Radical Orthodoxy in Real Life

Since the publication in 1999 of the seminal book on Radical Orthodoxy edited by John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward, the Radical Orthodox project has become a hugely important part of the broader theological landscape.  One of the new generation of leading proponents of Radical Orthodoxy was John Hughes. His contribution to the Radical Orthodox project was tragically cut short by his death in a car accident in 2014. In the introduction to Graced Lifea collection of John Hughes’ writings, Matthew Bullimore, Vice Principal of Westcott House reflects that Radical Orthodoxy offers “a via media” between a wide variety of positions:- “a position of revelatory positivism in which all truth is averred to come from Scripture or the teaching of the Church so rendering all critique otiose”, one in which faith is made “amenable to its critics as far as possible”, or indeed a “‘death of God’ theology that acknowledges the fecundity of religious language while denying it has any transcendent reference.” John Hughes’ unique gift, and perhaps the beauty of Radical Orthodoxy as a whole, was the ability to understand there is no pure nature or neutral secular realm, but that all things can be seen in the light of faith as graced and caught up in the redeeming love of God.

Later this month sees the publication of Preaching Radical and Orthodox, edited by Alison Milbank, John Hughes and Arabella Milbank, a collection which was first mooted by the editors before the death of John Hughes.

The book aims to offer an introduction to the Radical Orthodox sensibility, this time through sermons preached by some of its most notable proponents, including Stanley Hauerwas, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward. The sermons take us through the liturgical year and come from a rich variety of contexts.

Accessible, challenging and varied, the sermons together help to suggest what Radical Orthodoxy might mean in practice, and to emphasise its grounding within the everyday life of the Church. Sam Wells, vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields says of the book “Those who believe the word is a sacrament will find themselves worshipping through this book. Those who don’t will need to think again.”

For a limited time, you can preorder Preaching Radical and Orthodox at a special pre-publication price. Click here to find out more.


Parish: Its Mission and Vision

The ParishThis Monday SCM Press and Church Times co-host The Parish: Has it Had its Day?, a moral-maze style debate at St Mellitus College in London. Chaired by Baroness Maeve Sherlock, participants will include Paula Gooder, Bishop Graham Tomlin, and Alison Milbank, amongst numerous others. It promises to be a stimulating evening, and there are still a few tickets left – do join us: click here to buy tickets 

SCM Press has long played its part in thinking about the place of the parish in the ministry of the church and in wider society – from David Cockerell’s classic Beginning Where we Are: A Theology of Parish Ministry  first published in 1989, through to Andrew Rumsey’s recent publication Parish: An Anglican Theology of Place.

Last year, we published The Parish Handbook by Rev Bob Mayo . Sam Wells says that”Bob Mayo creates a patchwork quilt whose threads are experience, reflection, scripture and vocation” and observes “this is an account of real life, real faith, real ministry.”

In this extract from the introduction, Mayo considers the mission and the vision of the parish:

The Church is a source of transformation for society offering the riches of Christian teaching, the resilience of Christian relationships, and the practice of Christian hope. The Church is the only public body in the community fully able to gather together at the
same time different genders, ages, race and class. Brueggemann (2007, p. 52) says that the Church’s work is the gathering of others, not the ones who belong obviously to our social tribe or class or race. If you look at a group of people and see no immediately  apparent reason why they are together, then you are likely to be in a church.

There is nothing so capable of transforming people’s lives as a church in love with Christ. The truth of Christ is Scripture revealed, tradition formed, community shaped and  individually learnt. The mission of the parish church is to gather together people who might not otherwise have met. Young parents want assistance. Older people want companionship. Young people want encouragement. All want simple friendship and meet together in the name of Christ.

Parishes form the bedrock of the Church of England’s mission to the country and are still the heart of her identity in the community. Newbigin (1989) wrote, ‘I do not think that we shall recover the true form of the parish until we recover a truly missionary approach to our culture. I don’t think that we shall achieve a missionary encounter with our culture without recovering the true form of the parish.’

It has now officially been recognized that the best place for people of different cultures to meet is in a church. A 2014 report published by the Social Integration Commission identified that churches and other places of worship are more successful at bringing people of different backgrounds together than gatherings such as parties, meetings and weddings, or venues such as pubs and clubs. While spectator sports events are the most successful at bringing people of different ages together, churches are the most likely place for people from different cultures to meet. The older inherited forms of church are relevant to society precisely because of their non-conformity to contemporary culture.

‘Only connect!’ said Margaret Schlegel in E. M. Forster’s Howards End:

That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and
the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be
seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect and
the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to
either, will die. Nor was the message difficult to give. It need not
take the form of a good ‘talking.’ By quiet indications the bridge
would be built and span their lives with beauty.


A Christian is a dreamer disciple and revolutionary. When Joel (2.28) says that old men will dream dreams and young men will see visions, he is not talking about what is practical or possible, but what is imaginable. As I open the church doors on a Sunday
morning I dream of the world’s rejuvenation at Christ’s return: ‘The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them’ (Isa. 11.6).

My daily discipleship is fuelled by this eschatological vision. When I put the rubbish out after church for collection on a Monday morning I am living out the dislocation between the ways of God and of society. As a revolutionary I rejoice in the future hope of God’s coming presence in the world (Rom. 5.2). The raison d’être of the Church is to draw attention to Christ’s return and to live it out as her way of being in the world. A church
is a dialogical presence at the heart of the community, pointing to an eschatological reality beyond.

The Church is a prophetic minority, not a moral majority. Coming together in the name of Christ is an act of hope in which we imagine how the world would be different to how it is were the Kingdom of God here on earth. We act as if it could be, and then find that in so doing it is becoming so. In a Church built on the resurrected Christ, ideas shape energy, imagination shapes organization, possibility shapes pragmatism. Sociologist David Martin writes that if the Church does not concern itself with mystery, transcendence and worship, then it might as well pack up and go home (Martin, 2002, p. 140).

The tolling of the church bells on Sunday morning, calling people to worship, represents the universal Church to the particular parish and also the particular to the universal. As parish churches act out the life of Christ in their local communities, they are speaking with the weight of 2,000 years of history behind them and 2.1 billion Christians worldwide alongside them.

Bob Mayo is a vicar of Shepherd’s Bush and a part-time member of staff at St Mellitus and at St Michael’s Llandaff (as well as being chaplain to Queen’s Park Rangers). He teaches Ministry Skills and Youth and Community Work in both institutions. He was Director of Youth Ministry Training at Ridley Hall and one of the co-authors of Making Sense of Generation Y (CHP 2008) and The Faith of Generation Y. 



SCM News – Autumn 2017

Welcome to another quarterly roundup of all things SCM Press

The Parish: Has it Had its Day?, 9th October

SCM Press is delighted to be teaming up with Church Times for what promises to be a fascinating evening of discussion and debate on the future of the parish system. The Parish: Has it Had its Day? will bring together a panel of luminaries, including Paula Gooder, Jessica Martin, Graham Tomlin, Calvin Samuel and Nick Spencer to consider whether there is still a place for parishes within the 21st century Church. Along the way they will be cross-examining a series of ‘expert witnesses’ – David Goodhew, Andrew Rumsey, Alison Milbank and Andy Milne. The evening will be held at St Mellitus College, London  and begin at 7pm (doors open 6:30 pm). Tickets are still available, but are selling fast. To book, or for more information, click here. 

AAR/SBL Annual Meeting

Once again, we’re looking forward to crossing the pond for the American Academy of Religion and  Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, this year being held in Boston. The event brings together some 10,000 scholars over 4 days of seminars and meetings. As in previous years, SCM Press is proud to be hosted by our US distributor Westminster John Knox Press. You’ll find a selection of new titles from SCM Press as well as some key backlist on display at the WJK stand in the exhibition hall (booth 1910). You also have the opportunity to meet the SCM Press editor, David Shervington, to discuss your book project ideas. To make an appointment, email him at David.Shervington@hymnsam.co.uk .

Coming Soon…

No sooner have they mastered the basics than students of theology can quickly find themselves in over their heads. They are bombarded with claim and counter-claim as soon as they want to tackle anything topical. The contentious subjects tend to be the historical Jesus, gender and sexuality, or the atonement. Other subjects might be less contentious but attract an astonishing excess of literature.

Our new Studyguide, The SCM Studyguide to Theology in the Contemporary World tries to provide the bewildered and intimidated student with a primer that is at once introductory and incisive; approachable and informative. It will help those training for ministry to recover their fascination for the subject of theology and how it could apply to their future ministry. It’s published in November.

The ocean dominates both the surface of the earth and the pages of the Bible. Blue Planet, Blue God is a truly unique collaborative project – bringing together an oceanographer, Meric Srokosz, and a biblical scholar, Rebecca Watson, to not only offer ecological insights on the sea, but also connect the ocean with other key issues of broader concern-spirituality, economics, chaos, and our place in the world.

Each chapter concludes with ideas for discussion and reflection, and for suggested actions in the light of the issues raised. The book will present a fresh new lens through which to view the Bible and as such inform biblical scholars, students, and preachers alike. The book is out in November.

Coming in October is New World, New Church by Hannah Steele. The emerging church movement has quickly become one of the fastest growing ecclesiological phenomena in the west today. But there is still a debate to be had about whether accessibility should trump Christian orthodoxy. Offering an assessment of the impact of the emerging church upon the church in the West, and examining the thinking of the movement’s leading proponents including Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, the book affirms what is good and insightful in the emerging church and offers a robust critical evaluation of its theological revisions.

Also published in October, Theology Reforming Society tells the story of Anglican social theology from its roots in the writings and work of F. D. Maurice and the Christian Socialists, including Charles Kingsley and John Ludlow. It looks at second generation figures such as Charles Gore, Henry Scott Holland and the Christian Social Union as well as the central figure of William Temple, clarifying his role within the tradition. It also looks beyond Temple to the work of the Board for Social Responsibility, and to some of the theologians and church leaders who have continued its witness since then. Referring to the wider ecumenical context in order to draw out the distinctive features of the tradition of Anglican Social Theology, the book provides an important and comprehensive account for all those interested in studying and teaching Anglican theology, social and political theology and Christian ethics.

Since its beginning in the 1990s, Radical Orthodoxy has become perhaps the most influential, and certainly the most controversial, movement in contemporary theology. Preaching Radical and Orthodox, published in October, offers an introduction to the Radical Orthodox sensibility through sermons preached by some of those most prominent figures in radical orthodoxy.

Conceived and edited over a number of years by Alison Milbank, John Hughes, and Arabella Milbank the book is accessible, challenging and varied, the sermons together help to suggest what Radical Orthodoxy might mean in practice.

Contributors include Stanley Hauerwas, Andrew Davison, Catherine Pickstock, John Milbank, John Inge, Martin Warner and Graham Ward.

The study of Christian theology in the last half century has seen a major renaissance in Trinitarian thought which has attempted to connect Trinitarian theology to all aspects of Christian faith and practice. Drawn from papers given at a Pusey House conference in 2015, the contributors to A Transforming Vision explore what it means to know and love the Triune God, and how the knowledge of God can be a transforming and saving knowledge. A stellar line-up of contributors includes: Rowan Williams, Robin Ward, Oliver O’Donoven and Andrew Louth.

Finally, we’re pleased to be publishing another title in our new SCM Research series this October. In Clergy, Culture and Ministry the late Ian Tomlinson considers the difficulties and challenges faced by any incumbent wishing to interpret and understand what is going on in their congregation and parish. He engages with the work of Wesley Carr to bring theory and practice into conversation by responding to each of Carr’s ‘propositions’ with a ‘critical incident’ from the author’s own parish experience. Completed very shortly before his death in 2016, Ian Tomlinson’s ground-breaking research has been edited by Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, who also offers an introduction.


‘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”

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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