By Chaplain Mike
Bob Webber grew up a staunch fundamentalist. His parents were missionaries in Africa who later returned to Pennsylvania to take up ministry in a Baptist church. He attended Bob Jones University. As an adult he became a professor at the more mainstream evangelical Wheaton College. Webber was immersed from birth in the world of free church evangelicalism and fundamentalism in one form or another.
So how did a man with this background end up…
- worshiping regularly in an Episcopal church,
- becoming one of Christianity’s foremost advocates for liturgical worship and renewed respect for early church traditions,
- and being revered as a guide to multitudes who have joined him on what has become known as the “Ancient-Future” path of following Jesus in our day?
He tells the story in his 1985 book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church. In college and seminary, Bob Webber began to question the inflexible spirit pervasive in his tradition that limited genuine Christianity to those in the fundamentalist mold. He also found the rationalistic, “defending the faith” approach that they took toward the Bible and great truths of the faith unsatisfactory for his own spiritual life.
In 1969, young professor Webber was asked to speak in chapel at Wheaton College. The topic was “Where is evangelicalism going in the 1970’s?”. As he prepared his sermon, he decided to present it in two parts: part oneâ€”an evaluation of contemporary culture and the questions Christianity must answer, and part twoâ€”the answers. The longer he prayed over the message, the more troubled he became. The “answers” just weren’t satisfactory!
Then, in a moment of conviction, I stood to my feet, grabbed the answer part of my sermon in both hands, and vigorously crumpled the papers. Raising my right hand and arm high above my head, I tossed those answers with all my power into the wastebasket. I dropped back into my chair and sobbed for several hours. I had thrown away my answers. I had rid myself of a system in which God was comfortably contained. I had lost my security and turned my back on years of defending God’s existence, his incarnation, his resurrection, and his coming again. (p. 29)
The next day, Bob Webber spoke to the student body. After delivering the first part of his sermon, he stopped.
Then I closed my notebook, looked at them directly, and told them what had happened to me. I told them that the answers don’t work, that what we need is not answers about God but God himself. And I told them how God was more real to me in his silence than he had been in my textbook answers. My God was no longer the God you could put on the blackboard or the God that was contained in a textbook, but a maverick who breaks the boxes we build for him. (p. 30)
These were his first steps on the Ancient-Future path. This experience and others that awakened his attention began to push Webber in the direction of wanting to learn more about what worshiping God really means. Since this was not a huge emphasis in his fundamentalist or evangelical experience, he was forced to look elsewhere.
First, he attended a Roman Catholic Easter Vigil service and discovered through the liturgy that the truth of Christ’s resurrection became alive to him in a whole new way. This led him to do deeper study in the writings of the early church fathers, and he became impressed by their descriptions of the Agape Feast. “I was greatly attracted to the simplicity, the power, and the warmth of this approach to worship,” he wrote. Webber was discovering practices of worship that were new to him and unavailable in the churches he had attended.
An “Emerging” Phase
Interestingly, Webber did not know where to start with regard to incorporating his new insights into participation in corporate worship.
Since I longed to experience this reality, my family and I left the established church and began a house church modeled after the early Christian community. About forty other people, mostly married couples from the college, joined us. (p. 39)
Sound familiar? I smiled when I first read that and thought back upon last week’s discussion of the “Emerging Movement.” Many of you opined that “Emerging” is primarily a transitional movement. As people react against perceived shortcomings in the churches where they belong, they leave and experiment with new forms and practices. In many cases, worship is a primary issue for these folks. Recent emerging believers have been known for experimenting with various forms of creative and multi-sensory worship, often reaching back into the past to sample practices from earlier Christian traditions.
Webber discovered, as have others in “emerging” transitional settings, that their experimental approaches were first exhilarating but ultimately unsatisfactory. In particular, Bob Webber found that the house church approach isolated its participants from the larger church and had problems and weaknesses inherent to the form. Nevertheless, he learned to appreciate their experiment as an important phase that ultimately led him to the Anglican tradition.
Webber’s Six Themes
In the end, as Bob Webber tells his story, he found six areas of faith that were only satisfied by getting on the Ancient-Future path into a Christ-centered communion that was organically integrated with the ancient Great Tradition of evangelical Christianity.
- Bowing before divine mystery
- Participating in genuine worship
- Experiencing sacramental reality
- Embracing a fuller spiritual identity in the historic church
- Accepting the unity of the catholic church
- Finding a purposeful path for spiritual formation
Assuming that these six areas of faith represent vitally important aspects of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christâ€”
Is is not obvious why traditional evangelicalismâ€”rooted in the revivalism of the 1800’sâ€”and why emerging movementsâ€”largely reactions to that evangelicalismâ€”cannot provide a comprehensive answer to these six longings?
And this is the appeal of the Ancient-Future path. It asserts that the best way into the future for Christ’s church is one that is organically integrated with her past. As Michael Spencer wrote, the best hope for evangelical vitality in days to come lies in:
…the post-evangelical appropriation of the great tradition; the wisdom of the broader, deeper more ancient church, in meeting the evangelical challenge today. A chastened, invigorated traditionalism, re-rooted in deeper, better soil and paying attention to the younger voices and cultural changes, is the better evangelical future.
Just the Beginning
I have barely introduced you to Robert Webber. In the second half of his life, Bob became one of the most prolific thinkers, authors, and speakers on the subject of worship and how early church teachings and practices can inform our way forward into the future. He wrote more than forty books on worship, and edited perhaps the greatest resource on the subject available: The Complete Library of Christian Worship (1995), an eight-volume series created to serve as a comprehensive reference for professors, students, pastors, and worship leaders. He also founded The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, which offers training in the disciplines of worship at Master’s and Doctoral levels. You can find a good overview of Bob’s work at Ancient Future Worship. Below, you will find links to some of Webber’s most important books.
A Debt of Gratitude
Bob Webber died and entered the worship of Christ around the throne in 2007. The evangelical church, indeed the entire one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, owes him a great debt of gratitude for turning our attention backward to the common ancient roots of our faith, forward to a bright future of renewed worship and church unity if we will integrate the lessons of our spiritual heritage into today’s practices of following Christ today, and upward to the One who alone is worthy and who meets us savingly as we worship and receive his ancient, present, and future gifts in Christ.
Some important books by Robert Webber:
Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church
Common Roots: The Original Call to an Ancient-Future Faith
Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World
Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative
Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year
Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community
45 thoughts on “Father of the Ancient-Future Path”
For several years now, my extended church family has observed a Christian version of the Seder around Easter time — and, like you, I am always deeply moved and amazed at how so many of the meals elements and symbolisms point to Christ. It really gives you a sense of how Jesus’s sharing of this meal with His disciples was in itself a new revelation of a tradition they had observed all their lives. And, after you’ve participated in a Seder, certain details from the gospel accounts of the Last Supper make a lot more sense than they did before.
When I was a Carmelite nun during Holy week we would commemorate the last supper. This was Jesus’ last Agape meal with His disciples when He established the Eucharistic Celebration in connection with His being the True Lamb of God. The Traditional Passover table with the bitter herbs, the salt, unleavened bread, 7 candle candelabra, even the table setting and empty chair for the Prophet Elijah, was prepared. Different persons would take the role of the Jewish father, mother and son and speak their set words at the proper time, the remainder would speak the words of the family members. The Passover was played out completely. When the time for the actual meal came we would also Eat. We’d have lamb among other goodies. Then the closing words and actions of the Passover meal were played out. However, it did not end there. Since all the symbolism within this meal, as well as the OT scriptures that are read, all come together and point to the coming Messiah there was added a christian ending where the NT scriptures of Jesus’ words that last passover, of His sacrifice on the cross to His resurrection, were all read and prayers were said to celebrate this. So we actually ended celebrating what Holy week is all about.
The first time I experienced this I was overwhelmed (in a blessed way). It was so incredibly beautiful. The history of our daily Eucharistic Celebration finds it’s roots in this meal. It brought Salvation History to life for me in the present. Every year I looked forward to this.
Years later, when I was responsible for the religious education program of a parish I presented this and a group of families, children and parents, single adults with the Pastor came together. Everyone brought something for the actual meal. None of them had experienced this before nor were aware of what the passover meal was all about. Everyone had the same reaction I had that first time. It was beautiful to see how for them all, children included, much of the symbolism in the Mass became real to them, had new meaning, deeper connections to Jesus.
But Paul says in 1 Cor 11:33 right before verse 34 where you again took up what he wrote: “33 So then, my brothers, when you assemble to eat, wait for one another. 34 If someone is hungry, let him eat in his own house, so that your assembling should not result in judgment.”
I.e., he does not seem to be outlawing the agapÃª but stressing that the food should be shared and had by all, or else it’s not a LORD’S supper (this seems to be the syntactical emphasis in 11:20). If someone is prone not to be able to wait until all are there and all can eat together so that all can have food, that person should satisfy his appetite at home first so he won’t pig out and shame and deprive others at the common meal.
Or so ISTM.
you’re doin a great job chaplain mike. along with the other writers/contributors. keep it up please. to God alone is the glory!
I suspect your suspicion might be correct.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to know about the site in the MS days, but I feel very fortunate to have this resource now.
Thank you to all the iMonk writers and editors.
Thanks! This is great historical detail.
The Anglican Mission in the Americas has what they call a “three-stream” approach that fits into the Ancient-Future idea and even uses that terminology.
That was my experience, too. I was dating an Episcopalian and went to church with him. Going through the service, I suddenly realized, “This is what worship means!”
A bunch of us in our InterVarsity group read “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” shortly after it came out (I went to college in 1986). I remember thinking, “Yes! This is what I’m feeling! This is why this helps bring me closer to God!”
Fast forward 15 years as I serve as a priest and youth minister in an Episcopal Church and I take the youth group on a field trip to a mega-church with worship similar to what I had known growing up. The youth were shocked–SHOCKED–at how little Scripture there was in the service. One of the kids, who I had never thought was particularly religious, exclaimed, “They didn’t even have a Psalm!”
I think the liturgical traditions mean a lot to us who find them accidentally. At least for me one of the most important parts about it was that it was so much bigger than anyone involved. That’s what made it most worshipful for me, I think.
Uhm, the Agape Feast began to be outlawed by Saint Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 11.
“Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lordâ€™s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you. . . . But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come.” Already Saint Paul is beginning to see the Agape Feast as not really a full meal, since he says to eat at home if you are hungry.
Before Constantine ever arrived, the Agape Feast was already gone in many places because of the abuses that Saint Paul pointed out. By the time of Saint Cyprian (died 258), the Eucharist was now celebrated in the morning–with fasting in order that none might come sated while others came hungry–and on Sunday evening was what was left of the Agape Feast, which was increasingly thought of as a charity supper rather than a fellowship supper.
The Council of Laodecia (363) rules that the Agape Feast ought not to be celebrated in the church building itself, however, it was not an Ecumenical Council, though it shows what had happened to the Feast. It continues to be mentioned as late as the Council of Trullo (692), but finally disappears after that. But, I think you will find what Trullo says to be quite interesting and will give you an insight into some of what the Agape had become (in the negative sense):
“It is not permitted to hold what are called AgapÃ¦, that is love-feasts, in the Lordâ€™s houses or churches, nor to eat within the house, nor shall beds be set up.”
I think I’m about 6 months to a year behind you guys 🙂
I, too, had a similar experience. It was at a Christmas Eve service at the local Episcopal church where I had a similar illumination. This was the place where C.S. Lewis would be at home. I found several sand castles smashed, particularly the fundamentalist assumption that the people at liturgical churches never heard the Gospel. The Gospel is there for anybody who had the ears to hear! The liturgy was simply saturated with the Gospel and with Scripture.
Admittedly it would be my home if only the local Episcopal churches weren’t ultra-liberal, where the ministers weren’t praising their experience with the Buddhists. *sigh* What they say and what the ancient liturgy says is as different as day and night.
What an excellent tribute! On behalf of Northern Seminary, I would add that his professorship at Northern left an indelible mark on a vast number of students and our school in general. Dr. Webber’s Ancient-Future legacy lives on in our Worship and Spirituality program and the Robert E. Webber Institute of Worship Studies.
My wife and I live in Boston, where we have been very blessed to discover Ancient-Future worship through attending an Anglican (AMIA) church. We were visited by some friends, a dear couple from Florida, who were quite skeptical when we told them about how blessed we were by the liturgy. They went to church with us, though, and were moved to tears by the service. Afterwards we came back to our home and they wanted to go through our order of worship and tell us about how God was affecting them at each point.
I do believe that the Ancient-Future worship movement is from the Lord, and to many of us it is like a cup of cold water after wandering through a worship desert for many years.
Right there with you, austn. Our paths sound very similar. Webber’s “The Younger Evangelicals” and “Ancient-Future Time” were two books recommended to me as I began exploring Anglicanism. Great reads.
I’m awaiting ordination into the diaconate in November, as well! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let’s discuss!
Sorry, IM, for the lovefest…
Although obviously Michael was not Christ, I suspect these sorts of disputes were precisely the kind of discord seen after the Ascension, and more so after Paul’s death. Each earnest Christian felt he/she understood the Message, and others were messing it up.
You NAILED my experience exactly. Nice post!
I was blessed to know Bob Webber personally and later to attend and graduate from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. As one commenter noted above, Bob was indeed learned and gracious. He was simply remarkable to be around – always listening and asking questions. Always more keen about what others knew and were discovering than what he knew himself. Others were dwarfed by him, yet he gave devoted attention to others.
I also believe Bob was ahead of his time, by about a decade. When I first encountered Bob’s writing, his work consolidated and articulated things I could not express but which I had been pondering in abstractions. Shortly after we introduced Ancient-Future Worship in a church where the worship war was raging between Traditional and Contemporary worship styles. Of course, the problem with worship wars is that they tend to be about style and in the battle substance becomes collateral damage. Nobody wins.
We were authorized to introduce Ancient-Future Worship in place of the Traditional service, which was rapidly dwindling in light of inordinate emphasis on the Contemporary service. Surprisingly, the AFW service began to grow quickly. Few could explain it.
I have noted in that setting and others settings since, Ancient-Future Worship draws people in part because it draws together different styles rather than dividing styles.
Ancient-Future Worship planned and led properly focuses on substance – being both Christologic and Triune. Ancient-Future Worship engages people in a dialogue, responding to God’s character and actions, rather than mistakenly emanating from the felt expressions of people ‘telling God how they feel about Him’. In a sentence, almost all of Bob Webber’s writing articulates, “Worship is about God and not about us!” And, as we participate in this reality we become changed.
When I heard of Bob Webber’s death, I wept uncontrollably. Yet today, I invariably smile every time I think of Bob. That’s just what happened whenever you were around Bob Webber.
As a former baptist who is now serving as pastor of a new church plant in the ADOTS, and who is awaiting ordination as a deacon in November and then, Lord willing, in the future to the priesthood, I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to have discovered the beauty and depth of Anglican worship.
I remember a day many years ago he taught on Kierkegaardâ€™s theater analogy. It opened my eyes to what corporate worship really involved. He was a popular professor because he was the real deal, someone who was open and transparent, also grappling with the issues raised in the course material. Although not the single voice, he was a strong influence on a number of students in discovering the depth of liturgical traditions. We didnâ€™t know at the time it was forming a journey to Canterbury, or in my case, Wittenberg.
>> Iâ€™m curious â€” Is the ancient-future movement basically just a way of thinking about church that many are adopting and are thereby returning to the the ancient or long-standing church institutions? Or are there some actual church bodies and institutions that are either being formed according to or are adopting this vision of the church â€” reviving ancient forms of worship but with an emerging-style openness, freedom, theological flexibility, and focus on relational community? <<
This is what I'm wondering, too.
What a blessing!
The Seeker…I enjoyed reading your comment. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.
Great post. It is sites like IMonk that can help carry on R.W.’s legacy. I am also glad you mentioned Oden and hinted at paleo-orthodoxy. Those two, R.W. and T.O. (Oden, not the football “T.O.”), have had an impact on me.
I hope you do not mind a testimony now. Much of what you write Chaplain Mike, is fresh right now.
3 or so years ago I went to a Christmas eve service at a local Anglican Cathedral. I went because I knew that a traditional Christmas service was supposed to be nice.
I was unprepared for what happened. I arrived in a Christian community where advent was being treated seriously and joyfully, with all the pagentry and depth you would expect at a coronation.
One of the first things I noticed was how much scripture that was read. I had not heard that much in quite a number of years. The service was very focussed, no distractions. Even the sermon was just part of the service, not the main event. As we read the liturgy aloud out of the book I could mentally say to myself, I know they passage this comes from, and oh, this line is biblical, and oh yes, I remember this, and oh, I could show this one in scripture. I had been reading scripture for over 30 years, so I could see the text was infused with it.
The whole message and center of the service was the coming of Jesus Christ, we were celebrating it as a community, and the priest was like an unobtrusive master of ceremonies who was leading us along. He gave his sermon, short and to the point, 10-15 minutes but we came away with one idea planted in our heads. And the high point of the service was having communion, we walked off into the night knowing we were forgiven and walking in newness of life. I said to my wife ‘I feel like I was really in Bethlehem tonight’.
I have gone back to that little stone church numerous times and they use liturgy every Sunday. It is deep, it is profoundly biblical, and an unusual worship experience. It is so crafted that you have to take part (you can’t just sit back). It is very Christ centred and no man or woman is elevated. The priest is another participant, not the centre of the service.
I once read a book about the Apostles creed, and how it came out of the early church baptismal ceremonies and had started as a series of questions. One Sunday I went to a baptism and they started asking the questions! I was moved to tears as I saw an organic connection with the early church.
When I read your six points above I could say, yes, I have seen them in this stone church.
I have to admit, I come from a background where liturgy is considered mumbo-jumbo and the tradition of men. In fact, if we start attending there regularly I think my relatives will think we have gone off the end and are almost walking away from the gospel. So as I have gone there I initially viewed it with some suspicion and certainly did not understand it.
Then one Sunday it all hit me in the middle of the service. I went home to my wife and said ‘I feel like the tone deaf guy who had been going to a classical concert and not really heard the instruments, and suddenly I can hear. A violin over there, and oh, that must be an oboe, and there are the flutes’ The service is all about Jesus and each has their role to play, none more emphasized than the other. It is about the community worshipping together as they have done for 2000 years, sure, things have changed, but some of the old treasures have been retained. Two Sundays ago there was a song I had a hard time singing, the tune was hard to follow. Just as I closed the hymnary I saw ‘a 5th Century Latin Hymn’ as the author!
I was used to a service where there was a worship time to get me going, then once I am feeling good, an offering, then the main course being a 30-45 minute sermon and probably an altar call. And it is very much about the personalities of those involved.
I am not saying that that community is perfect. If it is they are in trouble if they let me come. I am saying it has certainly piqued my interest.
I’m curious — Is the ancient-future movement basically just a way of thinking about church that many are adopting and are thereby returning to the the ancient or long-standing church institutions? Or are there some actual church bodies and institutions that are either being formed according to or are adopting this vision of the church — reviving ancient forms of worship but with an emerging-style openness, freedom, theological flexibility, and focus on relational community?
By the way, I’m very much in favor of reviving the ancient Agape Feast, which, if I understand correctly, was a rather unique blend of informal fellowship, more formal symbolic or liturgical elements, and lots of food — a sort of Christianized version of the Jewish family observance of the Passover Meal. It’s unfortunate that the Agape Feast passed out of fashion and then was ultimately outlawed during the imperial era of the church. Admittedly, the practice doesn’t lend itself well to really big gatherings and imperial-scale liturgical productions — which seems to have to been the trend during history’s first mega-church explosion in the fourth century.
“Ancient Future Faith” was pivotal in opening the history and worship of the early church to me, and was a real jumping-off point for my discovery of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. Webber’s approach linking the situation in the first few centuries of the church to our postmodern situation sparked all kinds of connections in my brain. I didn’t know at the time I was reading (and re-reading) it that it would be significant in my journey into Orthodoxy, but I knew it was significant. I was so sorry when RW passed away.
I didn’t come to the point where he was when he threw away his answer sheet in as formal or structured a way as he did; it was more a dawning, little by little over some years, interrupted by a couple of pretty large issues. But boy, was I there.
The starting point is the Bible and the apostolic message. Thomas Oden speaks of a “pyramid of sources” when looking back on the history of the church and analyzing the consensus that emerges from the Tradition. First, the canonical Scriptures. Second the early Fathers. Then the medieval scholars. Then the Reformers. Finally, the modern interpreters. This is like a pyramid, with the broadest part at the bottom.
I just went to Amazon and read some of the beginning of his book Ancient-Future Worship. I was touched by the tribute to him in the Forward that was written by a friend who was aware that Bob was dying. And then in Bob’s Acknowledments, he states that he finished the manuscript a few weeks before his death. Both things made me teary, both because the world lost a good man and because I was happy that he wanted to continue to contribute right to the very end and he did.
I think one important question is at what point do we declare the “beginning.” I mean, this thread and the original article assumes that ancient or beginning is after Constantine’s input. Maybe a better starting point is the Church of the Ante Pacem. I think the difference is the center of the Ante Pacem Church was community and afterwards form.
Thanks for your support. We appreciate all of our readers, whether they agree with us or not. IMO, that’s what has always made Internet Monk so interesting. So keep it coming, and if you have concerns about the site in general, please email and we can talk about it.
Joanie, I can barely keep up with the reading myself!
Amen and amen.
Hi: good call to bring Robert Webber’s work to our attention. I had the happy experience of working with him on a couple of occcasions. He was a most gracious, learned and committed man and a communicator ‘par excellence.’ My students have appreciated his book “Worship is a Verb” for its even handedness, scholarship and accessibility. Thanks for the article.
And, by the way, a post about liturgical worship is right up the alley that Michael was shooting in the last months of his life. His long series about liturgical worship was just wonderful. Sigh….
Wow, Chaplain Mike, what a prolific writer Bob Webber was! His life story sounds like an intriguing one. I just can’t keep up with all the things I want to read that Michael Spencer, you, Jeff and others here recommend. Thank you, though, for making these people known to us. They have wonderful things to offer people who want to live their lives in ways that honor Jesus and in ways that help us to become more Jesus-shaped. I wish he and Michael had lived to be 100!
I think your doing a fantastic Job!
Thanks for this post, Chaplain. Even in this brief article I have gotten some insight as to what is going on in my search for church and worship. This is good. I will get some of his writings and see what I can learn. Again, thanks.
I first encountered Webber’s writings in 2004 through the Christian Worship class for my Master’s at Wayland Baptist University. Worship is a Verb was a huge turning point in my faith journey, though it took several years to really sink in. The two things he talked about in that book that really got to me were the idea of Christian worship celebrating and re-enacting the “Christ Event” through the Ministries of the Table (i.e. Eucharist) and the Word (i.e. Scriptures). Also, the idea of going through Jesus’ life through the Church Year was pretty big to me. Later, when I read Ancient-Future Faith, his discussion of integrating education and nurture through some of the catechetical practices of the Early Church really got me thinking as well.
I tell ya, two people I wish were still with us: Webber and iMonk. I’d really like to hear their takes on some stuff going on today.
MOD NOTE: This is not the appropriate place for commenters to complain about the “direction of the website” or whether or not we are “carrying on Michael Spencer’s legacy.” I take all comments seriously, and would be happy to have a conversation with anyone who feels we’ve run off the tracks here. But not in the comment thread to a post that has nothing to do with that.
If you have concerns, email me. I’ll be happy to listen.
I think some evangelicals feel a pull and a tug towards something of the ancient Church, yes. Perhaps its their connection to the Body of Christ that draws them into wanting a connection with the whole of Christianity, from the beginning.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Holy Spirit was behind this. 🙂