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The Beginning of Tomorrow, by John Gaunt Hunter

03 April 2020

Alan Billings on a book recalling the ’Call to the North’ in the 1970s

THE title of this book is a bold one. It suggests that what was attempted in the 1970s in the north of England — the area covered by the Northern Province of the Church of England — marked a new dawn for ecumenism there. This was the “Call to the North” — an initiative in evangelism which was supported by all the mainstream denominations.

The book charts the journey from the formulation of the idea to the point where the project was launched. It is not an academic account, but that of an insider. The author, who lived to see his book published on his 98th birthday (Obituary, 13 December 2019), was involved from the beginning, and present at the key meetings with access to the relevant papers. This is the book’s strength.

The story begins with Stuart Blanch, Bishop of Liverpool, bringing together church leaders from the Free Churches and the Roman Catholic Church and speaking about a joint evangelistic project. John Hunter took the notes and carried on doing so as the meetings — with all their ups and downs — followed and the initiative took shape.

For a reader today, it prompts a whole series of questions, to which the writer gives some answers. Why at this moment? What motivated the Churches to work together? Did it have a lasting impact?

It is hard to grasp now how unprecedented it was to have this degree of ecumenical co-operation. In Liverpool, for instance, there was a history of antagonism between Protestant and Roman Catholic dating back to the potato famine in the 19th century when 250,000 Irish people, mainly Roman Catholic, settled in the city, doubling its size.

But the Roman Catholic Church had a new confidence, and, under the remarkable Archbishop Andrew Beck, was willing to join with Protestant leaders. They in turn were less confident. They were becoming aware of the fall in church attendances which had begun at the end of the 1950s. For different reasons, all combined to issue a joint, optimistic “Call to the North”.

The book ends, however, on a very different note. Canon Hunter writes ruefully that once this group of visionary leaders had moved on “the churches largely resumed their former ways”. They became more and more preoccupied with shoring up their own denominations in the face of a growing scepticism about the idea of religious faith of any sort.

The Revd Dr Alan Billings, Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire.


The Beginning of Tomorrow: Call to the North — Churches working together in mission
John Gaunt Hunter
Sacristy Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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