For the Parish…

For the Parish…

In the next few months in the run up to our Moral Maze-style panel event The Parish: Has it Had its Day? on 9th Octoberwe’ll be offering extracts, comment and interviews from some of the participants who’ll be joining us at the event. Today, we give you an extract from For The Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions written by Revd Dr Alison Milbank and Dr Andrew Davison.

Alison Milbank, who is an Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham and Priest Vicar of Southwell Minster, will be one of the ‘expert witnesses’ cross-examined by a panel of luminaries during the evening on 9th October. 

In For the Parish the authors argue for the vitality of the parish – both for mission and for discipleship – and against the Fresh Expressions and Emerging Church movements. Here’s a brief extract.

“Nobody contests that the Church expresses her beliefs in words. We need to appreciate that her beliefs are also to be found in her disciplines and the ways in which she orders her common life. Our practices are not so much window dressing. They are the arena in which our convictions are learned and held. It is precisely these disciplines and forms of life that are being re-written in Mission-shaped Church and re-invented in Fresh Expressions.

The practical changes that Mission-shaped Church invites are not at all minor. There is a far greater contrast between the inherited church and Fresh Expressions than might appear at sight. The Fresh Expressions theorists reassure us that we are dealing with changes only at the level of ‘style’. They protest that their movement is no siege upon Anglican belief or identity, that they are concerned merely with changes in outward forms. We reply that there is nothing ‘mere’ about outward forms. These writers do not appreciate just how much the Faith is embodied in those forms, just as it is also embodied in the words of our theology. Those who follow Mission-shaped Church are turning their back on traditional ‘ways of being Church’. This is to turn one’s back on the theology and identity that those forms of life embody. A change in our practical forms of life means a change in the theology that goes along with it. We offer some practical examples.

Until now, the average Fresh Expression has had little or nothing to do with its parish, deanery or diocese. This stands in contrast to the average parish in the ‘inherited church’. A Christian who makes her home in the Fresh Expression will find that her week-by-week experience expresses a very different doctrine of the Church and its interrelations than if she belonged to a parish church.

As another example, the inherited church embodies the Anglican vision that wherever someone lives, he or she already has as place in the Christian community. Everyone lives in a parish; they are always already members. Our fellow Christians are our family. Just like our biological family, we do not choose them. In contrast, the Fresh Expressions movement sets out a very different vision in its practical forms. The emphasis is on choosing the ‘expression’ of Church that suits you. Consequently, a very different set of values looms large, centred around freedom and choice. The same contrast could be made over the way in which the community worships: is there a liturgy, which is received as a ‘given’, or is the emphasis on ‘devising’ worship differently from week to week?

As a final example, consider what the contrasting forms of life of the parish and the Fresh Expressions say about their attitude towards time and space. Do they celebrate novelty or presence? Is the network central, or is place? What is more real, the virtual or the concrete?

Those who separate form and content usually do not appreciate the significance of form. When form is treated as separate from content, it is rendered marginal. If we do not appreciate just how much theology comes wrapped up in practices then we will treat those practices lightly and not fully appreciate their usefulness. This is exactly what we see with Fresh Expressions. By and large, the people who write this literature do not appreciate how much the practices of the inherited church offer for mission and discipleship. They discount the forms of the inherited church without appreciating their potency for bringing the Faith to bear upon our time and space. They neglect the potential of these ways of worship and forms of relation to reorder our lives. To throw over the practices of the inherited church is both to weaken our grasp of the Faith, and also to weaken its grasp on us. It is also to neglect opportunities for mission. The traditions of the inherited church are living parables for the Faith and have great potential for witness. We take these ideas up in Chapter 8.

Any form of Christianity that can dissociate form and content to the extent of Mission-shaped Church is really very different from Christianity as the Church of England has known and practiced it. The communitarian vision of identity and rationality held out by Wittgenstein in the twentieth century, and by many others, is of a piece with the approach of the English Church down the centuries. All of a sudden, we are now presented with radically novel forms of association, and ways to live the Christian life. The practical proposals of Fresh Expressions show that their theorists have come up with some very different answers to certain searching and foundational questions: are knowing and believing something that the individual does by herself or are they something communal? Is Christian belief mainly a matter of ideas and words, or is it something that involves shared activities and forms of life? Do we accept that human beings are now basically atomized individuals or do we hold on to a more communal setting for human identity? Is choice the ultimate human good? Is freedom everything? How deeply entrenched in our theology is the idea of gift? Are we consumers or producers, or both and more than either? How do we stand in relation to time and history, or to the body and place?”


The Parish: Has it Had its Day?, a moral maze-style panel event co-hosted by SCM Press and our friends at Church Times is on 9th October at 7pm. Main panellists include Graham Tomlin and Paula Gooder, with a panel of expert witnesses including Alison Milbank and parish priest and author Andrew Rumsey. 

You can buy tickets and find out more information, on the Church House Bookshop website


If God has the power to intervene for some, then why does he not intervene for all?

Global PovertyAs part of the lineup at this years’ Greenbelt, Justin Thacker will be offering a talk entitled “Can we make poverty history while the poor are always with us?”. Justin’s book Global Poverty: A Theological Guide was published earlier this year. Here’s an extract, in which Justin offers some thoughts about why God doesn’t seem to do more to eradicate suffering and poverty.

One of the toughest challenges to those of us who would support the notion of an interventionist God is simply this: if God can heal the blind man, why not cure blindness? If God can cure the lame, then why not cure all paralysis? If God has the power to intervene for some, then why does he not intervene for all? It was on precisely this question that Alister McGrath, then Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, and one of the most gifted British apologists, came unstuck – albeit temporarily – in a recent debate with Richard Dawkins. It certainly is a difficult question.

However, the beginnings of a response to this challenge are evident as we examine Jesus’ own declarations in relation to the kingdom of God.

When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4.16−21)

All commentators on the life of Jesus acknowledge that this is a pivotal passage in understanding the nature of his ministry and identity. In the midst of the synagogue, Jesus draws attention to a passage in Isaiah, a passage that for hundreds of years had been understood as declaring the kingdom of God, heaven on earth if you will, and Jesus says, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ We must not lose sight of the sheer audacity evident here.

Jesus was not just saying that the kingdom was coming – many had said that. He was not just outlining the nature of the kingdom – the passage itself did that. Rather, he was declaring that now, in his person, by means of his presence, this Kingdom would be realized. As Tom Wright puts it:

The Kingdom of God, he said, is at hand. In other words, God was now unveiling his age-old plan, bringing his sovereignty to bear on Israel and the world as had always intended, bringing justice and mercy to Israel and the world. And he was doing so, apparently, through Jesus.

Or, as Steve Chalke and Alan Mann summarized it, ‘The Kingdom, the in-breaking shalom of God, is available now to everyone through me.’ This is huge.

The point of note is the personal manner in which Jesus draws this conclusion:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus was not just saying, God’s Spirit is now here for everyone, so that we all preach the good news, proclaim freedom, cure blindness and so on. No, this was a personal declaration. Even in Isaiah, from where the quotation is taken, the messianic subject does not merely announce the good news, but also brings it about. And consider Jesus’ dramatic declaration on finishing his reading: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ Once again, it is not: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled’, but rather it has been fulfilled in ‘your hearing’, that is, in the presence of those who were there – and this is so because Jesus was there, personally present.

What can we conclude from this? That God’s in-breaking kingdom is present and available in the person of, and by means of, the actions and teaching of his anointed servant, Jesus Christ. In the same way that the absence of suffering that characterizes the new heaven and new earth is made possible by the presence of God, so the shalom of God that characterizes the kingdom is made possible by the presence and actions of Jesus Christ. In neither case is the absence of pain, or peace that is promised, available in general, or in the abstract. Rather, they are possible because Jesus makes it so.

A similar conclusion can be drawn from Jesus’ use of parables. Tom Wright has drawn attention to the fact that, in the parable of the sower, Jesus is not so much making a general point regarding the propensity or otherwise of people to respond to God’s message. Rather, his emphasis is ‘what God was doing in Jesus’ own ministry’. Similarly, in the parable of the prodigal son, it is not, once again, a universal principle regarding the love of God. The parable was not a general illustration of the timeless truth of God’s forgiveness for the sinner . . . It was a sharp-edged, context-specific message about what was happening in Jesus’ ministry. More specifically, it was about what was happening through Jesus’ welcome of outcasts, his eating with sinners.

The kingdom, then, does not come in the abstract. It comes in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Even when the disciples heal and forgive, it is not because they have some general ability to do so, rather it is because Jesus has specifically given them the authority to go and continue his kingdom work. It is for precisely this reason that we have Jesus’ otherwise remarkable statement at the time the 72 were sent out. ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me’ (Luke 10.16). The point Jesus is making is that any ability the 72 have to enact the kingdom is only realized because Jesus is there in power. Moreover, any ability Jesus has is only because God is at work in him. The kingdom never comes in the abstract, but only by means of God’s active presence, whether in his Son or Spirit, or in us as we allow the Son and Spirit to work through us.

The answer, then, to the question of why God healed the blind man but not blindness is simply this. God does heal blindness, and lameness and so on, but only where he is fully present. It is his unhindered presence that brings shalom, not the casting of some universal magic spell. In the age to come, his shekinah – his full and unveiled presence – will be operative everywhere (consider Rev. 22.5), and hence there will be no more suffering or pain. However, in this age, in the time before he comes again, his presence is experienced in veiled form. In the first place, this was true of his Son, who though fully God had his glory hidden as he lived among us.10 Such a veiled presence meant that shards of light could and did break through to bring healing, forgiveness and restoration – but this was not the unhindered presence that we will all experience in the age to come, when we will see him ‘face to face’. In the second place, though, that task of bringing God’s presence to the world – and so the all-encompassing shalom of God – is now ours. Our job is to continue in the glorious building project that God in Christ has begun.

Justin Thacker is a lecturer in practical and public theology at Cliff College. He’ll be speaking at Greenbelt on Monday 28th August 2017 at 12.30pm in The Leaves venue.


“God’s love expressed in new ways…”

Church in Life, the follow-up to Michael Moynagh’s much-praised Church for Every Context is published later this month. Here’s an extract.

Something remarkable is happening in the Christianity of our times. The church is learning to express God’s love in new ways. Across denominations and networks of churches, and sometimes outside them, in parts of Africa, Australia, Europe, North America and elsewhere, new ecclesial communities are popping up in the context of people’s everyday lives – in cafés, gyms, tattoo parlours, laundromats and even online games. This grassroots movement, if it really is a movement, is patchy, many communities are short-lived, and we still have a great deal to learn. But there is evidence of fruitfulness and gathering confidence in these communities’ witness to the kingdom.


Historical roots

Though these new ecclesial communities have plenty of antecedents in church history, their recent intellectual pedigree begins around 1968. In that year, and arising largely from the work of Dutch theologian Johannes Hoekendijk (Flett, 2016, pp. 187−240), a World Council of Churches report proposed that alongside the ‘parish’ new churches, taking diverse shapes, should undertake mission in the many contexts of work and leisure in which people find themselves (WCC, 1968). Four years later John Taylor, General Secretary of the Church Mission Society and later Bishop of Winchester, wrote enthusiastically about ‘little congregations’ of perhaps just two or three Christians scattered across the settings of ordinary life (Taylor, 1972, pp. 147–52). Lesslie Newbigin, a leading mission thinker, expressed similar thoughts soon after (Newbigin, 1977, pp. 115–8).

Yet these ideas were scarcely noticed, let alone acted upon. They seemed too radical, few concrete examples pointed the way, and there appeared little pragmatic need to think about novel expressions of the church. This indifference changed with the publication of a Church of England report, Mission-shaped Church, in 2004. The report called for new ecclesial communities, what it called ‘fresh expressions of church’, that would go out to people in innovative ways. They would meet in unusual places at unusual times and help people towards transformed lives via fresh commitment to Christ.

Not many church reports become bestsellers, but this one did. Since its publication, it has sold over 30,000 copies (a huge number for a British report), reached an international audience and been credited with reshaping the Church of England’s ecclesiology (Davison and Milbank, 2010, p. 1). It has fanned the development of several thousand ‘fresh expressions of church’ in the UK and catalysed similar initiatives in Australia, Canada, mainland Europe, South Africa, the United States and elsewhere. ‘Fresh expressions’, whether or not that language is used, have captured the imagination of people in a growing number of denominations, from Baptists to Roman Catholics, with increasing interest from denominational leaders.

Mission-shaped Church was influential partly because, unlike the earlier World Council of Churches’ report, it did not cast a theoretical vision. It was a commentary on what was actually happening. The report provided missional examples of new and different ways of being church. It used these to chart a way forward for a church that not only felt bewildered by sweeping changes in the cultural landscape, but had also experienced some 40 years of numerical decline. The report captured a mood.

In part the mood connected with the emerging church conversation, which began in the United States during the 1990s and spread to other countries. The conversation involved mainly evangelicals who were asking how the church could be relevant in a postmodern age. They started to reimagine the church. At the same time, people spontaneously began to be church in new ways. One couple I met in 2002 described how they had got to know some of the young people in their neighbourhood, invited them for food and social time in their home, and had begun to introduce them to the gospel. ‘I suppose we must be doing emerging church’, they remarked.

A definition

So what are these new forms of church? As in Church for Every Context (Moynagh, 2012, p. xiv), I understand them to be communities that are:

  • Missional – through the Spirit, they are birthed by Christians mainly among people who do not normally attend church.
  • Contextual – they seek to serve their context and fit the circumstances of the people in it.
  • Formational – their leaders aim to make disciples.
  • Ecclesial – their leaders intend them not to be stepping stones to an existing church, but to become church for the people they reach. The community may be a new congregation of a local church or, if it is not part of a local church, a church in its own right.

An example is Saturday Gathering, which grew out of an ecumenical food bank in Halifax, north England. After a while, a group of Christian volunteers realized that going to conventional church was too big a step for the food bank’s clients who had little church background. So they started a Saturday evening gathering in the same venue. Clients of the food bank eat together, discuss stories from the Bible and issues from their own lives, pray, and sing a few Christian songs. The Gathering began in 2012 with a dozen people and 15 months later was attracting about 60, nearly all of whom were not previously attending church. In January 2014, 19 members were baptized and confirmed by a Church of England bishop.

To forge these new communities, typically the founding team listens to the people it seeks to serve, finds ways to love and serve them, builds community with those involved, offers opportunities for people to explore the Christian life and encourages a community with tastes of church to emerge round those coming to faith. In the case of Saturday Gathering, the food bank was the outcome of the first two processes. The next three occurred on Saturday evenings.

Using this approach, Christians don’t invite people to come to an existing congregation, which would be an ‘attractional’ form of mission. They don’t go out in ‘engaged’ mission, based on some form of community project, and then invite people to church. They are an ‘incarnational’ presence in the midst of daily life, creating a church-like community with people who want to follow Christ. Within the Church of England, over three-quarters of them remain within the parish that started them (Lings, 2016, p. 10). They are, in effect, new congregations, complementing the existing church by serving people it does not reach. In Rowan Williams’s words, they form a ‘mixed economy’ in which new ecclesial communities do not supplant the existing church, but sit alongside it in relationships of mutual respect and support (Church in Wales, 2000, p. 3).

These new communities go by a variety of names, such as simple church, organic church, missional communities, new monastic communities, praxis communities, fresh expressions of church and church plants. Having toyed with ‘new contextual churches’ (Moynagh, 2012), I have settled on ‘new ecclesial communities’ as an umbrella term for initiatives that meet the missional, contextual, formational and ecclesial criteria. The term ‘community’ leaves open at this stage the question of whether these initiatives can properly be described as ‘church’, a controversial issue addressed in Chapter 12.

‘New ecclesial community’ refers in the first instance to the team that initiates the venture. It can refer also to the community that emerges round the team. In addition, if it meets separately from the rest of the initiative, it can refer to the community of those coming to faith. Finally, it can refer to all three at the same time! This fluidity of language is not without precedent. The New Testament uses ‘church’ to refer to the gathering in people’s homes, the assembly of the whole town or city, or the entire body of Christ. As with ‘church’, how ‘new ecclesial community’ is being used will be clear from the context.

Are they missionally fruitful?

The most thorough research into these new communities has been undertaken by Britain’s Church Army Research Unit, which has counted ‘fresh expressions of church’ in half the Church of England’s dioceses and conducted telephone interviews with the leaders of all those satisfying its ten criteria (Lings, 2016, p. 18). These criteria diverge from my four above, not only because there are more numerous, but because they do not insist that a fresh expression is birthed mainly among people not attending church. They include church-growth influenced church plants, discussed below, which seem to attract a substantially smaller proportion of people from outside the church and which in the UK are normally distinguished from ‘fresh expressions’. This failure to make an important distinction limits the research as a resource for new ecclesial communities.

Even so, the findings published in 2016 provide considerable evidence that these new communities can be missionally fruitful.

  • 1,104 ‘fresh expressions and church plants’ were identified.
  • As estimated by their leaders, 50,600 people were attending the initiatives’ regular (at least monthly) main events.
  • Three-quarters of the initiatives had been started in the last ten years, with evidence that the pace continues to accelerate (pp. 41−2).
  • In the first wave of ten dioceses, an estimated 13.5% of local churches had at least one fresh expression or church plant.
  • The average size of these initiatives is about 50 people of all ages.
  • In a sub-sample of 66 ‘fresh expressions of Church’, as many adult and children attendees had not been going to church in the previous two years before they joined the community as had been going to church – 45% in both cases. These figures exclude the team leading the initiative (Dalpra and Vivian, 2016, p. 30). If this is representative of the sample as a whole, it suggests that these new communities are remarkably effective in drawing in people from outside the church.
  • Four-fifths (80.4%) are taking steps to grow disciples beyond what is available in their main gathering. 37% have had baptisms, while 43% have held a Holy Communion.

The report concludes, ‘Nothing else, as a whole, in the Church of England has this level of missional impact . . .’ (p. 10). This is a somewhat ambitious conclusion. What the report does not tell us is how many people from outside the church are coming to faith. If – most unlikely – hardly any were journeying to Christ, one would need to compare these ‘fresh expressions’ with other outreach activities that have little evangelistic impact, and the report does not do this. For all the report’s helpful wealth of data, we do not have some crucial figures: how many people are journeying towards Jesus and how many would say they have been found by him? Only then will we know if these new forms of ecclesial community go beyond loving and serving people outside the church to drawing them into the Christian life.

So it is too early to put a definite tick against the evangelistic fruitfulness of new ecclesial communities, which is hardly surprising: the majority are still in their infancy. However, the initial signs are encouraging. Their numbers have grown rapidly, they are successfully serving people outside the conventional church and they seem to be looking for ways to make disciples. This hopeful picture is confirmed by anecdotal evidence. For example, in 2014 I asked the leader of an all-age fresh expression how many atheists and agnostics were attending. He replied, ‘Not many at the moment. That is because most have come to faith.’

Revd Dr Michael Moynagh, based at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, works for Fresh Expressions as Director of Network Development and Consultant on Theology and Practice.

Pre-order Church in Life now to benefit from a pre-publication discount. 

Just Announced: 9th October, St Mellitus London – “The Parish: Has it Had its Day?”

What role does the parish play? Is there really still a future for the parish system? How can the parish survive the shifting landscape both in the church and in wider society? Should it survive, or is it a relic of a different age? Has the parish had its day?

These are the questions we’ll be asking during what promises to be a lively, stimulating and provocative discussion in October. Along with our friends at The Church Times, we’ve been assembling an array of church leaders, theologians, and sociologists to discuss and debate the place of the parish in society today. Inspired by Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, the event will see a group of main panellists discussing the issues, and interrogating a series of ‘expert witnesses’.

The main panel will include:

Graham Tomlin (Bishop of Kensington)
Paula Gooder (Director for Mission Learning and Development, Birmingham Diocese)
Calvin T. Samuel (Principal, London School of Theology)
Nick Spencer (Research Director at Theos Think Tank)
Jessica Martin (Canon, Ely Cathedral)

Participating as expert witnesses will be Andrew Rumsey, (Rector of St Mary’s Oxted and author of Parish: An Anglican Theology of Place), David Goodhew (Director of the Centre for Church Growth Research), Andy Milne, (pioneer founder of Sorted, a fresh expression in Bradford), and Alison Milbank (Associate Professor at Nottingham University, and author (with Andrew Davison) of For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions).

Maeve Sherlock will be chairing the evening.

The event will be held in St Mellitus College, London on 9th October at 7pm. Tickets are available now from (£10 general admission/£5 students and ordinands).



SCM News – Summer 2017

Welcome to another quarterly roundup of all things SCM Press

SCM at Greenbelt, 25th-28th August, 2017

You can catch two SCM authors in The Leaves venue at Greenbelt this year. On Sunday 27th August at 12:30pm, Andrew Rumsey, author of ParishAn Anglican Theology of Place  will be speaking on “Parish and Place”. He’ll be considering whether, as political and environmental debate increasingly links the global to the local, the parish’s time might just have come again.

Then, on Monday 28th August, at 12:30pm, Justin Thacker, author of Global Poverty: A Theological Guide, will argue against those on the right who say that because the poor are always with us, we needn’t do anything to help; but also against those on the left who say we can end poverty if we just try hard enough. Instead, he’ll propose that precisely because we’ll always be among the poor we need a motivation for poverty alleviation that is long-lasting and goes beyond mere clictivism.


As ever, we’ll be attending a couple of academic conferences and summer schools in the next few months.

Ripon College Cuddesdon Summer School, 2017 “The Root of all Evil?: The Place of Money in Society” 9th-15th July, 2017

BIAPT – British and Irish Association for Practical Theology, 11th-13th July, St Mary’s Twickenham 

SSCE – Society for the Study of Christian Ethics, 8th-10th September, Westcott House, Cambridge.

If you’re attending either of these, do stop by the SCM Press book stall where we’ll have a good selection of frontlist and backlist titles available at a conference discount. And if you’d like to take the opportunity to discuss book ideas with the commissioning editor at either BIAPT or SSCE, then he’d be pleased to hear from you to arrange a time to meet –

Coming Soon…


Michael Moynagh’s Church for Every Context offered a landmark study of the theology behind the Emerging Church Movement. In July, we’re publishing the much-anticipated follow-up to that work, Church in Life. Taking account of the significant developments in practice and thinking around the emerging church, Church in Life will, like its predecessor, quickly establish itself as a key text for all interested in pioneer ministry, fresh expressions, church planting, church growth and ecclesiology.

It’s been called “a timely, significant and constructive contribution to contemporary missiological and ecclesiological thinking, which deserves to be widely read and engaged” by Doug Gay, Principal of Trinity College at the University of Glasgow

Edited by Stephen Platten, Oneness: The Dynamics of Monasticism  uses a focus on the life, practice and history of the Shepherds Law community as a starting point, but broadens the discussion to consider the how such communities negotiate the boundary between the solitary life and life within their community. There are contributions from a wealth of eminent academics, including Diarmaid MacCulloch, Andrew Louth and Sarah Foot. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, provides the foreword, and there is an afterword from Rowan Williams.

Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church in Oxford, says that “this remarkable book will prompt some profound soul-searching for all who take time to dwell on its’ message. The engaging reflections that each author provides will surely lead to a renewed vocation – to go deeper with God in the shallows of our time.” The book is published in August.

It is often considered controversial to draw any links between the worlds of leadership, management and organizational behaviour and that of churches. Written by Vaughan S. Roberts and David Sims, Leading by Story 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 authors establish a conversation across various disciplines, including theology and church history but also organisational and practical theology and explore how story and narrative work through and within churches. The book is published in September.

The intersection of religion and development has for some decades been considered contentious, with scholars of both disciplines inhibited by the constraints of either the religious or the secular paradigm they primarily inhabit. The second in our new SCM Research publishing strand, Catherine Loy’s Development Beyond the Secular: Theological Approaches to Inequality offers a provocative and searching examination of the theological underpinnings of development work and questions how Christian values are manifest through day-to-day work in the world of poverty eradication. Coming in September.

Also in September, we’re publishing Faith, Hope and Love: Interfaith Engagement as Practical Theology

Demonstrating a new and innovative approach to interfaith engagement, the book argues for theological reflection on the multi faith reality of our society to focus on the practice of Christian interfaith engagement, drawing on the tools of contemporary practical theology.

The author, 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.


Setting God’s People Free?

9780334054801In February this year, the Archbishop’s Council published a report entitled ‘Setting God’s People Free’ which called for fresh thinking in the way the church equips all members, not just the clergy, for ministry throughout the week. In today’s guest post, David Heywood, author of Kingdom Learning , examines the report’s pitfalls.

‘Will we determine to empower, liberate and disciple the 98% of the Church of England who are not ordained and therefore set them free for fruitful, faithful mission and ministry, influence, leadership and, most importantly, vibrant relationship with Jesus in all of life? And will we do so not only in church-based ministry on a Sunday but in work and school, in gym and shop, in field and factory, Monday to Saturday?’

This is the challenge laid down by the Church of England Archbishops’ Council report ‘Setting God’s People Free’. According to the report, equipping the whole church for discipleship and ministry beyond the walls of the church and the confines of Sunday worship will require, ‘a seismic revolution in the culture of the Church’ (page 3). This revolution comes in two parts:

  1. It means a changed mind-set among every member of the church, clergy and laity alike. Instead of seeing themselves as clients of the clergy, ordinary church members will begin to see themselves as ‘missionary disciples’, to use a phrase from Pope Francis. Meanwhile, the clergy’s understanding of their role will change from ‘ministering to’ to ‘serving with’.
  2. The gifts and calling of the laity will need to be accorded equal status as those of the clergy. Indeed, the report states that, ‘Until laity and clergy are convinced, based on their baptismal mutuality, that they are equal in worth and status, complementary in gifting and vocation, mutually accountable in discipleship, and equal partners in mission, we will never form Christian communities that can evangelise the nation.’

The great obstacle to these two changes is the ingrained clericalism of the Church: the assumption that ministry is the prerogative of the clergy, so that ministry comes to be defined as ‘what the clergy do’. The consequences of clericalism are many:

  • the reluctance of many clergy to devolve responsibility and involve others in ministry;
  • the reluctance of many congregations to engage in ministry;
  • lay ministry, when it does take place, is seen as ‘helping the clergy’ and training courses for lay ministry are designed to reproduce the training of the clergy;
  • schemes of pastoral reorganisation concentrate on the deployment of the clergy rather than the mission of the whole church;
  • and ordained ministry consumes the overwhelming proportion of the Church financial resources, time and energy.

Moreover, the vital ministry of the whole church is seen as relatively insignificant, to the extent that ordained ministry is routinely referred to as ‘the’ ministry.

Unfortunately, while strong and eloquent on the shape of the problem, the report is weak on the solutions. The authors propose a number of ‘levers’ through which they hope to accomplish the kind of change that is needed. In their place, I suggest the following, several of which are addressed in my books Reimagining Ministry and Kingdom Learning.

  1. Clericalism needs to be named and addressed, not as an unfortunate element in the church’s thinking and practice but as a grievous sin, which holds us back from participating with God in his mission. The Church, led by its bishops, needs to acknowledge publicly the damage this aspect of its inherited culture is doing and determine to adopt a new mind-set and a renewed practice.
  2. As ‘Setting God’s People Free’ acknowledges, God’s people, lay and ordained, need to learn a new theology of ministry and mission, capable of resourcing and guiding discipleship and ministry in ‘work and school, gym and shop, field and factory’. Programmes lay discipleship and clergy ministerial development alike need to major on helping people to understand role of the local church in the mission of God, and enabling them to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit and the signs of God’s kingdom in society beyond the church.
  3. The Church needs to determine to draw on good practice in adult education to resource its ministry of teaching and training at all levels, from the confirmation class to ministerial formation and development for lay and ordained. ‘Few churches,’ the report declares, ‘are equipped with the kind of “action learning” approaches that we see in Jesus’ disciple-making and in best practice in adult learning models in wider society’ (page 18). This point, repeatedly made by a handful of enthusiasts for adult education over many years, has yet to make any appreciable impression on an institution still locked into outdated and unfruitful methods of teaching and learning.
  4. As part of an ‘action learning’ approach to adult discipleship, theological reflection provides a variety of methods that enable people to make connections between Christian faith and the situations they encounter in everyday life. Theological reflection both exercises and trains the virtue of ‘practical wisdom’, the key to discerning the presence of God at work in the world. It turns Christian faith from a set of theoretical beliefs into a life-giving ‘wisdom for life’.
  5. Theological reflection and the wisdom it brings also enables whole churches to examine themselves, honestly facing the question of whether their inherited ways of working and patterns of relationship faithfully reflect and proclaim the gospel. Churches are enabled to become ‘learning organisations’, capable of changing and adapting without losing touch with their core vision and purpose. Rather, it is that core vision that resources the process of reflection, which enables them to grow and change.
  6. Finally, the Church of England as a whole needs to embrace a process of adaptive change. ‘Setting God’s People Free’ with its ‘levers’ for change, has fallen into the same trap as much of the rest of the Reform and Renewal agenda: that of proposing ‘technical’ solutions to the challenges facing the Church. In contrast, adaptive change begins by asking whether we rightly understand the problem. It opens up a space for reflection in which to gain new insights and new perspectives.

The Church and England, and perhaps other Churches, urgently needs to ‘reimagine’ both ministry and discipleship. Reimagining Ministry and Kingdom Learning suggest how this reimagining might take place.

David Heywood is Director of Pastoral Studies at Ripon College Cuddesdon. 

Kingdom Learning is published on 30th June. Preorder now  via our website at the pre-publication offer price.



When Faith and Politics Rub Shoulders…

‘We don’t do God’, Alastair Campbell famously declared.

However you would have chosen to answer the questions put to Tim Farron during his UK general election campaign, it’s clear that his resignation raises some interesting questions about whether those in political power can – or should – be expected to defend their own personal religious positions. Can we tolerate leaders who hold personal religious convictions which sit outside of a party’s, or society’s, prevailing attitude? Should politicians ‘do God’? As the Church so often urges congregations to see their faith as something which affects the whole of life, workplace and all, should we make an exception for our political leaders? Should they instead keep their faith as something to be practised behind the safely closed doors of the church, or the synagogue, or the mosque? That perennial question rears its head once again – can politics, and politicians, do God?

But let’s turn the question around for a moment, and instead ask – should God do politics? Trevor Beeson is the author of Priests and Politics: The Church Speaks Out, an account of how the Church of England has responded to the most important political and social issues of recent times. Beeson says that the church has a responsibility to provide ‘prophetic witness’ in the public arena. Here’s an extract:

Although the Church of England is now beset with a number of serious internal problems, and, for several reasons, less influential in public life than at any other time during the past two centuries, it nonetheless retains a deep social commitment and a concern for the well-being of the nation as a whole. Its involvement in social and community work is impressive.  Moreover, the statements of its leaders on political, economic and social questions continue to attract media attention, and government ministers often feel obliged to respond publicly to criticisms of their policies. There is no reason therefore for the Church to reduce its prophetic witness, and the only issues for discussion concern the forms this witness should take and the resources available to make it effective in an increasingly complex and secularized society.

The 1941 Malvern Conference, followed quickly by the publication of Archbishop William Temple’s Christianity and Social Order marked the end of an era of Anglican visionary social thinking that began with the theological work of F. D. Maurice in the mid-nineteenth century, developed through the witness of the Christian Social Union in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, and reached its climax at the COPEC Conference in 1925.

Malvern added nothing new to this but helped to carry the movement of thought forward into the heart of the most appallingly destructive war in human history. The chief recommendations of this conference, which included matters such as adequate housing, education, working conditions, wages and leisure, were in significant measure met by the provisions of the Welfare State and the growth in national prosperity which, with a few ups and downs, characterized the remainder of the twentieth century. These years witnessed social changes, including less respect for religious institutions, that radically altered national life and culture.

Meanwhile, the Church of England’s leaders were becoming preoccupied by their own institution’s needs and problems. Much time was devoted to liturgical and synodical reform, both against the background priests and politics 200 of declining church attendance. This decline accelerated quickly after the 1950s, creating distracting financial and clerical manpower pressures.

Circumstances, which also included the lack of a commanding figure such as Temple had been, and little development in the field of Christian social thought, conspired therefore to inhibit further comprehensive critical commentary on the nation’s life. Which is not to say that the voice of the Church was silent.

Several chapters in this book provide evidence of substantial initiatives by individuals and groups of Anglicans during this time, and there were others for which space could not be allocated. These included abolition of the death penalty, child poverty, ecology, immigration and nationality as well as major enterprises of aid to the developing world. Here it is to be noted that these were addressed to particular issues, rather than to broad programmes of reform, and that they were tackled with expertise – often a great deal of expertise.

This characterized the many reports produced by the Church of England’s Board of Social Responsibility which, over a long period, used the resources of its own staff and a large number of others, often distinguished in their fields, who were willing to devote a good deal of time to serious projects. Putting Assunder, The Church and the Bomb, Faith in the City and Faith in the Countryside attracted much attention, and the titles of just a few others indicate the range – Ought Suicide to be a Crime? (1959), Punishment (1963), Abortion: An Ethical Discussion (1965), Not Just for the Poor (1986), Growth, Justice and Work (1986).

It must be a matter of the utmost regret that the majority of these were, after a flurry of publicity attending their publication and some synodical debate, consigned to gather dust on unvisited shelves in Church House, Westminster. In most cases, fewer than 100 copies were sold. The dioceses and parishes hardly noticed them, and, even more seriously, they did not find their ways into the hands of the statutory bodies responsible for policy in their areas of concern. In these circumstances, it is perhaps hardly surprising that when the General Synod was faced with serious financial constraints, the resources previously available for such projects were savagely cut and the reports reduced to a trickle.

Yet the need for the Church’s pronouncements on political, social and economic matters to be informed by accurate information concerning the facts and the likely outcome of any decision-making by those responsible becomes ever greater. William Temple’s criticisms of bankers in the 1930s drew the not unjustified response that he simply did not understand the workings of the banking system. How much more difficult then to understand its complexities today when many of the bankers themselves are baffled?

A distinction has to be made between general statements of moral principle, which are part of the Church’s calling, and attempts to apply these principles to particular issues which nearly always involve multiple factors and require compromise.

Compromise has some bad connotations and needs to be used cautiously, but refusal to deal with it may be tantamount to withdrawal from serious decision-making. It may have either responsible or irresponsible manifestations. The former has belonged to the Christian ethical tradition from the earliest days of the Faith. It is, for example, doubtful whether Jesus intended the absolute ethical demands enshrined in his Sermon on the Mount to be treated by his followers as a precise guide to their future behaviour. Rather they were held up as shining examples of love in action, the spirit of which must infuse all their choices.

The evangelical counsels of perfection, as they are called, can in fact be obeyed only within the sheltered life of a closed religious community, and even there failure is not unknown. Elsewhere, the discipline of the Christian life consists in a constant Spirit-guided attempt to let Love take control and in the many situations where the issues are not clear-cut make the most loving, and therefore the most life-enhancing, choices, even when these may be less than ideal.

The Church’s moral theologians have often offered guidance in this area of Christian obedience, and individual believers have often found this helpful. But much greater challenges attend Christian decision-making when this is required in corporate, rather than individual, spheres, and only limited assistance can be offered by those who are remote from the complex factors involved. Some can nonetheless point to principles of great importance shared by other religious and moral traditions.

In his seminal Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great American theologians of the twentieth century, called attention to the obvious, but frequently overlooked, fact that individuals in a crowd tend to behave differently, and often worse, than when on their own or in small family groups. His particular concern was to discuss the implication of this for politics, though it has a wider relevance. He concluded that it is unwise, sometimes dangerous, to attempt to apply directly to corporate decision-making those Christian values which are an imperative for the individual believer. It is always necessary to take account not only of human potential for good, but also of the limitations of human nature, particularly those which manifest themselves in humanity’s collective behaviour – ‘The moral obtuseness of human collectives makes a morality of pure disinterestedness impossible.’

This note of sober realism is bad news inasmuch as it suggests that little in the way of social improvement can be hoped for. But Niebuhr saw the whole of life in terms of a perennial paradox. Christians judge themselves and the world in the light of the eternal, yet work ceaselessly to transform society while under no illusion that society can ever be perfected. Christians will find no ultimate fulfilment in society, but neither will they find salvation apart from social and political engagement.

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