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Holy Anarchy: Dismantling domination, embodying community, loving strangeness by Graham Adams

28 April 2023

Peter Selby considers a self-questioning book about ‘holy anarchy’

HERE is a passionate resource for those seeking to understand, to experience, and to participate in what Holy Anarchy means and how to engage in promoting it. Scattered through its pages are statements of the holy-anarchy creed; one of the best examples is “The central focus of Christian faith is the dethroning of power-structures that impede the flourishing of life in all its abundance . . . not only structures that seem to be ‘external’ to us but structures within us, ideologies, mindsets and values.”

Graham Adams has honoured his appointment as Tutor in Mission Studies, World Christianity and Religious Diversity at the Luther King Centre (his title is a good summary of the book) with an analysis and extensive reflection on a concept developed by his mentor and inspiration, Andrew Shanks, whose extensive writings extend the range of all that is included under the broad heading of “political theology” into a general critique of “empire” — not this or that particular empire, but empire as all that requires “dethroning”, because, as Anthony Reddie puts it in his enthusiastic foreword, empire’s “nefarious tentacles have shaped our collective imaginations in what we see as reality.”

The book is structured in chapters that end with sets of questions for the reader to ponder, further reading lists, and examples of Adams’s own hymnody, with a more extensive appendix of worship material. They are arranged in four parts, of which the first connects the concept of holy anarchy with the teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God — though, unsurprisingly, the idea of “kingdom” is criticised as itself seeming to contradict what Jesus says about it, racism and the ecological crisis being examples of that contradiction. In the following parts, Adams coins a vocabulary to evince an understanding of a different kind of God — “untame” (the God is not containable within the structures of empire), “unfinished” (opposed to the search for religious and ideological “purity”), and of “awesome weakness” (“God the child”).

No reader of a book with such a title will be surprised to be taken through critiques of race, class, and violence. What they may find more surprising and attractive is the absence of the strident and hectoring tone that can sometimes accompany critiques of established political and religious structures. So, whenever the reader is thinking of some particular example, “yes, but . . .”, they will find that Adams has pre-empted their doubt with a self-critical and questioning response to what he has just written.

Although some of Adams’s hymns are more rhyming prose than poetry, there are moments of moving illumination, as when he adapts the 19th-century hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus” as an exegesis of Jesus’s encounter with the woman with a haemorrhage:

What a friend she had in Jesus,
taking on the shame she knew,
then commending her defiance
as he paused to see it through.

Naturally, a book explicating a provocative conviction such as holy anarchy will also clarify the questions that it raises: does Christianity have a “central focus” of such a kind as this, and, if it does, is this the focus that it has? If the development of doctrine and the subsequent history of the Church bears too much of the taint of “empire” (which it certainly does), are there not also aspects of that development on which Christians need to focus, together with the dethroning of the powers? But, without doubt, Adams has done a valuable service in providing an exposition that is wide-ranging, erudite, and, at the same time, manifests in its style many of the traits that he is commending.

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester, Bishop to HM Prisons, and President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards.


Holy Anarchy: Dismantling domination, embodying community, loving strangeness
Graham Adams
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

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