Ever Ancient, Ever New: An Interview With Rev. Dr. Winfield Bevins
I had the privilege to sit down with Rev. Dr. Winfield Bevins to discuss his new book Ever Ancient, Ever New. He is the Director of Church Planting at Asbury Theological Seminary. He frequently speaks at conferences on a variety of topics and is a regular adjunct professor at several seminaries. As an author, one of his passions is to help others connect to the roots of the Christian faith for spiritual formation and mission. His latest book, Ever Ancient Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation examines young adults who have embraced Christian liturgy and how it has impacted their lives. He and his wife Kay have three beautiful girls Elizabeth, Anna Belle, and Caroline and live in the Bluegrass state of Kentucky. You can find out more about him at his website www.winfieldbevins.com.
WW: To get us started, for those who may be unfamiliar, do you want to briefly explain what Ever Ancient, Ever New is about?
WB: Ever Ancient, Ever New, the title says it all: the allure of liturgy. The book that I wrote that’s kind of based on research that I did with young adults across the US. It’s an ecumenical read so I interviewed young adults who have embraced liturgy from various backgrounds and traditions so some of them have become Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic. Others are kind of appropriating liturgy and tradition in their own world. So, for instance, I interview Baptists and look at what I call neo-liturgical churches. These are new churches that are embracing a more liturgical and sacramental ethos and worldview. The book is divided into three sections. The first one looks at the foundations of the liturgy, like what’s drawing people, what is the liturgy, and there’s a chapter on orthodoxy called “Surprised by Orthodoxy.” The second section looks at journeys, spiritual journeys and different ways young adults are embracing liturgy and sacraments. And then the third section is more kind of the rhythms and moves toward mission. It looks at how young families are actually seeing the power of the liturgy for the home and also in the workplace and on the mission field.
WW: That’s awesome. What actually made you write it at this point in time?
WB: Good question. In part, it was my own story. I came from a low church background and eventually became Anglican. Over the last decade, literally, on a weekly basis, sometimes daily, people will reach out to me via social media, e-mail, students will come by my office, asking me about liturgy. A couple of years ago, I just started observing that this is a large trend; this isn’t just my story, but this is the story of thousands of young people across the U.S. So, it kind of began personally but just observing what’s happening in the broader culture, it really is a movement underway. That’s really what this book looks at: something is happening here that’s significant and it documents it.
WW: The title of the book, Ever Ancient, Ever New, indicates an attempt to balance what has come before with what is current or recent. How do you encourage, especially working with church planters and clergy people, how do you encourage them to walk between what has come before and what is now?
WB: I think regardless of the style of church, Christians need to engage culture in context. The liturgy is actually a great way to do that. It’s a launching pad into mission. It ends with the sending out on mission. There are practices and rhythms that the liturgy offers that form us for the other six days of the week when we’re not in church. So, I think a lot of it is moving beyond the stereotype that liturgy and sacraments are somehow anti-missional when in fact, I would argue, that the liturgy is missional. When you look at the majority of church history, the vast majority of the great missionary movements and the vast majority of Christians have been liturgical.
WW: Could you give us an example of a part of the liturgy, besides the benediction and proclamation at the end, a part of the liturgy that might be missionally minded that we don’t really think of that way in our churches?
WB: One component is the four-fold structure: we gather, we hear the entirety of Scripture unpacked in the Old Testament, Psalm readings which speak to where we are at a deeply human level. I experienced one time at the church I previously led prior to coming to Asbury where during the Passing of the Peace, a guy who was a local shop owner who visited church came to me with tears in his eyes and said, “What did you just say?” There had just been a reading of Scripture and the Word had so captivated him and spoke to him in a way that was so powerful. So, in many ways, the whole service preaches different aspects of the Gospel that transcend time.
WW: I think you’re 100% about that. I’ve always thought it would be interested in bringing a non-Christian to the liturgy and using that as a way to proclaim the Gospel to them. We’re in Lynchburg, Virginia so everybody is Baptist here, so I haven’t had the chance to do that yet.
WB: There’s nobody unchurched! In one of the chapters, I look at what I call neo-liturgical churches. These are new churches that are bringing liturgy, some are Baptists, some are Methodist, some are non-denom or charismatic. They really are blending, there’s a convergence of contemporary worship often with Word and Table, preaching and the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. It’s a unique blending. Often these kinds of churches are very mission-oriented and culturally engaging.
WW: How do you think, as Anglicans, when we see the neo-liturgical churches who are doing the blending you’re talking about, how should we process that, especially with the phrase “lex orendi, lex credendi” in mind? I’m just curious how we balance that out.
WB: The book looks at this broad movement. I interviewed people in the book that I don’t necessarily agree with theologically but because it is a journalistic telling of a story, I’m also framing the framework of the historic liturgy. What undergirds the book is orthodoxy and the four-fold structure of the Anglican liturgy so if it’s read in its entirety, it should move the neo-liturgical types toward a more historic celebration of the liturgy. We’re not just talking about cutting and pasting or lighting a few candles. There’s a theology that goes behind the practices. What I want to do in the book is share the depth of that theology. As an Anglican, my goal wasn’t to make Anglicans, but to make disciples and I think the Anglican way is one of the best ways to do it. If I can help a Baptist worship the Lord in a way that is truer to the historic liturgical way of worshipping I’ll have done my job.
WW: As you’ve traveled around talking about liturgy and dealing with church planters, I assume many of whom aren’t actually Anglican or even liturgical, what’s some of the push back you’ve received?
WB: You know, it’s interesting because I’m known in two worlds. Some people know me as a missional church-planting person and others know me as a liturgical Anglican. One of the things I’m trying to do is say that these are not antithetical or against one another, but they actually can and should go together. There are those questions: I did a radio interview yesterday for a conservative talk radio show host yesterday. Some of his questions were, “How can liturgy be relevant when young people just want…” and my pushback to that is that part of the draw of liturgy is the desire for authenticity. Young people are tired of entertainment evangelism, smoke machines, and laser light shows. They’re looking for depth, they’re looking for authenticity. In some ways, they’re wanting something that’s counter-cultural. They’re not looking for something that looks like the world. There’s nothing more counter-cultural than liturgy. That’s what I do love about it: you can do the liturgy in a way that is engaging contexts but still stands against the culture.
WW: That actually leads to the next question I wanted to ask. As we’re talking about liturgy being rediscovered by young people and there’s a movement happening to go back to liturgy and, as you pointed out, authenticity is at the heart of that with people wanting something different, why do you think that’s happening now? Do you think it’s just the way contemporary Christianity has played out in the last generation has played out in the last generation or so?
WB: This is a broad, sweeping movement that actually began in the 70s and is documented among Evangelical scholars in the 70s are beginning to post, really in the 60s, there’s Evangelical historiography in the 60s. So, Evangelicals start rediscovering roots. The typical person that’s taken this journey toward liturgy usually begins by rediscovering Evangelical heritage. So maybe you’re a Baptist, you ask, “What’s the history of the Baptist church?” Then you discover the history of revivals, Jonathan Edwards, and then, “Wow, I wonder if there were faithful Christians beyond Jonathan Edwards?” Then you discover Luther and Calvin, and then you find they were drawing from the Early Church Fathers, and on and on it goes. My argument is that this isn’t a passing fad, this is actually something that is a spiritual renewal movement happening in the United States.
WW: I noticed on your blog on your website that you’re a painter. I enjoyed looking at your paintings. “London Fog” stood out to me. To what degree do we as a Church need to be inculcating a deeper appreciation of the arts in tandem with teaching the liturgy? How do those things complement each other?
WB: I think they go hand-in-hand. There’s a book called The Catholic Imagination written by a sociologist who argues that Catholic and liturgical minded believers actually have a higher appreciation for the arts. There’s something to the sacramental imagination that leads people towards the fine arts, music, graphics, and you think of the great literary masters that came out of sacramental traditions. It’s not a critique of Protestantism but one of the things he looks at in the book is how it’s actually the opposite among Protestants. In the Reformation, they stripped the altars, they took crosses out of the building so now you have churches that look like Wal-Mart and you have this LifeWay study that came out a couple of years ago among unchurched people in North America actually prefer buildings that look like cathedrals over contemporary church buildings. I think there is something very tied to the sacraments and a sacramental imagination and worldview that art reminds us of the sacramentality of life and creation. God is not just transcendent; he is Immanuel, God with us.
WW: That’s great. With that importance of beauty and liturgy and how they go hand-in-hand with each other, what are some ways that we can convey that appreciation to beauty and liturgy to our non-liturgical Christian friends? I’m really asking for myself doing ministry in a place like Lynchburg.
WB: One of the things I did, as an artist, when we planted our church, which we planted as a non-denominational church, we opened a non-profit art gallery. In some ways, art was a means that opened the door for our new church to embrace liturgy. Champion artists, find a space for them, host art shows, encourage the fine arts in your church. Any denomination, not just liturgical churches, can do this. But what you’ll see is that the appreciation for the arts is more prevalent in liturgical churches. The Anglican church we’re a part of is a member of CIVA, Christians in the Visual Arts and we have an art gallery that rotates. I actually have an art show going on at this moment at the church. The art show is “Saints and Sacred Places,” and it features my iconography and some of the cathedrals and different things I’ve done.
WW: That’s really cool. I know the book is written for people of all stripes and backgrounds, but I did want to talk about the Anglican Church in North America’s Book of Common Prayer that’s coming out this summer. We’ve been test-driving Ancient Rite this Lent at our parish. From what I’ve read, it seems like the new BCP is trying to go back to the spirit of the 1928 BCP. I know a lot of people in our parish like that as we’ve been using the 1979 BCP for a long time. To what extent do you think this new BCP can contribute to this liturgical renewal that’s going on, especially among younger people?
WB: You have a significant number of people who are embracing liturgy coming into the ACNA. It will be helpful for us to have our own prayer book in the sense that a common prayer unites people locally but also provincially. So, I think it will actually help strengthen the identity and entry point for people coming into the ACNA. So many of us have used the 79 but it is confusing using a prayer book from another jurisdiction other than your own. I think it will help bring some clarity around some of that. I’m optimistic about that.