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Renovare - Training in Christian Character

Monday, 5 November 2012  | Nicholas Rundle

Earlier this year I was in Britain for a study visit and retreat before beginning a placement serving a Uniting Church congregation in Adelaide. Following a speaking engagement with the community I had served after seminary, I travelled into London by a train which passed through Clapham Junction, one of Europe’s busiest transport intersections. Trains from different destinations meet at this intersection and travel on parallel lines to the terminus. After so many years, I had quite forgotten just how busy and how complex this rail junction is as brightly coloured trains from the different private companies make their way into the nation’s capital.

Renovare comes from the Latin, meaning ‘to renew’ or ‘restore’.  Renovare was founded in 1988 and is active especially in the USA, UK, Brazil and Korea. This is no Renovare organisation as yet in Australia although I would suggest that the formation of a Renovare network could benefit Churches. If we take Clapham Junction as a metaphor, streams of what used to be called ascetical theology and faith practice come together to deepen and renew the life of the Church as believers practice ‘spiritual exercises, spiritual gifts and acts of service…… in utter dependence upon Jesus Christ as my ever-living Saviour, Teacher, Lord and Friend’ (from the Renovare Covenant on the website)

Renovare authors and teachers assert that the Church today is weak because it largely fails to form believers and train them as apprentices in the Kingdom of God within strong faith communities. This is the synoptic vision of the movement moving beyond cultures of pietism, ‘sin management’ or social justice without the underpinnings of spiritual practice. ‘Sin management’ is a favourite phrase of Dallas Willard and in his view characterises the kind of evangelical churches which place their emphasis on getting people over the line into heaven rather than understanding that conversion, justification and sanctification are all required if disciples are to have the mind of Christ and to develop maturity in the complexity and challenges of contemporary society.

At Renovare ‘junction’, streams of Christian experience and practice come together, as travellers on the Christian way train in the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical and incarnational dimensions of the Tradition. In spiritual formation groups, Christians study the writings of authors from the 2,000 years of Church history developing and building Christian character within a culture of accountability and support. It’s a practice which reminds me of the classes developed within early Methodism. The philosophical underpinning of this movement has resonances for me of the prophetic writing of nineteenth century Anglican theologian and Christian socialist, F. D. Maurice who asserted that the fullness of the Kingdom would only be restored in the ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ of the Nicene Creed when denominations understood themselves to be incomplete in faith and practice requiring the other to be whole in what is currently termed ‘receptive ecumenism’. Although Renovare’s leadership tends to come from within the Evangelical movement, its synergising and ecumenical nature and promotion of practices such as the use of the imagination in meditation from the Roman Catholic tradition may not commend it to some leaders (sadly).

The origins of this international movement are in a collaborative partnership between Quaker recorded minister Richard Foster and Baptist philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard. In the 1970s they were part of the same Friends Church in California. From that mentoring relationship, Foster came to write his best-selling Celebration of Discipline in 1978 which the US Journal Christianity Today has called one of the significant Christian books of the century. I remember well the excitement and controversy it stirred within the Christian Union at my University in 1978, given that it drew on so many sources including Roman Catholic and Orthodox writers. I suggest that in his exploration of such subjects as fasting, study, meditation and solitude, Richard Foster assisted in the process of bringing ancient practices back to the Evangelical Churches. Such spiritual disciplines and the kind of hybrid ecumenical theology Renovare promotes seem to be axiomatic in emergent and convergent Churches as well as for formerly liberal Protestant Churches which now as progressives commend the kinds of practices and experiences that Foster and others explore in their material. In Celebration of Discipline, Foster claimed that ‘superficiality is the curse of our age’.  In his exploration of ancient wisdom and practice, Foster has surely helped to challenge and provoke the Church deeply. The enthusiasm, humility and sense of call that he and others like Dallas Willard portray are a wonderful advertisement for the Renovare vision.

Foster spent some years in reflection and prayer after Celebration of Discipline before, as Quakers say, a ‘way opened’ for the formation of Renovare in 1988. For some years he served as President of the organisation with its headquarters in Colorado and is still strongly associated with the movement, speaking at conferences around the world on spiritual disciplines. Although Renovare’s leaders now come from a broad spectrum within Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, I think it is possible to see the influence of the Quaker experience of God with its assertion that Christ has returned to teach and guide his people in the Spirit in the life of Renovare and which may lead to a tendency that some readers may see to bracket out the hard questions of Biblical interpretation and inspiration, sacramental theology and ecclesiology, for example. However, Renovare does not claim to be the Church or define the Church: it rather claims to be a gift from the Church to the Church in building up the life of the people of God. Given the transformational impact that Quakers have brought to the world, I would claim as a Christ-centred Quaker that the Quaker leaven in the Renovare movement is a gift to the whole Church.

One of the major achievements of Renovare is the ‘Life with God’ study Bible published by Harper. It uses the NRSV translation and is published in two editions - with or without the Deutero-canonical books read in Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Churches. Walter Brueggemann and Eugene Peterson are two of the editors and alongside the text there are written portraits of Biblical characters as modelling the spiritual disciplines as well as commentary and suggestions for individuals and spiritual formation groups to practice guided by the Spirit to discover gifts to be shared in service and justice in relationships and social structures. Making use of the ‘Life with God’ Bible would be a good way into the exploration of Renovare.

Clapham Junction in London seems confusing; a busy place of meeting and interchange for people travelling to and from the capital. The Renovare movement is a busy interchange of colourful ideas and relationships as diverse pilgrims in Christ seek to let their life speak adventurously and cheerfully (to paraphrase some Quaker words). If you decide to assess Renovare for yourself or your church community, I suggest the right questions to ask of it are put by one of its architects, Dallas Willard in his book The Divine Conspiracy (HarperCollins, 1998, p. 68):

"The first question is does it invite people to become full time students and apprentices of the Crucified and Risen Jesus Christ as Teacher and the second is what we can expect from people immersed this movement in terms of maturity in Christ, depth of character and commitment to the mission of God?"

Not far from Clapham rail junction in Battersea Evangelicals from a variety of backgrounds came together 200 years or so together in prayer and service. They became known as the Clapham sect and although a small group of people who included such people as William Wilberforce, Henry Venn and Hannah More they brought transformation to their Church and Nation through the practice of spiritual disciplines, the exercise of spiritual gifts and acts of service. May Renovare today prove to be a junction between the different strands of the Christian Church so that the world may be transformed into the likeness of Christ.







Nicholas Rundle is currently serving as Uniting Church Minister in Placement at Christ Church Wayville. He can be reached by email at silencesounding@gmail.com

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