Saturday, 26 March 2016

Holy Habits by Andrew Roberts Reviewed and Set in Context

There is a growing argument that there is an increasing need for people to develop good quality religious literacy in order to navigate the late modern world. This was one of the core themes of the four public lectures Grace Davie gave as part of the Birmingham University Cadbury series. For Christians that means not only understanding other religions and wider culture but also developed more nuanced literacy about their own faith and the different forms of language and communication that religious literacy should take within it. For those who missed the lectures the think tank Theos is going to reproduce the lecture content within a publication.

This increased religious literacy involves going back to basics and examining in an intelligent way the central concepts of discipleship. It also involves coming alongside people to help them learn how to reflect on their faith and actions arising from it in an intelligent way individually, corporately and globally. To do help people do this in a form which is easily accessible and can appeal both to the academic or “religious professional” and the average lay person is not an easy task. Yet, it is a task which Andrew Roberts (Methodist Learning and Development Officer for Bristol and the West Midland) succeeds in with his new book Holy Habits.

The book comes in two halves. The first talks about the “nature of discipleship” and puts aspects of charismatic and Pentecostal renewal as well as the Fresh Expressions movement into a wider context. The second half focuses upon the “nurture of discipleship”. It goes through a set of ten practices which are at the core of discipleship using Acts 2 as the passage to identify these practices.

It is a book which shows a real skill in bridging a series of complex fault lines within contemporary Christianity and I wonder if Roberts is one of the few who could write a book like this because of his unique set of experiences. He seems to some extent aware of this as he draws on these experiences to at times use autobiographical examples. These include his experiences of being a student at York and going to one of the churches which was recognised to be at the centre of the charismatic renewal of the period. They also include reference to his role within the Fresh Expressions movement and also his early life as a financial analyst within the motor industry.

In addition to these experiences this Methodist also brings in a narrative deeply rooted in the theology and thinkers of this denomination but not restricted by it. Anybody familiar with Methodist theologians will see what on one level amounts to a roll call within the book (Jane Leach and Francis Young seemed to be amongst the few obviously missing).

What shines through in this book is vulnerability and authenticity as well as intelligent thought.

It is a book that the individual should not rush, unless like me they read it to get the initial feel and then intend to go back to slowly work through the book. It is not a book which seeks to give the reader the right answer but rather to help them think, reflect and act both individually and corporately.

I read this book a few days after watching Robert Beckford’s excellent BBC documentary The Battle for Christianity. The programme which was an excellent production featuring a number of top theorists and churchmen (including Grace Davie, Linda Woodhead and the Archbishop of Canterbury) as well as  grass roots street pastors. As somebody interested in the local context of Birmingham I was interested to see Tim Hughes and the new Gas Street initiative featured as well as Birmingham Street Pastors. 

Both the programme and the Roberts book reflect that there is no longer one size fits when it comes to Christianity in the UK now and that we need to recognise this. In addition to the impact of immigrants there is also an increasing diversity in style of worship and theological outlook. There is also, as Woodhead explained in the programme, differences in the level of commitment that people want to give towards religion based upon whether they see it as a primary part of identity or not. One of the strengths of Roberts’s book is that whilst it puts an emphasis on community it also allows for individualism within that. That is to say we all have our own styles which help us develop personal discipleship whilst at the same time we will also have to at times move beyond our own preferences to benefit the whole community.

This way of looking at things which takes the important principles of faith and looks at how to apply them in the contemporary mix of contexts not just through Fresh Expression type is refreshing. It helps develop that good quality religious literacy but it also is contributing to some new and exciting discussions around church growth. This includes the work of David Goodhew and his team but also goes beyond it including the initiatives such as the forthcoming Rethink Church conference.  

Of course we cannot just look at these things in an ethnocentric bubble and part of our increased literacy has to be understanding how religion and faith are operating and changing globally. This is where the work of the International Panel on Social Progress which Davie highlighted during her Cadbury lecture series and of which she is a key part of the panel on religion is important. The work of the panel is due to be opened up for public consultation and discussion in July of this year and I believe that it will give us a clear picture of what some of the global aspects to be borne in mind are.