In the second of our series of reflections on the legacy of Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered, Al Barrett, Vicar of Hodge Hill, rereads the book 20 years after he first encountered it.
I first encountered Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered in 1998 (20 years after its first publication). I was 22 myself, recently graduated from Cambridge (in Maths and Astrophysics – that’s a whole different story), living in a small Christian community in inner-city Salford, and preparing for a selection conference for ordained ministry in the Church of England. In the neighbourhood in which I was living, I was sharply aware of the multiple differences between me and my neighbours, of my own multiply privileged background, and – despite years of academic education – of my inability to articulate the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel in ways that mattered here, and weren’t merely the cultural and spiritual baggage of a patronising outsider. And that’s where Donovan’s experience, when questioned by a member of the Masai tribe among whom he was living, resonated profoundly with my own:
I finally spoke out again, and I marvelled at how small my voice sounded. I said something I had no intention of saying when I had come to speak to the Masai that morning: “No, we have not found the High God. My tribe has not known him. For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him. I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with us. Let us search for him together. Maybe, together, we will find him.” (pp.37-38)
With Donovan, I realised I was a searcher. My own journey, that had thus far taken me to Cambridge and then to Salford, was a journey of searching for God with those around me – needed companions on the way. And yet I was also reminded, as Donovan was by his Masai teachers, that God always beats us to it: “We have not searched for him. … He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.” (p.51) The ‘small’ and ‘mysterious’ part of the messenger is simply to point to the one who has already found us, who was here and at work long before I got here.
If Christianity Rediscovered helped me make some sense of ‘mission’, it also profoundly enlarged my understanding of eucharist. As Donovan described in detail ‘the simple celebration’ of the Masai village ‘returning their whole life to God’ (p.97), I got a taste of eucharistic possibility which, even now, 20 years on, still teases, beckons.
It was a strange kind of Mass. No church building, not even any special, fixed spot where it took place. As a matter of fact it moved around all over the village. It started in the spot where several elders had lighted a fire from two sticks of wood, even before I arrived.
An important act, on my part, before I entered the village, was to stoop down, scoop up a handful of grass, and present it to the first elders who greeted me. Grass was … a vital and a holy sign to [the Masai], a sign of peace and happiness and well-being.
During stormy and angry arguments that might arise in their lives, a tuft of grass, offered by one Masai and accepted by the second, was an assurance that no violence would erupt because of the differences and arguments. No Masai would violate that sacred sign of peace offered, because it was not only a sign of peace; it was peace…
So, as the Mass began, I picked up a tuft of grass and passed it on to the elder who met me, and greeted him with “the peace of Christ.” He accepted it and passed it on to his family, and they passed it on to neighbouring elders and their families. It had to pass all through the village…
And if the life in the village had been less than human or holy, then there was no Mass. If there had been selfishness and forgetfulness and hatefulness and lack of forgiveness in the work that had been done, in the life that had been led here, let them not make a sacrilege out of it by calling it the Body of Christ. And the leaders did decide occasionally that, despite the prayers and readings and discussions, if the grass had stopped, if someone, or some group, in the village had refused to accept the grass as the sign of the peace of Christ, there would be no eucharist at this time.
At other times the will was there to override the weaknesses in the community, the will to ask the Spirit to come on this community to change it into the Body of Christ, so that we could say together, “This – not just the bread and wine, but the whole life of the village, its work, play, joy, sorrow, the homes, the grazing fields, the flocks, the people – all this is my Body.” (pp.101-4)
What a thought: that there might be no Mass in the village today, if the process of passing peace, of making eucharist, had been ruptured along the way. That there might be no true celebration of eucharist, until no one in the world goes hungry – as Sri Lankan Roman Catholic theologian Tissa Balasuriya once proposed. This intertwining of eucharist, community and justice has stuck with me since then – and remains a profound challenge.
20 years on – 40 years after Christianity Rediscovered was first published – I find myself vicar of a large, multicultural ‘outer estate’ parish, Hodge Hill, on the eastern edge of Birmingham, deeply embedded in my neighbourhood and, with friends and neighbours, in a joyful journey of community-building here. Donovan’s vibrant sense of the missio dei – that ‘[g]oodness and kindness and holiness and grace and divine presence and creating power and salvation were here before I got here’ (p.52) – remains a theological fundamental for me. His description of that mission as the establishing of ‘shalom’ – ‘peace, integrity, community, harmony, and justice’ (p.156) – is also still central to my theological lexicon, and I can witness, with deep gratitude, to the many and varied ways I have seen and continue to see that ‘shalom’ springing up, and putting down roots, and spreading, around me and in spite of me in the neighbourhood I have called home for the last eight years.
It’s an exciting journey, with my neighbours here in Hodge Hill – one that demands the kind of ‘courage’ once urged on Donovan by a young American student: “to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before” (p. xix). And re-reading Christianity Rediscovered in 2018 I find myself wondering, how might eucharist – deep, peace-making eucharist that catches up the entirety of our shared life and offers it in gratitude back to God – truly ‘take flesh’ in my neighbourhood? How might it work its way, house-to-house, neighbour-to-neighbour, group-to-group, around our estate – what, locally, we’re beginning to call ‘Firs and Bromford village’?
And one further wondering sparked by my most recent re-reading of Donovan’s reflections. In his 1970s America, ‘community’ was so ‘fractured’ and ‘temporary’ – people were so indifferent to each other, unaffected by each other – that he was unsure that Christianity, as ‘a living community’, was even possible (pp.69-70). From 21st Century America, Paul Sparks of the New Parish movement asked a remarkably similar question:
In Jesus’ day, everyone lived in a walkable community… but the problem was, who got excluded from that life? And so for us, it’s a huge question: have we even lost the very foundation from which we can become people who include those who are without place? If we’ve lost the very ground, the very place … from which we can invite others in, from which we can become hospitable, from which we can include?
From the not-so-new parish of Hodge Hill, I might put the question like this: in our divided, fragmented, indifferent society, how much community-building work is needed before the ‘good news’ of the gospel makes any sense at all?
 Paul Sparks was speaking at an exploration of ‘Parish, a gift for the future?’, organised by Church of England – Birmingham and ForMission college.
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