Sunday 14 September 2014

The Pioneer Gift - A Review

The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission edited by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross has clearly been written, to some extent, as a text book for the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training Programme and other courses around the country which are looking at pioneering. It reads as a set of chapters intended as the basis of pre-reading for seminar discussions and the majority of contributors are people who lecture or are/ have been students on the CMS programme. However, that should not put off those who don't need a text book but do want to reflect more deeply on the theology of pioneer ministry. This is an important and somewhat innovative resource.

I say the book is innovative because books on pioneering in the UK have tended to take three forms. The first category is the book which has sought to map how and why pioneer movements have emerged. Gibbs and Bolger's Emerging Churches is a sociological study which is perhaps the best example of this type of study. It uses qualitative interview data and contains a range of in depth interviews with key players in these types of movements. The second type of text has been a variation on the first and has been more reflexive and less objective in the way in which it has looked at the reasons why a more contextual approach was needed. Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture by Michael Frost is a good example of this. The third type of book has sought to mix theology, (normally coming from institutional gate keepers or "permission givers") with reflections on specific projects, coming from pioneers who have normally been ordained. This book differs in format because whilst it is written by practitioners, (and even the academics involved are practioners on one level or another), it is more theological in its approach. There is far less descriptive material than in the previous types of text mentioned and much more theology. It is also much more ecumenical than many of the other texts on the subject have been.

The book begins with Jonny Baker's introduction exploring what The Pioneer Gift is. Within this he starts by discussing the theme of "the gift of not fitting in", which you may have heard him speak on at Greenbelt and elsewhere. He then discusses how CMS fits into the pioneer movement and what the benefits of pioneering are as well as some of the challenges faced.

Lecturer Cathy Ross discusses the theme of missiology before discussing theological homelessness and its link with dissent. The style of this chapter underlines her familiarity with writing for this type of text, yet it is not so academic it feels out of place. It is within this chapter we first get the feel for how liberation theology and feminist theologies have influenced the pioneers.

Scottish theologian Doug Gay, who will also be familiar to Greenbelt audiences, has a reflexive style similar to Frost. His chapter is perhaps the most descriptive within the book. Within it he raises and important aspect which I feel helps make this book such a useful resource, this is the interplay and complexity of relationships between the institutional church and pioneers. Too often there has been a binary approach taken which has seen a mixed economy as being inherited church verses fresh expressions. This text has several points which illustrate the way in which the relationship is far more messy, involving over lap and grey areas. The issue of permission giving is discussed in a much more objective and at times negative way than in many of the books so far published on this topic, which have tended to have had direct input from the permission givers, (normally Church of England bishops).

Anna Ruddick's chapter on the subject of transformation is interesting. It examines both language and praxis, focusing on the Eden Network which has grown out of the Message Trust in Manchester. Within this chapter she makes use of some interesting qualitative research to illustrate the transformation which takes place and the way in which significance is created. I found this one of the most interesting chapters within the book.

Karlie Allaway is a student on the course and a Roman Catholic who has come to that denomination via a range of evangelical Protestant groups. Her chapter, perhaps more than any other, moves away from the traditional discourse which has tended to link sacramentality in these groups primarily with new monastic movements or see pioneering as beyond traditional institutional settings. Rather what Allaway does is examine the possibilities for community which being rooted in an existing institutional setting gives. As somebody who has struggled getting my head around what others see as the gift of sacramentality I was grateful for this chapter. It helped me understand how others have experienced freedom and healing through the Eucharist. There is also some beautiful poetry and liturgy in this chapter.

Jim Barker who works for CMS, but has a background in the NGO sector writes on communities of practice and how learning occurs within them. The diagrams and language within this chapter perhaps make it the most academic. However, this does not mean it is inaccessible. It is a thoughtful and interesting chapter which raises important questions. As with many of the latter chapters of this book it includes the findings of small scale research. Due to the subject matter and overall size of the population the small sample isn't a problem with this chapter although I would suggest in other chapters the sample size is too small to make them definitive.

Beth Keith, focuses on Jeremiah and the idea of pulling down and building up. Her use of the categories of modal pioneers (based in fresh expressions within existing church structures) and sodal pioneers (those working outside existing church structures) was interesting and useful.

Gerald A. Arbuckle is an anthropologist now working in a research ministry in Australia. He wrote a really interesting chapter on the place of myth in narrative. Within this chapter there is an interesting discussion of Vatican-II and the current papacy of Pope Francis and the changes he is making. Arbuckle makes the point that both cultures and structures need to change if conservatism is not to re-emerge and become a powerful force once more.   

Simon Sutcliffe is a Methodist Venture FX pioneer. His chapter discusses the nature and importance of contextual theology and role of the pioneer in this. What I find interesting is that nowhere within his chapter does Sutcliffe link contextual theology to the more established discipline of practical or applied theology which contextual theology grows out of.

Andrea Campanale has produced a very important chapter which needs to be taken seriously and developed. In her discussion of shame and the implications for missional communities she draws heavily on Alan Mann's work but develops it to ask important questions relevant not only to pioneering and fresh expressions but also to more traditional forms of church. This theme is further developed in Emma Nash's chapter on redefining sin. Both chapters deal with shame and guilt and the consequences of certain understandings of language used within the church and beyond.

I think that these chapters have important issues to raise for those working with LGBT people and those groups which are in there own way pioneering but which may not be described as fresh expressions. This is an area which I would like to explore further and I was grateful for the mini literature reviews at the beginning of each of their chapters.

Kim Hartshorne's chapter on the Upper Room is again a more descriptive chapter. However, it rounds off the book well by looking at inclusion and vulnerability as well as liturgy. Hartshorne draws heavily on Brueggemann, as others do and it is clear he has been one of the influential theorists discussed on their course along with David Bosch. The writings by the students, particularly, therefore reflect their ideas.

Overall as I say a useful and interesting book which I would highly recommend to anybody who seriously wants to engage with the theology emerging from and underpinning the pioneer movement. I would also recommend to those who wish to be challenged to reflect theologically on their own context as this is an easy to read book which raises important issues which go beyond pioneer communities.
The Pioneer Gift Explorations in Mission, Edited by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross, ISBN 978-1-84825-651-4

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