A Just Church: 21st century liberation theology in action
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
I AM writing this review after a day of media interviews and phone calls to do with the probable eviction of 90 families from a traveller site near Basildon in the diocese I serve.
I have not been particularly involved with this community. Many of the travellers are Roman Catholics, but because the diocese of Chelmsford and the Roman Catholic diocese of Brentwood enjoy a close working relationship, I have given my support to their request that any talk of eviction be postponed until a more permanent solution can be found.
It is a tiny example of what this book speaks about with a passion and commitment that leave me humbled: the Church’s getting involved in an agenda for social justice and demonstrating that “God is on the side of the earth and its people.”
At the very beginning of the book, Chris Howson, city-centre mission priest in Bradford and occasional lecturer in liberation theology, explains that for most churches, “worship is the centre of their corporate life and discipleship left as a private affair.” He is right. We have allowed the Christian faith to become at best a private moral code, at worst a leisure pursuit for people who like that sort of thing.
But God cannot be constrained. God is always concerned for the well-being of the creation, and for the human family that he loves. When Mary greets the news that she is the blessed one who believes God’s word will be fulfilled in her, she sings of justice and joy and of the reign of God on earth. In this new dispensation, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty.
If, like Mary, we are Christ-bearers today, then we, too, must sing of God’s justice and joy, and make sure that the Church itself is an effective sign of God’s compassionate concern for righteousness and peace.
Howson writes particularly about this with concern for the Emerging Church movement, but he rightly points out that this is just as important for the whole Church of Jesus Christ. Each chapter tells a moving story about how he himself and the community he serves in Bradford have been involved in all sorts of issues, giving a voice to the powerless and witnessing to a different set of values, and showing allegiance to a king other than the rulers and powers of this world. The chapter on his work with asylum-seekers is particularly powerful.
It is a challenging book, and, while I am sure that some will wish to take issue with some of the individual actions and causes that Howson has espoused, I doubt whether anyone will not be moved by this story of faith in action.
Each chapter usefully ends with some suggestions to help individuals and church communities to learn, act, and reflect on this for themselves. Quoting Jim Wallis, Howson reminds us that “Christians are often good at pulling people out of the river who are drowning, but not so good at going upstream and finding out who is pushing them in.”
This book is an invitation to go upstream a little; a salutary reminder that when the worship ends the service should begin.
The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Bishop of Chelmsford.