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Imagining Mission with John V. Taylor, by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross

by
26 February 2021

Graham James reflects on rediscovery, in the CMS, of John V. Taylor

ANGLICAN clergy of my generation are likely to have The Go-Between God by John V. Taylor on their bookshelves. Published in 1972, its message was that “the chief actor in the historic mission of the Christian Church is the Holy Spirit.” If those engaged in mission realised that the Holy Spirit was “the director of the whole enterprise”,Taylor thought, they would be freed from thinking that “it all depends on me.” I read Taylor’s seminal work while in training for ordination and was liberated by it, but challenged, too.

Many of the themes in The Go-Between God were first explored in the regular newsletters that Taylor wrote while General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society. Those 124 newsletters (each around 1500-2000 words) provide the material on which Cathy Ross and Jonny Baker reflect in this stimulating book. The reader catches their excitement at discovering this theological resource in their own organisation (hidden in open sight, it seems).

The beauty with which Taylor writes, together with his searching honesty, theological clarity, and humility, can be breathtaking. For example, Taylor describes the true missionary as driven not “by what he knows but what he doesn’t know” on “the long trek which is the terra incognita of Christ”. Ross and Baker create a dialogue with Taylor in the light of their own considerable experience of mission education and training, especially in relation to various forms of pioneering. Taylor was frequently well ahead of his time, if not in the use of inclusive language.

John V. Taylor when he was Bishop of Winchester

Fifty years ago, Taylor challenged the desire for continuing economic growth and wealth in the West. His theology of “enough” remains fruitful, not simply in material terms, but in relation to God, who gives his Church “enough” for mission. Taylor’s approach to secular culture remains pertinent, too. He believed that secular society was “already the sphere of the Holy Spirit” if we could but see it, and that evangelism meant “not looking at the world from inside the Church but looking at the faith from inside the world”.

This book would have been strengthened by some examination of Taylor’s decade as a diocesan bishop and whether he was able to incarnate his theology in his ministry. (David Wood’s biography gives a sympathetic and yet critical account, but is not referenced here.) The authors respond with imagination to many of Taylor’s challenges and do so accessibly, leaving many questions to be explored.

Sometimes, though, Taylor disturbs current mission thinking in the C of E — and perhaps even in the CMS — more than is acknowledged. He was a trenchant critic of using “the power of money” to commend the gospel even where it was “used to do good and serve the needy”. This is not only a critique of the gospel of wealth or well-funded missionaries in poor countries. In our own day, what would Taylor have made of the millions spent on the Renewal and Reform programme, and highly resourced pioneer programmes, let alone pensioned bishops writing book reviews?

Taylor’s theology liberates, but it remains deeply challenging.
 

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.

A New edition of The Go-Between God by John V. Taylor has been published by SCM Press (£19.99 (£16); 978-0-334-06014-7).

 

Imagining Mission with John V. Taylor
Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross
SCM Press £19.99
(978-0-334-05950-9)
Church Times Bookshop £15.99

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