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Worship: a jazz masterclass

11 September 2015

John Pridmore looks at friendship as a key ecclesiological idea

Sharing Friendship: Exploring Anglican character, vocation, witness and mission
John B. Thomson 
Ashgate £60 (978-1-4724-5452-2)
Church Times Bookshop £54 (Use code CT611)



THE notion of “friendship” has rarely been used as a key to understanding Christian discipleship and mission. There is Charles Smyth’s wartime Lent Book The Friendship of Christ — the one book by which, so he once told me, he hoped to be remembered. More recently, we have Liz Carmichael’s Friendship, a work of rich insight, from which John Thomson, the Bishop of Selby, draws deeply.

Again, in our own time, the moral theologian Stanley Hauerwas has claimed that it is by its “friendship for the stranger” that the Church is to be identified. Hauerwas’s perception of the Church in these terms has been the most formative influence on Thomson’s own understanding of the character of Anglican vocation, the understanding that he now articulates in an exceptionally wide-ranging, weighty, and important study.

Thomson mounts his argument in three stages. He discusses first the practice of friendship. Horse and cart are in the right order. What we do, Hauerwas has taught us, is more indicative of who we are than what we say we believe. The missionaries who came to our “strange and wild islands” did so as an expression of Christian friendship.

We are directed to two 20th-century movements, as more recent examples of “friendship as love”: the “East African Revival” and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. (In the light of subsequent events in Rwanda, appeal to the former is perhaps problematical.)

Thomson suggests that we learn from the New Testament that the practice of friendship requires “apprenticeship”. It is a fruitful idea, compellingly argued — though that argument is not advanced by some wonky transliteration of Greek words, for which the publisher rather than our scholarly author must be held responsible.

If friendship is more than a benevolent disposition — if it is essentially something to be done — then we must be trained in its perform-ance. That is what church is for. “Gathering to worship is akin to a training session,” Thomson tells us — not that we fall in for a drill session when we go to church: the model of our worship is not military, but musical. Like good jazz players, Thomson suggests, Anglicans are invited to improvise.

In Part II, we turn from “Practice” to “Reflection”. Thomson discusses in turn the work of a series of contemporary Anglican theologians. We begin at the deep end — and ends do not come deeper — with Radical Orthodoxy and the work of John Milbank. Succeeding chapters explore the thought of Oliver O’Donovan and Rowan Williams. Each, befitting his stature, has a chapter of his own.

Clearly Thomson warms far more to the latter’s readiness to let go than to the former’s hankering to cling on. The roll-call continues with names granted fewer pages but not shorter shrift. In a fine chapter, “Listening Friendship”, Thomson invites us to listen to the theologians who invite us to listen — to Richard Impey, among those less well-known than they should be.

Part III of Sharing Friendship looks at the “Challenge”: the challenge of mission and witness today. Thomson touches with distaste on the modern celebrity culture, but recognises that it is a culture at least offering “conversation points” with those of Christian conviction. “Fresh Friendship” entitles a discussion of the Fresh Expressions Movement. Thomson’s appraisal of this movement is cool, patient, and measured. But on one issue he is forthright. “The idea of a divide between traditional expressions and fresh expressions of church is nonsense.”

Thomson’s contention is that self-emptying is essential for the Church’s mission of self-giving friendship. Amen to that.

I noticed one pleasing misprint on page 167: “ex-patriot” for “expatriate”.


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

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