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Bringing out old and new

30 January 2015

Robin Greenwood sees wisdom in a wrestling with mission issues

The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in mission
Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross, editors
Canterbury Press £22.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £19.99

THE PIONEER GIFT presents a spiritually potent and tough-minded approach to mission in contemporary UK and European society. Twelve contributors write from a variety of theological commitments and give honest accounts of their local experiences. They offer no single formula or technique for the flourishing and mission of churches.

Eschewing a capitalist and consumerist church culture, Cathy Ross recalls Jesus's own pathway of emptiness and vulnerability. Karlie Allaway's poem "Cold loneliness" succinctly articulates Christian life as being crocheted "back into the larger warmth of beautiful unfinished communion". In his commendation, the Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, summarises: "these are missionaries on the move, thinking, praying and working hard to discern the way of Christ and walk in it."

Each chapter offers a different facet of the cross-denominational and creative discovery by pioneering ministers of authentic responses to God's mission in the world. The densely packed book is threaded with reflection on scripture. For example, how does the account of Gamaliel in Acts 5 help us to accept that established churches take time to appraise emerging newness? And when does Gamaliel himself need to move on from waiting, challenged urgently to recognise the Spirit at work? Or how far does the "plucking up and pulling down" of Jeremiah challenge churches today, beset by disheartening narratives, to recognise signs of prophetic reimagination and renewal?

The breathtaking pace of the writing often just hints at the theological, philosophical, and anthropological work of thinkers and practitioners across a wide spectrum. There is a deep wisdom throughout the book in seeking to hold together inherited patterns of church practice with innova- tion. I was particularly struck by Gerald Arbuckle's essay exploring "myth" as the crucial stories for which people will give their lives. Notable, too, is the final piece, by Kim Hartshorne, which embeds this vital strand of prophetic writ-ing in the sacramental, liturgical, and Kingdom-focused nature of the Church. "I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation" (Robert Dolling).

One of the underlying questions is "What narratives are the churches telling about God and about themselves today?" Grief for what seems to be lost walks alongside slow, patient experiment in being church rooted in honest relationships and in seeking liberation for the poorest.

I thoroughly commend these accessible and vital chapters for study by all kinds of leadership teams and groups. The editors promise that more will be forthcoming.

I am, however, left with a nagging question about the relationship between leaders and led. How will passionate pioneers, like passionate clergy before them, avoid the trap of being so far ahead that others are left behind? Some committed believers today say that they have no problem believing in God, but have given up on the way they are invited to be church.

The so-called "de-churched", previously dedicated and active leaders in their congregations, have done with passivity and listening to celebrity pastors. When faithful Christians are fatigued by being stifled rather than invited to playful participation, an urgent question emerges for missionaries. How can pioneer ministers give full attention to fostering pioneer churches? 

Canon Robin Greenwood is William Leech Research Fellow at St John's College, Durham.

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