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Book review: Political Formation: Being formed by the Spirit in Church and world by Jenny Leith

23 June 2023

Disciples are formed in contact with the world, Alison Webster agrees

A BISHOP once said to me that numerical church growth must precede social-justice concerns; otherwise “there would be nobody to staff the foodbanks or the winter night shelters.” This book sheds light on the many reasons that missiologies such as this are profoundly misguided.

In Political Formation, Jenny Leith unpicks deeply important theological assumptions that currently underpin the Established Church’s discipleship narrative as it relates to social justice, social action, and engagement in politics. She declares: “I have come to believe that the church also needs to receive from the world in order to become what it is called to be.”

The book grew out of her experience of working as a parliamentary researcher and then in social policy. She characterises this as “a scrappy struggle for integrity amid uncertainty and limited time”, through which she, nevertheless, “became aware, in an inchoate way, that this work was formative. It was not simply a matter of working out in political life an ethical formation that I had already received from the church. Rather, . . . political life was forming me too.” Her thesis is that we have paid insufficient attention to Christian formation through participation in the civic community beyond church.

She speaks eloquently of the ways in which the Church is in need of formation itself, declaring that “the church is called to be on the move both through the movement between its gathered and scattered life, and through the openness to change that comes through an attentiveness to God’s ways with the world.”

This entails critical awareness of how sin shapes the life of the Church — especially the sins of classism and white supremacy. And she declares ecclesial inclusiveness as something to be pursued, “not for its own sake, but out of the conviction that the life of the church depends on the participation of every member”.

She moves on to an excellent exploration of how “Participation in civil society . . . involves encountering those one would not otherwise encounter and, more than this, must work together with strangers in pursuit of a common good.” This, she believes, is the promising site for the transformation of disciples, and of the whole Church.

She cites a 2018 Anglican symposium on Community Organizing, at which several lay leaders reflected on how their training in power analysis and meeting for one-to-ones had equipped them to build power with others who were building deep solidarity in the pursuit of common flourishing.

This book should be a set text in ministerial training for lay and ordained, and prepares the ground for a more detailed exploration of the potentially mutually enhancing formational activities of campaigning and change-making (single-issue and party-political), community development, Community Organising, and hardship-mitigating service-provision and pastoral care.

Alison Webster is the General Secretary of Modern Church.


Political Formation: Being formed by the Spirit in Church and world
Jenny Leith
SCM Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £24

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