JUST after reading this collection of essays and sermons, I made a return visit to the Anglo-Catholic church where I worshipped as a teenager.
The parish no longer has a full-time stipendiary priest, and the wider social context has changed. It used to be largely white working-class, with many people employed on the railways or in the military base near by. The area has not prospered economically, but it has diversified.
There is now a mosque on the new main road that skirts the rows of 19th-century terraced housing. Development of former Ministry of Defence land has brought students into a new university campus, and black African residents are also a strong and influential presence. But this is still not prosperous Britain. Life on the streets looked pinched and meagre.
The congregation of this back-streets Anglo-Catholic church was never large. At various times, it looked likely to close, because statistically no one much would miss it. But, astonishingly, there is still a congregation of committed laity who manage slender finances, clean and maintain the building, and who read and serve and ensure good music in the liturgy. And still a small number of young people who are at school or college attend with their parents or grandparents. The ethnically and economically diverse congregation accurately reflects the life of parish it serves.
In the opening chapter of God’s Church in the World, Rowan Williams sums up his thoughts on the Church, mission, and our life of prayer with these words: “the Church is because God is and God acts.”
I looked across the small, faithful congregation in this neglected corner of a disadvantaged conurbation and saw the evidence for that statement.
Prayer and the life of God the Holy Trinity emerge as the foundation of this book. Its chapters are drawn from talks and the sermons preached in the liturgy at a conference in London organised by Anglican Catholic Futures and Forward in Faith.
It was an imaginative, bold and welcome manifestation of the Five Guiding Principles, attended by people who hold differing views on the ordination of women and men. The presentations from the conference have been well edited by Susan Lucas, capturing a sense of dialogue which animated the conference.
This published compilation begins with three chapters on mission, moves on to four, shorter, reflections on the Blessed Virgin Mary, priesthood, sacraments, and social justice, attends to the scriptures in two sermons, and concludes with a historical survey.
The gender balance between contributors is not brilliant, and, although we are not told how they earn their living, we might suspect that most authors are ordained. Perhaps the inclusion of diverse and confident lay voices would have given a healthier expression of the Church Catholic. But it is good to see contributions from Gemma Simmonds, a Roman Catholic religious Sister, and Ric Thorpe, Bishop of Islington, both from outside the Church of England’s Anglo-Catholic world.
In spite of these observations, I found this account of Catholic mission, articulated by a group of capable theologians, mostly younger than I am, very encouraging.
It made me realise how often, in recent years, the painful discussions about ordination have led to a sense in the Church of England that its Catholic strand is little more than a problem to be solved. This book is to be commended as an invitation to recover our awareness that Catholic mission is a gift — a challenging one, perhaps, but not a problem.
Patient, accessible reflections by Williams and Alison Milbank invite us to ensure that prayer and theology are foundational. Philip North comments on gender distinction and the evangelistic importance for the Church of narrative shaped by, for, and about women. Anna Matthews prompts us to look beyond mere functionality to recover our understanding of priesthood as a sign that substantiates the new creation. Simon Morris, grounded in parish life, articulates the social teaching of the Church as good news of transcendent dignity for the whole of society.
Just at the moment, when we might be tempted to streamline and rebrand the way in which we market the Anglican operation, the contributors to this book invite us to pause and take stock. The mission of God is entrusted to us as a gift, not a commodity. This is a book that might inspire us to talk, walk, and eat more slowly, in order to be attuned to a redemptive encounter with the Word who speaks our language but in the cadences of eternity.
Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.
God’s Church in the World: The gift of Catholic mission
Susan Lucas, editor
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £12.99