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Lessons of dissent

30 August 2013

These movements raise vital questions, says Alec Graham

Christianity Outside the Box: Learning from those who rocked the boat
Nigel Scotland
Cascade £30

THIS book deserves to be widely read. It treats 14 movements in which Christian faith has found expression outside the historic Churches. These movements cover a wide range, from the Montanists of the second century to the Vineyard Movement of the present day.

Such movements have had varied fortunes: the influence of some has greatly benefited the Church from which they emerged; some continue to flourish; some have themselves split; some have fizzled out.

As the author considers each of these movements, he provides an account of its origin and development. In this he displays a remarkably sure touch over a wide sweep of Christian history. Just occasionally, errors of detail and mistakes in the spelling of names have crept in. This historical section is followed in each case by careful analysis of its principal characteristics, and of ways in which the historic Churches may learn from it.

None of the movements considered exhibits all the characteristics noted. For instance, the organised Church may be perceived as too much identified with the State, or with the respectable or the cerebral. In the Western Church, the Holy Spirit at times seems almost to be confined to certain formal statements and rites. By contrast, these movements emphasise the Spirit's living force, and help believers to experience his transforming influence.

Other strands prominent are concern for the poor, the hungry, and the unlettered, and a concern to bring the gospel to them; also, an emphasis on the part played by women in the Church's life, including its ministry. Yet another recurrent theme is the part played by powerful leaders of attractive personality.

This illuminating study gives rise to several questions. For instance, when we pray for the unity of the Church, do we think of the institutional Churches, or of all Christian believers? In any case, do we not need dissenters to challenge us, whatever our views may be, and to supplement our own grasp of the faith? Are we aware that some outwardly enthusiastic form of religion is a route by which people are led to a more reflective and cerebral faith, and to grow in its understanding and practice?

Also, are members of the institutional Churches aware of the extent to which much in their churches seems stuffy, routine, dry, and cerebral, increasingly estranged from modern culture? Is the emphasis on servant leadership (so-called) by a dynamic, attractive personality, characteristic of many modern movements, easily compatible with the saying of Jesus, "He that is greatest among you shall be your servant," his own role as servant having received its fullest expression in shame and defeat on the cross?

The quality of this study may be gauged by the importance of the questions that it provokes.

The Rt Revd Dr Alec Graham is a former Bishop of Newcastle.

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