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Shame and the Church: Exploring and transforming practice, by Sally Nash

11 September 2020

This author finds guilt and shame quite distinct, Lavinia Byrne discovers

SMEDES, Nathanson, and McNish: three academics from a scholarly world habitually by-passed by theologians — namely, sociology. They appear as early on as page 11 in this timely book — together with Erikson and Bowlby — without the least hint of intrusion. They catapult the reader into a new world, in which religion and sociology meet. It is a bit of a “Wonderland” almost requiring a lexicon; for, as Humpty Dumpty noted, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Much of the vocabulary of sociology appears to be self-defining.

Sally Nash describes herself as a “practical theologian and theological educator as well as a Church of England priest licensed to a parish in Birmingham”. She sets out a six-fold typology of shame, reaching into the personal as well as the communal domains of human experience, and then applies it to church life. Her ten pages of references and further reading, many of them North American, demonstrate the passionate interest with which she approaches her task.

To reassure the reader, the author defines her terms: this is not a book about guilt. “Guilt”, she claims, “tends to focus on what we have done and is other-focused, but shame is about who we are and impacts our sense of self. Thus, we address guilt often by changing our behaviour, whereas with shame we need to change the way we think about ourselves, which isn’t always easy.” The problem for most Christians, I fear, is that the two words are often used interchangeably and rather than the “shame-inducing Church” that she describes, we have met one that judges us and metes out guilt in abundance. Whatever our reaction, she attributes the ensuing sense of nothingness to experience rather than feelings.

Equally, she is firm on the notion of praxis, which she finds a more serious word than practice. Yet practice is what she is really good at: each chapter ends with reflection questions, and there are semi-liturgical actions and techniques for writing prayers and storytelling that can only serve to heal. Her experience as Director of the Institute for Children, Youth and Mission serves her in good stead; for this is the kind of useful material that can be garnered only in the field.

I am left with a question. While Sally Nash writes, “For those who have experienced shame, that Jesus established a new community of justice evokes hope,” I have to wonder whether she has really grappled with the redemptive power of shame and of the shameful death that he underwent. This could throw light on the guilt/shame conundrum, and deepen the application of her thesis.


Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.


Shame and the Church: Exploring and transforming practice
Sally Nash
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £15.99

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