Leander Harding Reflects on the Emerging Church

June 8, 2009

Fr.LeanderIs “emergent” a synonym for dodging the most challenging and controversial questions in theology with simplistic answers, in the hopes of attracting followers and being “relevant” by avoiding the difficult, or is it a movement toward more spiritual depth through recovering the theological insights and practices of previous ages?

The answer I suppose is both, depending on the type of “emergent” one is observing. Leander Harding notes:

“It is a very disparate movement and includes examples that resonate deeply with the orthodoxy of the ages and other examples that seem, as one of the conference presenters George Sumner said, the latest installment in the long book of Gnosticism. (In fact a book I would recommend for self described emergent types is Against the Protestant Gnostics by Phillip J. Lee.)”

The state of the church, and ecumenism, was a major theme of the conference that ended today, “Ancient Wisdom, Anglican Futures: An Emerging Conversation” held at Trinity School for Ministry. Trinity is an evangelical seminary, and the teachers and discussion leaders ranged from the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, to a professor of Systematic Theology with a background from the Assemblies of God.

Fr. Leander Harding is one of the more profound thinkers in the Anglican Communion. He was one of the candidates for bishop in one of the dioceses in Texas. He’s written a very worth reflection on the TSM conference at his blog, http://www.leanderharding.com/blog/2009/06/07/the-emergent-church/. This is relevant indeed for anyone interested in online ministry – since we are almost always working in some sort of ecumenical – or non-denominational – context.

I’ll quote his last paragraph in full here because it is so challenging:

During the Twentieth Century God gave to the broken and fractured global church a gift of the Holy Spirit, an ecumenical moment of mission and renewal. It was for the most part squandered and has been allowed to fall to the ground and especially by the daughter churches of the Reformation in the old Christian homelands including Anglicans. It seems to me that God is doing in the Emergent Church movement something that He does over and over. When His gift is rejected by the people He has prepared to receive it, He seeks out a new people. So it is that sons and daughters of Anabaptists and Pentecostals are being drawn to the Great Tradition. It is a moment for repentance for those of us in the historic churches which have stewarded the Great Tradition but have lost touch with the life which generates the tradition and which carries it forward. It is also a moment of testing for that which is emerging. Will they marginalize doctrine and the labor of seeking a consensus in faith and order? Will they succumb to the motto that deeds unite and doctrine divides and then find themselves in the midst of church dividing controversy with no deep doctrinal consensus to guide? Will they be lured into trivial and faddish relevancy and all too worldly politics at the expense of a more profound service of peace and justice? Will the established churches who are in a panic about their declining influence in the culture repent of quick fixes and pandering to culture and engage with a new generation in a deep renewal of the roots of Christian wisdom and practice? Will we all catch this new wind of the Spirit or let it pass us by? What an exciting time to be a Christian.

Read it all:


My own response to this in the context of online ministry, I suppose, is not very different from one which I’d have in ordinary “evangelistic ministry” as I see it – i.e., having conversations with people who are not a part of, or have become alienated from, the church – for whatever reason.

There seems to be a growing awareness that the church has “gotten some things wrong,” but also that there is an enormous depth in the spirituality of ages past that we, somehow, are failing to grasp.

Modern churches – especially churches which aim at being rather democratic and evangelical – often have a tendency to offer very, very simple messages – messages providing the “milk” of spirituality, as the apostle Paul puts it, but not the meat. This is, after all, what they probably should be doing most of the time – we believe things should be democratic, that the message should be accessible. Often we are not equipped to discuss points of church teaching in a responsible way – understanding our own church tradition, and also the traditions of others, in a way that is respecful, and can point out the incredibly robust ground of consensus of all Trinitarian churches (the authority of Scriptures, the creeds, and recently even: the doctrine of justification, which for so long was the main dividing point between Protestant and Catholic churches). And we are often shamefully unfamiliar with church history – which is nothing less than the work of God throughout the ages, in what He cherishes most: His work of redemption with His people.

So let us study what divided Catholics from Protestants in the sixteenth century to learn what the relevant tensions were at that time, and how these are different from our current age. May we be as certain as we can that what we say about differences from other denominations are indeed true, and not merely misunderstandings or exaggerations that we tend to hear from teachers in our own denominations. Let us study how church fathers wrestled with issues like “what does it mean to be human?” – how, for example, Augustine, Benedict and Bonaventure worked at the perplexing issue of human consciousness – and how their thoughts illumine aspects of consciousness which we still, to this day, find perplexing. May we have words about monastic habits, contemplation, and lectio divina.

May we learn how important decisions were made at church councils – like the history of the reception of what we know today as the canon (or “the Bible”), so we can rest to ease questions about the gnostic gospels and the Dan Brown stuff concerning the Council of Nicea. So often, just a bit of error in reason presents an obstacle to faith – which can be easily removed, if we’re simply educated in the facts of church history – and how God worked through His people throughout history – that very body of Christ – our most precious identity.

May we take joy in one another in the body of Christ so we are ignited with that contagious curiosity to understand better how God has worked throughout time and space in our spiritual forefathers, bringing them together in churches. May we eagerly study the various outpourings of the Holy Spirit in numerous times and places – with the Lollards when Wycliffe translated the Bible – with the movement of the Devotio Moderna and its expression in the writings of Thomas a Kempis – with the Tractarians in nineteenth century England. May we learn of the unique gifts with which they were blessed, but also of their errors. May we be more perceptive to the particular gifts with which God has blessed those denominations different from our own – but also their particular weaknesses and tendencies which are not always helpful. May we learn more of the meditative practices of the various monastic schools, and learn more of that group which the church has always found a bit odd and difficult, the mystics.

But most of all, let us cultivate habits of love amongst one another, so that when we do enter the house of the Lord, it is truly a place of joy, and one of our deepest reasons for praise. A deep joy in the body of Christ is one of the most powerful motivations for the study of the history of the church, and its theology and formation of doctrine. Without this joy, the study of church history and theology becomes dry, arcane, irrelevant, boring.

And it is this effusive joy for one another which is one of the best ways of being an incarnation of that love which was so great as to cause God Himself to take the form of man, and come Himself, to lead us, to teach us – and then to die for us, and rise again. So we can have new life in Him, and be in Him when we are together, and be together when we are in Him.



  1. Well, Wilfried, you got me curious and intrigued.

    From Twitter I went to AWAF Group and then to the blogsite. I read through the postings re: the various speakers. Then I came here and read Leander’s comments as you posted them.
    Reading through the comments on this page, I can tell you that I came to some of the same conclusions that Leander did.

    From reading through the AWAF speakers, I thought I was reading a redress of the Tractarians (although a bit more intensely evangelical up front), leading into, of course, what most know as the Anglo-Catholic movement. Or even the justifications of folks such as Peter Gilquist before converting to Eastern Orthodoxy.
    Something “deep” can be read from the ancients, which, in moments of Church History where more milk is being served than meat, makes the discovery of such depth very enticing.
    One of the points that Leander made, which you quoted, is the main thought I brought over from the AWAF speaker readings, although Leander uses the context of a particular moment, and a different definite article, that is, “a gift of the Holy Spirit”, rather than “the gift of..”.
    You picked up on that by challenging readers to be looking for and studying particular outpourings of the Holy Spirit, taking note of uniqueness.
    Again, it is “an outpouring” of the Holy Spirit that makes the “depth” discernable.
    That is, it is not simply searching for the “enormous depth in the spirituality of ages past that we, somehow, are failing to grasp”. The emerging church will only find themselves re-interpreting both the ancient church and creating and/or reinterpreting liturgical forms in sync with their favorite early church fathers. As such, they are dealing with the middle man (a “middle man”, albeit, that displays great depth and wisdom as disciples of Christ), and missing out on the source, himself.
    It is in fact the Holy Spirit himself the Church – emergent or not – continues to “fail to grasp.” The reason? Too simple to just ask.

    It’s not that the Tractarians didn’t recognize the depth, the beauty, the wonder, the power of the Holy Spirit – all one has to do is read John Keble’s hymnody. But with great insight they were reading the ancients, and discovering what made THEM tick. Somehow they made a logical jump to the sacraments seeing that was what made THEM tick, too, but again not acquiring the fire for themselves directly.
    You would do well to add to your list the study of the ministry of Henry Drummond, and Edward Irving, and the eventual form that came to be known as the Catholic Apostolic Church to see what happens when the first priority of direct access of the Holy Spirit is combined with sacraments and Reformation and the teaching of the early church.

    Tying the AWAF speakers back in here, when Peter was led to visit the home of Cornelius in the book of Acts of the Apostles we see the reality of the emergence of an explosive and expansive Mission field, that is, The World through the Gentiles. There were two things that happened that made it such: as the AWAF speakers seemed to emphasize continuously, there is first the clear, simple, heartfelt and contextual proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. But then there is the second thing – which it has to be noted took place before the first thing was even finished – and that was the same outpouring of the Holy Spirit that Peter witnessed and experienced on the Feast of Pentecost.
    One and the other are necessary. That is the depth.

  2. Thank you, Fr. Eaton, for this inspiring comment. A particular treat having you commenting here. Fr. Eaton is someone who has decided to remain within the Episcopal Church, even though this meant an exceedingly difficult time ahead for him. Had his voice been heard, rather than being uncanonically removed from the standing committee of his diocese by the Presiding Bishop, a great deal of strife and enmity could have been avoided – and the internecine lawsuits would probably have been less vicious and unjust.

    Thank you, Fr. Eaton, for standing on the side of peace, and for engaging in the challenging theological reflection to help the cause of peace in Christ. Our leaders may be in Europe, but we are very much aware of your self-sacrificing courage in the cause of unity in the body of Christ. May your parish prosper and be filled with the Spirit. I shall read more about Henry Drummond and Edward Irving, you have sparked my interest!

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