Lost Church by Alan Billings

For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, I am a Christian called to worship in and minister in the Anglican church. I was bought up in one, I have worshipped in several, and have committed myself before God and people to ordained ministry in that context. I am also someone whose own tradition within that context is as charismatic evangelical. I am committed to the theology and practice of that; I value other traditions greatly, but that is mine. That doesn’t mean that I sign up to everything which some people associate with that label – I interpret my tradition in the may that fits and works and makes sense for me. But it is the label which fits most naturally – if imperfectly. I am also deeply committed and passionate about a movement within Anglicanism and other denominations known as Fresh Expressions (more of that later). I see none of these things as in conflict with one another. Which is not the impression I was left with after reading Lost Church by Alan Billings.

It’s an accesible and clearly constructed book calling Anglican churches and their clergy to reconsider ministry to those who may not be fully professing Christians, but have a vague sense of belonging to the established Church of England. They may not ‘believe’ as many would understand that concept, but they have a sense of attachment, loyalty and belonging to a type of religious expression which they understand the Church Of England as providing.

In essence, that’s Billings’ call. There’s a lot that’s helpful here. He speaks as an experienced parish priest and trainer of clergy, so this is coming from a position of first hand experience. His variety of ministry contexts and  engagement with research leaves him well placed to analyse societal trends. There’s much that’s helpful and challenging for me and for people like me – I need to own the fact, as he does suggest, that evangelical Anglicans can put as many barriers as we think we are taking down for people. It’s just that we’re keeping out, sometimes, a different sort of person. There’s also a tendency amongst some in our tradition to cut ourselves off from our historical moorings and fellowship within the broader church. All of that is true, and the book was a helpful reminder and corrective to me  – even now, serving a long way from England, but still an Anglican. Societal trends in South Africa are likely to follow a similar path to that seen over recent times in the UK, so these are apposite warnings.

I had problems with the book, though. First is that I was struck by what felt to me a certain meanness of spirit. I own some of these criticisms of the traditions of which I am a part; but some of the language and tone felt at times snide and at others unfair. As a former priest in Sheffield he criticises, for instance, the high profile St Thomas’ Crookes church in that city. In the late 1980s/early 90s the church experimented with an usunaual form of worship which came out of nightclub culture. This met with initial success, before a very public moral failure, the fall of the leader and accusations (almost certainly justified) of cult-like behaviour. Billings criticises St Thomas’ for sitting outside normal Anglican structures – without mentioning the reality of the the church having been a joint Anglican and Baptist project since 1982. So of course it was going to sit outside normal structures; that’s not to excuse the failures or mistakes, but he’d have done well to point out that it wasn’t fully Anglican because that would have been to deny the essence of what that church was meant to be.  He suggests that ‘perhaps’ lessons have been learned at St Thomas’ and in similar contexts – the reality is that if you read books to emerge from St Thomas, listen to the leaders and speak to people in the Fresh Expressions movement, then they manifestly have. In the case of St Thomas’, the church has continued to grow and move into innovative, exciting models of leadership, mission and discipleship – without a hint of moral failure. That tragic series of mistakes has been learned from, but will remain fallen Churches are led for sinners by sinners so failures will still occur, but you can’t move far in these circles without hearing these lessons rehearsed.

There is the problem. For all his no doubt deep experience and valuable, committed ministry Alan Billings seems to spend time lobbing criticisms at something he doesn’t show he’s engaged with. Evangelicals do not all try to argue people through reason into a propositional set of ideas, as he suggests. Many evangelical churches are profoundly, deeply, prophetically tolerant and welcoming; not all are cold and unfriendly. Some are not, of course. Some are, though. Fresh Expressions is not ‘about meeting in any sort of building other than a church, as if a church building could only be of interest to the already committed‘; it’s about creating a ‘mixed economy’ church (to use former Archbishop Rowan Williams’ phrase in his support of the movement) which uses BOTH traditional and new models of church. It takes inspiration from the vows all priests ordained in England take ‘to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation’; it’s rooted in Anglicanism and committed to ecumenism – so naturally it will contain elements that are not Anglican so much as reflective of other approaches. Many within the movement – as the aformentioned sinners we all are – will come across as arrogant or dismissive or loaners. Many, though, are humble, Godly people who love the church and their fellow ministers. Which is why they want to see the church grow, and even more invited into the variety of her beauty.

Lost Church blessed, challenged, encouraged, saddened and angered me. I liked it. It has an urgent message. Many who love the church should read it; I fear though that a lack of thought and understanding in places will lead to offence and regression rather than the forward movement Allan Billings clearly longs to see in the church he loves.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com

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