When the Red Noses Have Been Packed Away…

Global PovertySo another Red Nose Day passes, an impressive fundraising total successfully reached, the remnants of the evening telethon still available on BBC’s iplayer for anybody who wants to watch an estimated £142m worth of celebrity singing in a nice car as James Cordon drives it around California (that’s the sum estimated by the Psephizo blog).

Comic Relief is hugely successful at encouraging people to donate to good causes. But unimaginable poverty still dominates our world this week, even now that the red noses, and the celebrities, have been packed away for another year. And the Christian faith compels us to see global poverty as very much our problem – not somebody else’s, and not something we can solve by simply sending a quick text to a dedicated donation number, one night every 2 years.

This week, we’re publishing Justin Thacker’s Global Poverty: A Theological Guide. The book hopes to fill a significant gap by offering a robustly theological approach to understanding questions around the effect of capitalism on global poverty and whether aid is really a sustainable long term solution for the world’s poor.

‘Justin Thacker combines a deep theological understanding with a strong knowledge of economic theories of poverty relief, and a clear compassion for our struggling planet and its people, to provide a brilliant theological analysis that will inform and challenge all of us who long to bring about a better world.’ says Ruth Valerio, Global Advocacy and Influencing Director for Tearfund.

You can see what Eve Poole, author of ‘Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions’ and Sean Doherty of St Mellitus College said about the book on our website, where you’ll also be able to order the book at a 20% discount (until the end of March, so hurry!). There’s also a sneaky peak extract of the book here.

Of course, the truth about poverty is that it exists far closer to home than we would like to admit. We don’t need to go Africa to be confronted with the reality of life below the poverty line (albeit that the situation in East Africa at the moment is truly desperate). Laurie Green’s book Blessed are the Poor reminds us that the Beatitudes challenge us to radically alter our attitude to the poorest in society. Here’s an extract:

“When we turn to the Bible, we find that it regularly tells us that it is the poor who will hold the key9780334053651 to our salvation. I continue to be fascinated and intrigued by a biblical story that is to be found in the second book of Kings, chapter 7. The scene is the city of Samaria, now under siege by the Syrian Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram. Elisha the prophet is concerned for the city’s wellbeing, since it is said that its starving inhabitants are killing their own children for food! We learn that at the gate of the city there are four lepers, struck by such virulent skin disease that they are cast out of their own community. Being already on the edge of their society they debate among themselves whether they might try one last time to gain access to their city or whether they might wander into the camp of the besieging army to try their luck there. They know that they have nothing to lose, and because they are literally at death’s door, they decide that they will risk all and see if the besieging army will offer them help. So they leave the specious safety of their own city gates and venture into the unknown – into the camp of King Ben-Hadad. But there they are confronted by a miracle. God had deluded the besieging army into thinking that the Egyptians had surrounded them, and so they had fled in the night, leaving the camp strewn with the wealth of all their belongings. The lepers are overjoyed and begin to loot the camp tent by tent. They eat and drink the fare and hide the booty. But then they are struck by remorse and say to one another: ‘We are doing wrong. This is a day of good news, yet we are holding our tongues!’ (v. 9). So they return and take the news of freedom back to the city. But the King is reluctant to receive the news, assuming it to be a ploy to entice the citizens out into the open. Eventually, however, it is discovered that these lepers from the very edge of society are indeed the carriers of the good news that will save the city, and the whole people stream out from the city to eat the food left by the retreating besiegers, leaving the King to wonder how it could possibly be that good news could come from ostracized lepers who had always been relegated to the very margins of society.

I find it illuminating to compare this ancient story with the teachings and actions of Jesus who time and again takes someone from the margins and places them in the centre, telling his followers to learn the Good News from them. In Mark 3.3 Jesus says to the sick man whose hand he is to cure: ‘Get up and stand in the middle!’ From the edge of the crowd he calls a little child: ‘whom he set among them’, and tells them to change and become like this child. He places a Samaritan at the centre of his story and an adulterous woman in the middle of the room. Just like the lepers of the story of the besieged city, these marginal people are the means by which the light dawns. Constantly, Jesus moves among those who are outcasts and at the edge of society in order to proclaim the Good News to the whole nation and inaugurate the Kingdom of God.

In the past, scholars assumed that Jesus spent so much time in the country villages rather than in the cities, because he preferred rural to urban living. Clearly, those early commentators had not been aware that the Galilee of Jesus’ day was one of the most densely populated and urbanized regions of the Roman Empire. Overmann assures us that ‘one could not live in any village of lower Galilee and escape the effects and ramifications of urbanization’ (Green 2003, p. 21). These villages, often called ‘cities’ by the New Testament writers, were administratively connected to the powerful urban centres even though they were seen by the city élites as inferior, dependent and marginal. I am drawn to see many similarities between the villages of Jesus’ Galilee and the poor outer estates of today – for, like our estates, those Galilean villages were struggling with the harsh challenges of life on the edge, prowled around by rival gangs and groups, pressured by the authorities, harangued by the politicians, beset by poverty and need, longing for a new tomorrow. This is the context within which Jesus operated and is the vivid backdrop to many of his stories and parables. And it was from this village base, on the margins, that Jesus then ‘resolutely turned his face towards Jerusalem’ (Luke 9.51), in order to confront there the heart of the matter – to bring the Good News from the peripheral and forgotten areas to the very centre of power in order to inaugurate a new beginning for humanity. It is within the context of the poor that Jesus frames his teaching about the Kingdom and, with them at his side, he brings it to bear upon the misshapen values of his contemporary culture. And in this way it is the poor who become the blessed vehicles of the gospel of his Kingdom.

If the Church of today can, like its master, live with the poor, learn from being among them, and bring their Good News to the centre of its own life, then a new day will have dawned, and it will be a sign of that same possibility for our whole society. As individuals too we will then have an opportunity to respond in a way that has integrity in the light of what we learn together. Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury are both urging us all to do just this, but I fancy that the Church at large will be alarmed at just how much change this will demand at the very heart of its culture. So it is imperative that we learn what Jesus meant when he told us to look to the blessedness of the poor as a key to his Kingdom. And for the Church in Britain the poor social housing estates are a good place to start on this journey of listening, learning and transformation.”



SCM News – Spring 2017

Welcome to another quarterly roundup of all things SCM Press

SCM Research has arrived

April sees the launch of the first in our new ‘SCM Research’ strand. The first book is Animals, Theology and the Incarnation (more details below), with two more titles due for publication later in the year – Clergy, Culture and Ministry: The Dynamics of Roles and Relations in Church and Society by the late Ian Tomlinson (and edited by Martyn Percy), and Development Beyond the Secular by Catherine Loy. 

scm research logo cropFirst announced last year, SCM Research presents the latest cutting-edge research across the theological disciplines including practical theology, ethics, ecclesiology and biblical studies. Focusing on innovative and dynamic research from some of our most exciting emerging scholars, SCM Research aims to demonstrate the richness and breadth of academic theology today.


john swintonJoin John Swinton for a live webcast on April 26nd

To mark the publication of Becoming Friends of Time, we’re delighted to be hosting a live webcast seminar with the author John Swinton. John will be talking about the book and participants will also have the opportunity to ask him questions.

The webcast will begin at 5pm and you’ll be able to find it via the SCM Twitter page. You can tweet your questions using the hashtag #BFOT


SST Conference

Next month, we’ll be attending the annual conference of the Society for the Study of the Theology (which this year is held in Nottingham). If you’re attending, do stop by the SCM Press bookstand where you’ll find a huge array of new titles and key backlist available at special conference discount rates. And if you’d like to arrange a meeting the editor, David Shervington, dto discuss any book ideas  do get in touch via email (David.Shervington@hymnsam.co.uk).


Coming Soon…

9780334055129In April, we’re publishing Deep Calls to Deep: Transforming Conversations Between Jews and Christians . Edited by Tony Bayfield, and breaking new ground in Christian – Jewish dialogue Deep Calls to Deep includes contributions from well-respected Christian and Jewish scholars, including David Ford, Alan Race and Alexandra Wright engage in conversation across a range of topics, including Modern Western culture; how Christians and Jews should live in a modern Western democracy; how Christians and Jews cope with their past; the legacy of our shared Scriptures; the question of religious absolutism; the meaning of respect; Christian particularism; and the land of Israel.


The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo, 9780334055211written by Calum Mackellar, Director of Research at the Scottish Council on Bioethics examines how the image of Go
d, and the related Christian notion of personhood, can be used in the context
of theological arguments relating to the moral status of the human embryo. Thoughtful in approach and ecumenical in perspective, the author combines a thorough knowledge of the science of embryology with a broad knowledge of the theological implications.The book is released in April.


Also in April, we’ll be publishing Foundations of Pastoral Counselling: 268628_oundations in pastoral counselling fc1c (002) (1).jpgIntegrating Philosophy, Theology, and Psychotherapy . It’s a rich, multi-faceted, and often surprising round-table discussion about the fundamental issues in pastoral counselling. The book, says Daniël Louw (Stellenbosch University, South Africa) “is set to become a new classic in twenty first century literature on the profession of mi
nisterial caregiving”. Margaret Whipp (Lead Chaplain, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust) described the book as “the work of a mature teacher whose surefooted philosophical grasp offers a wise guide to learners and practitioners alike”. .


The first in our new SCM Research strand 9780334055389(more details above), Animals, Theology and the Incarnation asks how an understanding of the non-human might lead us to a greater understanding of the incarnation. The author, Kris Hiuser, argues that if we are called to represent both God to creation, and creation to God, then this has considerable bearing on understanding what it means to be human, as well as informing human action towards nonhuman creatures. The book is published in May.



9780334055594Marion Carson’s Human Trafficking, the Bible and the Church: An Interdisciplinary Study offers a
profound, interdisciplinary account of how Christians have engaged with slavery in the past, and how they might respond in the future. Whilst rigorously scholarly and painstakingly researched, this is at the same time a highly readable book that will refresh our own understanding and help shape our responsibility to bring about change. Bishop Alastair Refern, Bishop of Derby and Chair for the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s Advisory Panel, had this to say about the book:

“This is a thoughtful, thorough and engaging book clearly outlining the challenges of Modern Slavery, and providing rich resources for reflection and practical response.  Carson is especially helpful in examining the biblical material, the issue of prostitution and a Christian response to the sex trade.  Valuable at every level, from concerned bystanders to active practitioners.”


The Anglican parish is uniquely embedded in 268752_arish book cover (002)English culture and society, by virtue both of its antiquity and close allegiance with secular governance. Yet it remains an elusive and surprisingly overlooked theme, whose ‘place’, theologically, is far from certain. Parish: An Anglican Theology of Place by Andrew Rumsey examines the distinctive form of social and communal life created by the Anglican parish: applying and advancing, the emerging discipline of place theology by filling a conspicuous gap in contemporary scholarship.The book will help in forming a vision for the future of the English parish system, contribute towards the Church’s strategy for parochial ministry and also inform the broader national conversation about ‘localism’ and cultural identity.


9780334055624The hugely influential Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann turns his attention to justice, mercy, and the public good in his latest book God, Neighbour, Empire, p
ublished by SCM Press in June. The book has already garnered praise from many quarters since the US edition was published last year. Brueggemann has been called “A master exegete and a master theologian”, and is considered considered one of the most influential Old Testament scholars of the last several decades.


The early 21st century has seen an 9780334055440unexpected rise of new or
rediscovered ways of reading the Bible, both in academic circles and in churches, with surprising results. These ancient texts appear to have a message that resonates with discussions in society at large. Re-imaging the Bible for Today seeks to reclaim the Bible for a Christianity that is open to society and keen on participating in conversation about today’s major issues; a Christianity that is relevant to the personal spirituality of people who aren’t too sure what to believe and how to exercise faith. It’s published in June.


Last, but certainly not least, comes Kingdom Learning9780334054801Drawing on the discipline of adult education and his own research into the way people learn, the author, David Heywood explains how churches can become learning communities in which people grow as disciples and find their place in a collaborative pattern of ministry. Following on from his 2011 book Reimagining Ministry, Heywood challenges the prevailing approach to ministerial training as overly theoretical and individualistic, and points towards a model of training based around shared reflection on practice.


A Christian Vision For Transforming Scotland

Doug Gay’s Honey from the Lion, was first published in the runup to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. This week, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister announced her intention to hold a second referendum for independence, in the light of the UK’s exit of the European Union. Time, thereforeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA, to revisit Doug Gay’s book. Here’s an extract:

As Christian disciples we are charged with relearning ourselves and the world through following the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, whose radical commitment to the poor and marginalized, to peacemaking and nonviolence, to healing and forgiveness, summons us to a life of love and service. Commitment to the Common Good, understood as sharing in the caritas-love of God for all people in society, should also extend to sharing in God’s anger against injustice and oppression.

For the churches, this narrative is implicit within their theology, but needs to be made explicit in their teaching and proclamation. It should not become a social gospel, detached from spiritual concerns, but should be understood as the outworking of core spiritual and theological convictions. It should not be identified uncritically with a particular political ideology or with the programme of any one political party, but should be continually ‘audited’ through dialogue within the Church regarding its faithfulness to Scripture and our creeds and confessions.

It should not be elevated to a place beyond critique and criticism, but exposed to dialogue within and beyond the Church about its capacity to speak to the lives of people in Scotland, especially the lives of the poorest. While it is a focal narrative, it should not be allowed to remain at a level of generality where it can be invoked by everyone in support of everything. Churches need to risk moving towards explicit social teaching about what the Common Good will look like in particular times and places. In educational and formational terms, the challenge is for churches to develop more detailed ‘axioms’, which express a prophetic voice within society. Such axioms will be provisional and open to refinement and reformulation. They will need to be continually tested by referring them to church teaching and confessions. They will also be tested by reflecting on them in the light of concrete liturgical encounters with Scripture and sacrament and in the light of concrete pastoral encounters with women, men and children across Scotland. In arguing for this, I mean no disrespect to the valuable work done through church councils and commissions on a regular or occasional basis. My fear for them is twofold, however: that too often their reports neither engage the hearts and minds of people within the churches, nor make compelling practical–legislative proposals to politicians and decision-makers out with the churches. Political occasions like the independence referendum are Kairos moments, which call for kairos visions, contextually apt expressions of theo-political imagination.

A narrative of the common good

A Christian vision for transforming Scotland will aim at:

  • a society committed to seeking and pursuing the Common Good, insistent on the dignity and worth of every member of the body social and of their valued place within the commonwealth
  • a society with very low levels of poverty• a society with significantly lower levels of wealth and income inequality
  • a society in which women are equal and empowered in every area of life
  • a society in which men are less violent and more nurturing
  • a society in which children are loved and cherished, kept safe from abuse and exploitation and given access to excellent opportunities for education and formation, regardless of ability to pay
  • a society in which there are few unwanted pregnancies and fewer terminations of pregnancy
  • a society in which land and ownership is widely distributed, with a presumption of access to the land and an increasing percentage of land held in common, public or co-operative ownership
  • a society that cares for the earth and the environment, minimizing pollution and maximizing sustainability
  • a democratic society with high levels of political participation
  • a society organized around principles of subsidiarity, with decisions taken at appropriate levels, maximizing local power in so far as it is conducive to the Common Good
  • a mutual society that encourages and supports co-operation, profit-sharing and stake-holding
  • a society in which there is work for all that is limited, meaningful, valued and well rewarded
  • a society in which ‘wealth creation’ is not the only criterion by which the value of work is assessed
  • a society in which leisure is enabled, creativity is encouraged, the arts are valued
  • a society in which there are homes for all, which are warm, dry, healthy and affordable
  • a hospitable society, which welcomes guests, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees
  • a healthy society in which levels and measures of public health improve towards the best in Europe
  • a society in which those with disabilities are given maximum opportunity and support
  • a caring society with strong national health and care services as well as generous and empowering welfare provisions
  • a safe society with low levels of crime, especially violent crime• a free society with low levels of state surveillance and restriction
  • a redemptive society with a lower prison population
  • a society free from racism and wrongful discrimination, which celebrates unity in diversity, valuing both old and new cultural traditions
  • a society committed to fair and friendly exchange, peacemaking, fair trade, development and emergency aid in its international relations
  • a society that in its international relations seeks to hold partner states to high standards of justice, and by its own practice has the moral authority to do so
  • a society that rejects the use of and threat to use nuclear weapons
  • a society in which there is a presumption of freedom of belief, practice and expression except when this is incompatible with the Common Good
  • a society that glorifies and enjoys God

Doug Gay is a Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Glasgow and a Church of Scotland minister. You can find out more about Honey from the Lion on our website.




Interview with Justin Thacker

Global PovertyLater this month we’re publishing Global Poverty: A Theological Guide by Justin Thacker of Cliff College. Our editor, David Shervington asked Justin a few questions about his background, motivations and hopes for the book.

DS: Your first career was as a medical doctor. How did you end up writing and teaching on theology and international development?

JT: It was actually while working in Kenya as a doctor that I decided on the career change to theology. One of the things I learnt while working in East Africa was that while much aid is good and necessary, it doesn’t provide the long term transformation that many poorer countries require. I had grown up with the rather naïve (and arrogant) belief that if you want to do good in the world, being a doctor in Africa is pretty much the best way to do it. Actually working as one opened my eyes to the reality that there are lots of ways to bring about a positive impact. Of course, being a doctor is one, but it is only one, and in many circumstances not necessarily the most important one. This released me to consider other possibilities and so I felt led to embark on a career in theology with a particular focus on issues of poverty and development.

DS: So what made you to want to write the book?

JT: One of the things I love about the Bible is its richness, diversity and complexity, but one of the problems with that is that it lends itself to a proof-texting approach, particularly in relation to poverty. If you want to find verses that say poverty is the result of laziness, you can do that. If you want to argue that it’s all the fault of corrupt governments, there’s plenty of texts that point in that direction. So I wanted to take a more systematic and theological approach to poverty to try and provide some kind of grand narrative that we can apply to the issue. Of course, I’m sure my biases affect the way I write as well as others, but what I have at least tried to do is provide an overview that eschews a proof-texting approach to the issues.

DS: Why do we need to think theologically about global poverty?

JT: As I try to show in the book, one of the problems with much contemporary Christian thinking about poverty is that it tends be quite shallow, aping the range of secular ideas about poverty that are currently on offer, whether one’s penchant is for a capitalist, socialist or liberationist view. It might well be the case, and I argue this in the book, that many of those secular ideas are correct but what I wanted to show was the particular contribution that theological thinking about poverty provides. One example of this is the way I show how a confidence in the ultimate victory of Christ over poverty helps us steer the appropriate path between an over-confidence in our own ability to solve poverty (and therefore a detrimental over-reach in our poverty alleviation efforts) and a pessimistic defeatism that says we shouldn’t even bother trying.

DS: But given that Jesus tells us that the poor will always be with us, isn’t trying to eradicate poverty a bit fruitless anyway?

JT: I spent quite a bit of space in the book discussing these words from Jesus. I think the real question is what drives us to engage in the work of poverty alleviation? If our motivation is fundamentally to do with ourselves perhaps so that we can look back at what we’ve done at some point in the future and say, ‘haven’t we done well –we’ve eradicated poverty’ then we are missing the point. For the truth is that the work of poverty alleviation requires people who are in it for the long-term. We strive towards the goal of eradication not because we are going to get there – we are not, the poor will always be with us – but because to work towards that end is to be in step with the creator God who will one day bring that eradication about. It is about working on God’s agenda on behalf of the poor, not working on our own. We are not the saviours of the world; God is and realising that brings motivation that lasts.

DS: In one chapter in the book, you express some concerns about charities that promote child sponsorship. Can you give us a flavour of why you think that kind of giving doesn’t work?

JT: In the first place, its important to say that not all child sponsorship is the same, and my main critique is for those charities that do not pool the funds they receive (and so spend them at the community level) but instead provide them to the individual children and their parents. I think there are a number of issues here, and I describe them all in the book, but I think my major concerns are threefold. Firstly, it fosters inequality and resentment, creating divisions between families and communities as some children are sponsored and others are not. Secondly, it is not a long term solution to poverty and encourages a dependency culture in which power imbalances are not just maintained, but even strengthened. And lastly, I’m concerned that it encourages an emotional shallowness in those of us who have greater financial assets. If we only give because we are shocked by images of poor, destitute children then I fear for our long-term commitment to the issue.


DS: If you were speaking to Christians  apathetic about social justice what would you say to them?

JT: Read the Bible. It screams social justice from Genesis to Revelation, and to ignore that agenda is to worship a different God to the one I know.

DS: And hat sort of impact are you hoping the book will make?

JT: As I survey Christian responses to poverty in the contemporary world, I am increasingly concerned about the lack of depth in our motivation to address this issue and the increasing cacophony of voices (especially in the US) that say we shouldn’t be addressing it at all. I think poverty fatigue is a real phenomenon and unless we lay some deep roots as to why this is an issue that we must tackle, and continue to tackle in the long term then I fear our collective passion for it may whither and die. I hope this book makes a modest contribution to providing some of those deep roots that will sustain our efforts for some years to come.

Global Poverty is published at the end of the month. For a limited time you can get 20% off if you preorder the book via our website. Click here to find out more.

How can mission be just?

9780334052296How can churches develop a desire for justice and how can they then translate that desire into action? What role might the local church have in developing political
and public theology? These are the questions addressed by Helen Cameron in her book Just Mission: Practical Politics for Local ChurchesHere’s a flavour:

The local welfare state

My experience of watching the rapid changes in social policy over the last five years has convinced me that much of the work in challenging injustice needs to be done at local level, if it is to have real effect. This is because of the way in which every major area of social policy has been either relegislated or redesigned to give greater decision-making powers to local bodies or to contract out services to organizations whose lines of accountability are not always clear.

In the past, a conversation about whether a social tenant could keep their child in a preferred school even though they were moving to another part of the town, to facilitate the parent getting a job, could have been carried out by two local government officials working in two different departments of the same organization, often in the same building. Now it is more likely that the social tenant has a housing association as their landlord and that the school is an academy free from local authority control and so in charge of its own admissions policy. Ensuring that the needs of both parent and child are taken into account could require a more complex set of interactions between two entities, neither of which may have any obligation to cooperate with the other. Fortunately, many of those working in these organizations have an instinct to cooperate, but they primarily have to respond to the requirements of their own governing bodies when using their discretion (I. Newman 2014).

Some writers on public policy have argued that from the 1990s onwards we have moved from a system of government to a system of governance where the structures and services citizens rely upon are dispersed between organizations that are fragmented and not obliged to work together to solve problems (J. Newman 2005). This fragmentation has had consequences for the local voluntary sector. Some organizations have stepped in to solve problems left by this reduced level of public sector coordination. Others have won contracts to deliver services formerly delivered by the state and so have become themselves part of the local network of governance. The period of cuts in public spending since 2010 has seen many local voluntary organizations lose funding and capacity and even close. This adds to the variations between localities in what services and support are available.

The market is not slow to respond to the varying needs of communities. The period of austerity triggered by the 2008 global financial crisis has seen the discount supermarkets expand both their number of shops and their customer base. The greater caution of the banks in lending to customers for consumer purchases has led to a range of new financial institutions on the high street and the internet offering unsecured credit at high interest rates. The more dramatic difference in appearance between high streets in poorer and more affluent communities is just one representation of the way in which the market adapts to the changing fortunes of localities.

This book is a call to the churches in each community to take an interest in the pattern of local governance and how it develops so that accountability, which is one foundation of justice, can be exercised. The quality of the relationships between local organizations that secure the essentials of human existence – food, housing, utilities, education, income, health and transport – will play a significant part in the quality of life in their communities.

Giving greater discretion at local levels can be positive, if it is used flexibly to solve individual problems. It can be less good if it makes people uncertain that their entitlements will be delivered in a fair and timely way.

Holisitic Care

The social action projects of local churches are often started to plug a gap in the safety net of the local welfare state that has become apparent to a person or group within the church. Building upon the existing resources of buildings, kitchen, volunteers, finance and relationships, this web of resources is spun into something that catches those whose needs were not being met by their household or existing public or voluntary services. Invariably, church social action projects aspire to work with people in a holistic way. While they have identified a particular need, they seek to relate it to the income, housing, employment, education and health of the people they encounter. The project is usually delivered in a relational way that listens to people on their own terms rather than fitting them into pre-existing categories (Bickley 2014).

This type of service provision often succeeds in engaging people who for various reasons are wary of existing, more formal, service providers. This capacity can then make the project attractive to public and voluntary funders. Ironically the requirements for accountability these funders require to safeguard their reputations can result in the service they are funding becoming more like the formal services which have failed with the people they are seeking to reach. This means that there can be a cycle to the social action of the local church as informal projects succeed, gain funding, employ staff, formalize and float free of the church that initiated them. Once a stand-alone organization, they can sometimes flounder as the safety net of resources that the local church formerly provided for them is withdrawn.

Another aspect of local church social action is that it can be most present where it is least needed and least present where it is most needed. Local churches in poorer communities often have fewer resources than those in more affluent communities and so the seedbed of resources from which a project can grow is not as rich. For many activists in church social action projects, the plugging of a gap, the provision of holistic care are themselves significant actions in challenging injustice. This book urges others in the church to ask ‘Why?’ about some of the injustices the social action project seeks to address.

Is there room for justice in the local church?

There are many calls on the life of the local church. The growing discussion of mission has intensified the expectations of those in ministry both from those they lead and from those who oversee their work. This can make the discussion of justice seem like yet another item on an overfull agenda.

What is distinctive about making room for justice is that it is like a mustard seed: once planted it grows. It takes one person to ask the question ‘Why?’ about a particular injustice to draw others to join them in asking the same question. Once asked, that question can become like the piece of grit inside the oyster shell; it cannot be left alone.

The rest of the life of the local church need do no more than make the asking of that question possible. It can cultivate the ground that means that the seed grows in fertile soil. Worship can enable the contemplation and praise of a God who in his very nature is just. Discipleship learning and catechesis can indicate those parts of scripture and tradition that show God’s anger at injustice and the response he desires. Pastoral care can provide healing for life’s wounds but can also listen with a second ear and ask why those wounds were inflicted. Hospitality and fellowship can be about building deeper relationships, where it is possible to talk about life as it is really experienced in the household, the workplace, the community and the global context. As has already been suggested, acts of compassion and service can be reflected upon for the needs they expose and the injustices that may underlie those needs. Finally, the Church in its witness testifies to grace and hope that flies in the face of the anger, denial and despair that injustice can generate.

If there is a commitment to threading justice through the existing life of the local church in due season, questions will arise. The questions that energize will bring together those willing to pursue justice. The rest of this book shows how this can be done in small and local ways, but ways that make a real difference.

The local church has huge advantages compared to many groups in doing this work. It is inter-generational and so takes the long view on issues. It is possible to ask not only, ‘What can we achieve by next week?’, but, ‘How do things need to change for our grandchildren and their children?’ The enduring nature of the local church means it can be persistent. If one person has to stand aside, another person is likely to step into their place. The local church is relational, and so it has the capacity to build trusting relationships with those it wishes to hold to account. Those in ministry are not naive about the messiness of life. They accompany people at their best and worst moments and so have a capacity to deal with reality. This hopefully also means that local churches are not afraid of failure. They do not expect every problem to be amenable to quick solutions and know that best endeavours do not always work. Their calling is to reflect the character of God rather than build a reputation.

For more information about Just Mission, visit the book’s page on our website here 

Encountering Islam

encountering-islamMarch sees the publication of Richard Sudworth’s Encountering Islam: Christian-Muslim Relations in the Public Square. His unique study takes as its cue the question of political theology and brings this burgeoning area of debate into dialogue with Christian-Muslim relations and Anglican ecclesiology. Each chapter concludes with an ‘Anecdotes from the Field’ section, setting themes from the chapter in the context of Richard Sudworth’s own ministry within a Muslim majority parish. The Rt Revd Toby Howarth, Bishop of Bradford, described the book as having  “practical wisdom and the kind of challenge that the church will increasingly need if it is to retain its integrity.”

Here is the foreword, by The Revd Dr Samuel Wells:

A casual glance at Islam (and Christians seldom take any other kind of glance, save perhaps for a fearful one), might suggest a religion problematic in three respects. First, that it has a supersessionist mindset: it’s simply newer and better than first Judaism and then Christianity, and will eventually envelop both – and much else besides. Second, that it has no notion of the separation of church and state: it assumes a holistic unity where religion and public life are inseparable and invariably indistinguishable. Third, it has had no Enlightenment: it never, unlike Christianity, turned to the subject, and placed human experience prior to external truth; and it never developed a critical faculty, perceiving scrutiny of historical sources as enriching rather than destructive.

In short, Islam does not know its place. In the first sense, Islam doesn’t grasp that it’s supposed to be part of the backward culture that the colonialists civilised, and part of the non-western shroud that immigrants to the West should shuffle off if they are to be assimilated into the advanced society of late modernity. In the second sense, Islam doesn’t understand that there is a fundamental distinction between the public and the private, and that religion can only find a home in Western culture if it concentrates on the private. It can keep its headcoverings, because they’re private, but it can’t have its courts, because they’re public; and when it claims outrage due to alleged blasphemy, it’s simply mistaking what is merely a private offence by regarding it inaccurately as a public crime. In the third sense, Islam can’t seem to comprehend Immanuel Kant’s argument that we can only know the information that can be garnered by our five senses anything beyond that, such as the ‘word of God’ is simply speculation, and can never be asserted as public truth. The more Muslims, particularly radical Islamists, vigorously assert the validity of their claims, the more the West retreats into the habits of Kantian thought.

Into this stand-off the churches in the West in general, and England in particular, have some delicate and challenging choices to make. Historically the church has defaulted rather too often to the first assumption: incapable of extricating itself from the superiority of its colonial mindset, it has been waiting in vain for Muslims to realise their faith is a limited and in some degree distorted assortment of insights and traditions of which a better and fuller embodiment is found in Christianity, especially of the Western, liberal Protestant kind. As secularisation has taken hold and church engagement has diminished, the least the church could expect was that many of the same assaults would afflict Islam too, and the two religions would decline together. When this common downward trajectory has not proved so evident, the church has rather too easily switched to the second assumption, and taken common cause with secular advocates in demanding that Islam restrict its ambitions to the so-called private sphere. In doing so the danger is that the church comes close to defining itself by race or culture rather than by faith and ecclesial identity: by which I mean, scratch the surface of the church and underneath you find, not a lively network of practising believers united in the habits of countercultural engagement, but people whose formation lies in liberal democracy and who turn to church to find stimulation for the soul. Pushed to explain why it has lined up with the secular state and against fellow followers of a tradition of faith, the church spills into the third assumption – that we can’t any longer describe Christianity as true, simply as worthy and useful and reasonable: in short, a religion Immanuel Kant would be content with. Islam, by infuriatingly still claiming to be true, simultaneously yields the desire to be worthy, useful and reasonable, and thus becomes a problem.

But look what has happened to the church. In its alarm about Islam, it has distorted its own identity to such a degree that it has lost its true nature. For sure, there’s a supersessionist dimension to Christianity that’s hard to slough off: but that is about Jesus, and the way Christians see Jesus as fulfilling all the promises of Israel and anticipating all the glories of the Last Day. It’s not about cultural dominance or racial purity. Without doubt the agonies of the divergent paths faith took after the Reformation has taught the church to limit its aspiration to control government and demand uniformity from a population: but that doesn’t have to mean spinelessly accepting the public-private distinction where the state gets the body and the church is left with the somewhat contested and insubstantial consolation prize of the soul. Of course Christianity has been enriched by critical scrutiny and made wiser by being able to distinguish between traditioned and dispassionate reasoning; but that’s not to sell the pass and forget that all reasoning is, in the end, traditioned, and that all enquiry has to begin somewhere, with conviction and trust, rather than a blank sheet of paper.

Once the church begins to recognise what it has jettisoned by its knee-jerk anxiety about Islam, it gets into shape to take on a humbler, more receptive conversation and encounter. This is the place that Kenneth Cragg reached through his gentle walk with Muslim friends and cultures, and that Rowan Williams charts in his public theology that seeks a way for Christianity truly to enrich the public sphere and at the same time to deepen its own identity.

This is the starting point for Richard Sudworth’s admirable book. Steeped in personal practice, relationship, and partnership, percolated through years of reflection, and strengthened by careful exploration of existing theological wisdom, his essay seeks a path through the thicket I’ve described and a bond worthy of those who seek God with all their heart. The destination for which he strives is not well populated, but it is urgently necessary – not just because peace in the world cannot be found without peace between the world religions, but because in Islam and perhaps more precisely in Muslims God is presenting the church with a gift for the renewal of its life. And if the church experiences its life as scarcity, while disregarding or rejecting the abundance God is meanwhile presenting to it, whose fault, and whose loss, is that?

Get a 20% discount if you preorder a copy of Encountering Islam via our website. 

“Pray for us, Pastor…”

9780334055082Today we offer you the last of our extracts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. In this extract from a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer moves from arguing for the importance of Old Testament for Christian faith, to commenting on the every day reality of discipleship behind bars. 

To Eberhard Bethge

Advent II [5 December 1943]

. . . My thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like those of the Old Testament, and in recent months I have been reading the Old Testament much more than the New. It is only when one knows the unutterability of the name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ; it is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything seems to be over that one may believe in the resurrection and a new world; it is only when one submits to God’s law that one may speak of grace; and it is only when God’s wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one’s enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts. In my opinion it is not Christian to want to take our thoughts and feelings too quickly and too directly from the New Testament. We have already talked about this several times, and every day confirms my opinion. One cannot and must not speak the last word before the last but one. We live in the last but one and believe the last, don’t we? Lutherans (so-called!) and pietists would shudder at the thought, but it is true all the same. In The Cost of Discipleship (ch. 1) I just hinted at this, but did not follow it up; I must do so later. But the logical conclusions are far-reaching, e.g. for the problem of Catholicism, for the concept of the ministry, for the use of the Bible, etc., and above all for ethics. Why is it that in the Old Testament men tell lies vigorously and often to the glory of God (I’ve now collected the passages), kill, deceive, rob, divorce, and even fornicate (see the genealogy of Jesus), doubt, blaspheme, and curse, whereas in the New Testament there is nothing of all this? ‘An earlier stage’ of religion? That is a very naïve way out; it is one and the same God. But more of this later when we meet.

Meanwhile evening has come. The NCO who has just brought me from the sick-bay to my quarters said to me as he left, with an embarrassed smile but quite seriously, ‘Pray for us, Pastor, that we may have no alert tonight.’ . . .

For some time I’ve been taking my daily walk with a man who has been a District Orator, Regional Leader, Government Director, former member of the governing body of the German-Christian Church in Brunswick, and is at present a Party Leader in Warsaw. He has completely gone to pieces here, and clings to me just like a child, consulting me about every little thing, telling me whenever he has cried, etc. After being very cool with him for several weeks, I’m now able to ease things for him a little; his gratitude is quite touching, and he tells me again and again how glad he is to have met a man like me here. Well, the strangest situations do come about; if only I could tell you properly about them!

The new edition of Letters and Papers from Prison, with an introduction by Samuel Wells, is published later this month.