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Church on Edge? Church on Edge?
Practising Ministry Today

John B Thomson
ISBN 0232525668 (9780232525663)
Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004
£10.95

Category: Emerging Church & Postmodern Faith

There was a time when the church was at the centre of society: church leaders spoke and world leaders quaked. Those days are gone: the church has largely been sidelined and church leaders who dare to speak out on political issues are as likely to be ruled offside as listened to.

But perhaps this is as it should be? Perhaps rather than occupy centre stage the church should be working in the wings. This book is an exploration of the marginalization of church in society from an author whose life has been largely "spent sitting on the margins" (Introduction, p.vii): an early childhood in Uganda, an unsettled period of moving around England and Scotland with his family, entering Anglican ministry via suburban Sheffield, then back to Africa, teaching in a South African theological seminary at the end of the apartheid era. Returning again to the UK he worked as a parish priest in inner city Doncaster, a move from a multicultural, pluralistic society to a monochromatic English working class community. He is currently Director of Ministry in the Diocese of Sheffield.

This, then, is the context out of which this book emerges, a theological reflection on doing and being church on the edge, working with people on the edge. He also comes from an evangelical background but has not allowed that evangelicalism to restrict the way he thinks - rather he contends that living faith is open to change, that the truth is not static but dynamic, arguing for an ongoing conversation which "has the confidence to share its understanding about God and creation, while accepting that this understanding is provisional and hence able to be revised." (p.79). Some things in this book — such as his discussion of homosexuality in chapter 5, Marginal Story, pp.51 - 56: The Insufficiency of Scripture — will make some evangelicals consider his approach to be a step too far, not so much on the edge as in danger of going over it.

But is this not what Christianity is about? Following a Messiah who steps across boundaries, who breaks taboos, who mixes with social outcasts and lives at the frayed and tattered edges of his culture. If the church is no longer at the centre of society, are we not in fact back where we belong?

Thomson addresses a wide range of issues that emerge from this relocation to the edges: after Chapter 1, "Feeling edgy", each subsequent chapter heading starts with the word "Marginal" — Marginal speech; worship; mission; story; ministry; movement; and, finally, training. The implications for working from the sidelines in each of these areas of church life is carefully examined and ways forward suggested. Each chapter ends with a concise summary whilst a conclusion, endnotes, select bibliography and an index complete the book.

This is a book you'll want — perhaps even need — to read twice. Thomson is efficient in his use of language, packing a huge amount into his 101 pages. Some sentences need to be read several times over to wring out their full meaning and further unpacking of the ideas explored would have made the whole more accessible: the subject matter could easily have occupied a volume twice the length.

If you're a church leader or anyone else concerned about the church's ongoing role in an increasingly postmodern and pluralistic society, this is one book you shouldn't miss.

Further Reading
Some Suggestions Courtesy of Church House Bookshop

Phil Groom, April 2005

Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.

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