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Why are evangelicals turning to ancient practices?

So you discover that a friend has left your Anglican Church and is now worshipping with Baptists. Are you bothered? It might depend why he or she left, but in these days when denominational ties are weak you’d barely give it a thought. After all within evangelicalism, the beliefs and service style will be pretty similar whatever the name on the building. If you move house you go where you find spiritual life (and decent provision for children).

But what if you were in an Evangelical/Charismatic Church and your friend departed for a church known for its ‘bells and smells’ – Anglo Catholic, Roman Catholic or Orthodox? How would you feel then? More serious? The journey ‘up the candle’ as its colloquially known, puts the ‘miscreant’ on the prayer chain – almost as bad as joining a sect far from the faith! People start asking why? Why have they left ‘true’ Christianity for such a lifeless ritual?

But this is happening in growing numbers. In the US magazine, Christianity Today in February 2008, an article entitled, ‘The Future Lies in the Past’ described many Evangelicals moving to join the Catholic and Orthodox Churches or embrace some of ancient traditions (practices typically associated with these churches) within the last 30 years, including more recently, the president of the Evangelical Theological Society, Francis Beckwith, reverting to Catholicism.

On this side of the Atlantic, Michael Harper, at the forefront of the Charismatic Renewal in the Anglican Church and one time editor of Renewal, which later merged with Christianity, left the Anglican Church in 1995 to join the Orthodox Church; Revd Prebendary Nick Mercer, one time minister at Upton Vale Baptist church and later director of Training at London Bible College, now serves as vicar general for the London College of Bishops within the Anglo-catholic tradition. And there are many like them.

Interesting perhaps, but not relevant to you if you are in an Evangelical fellowship? You then discover that many Evangelicals are bringing these ‘ancient traditions’ – practices you thought were from the High Church/Catholic church –  into corporate worship and private devotions: liturgy, incense, meditation, fasting (when it isn’t even lent) retreats, Spiritual Direction, and Scripture reading and prayer using methods perfected in monastic life. Is this good?

Andrew Walker, professor of Theology and Culture, King’s College, London and co-editor of ‘Remembering our Future: Explorations in Deep Church’, (Paternoster 2007) was brought up a Pentecostal and now worships in an Orthodox Church from the Russian Tradition. He gave a paper at St Paul’s, Hammersmith in 2003, and said that: “The Principal of Spurgeon’s College identifies himself as a ‘Catholic Evangelical’…. Canon Tom Smail, veteran of the Renewal, considers himself an ‘Evangelical Catholic… In the New Church sector, Roger Ellis in Chichester has incorporated elements of Celtic spirituality and prophetic symbolism into Charismatic rhapsody.”

These people don’t see ancient traditions as ‘lifeless ritual’ but a vital part of them moving forward with God.

So by now you may be asking, OK so why are Evangelicals switching churches and others embracing ancient traditions? If you ask people why, here’s five things they would say.

1. We believe the same things

On February 8th 1952, CS Lewis wrote to the Church Times of the great unity that existed between the high (Anglo-Catholic) and low (Evangelical) churches over against the liberal and anti-supernatural churches. He used the phrase ‘Deep Church’ or ‘Mere Christianity’ to describe their common faith. Recently this ‘Deep Church’ language has returned to describe the truths shared by Churches (such as Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant). But most Evangelicals typically didn’t accepted this: jumping from the book of Revelation to the Reformation and the break with Rome. Evangelical essentials including salvation through grace by faith reminded them (as every new believer came to faith) of the evils of any religious approach that favoured works rather than the work of Christ, which would include of course classic Catholic and Orthodox doctrine – at least as they understood it.  Many forget, or render insignificant, that for a thousand years from AD 37-45 to AD 1054-66, all believers in the UK were part of the undivided Orthodox Catholic Church – the latter date representing the time when the Bishop of Rome split forming what we know as the Roman Catholic Church.  In those days of course, the visual and symbolic were especially important in telling the Faith story.

In recent decades many have realised that Evangelical heritage has to include this period, (or was God absent for 1000 years?) and concluded that the basic tenets of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches are the same: indeed David Watson, at the forefront of Charismatic renewal in the 70s and 80s, even concluded that the Reformation was not necessary!

Professor Andrew Walker, an avid supporter of Deep Church, says: “It is about the marriage between the ‘new thing’ God is always doing in our lives, and the ‘old things’ – the historic givens of the Faith – that he has already done which includes the means of Grace that he has provided for our spiritual nourishment. Deep Church, then, is not just about something old for something new (or the other way round). It is about anamnesia [remembering] and re-imagining. It is about catholicity and a holy separation. It is about a re-collected history and writing a new chapter in the annals of faith.”

Many Evangelicals have concluded that we can happily drink from one another’s cup without becoming contaminated; it is time that the old divisions were repaired.

2. We have the same Spirit

For many, the impetus to be open to ancient traditions came when Evangelical and Charismatics discovered that people with a Catholic or Orthodox (such as Greek, Russian) heritage were exhibiting the signs of the very life God had given them– indeed at an experiential level, Charismatics found they had more in common with Charistmatic Catholic and Orthodox believers than their conservative Evangelical cousins! Evangelicals were forced to either conclude that this was ‘human’ or the devil, or indeed the work of God: maybe God didn’t have the same theology of the Reformation which they had!

Asked how why he had left Anglicanism to join the Orthodox Church, Michael Harper said: “The Holy Spirit!”And that for he and his wife, the experience felt like ‘coming home.’ Many within a Charismatic background are finding that they can combine openness to the Spirit with aspects of ‘Deep Church’.

Many more, weary of hype concerning predicted revival about to head over the horizon, preferred a backward look to a creedal faith and practices with firmer foundations than the shifting focus of the latest fad.

3. We want to grow

Other Evangelicals have found that the staples of Bible study, prayer and strong preaching weren’t leading to godly living. They knew the truth but it didn’t change them at a heart level. Looking for more, they found writers like Richard Foster, who in his book, ‘Celebration of Discipline (1978) explains that disciplines such as fasting, solitude, silence, meditation(so called Catholic practices) had actually been in the Bible all along. These were not ‘works based’ as often thought, but a God given means of growth. More latterly his mentor, Dallas Willard (author of Spirit of the Disciplines, among others) has shared in print and in conferences how he learned to value the pre-reformation saints. Evangelical author, John Ortberg popularised such teaching further in ‘The Life you’ve have always wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for ordinary people’(Zondervan 2002).

Publishers such as that bastion of evangelicalism, IVP, now have an imprint, ‘Formatio’ dedicated to such material. Many have sought out ‘spiritual directors’ skilled in the art of helping people notice and welcome the presence of God into their personal lives, skills largely found within Anglo Catholic, Catholic and Orthodox settings. Hence even Evangelicals deeply suspicious of ecumenical unity, and even of the legitimacy of modern non evangelical denominations, were prepared to practise what the ancients practised and many found, to their surprise, God working in ways they could scarcely have imagined.

4. We want to build community

But if it is starting to sound as if this ecumenism is all about Evangelicals who have become more broad minded in their old age, there are streams within the ‘Emerging church movement’(typically younger people) which are mixing vintage wine along with that newly harvested.

In ‘Punk Monk: New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing’ (Authentic Media 2008), Andy Freeman and Pete Greig chart the rise of Boiler Rooms – places where prayer is conducted 24/7 and a community is built around a pattern of prayer, study, celebration and caring for the poor and lost: patterns which sound remarkably like those in a monastery, but then you guessed that already. From humble beginnings in Reading, there are now 56 Boiler Rooms in 14 countries. Greig of course was the pioneer of the 24/7 prayer movement, now a staple of many groups worldwide.

Reflecting on ‘Punk Monk’, Canon Rev Dr Adrian Chatfield, who heads up The Simeon Centre for Prayer and the Spiritual Life serving Ridley Hall, Cambridge and wider afield says: “There is something in the rights of prayer and the rule of life and a true realisation of community that is attractive. It was seen in Lee Abbey in the 1950s and Northumbria more recently.  Young people are saying: ‘We want to belong –we want to join community.’”

Tom Sine in his book, ‘The New Conspirators’ (IVP 2008) highlights the ‘new monasticism’ that has developed, including The Order of Mission at St Thomas Crookes Church, Sheffield and The Iona Community, Northumbria Community and the Order of St Aidan and St Hilda who both follow a ‘rule of life’ under the oversight of Franciscan brothers.

Practices thought by Evangelicals to signal withdrawal, are seen by some to represent the very basis for engagement and service that a modern, rootless generation needs.

5. We want to value the arts

Inevitably many church trends mirror the cultural environment. Is it any surprise that a postmodern world with its mistrust of texts and authority would value the visual and aesthetic offered by ancient practices?

John Drane, author of ‘ After McDonaldization’ (Darton Longman & Todd, 2008) says: “Our culture is more visual today. Classic evangelicalism is so abstract. Jesus called us to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Evangelicalism has focused on the mind to the exclusion of the other three.”

“Do we know God cognitively or affectively?” asks Chatfield. “There used to be a belief that words were sound, whereas art was more slippery. The advent of postmodernism showing that words themselves are be interpreted by the reader/hearer and reminds us of the affective nature of our faith. It is not just in doctrinal formulations that we experience God.”

Hence many Evangelicals who once eschewed anything showier than a text on a banner or a decorative communion table cloth, see the majestic, almost theatrical services of High Church as potentially attractive to seekers – witness the recent boost in attendances of Christmas mass at Cathedrals nationwide. Some within Emerging Church incorporate ritual, art, symbolism and liturgy into their gatherings as they help postmoderns connect with God.

A healthy trend?

So what do you make of all this? Should you welcome it, be alarmed or just be neutral?

For a start we need to say that it’s not the case of ‘we are all going to Rome, Moscow and Athens, will the last one to leave Evangelicalism please turn out the lights’. We don’t yet know whether to describe this as a trickle or a stream.

Clearly there is a difference between changing Churchmanship and adopting practices which cohere with Evangelical distinctives. Maybe Evangelicals can be positive if changes in churchmanship are made out of genuine convictions in a heartfelt embracing of how God is leading them? And it would be churlish in the extreme for Evangelicals to be prejudiced against practices included in Scripture just because they perceive them to be ‘High Church’ or ‘Catholic’.

However, it also needs to be noted that although Evangelicals have missed and lost some of the insights of pre-reformation Christianity but let’s be clear that this wasn’t all good either. The ancient traditions did not save the ancient churches from a quagmire of ritualism that gave Christianity a bad name. God had to send a new wave of the Spirit in Pentecostalism in the early 20th century.

So as Evangelicals reject a sectarian approach, they need great wisdom to assess what is appropriate to embrace. There were good reasons why Evangelicals historically rejected the aesthetic and visual dimensions of faith knowing that the New Testament was keen to break with those visual and ritualistic parts of Judaism that had been replaced with Christ.

All spiritual disciplines, (Evangelicals classics such as Bible Reading, prayer and listening to God’s Word preached, as well as fasting, meditation, Spiritual direction and monastic living) are tools God can and will use, but need to be used properly lest they merely pander to a self obsessed age and aid a Christian retreat into cloistered environments.

The touchstone should surely be, does the way I worship and practise my daily devotions help or hinder godly living for Christ where he has placed me?

For many, embracing ancient traditions has served that end – and even if you decide it’s not for you, hopefully it will be with a greater respect for those who kept the torch of the Gospel shining in the past so that future generations, like you, may live in its light.


  • Remembering our Future: Explorations in Deep Church, edited by Andrew Walker, Luke Bretherton (Paternoster 2007)
  • ‘Punk Monk: New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing’ Andy Freeman and Peter Greig (Authentic Media 2008)
  • A Faith Fulfilled – Why Are Christians Across Great Britain Embracing Orthodoxy? Michael Harper (Concillar Press 1999)
  • The New Conspirators:Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time Tom Sine (IVP 2008
  • Evangelicals and Tradition DH Williams (Baker Academic 2005)
  • Evangelicalism and the Orthodox Church edited by David Hilborn (Paternoster Publishing 2001 )