From Top Mountain: An autobiography
Hansib Publications £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80
FROM TOP MOUNTAIN covers chronologically and anecdotally the intriguing journey of Bishop Dr Joe Aldred from a hand to mouth agrarian existence in rural pre-independence Jamaica (the eponymous Top Mountain) to a central position within the British establishment.
Aldred’s life has been by no means easy: rather movingly, he confesses that when young he hardly expected to live even to an age to marry. “We were poor,” Aldred says starkly. And so the book is shot through with a charming and justified sense of joyful pride that “this country boy” has achieved academic distinction and high office in his Church.
Aldred has achieved prominence as an ecumenist, broadcaster, and writer. And yet I wonder how many Church Times readers will have actually heard of him. Those who do know Aldred will enjoy his often entertaining and thoughtful account of his life and ministry, which has spanned ecclesial and secular, paid and unpaid, stipendiary and non-stipendiary, executive and non-executive, academic and popular.
More theological reflection on his experience of years of ministry might have attracted a wider audience. Anglicans ministering in urban contexts such as my own, where one is never far from a Pentecostal church worshipping in a shop front or tenants’ hall, and, indeed, where disaffected Pentecostal Christians sometimes show up at the parish church, will find useful insights into that tradition. The book is an endearing read; it is a shame that straightforward typos made it through to publishing.
Within the Church of God of Prophecy, Aldred is no unthinking loyalist. From an early age, as he was growing up within strict Pentecostalism in Jamaica, his instinct suggested that one could be a “proper Christian” without necessarily exhibiting the required gift of speaking in tongues. His accounts of the endless “tarrying services” in which one hoped and prayed desperately for at least a one-off episode of glossolalia — and with it full acceptance into church life — will amuse both those familiar and unfamiliar with this tradition. Eventually, Aldred has in practice parted ways with the Church of God of Prophecy — as a result of his inclusive, inculturated, and modernising approach — and his most recent pastoral ministry has been within the Baptist Union.
Aldred has worked to ensure a much larger ecumenical participation from Pentecostal and “Black” churches, and for a greater understanding between what Aldred would plainly label “Black” and “White” churches and their leaders. The increase in Churches Together membership among Pentecostal churches is largely due to his personal commitment and charisma.
The book also provides a telling insight into the wider currents carrying society from unthinking racism, through the diagnosis of institutional racism, to whatever we might call the situation in Church and society today: cause for reflection for the wider Church as well.
The Revd Andrew Moughtin-Mumby is Rector of St Peter’s, Walworth, and Area Dean of Southwark and Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.