On Living for Shalom: The Story of Ross Langmead

Ross Langmead once suggested that to be human is to ‘find ourselves in the middle of a cosmic story’. He was, it seems, on a perpetual journey to discern and to celebrate the spirit of life in all things. And he discerned that spirit in communities, in movements of justice, in solidarity with the poor, in creation’s hope-filled and determined persistence and wonder, and in the life and teaching of Jesus, God’s ever-new Word among us.

Much of Ross’s life and work recalls commitments expressed also in the life and work of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, someone whom Ross liked to read and to cite. In particular, it was their shared conviction that ‘God’ – ever irreducible to a single name or principle, and never impounded by any particular religion – is never present in general; never simply ‘out there’. Rather, God is always present for and in God’s creatures, every one, in concrete ways – as grace, as care, as kindness, as light, as troubling and healing water, as ‘mystery of servant love’. ‘We are not alone’. This is to recall that Ross’s life was grounded in the twin-conviction that God is not a Christian, and that the western-centric nature of Christian theology that dominates ecclesial life and that of theological academies in Australia has both hidden and distorted divine revelation that is at work in every human culture, and, indeed, in all creation. 

Inspired by the courageous work of Latin American liberation theologians and those theologies emerging from the ‘womb’ of Asia, Ross came to the conviction that a church preoccupied with its own welfare, security, and self-perpetuation is something quite other than that community that is a sign of God’s self-emptying life in the world. And, like Bonhoeffer, he came to the unshakeable conviction that the church is the church only when it exists for others.

There are, in fact, only two questions worth asking in theology – ‘Who (or what) is God?’ and ‘So what?’. Ross’s work bears the marks of these two questions, and finds their commonality in the language and praxis of mission, which is ‘the mother of theology’ (Martin Kähler). As Ross once put it: theological education should be ‘missiological to the core’. Missiology is, therefore, neither a theological hobby horse nor an addendum to theological work. It is theology at its crux – concerned with the life of God as God, with the life of the world as world, and with the vocation of a community made to celebrate, interrogate, and participate in the encounter which is the God–world partnership. Moreover, it is theology that can be sung, and embodied. Indeed, it must be, lest it perpetuate a lie. So Ross did a lot of both, and this deep conviction emboldened him to develop what he called ‘a mission heart in … curriculum praxis’.

I reckon Alison Langmead summed it all up very well when she wrote in the book’s Foreword:

This book’s account of Ross’s life reveals an authentic journey into how learning to trust and to participate in [God’s] great love, can play out in a single lifetime: how his early childhood in Hong Kong prepared him for an expanded world view; how he looked at and worked with the questions of life through study, practical exploration, writing, friendship, teaching, singing, and research; how he encouraged others to grapple together with the many challenges of life, taking time out to consider, to learn, to pray, and to act with courage; how working with unemployed youth and exploring the multicultural needs of a municipality could shape his theology of being the church in the world and ground his future work as a missiologist; how he consulted professionals as he tried to face the truths of his own issues; how songwriting could open the windows of the soul when other things could not; and how others have felt the benefit of having known him.

It is, however, really important for readers to remember that this is not Ross’s book. In fact, I’m not sure how Ross would have felt about the whole project; possibly quite embarrassed. It is, rather, Jeanette’s book, Jeanette’s story. Each of us will have our own memories about Ross. Some of those memories will be stirred by those recollections captured here in this story, beautifully told. Good stories do that.

Living for Shalom is a biography that walks carefully somewhere between Ross’s private and public worlds, and between the recollections of both the researcher herself and those with whom she has had exchange during the course of her research; not an easy task, but one that Jeannete pulls off admirably. Of course, Jeanette’s work on this book was assisted greatly by the generosity of those she interviewed – who responded to her survey, who kindly shared with Jeanette their own reflections and pictures of Ross, who answered her many questions, and who, along the way, widened the research pool. Moreover, Jeanette had the enviable and remarkable twin-benefit and burden that her subject appears to have never done anything much that he didn’t write down. His detailed diaries, journals, letters, notebooks, articles, academic writings, and songs mark the research gathered here in this volume. 

What began with a tentative question to herself and with a hesitant email to a sister-in-law resulted in a well-researched story written with a clarity, order, and precision befitting Ross’s own work. Of course, like any good biography, Living for Shalom teaches us about much more than only its main subject, and here readers are given rich and lively insights and snapshots: about growing up as a missionary kid in a Salvationist family; about the challenges, costs, and risks associated with sustaining Christian activism; about the shape of love in private and public life; about the insanity, character, costliness, and desired ends of theological education, not least in places like Nagaland; about how to carefully tread a path through the fears and expectations of others while maintaining your own integrity as a researcher, biographer, and person with a living faith; about the face of poverty and the possibilities of its concrete overcoming; about leaving home, and about just how complicated leaving home can be; about the difficult and painful questions of Aboriginal and migrant identities that sit like cancer on the heart for the quest for a just Australia living with the invitation for ‘a fuller expression of [its] nationhood’; about the radical (and Salvationist) roots of the Westgate Baptist Community, roots evident only in Ross but also in many other Westgaters; about the life of Christian communities in Melbourne from the first Prime-ministership of Robert Menzies through to Julia Gillard’s (another Westie!) last days in the same unenviable job, set against the backdrop of music played by the likes of The Seekers and Bob Dylan, and against the terrifying screams of the Vietnam War and of the jungles of the Thai–Burma border, violent howls that show no signs of petering out and where even here hope manages to find a way against all the odds.

We all responded to and coped with Melbourne’s long and multiple lockdowns in different ways. Jeanette Woods used that time to write a beautiful book about her brother and then gifted it to us all. For that, we are much in her debt.


This reflection is part of something that I had prepared to share at the launch of Jeanette’s book. Unfortunately, the launch needed to be cancelled.

Chris Ellis on short-term mission trips

‘I would have thought those who have shared the bread and cup with, or worked alongside, brothers and sisters from Latin America would be pushing back against the dehumanization of people labeled in high places as “animals” and “invaders.” I would have thought they would be generously supporting groups that are helping to provide for the needs of those in the “caravan.” I would have thought they would be advocating for more judges and translators to be sent to the border to process asylum claims.

Sadly, these things, by and large, have not been happening. That leads me to wonder what this says about the role of STM [short-term mission trips] trips in helping to change lives and produce disciples who care about the plight of those whom they served. And what it says about the state of the Church in America’.

– Chris Ellis, ‘Have all our short-term mission trips to Latin America shaped our response to the migrant “caravan”?’

‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’

The latest issue of Mission Studies is now available online, and includes a little article I wrote on ‘Ethnicity, Social Identity, and the Transposable Body of Christ’. The Abstract reads:

This essay attends to the relationship between our ethnic, social, and cultural identities, and the creation of the new communal identity embodied in the Christian community. Drawing upon six New Testament texts – Ephesians 2:11–22; Galatians 3:27–28; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 and 10:17; 1 Peter 2:9–11; and Revelation 21:24–26 – it is argued that the creation of a new and prime identity in Christ does not abrogate other creaturely identities, even as it calls for the removal of such as boundary markers. Catholicity, in other words, is intrinsically related to the most radical particularity, and demands an ongoing work of discernment and of judgement vis-à-vis the gospel itself. Those baptized into Christ are now to live in the reality of Christ who is both the boundary and center of their existence, a boundary which includes all humanity in its cultural, ethnic, gendered, social and historical particularities.

[Image: Jean Marais, ‘Le Passe-Muraille’, Montmartre (1989). Source.]

Called, Sent, Empowered: A Theology of Mission

Anonymous, 'Jesus the Tagger'. Berlin.
Anonymous, Jesus the Tagger. Berlin.

Some moons ago, the Global Mission Office (GMO) of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) kindly invited me to write a little theology of mission. I was very pleased to do so. The wee piece, which has since been elevated to being an official statement of the GMO, seeks to not only bear witness to the ground and end of mission in the triune life (a subject I’ve posted on before) but also to relate this history to what the PCANZ refers to as its ‘five faces of mission’ – to work with others to make Jesus Christ known:

  • Through proclamation of the gospel
  • Through the nurture and teaching of people in the Christian faith
  • Through response to human need in loving service
  • Through seeking to transform society
  • Through care for creation

You can read the statement here.

mission: a statement

Pablo Picasso, 'The dove and its little ones' (Lithograph, 1947)

Pablo Picasso, ‘The dove and its little ones’ (Lithograph, 1947)

As a people claimed by the Spirit of the gospel, we believe that God desires to gather all creation under the reign of Jesus Christ, to bring all creation into unbridled communion with and in God, and with itself. To this end, God – the very One who, in the movement of missionary love, continually broods over creation and initiates a friendship with Abraham pregnant with promise – elects a people called Israel, makes them into a priestly nation to offer worship on behalf of all the world’s nations and peoples with a view to their reconciliation to God; and, in the fulness of time, God, in Jesus of Nazareth, moves anew into the world in order to reconcile all things to God; and God also calls forth a new community who, with Israel and with Jesus, participates in and bears witness (martyria) to God’s own loving and reconciling activities in the world. Born of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, this new community is called ‘the Christian community’ (or ‘the church’).

We believe that the Christian community, a creation of God’s Word in election, is a people called by God to participate and share in God’s mission in this world – to be a humble, prophetic and celebratory sign, embodiment and hope-filled foretaste of life in the coming reign of God. It is a people sent by God in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to, and to represent, the liberating, empowering, healing, and reconciling love of God wherever such is identified. It is a people empowered by God to embody in its own life the mystery of salvation and the transfiguration of creation.

Mission, therefore, is not an ‘optional extra’ for the Christian community but is of its essence, finding both its genesis and its telos in the trinitarian relations and in God’s own movement into the world, the object of God’s love. The Christian community cannot be true to itself apart from this action of bearing servant witness (martyria) (i) to God’s will for the salvation and transformation of the world; (ii) to God’s command to maturing discipleship; (iii) to God’s compassion, mercy and advocacy for the poor, the needy and the marginalised; (iv) to God’s vision for the flourishing of societies that reflect the justice of love and seek the end to unjust structures; and (v) to God’s desire for the integrity of a creation liberated from abusive, irresponsible and destructive actions.

Kerry Enright: an interview

Kerry Enright and Pastor BerlinLast night’s edition of the ABC program Sunday Nights, hosted by John Cleary, included an interview with the Rev Dr Kerry Enright, the outgoing National Director of UnitingWorld, and a friend of mine. During the interview, Kerry reflects upon two of his favorite topics – the catholic nature of the church as gift from God and as sign to the world, and on the role of the church in civil society (here the discussion is focused particularly on Fiji, Australia and New Zealand). He also talks a bit about his forthcoming appointment as minister of Knox Church (Presbyterian) in Dunedin. I’m looking forward to welcoming Kerry back to Dunedin, and back to the PCANZ, soon. You can listen to the interview here.

And while I’m mentioning Kerry, there’s also an older interview in which he talks about God’s mission and about the significance of partnerships that UnitingWorld enjoys:

Position: Senior Lecturer in Mission Studies

laidlawLaidlaw College in Auckland is seeking a Senior Lecturer in Mission Studies for its School of Theology, Mission & Ministry:

The Lecturer will be responsible for teaching in mission and contextual studies, ensuring that courses are developed and delivered in ways that are faithful to the Gospel of Christ, culturally incisive, and grounded in a biblical understanding of God’s missional purposes for Aotearoa New Zealand, the nations of the Pacific region, Asia and the world. They will also be actively involved in the College’s community and will lead the College’s Centre for Cross Cultural Mission (C3M).

The desired candidate will have the following skills and qualifications:

      • A PhD or equivalent in a relevant area of research
      • Significant missional experience
      • Active involvement in a local Christian community of faith and in Christian initiatives in the wider global community
      • Ability to publish papers and present research at academic conferences
      • Experience in teaching within a tertiary education provider
      • Experience mentoring students and providing pastoral care
      • Understanding of recent developments in the theological and general tertiary education sectors nationally and internationally
      • Experience and/or willingness to utilise e-Learning pedagogies and technologies

This position is a permanent full-time (1.0 FTE) position.

Please email your CV and cover letter to Natalie Tims, Human Resources Manager, at ntims@laidlaw.ac.nz to register your interest and request an application pack. Application packs include an application form related to your previous experience and theological principles, a Statement of Faith and a five-year Professional Development Research plan. Application packs must be submitted by Friday 2 May, 2014.

You can read the Job Description here.

The Story of Dr Beryl Howie

Beryl HowieIt was 1958 when the London-based Ludhiana Fellowship invited Beryl Howie, a young and newly qualified New Zealand obstetrician/gynaecologist, to join the staff of the Ludhiana Hospital in India. In this invitation, Beryl recognised God’s calling, and went to India.

It was no easy challenge. In addition to undertaking a very busy clinical load, she also had to learn at least one of two local languages. Along the way, she was sustained by her faith in God, faith which motivated not only her medical work, but which also encouraged the study of the Bible among the students and patients that she had come to love. It came as a bit of a shock, therefore, when just before she was due for her first furlough the Ludhiana Fellowship told her that they had decided to move their support to training Indian doctors and asked her to find support elsewhere. Bewildered but not undetermined, and after exploring several options, she soon accepted an invitation from the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand to become one of their missionaries and, in 1963, she set off under new colours but to essentially the same job.

Over the next few years, while Beryl’s own workload stretched, so too did the old buildings in which she worked and which became increasingly inadequate for the burgeoning number of patients and new theatre equipment which arrived. She was soon dreaming about a new hospital for women and, during her next furlough, she challenged the New Zealand churches to raise $500,000 towards this. People all over New Zealand took enthusiastically to the project. When they had reached $100,000, the New Zealand Government offered to contribute $500,000 if the project raised that amount by Christmas. This challenge sparked off further enthusiasm among New Zealand churches. Several other missionaries were ‘at home on leave’ from India and others with a strong interest in Ludhiana helped to enthuse congregations and individuals to great heights. Suffice to say that Beryl returned to India with the plans and funding to begin planning for a new hospital and to start building.

Teaching Hundreds to Heal Millions

At the same time, she continued to work towards raising the standard of care of patients and developing higher educational and treatment standards of doctors, nurses and midwives.

But there was another encouraging development. When Beryl first came to India, all newly-trained doctors with any available funding went to the UK and, if possible, the USA for postgraduate training. Most of them then looked for work there and didn’t return to India but rather supported their families from the high salaries they now earned. Beryl longed to change the natural path of graduates to keep them in India to serve their own compatriots. To that end, quality advanced training would have to be available. By 1980, 84% of all graduates in obstetrics and 29 of her MD graduates remained in practice in India.

In 1981, Beryl finally left India and found work in two other missionary challenges – one was to write a text book on obstetrics and gynaecology specifically for students in India , and the other was to visit missionaries all over South East Asia and further encourage the development of improved healthcare.

After finally retiring to New Zealand, she was honoured with an honorary doctorate in science by the University of Otago.

My friend Bartha Hill has just authored a beautiful little book on Howie – Teaching Hundreds To Heal Millions: The Story of Dr Beryl Howie – and those in Dunedin are warmly welcome to attend its launch on Sunday 17 November, at 2 pm, at Highgate Presbyterian Church, Maori Hill, Dunedin.

‘The Conversion of the Māori’: a review

Timothy Yates, The Conversion of the Māori: Years of Religious and Social Change, 1814–1842 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2013). ISBN 978-0-8028-6945-6. 150pp.

A guest post by Graeme Ferguson

When James Hamlin, my great, great grandfather, joined the CMS mission at Paihia in 1826, he came as an artisan lay missionary. His trade was flax dressing. He quickly found that not only was the New Zealand flax a distinctively different species, but also that the Māori knew a great deal more about flax weaving than he did. As a result, his life changed direction. He became a fluent idiomatic Māori linguist able to contribute to the translation of the Scriptures into Māori; he was a trusted mediator and negotiator between warring tribes; he was a faithful catechist and church planter in places where Pākehā rarely penetrated; he was a dogged explorer and a good farmer. In the last years of his long service, Selwyn was finally persuaded against his better judgement to ordain him. (Hamlin, after all, was not a ‘gentleman’.) With his wife, Elizabeth, they had twelve children. Two sons intermarried with local tribes-people so that their descendants reflect the unity in diversity of the meeting of the races in the development of this country. At Captain Symonds request, he called the hui of the Manukau tribes, in the area of Awhitu to witness the Treaty of Waitangi. Te Whero Whero who was present, ensured that few Manukau chiefs signed, since his authority as Māori king and Paramount Chief of Tainui was not to be compromised.

Hamlin’s life of undistinguished, faithful service encapsulates many of the questions that any writer on the formative years of the New Zealand mission needs to confront. It is with these questions that I approached Timothy Yates’ book in Eerdmans’ series Studies in the History of Christian Missions (SHCM).

Yates’ overview of the development of the Christian mission in New Zealand is a competent survey. It recognises the role of Māori in transmitting the Gospel so that missionaries in newly planted stations already found worshipping communities who had been told the Christian story. This could have been further developed. He deals with the relations between Anglican, Methodist and Catholic missions but may not have adequately considered the fraught nature of the different expectations in each group. He deals judiciously with difficulties relating to inappropriate moral lapses by Kendall, Yates and others and alludes to the tensions people coped with in establishing communities in the bush.

The strength of his work lies in his assiduous reading of the correspondence and reports between missionaries and their sending agencies – the CMS, the MMS and the Marist order in Paris. But the writer gives me less confidence that he has an adequate grasp of the socio-cultural context in New Zealand, within which the missions operated. He also shows both linguistic and geographic insecurity that does not enhance his work. (My favourites are the mis-spelling of Te Whero Whero, and various odd adjectival forms of Māori  places.) My evaluation is that the work is ‘worthy’ rather than ‘insightful.’

My first question relates to the way he interprets his primary source documents. The question is: who were these reports written for and what did they expect to hear? How far were they written to accommodate European attitudes and expectations which may or may not reflect the situation on the ground? To what extent could the recipients grasp what was happening in the encounter between the missionaries and the people of the land? I suspect that a healthy suspicion of what was being written is called for.

Secondly, I am interested to know what the effective points of contact were within which the Gospel was able to be shared. What was being offered and what was really being heard? Yates draws attention to the insights into local society and practices that the more insightful missionaries observed which were essential to good understanding and communication. I am interested in the differences the Gospel made in how people lived.

Thirdly, I would like to know the tenets of the Gospel that were in the forefront of missionary proclamation, what was heard and the degree to which it was appropriated and internalised. These people had very limited access to resources. Each mission had its catechism and tradition of teaching in books, like Wesley’s Forty Four Sermons or Pearson on the Creed, but few resources beyond these basic texts. All taught through methods of catechesis but in each case the content would be culturally alien to their hearers. There is the further question of the pedagogical value of catechesis as an educational tool.

Coupled with this is the role of worship in expanding the mission. Large groups are reported as gathering to worship. What were they doing? How far was worship another expression of traditional spirituality and how far an imposed foreign structure? What was going on?

The way in which missionary families lived within the host communities is crucial. The fact that many lived with mutual respect and good will and were trusted is a mark of the practical wisdom many brought to their service. I suspect that their impact was primarily experiential as they lived out the Gospel in community in the tradition of nineteenth century romantic sensibility.

A further question relates to extending the missions. One would like to know where the concentrations of population were that led to establishing stations in what are now oddly inaccessible places. Yates did this in discussing siting the initial station at Rangihoua because of the protection Ruatara was able to offer. I would like it more widely considered.

The overarching question is: what did the local people hear and what did they make their own? To what extent was the Gospel indigenised and internalised? This question is crucial and finds its high point in the reception of the Treaty of Waitangi itself. The dominant narrative on that occasion utilised the thought forms and cultural images of nineteenth-century evangelical Christianity on issues of covenant and promise, rule and governance, responsibility and citizenship, the rule of law and the place of land. The Treaty could be ratified in many places because those interpreting the terms of the Treaty were trusted in their communities. Like the wider transmission of the Gospel, the Treaty was reinterpreted in local cultural terms in order to be received and accepted.

While there is much of interest in Mr Yates’ book, it is written from the perspective of a disengaged observer. Years ago, Archbishop Appleton commented that if he were to have his time as a missionary in Burma over again, he would don a saffron robe and sit and listen for seven years before he began to share the good news of the Gospel. I suspect that more engaged listening would have improved this present study.

‘Missional God, Missional Church’: a review

Ross Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-evangelizing the West (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012). ISBN: 978-0-8308-3955-1; 321pp.

A guest post by Kevin Ward.

The words ‘missional’ in general and ‘missional church’ in particular are real buzz words in the church at the moment, and nowhere more so than within the PCANZ. Put ‘missional’ in front of anything and it legitimates it. The missional movement has much to offer in thinking about our current situation and its challenges going forward, and is something I have engaged with ever since the book Missional Church (edited by Darrell Guder) was published in 1998 – yes that’s how long it has been around for. My great concern is that it has rapidly become a fad, and like so many of those that have come and gone in the forty-plus years I have been involved in church leadership, it too will go. Ross Hastings’ book is, I believe, one of the most important and helpful of all the books that have been published with the word ‘missional’ in the title. This is largely because it is called ‘Missional God, Missional Church’. The order is important. A missional church flows out of a missional God, and so the first task we face as a church is not developing new forms of ‘missional’ churches or new programmes that will make our existing churches missional, but actually coming anew to a proper understanding of who the God whom we know and experience through the Father’s sending of Jesus and the Father and Son’s sending of the Spirit truly is.

Hastings takes us back to these key foundational understandings, before moving us on to envision what this means for our understanding of the church and how we engage with the world in God’s mission in it. In the missional movement the key text is John 20:21, ‘As the Father has sent me so I am sending you’, which is followed by Jesus breathing the Spirit onto the disciples. Sadly, in the life of the church this has played second fiddle to Matthew 28:19–20. Hastings frames the whole book around a wonderful exposition of John 20:19–23, which he calls ‘the greatest commission’, arguing that in this picture of the frightened disciples huddled in the upper room with Jesus in their midst, all of the elements needed for the church to fulfil its calling as the community of the God of mission are present.

Based on a sound Trinitarian theology, the book moves on to develop a solid ecclesiology and missiology, both of which reflect the character of the God whose life they flow from. One of the great values of the book is that it corrects many of the false dichotomies that can be found in so much other work. The missional God is both a sending God and a gathering God, and so the church needs to both send and gather. Flowing from this, therefore, the church needs to be both deep and wide, grounded in the traditions of the faith as an alternative community but taking God’s shalom far and wide into the world. Both worship and mission are intrinsic to the life of the church. To do the latter it needs to inculturate the gospel without becoming enculturated itself. In other words, incarnate the gospel into the culture of the context it finds itself in without accommodating itself to it. Indeed, the theology of culture and personhood in the book is one of its great treasures. When it comes to the practice of mission, Hastings has a broad and holistic understanding of mission – what Renee Padilla calls integrated mission, which is much more true to a biblical understanding than the rather limited concept found in much of the missional church material. There are two final things I am pleased to find in this book. Missing in much of the other literature is a great love of and passion for the church, which while not being the goal of God’s mission, is certainly critical in it. Much of the missional church material takes a critical and almost dismissive stance toward the church. ‘The essential sociality of salvation, implies the essential institutionality of the church. The question is not whether the church is an institution, but rather what kind of institution is it’ (p. 133). Finally, Hastings gives adequate attention to the role of the Spirit in both the life of the church and God’s mission, something that is missing in much of the other material.

Ross Hastings parents were missionaries for 60 years in Africa, he has PhDs in both science and theology, has served as minister in two urban churches, and now teaches theology at Regent College in Vancouver. All of these factors help to make this a book which combines solid biblical and theological understanding, clear social and cultural analysis, pastoral empathy for people and the church, and a deep concern for mission in western societies – a wonderful holistic treatment. I cannot recommend it enough for those who are concerned to work in the deep and integrated way that is necessary if our churches are to truly live out the life that our missional God is calling us to.

Mission and the Priesthood of Christ

On Friday night, I had the privilege and joy of addressing the elders of the Southern Presbytery at their AGM in Invercargill. The topic that I was asked to speak about was mission and the priesthood of Christ. (Two other speakers would reflect on the other two classic offices – prophet and king.) A number of people have asked me for a copy of my talk. Here it is:

John V. Taylor on the universal Spirit and the meeting of faiths

John V. Taylor’s The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission is a profoundly insightful book. Throughout the chapter on religious pluralism, titled ‘Meeting: the Universal Spirit and the Meeting of Faiths’, Taylor reminds us that religion is not the fabrication of theologians with their dogmas but a particular ‘tradition of response to the reality the Holy Spirit has set before their eyes’ (p. 182). Those engaged in inter-faith discourse, even the kind of which John Milbank (in his essay, ‘The End of Dialogue’) rightly refuses to pretend mean ‘anything other than continuing the work of conversion’, will make no headway, Taylor insists, unless they first understand that such traditions of response are both deeply ingrained and dynamic cultural ideas, as well as being attempts at fundamental meaning-making. The first challenge of inter-faith conversation, therefore, is to ‘pay attention to the real conviction that underlies the precise point at which disagreement appears and then try to turn mere confrontation of opposites into a real and possible choice’ (p. 187). In other words, it is to identify the crisis – or, more properly, the crucis – which must be entered into.

Taylor draws upon the work of Kenneth Craig who argues that the contradictions between Muslim and Christian fidelity can be seen to arise from the different ways that Mohammed and Jesus responded to the same situation; namely, being under threat of death. Jesus ‘bowed his head to what was coming’; Mohammed ‘raised his army and marched on Mecca’ (p. 188). (BTW: my colleague Graham Redding drew attention recently to this same fundamental difference, a difference which at bottom reflects two different ideas of God’s nature, on TVNZ’s Q&A program). So Taylor:

But what a strong case Mohammed has! He takes the theology of power seriously. And more often than not, when confronted by the same choice, the Church has taken the Prophet’s way rather than the Messiah’s. Looked at in this way the basic difference between Islam and Christianity becomes an open option, for the Christian no less than for the Muslim – a choice on which we are still making up our minds. The gulf between us is seen, as it were, in cross section. Both I and the Muslim may go forward either on the one side or the other. I said ‘cross section’; for it is nothing less than the cross which is now demanding our decision. (p. 188)

The ‘evangelism of the Holy Spirit’, Taylor insists, ‘consists in creating the occasions for choice’ (pp. 188–9). Enthusiasts of the Gospel ought to be the first to welcome the lesson of the Epiphany story of the magi, not primarily their great learning or the store of their religious experience, but rather the question which they carried, or, rather, which carried them; namely, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’ (Matt 2.2).

Taylor continues:

I believe that the search for Christ’s relevance is a truer and less static way of describing the aim of dialogue than is the older talk about the one word and light which has inspired other religious systems. For it is not in the propositions, regulations, rituals or traditions of a religious system that his universal presence is to be found, but always independent of these phenomena in the uncontainable unattained to which they point, in the questions [people] ask about them, and the protests [people] make against them. It is as judge and saviour of the religious tradition itself that Christ’s relevance to each religion will be found. It is not so much that he is the culmination or crown of every religion … but that in him each religion will be brought to fulfilment in terms true to itself, through crisis and conversion. (p. 190)

Taylor proceeds to say that the eternal and universally-present Spirit, who is uniquely present in Christ but ‘present through the whole fabric of the world’, has been at work ‘in all ages and all cultures making [people] aware and evoking their response, and always the one to whom he was pointing and bearing witness was the Logos, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. Every religion has been a tradition of response to him, however darkly it groped towards him, however anxiously it shied away from him’ (pp. 180, 191). While salvation can only ever come ‘as an interruption, a revolution, a new creation’ (p. 192) of God, Taylor has no doubt that ‘as the Holy Spirit turns Muslim or Hindu or Marxist eyes towards the living Christ, the half-truths in their traditions of response will be completed, error will be shown up, disobedience condemned, all evasion of God brought to a halt, and his Son crucified afresh. And out of all that a new Jesus-centred Hinduism, a new Messiah-centred Islam, a new Christ-directed Communism, will be raised up’ (p. 192).

While there are claims made in Taylor’s chapter that I think warrant some challenge or at least some further teasing out, Taylor’s ‘Spirit-centred theology of missions’ (p. 196) has much to commend it, and I found myself needing to sit again with this chapter and wrestle with some of the very questions that I believe Taylor is inviting the church to wrestle further with. Would that more theological books demanded as much of the reader!

It is what Taylor coins the ‘second dimension’ of the Spirit’s work that I find most stimulating to muse about (to borrow a phrase from Jean-Jacques Rousseau). While the first dimension of the Spirit’s work concerns ‘the level of individual response to the magnetism of Jesus Christ’, and which includes ‘individual conversions from one culture to another’ (p. 192), conversions which are often, as Taylor concedes, extremely costly, the second dimension bears witness to the way that the Spirit works in ways entirely unplanned and unforeseen by the Church, an ‘incidental by-product’ largely out of sight ‘like the submerged mass of the iceberg’ (p. 194; PT Forsyth’s readers will recall the use of that same image in his theology). This dimension of the ‘strategy of God’ refers to ‘something that is beginning to happen within the very life of … other faiths themselves, a ferment, a subtle change, brought about by the influence of Jesus Christ upon them, far beyond any conscious impact that Christians are making’ (p. 194. Italics mine). Might these not be counted among the ‘little lights’ of which Barth spoke, the ‘little lights of creation … that … are not passed over or ignored, let alone destroyed or extinguished, but integrated in the great light’ of the Creator (CD IV.3.1, 156)? To be sure, God is not the God of individuals only, but also of nations, movements, histories. And those who would discern the movements of God would do well to not be fixated with the micro or with the personal (one of pietism’s traps), but to also think in centuries, as Forsyth encouraged, and with a large map of a borderless world before them.

I’ll give Taylor the last word, a word that bespeaks the freedom of grace, the determination of love, and the indispensible gift of the disciples’ costly witness:

For Christ is not the property of us Christians and if we rejoice when the Holy Spirit opens [people’s] eyes to his glory, we must at that moment remember how often the church has blinded them, and pray that we be not once more a stumbling block.

But of one thing we can be certain: there would be no such ferment, no response at all, within the body and fabric of these other great faiths, if those who, one by one, through the past century and a half, have been touched by the magnetism of Christ, had not paid the costly price of public confession and baptism with all that that entailed. For this peculiar faith to which we are committed has no power and no appeal whatever except the power and the appeal of the cross. In the confrontation of many faiths, all our dialogue, all our witness, all our loving service of [people’s] need must point to that. But in order to point another effectually, we may often have to be on the cross ourselves. Whatever else the strategy of the Spirit may include, that part of it has not been taken from us. (pp. 196–7)

Entering the New Theological Space: A Review

John Reader and Christopher R. Baker, eds, Entering the New Theological Space: Blurred Encounters of Faith, Politics and Community. Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology (Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2009), pp. xiii + 241, £55.00, ISBN 978-0-7546-6339-3.

Nicholas Lash, in his book Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God, gives voice to the difficulty of thinking Christianly in ‘a culture whose imagination, whose ways of “seeing” the world and everything there is to see, are increasingly unschooled by Christianity and, to a considerable and deepening extent, quite hostile to it’. He notes the serious and dangerous demands posed in such a situation by continuing to hold the Gospel’s truth rather than paying mere lip-service to ‘undigested information’ (p. 4). Believing that the time has come to help missiological communities to engage and digest in the linear spaces opened up between post-Christendom politics and interfaith actualities, institutional monads and inter-organisational networks, rural and urban spaces, the status of paid and unpaid, and the contested and evolving relationship between faith and science, for example, the contributors to Entering the New Theological Space seek, in different ways, to map such space ‘by means of a triangulation between narrative, praxis and theory’, to ‘offer some idea of the complexity and interdisciplinarity associated with this new space’ – a so-called ‘third space’, the ‘space of the both/and’ (p. 5), a more fluid space which discards the oft-maintained binarism of the either/or space – and to assist readers to analyse the significance of such ‘blurred encounters’ which, the editors believe, are ‘forcing the church to develop increasingly fluid and experimental forms’ (p. 10).

Each of the fifteen essays in this volume are in their own way stimulating, and most are well-researched and eruditely penned. They cover a range of topics, from John Atherton’s ethical-economical-theological reflection on a ‘pilgrimage’ down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to explore places where ‘inevitable and potentially creative’ (p. 25) ‘“edges” have become mainstream’ (p. 19), to Malcolm Brown’s essay on the ‘social atomisation’ and ‘rootlessness’ (p. 70) of London’s suburbs, to Margaret Goodall’s exploration of human personhood in a thought-provoking essay on dementia, to Clare McBeath’s piece which asks whether a community or a city can be said to ‘suffer from mental illness’ (p. 147), to Philip Wagstaff’s reflection on the fluidity and stability of rural ministry.

Two essays merit special mention: Martyn Percy’s considers the nature of the cultural dynamics, implicit theology and ‘invisible religion’ (p. 179; the phrase is Thomas Luckmann’s) that continue to birth requests for baptism (or ‘christening’) of children from non-churched families. He writes concerning the ‘deeply coded ways in which people talk and act about God’, that ‘religious language is carried in the emotion, timbre and cadence of worship’ and that ‘deeply coded language is not [necessarily] a strategy for avoiding explicit theological language’ (p. 184). Percy’s attempt to sketch a theology of cultural conversation, and to explore some implications of such conversations for missional and risky engagement in the ‘areas of overlap and hinterlands between the life of the church and the world’ (p. 179) merits further thought.

Drawing upon the work of Bruno Latour and Slavoj Žižek, and bringing their thought into conversation with events surrounding the 2007 outbreak (in Surrey) of foot and mouth disease, John Reader contributes an intriguing, if somewhat undercooked, essay on the nature, possibility and linguistic challenges posed to truth speech by the mutual encounter of science and theology. He concludes by stating that it is ‘only by keeping the insights and theories of both faith and science in circulation’ that we can be ‘certain of remaining “in the truth”‘, and that it is ‘only by loading into the process that contact with the wider world’ that we ‘avoid an unhealthy closure of questioning and debate’ (p. 208).

Some reservations: the noticeable absence in this volume of any discussion on the significance and place of technology (blogging, social media and gaming, for example) in theological and ecclesial discourse and praxis, and vice-versa, represents a disappointing gap. Also, there is in this volume a significant number of typological, grammatical and factual errors (John Knox, for example, was not the ‘first Presbyterian minister of St Giles and Scotland’ (p. 20)), errors which one expects would be corrected before print and to be rare in a book wearing such an inflated price tag. Finally, while one may well concur that ‘all the essays in this book are a testament to the ongoing adaptability and robust mutuality of Christian thought and the church’ (p. 7), if this volume represents ‘the new theological space’ then one might be forgiven for observing that, with one or two exceptions, such space is a little light on the theology front.

These reservations aside, not a few of the essays in this volume deserve wide reading, and the ongoing conversations encouraged therein are to be commended. Social planners, missiologists, pastoral practitioners and those training them will all benefit from reading this book, and from taking up the challenge to engage in the interdisciplinary and multilayered interstices of cultural, political and theological realities.

Ten (Draft) Propositions on the Missionary Nature of the Church

1. We commend the motivation which grants missiology a prime locus within ecclesiology, and, conversely, understands ecclesiology within the locus of the missio dei.

2. We commend the claim that the community’s task of bearing witness to Christ is of the esse to the missio ecclesiae.

3. We commend the assertion that the missio ecclesiae finds its genesis and telos in the trinitarian relations ad intra and in the missio dei ad extra.

4. But we reject those articulations which suggest that the divine ontology in se is determined in the missio dei ad extra and so undermine the truth that the missio dei is an action of free grace from Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

5. We commend the intention to bring the conversation about the missio ecclesiae into dialogue with divine election, or what we might call ‘missional election’.

6. We commend the determination that understands the missio ecclesiae as an extension of, and witness to, the divine love.

7. We reject the decision to blur the distinction between the esse and the bene esse of the people of God along missiological lines.

8. We reject those theological programs which would reduce the Church’s raison d’être to the functions of mission.

9. We reject any suggestion that the Church is in a position of self-determination. Founded in baptism, called into being by proclamation, ruled by scripture and nourished by the eucharist, the Church is – and remains – a creatura verbum Dei, a people claimed and kept by God and made one by the vivifying Spirit to worship God in spirit and truth. The Church can be faithful or perfidious to its ontology, it can choose to hear or to be deaf, but its hearing or otherwise does not determine its status or its end. Only its Creator can do this. Again, the Church is not the determination of the creature but of the one God of grace. Jesus’ promise to the apostolic community is that he will remain with it until the very end of the age. These are the words of a faithful lover in unilateral covenant which his beloved. That this lover is as good as his word provides the certainty that the Church – like Israel – is neither optional nor independent nor dispensable to God’s purposes for creation.

10. We ought to be able to say all this without resort to Latin.

A Script to Live (and to Die) By: 19 Theses by Walter Brueggemann

These 19 theses by Walter Brueggemann are the most interesting thing I’ve read all day [to be sure, it’s been a bit of an admin marathon today], an encouraging invitation to those of us striving to live by, and to train others to live by, what Brueggemann calls ‘the alternative script’:

1.        Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognised or unrecognised, but everybody has a script.

2.        We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialisation, and it happens to us without our knowing it.

3.         The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socialises us all, liberal and conservative.

4.        That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.

5.        That script has failed. That script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.

6.        Health for our society depends upon disengagement from and relinquishment of that script of military consumerism. This is a disengagement and relinquishment that we mostly resist and about which we are profoundly ambiguous.

7.        It is the task of ministry to de-script that script among us. That is, to enable persons to relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.

8.        The task of descripting, relinquishment and disengagement is accomplished by a steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we say can make us happy and make us safe.

9.        The alternative script is rooted in the Bible and is enacted through the tradition of the Church. It is an offer of a counter-narrative, counter to the script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism.

10.    That alternative script has as its most distinctive feature – its key character – the God of the Bible whom we name as Father, Son, and Spirit.

11.    That script is not monolithic, one dimensional or seamless. It is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent. Partly it is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because it has been crafted over time by many committees. But it is also ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because the key character is illusive and irascible in freedom and in sovereignty and in hiddenness, and, I’m embarrassed to say, in violence – [a] huge problem for us.

12.    The ragged, disjunctive, and incoherent quality of the counter-script to which we testify cannot be smoothed or made seamless because when we do that the script gets flattened and domesticated and it becomes a weak echo of the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism. Whereas the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism is all about certitude, privilege, and entitlement this counter-script is not about certitude, privilege, and entitlement. Thus care must be taken to let this script be what it is, which entails letting God be God’s irascible self.

13.    The ragged, disjunctive character of the counter-script to which we testify invites its adherents to quarrel among themselves – liberals and conservatives – in ways that detract from the main claims of the script and so to debilitate the focus of the script.

14.    The entry point into the counter-script is baptism. Whereby we say in the old liturgies, “do you renounce the dominant script?

15.    The nurture, formation, and socialisation into the counter-script with this illusive, irascible character is the work of ministry. We do that work of nurture, formation, and socialisation by the practices of preaching, liturgy, education, social action, spirituality, and neighbouring of all kinds.

16.    Most of us are ambiguous about the script; those with whom we minister and I dare say, those of us who minister. Most of us are not at the deepest places wanting to choose between the dominant script and the counter-script. Most of us in the deep places are vacillating and mumbling in ambivalence.

17.    This ambivalence between scripts is precisely the primary venue for the Spirit, so that ministry is to name and enhance the ambivalence that liberals and conservatives have in common that puts people in crisis and consequently that invokes resistance and hostility.

18.    Ministry is to manage that ambivalence that is crucially present among liberals and conservatives in generative faithful ways in order to permit relinquishment of [the] old script and embrace of the new script.

19.    The work of ministry is crucial and pivotal and indispensable in our society precisely because there is no one except the church and the synagogue to name and evoke the ambivalence and to manage a way through it. I think often I see the mundane day-to-day stuff ministers have to do and I think, my God, what would happen if you took all the ministers out. The role of ministry then is as urgent as it is wondrous and difficult.

[These theses were presented at the Emergent Theological Conversation, September 13-15, 2004, All Souls Fellowship, Decatur, GA., USA]

Rowan Williams on mission

Rowan WilliamsThe good Archbishop Williams recently gave an address titled ‘God’s Mission and Ours in the 21st century’. [You can also listen to/download it here]. He unpacked Matthew 10 in order to answer 5 commonly-asked questions about mission: Where do we start? What do we say? What do we do? Why are we doing it? How do we plan it? He then turned to Matthew 28. Unsurprisingly, the whole thing is well worth reading, but here are some snippets that got me all fuzzy inside:

‘It’s of course a salutary reminder of the very general principle that mission is never a matter of taking God where he hasn’t been before, and introducing him to a lot of kind strangers. In every act of mission, God is there ahead of us. But by saying, ‘Go first to the lost sheep of Israel,’ Jesus is telling us that we need always to be alert to that prior history. We need to be reminded that mission is God’s before it is ours … So as we engage in mission, communicating the good news – the really new message of Jesus Christ and who he is and what he’s done – we will always be attending to the pattern of God’s presence and action, already there’. [I was immediately reminded here of Vincent Donovan].

‘Mission is not about introducing a distant and rather shy God to people that he’s never met before. It’s much more a question of saying to people that God is more interested in you than you are in God. And the good news is that if you show signs of interest of response, trust and love, then that interest turns into profound intimacy and relationship. God is nearer than you think. God is already on the way. So that what we say about God in mission is actually very closely connected with the question of where and how do we start? We start recognizing God who is there before us, and we say to the people with whom we’re speaking, ‘God is already at work in you and the challenge is for you to recognize this and give your heart and your will to cooperating with what God wants to do with and in you. Our assumption must always be that God has started’.

‘Mission is release from sickness, from death, literally, from isolation (leprosy), from the demonic and the destructive forces that suck human beings down into darkness both inside and outside. Mission is crucially about tangible change, visible release, a release that at the individual level is the release from guilt and fear in respect of God which at the public and corporate level is a release from despair and oppression, from poverty and inhumanity. But whether we’re talking about the individual or corporate, we are talking about change and a change in the life that you see around’.

‘Gratitude is why we do it, because we can’t help it. Why are we seeking to share the good news of Jesus Christ? It is because we have received without payment an inestimable gift, which will not stay still in our hands’.

In addressing the fifth question – ‘How do we plan mission?’ – Williams says, ‘we have to be very careful not to close doors by the way we plan: that is, we need to be lead by the sense of where God is actively opening doors and put the initiative and energy there in the trust that somehow that action will generate the resources we need – “For the labourers deserve their food”. Mission travels light. Mission is probably not best advanced by the spectacle of someone embarking on it encumbered with a massive weight of cultural or financial baggage’.

Turning to Matthew 28, and to Jesus’ command to ‘make disciples’, Williams reminds that ‘Making disciples is a matter of shaping people who are willing to go on learning from God. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t seem to talk about making members, recruiting people to sign up: he wants disciples. He wants members of his body, not members of an organization. And the members of the body are those who share in the action of the body – a disciple is a learner, somebody who puts themselves to school under God and God’s Messiah. So go and make learners; encourage people to embark on the journey of discovering what the gift of God is. In mission when people see the new creation, the transformed reality that is set before them, they will need time to learn what it’s about. Don’t look for short cuts. Draw people in to the newness and mystery and excitement, and then let them know that it’s a lifetime’s work to find your way into it. Take the time that is needed for people to learn and to grow to be disciples. Of course Christ asks from his disciples service, obedience, sacrifice, but all the time Christ asks us to continue learning, day by day taking up the cross, walking this path and discovering as we go’.

Williams spoke encouragingly of the Fresh Expressions initiatives, and pressed that when it comes to mission the Church needs to take a ‘long-term view’. ‘Mission’, he says, ‘always requires an almost superhuman level of patience. When I look at the history of Christian mission, I find that the stories that move me most are not always the ones of rapid and widespread success, but the stories of those who, through a whole generation of apparent frustration have stayed with the particular situation, confident that God really is opening a door even if you can’t yet see it. There are many such stories. There are sad stories too, of successes that have proved short-lived where the enemies of the gospel have more or less extinguished what seemed to be great early promise. The long view is the most important, but because we live in a culture that is not at all in love with long views and likes short-term solutions whether in religion or politics, the Christian committed to patience is a very counter-cultural person and all the more important because of it. But even in local and prosaic settings, how very tempting it is to say that we want our results now, before the end of the year. We have justify what we’re doing in the shortest of short terms and that is a curse for churches, universities, charities, community regeneration projects, all sort of things in our society. And we need deep breaths and long views again’.

He also highlighted that one of the practical implications of mission is what he termed a ‘solid, three-dimensional liturgical life’. He said: ‘we need to find ourselves in a Church that has a deep rhythm of teaching and symbolizing of our faith. I don’t mean elaborate ceremonial and I don’t mean complicated externals. I mean a nourishing diet of sacramental worship with baptism and the Lord’s Supper at the heart of it, taking us again and again through the Christian year in ways that make the rhythm of the life of Christ second nature to us. Because that’s how the new creation is fleshed out in the life of the Church. And that’s what we’re asking people ultimately to become part of. It certainly doesn’t mean that when you’re engaged in mission or evangelism, the first thing you do with people is present them with the annual lectionary! But I do mean that in the long term, what we hope will happen in mission is that people come into that flow of Christ’s love that the Christian year and Christian worship represents. Each year Christians go through the story of waiting and expectation and fulfillment of Christmas, of baptism, temptation, passion and resurrection, ascension, the giving of the Spirit, and the great climax, the celebration of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that we’ve just experienced on Trinity Sunday. And that annual rhythm, that taking time and going through the story, is so important in anchoring us to something other than what we happen to be thinking or feeling on any one day. None of what I’ve said is going to have its full effect on us unless we are aware of the need for our worship and community life as Christians to have that depth and solidity, that three-dimensional quality to it’.

That’s a lot of fuzzies …

Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society

Hagia Sophia - Mosaic of Christ with Constantine IX and Zoe

Hagia Sophia - Mosaic of Christ with Constantine IX and Zoe

‘There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters — God and Cæsar’. So was Tertullian’s response (in On Idolatry 19) to a question he posed of ‘whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments’.

My recent return to the Antipodes (after only 3 years) has been met with something of a shock at what I observe to be a distinct revival of patriotism in this part of the world symbolised not least in the hoisting of national flags. I can only interpret this as a public confession that the soul of the nation is distressed. Holding this thought, I remember once hearing (on tape) the great Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones lamenting that the saddest day in ecclesiastical history was when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. (Of course, it may been different if Constantine had turned out to be a different kind of Emperor, but that’s not my point here). At the time, I wondered if this was a bit of an overstatement (a brilliant preacher’s rhetoric beclouding more constrained reflection on what is only one of millions of possible ‘saddest day’ candidates), but he was certainly onto something: that the Church’s jumping into bed with and baptising nationhood with its programs and events – such as Anzac Day – serves to highlight yet again that there is literally all the difference in the world between discipleship and citizenship, that with or without the third verse the Church cannot in good conscience sing the hymn ‘I vow to thee, my country’, words which were rung out at many a recent Anzac Day service. (And while I’m on Anzac Day services, let me tout that the Church can only faithfully recall the deaths that war has claimed if she does so as part of her proclamation against all war.)

The Church betrays its witness to the one Word of God when she includes a national flag among – or alongside – her emblems of worship. Nationalism and patriotism are always idolatrous enemies of a jealous Lord who tolerates no rivals. To see a national flag displayed in a place of Christian worship is to witness a message as scandalous and confusing as to see an ATM machine in a ‘church foyer’. Moreover, to witness (or to participate in) what Lesslie Newbigin described as ‘the Constantinian trap’ is to observe (and/or to participate in) the greatest of public failures – the denial of the Church’s font, table and pulpit, its raison d’être and its catholicity in the world. It is to preach that the greatest thing in the world – the Church – has become a chaplain of the State and its violent machinery. Paul Fromont recently gave voice to similar concerns by drawing upon Stanley Hauerwas’ writing as that concerned with ‘liberation’. For Hauerwas, he writes, this typically centres on a two-fold dynamic: (1) The liberation of the church from its captivity to agendas, values and practices intrinsically alien to its character and calling; and (2) liberation (in order to) restore the church to be and act as what [Hauerwas] terms a ‘free agent’ of the Kingdom appropriate to God’s agenda of the salvation of the cosmos and its re-creation (cf. Rev 21:1; Rom 8:22). I recall Hauerwas’ words from another context: to ‘worship in a church with an American flag’ means that ‘your salvation is in doubt’. Patriotism is no Christian virtue. (See Hauerwas’ Dissent from the Homeland, p. 184). The problem in Germany during the 1930s and 40s wasn’t that German Christians draped the cross with a Nazi flag; it was that they draped the cross with a flag full stop. Christian communities ought remove all national flags from their places of worship, and to do so at least as publicly as when they were first placed there. The removal should be accompanied by a public prayer of confession for despoiling the Church’s witness to its Lord, and to its own catholicity.

Flag flying in front of Cologne Cathedral, 1937

Cologne Cathedral, 1937

Against those who contend that the Church’s role is to baptise those creations of common good that the State concerns itself with, William Cavanaugh, in his brilliant essay, ‘Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good’ (Modern Theology 20/2, 2004), observes that Christian social ethics more often than not proceed on the false assumption that the responsibility for promoting and protecting the common good falls to the State. He avers:

The nation-state is neither community writ large nor the protector of smaller communal spaces, but rather originates and grows over against truly common forms of life. This is not necessarily to say that the nation-state cannot and does not promote and protect some goods, or that any nation-state is entirely devoid of civic virtue, or that some forms of ad hoc cooperation with the government cannot be useful. It is to suggest that the nation-state is simply not in the common good business. At its most benign, the nation-state is most realistically likened, as in MacIntyre’s apt metaphor, to the telephone company, a large bureaucratic provider of goods and services that never quite provides value for money. The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more; namely, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values that demands sacrifice on its behalf. The longing for genuine communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any truly common life is transferred onto the nation-state. Civic virtue and the goods of common life do not simply disappear; as Augustine saw, the earthly city flourishes by producing a distorted image of the heavenly city. The nation-state is a simulacrum of common life, where false order is parasitical on true order. In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the Church, meant to save us from division. The urgent task of the Church, then, is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company. At its best, the nation-state may provide goods and services that contribute to a certain limited order – mail delivery is a positive good. The state is not the keeper of the common good, however, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. The Church must break its imagination out of captivity to the nation-state. The Church must constitute itself as an alternative social space, and not simply rely on the nation-state to be its social presence. The Church needs, at every opportunity, to “complexify” space, that is, to promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish. (pp. 266–7)

Cavanaugh contends that by regarding the nation-state as responsible for the common good, ‘the Church’s voice in such crucial moral matters as war becomes muted, pushed to the margins. Just war reasoning becomes a tool of statecraft, most commonly used by the state to justify war, rather than a moral discipline for the Church to grapple with questions of violence. The Church itself becomes one more withering “intermediate association”, whose moral reasoning and moral formation are increasingly colonized by the nation-state and the market. To resist, the Church must at the very least reclaim its authority to judge if and when Christians can kill, and not abdicate that authority to the nation-state. To do so would be to create an alternative authority and space that does not simply mediate between state and individual’ (p. 268). That is why one appropriate Christian witness might be the refusal of those who reside in States where funding goes to pay for the machinery of aggressive war to withhold a percentage of their income tax commensurate with the State’s war budget. (Here I have in mind Yoder’s essay ‘Why I Don’t Pay All My Income Tax’).

While the Church shares some cultural space with the world, it is not an institution alongside others, and it exists for the propping up of none. The Church, as Peter Leithart argues in Against Christianity, is both ‘an alternative world unto herself’, and a participant in the Spirit’s ‘subversive mission of converting whatever culture she finds herself in’. And the Church participates in the second only as she lives authentically as the first – i.e. as she embodies an alternative Societas determined by its own jealous Servant-Lord and shaped by its own unique narrative. Christendom can never undertake this mission because it can only propose ideas or offer the Church as a ‘new sort of religious association’, essentially no different to a local lawn bowls club. It does not form an alternative city, a ‘new, eschatological ordering of human life’. ‘Constantinianism … is a theological and missiological mistake’ (Rodney Clapp).

If Leithart is right that the mission of the Church involves the converting of culture then, as I intimated above, this can only happen as the congregation of Jesus lives uncompromisingly under a different economy and politic. The consequence of such living will inevitably provoke a declaration of war by the gods. History is indeed the battle for worship, as the Book of the Revelation bears witness to.

Anyway, back to the issue of the flag. Few have named the stakes as cogently and as carefully as Karl Barth, with whose words I bring this post to a close:

[The] combining of the Word of Jesus Christ with the authority and contents of other supposed revelations and truths of God has been and is the weak point, revealed already in the gnosis attacked in the New Testament, at almost every stage in the history of the Christian Church. The prophecy of Jesus Christ has never been flatly denied, but fresh attempts have continually been made to list it with other principles, ideas and forces (and their prophecy) which are also regarded and lauded as divine, restricting its authority to what it can signify in co-ordination with them, and therefore to what remains when their authority is also granted. Nor is this trend characteristic only of early and mediaeval Catholicism. It is seen in Protestantism too, from the very outset in certain circles, even in the Reformers themselves, and then with increasing vigour and weight, until the fatal little word “and” threatened to become the predominant word of theology even in this sphere where we might have hoped for better things in view of what seemed to be the strong enough doctrine of justification. It needed the rise of the strange but temporarily powerful sect of the German Christians of 1933 to call us back to reflection, and at least the beginning of a return, when the more zealous among them, in addition to their other abominations, awarded cultic honour to the portrait of the Führer. The overthrow of this whole attitude, and its provisional reversal, was accomplished in the first thesis of Barmen which is the theme of the present exposition. But there are other Christian nations in which it is customary to find a prominent place in the church for national flags as well as the pulpit and the Lord’s table, just as there are evangelical churches which substitute for the Lord’s table a meaningfully furnished apparatus for the accomplishment of baptism by immersion [or, one might add, that most holy of contemporary ecclesiastical furniture – the data projector and its accompanying screen]. These externals, of course, are trivial in themselves. But as such they may well be symptoms of the attempt which is possible in so many forms to incorporate that which is alien in other prophecies into what is proper to that of Jesus Christ. If these prophecies are prepared for this – and sooner or later they will make an open bid for sole dominion – the prophecy of Jesus Christ asks to be excused and avoids any such incorporation. If it is subjected to such combinations, the living Lord Jesus and His Word depart, and all that usually remains is the suspiciously loud but empty utterance of the familiar name of this Prophet. “No man can serve two masters” (Mt. 6:24). No man can serve both the one Word of God called Jesus Christ and other divine words’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 101–2.

‘”What Happened Next?”: Vincent Donovan, Thirty-five Years On’

christianity-rediscoveredDear Bishop,

… Suddenly I feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at strategy, and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa. I would propose cutting myself off from the schools and the hospital and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message. Outside of this, I have no theory, no plan, no strategy, no gimmick, no idea of what will come. I feel rather naked. I will begin as soon as possible … (Vincent J. Donovan)

I will always be grateful for my being introduced to Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle to the Masai by Vincent J. Donovan, who I’ve posted on before. I can’t recall how many copies that I’ve given away over the years but it runs well into double figures (a wee plea: this is not a gloat but an indication of how highly I view this book). The book continues to have a profound influence on the way I think about Church, mission and the Gospel. Yet like many readers of this wonderful story, I was always left with a set of frustrating questions: ‘What happened next?’ ‘Did the Masai Donovan encountered go on to do the self-theologising and self-ecclesiologicalising that he (in the spirit of Roland Allen) had hoped that they would?’ ‘What happened to Donovan himself?’ etc. So I was absolutely thrilled yesterday to pick up the latest copy of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (33/2 April 2009) and read John P. Bowen’s article entitled ‘”What Happened Next?”: Vincent Donovan, Thirty-five Years On’. The story is significantly sadder than I had hoped, but Bowen’s piece is no less important for that. Bowen also draws attention to his forthcoming edited book The Letters of Vincent Donovan, to be published by Orbis Books.

And while I’m drawing attention to newies, here’s two more to look out for:

Bruce Hamill: ‘Response to Kevin Ward’s Inaugural Lecture’

hamill-1Rev Dr Kevin Ward’s recent lecture – ‘It may be emerging, but is it church?’ – has sparked a good deal of constructive conversation, a conversation that was kicked off by a brief public response to the lecture by one who had enquired after one of Kevin’s earlier lectures – ‘So where’s the theology in all this? – the Rev Dr Bruce Hamill. Here’s Bruce’s gracious and insightful response to Kevin’s paper:


Thanks for the privilege of responding to today very briefly, in just 10 minutes… Kevin, those who know you expect nothing less than a broad-visioned, scholarly, insightful, pastoral, provocative but conciliatory lecture, grounded in your passion for the church and the gospel. You have not disappointed us…

Since I am expected to ask theological questions I will try not to disappoint.

Right Question?

I particularly liked the provocative title… however, as I have thought about the relation between the title and the concluding answer, I reached the conclusion that, for all its provocation this question is not quite right. Not that I want to avoid your question, but perhaps to narrow down the scope of my response…a better question might be: Does this movement within the church (or among the churches) point the way forward for reform of the body of Christ? Does this movement with its 3 foci of (1) alignment with postmodernism (2) relevance (3) incarnationalism have the theological resources for a missional church in our time? Now my suspicion is that your answer to this question would be a nuanced one, but probably, like mine, a ‘no’. Indeed the last half of your paper demonstrates how the emergent church consistently shows a conflict with the classical marks of the church – a strong indicator that its theological principles and direction is fundamentally flawed. In this respect my response is, I suspect in basic agreement with your view (particularly in the latter half of your paper)

Incarnation and Mission

However, if this is the case, then I fear that the framework you inherit from Niebuhr and others in the missiology movement is too close to that used by the emergent church itself, to really expose its flaws. In what remains of my few minutes response I want to indicate some of the tensions within your argument.

To begin with I would note that your adoption of the term incarnation, as an adjective (‘incarnational’) to represent a stance which is neither isolationist nor accomodationist, raises my theological antennae. This appears to me to be a sociologising of the language of theology – of incarnation – which trades on its theological background.

So to a more directly theological question: What is the incarnation? (in just 5 minutes!) And how does it relate to the church’s cultural existence and mission?

David Congdon, a Princeton theologian who has influenced my response to this, says:

‘the incarnation is sui generis, i.e., it is wholly unique and unrepeatable. In short, the incarnation is an event, not an idea that can be applied or a process that can be completed or a reality that can be replicated.’

What I believe lies behind this is the whole doctrine of divine grace emerging from the church’s experience of salvation in the raising of the crucified Jesus. Namely, that the life of Jesus originated unnecessarily (contingently) and freely from God’s transcendent act and being. In the incarnation God’s freedom from us is the basis for God’s freedom for us in the life of Jesus.

hamill-2In this sense Jesus life represents a break in the fabric of culture and tradition and original sin. It introduces a radical newness from the Word of God. In this sense the church came to talk of him as being born of a virgin and also suggest that the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowed’ even the maternal contribution to Jesus existence. God enters into the physical conditions of human life, adopting, as it were, the human condition, however this is not an accommodation to or adaption to culture, but rather human culture is here accommodated to the Word of God.

So as Congdon argues, the incarnation cannot be a model for us. However, it does transform and con-form our life. As already enfleshed and enculturated, fallen human beings, we are, because of the incarnation and the form and history it took, reculturated (that’s my word) by God.

In Christ we are not made ‘incarnational’, but a given a history that conforms to his history culminating in death and resurrection. It is here that we see the weakness of the link so often made between ‘incarnation’ and ‘adaptation to human culture’. ‘As the Father sent me…’ refers not to his incarnation but to the form of his life culminating in crucifixion and resurrection – a transformative, salvific encounter with culture.

Other Missional Language in Tension

Let me mention some further places where I think the language of the earlier half of your paper leads you closer to the framework of the ’emerging church’ than the latter half of your paper should allow. You suggest that the aim of missional thinking is a ‘culturally indigenous church’. According to my dictionary “indigenous” means: “born in or originating from where it is found”. If however, the church is created by the crucifixion and resurrection of the incarnate Word it may look like its surrounding culture (like Paul sought to in 1 Cor 9 in order to serve those cultures) but it will not originate from where it is found. The cultural processes that we rely on in the creation of the church are not indigenous processes of human meaning-making. They are the processes whereby God “crunches” from the old order, in all its indigenous and alienated diversity  and constant change, a new social order. Jesus very definitely did take the human context in all its particularity seriously, seriously enough to get crucified by it (as you point out). Seriously enough to spend most of his time with those who functioned as essentially non-representative of the culture – the culturally marginalised. I contend that to take culture seriously as Jesus did, is not to conform to its agenda.

As you say ‘there are limits to how far the culture can set the agenda and determine the shape’. My contention is that the issue is not the presence of a limit, but how that limit is set (and who determines it). I believe it is not by the balancing of principles, especially if one of those principles is Andrew Walls’ rather cosy ‘the gospel is at home in every culture and every culture is at home in the gospel’. Such a principle, even if balanced by the pilgrim principle which says that ‘the gospel is never fully at home’, makes the cross the exception rather than the culmination of Christ’s life. One cannot serve two masters, Christ and Culture (as Walls’s balancing act suggests). Cultural processes must have their limits set for them by Christ in the formation of his body, or our enlightenment culture becomes the default determiner of this process.

Church is not people who ‘have the gospel’ (like some ideal) and then apply it, enlightenment style, to the world’s forms. They are worldly people being re-formed by Spirit and Word and re-culturated into a new creation and an anticipation of the kingdom.

Barth, Form and Content

Which brings me to Karl Barth’s problem. He says that there is no ‘sacred sociology’, however I feel he needs to be challenged, by those like John Milbank, to understand the need of a theological sociology – a fuller ecclesiology.

Quoting Barth you say, “If then the church has been, and indeed should (the should is your addition) have its forms determined by whatever the current “political, economic and cultural models” of “its situation in world history” are, does that mean that anything goes?” [loaded question!] Barth has no “should”. I suspect he does not see such accomodation as an ecclesiological virtue – just an inevitability. However, I want to go beyond Barth and challenge the easy separation between form and content. Not only is it not true that anything goes (as you also clearly argue), but it is true that the form as well as the content should be subject to Christ and the Spirit (as you hinted at in places in your paper). This claim does not, as many seem to fear, imply that it will be a fixed form, or that to believe this requires identifying the form that Christ gives the church with a human form from the post. On the contrary it simply requires a formative process, by which enculturated people attend to Word and Sacrament, not just in their private spiritualities but also in their social habits and structures. This is in my view what it means to be a Reformed Church – constantly being re-formed socially.

Thanks again for the chance to respond to your stimulating lecture.