Book review - Being Interrupted: Reimagining the Church's Mission from the Outside, In

Being Church
World of Diversity
Questioning Church
Gender and Sexuality
The Environment
Image of a butterfly painted on a wall with broken window
Al Barrett
Ruth Harley

Book review by John Schofield

This wonderful book about mission (though it’s also about a great deal more) thankfully doesn’t espouse either a target driven, management-speak-riven approach, nor hanker for a way of being church that is no longer sustainable either with the resources at our command or in the socio-political environment in which we now live.

In all honesty, it has been hard and challenging to a white middle class privileged male who has exercised positions of power within the church, to write this review. It is a book which profoundly challenges all sorts of layers of privilege within structures and individuals. It’s also a book impossible to review in short measure. Nor can I do more than give a flavour and some personal responses.

The book is framed – and interrupted – by stories, so there are elements of narrative theology. But liberation and feminist theology are also drawn on, together with sociology, ecology – the list goes on. Asset Based Community Development, the idea of starting with what is good and developing that, rather than with ‘the problem’, or what we think the community needs, is foundational. It directs our attention to the possibilities of mission through discovering what’s already there, not in a patronising, patriarchal, outsider way but in listening to the community, enabling what’s there to emerge. It challenges us to stop thinking about building, growing or bringing in the kingdom, but to see the kin-dom that already exists. This is an unsettling – interruptive – and most welcome missiological text; it is a prime example of practical theology, of praxis seen as committed action after critical reflection.

An early chapter, Finding our place in Brexit Britain, while calling on academic and sociological research and observation, gives a much richer, grounded and more challenging picture for being rooted in living in and listening to the communities of The Firs and Bromford in Birmingham. This locale is the context for all that follows in the reimagining of mission. Indeed the whole book is firmly based in a demanding examination and critique of the environment in which the C of E is operating, based not just on an intellectual response but on the lived reality of a particular place with its set of cultural norms and expectations (whether these are articulated or not). This gives it a powerful credibility.

One thesis that is developed is that the church is more oblivious to ‘the-power-related-willingness-not-to-see’ than the wider world. The corrosion associated with this is detailed in terms of race, class, gender, children, and other-than-human creatures.

Two economies of the church - as systems which shape us – are described. Economy #1: ‘counting in’ – is the one in which measurability, attendance, numbers and money are most valued, usually nowadays driven by anxiety and insecurity. Economy #2: ‘counting out’ is much more about giving without expecting any kind of direct return, but contains the potential both for distorting the way we see and for creating a different kind of power

The whole approach is passionately incarnational. However the provocatively entitled chapter Getting on the wrong side of Jesus warns of the danger of ‘identifying with the divine’ either in ‘being Jesus’ (personalised incarnation) or in seeing Jesus in the needy whom we serve but disempower. Instead of asking WWJD (personalised) it asks us to step back and ask: What Would Zacchaeus do? This chapter is a very challenging conclusion to part one of the book.

At its core are five thought provoking commentaries on Markan passages. These are split: one from the side of ‘being interrupted’ (the male perspective), and the other from ‘interrupting’ (the female). This is a helpful – and ‘interruptive’ – way of reading these passages, which themselves are crucial to the authors’ argument of the importance of looking from the outside, in. Especially challenging is the interrupting take on children (‘the power of God entering the world as a child’) and our own willingness to be interrupted/interruptive. ‘Amid the Trees’ seems to be the least accessible of these counter/disturbing-interpretations.

Part Three offers a third economy, not as an answer, but as a ‘corrective pull’ in tension with the other two. This, not surprisingly, is the economy of being interrupted, of receiving what we don’t know we need, what isn’t easily countable or a fit with our expectations. And here we meet that important player, the wild Spirit – so disconcerting to many in the church whose natural inclination is to tame the Spirit, to bottle it up!

What we can learn from this third economy is bolstered by insights from Nelle Morton – the concept of ‘hearing to speech’ – and Otto Scharmer’s different levels of hearing. We are asked to think of Jesus as the Hearing (rather than the Word) of God, and to consider how easy or difficult we find it to resist the temptation always to ‘be doing stuff’. All this is counter to the church’s current cultural obsession with targets and growth. This book really does need to be read by Bishops and Directors of Mission with an open and generous heart!

Looking from ‘the outside, in’ is translated into viewing ‘orders of ministry’, starting with the laos, very differently. And yet it comes back in the end to what has been a long cherished ideal of mine of the priest as enabler. What I would like to have seen, given the considerable use of the idea of margins and the ecotone, is something about the role of interpreter (or is it there, simply in the listening, in ‘the hearing to speech’?)

The final chapters of part three seem at times to operate on a wider stage than the deeply local contextuality of what has gone before, while working with the insights, structures and perspectives previously identified or presented to us for our imaginative inhabiting.

Here we meet God the Divine Composter, saying ‘Ok, great, let’s see what we can do with it next’, and a reading of Mark’s resurrection narrative that sends us back to the edges (as the women were directed to send the disciples back to the edge that is Galilee). We are pulled back to the reality of our communities and the need to learn and practise the arts of remaining, of receptivity, of going home and knowing the place for the very first time.

The longer I was reading, the more I was wondering how this approach has withstood or adapted to coronavirus restrictions. This is something that the Epilogue, full of lots of fascinating thoughts and insights, begins to answer in hints about community interdependence (contrasted with gated communities); the significance of liturgy and worship; and the seductions of being the provider and of competitiveness.

The two exercises, the charts/figures and the illustrations form an integral part of the book, and are not to be skipped over. There are excellent bibliographies throughout and good discussion questions at the end of each chapter, which work on the individual level (as well as. I imagine, in groups).

I recognise that little elements of this approach have manifested themselves in moments during my ministry (both parochial and in ministerial training and development). But those moments appear puny in the face of a book that brings together such a fantastically wide range of disciplines with a theological rigour that is both utterly disruptive and totally liberating.

But is it too contextual? Is it actually a very sophisticated form of a local theology? What would Clemens Sedmak make of it? Would it find a place in his 2002 book Doing Local Theology? This is not to disparage either local theology or Being Interrupted. Quite the reverse: local theology has significantly shaped me over the years; and both it and this book are crucial to the development and expression of economies of the Missio Dei.

Fascinatingly, it’s book that evokes resonances in a way that many don’t. I connected with memories of Robert Schreiter on the theologian as one who sits in the circle and only contributes when asked; of Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other in Ruth’s account of herself; of Rowan Williams’ Maundy Thursday meditation in Candles in the Dark (as well as the Rule of St Benedict) in the regular emphasis on staying put; of other writers about organisations and development (eg Peter Senge) who significantly co-opt theological language for their own ends.

This is a book that I wish I had had to hand when I first became a vicar forty years ago, though I would have to have worked very hard to put aside my middle class inhibitions and presuppositions to enter into that particular ecotone – the church building and vicarage were set in their own specific and peculiar ecotone between the council estate and the private estates of first time buyers. But how to apply from ‘the outside, in’ an affluent middle class village (the next parish I worked in) might have been more of a challenge.

The image of the starling murmuration enfolds us as the book closes (just before the Epilogue) and draws together the wider and the local. This is a seed bomb of a book – try (throwing) it and see what happens!


SCM Press
Edition / Date Published
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Books and book reviews