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All change at the Bible Society

25 July 2014

Michael Doe reads an anthropologist on mission in transition


God's Agents: Biblical publicity in contemporary England

Matthew Engelke

University of California Press £24.95


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WHEN the Bible Society moved from central London to Swindon in 1983, it needed a large warehouse for its primary business of marketing Bibles and Bible-related books. Not any more. Places such as China no longer need imported Bibles: they have presses turning them out at a rate of 75 per minute. Here in Britain, the problem is not availability but credibility, because fewer and fewer people here believe that the Bible has anything relevant or useful to say. So over the past 20 years, the Bible Society has developed a new emphasis on Bible advocacy - making the Bible heard in a secular culture.

This book, by an anthropologist, records that transition. He was given, perhaps bravely, direct access to the Society's Advocacy Team in Swindon, and in London its parliamentary liaison staff at Westminster and the Theos think tank that it established in 2006.

The story is mirrored in other mission bodies such as USPG (now Us.) and CMS, about how a historic agency comes to terms with a new context in the Church and the world. It includes attempts in Swindon to connect with the "Christmas Angels" in street decorations, and the "Campaign to Culture" projects in Nottingham, Bristol, and Manchester, using commercial advertising to make people stop and think what the Bible might have to say.

The emergence of Theos is particularly well told. It has engaged in quality research, providing a very necessary rejoinder to the easy assumption that secular humanism is now normative, and that the equality agenda should trump any right to religious freedom which gets in the way.

Underneath the story it registers a much larger question about secularity. The aim of these new programmes has been "publicity", getting the message into the media, but, more deeply, making the Bible heard in the public square, and so challenge the Enlightenment separation of the private and the public, and the relegation of the gospel to the sphere of individual and personal spirituality.

The book records how staff debated the meaning of secularity and a Christian response, but does not fully answer the question what they were seeking to achieve. Perhaps such uncertainty and openness may be the right way into this new world, but, then, what is the Bible Society actually about? With other players in what may be called "emerging Evangelicalism", it's obvious what they're selling. Whatever you think of the Alpha course, it is about a clearly defined emotional experience, personal and corporate, followed up by people joining a church, preferably one where this kind of experience is sustained.

In contrast, Theos, unlike other think tanks such as Ekklesia - or ResPublica, which came out of Radical Orthodoxy - is not supposed to take up positions. The work in Parliament says nothing about gospel-directed issues like poverty, but is primarily concerned with Christians from all parties working together. Historically, and to avoid denominational dispute, the Society provided Bibles "without note or comment", and maybe this is what they are continuing in their so-called "secular neutrality", but it is not clear what this means in practice: a left-wing tendency to social justice, or an excuse for right-wing avoidance of justice issues, or simply a back door to old-fashioned conversion?

There may be hints in the background of the team members, some of whom came from other agencies where they had signed up to Biblical inerrancy and substitutionary atonement. It might have been helpful to know whether they prayed together, and how. Nor are we told how the work was funded, and by whom.

There is much in contemporary secularism which needs challenging: the fundamentalism of the new atheism, individualism that squeezes out the common good, an understanding of equality which denies diversity, the kind of liberal humanism which actually diminishes human freedom, and a grasping of the natural world as possession. The Bible tells the story of how God both created and redeemed the secular, and we lose its message at our peril. But is the promotion of the Bible itself the best place to begin?

This book records a laudable effort, but in seeking to shape a more effective Christian response to modernity, an unkind critic might say, like the stereotypical Irishman asked for travel directions, "I wouldn't start from here."

The Rt Revd Michael Doe, Preacher to Gray's Inn, is a former Bishop of Swindon and General Secretary of USPG.

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