by Alan Jeans
from Signs of the Times No. 73 - April 2019
The acceptance of the invitation to review this book, when the author is your new Suffragan Bishop, is either super confidence, or foolhardy. But when the reviewer has been an Archdeacon for 16 years, and this is his fourth Suffragan Bishop, there will be an understanding between us.
This book has already published reviews, by more significant and esteemed reviewers than me, which mark this work as a watershed moment within the documented analysis of the English Parish.
The book is well structured – Part One offering the Anglican Parish in Theoretical Perspective, with chapters on place-formation cycle; Christology of Place; and spatial theory and parochial practice. Part Two offers more on history and practice of the Anglican parish, with chapters on parish and the national myth; parish as neighbourhood; and parish, landscape and nostalgia.
It is an intriguing and interesting read, in that Andrew Rumsey begins each chapter with an anecdotal reflection from his parish ministry to date. A different print font distinguishes this from the remainder of each chapter, where more analysis of the parish’s theology of place emerges. I’m always wary when anecdote enters any form of discourse – “you had to be there to understand” often follows as an explanation. But Rumsey’s anecdotes, whilst all urban/suburban, give us a good insight into his ministry as parish priest. It may not chime with my ministerial experience, but it does root the theological reflections that follow into the grounds of Rumsey’s doctoral research. It can be a challenge to turn an essentially academic piece of research into a narrative that can inform and speak into a pastoral ministry in a wonderfully diverse and complex context of our Church of England.
Rumsey peppers his exploration of parish as a sacred place with good use of scripture and a broad drawing down from philosophers, poets and theologians. For example, Chapter One begins with Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel; then picks up Barth’s thoughts around divine-human relationships depending upon where we are; followed by Brueggemann’s ideas of Old Testament understanding of land as gift – promised and prepared by God for his people; then Kant’s synthesis of place through the eyes of the viewer – of what is known and seen, and what is unknown, but still there. The Chapter concludes with a reflection on Coleridge the poet, who dialogues the object and subject impressions of the reality of place, which helps determine a place-formation cycle: Vocation – Being – Revelation – Tradition. The second chapter focusses on Christology; the parish being the Christocentric expression of Church as both being and action. Chapter three takes us into the geography of the parish; understanding the historical changes in society, movement of people, and the behaviours of neighbourhood.
Part Two contains a speedy narrative of the parish relating to the nation’s history and politics, and its Established Church particularities. There’s an interesting historical panorama of the parish, beginning as sacred community in the Middle Ages; documenting the social upheavals alongside Reformation and political and social changes; which leads us to the persistent parish following the Second World War. Here we find boundaries are less recognized outside of the Diocesan Office, and the current notion of reconfiguring parish and benefice dividing lines on maps, which can only play catch up to the population’s habits, moving from their dormitory homes to places of work, retail therapy and self-defining recreation.
I found the book both fascinating and frustrating. I enjoyed the informative historical story of the local church, with the constant affirmation of relationships and pastoral care – of being known and knowing the defined souls within the parish. Yes, to the Christocentric heart of incarnation and being as essential to the Anglican mission and ministry. Amen, to the recognition that the landscape of our nation is essential to understand our behaviours both in and out of church. Whereas rivers and hills defined local church in the past, we are now learning that our parish boundaries are defined by social trends, motorways, new housing estates, and retail parks.