‘Who is my neighbour?’

How do Christian interfaith practitioners live out their discipleship in a multi-faith world? And what, theologically, is being expressed in their activity?

In Faith, Hope and Love Ray Gaston draws on contemporary models of research in practical theology, such as auto ethnography, qualitative interviewing and analysis of spiritual journaling, to explore grassroots Christian engagement with other faiths and its impact upon Christian self-understanding.

Ray Gaston is Team Vicar of St Chad & St Marks in the Parish of Central Wolverhampton and Inter Faith Enabler for the Wolverhampton Episcopal Area and Advisor on Inter Faith Relations to the Bishops of Wolverhampton and Lichfield. 

Elaine Graham, Grosvenor Research Professor of Practical Theology, has contributed a foreword to the book – here it is in full.

We live in a world that is both fascinated and troubled by religion. Twentieth-century predictions regarding the inevitable demise of religion have had to be revised in the face of the global resurgence of faith as a powerful political force. Secularisation looks increasingly like an exception to the rule, contingent upon the historical trajectory of Western liberal democracy. Instead, globally speaking, as Peter Berger famously put it, the world remains as ‘furiously religious’ as ever. But for those living in the West – and particularly in that north-west corner of Western Europe that is the United Kingdom – the ramifications of what comes after Christendom are taking a while to settle into perspective.

This new dispensation, which many are calling ‘postsecular’, is one in which religion is increasingly prominent in public life, but where many major public institutions struggle to make sense of its ramifications. Local and central government look increasingly to faith communities themselves for creative and locally-based initiatives, from everything from social care to urban regeneration, but generations of secularisation have eroded society’s reserves of religious literacy, meaning we are ill-equipped to negotiate the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly religiously diverse and pluralistic culture. As this book indicates, the legacy of multiculturalism is increasingly contested; and yet politically there is little in the way of a constructive alternative.

Furthermore, the peculiar nature of postsecular society means that this new visibility of religion is not universally welcomed. One legacy of the Western Enlightenment, namely the resistance to religious voices in public places, still endures, meaning that faith groups are simultaneously wooed for their rich social capital and under growing pressure to justify their very presence in the public realm.

What, then, are we to do? Ray Gaston is right when he says that part of the challenge to people of faith is about finding renewed resources for a new kind of public, practical theology: one that is capable both of engaging with the realities of religious and cultural pluralism and of ensuring that Christians themselves are nurtured, theologically and spiritually, to exercise an effective discipleship. Often in contexts of interfaith dialogue, Christians are put to shame by their neighbours of other faiths who demonstrate a much greater level of religious literacy and intercultural curiosity. Ray Gaston’s book is in part a record of his attempt to redress that imbalance of knowledge and understanding, as he undertakes his own personal journey into the life-world of his Muslim neighbours and accompanies them through their religious devotions and obligations.

One of the strengths of this book, however, is its insistence that such practices of interfaith engagement and accompaniment also need to be informed by serious theological thinking. In order to stand alongside our Muslim neighbours, Christians need to turn to, and befriend, the roots of their own tradition, since to seek empathy with the other is to ask fundamental questions of one’s own heritage. In this respect, Ray Gaston weaves together the threads of action and reflection – embodied in parish ministry and theological education — in a highly accomplished and sustained piece of practical theological method.

This is a journey that begins with an attempt to come alongside his neighbours, and which blossoms into sustained solidarity and accompaniment with the other, informed by a deep commitment to the preferential option for the marginalised. The process continues with serious immersion in the sacred texts and practices of one’s own tradition and those of others, sparking a theological reflection that risks difficult questions but which results in renewed practices of citizenship informed by the Biblical convictions of faith, hope and love.

As this book argues, these virtues of faith, hope and love all have their place within the new postsecular economy. Faith means having a reflexive, self-aware understanding of what it means to be a person of faith in a world in which that is deeply counter-cultural (and often suspect);  and of being prepared to ‘give an account of the hope we have’ (1 Peter 3:15). But this rests, as Ray Gaston is quick to note, on a willingness to enter more deeply into the sources and norms of one’s own tradition, in the belief that dialogue with the other necessarily brings deeper self-understanding as well. Hope looks forward in anticipation to the possibilities of a greater wisdom and more expansive vision born out of the dialogue; and love is the expression of the fruits of that process of dialogue and engagement: the ‘dividend’ if you like, generated out of the investment of time, prayer, energy and care represented by simply being a faithful, local, presence one with another. This is, in Christian terms, a deeply incarnational undertaking.

As Ray Gaston points out, much of the tradition of Western missiology or theology of religion has been framed around the question of salvation. The New Testament records that when the rich young man approached Jesus for guidance, his primary concern, too, was one of his own salvation: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do to be saved?’ Jesus’ response, however, suggests that the divine priority is, rather different. It is one of right relation: with ourselves, others and with God. In response to the rich man’s question, Jesus tells a story of the outsider, the religious other, as the one in whom we see God’s spirit at work in the world. To me, this serves as the guiding genius of this book: an invitation to imagine what it might mean if Christian mission and ministry were exercised primarily through the virtues of empathy and solidarity. What matters is not my salvation, but something altogether more practical and immediate – yet no less sacred: the fact of our common humanity. The real question, then – at the heart of interfaith engagement, of good citizenship, and the very gospel of Jesus Christ — is this: ‘Who is my neighbour?’

Pre-order Faith, Hope and Love now and you’ll benefit from a special prepub discount. To order, or for more details, visit our website. 


SCM Core Texts in our summer sale

As the summer (what summer??) draws to a close, so to does our summer sale. It ends on 25th September, so there’s not much time left to take advantage of some of the bargains on offer.

Included in the sale are selected SCM Core Texts. Written with second and third year university students in mind, they seek to bridge the gap between populist and accessible literature and more technical material which requires readers to have a particularly advanced understanding of the topics.

There are Core Texts on a wealth of subjects, and included in our sale are Core Texts on Black Theology, The Book of Revelation, Christianity and Science, Bible and Literature, Paul, and The Pentateuch.

Andy Goodliff had this to say about another of the Core Texts included in our sale, The Book of Revelation:

SCM are to be congratulated on this series of Core Texts … which are readable and on a certain level introductory, but not without merit as important contributions to scholarship themselves.

Revelation brings out highly contested to outright ridiculous readings and so Simon Woodman (Tutor in Biblical Studies at South Wales Baptist College) is to be thanked for providing an introduction to the book of Revelation that is measured and helpful.  Woodman appears to have read, if not every, then almost every, book on Revelation and provides the reader with an interesting array of different voices that have interpreted the text both recently and historically.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one is an introduction the book, different ways it may be read, some of the key issues of debate and an overview of Revelation chapter by chapter. Part two is called ‘Meeting the Characters’ and this is an excellent introduction to all the different and many characters. Characters are grouped together – so Jesus, God and the Spirit; the people of God (i.e. the saints, the elders, the multitude, etc); the inhabitants of heaven and earth; and the forces of evil. There is a brief character study on each, drawing in Old Testament background, as well how the character is depicted or developed within the book. (Buy the book just for part two alone). Part three consists of three chapters that engage with the imagery and how the message of the book may have been heard by its first readers (and listeners) and those of us reading and hearing it today. This final section works in many ways as a piece of pastoral theology, showing how Revelation itself is ultimately a letter of pastoral care.

In recent years, the likes of Richard Bauckham and other scholars, have helped rescue Revelation from the fanatical and fanciful readings that either mean people read too much into the book or don’t read it all.  Simon Woodman’s book is a welcome contribution to that endeavour. The Book of Revelation helps explain the often appears confusing nature of Revelation and gives us new avenues for its speaking to us today. So as the blurb on the back says, this SCM Core Text seeks to bridge the gap between academic and popular and is written with theology students, ministers and anyone who is interested in grappling with Revelation in mind. As I may have said before, the mark of a good piece of theology is its readability and this is very readable, accessible and interesting. I can’t recommend it any more highly. I look forward to future books from Simon Woodman (especially because he’s a baptist




Storytelling Meets Leadership

It is often considered controversial to draw any links between the worlds of leadership, management and organizational behaviour and that of the church. This month sees the publication of Leading by Story by Vaughan S. Roberts and David Sims. The book argues that there is plenty of common ground to be found between the two apparently disparate areas, in particular with the role of story and stories.

The Bishop of Salisbury, Nicholas Holtam called the book “informative, subtle, insightful and wise”, whilst Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church said it was ” a real gem – a book of treasures that will gestate within us as we ponder the ways in which stories lead our thinking and action.”

Here’s an extract in which the authors begin to explain how storytelling might inform leadership.


Talking about how people work together always involves using a metaphor for the human person. Older work on leadership views people in ways such as the economic (making ‘rational’ self-orientated decisions), the social (making decisions that maximize their membership in the groups around them), or the self-actualizing (seeking to develop themselves according to their own potential); it may even view people as sheep. The different metaphors carry their own implications: for example, the rational economic metaphor implies that people are not altruistic, and also that they are capable of complex calculations about what is best for themselves. (See Alvesson and Spicer (2011) for other ways in which leadership metaphors shape organizational sensemaking, and Roberts (2000) and (2008) for the use of metaphors in church ministry.)

We believe that we can gain more light on church and leadership by considering the person as homo narrans narratur, that is, both a storyteller and a story (Christie and Orton, 1988; Weick, 1995). We tell stories and at the same time we ourselves are a story. We are continuously constructing the next part of the story that is ourselves. We work out our plotlines, introduce new characters into our story, lose the plot, do things to liven up our own stories as we go along. As Hardy (1968) put it:

We dream in narrative, we daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, we hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, review, criticize, build, learn, hate and love by narrative.

This chapter opens up a theme that will continue throughout this book about the value of a storytelling view of leadership in churches. One of the things we know about ourselves as a species is that we tell stories, we develop our own stories, and we enthusiastically consume stories told by others. In church, we hear stories from the Bible and are invited in sermons to think about our own story, who we are in relationship with God and with others. We are challenged to consider the totality of our story, to death and beyond. Jesus is recorded in the Gospels as having frequently told stories, using parables and talking to people about their stories and how they saw those developing in the future. A narrative approach to leadership would seem to be the natural approach for his followers to take, and has been explored in biblical studies (for example Wright, 1992) and theology (for example Loughlin, 1996; Smith, 2009, 2013).

When leadership happens, people are writing themselves into others’ stories (Edwards, 2000). If you enable something to happen you must be making at least a guest appearance in the stories of the other people involved. We all take some of our sense of effectiveness and personhood from believing that we have had some part in other people’s stories, and this is one of the motivations for leading.

In everyday conversation there are several different ways in which the word ‘story’ is used. For example, there is the sense of ‘just a story’, in contrast to ‘the truth’. The implication is either that a good story is a way of blinding people to the truth or that storytelling is a kind of second-order activity, inferior to other ‘rational’ forms of discourse as a way of conveying what we want to say. Of course, storytelling is always selective. If someone asks you to tell them what sort of day you have had you will tell a story. It is impossible to tell them everything that has happened; there is not enough time and they will not attend for long enough. In order to keep their attention and to help them reach the conclusions about you and your day that you would like them to reach, you make choices about what to include and exclude. Similarly, when a colleague enquires of another minister or a bishop asks a priest about how things are going in the church, the answer can only be a story, and it can only be the story as understood by the teller. It will usually be their truth; there is no reason to suppose that people deliberately mislead any more when they are telling stories than when they are giving supposedly objective answers to census returns.

Even when data are given in statistical form, any attempt to read them or to talk about them will immediately turn them into narrative form. The role of the church treasurer includes responsibility for telling a story about tables of figures which other members may find boring or incomprehensible – to take the accounts and to use them to tell a story. This story will give them a meaning, and that meaning is chosen by the treasurer. Steve Denning illustrates this process of choice with the example of the Titanic. It would have been possible, he points out, for the newspaper headline the day after the sinking to have said ‘700 people safely reach New York’ (Denning, 2011a), but that was not the choice of meaning made by the press. When conflict occurs in the Middle East, it is quite common to see almost exactly the same story (coming from the same newsfeeds) in different newspapers, but with headlines that blame different parties. We frame data according to what we think others should pay attention to. Sometimes this may be for our own benefit, but more commonly we will see it as our way of helping the other person to see through to the core points of what we are talking about. Boje (2012) uses the word ‘antenarrative’ for the resources that are available for storytelling (as in the example of the accounts) and ‘narrative’ for the story that gets created from them.

When data are presented statistically, this may be not an alternative to storytelling but a part of the storytelling. As Gearóid O’Crualaoich (2002) has commented, an important part of telling any story is the warranting of its reliability. In his case, working with Irish folk stories, a frequent warranting phrase is, ‘It was a priest who told me . . . ’. In current western culture our fashionable way of warranting a story is to give some statistics that we claim support it. The link between the statistics and the story being warranted may be distant, the logic may not bear close scrutiny, but it is expected that we should have some statistics as part of the narrative (for a careful use of this approach, see Woodhead, 2013). This can be part of an evidence-based approach to whatever we are doing; the statistics can be used to confirm that we are actually achieving what we are trying to achieve.

One of the characteristics of storytelling is that it handles complexity and ambiguity better than many other forms of discourse. Stories are usually told with a certain amount of redundancy, points that may not be relevant but may be interesting, the possibility of more than one outcome, some ambiguity about what are the central plot lines of the story and the essential actors. In addition, they are told with decorative flourishes, but part of the art of storytelling is to leave it unclear whether a particular statement is decorative or a load-bearing part of the narrative structure. It is typical of good storytelling that ‘the dog that did not bark in the night’ (Conan Doyle, 1893) could have been irrelevant until late in the story, when it emerges that it is doing part of the narrative work. Similarly, a joke may be introduced into a story to gauge the audience reaction to it, to test out their attitudes. If they react badly to it, the teller dismisses it as ‘just a joke’. If they react well, it may be an area of further development later.

Also, discussion may take place through stories. In one church the minister was frequently surprised that when he laid out a series of options to the management committee the response was not a discussion of the merits and demerits of the choices but a series of stories adjacent to the proposals. His initial frustration was gradually replaced by a realization that this was how that community dealt with proposals for change, and also possibly how they held conversations. Storytelling was the form of discourse through which decisions were made.

The most memorable and influential stories invite the listener to participate by leaving some open questions as to what they mean and how they might be interpreted. Barthes (1974) speaks of ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts, where readerly means that you cast the other person into a relatively passive role where they read what you are saying, and writerly means that they are seen as active co-authors of the script. Both are possible when we are writing ourselves into others’ stories. If our storytelling is readerly, they are less likely to get us wrong, because their interpretive contribution will be less, but they are also less likely to be led anywhere by us. If our leadership storytelling is writerly we may be misinterpreted and people may well not do what we want, but they are much more likely to do something as a result, because it will be their something; they have felt invited to participate in writing the story. Once again, the managerial desire to control is likely to make a church more predictable, if that is what you think a church should be! It is also likely to make it less active.

For example, in most cases, the parables of Jesus are reported without instructions on how they should be interpreted. Such a relaxation of control by the teller invites the listeners to become involved in what is being said, to think themselves into the story being told and to empathize with a character within it, thus making their own meaning out of what is being said. This is much more likely to produce learning that changes the learner than if the meaning of the parable were more tightly controlled by the teller. Storied communications are often an important part of effective leadership. Part of leading is to create a story around your organization. What kind of church is yours? Why would people want to be part of it? If they become part of this church, what can they expect to find themselves part of in a few years’ time? What kind of story have they joined? How are they going to be invited to develop and grow if they join this story? If I become part of this church, what contribution can I make? Am I needed here? Finding a story that people can contribute to, in which they can find characters to become, and where they can help in making that story real, is one of the most inspiring ways to be led.

Parry and Hansen (2007) have argued that we all follow organizational stories as much as we follow people. ‘People join with the narrative, rather than follow the leader.’ In other words, one way of leading is to create and tell a story that people will wish to follow, or involve themselves with. Thinking about leading by story is important not because it is a new way of leading, but because it is what is happening anyhow, but its narrative quality has not been understood. Weick (1995) says that stories can be prophecies because they help people to make sense of what is going on, and people then act in accordance with that sense. So a believable story about how openness to different sexualities might threaten the doctrinal purity of a church can be enough to produce a fear-driven reaction, and the tightening of purity codes. If you do not tell the story of your church it will not remain untold. Someone else will do it for you. But you will have abrogated responsibility for the story, unless you support someone else to become the storyteller. Unconsidered, stories have a way of becoming the reality, as Weick argues. They will not remain untold, but may be told in a much less constructive way if you leave them to take their chances. Bennis and Nanus (2004) say that leaders are purveyors of hope. If the story is purveying hope, then the story is providing leadership (Parry, 2008).

Powerful stories do not get told and then forgotten. Stories get told and retold, sometimes through successive people but quite often by the same group of people, in the same way as families retell old stories about their family at gatherings (‘Do you remember when Grandpa took his bicycle to pieces . . .?’). Parry (2008) argues that stories go on being told so long as each person has an understanding of the story that gives them hope for a better existence. Even if this role is a relatively minor one, this still gives a role from which they can act and from which they can try to make a contribution. Parry uses the example of the alternative stories that were provided by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X for the role of black people in the United States. At the time the two stories seemed to be equally powerful, but in hindsight Martin Luther King’s story gave grounds for hope and roles for all participants, and it has survived and still influences American culture, whereas Malcolm X’s more conflictual, less inclusive story of black power was less attractive and has disappeared (Parry, 2008). Perhaps we can look forward to a similar dissolving of the narratives of church decline that are so popular with some Christians.

Rev Dr Vaughan S. Roberts writes and speak widely on organisational theory, leadership and the church and is the author of “Personal Jesus: How popular music shapes our souls” (2012) with Professor Clive Marsh of the University of Leicester and a contributor to “The Bloomsbury Handbook of Religion and Popular Music”.

David Sims is Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Cass Business School. His research has been centred on narrative understandings of working life, and the implications of this for leadership.

Leading by Story is published on 30th September, but you can preorder a copy now at a special discount price. Don’t miss out!

Andrew Rumsey – “A Handful of Earth”

Image result for handful of earth

Continuing our blog series on the parish, in the run-up to our event Parish: Has it Had its Day on October 9th,  a guest post from Rev Andrew Rumsey, author of Parish: An Anglican Theology of Place 

By any reckoning, Reverend Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne – staggeringly, the fourth most published work in the English language – is an unlikely success story. Essentially a journal of the fauna and flora found in one eighteenth-century Hampshire parish, its intensely local focus is (alongside White’s winsome prose) undoubtedly the key to the book’s appeal. It also, I believe, highlights a neglected aspect of the Church of England’s ailing parochial system that holds huge contemporary relevance.

Unlike many clergy today, preoccupied with global dynamics beyond their influence, White’s principal pastoral concern appears to have been the varying movements of toads across his rectory garden. Such micro-level attention – and his role as unwitting pioneer of a positive, progressive view of nature – means that White emerges today as something of a local hero. In fact, for a new generation of ecologists, his parochialism has almost prophetic potential. In a fascinating introduction to White’s Natural History, the nature writer Richard Mabey considers that ‘parish’ is the crucial idea behind White’s unparalleled description of local ecology:

‘Parish’ is a very laden concept. It has to do not just with geography and ecclesiastical administration, but with history and a system of loyalties. For most of us, it is the indefinable territory to which we feel we belong, which we have the measure of. Its boundaries are more the limits of our intimate allegiances than lines on a map. These allegiances have always embraced wild life as well as human…

Mabey coins the term ‘parochial ecology’ to capture White’s settled attention to Selborne, which, in turn, became a guiding theme for his own trailblazing environmental work.  ‘The idea of parish’, he asserted, in the book Common Ground, ‘must underlie … a conservation policy which takes any account of human feelings’. Highlighting another priest-naturalist, John Stevens Henslow, the Rector of Hincham in Suffolk (the man who taught Charles Darwin and encouraged his voyage on The Beagle), Mabey writes how ‘it was in his parish that his most important work was done … he was not just Hincham’s rector but its curator.’

Leaving aside the enviable freedom of the single-parish incumbent in this era to attend to broader interests, the essence of Mabey’s tribute is profoundly significant. It is not his concern to explore the theological implications of being the ‘curator’ of a locality, nevertheless the resonances with the pastoral ‘cure’ still retained by the Anglican parish priest, are plain – and it may be contended with some force that truly parochial ministry is pastoral on both counts – formed by an ecology of care for a particular place, its people and their relation to the land.

The ecclesiastical parish has always been an explicitly grounded community, capturing the inherent, spiritual bond between human and physical culture. In this sense it is a localised form of ‘culture’ itself, whose portmanteau of meanings carries both worship (as in ‘cultic’) and the delving of the earth (from ‘coulter’ or ploughshare). By virtue of these resonances, matured through an incredibly long tenure of the English landscape, the word ‘parish’ evokes – uniquely in my view – a natural partnership between human community and the earth beneath our feet, whose future welfare is conjoined with our own.

This potency of parish as a concept has long been recognised in the pioneering work of Common Ground, the environmental charity that Richard Mabey founded in 1982 with Sue Clifford and Angela King.  Reviewing their long-running Parish Maps project, which encouraged neighbourhoods to imaginatively portray their locale, Sue Clifford explains that they settled on the term because ‘the ecclesiastical parish has been the measure of English landscape since Anglo-Saxon times.’ The word ‘parish’, Clifford argues, offered what no other term could: an equivalent to the German heimat – a way of describing ‘the intersection of culture and nature’ and ‘deeply felt ties of familiarity, identification and belonging’. The word ‘parish’ thus becomes an imaginative bridge between ‘real’ local communities and the less tangible, psychological responses through which we intuitively seek out a place of personal settlement and wellbeing.

In a further assessment of Gilbert White’s parochial ecology, David Elliston Allen, in his landmark History of the Naturalist in Britain, described Selborne as ‘that secret, private parish inside each one of us’. Notwithstanding its need for deconstruction (the ‘each one of us’ in Allen’s statement presumably being only those to whom the word parish carries such emotional significance), the idea of the parish as an ideal of belonging is deeply suggestive in Christian terms. Because such notions are so culturally embedded – and always prone to a kind of territorial idolatry – the challenge is to keep alive the vision of ‘another country’ – a heavenly place that can act as both a corrective to, and inspiration for, the present one. Only then can parochialism be saved from becoming, on the one hand, a doomed Utopian quest or, on the other, a stagnant cipher for lost homeland.

The danger – heightened in the current climate – is that debate about place becomes unhelpfully bipolar, such that attachment to territory falls victim to easy caricature as reactionary, exclusive and politically right-wing, whilst liberal geographical discourse can appear dislocated and curiously placeless. Our response must not be to abandon the parochial idea for being anachronistic, but to find the means whereby its legacy – and the recovery of local ecology – becomes a key to unlock, not barricade, the future. In other words, if you want to set about building Jerusalem, start at Selbourne.

Rev Andrew Rumsey is Rector of the Oxted Team Ministry and will be one of a host of luminaries – including Bishop Graham Tomlin, Professor Alison Milbank and Dr Paula Gooder – who will contribute to the discussion The Parish: Has it Had its Day? on 9th October. More details and tickets here. And don’t forget to enter our competition to win two tickets

So what IS #TheParish? Tweet your thoughts and you could win 2 tickets to our October event…

The Parish


In the run-up to our event Parish: Has it Had its Day? on Monday 9th October, we’re giving you the opportunity to win 2 tickets.

All you have to do is tweet using the hashtag #TheParish, summing up what the parish means to you – be as provocative, imaginative or poetic as you like. If you aren’t on Twitter, you can still enter, just email your ‘tweet’ here , but don’t forget that it will need to be no more than 140 characters, and include the hashtag #TheParish.

We’ll judge the best entry and the winner will win two tickets to the event and a copy of Andrew Rumsey’s new book Parish: An Anglican Theology of Place. The runner up will win a copy of Andrew Rumsey’s book.

To give you some inspiration, we asked a few friends and colleagues to have a go at putting together their own tweets, and this is what they came up with:

Andy Milne:

#TheParish -make this monochrome model into a flexible missional model, fit for reaching a multicultural country such as the UK, with the love of God”

#TheParish – UK culture is diverse as people networks usually cross parishes so let’s loosen ancient boundaries & let mission adapt to context”

Andy Milne founded Sorted!, a fresh expression in Bradford and us the author of The DNA of Pioneer Ministry . He’ll be contributing to Parish: Has it Had its Day? as an ‘expert witness’.

Paul Handley:

“#TheParish- a club that most people don’t know they belong to”

#TheParish- like ley lines, acres or furlongs: ancient, romantic, incomprehensible”

Paul Handley is editor of the Church Times, co-hosts the Parish evening with SCM Press. 

David Goodhew:

#TheParish- proven by widespread research to enhance individual well-being”

#TheParish- the number of churches in Britain is rising and is, or will soon be, greater than the number of pubs in Britain.”

David Goodhew is Director of Ministerial Practice at Cranmer Hall, Durham and Director of the Centre for Church Growth Research. He’ll be contributing to Parish: Has it Had its Day? as an ‘expert witness’.

David Shervington:

#TheParish– God’s grace in the heart of every neighbourhood”

#TheParish– full of unrealised potential?”

David Shervington is the Senior Commissioning Editor at SCM Press. 

The competition closes on Tuesday 12th September at 11:59pm, after which the judge will decide the best entry. The winner will receive two complimentary tickets to The Parish: Has it Had its Day? and a copy of Andrew Rumsey’s book Parish: An Anglican Theology of Place1 runner up will win a copy of Andrew’s book. 

For more information about The Parish: Has it Had its Day?, including a full list of participants, and to book tickets, click here. 

Doctrine: ‘A mouldering scrim of antique prejudice obscuring the meaning of the Bible?’

Amongst the titles in our summer sale this year are a number from the The SCM Theological Commentaries on the Bible series. The commentaries enlist leading theologians to read and interpret Scripture for the twenty-first century, just as the church fathers, the Reformers, and other orthodox Christians did for their times and places.

Here’s an introduction to the series, by the general editor R.R. Reno.

Near the beginning of his treatise against Gnostic interpretations of the Bible, Against the Heresies, Irenaeus observes that Scripture is like a great mosaic depicting a handsome king. It is as if we were owners of a villa in Gaul who had ordered a mosaic from Rome. It arrives, and the beautifully colored tiles need to be taken out of their packaging and put into proper order according to the plan of the artist. The difficulty, of course, is that Scripture provides us with the individual pieces, but the order and sequence of various elements are not obvious. The Bible does not come with instructions that would allow interpreters to simply place verses, episodes, images, and parables in order as a worker might follow a schematic drawing in assembling the pieces to depict the handsome king. The mosaic must be puzzled out. This is precisely the work of scriptural interpretation.

Origen has his own image to express the difficulty of working out the proper approach to reading the Bible. When preparing to offer a commentary on the Psalms he tells of a tradition handed down to him by his Hebrew teacher:

The Hebrew said that the whole divinely inspired Scripture may be likened, because of its obscurity, to many locked rooms in our house. By each room is placed a key, but not the one that corresponds to it, so that the keys are scattered about beside the rooms, none of them matching the room by which it is placed. It is a difficult task to find the keys and match them to the rooms that they can open. We therefore know the Scriptures that are obscure only by taking the points of departure for understanding them from another place because they have their interpretive principle scattered among them.

As is the case for Irenaeus, scriptural interpretation is not purely local. The key in Genesis may best fit the door of Isaiah, which in turn opens up the meaning of Matthew. The mosaic must be put together with an eye toward the overall plan. Irenaeus, Origen, and the great cloud of premodern biblical interpreters assumed that puzzling out the mosaic of Scripture must be a communal project. The Bible is vast, heterogeneous, full of confusing passages and obscure words, and difficult to understand. Only a fool would imagine that he or she could work out solutions alone. The way forward must rely upon a tradition of reading that Irenaeus reports has been passed on as the rule or canon of truth that functions as a confession of faith. “Anyone,” he says, “who keeps unchangeable in himself the rule of truth received through baptism will recognize the names and sayings and parables of the scriptures.” Modern scholars debate the content of the rule on which Irenaeus relies and commends, not the least because the terms and formulations Irenaeus himself uses shift and slide. Nonetheless, Irenaeus assumes that there is a body of apostolic doctrine sustained by a tradition of teaching in the church. This doctrine provides the clarifying principles that guide exegetical judgment toward a coherent overall reading of Scripture as a unified witness. Doctrine, then, is the schematic drawing that will allow the reader to organize the vast heterogeneity of the words, images, and stories of the Bible into a readable, coherent whole. It is the rule that guides us toward the proper matching of keys to doors.

If self-consciousness about the role of history in shaping human consciousness makes modern historical-critical study critical, then what makes modern study of the Bible modern is the consensus that classical Christian doctrine distorts interpretive understanding. Benjamin Jowett, the influential nineteenth-century English classical scholar, is representative. In his programmatic essay “On the Interpretation of Scripture,” he exhorts the biblical reader to disengage from doctrine and break its hold over the interpretive imagination. “The simple words of that book,” writes Jowett of the modern reader, “he tries to preserve absolutely pure from the refinements or distinctions of later times.” The modern interpreter wishes to “clear away the remains of dogmas, systems, controversies, which are encrusted upon” the words of Scripture. The disciplines of close philological analysis “would enable us to separate the elements of doctrine and tradition with which the meaning of Scripture is encumbered in our own day.” The lens of understanding must be wiped clear of the hazy and distorting film of doctrine.

Postmodernity, in turn, has encouraged us to criticize the critics. Jowett imagined that when he wiped away doctrine he would encounter the biblical text in its purity and uncover what he called “the original spirit and intention of the authors.” We are not now so sanguine, and the postmodern mind thinks interpretive frameworks inevitable. Nonetheless, we tend to remain modern in at least one sense. We read Athanasius and think him stage-managing the diversity of Scripture to support his positions against the Arians. We read Bernard of Clairvaux and assume that his monastic ideals structure his reading of the Song of Songs. In the wake of the Reformation, we can see how the doctrinal divisions of the time shaped biblical interpretation. Luther famously described the Epistle of James as a “strawy letter,” for, as he said, “it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.” In these and many other instances, often written in the heat of ecclesiastical controversy or out of the passion of ascetic commitment, we tend to think Jowett correct: doctrine is a distorting film on the lens of understanding.

However, is what we commonly think actually the case? Are readers naturally perceptive? Do we have an unblemished, reliable aptitude for the divine? Have we no need for disciplines of vision? Do our attention and judgment need to be trained, especially as we seek to read Scripture as the living word of God? According to Augustine, we all struggle to journey toward God, who is our rest and peace. Yet our vision is darkened and the fetters of worldly habit corrupt our judgment. We need training and instruction in order to cleanse our minds so that we might find our way toward God. To this end, “the whole temporal dispensation was made by divine Providence for our salvation.” The covenant with Israel, the coming of Christ, the gathering of the nations into the church—all these things are gathered up into the rule of faith, and they guide the vision and form of the soul toward the end of fellowship with God. In Augustine’s view, the reading of Scripture both contributes to and benefits from this divine pedagogy. With countless variations in both exegetical conclusions and theological frameworks, the same pedagogy of a doctrinally ruled reading of Scripture characterizes the broad sweep of the Christian tradition from Gregory the Great through Bernard and Bonaventure, continuing across Reformation differences in both John Calvin and Cornelius Lapide, Patrick Henry and Bishop Bossuet, and on to more recent figures such as Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Is doctrine, then, not a moldering scrim of antique prejudice obscuring the Bible, but instead a clarifying agent, an enduring tradition of theological judgments that amplifies the living voice of Scripture? And what of the scholarly dispassion advocated by Jowett? Is a noncommitted reading, an interpretation unprejudiced, the way toward objectivity, or does it simply invite the languid intellectual apathy that stands aside to make room for the false truism and easy answers of the age?

This series of biblical commentaries was born out of the conviction that dogma clarifies rather than obscures. It advances upon the assumption that the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian Scripture. God the Father Almighty, who sends his only begotten Son to die for us and for our salvation and who raises the crucified Son in the power of the Holy Spirit so that the baptized may be joined in one body—faith in this God with this vocation of love for the world is the lens through which to view the heterogeneity and particularity of the biblical texts. Doctrine, then, is not a moldering scrim of antique prejudice obscuring the meaning of the Bible. It is a crucial aspect of the divine pedagogy, a clarifying agent for our minds fogged by self-deceptions, a challenge to our languid intellectual apathy that will too often rest in false truisms and the easy spiritual nostrums of the present age rather than search more deeply and widely for the dispersed keys to the many doors of Scripture.


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The Parish: What Kind of Place is It?

THE PARISH_V3-page-001 (1)As part of our series in the run-up to our event on 9th October – “The Parish: Has it Had its Day” – here’s an extract from the introduction to Parish: An Anglican Theology of Place, by Andrew Rumsey. Andrew is the Rector of Oxted and will be contributing to the discussion on the 9th October as an ‘expert witness’. 

The parish system wasn’t the first or only form of regional church organization in Britain, but once established it became the pre-eminent model of communal ‘belonging’ for on a thousand years: ‘the basic territorial unit in the organization of this country’, as one historian has labelled it. Nevertheless, it remains an enigmatic theme, especially in an era when ‘ parochial’ is commonly used as a byword for blinkeredTHE PARISH_V3 insularity. With the parish system strained to breaking point and its relevance to society increasingly questioned, there is a pressing need to rediscover the principles that shaped it – not least because of an ever-growing political and environmental momentum to find resilient and fertile kinds of common life. The parish has always reinvented itself: no place could be so influential, for so long, without doing so. And while by no means the only description of English locality – parish has always vied and overlapped with towns, wards, ‘vills’ and various other forms – it has been an unrivalled building block of neighbourhood, uniquely combining religious meaning with local identity. As Oliver Rackham puts it in his History of the Countryside, parish is singular in being ‘the smallest unit of spiritual and secular geography’.

This blend has always intrigued me. Raised in a rectory, I have instinctively viewed places in this way – as both spiritual and secular – and it has long been my vocation to live as though they were. For places are, I suggest, imagined first and then enacted: how we behave in a particular locale depends largely on what kind of place we believe it to be. Undergirding this book is faith in a spiritual tradition that exists as one among many currently practised in this country, each exerting a distinctive influence upon the social landscape. However, in both historical and geographical terms, the Church of England is not just another stakeholder, even as it rightly adjusts to a new and humbler role in national life. Any accurate realignment of its contemporary ‘place’ is not served by ignorance about the Church’s remarkable formative influence, over many centuries.

As the source for much of that influence, the parish’s standing is in a sense plain – one author going so far as to call it ‘the bedrock of European civilization as a whole’. But while the English, specifically Anglican, parish (varying types of parochial organization having spanned Christendom) is uniquely embedded in national culture, by virtue both of its antiquity and close allegiance with secular governance, its social and theological significance has hitherto been given remarkably scant consideration. This is partly because, while ecclesiastical history has long formed a pillar of academic training for ordained ministry, ecclesiastical geography has not – even though parish ministry is, by definition, geographical. Unsurprising, then, that contemporary church debate about locality tends to be geographically denuded: a shortcoming, which in turn ‘thins out’ a theological appreciation of parochial ministry. If geography is seen as theologically neutral, the parish system clearly risks being similarly undervalued. At a time when its viability is increasingly questioned within the Church of England and with plans progressing for the Church in Wales’ dismantling of parochial (though not local) ministry, there is considerable and urgent need for redress.

This book has, therefore, a particular and pressing purpose, which is to explain the pastoral or theological geography of the Anglican parish – in effect, to begin answering the question what kind of place is it? In doing so, one is struck immediately by the diversity of the subject: each parish being as unique as its grid reference. Some are almost as large as dioceses, covering huge tracts of moorland; some have boundaries as arbitrary and baffling as in an imperial land grab; others are self-contained and perfectly circle their communities. This has always been the case – and, clearly, the parish ‘took’ in some places more than in others, because of the natural terrain, or the vitality of other communal forms.

Nevertheless, there is much common ground – indeed, this phrase recurs as a way of describing the effect of the parish system in general, even when its specific features vary greatly. It must be acknowledged from the outset that the English parish has by no means had only a benign impact: often compromised – cruel, even – as an arm of the nascent nation state; ponderous and resistant to change, a straitjacket for church growth in some places. Any of its past and future value must face these failings evenly. It is by no means the only way for Christians to view social space: neither, given her global Communion, need it be Anglicanism’s pre-eminent parochial mode. But it is one expression – and, I shall suggest, the local form that has had the most enduring effect upon this nation’s self-understanding.

Just as the nineteenth-century radical William Cobbett confessed, I am committed to the Church of England partly because ‘it bears the name of my country’. ‘England’ is of course a heavily freighted word and groans with a burden of associations, some of which are as troublesome as those evoked by ‘parish’. This is unavoidable, but it is vital that the Church reckons with its English calling, not least so that the idea of England may be reclaimed for all who live there and that fruitful relations may be grown with neighbours who do not. The Churches of Scotland and Ireland maintain a parish system and, although it is hoped that the insights gained here are applicable in other provinces, nations and denominations, this book is intentionally English in its scope and concerns.

It must also be admitted that the Church – especially the worshipping congregation – can seem oddly absent in what follows. Little space is given to liturgy, the sacraments, evangelism or many other familiar ingredients of parish ministry. All this has consciously been avoided, partly because it is the common theme of pastoral studies, the theological (and, to a degree, spatial) dynamics of which have been ably considered elsewhere  but mainly these are blurred because my focus is fixed on the geographical parish, which is somewhat harder to see. That said, the mission of the local church – especially its symbolic tokens of parish priest and parish church – is conspicuously, if implicitly, present in what follows. The book is an attempt to describe how ‘place’ looks when viewed from the parish church and not vice versa: if the Church is obscured from where I am standing, this is only because I have my back to its door.

Nor, it may be added, is this study a direct engagement in the importunate questions regarding the future of the parish system. These form its horizon and will be surveyed in outline in the concluding chapter, but the foreground to be covered here is the territory on which Anglican ministry has long been practised, but rarely delved into. To some extent, this marks a response to the question of ‘what’s in a word?’ What are the distinctive connotations and associations of ‘parish’ – what does it mean? As such, this must be acknowledged to be a highly personal description. Coming from a long family line of parish priests, stretching back nearly 200 years, the parochial inheritance is of more than professional or academic interest: I am seeking definition for a place that is, at heart, intuitively perceived. While my priestly forebears all practised from within the Anglo-Catholic tradition, my own formation has largely been within the evangelical wing of the Church. Recognizing that the greater part of contemporary theological scholarship about place follows a more sacramental path, it was also curiously apparent that many of the more interesting doctrinal considerations of space and time came, by contrast, from theologians in the reformed tradition. The doctrinal sections in Part One of the book reflect this, being an attempt to employ their thought as a lens through which to view the parish. In order to develop an Anglican theology of place, then, I shall be enlisting some distinctly non-Anglican thinkers.

The rector, currently, of four parishes in the south-eastern corner of the Anglican Diocese of Southwark, I have spent 20 years in parochial ministry, the majority of which has been in urban or suburban contexts – beginning in Harrow in northwest London, and then for ten years as vicar of Gipsy Hill in the London Borough of Lambeth. This research commenced during that time, when I began to appreciate the effect upon parish life of both natural ecology and built environment, and was further informed by moving to the more rural setting described at various points in what follows. With the M2 motorway cutting like a river through my parishes, London looms large in these reflections; the tension between urban and rural has been profoundly felt and is expressed in the concluding sections on nostalgia and the ‘pastoral’.

 ‘Click here for information and buy tickets for ‘The Parish: Has it Had its Day?’ here.