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How the hills of the north are to rejoice

29 April 2016

Philip North thinks about context and inculturation


Flickr/tim green

City landmark: Blackburn Cathedral’s lantern tower and slender spire, completed in 1965. From David Pepin’s Cathedrals of Britain, an ecumenical guide with photos, groundplans, and a concise text that refers to current activities as well as architecture (Shire Books, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-1-78442-049-9)

City landmark: Blackburn Cathedral’s lantern tower and slender spire, completed in 1965. From David Pepin’s Cathedrals of Britain, an ecum...

Northern Gospel, Northern Church: Reflections on identity and mission

Gavin Wakefield and Nigel Rooms, editors

Sacristy Press £12.99


Church Times Bookshop £11.70



THERE is no doubting the laudable ambition of this collection of essays, which seeks to answer two questions. First, to what extent do the contextual requirements of mission mean that we have to preach a different gospel in different settings? And, second, is the cultural context of the northern half of England so different from the south that we need a “northern gospel”?

These are fascinating questions, but, although the book contains much helpful material, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of disappointment that so few contributors sought to answer them. Steve Croft, indeed, appears rather to dismiss them, downplaying the distinctiveness of the north, firmly rejecting the notion that there might be a “northern gospel”, and then introducing us to intentional evangelism in a way that largely dissociates evangelistic approach from place.

Nigel Rooms interestingly takes issue with what he calls Croft’s “translation” model, and, influenced by a theology of inculturation, argues that one cannot speak about the gospel divorced from the culture in which it is being proclaimed. In such a short essay, however, Rooms is frustratingly unable to develop the theological themes that he identifies.

While many of the other contributions contain much that is interesting, all too few address the questions posed so clearly in the introduction. John Wigfield seeks to bring the seminal book The Spirit Level into dialogue with Deuteronomy, but it feels a little contrived, and we have to plough through an awful lot of acronyms before reaching the conclusion that inequality is a bad thing.

John Thompson’s exploration of a theology of fragility is in many ways the most fertile part of the collection, but one might argue that it could be applied to almost any context. Su Reid’s fascinating analysis of John 4 thrills, but then later falls away into a general argument for moral and theological relativism.

Spencer’s account of the life of William Temple adds to the rich body of hagiography, but fails to address the charge that the Temple legacy has added to the sense of dependency that afflicts so many northern working-class communities. An exception is Mark Powley’s fascinating and challenging chapter on vocation and clergy deployment.

There are puzzling omissions. Though there is plenty of heady romanticism about the seventh century, there is no analysis of other effective evangelistic approaches in the north — for example, the impact of Anglo-Catholic devotional life in the mining areas of Yorkshire and the north-east. The book badly lacks a contemporary definition of inculturation, and a Roman Catholic contribution here would have been fascinating.

Ultimately, I was left unconvinced by the various attempts to define the north; indeed, some contributors appeared to suggest that “poor” and “northern” were synonymous (they must have never visited the Ribble Valley). There were few attempts to engage at any depth with what makes the north distinctive: for example, nothing about the enduring power of the extended family. While it was noted that 67 per cent of people in the north self-identify as Christians, compared with 58 per cent nationally, it was disappointing that no one sought to analyse this or explore ways in which it could present Christians with an opportunity.

Whatever one might conclude about the contextual nature of evangelism, there is no doubt that, if we are to capture imaginations with the gospel, we need an intelligent, theological understanding of the issues that are specific to a particular place and culture to answer the questions that people are asking. A project on such a scale is, however, not patient of the short-essay format of this collection. Rooms needs to turn his chapter into a book.


The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley, in the diocese of Blackburn.


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