by Chris Savage
from Signs of the Times No. 69 - Apr 2018
Don’t be fooled by the title! This is not what you think. I am not about to write on the sixty-odd works of the 17th century writer and preacher best known for the Pilgrim’s Progress.
There is a modern-day John Bunyan, a retired Anglican priest living in Australia who is also a faithful member of Modern Church and, thanks to our editor Anthony Woollard, he got in touch with me and sent three slim books he compiled:
- Conservation, Common Prayer and Communion;
- Four Score Deodatus, an autobiographical anthology of prose and verse; and
- Sing Heart and Mind, a Coverdale Daily Psalm book.
In his ministry John served in the Anglican Churches in England and Australia. His last post before his retirement in 2001 was in the Diocese of Sydney. A Lucas-Tooth Scholar, he holds post graduate qualifications from Sydney, London, Durham, Lambeth and San Francisco.
What interests me in John’s three books is that they feel like a prophetic testimony against the present state of the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Sydney. The latter is well known, and we had experience of this when we visited Sydney Cathedral three years ago. Gone was the High Altar, and the choir pews had been replaced by chairs. I now learn that under the new Dean there have been improvements. The Communion table is back in place permanently with the choir stalls in a normal position. While there have been some improvements in parishes, it is still common to hear sermons in funeral services warning the congregation about missing ‘salvation and heaven’.
In my last post before retirement I worked with an excellent Anglo-Catholic Australian priest who had fled, like many of his brother clergy, from the Diocese of Sydney. In October of this year the Sydney Anglican diocese donated $1 million to aid the ‘no’ vote on the Australian same-sex marriage campaign.
How do you live with all that! John counters the negative actions of the church by proclaiming the worth of the love God has for his valued people. In a hymn in the section ‘Women and Men in the Scriptures and in Life’ from Four Score Deodatus, John writes (p40):
Celebrate women sometimes forgotten,
those of the Bible, heavenly choir:
they share the kingdom, widen our vision,
pray for us sinners, teach and inspire.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is inclusive for all, and in the next two verses John names the women who are clearly his heroes.
John Bunyan’s Sing Heart and Mind is described as a Coverdale Daily Psalm Book. The author has compiled 112 of the Coverdale Psalms of the Book of Common Prayer, unaltered, but with unobtrusive aids and annotations, together with linguistic, biographical, musical and other notes. Reading these psalms reminded me how the language directly and unapologetically illustrated the majesty of God and the judgement he metes out. For example, Psalm 66vs 1-11:
O be joyful in God all ye lands:
sing praises unto the honour of his name, make his praise to be glorious.
Say unto God, O how wonderful art thou
in thy works: through the greatness of thy power shall thine enemies be found liars unto (humbled before) thee.
In his introduction to Conservation Common Prayer and Communion the author states that this is
first, a handbook for providing, for personal use, very flexible orders of Daily Morning and Evening Prayer… In my broad Church, probably most church-goers happily accept those orders of service that we may recognise as containing poetry and metaphor, and as significant links with our heritage.
He goes on to state that that this book is for some of the others, represented for example, by the great biologist and student of religious experience who wrote (in The Divine Flame) that
My heart is in the Church of England with all its beauty and deep sense of holiness, but not my mind. I go there to pray in private…
John subtly and sometimes pointedly reminds us that there is not one single narrative that defines God, the Church and Christian Commitment. And this needs to be heard and understood. The media dwell on the negative stories surrounding the churches today and this becomes instilled in the minds of so many. But it has always been thus. In the mid 1960s I found a plaque on a wall in a South London church that read
Do not despise the wisdom of the church;
it is the only tyranny that has lasted 2000 years.
However, the true picture of Christian commitment has been the evolution of movements that have presented new ways of understanding God and the Christian Gospel. The 16th century Reformation that swept Europe and what we now know as the British Isles. The Evangelical Revival in this country in the 18th century, the rise of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century and its continuing impact on the Anglican Communion. Then there is the 20th / 21st century Urban Mission, Industrial Mission and even Modern Church. I could go on.
We are indebted to John Bunyan and others like him who faithfully proclaim a more holistic understanding of the Christian Gospel that is relevant to today’s world and vital to understanding that world and our own identity in it.