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EFAC Australia

Essentials

LENTEN STUDIES: a useful tool for a local Church.


For the uninitiated, “Lenten Studies” sound like Studies which have been borrowed rather than purchased! For the initiated, “Lenten Studies” may never have been a feature in our Christian life or Ministry. We may even think of them as belonging to a by-gone 'Churchy' era.

For many years, some Anglican Churches have made a great deal of the six weeks leading up to Easter, as a time of personal reflection and preparation for the celebration of Easter. “Lenten Studies” have been prepared by all sorts of people to be used during this period.

“Lenten Studies” have been produced by the Media Department (now YouthWorks) of the Diocese of Sydney for many years, always written by a Bishop of the Australian Church. In recent years, contributors have been Evangelical Bishops including Stephen Hale, Harry Goodhew, Tony Nichols, Peter Brain, Ray Smith and yours truly. The books usually consist of forty daily Studies for personal use and sets of discussion questions for use by small groups. Sometimes, Parish Ministers base their sermons for the six weeks on the theme or book of Scripture being studied.

In 1993, I became the Senior Minister of Penrith Anglican Church at the foot of the Blue Mountains. Never having done it before, I decided to experiment with the introduction of “Lenten Studies”. About 100 Church members bought copies and began to use them through the week. Then on each Wednesday evening, they came together for an 'overview' of the week and a time for questions on the material they'd been looking at privately.

'It is not a slight thought of the mercies of God that will affect your hearts,
but it must be a dwelling on them by meditation.' Edmund Calamy

Have you ever eaten cold fish and chips? The nutrients are there but until digestion takes place, the meal sits heavily in your stomach. Our Scripture knowledge can also need digesting. We hear many sermons and read many Christian books, but we need to process what we have heard and read, so it can become part of our lives.

The Puritans called this digestion process 'meditation'. The Puritans were English and American believers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who desired to bring the whole of life under Christ's Lordship. Well known Puritans include John Bunyan, John Owen, and Richard Baxter. Richard Baxter was Vicar of Kidderminster (south of Birmingham) in the sixteenth century. Along with Sunday church attendance, daily personal prayer, family devotions, spiritual reading, examination of conscience, and journalling, Baxter so valued meditation that he wrote a 600 page book, The Saints' Everlasting Rest (1652), to extol its virtues and explain his method. His guidelines for meditation are practical and helpful. For easier reading, I have modernized Baxter's language and abridged his advice. Baxter defines what he means by meditation:
'The general title that I give this duty is meditation; not as it is precisely distinguished from thought, consideration, and contemplation; but as it is taken in the larger and usual sense for thinking on things spiritual, and so including both consideration and contemplation.

Such meditation was not a Puritan invention. Baxter draws on a tradition from King David and Augustine. In an influential treatise on consideration from the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux asks, 'Do you ask what piety is? It is making time for consideration' (On Consideration, I vii).

Facing the Future: bishops imagine a different church,
edited by Stephen Hale and Andrew Curnow (Acorn, 2009)

Here is a timely, interesting, easily-digestible and provoking book by a twenty-two strong flock of Australian Anglican bishops. (Is 'flock' the right collective term? Corrections and suggestions welcome!) Their brief was provide their vision for the future of the Anglican Church of Australia, and several chapters do exactly this. Others read more as reflections on ministry areas or themes central to their particular roles. What emerges is a helpful wide-ranging overview of the diversity of the Australian Anglican scene, with a focus on the challenges of mission and change.

Andrew Curnow's opening chapter sets the scene of a declining Anglican church facing these two challenges. Stephen Hale, in his closing reflection, is struck by four commonalities across the contributions: they each contain a sense of urgency; a note of optimism about the Church; an imperative to change; and a clear focus on mission. Of course given the theological diversity of the writers, there is no agreed definition of mission. Many EFAC members will naturally chime in with National Chairman Glenn Davies' chapter on the Gospel; but Phillip Aspinall, Roger Herft, and Kay Goldsworthy will give readers an insight into different Anglican emphases.

Like any edited volume, this book's strength is in the range of opinions and ideas, and the breadth of perspective it contains. You should not expect to agree with everything in it. The chapters are relatively short, and are stimulating rather than thorough. There are gems of wisdom here and there, and interesting case studies. However, the book's real value is in helping us to understand just a little more about the diversity of ministries undertaken in the name of the Anglican Church of Australia across the country.

I am an enthusiast for Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). He is not as well known as his English contemporaries John and Charles Wesley. He didn't cross the Atlantic as they did, but lived most of his life within a couple of days horse-ride from Boston. He did not speak with the oratorical style of George Whitefield, and was said to stare at the bell rope at the back of the church while preaching. Indeed, he is chiefly known for using spiders as sermon illustrations, and his sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” is often anthologised, making him the model preacher of damnation. A man in need of a public relations makeover. A man of provincial tastes. A man with little to communicate to a modern audience? A man worth studying?

Jonathan Edwards is regarded as one of the greatest minds in North American history, and has had an enduring legacy in theology, philosophy, politics and social engagement. He has recently been listed in the Atlantic Monthly as one of the most influential thinkers ever in American history. Even in his own lifetime, he was used by God to bring hundreds and hundreds of men, women and children to faith in Christ through the revivals of the 1730s and 1740s, known cumulatively in North America as the Great Awakening. Do I still need to ask, why study Edwards?

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