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Faithfulness in the City

27 February 2007

Book title: Faithfulness in the City
Author: John Vincent, editor

Publisher: Monad Press
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ST DEINIOL’S, Hawarden, is very grand. Only those who are a nice class of person can say the name “Hawarden” correctly. There is a fine croquet lawn, and a splendid park where you can take a turn before dinner. It seems an unlikely meeting place for a group combatively calling itself “the Urban Theology Collective”. But William Gladstone, whose memorial this library is, believed that Christian faith had social implications; and if something of the spirit of Gladstone — as well as 30,000 of his books — survives at St Deiniol’s, then it is an entirely appropriate venue for thinking about the Church and the city. The essays in this volume are updated versions of papers originally presented at St Deiniol’s at the meeting in 2000 of the Collective. The shape of the book — “from testimony to testament” — reflects its theological approach. We start with the stories: the experiences of ministers who have chosen to live and work among the poorest. The best essays here are those that simply record what it is like to be responsible for a church in an impoverished area, and which document the mixture of chronic frustration and occasional encouragement experienced in trying to put theology into ministerial practice in such inimical situations. Peter Howard, for example, tells us about “Frankie’s”, the kids’ club run by St Francis’s Church on the wonderfully ill-named housing estate of Heartsease on the outskirts of Norwich. There they believe that in dealing with disruptive children they may be entertaining angels. John Summers writes about reshaping the life of an inner-urban parish in Plymouth in the light of the experience of the Latin-American “basic ecclesial communities”. We are taken to other challenging places where, it is argued, what the Church is should be shaped by the raw experience of how things are. We learn about multifaith Bradford, about the cultural smorgasbord of Newham, about Milton Keynes with its concrete cows. John Vincent, editor of the essays, draws the theological lessons from these testimonies. “It is hard to exaggerate the importance, and even the singularity, of what is here,” he asserts. This is too much to claim. The witness of these moving stories is certainly important, but the lessons drawn are now too familiar to be deemed singular. This is a stimulating and challenging symposium, but at least three issues remain unaddressed. The first is that of the cultural roots of conflicting urban theologies. The most successful Christian churches in the inner city are those that believe in the “liberation of the poor” every bit as much as the contributors to this book, but who have a very different view of how that liberation is achieved. These are the churches, predominantly Afro-Caribbean, which preach a prosperity gospel. The theology of these churches is, in its selective way, as scriptural as that of our urban theologians. It is the Deuteronomic theology that God will bless you materially if you obey him. You may live on a poor estate in Bethnal Green, but if you do what God says you will become as well off as anyone in Buckhurst Hill. It is a seductive gospel. There are far more in the congregation at one service of the Kingsway International Christian Centre in Hackney than the total of those attending all the Anglican churches for many miles around. A second issue is finding the route from where we are to where we ought to be. We will all agree with the new “paradigms” John Vincent preaches. I know my parish and I know a little theology. I recognise that the church I serve should ideally be a loose association of home-based cells on Hackney’s vast, drug-ridden Pembury Estate. The reality is that, like so many urban congregations, we are encumbered with a huge and costly church building, a memorial to a social order now vanished from the earth. The energies of our wonderful people are exhausted in keeping a cumbersome show on the road, and we are locked into an antiquated institutional structure that slashes our staff while hiking up our costs. John Vincent is forthcoming about the New Jerusalem, less so about how to get there. Third, there are unresolved contradictions in these articles about the Christian understanding of power. The editorial view of the powerful, ecclesiastical as well as political, is one of mistrust, if not hostility. But one wonders whether funding for the book would have been found without “the generous practical and financial support” of the six bishops named in the Acknowledgements. The Revd Dr John Pridmore is Rector of Hackney, in east London. The book is available from Monad Press, St Deiniol’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire CH5 3DF.

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