I was baptized into the Anglican Church at the ripe old age of 11, albeit of the Western Sydney variety that sang contemporary music and only ever preached about how to be a happier person in 3 easy steps. This was my one brief flirtation with Anglicanism and – apart from my baptism – wasn’t a particularly inspiring phase in my spiritual journey. A proud Nonconformist, I’ve grown and flourished in Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and nondenonimational churches, but Anglicanism always seemed too staid, dry, and institutionalized. Now not only do I find myself joining an Anglican church, but one with a big stone building that predates the Norman conquest and which probably has the bodies of English nobles buried under the floor in the sanctuary. As I bemoaned my descent into the Established Church, a wise friend suggested I pick up a copy of C. S. Lewis’ first book, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), which contains traces of Lewis conversion from atheism to the Church of England. The book is racist and sexist, and in the words of a different friend, Lewis “was about as subtle as a sledgehammer,” but he was also wise and very clear about what really matters in Christianity and what is open to debate.
Lewis modeled his book on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), which is an allegorical attack on the Anglican Church by one of the most revered Baptist writers ever to pick up a pen. In Lewis’ version, the hero John begins life as a Puritan.His parents lived in fear of “the Landlord,” and they introduced him to a “Steward” who told him that “the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext.” The Steward gave John “a list of all the things the Landlord says you must not do.” But when John read them he found that “half the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing: and the number of the rules was so enormous that he felt he could never remember them all.” John determines to reject the Landlord, and subsequently discovers atheism, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, rationalism, and a host of other religious ideas before he finally “lets himself go” and dives into the unknown, where he finds God.
As luck would have it, The Pilgrim’s Regress was indeed a useful book to help me think about my own spiritual journey. At one stage John falls prisoner to the Spirit of the Age, a giant whose gaze made visible all the disgusting things inside of us. Lewis writes that, “a woman was seated near him, but he did not know it was a woman, because, through the face, he saw the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins: and lower down the lungs panting like sponges, and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes.” Had the giant looked at St. Andrews’ Anglican Church in Bebington, he might have seen the cold stone walls, the imperial flags, the coats of arms embedded in the stained glass windows, the traces of noble patronage and clerical collusion that decorated the walls of the chapel at the expense of the nameless poor of ten centuries past. But Reason rescues John from the giant, and she explains that “he showed you by a trick what our inwards would look like if they were visible. That is, he showed you something that is not, but something that would be if the world were made all other than it is. But in the real world our inwards are invisible. They are not coloured shapes at all, they are feelings. The warmth in your limbs at this moment, the sweetness of your breath as you draw it in, the comfort in your belly because we breakfasted well, and your hunger for the next meal – these are the reality: all the sponges and tubes that you saw in the dungeon are the life.” Of course, she admits, “there is truth mixed up with the giant’s conjuring tricks,” but the key is to see what really matters.
In the two months that we have been attending St. Andrews, we have found a kind and welcoming community of people who genuinely care for one another. We’ve seen them carry each other’s burdens, share generously, accept the rich and the poor, the educated and the simple. We’ve watched them embrace strangers who come because they want to get married in a fancy church or have their children baptized, and seen how they use what they have to gently and honestly share the gospel with others. Rather than terrifying children with stories of hellfire or patronizing them with platitudes, we’ve seen how they teach solid doctrine to even the youngest members of their congregation. Early on in his journey John meets Mr. Halfways and his children and then the Clevers, each of whom try to seduce him with music and impress him with art. When John admits that the songs of the Clevers don’t move him, they “leaped at his face with their nails, and he was kicked in the back and the belly, and tripped up so that he fell on his face, and kicked again as he rose.” Unlike the Clevers, St. Andrews strikes me as a remarkably unpretentious place that accepts people where they are, regardless of whether or not they like the music.
I sympathize with John that the people who help him most on his journey are intellectuals – Reason, Mr. Vertue, Mr. Wisdom, and History. They come along side him when he is at his most confused and refute dishonest teachings that were leading him astray. They too have their blind spots and weaknesses, but not so many as the Stewards who, as History points out, are not all “equally travelled men” and frequently distort the Landlord’s messages to their own advantage. One of the great strengths of low Protestantism is its willingness to let people into the pulpit who do not always have the training to interpret the Bible with the rigor it deserves. This can also be terribly frustrating, and I cannot count the number of times I have left churches on a Sunday morning furious with preachers who teach rubbish simply because they couldn’t be bothered doing their homework properly. The preaching at St. Andrews is clear and simple, but very obviously taught by people who really do know what they are talking about. Products of a rigorous system of theological education, I feel like I can trust this church’s leaders when they preach the word of God.
Not everyone John meets is evil, and most are just as confused as he is. As he discovers after his angelic Guide opens his eyes, all of them have their fair share of imperfections. Mr. Sensible “was so near to nonentity – so shadowy even as an appearance,” that he becomes invisible. The Valley of Wisdom is in reality only “Limbo, or the twilit porches of the black hole.” None of the churches I have loved have been perfect, but God has been present to me in all of them. St. Andrews too will show its blemishes soon enough, but for the time being I am happy to have found a place where God dwells and where His people delight in His presence.