Late last year, I was writing a Heroes of the Faith column on Robert E. Webber for The Melbourne Anglican and wanted to interview Rev. Dr. Joel Scandrett, director of the Robert E. Webber Centre at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh). Although on sabbatical, he was gracious enough to participate. I found it wonderful to hear about Joel’s work in continuing Bob Webber’s legacy.
If you followed the link from the article in TMA published in the February 2020 edition, you can see the other relevant interview, with Ryan Flanigan, here.
Rev. Dr. Joel Scandrett, Ambridge PA, USA
Interview via email, October 2019
1. What led you to become the Director of the Robert E. Webber Center?
God’s providence! Robert (Bob) Webber originally founded the Webber Center at Northern Seminary in the Chicago area, where he taught and directed the Center until his untimely death in 2007. But Bob’s widow, Joanne, and longtime friend, David Neff (former executive editor of Christianity Today), wanted to see the work of the Webber Center continue. They discovered an excellent fit in Trinity School for Ministry, an evangelical Anglican seminary near Pittsburgh. It so happened that I was already teaching theology online for Trinity, had been a master’s student of Bob’s at Wheaton College, and had copy edited the final draft of Bob’s “Call to an Ancient-Evangelical Future.” That, plus my work in patristics and the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, made me the obvious candidate to direct the reestablished Robert E. Webber Center, now in its seventh year at Trinity School for Ministry.
2. In his conclusion to Ancient-Future Worship, Webber writes: “Over the past years people have written or called me and said “I want to visit an ancient-future church. Where can I go?” I don’t usually have an answer because I don’t think an ancient-future church or ancient-future worship is the next trend or that “cool” church over there.” Do you think the answer has changed a bit? Can you point to some ancient-future churches or worship groups?
Yes, the answer to that question has certainly changed! At least in the US, a Google search of “ancient future church” will result in dozens of hits from churches across the country that identify as such. Many younger evangelicals in the US are leaving modern, attractional megachurches in search of church communities that prize the liturgical, spiritual, and sacramental patterns of the ancient church. For some this has meant a departure into Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. But for many others it has meant either finding evangelical churches that are intentionally ancient-future, or making their way into Anglican, Lutheran, and other protestant traditions that already have these practices in their ecclesial DNA. Much of the rapid growth of Anglican churches in the US is due to this influx of younger evangelicals seeking ancient roots.
I have encountered a number of ancient-future churches during my tenure as director of the Webber Center. Given my location, most of these have been evangelical Anglican churches seeking to reclaim liturgical and spiritual practices which their evangelical forebears often identified exclusively (and wrongly) with Anglo-Catholicism (more on this below). But I have also encountered a number of evangelical and charismatic churches, many of which are members of the Ancient Future Faith Network. Most of these are led in worship by individuals deeply influenced by Robert Webber and the ancient-future movement.
As for worship groups, the Webber Center at Trinity is focused more on Christian formation than worship. So I didn’t know about the work of Ryan Flanigan and Liturgical Folk until you mentioned them! But I’ve found the work of Bruce Benedict and his Cardiphonia group inspiring. They are producing some wonderful resources for worship throughout the liturgical year. And Zac Hicks, Canon for Worship and Liturgy at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama is also an important figure in the movement. For personal listening, I still go back to Fernando Ortega’s album, Come Down O Love Divine – which includes some stunning contemporary arrangements of traditional mass settings. Fernando doesn’t identify as ancient-future, but his arrangements are glorious.
3. One of the people who has taken on and fleshed out Robert E. Webber’s legacy is Ryan Flanigan from the band Liturgical Folk. He’s created music for small churches who don’t have the resources to replicate arena rock or choral organ music. Ryan studied under Webber and he said that “Bob himself was an Episcopalian, in part because Anglicanism had enough space theologically and in form and expression for him to be a charismatic, evangelical catholic.” I found that comment fascinating because my experience of Anglican worship is so divided. What hope have you seen that these three streams can come together.
Ryan is right. And I not only have hope, I have proof! Many of our churches in the Anglican Church in North America really are “three streams” churches, in which evangelical preaching, traditional Eucharistic liturgy, and celebratory praise are beautifully and powerfully conjoined with theological and liturgical integrity. Our home church here in Pittsburgh, Church of the Ascension, is a wonderful example of this, as is our previous church in Wheaton, Illinois, Church of the Resurrection. We have been richly blessed to be members of these churches.
But as Ryan implies, there is more to the story. Bob Webber was in fact a Baptist who became an Episcopalian precisely because he found in Anglicanism an evangelical expression of the ancient catholic faith of the early church. As a “convert,” Bob was not burdened by the legacy of the nineteenth century divides between Anglican Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. He found in the Anglican tradition a way to be a “catholic evangelical” by which he could reject the false dichotomy between evangelical preaching and liturgical worship. He didn’t think we should have to choose between excellent sermons, weekly Communion, and beautiful worship – and neither should we!
On that point, I think it’s worth observing that modern Anglican churches have been unduly burdened by the nineteenth-century partisan divide between Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics in regard to worship. This is especially true in the UK, but the fault lines run through the entire Communion. As a consequence, many evangelical Anglicans have come to identify liturgical worship, spiritual disciplines, and weekly Communion as somehow being the exclusive domain of Anglo-Catholics. This is an immense loss that has impoverished evangelical Anglicans, and something that many of their evangelical forebears would not have recognized. It’s high time that evangelical Anglicans reclaimed these neglected treasures of their Anglican heritage.
4. How do you see Robert E. Webber as a hero of the faith and how do you carry on his legacy?
Bob is a hero of the faith because his ancient future vision led modern Christians to rediscover the historic roots of their faith. As such, his vision was, first and foremost, formational. His preeminent concern was that modern Christians be formed in the truths of historic Christian faith in order to resist the modern master-narratives of individualism and consumerism. While worship was one means of achieving this, Christian formation was always his overarching goal. Second, Bob’s vision was ecclesial. He was convinced that evangelicals needed to recover what it meant to be the Body of Christ. Bob was prescient in this respect, and anticipated the need for Western Christians to recover a robust understanding of the Church in order to resist the corrosive and dehumanizing effects of hypermodernity – what Zigmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity.” Third, Bob’s vision was ecumenical. As he witnessed the waning of Christian faith in Western society, he became convinced that evangelicals needed to be in conversation with Christians of other traditions – to take their place in the larger circle of ecumenical discourse and social engagement. Bob wanted to see evangelicals freed from their sectarian impulse for the sake of the kingdom of God. And fourth and related, Bob’s vision was missional. He was convinced that there would be no more powerful witness for the Gospel in the twenty-first century than evangelical Christians grounded in the apostolic faith, worshiping in vibrant Christian communities, and bearing witness to Jesus Christ, “not only with our lips, but in our lives.”
The Webber Center at Trinity School for Ministry is committed to carrying on Bob’s legacy in all these respects, but its main focus is Christian formation. Bob was convinced that the church in today’s increasingly post-Christian culture has much to learn from the ancient church – which flourished in a pre-Christian culture – especially in regard to how we evangelize and disciple believers. In agreement with that conviction, the Webber Center has recently launched a Catechesis Initiative that will train church catechists to instruct believers of all ages in the essential doctrinal, spiritual, and moral principles of the Christian faith. Much of contemporary catechesis has been relegated to a few brief and insufficient confirmation classes – with the rest of what passes for Christian formation undertaken piecemeal through Sunday school and Christian education classes. The Webber Center’s Catechesis Initiative seeks to renew contemporary Christian formation by recovering the ancient pattern of comprehensive catechesis and returning it to its foundational place in the life of the church.