DON’T be misled: this is not about how our faith and the Church can bring hope to people when the going is tough. Rather, the focus is the critical decline of the Church of England in every dimension of its life.
Few of the contributions, however, are of sufficient substance to meet such a solemn challenge, perhaps because the origins of the papers were two conferences hosted by Ripon College, Cuddesdon, in 2016 and 2017. Four thousand words may make an engaging lecture, but be disappointing when transcribed.
The contributions are in three sections. The first provides biblical, theological, and missional perspectives on the essential nature of the Church. The second provides responses to the Church’s long-term decline. The editors identify the common themes in this section as: the importance of responsiveness rather than prescription; the altruistic nature of Christian mission; alertness to the use of new media; the importance of compassion and kindness, and the centrality of justice, especially for the poor and overlooked.
The third section is a bit of a hotchpotch. Christopher Landau writes up his interview with Bishop James Jones, the latter having parleyed new insights and possibilities in the Hillsborough Inquiry. Finally, Bishop Stephen Croft tells how he seeks to enable the diocese of Oxford to “see Christ afresh”. Sandwiched between is the best contribution to the whole collection, by Alan Everett.
The contributors are, with few exceptions, looking from a distance at parish life. As befits conferences, there must be big-name speakers; so those labouring on the ground are largely absent. This is a pity, because the most inspiring contribution, Everett’s — imaginative, learned, and rooted — reflects on his experience as the Vicar of St Clement’s, Notting Dale, at the time of the Grenfell Tower disaster. He notes how vital the longstanding community involvement of the parish church was to gaining the trust of those whose lives had been devastated; and he reflects thoughtfully on the communion of the saints and the ministry of the priest.
There are three other contributors who offer “on-the-ground” insights: Tim Watson, Tina Hodgett, and Gill O’Neill. Their contributions, however, “shorter vignettes”, are placed in boxes almost as if they would contaminate the offerings of those from higher perches and academic towers.
The editors note that the Church’s “witness is honed in crisis”. But, in the context of Covid-19, the perspective here looks dated and self-serving. Concern for the flourishing of the Church does indeed matter, but our homely efforts thus far suggest that we have only just begun to experience what a crisis is really like.
Ann Morisy is a freelance theologian and lecturer.
Bearing Witness in Hope: Christian engagement in challenging times
Cathy Ross and Humphrey Southern, editors
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