9 New Titles Coming This Summer…

There’s plenty on the way over the summer months. Here’s a run-down of what to look out for.

In August, we’re publishing Eve Poole’s new book Buying God: Consumerism and Theology. 

In the book, Dr Poole who is the Third Church Estates Commissioner argues that the Church does have vital and useful things to say about the economy, rooted in theology; and a vital role to play in redeeming the marketplace both at home and abroad. Deeply theological but nonetheless accessible, the book is a fascinating and engaging call-to-arms for Christians to take seriously the need to understand their role and responsibility as consumers.

The theologian and ethicist Peter Sedgwick describes it as “a wonderful book. It is very accessible, theologically sophisticated, and rooted in a deep knowledge of commerce, management and consumerism, in which Eve Poole is an expert. I know of no better book for guiding Christians in the day to day world of consumerism. Inspiring, compelling and very easy to read, it deserves a wide readership”

The New Monastic Movement is a vibrant source of renewal for the church’s life and mission. Many involved in this movement have quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conviction that the church must recover ancient spiritual disciplines if it is to effectively engage “the powers that be.” Melodies of a New Monasticism adopts a musical metaphor of polyphony (the combination of two or more lines of music) to articulate the way that these early Christian virtues can be woven together in community. Creatively using this imagery, this book draws on the theological vision of Bonhoeffer and the contemporary witness of George MacLeod and the Iona Community to explore the interplay between discipleship, doctrine, and ethics.

Written by Craig Gardiner, tutor in Christian Doctrine at the South Wales Baptist College, the book has been described by Rowan Williams as “a work of outstanding originality, a hugely fresh and far-reaching essay on Christian community.” It’s published in August.

In July, we’re publishing Being Saved: Explorations in Soteriology and Human Ontology. With contributions from leading theologians and philosophers, including Oliver Crisp and Paul Helm, Being Saved brings together a series of essays on the major topics relating to the doctrine of salvation. The book provides readers with a critical resource that consists of an integrative philosophical-theological method, and will invigorate this much-needed discussion. The editors are Marc Cortez, Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, Joshua R. Farris, Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University, and S. Mark Hamilton is a PhD candidate at the Free University of Amsterdam.

Professor Charles Taliaferro, Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College says of the book: ‘This is a brilliant, multifaceted collection of original, engaging essays on the Christian concept of salvation. Being Saved is evidence of the dynamic, robust flourishing today of Christian philosophy and theology.”

Two new Studyguides will be published in the coming months. Our Studyguide to Liturgy by Stephen Burns has long been important core reading on introductory modules on Christian Worship. The 2nd edition of the studyguide is fully revised, updated and expanded. The book takes account of new developments in scholarship, engages with new contexts for liturgical celebration (notably, fresh expressions as part of a mixed economy of church), encompasses recent revisions in liturgy and seeks to broaden the engagement beyond the British context to consider the wider global context. It will ensure the book continues to be an essential introduction to the topic. The new edition is published in August.

In September, we’re publishing a brand new studyguide, The SCM Studyguide to Catholic Liturgy, Written by liturgists – pastoral and academic – who make up the Liturgical Formation Sub-Committee of the Department for Christian Life and Worship of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, this studyguide offers an introduction to Catholic Liturgy.

Covering the history, content and debates around the use of liturgy in the Catholic church, each chapter includes points for reflection, end of chapter questions, and an indication of further reading. A book-wide glossary is also provided.

It will offer a vital resource  across the various courses and initiatives linked to Catholic ministerial formation as well as Catholic lay education

e have arrived at a critical juncture in the postwar order that has prevailed in Europe since 1945. Confronting Religious Violence: A Counternarrative begins with the premise that violence committed in God’s name is always an act of desecration. Hope of redress must start, the book argues, in re-imagining the intended relationship amongst the Abrahamic faiths. Contributors come together to consider how a re-reading of the hallowed texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam might mitigate the militancy whereby group identity can lead to deadly conflict. The book brings together an impressive lineup of contributors, including Miroslav Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at the
Yale Divinity School; Guy G. Stroumsa, Martin Buber Professor of Comparative Religion
Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. Other stellar contributors include the Director of the Center of Theological Enquiry in Princeton, William Storrar and the journalist and poet Eliza Griswold.

Joint-edited by the philosopher, scholar and former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College London, the book is due for publication in September.

John Atherton, Visiting Professor in Religion, Ethics and Economics at Chester University and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation in Manchester, sadly died in 2016. He was the author of numerous notable SCM Press titles, including Challenging Religious Studies, and Transfiguring Capitalism. In September, we’re publishing Theology for Changing Times: John Atherton and the Future of Public Theology edited by Chris Baker and Elaine Graham. From wealth creation to wealth distribution and social ethics, from urban mission to religious studies and psychology the work of Atherton was breathtaking in scope and variety. Unifying all of his work, however, was a concern with engaging the work of theology with wider society.

With contributions from some of the leading lights in public theology today, including Anna Rowlands, Malcolm Brown, Ellen Charry and Jonathan Chaplin, this book offers not only an appreciation of John Atherton’s work within a prodigiously large array of disciplines, but also an attempt to ask `what next’, taking his work forward and considering where the future of public theology might lie. John Atherton’s last published article is also reproduced.

Qualitative Research in Theological Education brings together a diverse group of scholars to consider the theological values arising from and contributing to their use of qualitative research in scholarship and teaching. The book offers a careful consideration of the pedagogical and administrative challenges involved in teaching qualitative research and its various sub-disciplines such as ethnography. As a whole, the book argues that the teaching of QR methods is critical to the theological, ethical, spiritual, and/or pastoral formation of ministers and theological scholars Contributors include Elaine Graham, Dawn Llewellyn, Anthony Reddie, Brett C. Hoover and David Mellott

Finally, many Christian commentators have been taken aback by the seemingly unstoppable rise of the `mindfulness revolution’ that has occurred over the past decade. But there are many Christians who worry that mindfulness techniques constitute a covert import from Buddhism. How far are Christians adopting Buddhist techniques, ideas and ideologies? Do we risk squaring Buddhist ideology and approaches to fit the Christian circle? Beginning with an exploration of the practice of mindfulness in its Buddhist origins, Christian Mindfulness: The Prayer of the Heart reflects on the practical use of mindfulness, its place within the Christian tradition of prayer, and its future within the Christian tradition. Professor Peter Tyler (St Mary’s University, Twickenham) argues that far from a foreign import mindfulness is not only endemic but essential to the Christian understanding of how the human person relates to the divine. Each chapter concludes with practical exercises to help the reader in their understanding of mindfulness in the Christian context.  Published in September.


How does the shape of your theology affect the shape of your church?

A guest post from Andrew Dunlop.


I consider myself a pioneer. I was not ordained as a pioneer — that designation hadn’t quite come into use at the time of my selection by the Church of England, and in any case at that point in my life I was still getting my head around calling to ordination, never mind anything else. Over the course of my training and curacy I became more and more inspired hearing stories of Christians doing innovative things in order to reach out to those beyond the fringes of Church. The Fresh Expressions movement was just beginning. After training, I was a curate in Plymouth, and the nearby TubeStation, the surf-church formed next to the beach of Polzeath, Cornwall, was just starting to make waves (if you will excuse my expression).

At the same time in Plymouth I was a part of a very successful ministry to parents and toddlers set up by the previous curate. A popular mothers and toddlers group had been running for some years on Friday mornings, yet beyond using the church hall and interacting with the volunteers, there was little flow into church life. The previous curate saw the missional potential of that popular group and brought in three simple changes. First, they were to offer holistic hospitality. Volunteers began not only to welcome people, and serve the tea and cakes, but to actively take an interest in the lives of those who came. In fact, each week people would be on the rota simply to ‘be’, not to ‘do’. Second, they became unashamedly Christian. This didn’t mean forcing anyone to worship, but a simple change of focus during the closing group story and song time gently introduced Bible stories and Christian children’s songs. These two changes, in particular the trusting friendships that formed between church members and parents, paved the way for the third. A Christian basics course (in this case, Christianity Explored) would be offered at the same time for anyone who wished to take part. The parents were already used to coming to the building at that time, and because they knew and trusted the volunteers, they were happy to leave their children in their care for and hour. These changes resulted in a fair number taking the course and making professions of faith. Some also joined the Sunday morning family worship congregation and midweek house groups.

However, out of those who professed faith, only relatively few made the jump to Sunday morning. What was happening? I came to think it was two things. First, although the Sunday morning service was lively and friendly and full of families, there was still a significant culture gap. The parents had come to faith by watching short punchy videos, having engaging discussions, and praying together. Sunday mornings required them to sing corporately and sit and listen to a 25 minute teaching slot. There was no time for discussion. Bible teaching was important to me, and important to the church I was a part of and this shaped the form of church that occurred. Even though these Sunday morning Bible expositions were usually engaging, they were a far cry from the interactive participative mode of discovery that the new Christians had experienced in coming to faith. Second, these new Christians, from unchurched backgrounds, simply did not prioritize Sunday mornings. There were many other competing demands on their time. What I came to realize in hindsight (but unfortunately only after I’d left Plymouth!), was that a better approach may have been to make Friday mornings their ‘church’.

Like many pioneers and church planters I became concerned that the way we were doing church was not making it easy for those new to the faith to fully engage and I started investigating fresh expressions of church. I was appointed to a pioneer role on a new-build development on the edge of Northampton and began to try to put these principles into practice. I wanted to make disciples, and I thought the best way to do that in a new development where there was no pre-existing community would be by creating community — something most residents were hungry for. After five years we ended up with a network of neighbourhood activities which aimed to bring people together. Alongside these were various groups that enabled people to explore aspects of faith. The story of what we did is told in Out of Nothing: A Cross-Shaped Approach to Fresh Expressions.

In my case, as in the case of the traditional church I where served my curacy, theology shaped the church. My approach was based on a desire to see people come to faith which arose from my understanding of mission. This then drove me to create close community (koinonia), and from there to make disciples and form church. Theology shaped my missiology which shaped my ecclesiology. In other words, what I believed about God – who he is and how he interacts with the world – affected my understanding of mission which then shaped how I formed the new church. This is an important realization, and it is worth reflecting on the theology we bring into a new venture, as this will inevitably affect the shape of church that emerges.

This is one of the central arguments of systematic theologian Peter Schmiechen, who, first in Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church, and then in Defining the Church for our time, argues that Christology and ecclesiology are inextricably linked. For example, he claims that a concentration on Christ’s incarnation leads to a sacramental understanding of church. A theology which emphasizes scripture and a personal response to faith (most often communicated alongside a justification or penal substitution theory of atonement) can result in a church that is heavily intellectual and teaching-based. Different atonement theories can affect the practical outworking of church with regard to how the sacraments are understood and practiced and how Christians are encouraged to respond to Christ, what the role of the Holy Spirit should be, how one participates in community, how the church engages in service to others or shows solidarity with the suffering.[1] Later Schmiechen focuses on a different element of Christology, indicating that the promise of Christ’s return offers hope for the present, thus shaping the church into becoming ‘communities of hope’, which ‘see, celebrate, and pray for the coming of the Kingdom.’[2] This approach could then reveal itself ecclesiologically in churches which aim to bless the community through practical service and social action.

Taking this idea that theology shapes missiology which shapes ecclesiology, in my book Out of Nothing, alongside telling the story of my experience of birthing a new form of church, I have tried to assess different approaches to theology and their value in forming missional church. As I looked back and saw what God was doing, I wondered whether a theology that began from a place of encounter (based on Christ’s once-and-for-all and ongoing work of atonement) may be a better place to start. In the big picture, God’s action comes about entirely through Christ’s work in his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. Within the atonement we find reconciliation, salvation, sacrifice, forgiveness, victory, justification, sanctification and so on. I certainly saw God in action in these ways in the lives of those we lived amongst on our new-build development in Northampton. What would a church look like if its primary work was understood as creating space for God to be known and experienced? It would be a place where people could come to experience justification, reconciliation, sanctification, and the whole breadth of Christ’s atoning work in their lives and in their communities.

[1] Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 353–7.

[2] Peter Schmiechen, Defining the Church for Our Time: Origin and Structure, Varied and Viability, (Eugene OR: Cascade, 2012), pp. 112–3.

From September 2018, Andrew Dunlop will be tutor in Context-based training at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Previously he taught at Cranmer Hall, Durham and led the  East Durham Mission Project.

Out of Nothing  is published at the end of the month, but you can preorder a copy now with a special pre-publication discount. 

Found in the SCM Press Archive: “Is Hitler God’s Judgement on Us?”

Image result for hitler and crowdAs the Second World War gathered pace, the Church found itself asking some penetrating questions about where God was in all the mess of war and the horror of Nazism. In this extract from the first chapter of Britain and the War,  published by SCM Press in 1941 and recently uncovered in the SCM Press archive, the author, Daniel T. Jenkins, asks whether Hitler could in some way be God’s judgement. 


“To discuss the subject of Britain and the Future in the spring of 1941 must appear to many as the height of rashness. At the moment we can see nothing but the black clouds closing in upon us for a new storm, and we can have few ideas of what the landscape will be like when the storm has passed. That is true, and I am not going to be so foolish as to make prophecies about the post-war world and the balance of forces in it. But it is equally try that, under God, there will be a future and that unless we are equipped to do so properly we shall only repeat the mistakes of the past. The pressure of events is very great upon us at present, and most of us are living from day-to-day. It is all the more important, therefore, that we should try to make the effort, especially those of us who are young, to stand outside events for a time and ask ourselves what they mean, to inquire where we are going and whether it is the right direction and what we need to equip us for the journey.

…Now the first condition of a right attitude to the future is a right understanding of the present and of the past. Part of the vague reluctance to think about the future which so general to-day is undoubtedly due to our failure to understand how we allowed ourselves to reach our present desperate position. After all, we did try hard in the twenty years between the last war and this to prevent war happening again, and yet there have been more wars in the last five years than history has ever known before. We are at a loss therefore to know what to do about the future.

…There are many, however, who feel no difficulty about the future…Our course of action in the future is perfectly simple. First, we must win the war decisively. Then we must establish order in the world…And then we must set ourselves to the work of reconstruction in our own land…What is the meaning, then, of all this talk of Hitler being God’s judgment on us? Our hands may not be spotless, but they are much cleaner than those of most people, and there will be no reasonable doubt that it is God’s will that we should break Hitler and deliver Europe from his barbarous tyranny. Indeed, if God be the God of justice and of mercy we can confidently claim that He is on our side. To talk about Hitler being God’s judgment on us is therefore sentimental cant and, what is more than that, it is rank defeatism.

This attitude is very common. We might call almost call it the ‘official’ attitude towards the war….But the situation is not as simple as that. The speeches and the treaties, the invasions and the battles with which the politicians deal and which the newspapers record are not the whole of history, and situations cannot be judged by them alone. Hitler did not spring up suddenly from the void.

..Men everywhere have lost their understanding of what their true nature is and what the things by which alone they can live are. The spiritual capital of Europe and of the whole of the modern world through which Europe was built up by the faith of our forefathers in the living God who made and rules all things and in the light of whose revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ they saw their own true nature and the way to attain to the fulness of manhood. He showed them from whence they came and to whither they go and how to overcome the forces of sin, death and the devil, and to enjoy the liberty of the children of God together as one family.

…Civilisation is cracking up and men are either being driven to desperate measures like Fascism and Communism to keep it together, or else they lapse into dreary and hopeless indifference…The great sign of this is the transformation of democracy, from which we expect so much, into the mass. We must never forget that it was out of democtracy that the tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin emerged…God has not sent Hitler merely to punish us for our sins. He has sent Hitler to be a startlingly vivid reminder to us of what man without God is like.”

Win a signed copy of Eve Poole’s forthcoming book #BuyingGod


How often do you absent-mindedly key in your PIN number without really checking the amount, let alone scouring your conscience about whether you should be making this purchase in the first place? Habit is the enemy of ethical shopping.

Buying God, by Eve Poole, which will be published this summer, sets out a new framework for consuming with a conscience, underpinned by a theology of consumerism that encourages us to look at our consumer activity in the round, in order to audit it for ethical health. Consumerism has the potential to lead us away from God, but the purposeful re-directing of our consumer power could well sow the seeds for a fairer marketplace for all.

The book includes a prayer that consumers might wish to use before they go shopping, but we’d also like your help in writing a short ‘arrow prayer’ for when you key in your PIN number at the checkout or cash machine. We think it would work best if it is a word for each digit as you enter your PIN, something like “God Bless This Spend”. The winning 4-word prayer will be used in the publicity of Eve’s new book, and the winner will receive a signed copy of the book on publication.

To enter, tweet your 4-word prayer using the hashtag #BuyingGod and we’ll ask Eve to select her favourite. Alternatively, you can send your ideas to David.Shervington@hymnsam.co.uk.

But be quick – the competition ends at midnight on 15th June.


Christianity Rediscovered and Me: Andrew Dunlop

In the next in our series marking the 40th anniversary of the publication of Christianity RediscoveredAndrew Dunlop reflects on how the book influenced his work as a pioneer on a new-build housing development.

In many ways Vincent Donovan was ahead of his time. When he arrived in Tanzania as Catholic missionary to the Masai people in the late 1950s, Catholic missionaries had been present in the region for over a hundred years, yet the gospel had not meaningfully impacted the culture. They had focused on building mission stations, schools and hospitals, which had the effect of taking local people out of their context for education, or in ones and twos. Whilst individuals converted, the culture was left mostly untouched. Donovan embarked on a fresh approach, deciding to visit each tribe over a long period with the sole purpose of explaining the gospel to them. He spent over a year with each one. With the permission of the chiefs, he addressed whole tribes en masse, teaching them on a weekly basis. He would regularly mine local stories and cultural practices to find the right words and illustrations to ensure the message could be heard and understood. In some cases, as he talked and listened, they ended up teaching him about God.

Once he felt he had explained all that he could, he gave each tribe the opportunity to respond to the gospel, which they tended to do as a group. Most tribes responded positively and became Christians, with only one or two rejecting the faith. He then moved onto the next Masai tribe to start the process again, leaving each to contextualise the patterns and structures of worship for their own tribe, revisiting only occasionally to celebrate mass or give some direction.

This approach was vastly different to that which the previous missionaries had followed. They had hoped that by taking the Masai out of their own culture and educating them, they would be able to return to their tribes and impact them for the gospel. Maybe this happened, but the overall culture of the tribe was untouched. The result was that those who had come to the mission stations to be educated were taught a Europeanized form of Christianity, making it very hard for them to be accepted when they returned. The ecclesiology of the sending culture was alien to the culture of the tribe.

Donovan’s approach let the gospel do the talking and shaping of the culture. The thing to note here is that Donovan did not impose ecclesial forms on the tribes he evangelized; he was not worried about how they worshipped, only that the gospel was heard and received. He allowed worship to develop from the culture organically, and because of that, their faith stuck.

When I first came across this book shortly after the Fresh Expressions movement was birthed, Fresh Expressions thinking arose from the 2004 Church of England report, Mission-Shaped Church (Church House, 2004), encouraging the Church to take more risks in mission and to be more flexible in creating ecclesial communities. It recognized that there were many groups and communities in British culture who were not being served because of how church and mission were done. In short, church was to arise from the culture, rather than go out to ‘do’ mission to it. The approach recommended usually started with an incarnational immersion in the culture, going to places where people already gathered rather than expecting them to ‘come to us’. It encouraged deep listening to the culture, to understand its language, rituals and flow. The report highlighted several examples where this was the case, and encouraged regular Christians to take risks in doing the same. It is directly influenced by Donovan in its approach to contextualization, emphasizing a three way conversation between the gospel, the Church, and the culture (p.90–3). Donovan did this, but was clear that in this conversation Christ must be front and centre.

I was immediately captivated by its narrative style and compelling method. It is easy to think about creating new forms of church whilst unintentionally sidelining the gospel in search of something new. Donovan recognized the danger of creating church in the missionary’s own image:

‘Because a missionary comes from another already existing church, that is the image of church he will have in mind, and if his job is to establish a church, that is the church he will establish. I think, rather, the missionary’s job is to preach, not the church, but Christ. If he preaches Christ and the message of Christianity, the church may well result, may well appear, but it might not be the church he had in mind.’ (Christianity Rediscovered, p. 66).

Donovan’s insistence that the gospel do the talking, and his willingness to put matters of ecclesial shape in God’s hands demonstrated his trust in God and in the gospel to transform. This convinced evangelical found that example from a Catholic missionary immensely helpful.

When I began pioneering on a new-build development near Northampton, this was also the approach I tried to take — walking alongside the culture with the gospel allowing church to emerge. I was more concerned about the gospel being accepted over the form of church. I wanted to form deep, open relationships where questions of faith could be discussed. I wanted the church that emerged to be fully owned and fully contextualized. Granted, my own culture of being a mixed-race middle-class educated Brit was not as far removed from the culture of the people I lived alongside as Donovan’s was to his context, however, my faith background meant that there was still some culture gap between us. Many had no church background, and in this post-Christian culture, a common Christian language could not be assumed. I was keen that God, and not my church culture, would bridge the gap. I hope what we managed to do, like Donovan, was to let the gospel do the talking and shaping. After five years we ended up with network of community activities designed in bringing people together and opening up the space for faith discussion. We had conversations about faith in the pub, in the Indian Restaurant, and during book club meetings. Through these and other activities, church did emerge. It was not what we envisaged when going in and it certainly looked different from the traditional Anglican structure of my denomination. But it was Christ-focused and arose from the culture. You can read more about what I call the cross-shaped approach to pioneering in my forthcoming book, Out of Nothing.

Some years later, after returning to the USA, Donovan reflected on the American youth culture, with whom he was now working. As a late middle-aged man who had been overseas for some years, this was also a culture which was not his own. Whilst reflecting upon it, a young person at his university offered him this thought.

“In working with young people in America, do not try and call them back to where they were, and do not try and call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place might seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you or they have seen before.” (Preface to the second edition’, Christianity Rediscovered, p.xix).

May we in the UK, of what ever denomination, have the ecclesial courage to engage with our culture in a way that results in us walking alongside people, guided by the Spirit of God, to a place that neither they nor we could have imagined.

Currently a tutor teaching pioneering principals at Cranmer Hall Durham, Andrew Dunlop will soon take up a new role as Tutor in Context-based Training at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. 

Andrew Dunlop’s book Out of Nothing: A Cross-Shaped Approach to Fresh Expressions is published next month. We’ll explore the book further in a future blog post. 

Christianity Rediscovered and Me: Janet Lees

In the third in our series of personal reflections on Christianity Rediscovered Janet Lees, Chaplain of Silcoates School, Wakefield reflects on how the book influenced her answer to the question ‘can I be baptised?’

Don’t forget, to celebrate the book’s 40th anniversary you can buy a copy of Christianity Rediscovered at a special discount price via our website. 

In Poperinge, Belgium, a young man aged 16 stands in a Chapel used by soldiers during WW1, about 100 years after that conflict began. He is surrounded by about 45 of his peers, part of a group studying that war to end all wars. He starts to speak ‘My favourite part of the gospel is…’ I hold my breath. What will he say? Now in front of all of them, this ordinary young man, claims to have a favourite part of the gospel. What will it be?

Let me tell you that the first part of my remembered bible, that is to say the bible in me, not a written down one but an oral one, is of the Ascension of Jesus, on a hill in Galilee where he has called the disciples together and he tells them ‘Go and baptise everyone’.

It’s also the first part of my remembered Vincent Donovan. When I first thought to write this piece I went to look for my copy of ‘Rediscovering Christianity’ and in the mess that passes for my office could not of course locate it. That’s when I had to return to my remembered version of the book that is now 40 years old. So just as I usually use a remembered bible so I’m using my remembered version of that text as I reflect on its meaning for me and the ministry I practice. A remembered, oral, bible and a remembered, oral, Donovan, which given his context and mine seems very fitting. Donovan worked with oral people and so have I.

I go straight away to that part of Donovan’s narrative, where having decided to tell the gospel story to local villagers over several visits, he returns one day to ask if they have decided on baptism. ‘Yes we have’, the leader of the village confirms: ‘Baptise all of us’. At that Vincent seems to hesitate. He begins to find challenges in their response. He points out that this one did not attend all the sessions and this other fell asleep, this one is too young, this one did not understand. The leader interrupts him: ‘Baptise all of us’ he repeats. And so Donovan does.

This is for me both the core of the gospel and the core of my remembered Donovan, and has informed the twenty or so years of my ordained ministry. For five years I worked on a housing estate in Sheffield. Many folks of all ages came to the community project that the local United Reformed Church ran there everyday: lunch clubs, after school clubs, adult education, mentoring support for young people excluded from school, sessions about health and well being, craft sessions, toddler group, and worship. Some of those people began to ask about baptism, both adults asking for their children and young people asking for themselves. ‘Can I be baptised?’ Well we have water and you’ve heard the story so the answer is of course, ‘Yes’.

About eight years ago I moved to be chaplain of a school in West Yorkshire that was affiliated to the United Reformed Church. There are few such schools in the country, each springing from an age when providing education for the children of ministers and missionaries seemed the right thing for our forebears to do. Dissent was significant in Yorkshire but of course has dwindled in our day. So this small outpost was the last remaining sign that children and young people could be introduced to the radical nature of the gospel on a daily basis. I took with me the remembered bible and we have practised it together for eight years. I also took my remembered Donovan, mindful of his description of an isolated mission that failed to touch the lives of ordinary people. The school became involved with a community development project in Tanzania, the Livingstone Trust, and by their own efforts several groups of students have transformed rural schools there, and learnt about community development in the process. It seems to me that it we can equip young people to face such challenges in the twenty first century then we are not irrelevant.

And then there were the requests for baptism. Sometimes parents would ask for their infants. But sometimes young people and even adults would ask for themselves. We have a swimming pool at school and those who could stand up in it were baptised there – one child was baptised just before he had surgery to correct a congenital heart defect, making sure he could stand on tip toe in the shallow end so as not to miss out on this special experience. One of the most moving was my middle aged colleague who said ‘This is not a testimony’ and then proceeded to tell us how his faith and love had grown over the 25 years of his life in the school.

And the young man in the Chapel of Talbot House in Poperinge: what was his favourite part of the gospel? ‘My favourite part of the gospel is at the beginning when John baptises Jesus in the river Jordan, and the Holy Spirit comes down on him. A voice says “This is my son and I’m pleased with him”.’

We call it ‘Living Wet’, wet from the waters of baptism breaking over us and that’s why we sing ‘We’ll have a wet, wet, wet, wet, wet time!’




Christianity Rediscovered and Me: Al Barrett

In the second of our series of reflections on the legacy of Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered, Al Barrett, Vicar of Hodge Hill, rereads the book 20 years after he first encountered it. 

I first encountered Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered in 1998 (20 years after its first publication). I was 22 myself, recently graduated from Cambridge (in Maths and Astrophysics – that’s a whole different story), living in a small Christian community in inner-city Salford, and preparing for a selection conference for ordained ministry in the Church of England. In the neighbourhood in which I was living, I was sharply aware of the multiple differences between me and my neighbours, of my own multiply privileged background, and – despite years of academic education – of my inability to articulate the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel in ways that mattered here, and weren’t merely the cultural and spiritual baggage of a patronising outsider. And that’s where Donovan’s experience, when questioned by a member of the Masai tribe among whom he was living, resonated profoundly with my own:

I finally spoke out again, and I marvelled at how small my voice sounded. I said something I had no intention of saying when I had come to speak to the Masai that morning: “No, we have not found the High God. My tribe has not known him. For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him. I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with us. Let us search for him together. Maybe, together, we will find him.” (pp.37-38)

With Donovan, I realised I was a searcher. My own journey, that had thus far taken me to Cambridge and then to Salford, was a journey of searching for God with those around me – needed companions on the way. And yet I was also reminded, as Donovan was by his Masai teachers, that God always beats us to it: “We have not searched for him. … He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.” (p.51) The ‘small’ and ‘mysterious’ part of the messenger is simply to point to the one who has already found us, who was here and at work long before I got here.

If Christianity Rediscovered helped me make some sense of ‘mission’, it also profoundly enlarged my understanding of eucharist. As Donovan described in detail ‘the simple celebration’ of the Masai village ‘returning their whole life to God’ (p.97), I got a taste of eucharistic possibility which, even now, 20 years on, still teases, beckons.

It was a strange kind of Mass. No church building, not even any special, fixed spot where it took place. As a matter of fact it moved around all over the village. It started in the spot where several elders had lighted a fire from two sticks of wood, even before I arrived.

An important act, on my part, before I entered the village, was to stoop down, scoop up a handful of grass, and present it to the first elders who greeted me. Grass was … a vital and a holy sign to [the Masai], a sign of peace and happiness and well-being.

During stormy and angry arguments that might arise in their lives, a tuft of grass, offered by one Masai and accepted by the second, was an assurance that no violence would erupt because of the differences and arguments. No Masai would violate that sacred sign of peace offered, because it was not only a sign of peace; it was peace…

So, as the Mass began, I picked up a tuft of grass and passed it on to the elder who met me, and greeted him with “the peace of Christ.” He accepted it and passed it on to his family, and they passed it on to neighbouring elders and their families. It had to pass all through the village…

And if the life in the village had been less than human or holy, then there was no Mass. If there had been selfishness and forgetfulness and hatefulness and lack of forgiveness in the work that had been done, in the life that had been led here, let them not make a sacrilege out of it by calling it the Body of Christ. And the leaders did decide occasionally that, despite the prayers and readings and discussions, if the grass had stopped, if someone, or some group, in the village had refused to accept the grass as the sign of the peace of Christ, there would be no eucharist at this time.

At other times the will was there to override the weaknesses in the community, the will to ask the Spirit to come on this community to change it into the Body of Christ, so that we could say together, “This – not just the bread and wine, but the whole life of the village, its work, play, joy, sorrow, the homes, the grazing fields, the flocks, the people – all this is my Body.” (pp.101-4)

What a thought: that there might be no Mass in the village today, if the process of passing peace, of making eucharist, had been ruptured along the way. That there might be no true celebration of eucharist, until no one in the world goes hungry – as Sri Lankan Roman Catholic theologian Tissa Balasuriya once proposed. This intertwining of eucharist, community and justice has stuck with me since then – and remains a profound challenge.

20 years on – 40 years after Christianity Rediscovered was first published – I find myself vicar of a  large, multicultural ‘outer estate’ parish, Hodge Hill, on the eastern edge of Birmingham, deeply embedded in my neighbourhood and, with friends and neighbours, in a joyful journey of community-building here. Donovan’s vibrant sense of the missio dei – that ‘[g]oodness and kindness and holiness and grace and divine presence and creating power and salvation were here before I got here’ (p.52) – remains a theological fundamental for me. His description of that mission as the establishing of ‘shalom’ – ‘peace, integrity, community, harmony, and justice’ (p.156) – is also still central to my theological lexicon, and I can witness, with deep gratitude, to the many and varied ways I have seen and continue to see that ‘shalom’ springing up, and putting down roots, and spreading, around me and in spite of me in the neighbourhood I have called home for the last eight years.

It’s an exciting journey, with my neighbours here in Hodge Hill – one that demands the kind of ‘courage’ once urged on Donovan by a young American student: “to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before” (p. xix). And re-reading Christianity Rediscovered in 2018 I find myself wondering, how might eucharist – deep, peace-making eucharist that catches up the entirety of our shared life and offers it in gratitude back to God – truly ‘take flesh’ in my neighbourhood? How might it work its way, house-to-house, neighbour-to-neighbour, group-to-group, around our estate – what, locally, we’re beginning to call ‘Firs and Bromford village’?

And one further wondering sparked by my most recent re-reading of Donovan’s reflections. In his 1970s America, ‘community’ was so ‘fractured’ and ‘temporary’ – people were so indifferent to each other, unaffected by each other – that he was unsure that Christianity, as ‘a living community’, was even possible (pp.69-70). From 21st Century America, Paul Sparks of the New Parish movement asked a remarkably similar question:

In Jesus’ day, everyone lived in a walkable community… but the problem was, who got excluded from that life? And so for us, it’s a huge question: have we even lost the very foundation from which we can become people who include those who are without place? If we’ve lost the very ground, the very place … from which we can invite others in, from which we can become hospitable, from which we can include?[1]

From the not-so-new parish of Hodge Hill, I might put the question like this: in our divided, fragmented, indifferent society, how much community-building work is needed before the ‘good news’ of the gospel makes any sense at all?


[1] Paul Sparks was speaking at an exploration of ‘Parish, a gift for the future?’, organised by Church of England – Birmingham and ForMission college.

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