Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Friday 29 April 2016

Northern Gospel, Northern Church: Reflections on Identity and Mission -A book review by Greg Smith


ISBN-13 9781910519196            Format Paperback
Publisher Sacristy Press
Publication date 1 Mar 2016
Pages 240
Edited by
Foreword by John Sentamu

This is an interesting book of varying length chapters by Anglican clergy serving in various roles in the North of England. Inevitably like the curate's egg it is good in parts - though at times I felt it the tone was that of a group of "good eggs" discussing theology in the common room after evensong in the college chapel. Indeed it arose from a clergy retreat at Bishopsthorpe and a bishops' retreat on Lindisfarne so it is not surprising that it seems far removed from the stories of the street of Blackpool, Burnley, Bury, Barnsley, Bradford and Bedlington. With so many of the authors raised or educated south of Birmingham it sometimes feels like a view from the south, a missionary account of a distant land. With their concerns for the survival, renewal and resurrection of the Church of England in the northern province, and the dire statistics about membership and age profile of parish congregations their concerns for the re-evangelisation of the region are timely and important.

To start near the end of the Mark Powley's chapter on Vocation and Resurrection faces up to the difficulty of attracting clergy to Northern parishes and advocates a contextual training model for new clergy. This surely must be the right approach, although to train clergy in the context of ministry in the church as it currently is, is not to be confused with localised contextual theological reflection, or a missiology which is informed by a sociological or anthropological understanding of the life worlds outside the institution.. In fact the book as a whole is weak on social analysis. The assumption is that it is the ancient history and geography that shapes the spirituality and ethos of the region as a whole. There is little discussion of the detailed social ecologies and local identities between counties such as Yorkshire and Lancashire, between cities like Bradford and Leeds, or  Liverpool and Manchester or the segregation by class and ethnicity that divides towns like Blackburn and Oldham  or Blackpool and Lytham. It's curious too that most of the authors are based in Yorkshire or the North East. Apart from a short excursion to Bootle the land west of the Pennines features hardly at all.  In the midst of current devolution debates, and the longing among some for Scotland to move the border down to the M62, the question remains as to whether the notion of the North of England has any real substance.

Many of the chapters are steeped in the Christian tradition of the region, with many of the writers retelling the stories of the Northumbrian saints of Saxon times. Inspiring though these may be, and however attractive their relics and monuments remain for the tourist and the pilgrim I'm not convinced they are particularly relevant in the face of more recent history. The Industrial Revolution, (Gavin Wakefield's chapter gives about three pages to this period) that transformed the North an the 19th Century, and the devastation of industry in the late 20th Century profoundly shapes the image, the culture and the social realities of the region. And far more deeply than the stereotype of flat caps, warm brown ale and whippet racing that persists to this day in many minds. Particular industries, their location and the housing alongside them shaped local class solidarities, labour politics and gender relationships.  Stephen Spencer's chapter on William Temple's relationship with the working men (sic) of the North (which as a Temple fan I enjoyed reading) explores the relationship between the North and the national church  at the height of  industrial activity. There is room for more study and reflection, and maybe a different book, about the social and economic impact of the post Thatcher era on the region, and how that has impacted the religious landscape of north.

The industrial revolution and more recent economic globalisation both triggered major people movements with migration of labour from rural hinterlands and distant countries. This shaped the religious ecology far beyond the parishes of the established church. In the Northwest Irish migration added to the persistent recusant tradition of Lancashire produced a Roman Catholic ethos distinct from that of Yorkshire, where the Non Conformist chapels played a major role, while German merchants and Jewish refugees brought minority religions to places such as Bradford and Leeds. David Goodhew, in his chapter on the emergence and growth of new churches, concludes that ethnicity is everything in contemproary church growth. There are indeed some signs that the trends of growth that have renewed London churches are spreading north. Even in a relatively small place like Preston, new congregations of Romanians, Pakistanis, Poles, South Indians, Chinese and west Africans have emerged in the last decade.  Goodhew realizes too that most of the new life is found in denominations outside the Church of England and is willing to learn from them, though I'm not sure that the conclusion can be other than that it's better not to be Anglican.

There is a tendency to perceive the whole of the North of England as urban and multiply deprived despite the existence of such affluent enclaves as George Osborne's Tatton constituency in Cheshire, and the "golden triangle" between Harrogate, Ripon and York. Nonetheless widespread poverty and inequality is obvious between the North and the South and within the North of England and within it's various communities. John Wigfield's chapter addresses these issues  in terms of "the Spirit level" and links this with a reading of the Biblical texts in Deuteronomy. There are some useful insights though I'm not quite convinced that these are the most apposite passages of Scripture or that they will lead us to a missiological application where practical social action and social justice ministries will flourish. 

Su Reid's first chapter does better in grounding her theology in the social action networks of Together Middlesbrough, and in her commitment to "let the poor speak". She has some trenchant insights about the concept of sin, and the way that liturgies such as confession can speak condemnation on people who are struggling. In her second chapter she reflects on the parallels between Northern England and Samaria in the time of Jesus. Her reading of Christ's encounter with the woman at the well in John's gospel, is radical and possibly controversial. Clearly she is right in seeing the story as one where boundary fences of ethnicity, religion and gender between the righteous me and the unrighteous "other" are dismantled. Yet this reading seems to me to take away some of personal moral responsibility from the woman and those who identify with her today as marginalized outsiders, and perhaps could be seen as diminishing the personhood of the poor. Personally I would rather understand and apply the text as multi-layered and nested with multiple meanings and applications, and to see the incident at the well as one of those "blurred encounters", increasingly common today of which Chris Baker and John Reader have written, and which I described in a blog about the messy church in my own parish.

In summary this is a book that is worth reading if you are concerned about the future of the church in the North of England. But it is not the last word, it lacks as much as it contributes and is really only "your starter for ten".

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