THIS is not a book for the theologically faint-hearted. It is deconstructive, wild, brave, and disturbing. It’s the theological equivalent of a Big Dipper ride: long slow anticipatory ascents, solid ground disappearing gradually below; pregnant pauses at the top of the rise as you take in the unseen views; and then some heart-stopping, stomach-churning, adrenalin-fuelled plunging descents as you corkscrew your way to earth, re-connecting the esoteric with the empirical. I finished the book slightly unsteady on my theological feet, head still spinning, caught between needing to lie down in a darkened room and wanting to do it all over again.
For the past ten years, Al Barrett has been developing an approach to mission that is “radically receptive” to the interruptions and disruptions of the unexpected, ignored, and unlikely actors in the Theatre of Life — particularly those on the urban margins of the UK. Interrupting the Church’s Flow develops the theology that underlies Barrett’s approach.
It is not an easy read, but it is not intended to be. Partly, this is because it is an academic text (part of SCM’s “research” series) and develops ideas from Barrett’s earlier Ph.D. thesis on similar themes. It does the heavy theological lifting for Being Interrupted (reviewed, here).
But, beyond the academic style, the subject-matter itself is challenging and — in keeping with the author’s championing of “interruptive” material — often articulated by theologians from the more disruptive edges of the theological world.
This is a book about mission, but not in conventional terms. It takes you there via the twin peaks of ecclesiology and Christology, asking crucial questions about the nature of Christ in the world and the way in which we express this reality in the form of the church. Barrett offers a critical exploration of the work of Graham Ward (one of the original proponents of Radical Orthodoxy), counter-balanced and developed by his engagement with Romand Coles, to propose a political theology in which the agency of the outsider is every bit as important as the agency of the Church.
It is perhaps emblematic of Barrett’s approach that he finds in Coles a rich source of illumination for the work of mission: someone who stands outside the institution of the Church and the Christian tradition and yet in a fascinating dialogue with them — thus perfectly illustrating his thesis about the positive effects of being interrupted from outside our categories and culture.
AlamyDeconstruction in Hodge Hill, in Birmingham — a tower block being demolished there in 2018
Barrett explores and questions “concentric” ecclesiologies that centre on the eucharist and flow out through the Church to leaven and nourish the world. In so doing, he borrows some provocative ideas from (among others) feminist theologians, casting the prevailing mission of the Church in “penetrative” vocabulary, reflecting an unexamined, male, powerful perspective. As Brexit, Black Lives Matter, Grenfell Tower, the Windrush scandal, and #MeToo make plain, the unacknowledged self-reference of the multiply privileged can render the privileged “us” oblivious, inattentive, and unresponsive to the marginalised “them” who experience a web of often oppressive relationships, unless the “us” can be open to the interruption of “them”.
By way of analogy, the book highlights the significance of “ecotones” in natural ecology — those boundary places that are fertile, fecund, and pregnant with life. It urges us to focus on the edges of the Church, where life is generated (and from whence genuine renewal emerges). And — in common with the work of Rowan Williams — Barrett riffs on recurring variations of de-centring, dis-location, dis-placement, and dis-possession, offering a model of “church” and mission that is wonderfully ec-centric. This is an asset-based theology to challenge the deficit-based missiology that pervades much of the Church today.
At a time when the Church is institutionally and existentially anxious, diminishing in numbers, and waning in public influence, this book is a counter-balance to a Church desperate to have a bigger influence. It is not enough to hear the voices from the margins and the boundary-places, or even to amplify them or give them voice. The Church must allow itself to be changed by them.
The Rt Revd Adrian Newman is a former Bishop of Stepney.
Interrupting the Church’s Flow: A radically receptive political theology in the urban margins
SCM Press £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50