Reviews – February 2013
Good news for church growth
‘It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that Christianity in Britain is in decline. However, not all universally acknowledged truths are actually true. Some churches in some regions are declining, but this volume shows that substantial and sustained church growth has also taken place across Britain over the last 30 years. This growth is large scale; it is occurring across a wide geographical range; it is highly multicultural in its social reach; and it shows no sign of slowing down. The current consensus, by focussing almost exclusively on decline is seriously mistaken.’ – So begins this book, and I am greatly encouraged.
I am always encouraged when I find some research that confirms my suspicions; this topic is one I have been speaking about for some time, within and beyond the United Reformed Church.
My experience of 30 years in the URC is that we see a huge variety of churches, of all shapes, sizes and colours. Whilst some congregations worry that they are unable to attract a wide range of ages to their services, some are able to sustain and even increase the age spread of their congregation; therefore, we need to share our good news stories. I’m convinced that it is time we all challenge the assumption that the church is in terminal decline and rejoice in what God is doing across Britain. In the face of secularisation, David Goodhew argues that we have seen some of the most dramatic growth in the Christian church.
He concludes his book by saying: ‘Alongside the phenomenon of church decline there has been substantial church growth in Britain since 1980… Recognition of such growth requires a sea-change in academic study (including theology), in wider society and in the churches themselves – which have too often been fixated by decline. There has been resurrection, as well as death, across the British church in the three decades since 1980.’
I believe we are being encouraged to see that the ‘death of Christianity’ in Britain is wildly exaggerated and God is very much alive and active!
Robert Weston is a United Reformed Church minister based at Park URC in Reading; he is also a chaplain at the University of Reading and convener of the URC’s youth and children’s work committee
Beautiful exploration of grief, addiction and spirituality
Robert Welch’s son, Egan, died from drowning at the age of 27. During the 10 years previous, he had built up a successful web design business, displayed a rare degree of sensitivity towards humanity, exhibited a passionate love of life, and developed a monumental addiction to alcohol. Throughout this time he had also led his parents on a heartbreaking tour of suffering and love, hope and despair. That said, this book is written not as a therapeutic exercise but out of a father’s desire to find meaning in and through his son’s life.
Robert Welch is an academic and poet in English and Irish, and writes out of a culture where a few drinks are an expected, necessary precursor to worthwhile discourse. He notes how often common territory is shared by people with a profound sensitivity and openness to life and those who have a susceptibility to excessive drinking or other mind-altering activities.
As a Christian and a Roman Catholic, he finds genuine hope and meaning in resurrection, both broadly and specifically. It also leads him to consider how the wilful and ultimately destructive openness to life which he saw in Egan resonates with the life choices and inevitable death of Jesus. ‘Kicking the black mamba’ was Egan’s own description of this provocative, high risk approach to life.
Through beautiful prose, Robert Welch leads the reader across the taboos of grief, alcohol and the wider ecumenism which might be found with folk spirituality, and opens up panoramic views which overflow the conventional boundaries of Christian thinking. This is an immensely readable book with wide appeal, not least to those encountering the affects of alcoholism, the loss of a child, the true cost of sensitivity, or anyone who has noticed that rigorous sobriety is not always the gateway to inspiration and insight.
Ian Fosten is a United Reformed Church minister of Wrentham Chapel (Suffolk) and a director of the Seagull Community Theatre in Lowestoft
Invaluable hymns for worship and devotion
This, the ninth of a series of books begun in 1983, contains Brian Wrenís 36 most recent hymns (2009 to 2012). It is nicely presented and laid out in a user-friendly way. The hymns are divided into five thematic sections: Jesus from Cradle to Cross; Easter Hymns; Church and Mission; Praise; and Metrical Psalms. This last section, rooted in (though not bound by) the Old Testament, is often influenced by Isaac Watts and will be of more use to some than others; it concludes with a tremendous rendering of Psalm 8; a paean of praise which all will love, set to a stirring tune.
Each section is prefaced with a single page introduction listing the contents and, in some instances, giving an interesting insight into Brian Wren’s theology and thinking which provides food for contemplation. Each hymn is printed in words format with all the necessary information for inclusion in an order of worship. Every hymn is also printed with full score music for accompaniment interlined with the words. The book is slightly larger than A5, and there are various useful indexes.
The tunes range from ancient to modern, some very familiar, including Candler (better known as Ye Banks and Braes). A number are of a metre where alternative tunes are available. Those tunes which are new vary in ease of use; some will be readily picked up, others would prove challenging for occasional use in a small congregation but could be used as music group items.
These are hymns which need to be read as a whole and require thought. The words are chosen with care and notable as much for those not used as those included e.g.: ‘Christ, untameably alive,/ breathe your life upon us – / Compass, Governor and Guide, / with us and beyond us,/ Sky and Sunlight, / spreading Vine./ Spring of Living Water,/ Truth and Wisdom, Way and Word,/ here, and then hereafter.’
These hymns will be useful in worship as either sung or read pieces, and will also prove an invaluable resource for private devotion.
Robert Canham is a retired United Reformed Church minister and secretary of The Hymn Society of Great Britain & Ireland
A prayerful journey through Luke’s Gospel
God’s Embrace is the second in a series, Praying with the Gospels, that follows the lectionary cycle and offers imaginative ways of praying with the four Gospels. Focussing on the Gospel of Luke, the author, a United Reformed Church minister, presents the story of Jesus as told by Luke as ìa picture to be prayed withî. In an extended introduction, Hinks reminds readers that the Jesus presented by Luke is one constantly at prayer who is also the great teacher of prayer: ìJesus stands alongside us as we open our hearts to the loving mystery of God.î He reminds us that prayer is as much about struggle and lament as it is about being clothed in the Spirit and celebratory; whether struggle or celebration, true prayer always involves an honest conversation with God.
Hinks then puts the theorising into practice as he takes us on a prayerful journey through the Gospel, pausing for 40 reflections and prayers using Luke’s ‘extraordinary testimony to the way of Jesus’. His reflections reveal a remarkable depth of scholarship, without ever distracting the reader from the prayerful task at hand, and his prayers are beautifully crafted taking the reader into the heart of the Gospel in a new, exciting and often challenging way. Preachers, leaders of worship and individuals wanting to explore Luke’s Gospel would do well to add God’s Embrace to their reading list for this liturgical year.
Hinks includes, very usefully, a pattern for prayer which could be used as an ideal resource for Lent. He reminds us in an early reflection that God is ‘beyond all human words’ but his own words enable the reader who is willing to take time and not rush through the journey, to be drawn much closer into the mystery and embrace of God.
Russell Furley-Smith is a United Reformed Church minister based at Purley URC in South London
A Book I will remember by Loveday Stephen
Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World by The Prince of Wales, Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly, first published by Blue Door, 2010
This book has changed my outlook on life. Originally treated with scepticism, many of the Prince’s ideas are now widely accepted and gaining increasing impact and influence. His work has sought to meet a huge range of modern challenges, from urbanisation to deforestation, but in this book, with the help of two leading advisors, the Prince set out a philosophy that is as robust as it is practical.
He shows what is lost in the modern world, why we have lost it and how we might rediscover it. The book is a blueprint for a more balanced, sustainable world which the human race must create to survive. Topics include small things (such as replacing dug-out hedges) and large things (like stopping the terrible deforestation of the rainforest, realigning the effect of the environment in which we live and the brutalised modern architecture of concrete, steel and glass).
This book details the heart of a crisis which now threatens our civilisation. It tells the story of how our disconnection from nature has contributed to crises in the history of mankind, and how seeking balance in our actions will return to a more considered, secure, comfortable and clean world.
It is difficult to give a true idea of this remarkable book. All I can say is read it for yourself; or better still, listen to the Prince of Wales read it himself, as I did, in the audio book.
This article was published in the February 2013 edition of Reform.