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This Assembly of Believers: The gift of difference in the Church at prayer, by Bryan Cones

04 June 2021

It speaks volumes who is there, says John Inge

THIS book reflects on a “decades-old teaching document of the US Roman Catholic Bishops’ (then) Committee on the Liturgy” written by a Roman Catholic priest, the late Robert Hovda, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. In the latter, the seminal sentence is this: “Among the symbols with which the liturgy deals, none is more important than this assembly of believers.”

I have noticed how bishops agonise over the exact wording of liturgy in the House of Bishops of the Church of England. What says more to people about the nature of “church” when they attend worship for the first time, surely, is who else is there. At its best, the Church of England parish system is said to enable all the rich diversity of a community to be at worship.

Such diversity has generally been interpreted in the Church of England socio-economically. More recently, we have begun to realise that in other ways — not least ethnically — our churches have not reflected the blessing of diversity, a blessing very evident in creation. God values diversity highly, as do all good gardeners.

It’s not just a matter of who is present at worship, but of who is allowed to speak and “represent” the assembly: is it just the ordained from a higher socio-economic group? Is it those who are “mature”, academically able and highly educated? Is it only those of a one gender? Is it only those of a particular sexuality?

Cones tells us — rightly, in my view — that “theological reflection by those who bear particular difference that may contest what is found in official sources [is] critical in exploring the ways an assembly’s theologica prima, in particular context and as embodied in official sources, does and does not rehearse patterns of liberation and reconciliation.”

The author is a gay partnered priest of the Episcopal Church in the United States who was raised a Roman Catholic and clearly feels these questions deeply. He credits the Episcopal Churches of which he has been part with having unveiled to him “the boundless riches and full measure of Christ. . . Their witness — as infants, elders, queer, nay gendered, impaired, neurodiverse, nearing death, parents, partners, friends — has invited me into ever-deeper loving waters.”

The book is an impressive attempt to undertake the theological reflection mentioned above. Its academic rigour may be a bit much for some putative readers, and its radical conclusions will be too much for others. I found the book very engaging and helpfully challenging.

I should have liked to read exploration of what is mentioned in passing about friendship as being “a promising new focus to either replace the received Christ-Church metaphor or accompany its renewal”. I suspect that it might provide a helpful way forward for understanding Christian relationships. Maybe his next book?

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.


This Assembly of Believers: The gift of difference in the Church at prayer
Bryan Cones
SCM Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £24

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