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Messy means inclusive

11 April 2014

John Pridmore hails a study of a lively church innovation, now ten years old

Messy Church Theology: Exploring the significance of Messy Church for the wider church
George Lings, editor
BRF £9.99
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FIRST, what this book is not. The Messy Church website claims that Messy Church Theology encapsulates "the academic theology of Messy Church". No, it doesn't. Academic theology, like any other academic discipline, must comply with the things that Academe requires - a clearly articulated methodology, meticulous referencing, engagement with "the literature", and the rest. None of the contributions to this compendium would make it to the pages of a peer-reviewed academic journal.

But Messy Church Theology is none the worse - indeed, it is all the more refreshing - for not being what the website claims. What we have is not academic theology - it's much too soon for that - but a series of preliminary reflections by members of the Messy Church community on the bewildering event that has bowled them over. This "messy selection of writers", as Lucy Moore, creator of Messy Church, calls them, is trying to make sense of a movement, just ten years old, that clearly requires some kind of Christian explanation. So, yes, their thinking is theological. But for academic studies of Messy Church we must await the many Ph.D.s no doubt already in the making.

Messy Church, with its weird offspring such as "Sweaty Church" and "Trashy Church", is a success story. George Lings describes "the DNA" of the movement as a "double helix" of hospitality, all-age involvement, creativity, and celebration, in which all the elements interact.

The formula works, as is made clear by the illuminating case-studies of Messy Church in action which punctuate the book. A new Messy Church is registered every day. Bob Jackson, crunching the numbers, contends that, thanks to Messy Church, the drift of children from the Church is at last being arrested. Tim Waghorn, getting very excited, asserts that "the world is becoming a better place because of Messy Church."

Huge questions remain. Some - but not all - are discussed in these pages. The biggest problem, addressed but not resolved, is the relationship of a messy church, meeting just once a month - lay-led, and light on sacrament and liturgy - to the mainstream Church.

Then there is the issue of protecting the brand. What is to be done about groups that call themselves messy churches but that are nothing of the sort? (There is an interesting parallel here, though it goes unremarked, in the misgivings of the "Godly Play" custodians about its counterfeits.)

It will occur to some readers that preoccupation with the question when a church is not a church is a dangerous distraction. Jesus of Nazareth was much less interested in the Church than are most contributors to Messy Church Theology. His concern was the Kingdom of God, and what we must do to build it. The honourable exception to the prioritising of Church over Kingdom is Lings's own contributions to the book he edits. His closing chapter, discussing "mess in the 'now and not yet' kingdom", is a thrilling, if belated, reassertion of priorities.

Other readers, at least the more miserable ones, may be uneasy with the relentless emphasis on fun in the Messy Church programme. It has been well said that it was not for our entertainment that the Word became flesh.

Only one contributor deals directly with the topic announced by the book's title. Bishop Paul Bayes writes a sparkling chapter headed "Messy Theology". The Bishop notices what Jesus says about children. We must hope that by now he has had a quiet word with Steve Hollinghurst, one of his fellow-contributors. The latter is anxious to reassure us that children participating in worship are not necessarily Christians.

Here is a fascinating book about one of the most exciting developments in the contemporary Church. Do not be deterred, dear reader, by the incidence of the unlovely and unhelpful phrase "Fresh Expressions of Church" 32 times in the first six pages.

The Revd Dr Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

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