt there were areas in his systematic theology where he was too vague! Every now and again, Calvin has the sense (I now see it is sense but I didn't then) to say simply, "There is a mystery here..." and leave it at that.
I wanted every i dotted and every t crossed as a student. No doubt it was good for me at that time to be robust in my critique of various doctrines and ways of thinking.
However now that it's 2008 and I'm a prison chaplain, all is different. I'm part of a two person team, the other member of which is a Roman Catholic priest. We're not employed by the churches but by the prison service. In the eyes of the prison service, and in the eyes of most prisoners, we're totally interchangeable. At least once a week I will be asked by a prisoner if I'm the priest. (They don't know that the fact I'm a woman immediately signals I couldn't be...).
That's not the only thing that's changed me. In the past, as a minister, I've been caught up in all the intrigue of church politics and ecclesiology and doctrine issues too - issues which seem to matter in church circles. Over the past year I've realised just how much of that baggage I needed to shed, and working with prisoners has taught me to focus on what really matters. I've realised the most important thing I can do is love the prisoner, and if at all possible to point them in God's direction.
I haven't actually abandoned my "evangelical" theology at all. In some ways it's stronger than ever. More than ever I believe in the need for redemption. More than ever I believe in the need for the cross. More than ever I believe in man's inability to earn his own salvation. The Bible sounds different when you read it to prisoners but just in the sense it's more real and immediate somehow. And if I'd to pick a group of clergy to hang out with, far and away my comfort zone would be the one with the evangelicals in it, but I don't need to be garrisoned away in there any more. I am so much more able than I was as a young student to work with those of other theological persuasions and look for the good in what they say. But I haven't sold out and I don't hold with the "all paths lead to God" stuff. Just look round the jail and you'll see some paths leading in the exactly opposite direction, sadly.
But I've definitely mellowed in my way, and it's so ironic that I've been liberated by being in prison!
The meeting last week was attended by 23 people. There were quite a few apologies. But among those 23, LOADS of different denominations were represented. Not once was a doctrinal or ecclesiological difference even mentioned. We meet together for mutual support, to pray for the city and to pray for one another's ministries. Some of us come from denominations where babies are baptised, some from denominations where only grown believers are baptised. Some of us come from denominations which have women in leadership, some not. Some of us are Calvinist and some of us are Arminian, and others another variation. In those meetings, it matters not a jot. We love and support each other and pray together. I find those meetings a real highlight in my month.
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