The light of God was on its streets

04 January 2011

Peter Forster on faith in the city


Holiness and Mission: Learning from the Early Church about mission in the city
Morna Hooker and Frances Young
SCM Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

THIS book began life as the Hugh Price Hughes lectures, to celebrate 250 years of Methodism in London. Hooker and Young are recently re­tired senior scholars in the New Testament and the Early Church, and they bring their formidable knowledge to bear upon two themes. First, why did Christianity flourish so successfully in its early centuries? and, second, what might that tell us about the Church’s priorities today, especially for mission in an urban context?

An initial chapter on holiness emphasises that in the Bible the call is not primarily to proclaim the gospel, but to live it — “be holy as I am holy.” Responsibility in mission can be exercised only as a service to the world, in humility and love.

How can such service be offered in the complex and often trouble­some context of a city? In the Bible, cities are often portrayed as places of oppression and injustice; yet they are where most people live, and the underlying vision is of a holy city, as God’s dwelling place — a new Jerusalem. This image of the City of God reflects the need for faith to be embodied, in people and in com­munities, even amid all the temp­tation and hubris which a city typic­ally offers.

An interesting historical and sociological analysis is offered to explain why Christianity was so extraordinarily successful in its expansion. Young’s command of Early Church history offers a splen­did summary of a complex subject, although I did wonder whether she underplayed the essential classless­ness of early Christianity, in a society beset with divisions of race and social class. The sense of God’s closeness to the Church, and its indomitable hope for the world’s redemption, generated an attractive­ness which bemused many of the intellectuals of the time.

Reflections on the legal establish­ment of the Church, as a conse­quence of its expansion and success, are offered from a Methodist perspective, which has always been wary of the Anglican establishment. Can Christianity be inherently counter-cultural and yet offer its own culture to a wider world? If it does so, the authors agree, it can no longer aim for a monolithic culture, but Christianity should welcome the challenges and opportunities of a pluralistic and multicultural world which today’s cities offer.

This has implications for ecu­menism, to favour reconciled diversity over the older models of institutional unity. But what does reconciliation mean, if differences are merely to be glossed over? One might have liked some further reflection on when diversity actually prevents reconciliation.

This is a stimulating book, which would form the basis of an excel­lent, if slightly intellectual, Lent course. But the mastery of the material by two such experienced scholars offers something for every­one.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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