Ever Ancient, Ever New – A Review

A few months ago my uncle messaged me saying he’d read about me in a book, I was intrigued! I thought, I’d better order it and check it out. Since it arrived, I’ve enjoyed dipping into Ever Ancient Ever New by Winfield Bevins. The book focuses on the Liturgical renewal among young people, mainly in North America. Winfield includes the journeys of those he has met along the way. A lot of the stories Winfield retells has a similar trajectory. Many grew up in a charismatic evangelical settings and find themselves longing for more. Winfield finds that what these young people long for is holistic spirituality, a sense of mystery, a desire for historic rootedness, looking for countercultural faith, belonging to the universal church, sacramental spirituality, and gracious orthodoxy. The author fleshes these out in great detail and I could see myself and my friends in many of the stories.

Some of those who’ve had bad experiences in Evangelical churches have shifted towards traditional forms of church as they deconstruct their faith. Winfields chapter ‘Surprised by Orthodoxy’ wonderfully illustrates through creed and catechism how liturgy and orthodoxy can’t be separated. He quotes twentysomething Rebecca “There is such a beautiful inter-webbing of the liturgy within the church’s understanding of its beliefs. It grounds the worshipping church body in a common and one voice to God.” While the focus of the book is on the value of liturgical forms of worship, Winfield also explores ‘What did these young adults feel they were missing in the church backgrounds they were raised?’ What I found fascinating is that in almost all the stories, people have had a salvation experience in a more charismatic setting, then afterwards come to view liturgy in a new light. As Scot McNight writes in the forward, “when a genuine born-again faith meets up with The Book of Common Prayer, the encounter is transforming.” What I’d love to see is more people seeing their faith expand by discovering the old, rather than pendulum swinging and rejecting contemporary forms of church. Like a documentary, Winfield is sharing a range of stories and it’s truly eye-opening. 

Winfield writes that young people “are harboring a longing for a church that transcends any single culture, not an approach that simple accommodates the surrounding culture.” While the longing is real, I don’t believe the reality exists. Cathedrals, robes, organs, singing euro-centric hymns, praying in old English, it’s not timeless. It’s anchored to particular times and places, and sadly for some, connected with colonialism. As for Orthodox churches, they are grouped by culture. I’ve attended both a Greek and an Egyptian Orthodox wedding and I described them as a cultural experience! I don’t think any forms of worship transcend culture, but the churches that engage culture are growing with new Christians. This is why the chapter on connecting liturgy and mission didn’t connect with me. I want to know about liturgy and evangelism. Throughout the book we heard many stories of liturgy awakening Christians to go deeper, but does it awaken unbelievers? I think of kids attending Church of England schools and enduring mandatory chapel, and I think of the many traditional services in my own country with a few faithful elderly congregants. We need to accept that liturgy has its limitations. 

In the Epilogue, Winfield writes.

‘Perhaps the real hope for the church is not in going backward, but in a convergence of old and new that paves a way forward. The late Robert Webber, one of the forerunners of today’s ancient-future faith movement, once wrote, “The road to the future runs through the past.” For many of these young adults, embracing liturgy isn’t about reliving the past, it’s about retrieving it and appropriating it into the context of life in the twenty-first-century North America. As Martin Smith states, “Faithfulness to tradition does not mean mere perpetuation or copying of ways from the past but a creative recovery of the past as a source of inspiration and guidance in our faithfulness to God’s future.”’

It is clear that the author doesn’t reject the contemporary church, in fact he describes himself as charismatic. However, the weight of the book is on evangelicals shifting towards ancient forms and that necessities shifting away from something. In order to have real convergence, the value of both liturgical and contemporary forms of worship need to be heralded. That’s why I loved the later chapters, ‘Something Ancient, Something New’ and ‘Three Streams, One River’, as it gave me a taste of this. In the end, we are singing from the same hymn sheet.

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