“WE BELIEVE in life before death” was for some years Christian Aid’s familiar strapline, and many of us in the mission agencies, while strongly supportive of their work, always wanted to ask “But do you also believe in life after death?” That is, what is your theological basis, what makes you distinctive from other development agencies, and how does that determine your relationship with the churches from which you get your support and the churches who might expect to be your partners worldwide?
This ambitious book, part narrative, part research, part theology, is an important contribution to that debate. The copious references suggest an origin in an academic dissertation, which often leads to a less satisfactory work for the general reader. In particular, there is an uneasy combination of objective research and value judgements, although — to put my cards on the table — most of these are shared by those of us who have worked with the Church of England’s mission agencies.
The narrative is that Christian Aid moved (no dates or decisions are given) from being a faith-based agency to something far more secular, but then (from the beginning of this decade) it turned back. The first was an attempt to adapt to the perceived waning of its supporter base — the churches — but then it realised that these were its most valuable asset. The implication is that Rowan Williams, who has chaired it since 2013, played a large part in these changes.
The research is based on interviews with and observations from staff members and supporters. When asked about its identity, four characteristics emerged: the prophetic voice, inclusivity, the inherent dignity of the person, and partnership. The author asks how far these are carried through in practice.
The theology raises issues, of which I highlight just four. First, although much development thinking has adopted a rights-based approach, the Christian faith, arising from how God treats us and, therefore, how we should treat each other, should put far more emphasis on relationship. The second issue is Christology, where the author argues that more attention to the humanity of Jesus would make the organisation more prophetic; and the third is ecclesiology, where she describes the tension between being an instrument of the Churches while not wanting to be seen as exclusively Christian.
The fourth issue would be partnership, where the author argues for a renewed emphasis on mutuality with the recipients of aid rather than the more bureaucratic and risk-adverse approach of the development industry. There is an irony here. The partnership model is what the mission agencies, and particularly USPG, adopted after the Anglican Communion’s Toronto Congress in 1963, since when Christian Aid has served to squeeze out these agencies from the life of the Church and its distribution of funding.
In summary, this book tries to say too much, but all of it needs hearing; and more needs to be said. There is no mention of previous directors of Christian Aid such as Kenneth Slack, Charles Elliott, and Michael Taylor, who have brought their own theological insights, nor how other agencies, such as CAFOD and Tearfund, have dealt with the same challenges. There is only passing reference to the influence of the Department for International Development, with its massive budget and, at least until 2012, its highly suspicious attitude to faith-based agencies. But fundamentally this is a book about how Christian Aid is rediscovering its true identity, and why it deserves our enthusiastic support.
The Rt Revd Michael Doe is Preacher to Gray’s Inn and a former General Secretary of USPG.
Development Beyond the Secular: Theological approaches to inequality
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