Scope for an appeal

by
05 January 2010

An interesting case, Leslie J. Francis finds

Church on Trial
Jessica Rose

IN THIS book, Jessica Rose sets out to “put the Church on trial”, and to do so in three senses.

In the first sense, Rose is concerned with the marginal nature of church in contemporary society, and in this context she sees many churchgoers putting the Church on trial, trying church out, trying church on for size. In this sense, trial involves the following kinds of questions. Do I like this or not? Does it meet my needs? Is it being what I think church should be? Does it make any difference in my life?

In the second sense, Rose is concerned with asking how the Church is behaving in people’s lives, and how church may be distinctive from “a club or community centre, or even, perhaps, a repository for traditionalists”. Does the Church really facilitate an enlargement of our souls and bring us closer to God?

In the third sense, Rose is concerned with asking what indi­vid­ual members bring to the Church, and, in her language, to the Body of Christ. What does it mean for people to be church in today’s context?

The strength of this book res­ides in the care with which Rose relates the personal stories of those who have talked with her about their experiences of church. It is well worth while taking some of these rich stories out of context and listening to the distinctive voices.

Sue speaks of going to church as a child “because the sweetshop was closed on Sunday, and it got me out of chores”. Ann stopped going to church when, in the midst of a divorce, people stopped talking with her. Michael withdrew from seeking ordination when the diocesan director of ordinands advised him: “When they ask you about your sexuality, just lie.”

When Celia told Father X that she had decided on divorce, he kept his distance and said “he did not expect to see her in church again.” Meanwhile, Father Y “began to talk about himself getting a divorce and marrying Celia”. Jill spoke warmly about the church as a group of people where “you encourage each other.”

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In this book, Jessica Rose sets out to “put the Church on trial”. A good and fair trial requires a clear account of how the evidence is assembled, an objective analysis of the data, and a transparent evaluation of the results of the analysis. All too often in the writings of practical and pastoral theology, such criteria are difficult to apply. In this case, the evidence is assembled from interviews, but it would have been helpful to know how the interviewees were chosen and how many were involved.

The analysis draws attention to characteristics that reflect the author’s personal religious pilgrimage, but it would have been helpful to know why these were emphasised. The clear evaluation is offered that, in respect of the first two aspects of the trial, “there can be no verdict”; but it would have been helpful to have a clearer account of how the evidence led to this conclusion.

The Revd Dr Francis is Professor of Religions and Education in the University of Warwick, and Canon Theologian of Bangor Cathedral.

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