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Hard words for ego-trippers

05 July 2013

Peter McGeary reads books to challenge a cosy spirituality

Seeking Justice: The radical compassion of Jesus
Keith Hebden
Circle Books £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80 (Use code CT448 )

Servant Ministry: A portrait of Christ and a pattern for his followers
Tony Horsfall
BRF £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT448 )

"JESUS proclaimed the Kingdom of God, but the Church came instead. Discuss." I don't know if they still set that one in mock university finals papers these days, but the question haunts me still. The dilemma is a false one, of course: that Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom is self-evident from the Gospels, and the Church was inevitable as soon as more than two or three gathered in his name. It is not and never was a question of either/or.

And then the problems begin - problems to do with all institutions, which can so easily become detached from the original intentions or vision of their founders. I suppose, in their different ways, both these books try to reconnect things - people - to what being the Church means.

Keith Hebden's book has as its subtitle The radical compassion of Jesus, and in it he tries to point to ways in which the Church is called to build "community" in the deepest sense, by constantly challenging and transforming what is assumed to be "the way things are". A large component of this process will lead to conflict, mainly with those who hold power and money.

Hebden is an advocate of what he calls "compassionate resistance". This involves the reader in some unexpected and startling readings of the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount, and takes him or her to some uncomfortable places: for instance, the idea that compassion is for the oppressor as well as the oppressed, and that our building of "community" will involve solidarity with unexpected and unusual allies. The book is peppered with practical examples of this. Do what you can, and you will end up doing more than you might have imagined, Hebden seems to be telling us.

Tony Horsfall's book grew out of a retreat for staff at an ecumenical Bible college, and is basically an extended meditation on the first of the so-called "Servant Songs" of Deutero-Isaiah. The style is very different from Hebden's, but the intent is similar: Christian faith and practice can never be just a vertical relationship between me and God: it is a relationship also with and for others. Both books contain material in each chapter for group use, as if to illustrate the point.

Rather too much contemporary religious discourse has been predic-ated on false opposites, bogus certainties, and the conviction that I am right - or, at least, that my version of the gospel is. With this has come an obsession with targets and planning and growth, which is really no more than being in thrall to what is just about to stop being the Zeitgeist, or imagining that "mission" is about getting more and more people to go to church, preferably my church.

In their different ways, these two books challenge these obsessions, and return us to a more Pauline (Christian?) view of diakonia. Life would be much easier if neither of these authors had put pen to paper. But one cannot help being grateful that they have.

The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary's, Cable Street, in the East End of London, and a Priest Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

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