01 June, 2009

AAB bookshelf - The Provocative Church by Graham Tomlin

-->Coming from a Catholic background I have approached the book somewhat sceptically. However, I decided to review Tomlin’s work as he presented a fresh point of view for me, form which one can look to understand the mission of the Church under a radically different perspective.
This review will be structured in three parts: (a) Tomlin’s understanding of mission; (b) mission and the local Church and (c) a general evaluation and comments about the book.

The idea of Christian Mission in ‘The Provocative Church’
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ Mt 5:16
There are many book published or on their way to the printing press about mission. This idea seems the ‘new frontier’ for Christians of any denomination. For example, it boldly features as one of the criteria of selection for the Ordained Ministry in the Church of England. Yet, the wider Church does not seem to have cracked the code for a typology of mission which would work every time and everywhere. Part of the problem is partially generated by a misguided concept for which mission and evangelisation are interchangeable or worse, the same thing.
Graham Tomlin proposes a different and appealing concept of mission for the Church. His ideas is blended in a great ‘meditation’ about what it really means to be Christians and what is our current understanding of Church. This is the overarching theme of ‘The Provocative Church’ and mission has to be understood as part of the greater picture of Christianity, not as its driving force.
The media and even London buses have portrayed a radically different picture of the Evangelical tradition of the Church. Indeed, any denomination who wants to take the Dominical command: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28:19) seems to be compelled in ‘Bible-bashing’ or ‘Magisterium-bashing’ actions. Or, are they? Tomlin’s theological reflections points towards a type of mission which although being faithful to the Matthean instruction does not find its source there but in the life of the Church as herald of the God’s Kingdom. For the author, the Church is meant for ‘divine action’; living under God’s rule is more important that evangelism per se.
Tomlin’s understanding of the Kingdom is remarkable and certainly not locked in the Evangelical tradition but significant for the wider Church. The author proposes a theological comparison between ancient Israel and its focus on the Temple with the Kingdom of God as announced in the gospels. The Temple in Jerusalem worked through a system of exclusion where the peoples were ‘filtered’ or held back in their approaching the Holy of Holies. First the Gentiles, then women, then men, then priests and at last the high priest; everyone respected the boundaries and social borders prescribed by the priestly laws. On the contrary, God’s Kingdom is open to all and its rule is set to reach all nations. In the latter instance mission originates from the compelling call to Christians to live the new values of the Kingdom of God in this World.
‘The Provocative Church’ is ready to point out that a balance should be found between ‘words’ and deeds, but it is somehow unclear about where this balance lies. Perhaps Graham Tomlin has a reason for this, as diverse communities have to adapt their ministry to their circumstances. However, the Church has to be a constant reminder of the Kingdom keeping Jesus as the central focus and its doors wide open.
Very early in the book the author compares the Church to Robin Hood and his company. One could find this idea nonsensical, but on closer inspection it represents one of the best vignettes of Christian action in the World. It does not envisage Christians plundering and stealing for worthy causes, but as true and loyal subjects of a kingdom of justice and mercy which seems to be overcome by the violence and unfairness of the present regime. Like the merry company of Sherwood, the Church is to hold on to the good news that the rightful King has inaugurated his reign and to bear him testimony through words and actions in ‘the present age’. Thus, this book invites Christians to live as people of the new Kingdom; to live as new individuals who turned away from self-absorbed lives (‘metanoiete’ Mt 4:17).
There is a strong eschatological element in the missionary idea of this book. For example, ethnic communities as they try to apply the values and customs of their homeland to the place where they find themselves exiled remind Tomlin of the Church’s relationship to the World (e.g. Jn 17:14). For centuries saints have described their Earthly lives as pilgrimages or exiles towards our true homeland and this attitude has created pictures of the Ecclesia Militans as a crowed boat navigating towards heavenly shores. Tomlin distances himself from depicting the Church as a clubby environment such as this. However, the author clearly distinguishes between the Worldly and the Christian ways of life and makes this distinction one of his fundamental arguments of his reflection.
A ‘provocative Church’ should suscitate questions in the wider community through her actions. Honest questions about faith, Jesus and the Kingdom are bound to be roused by authentic Christian communities, thus reawakening the world hunger for the Gospel. These questions can be answered by evangelisation, but only as a second, limited stage of a missionary ministry. For Tomlin, the Church’s fundamental mission is to live the Good News of the Kingdom thus embodying Jesus’ teachings and acknowledging him as the rightful King.

Christian Mission and the local Church
‘To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good’ 1Cor 12:7
In the light of what has been argued in the previous paragraph it is clear that the Church should live her call to mission as a fruit of living under God’s rule, but perhaps the practicality of this remains less obvious.
‘The Provocative Church’ takes in consideration different examples of community life from around the globe and drawing some conclusions points towards some key factors of effective ministry.
The Church is to act within a wider local community which all too often seems rather distant. In this environment, She has to find her niche, her corner, not for clubby or by-invitation-only activities but to set a tangible example of conduct where it is more needed. Locality of ministry can be compared to the yeast used to ferment the dough (Lk 13:20) or to ‘the salt of the earth’ (Mt 5:13).
Useful and Relevant
One of the most important aspects of this ‘provocative ministry’ should be ‘usefulness’. If the local Church wants to rouse an interest in the Gospel message, it should bring her ministry where it is most needed. This should not be confused with a ‘new-Labour’ concept of usefulness of faith communities. Tomlin goes far beyond political ideas; the usefulness he talks about has to be relevant to both the Christian message and to the needs of the community in which the Christians live. This resembles ‘the light of the world’ (Mt 5:14) and it is a testimony that everything is done under the new rule of Christ and the Kingdom.
Unconditional (...Love)
In illustrating this point the author really breaks with the established tradition of ‘luring’ people through the Church doors; in fact Tomlin seems more in line with Christian Aid’s ethos than with the practices of parishes throughout Western Christendom.
Christian ministry, example of conduct, material aid, social action and support should be made available to anyone in the community; no-strings-attached. Yet, the idea of unconditional ministry seems to draw directly from the two previous points more than form the role of the Established Church. The people of the new Israel are to imitate the life of God’s King who was greeted by Simeon as ‘a light for the revelation of the Gentiles’ (Lk 2:32). Christians should follow/belong to Christ in the same way as light enlightens and salt gives flavour; in any situation, not selectively. They are what they are without expecting anything in return. Indeed, there should be no difference between who they are and what they do.
‘The Provocative Church’ points out another matter of concern for the local Church: ministry to those who already already part of it. Tomlin cleverly retells the parable of the lost sheep and points out how the ministry of the Church should care for those ninety-nine sheep that are already part of the fold as well as reaching out to the missing one. The author is not the only one with this idea. The charge of the Ordinal to individuals approaching priesthood, for example, points out twice the duty of care to the existing fold before calling the presbyters to look for the lost ones.
The book examines frankly and openly the various problems which might affect the growth of a congregation and gives some simple but radical answers. Tomlin writes: ‘Most people drift out of church [...] because it ceases to be relevant to their lives’. Here too the Church has to be relevant and provocative to its members. Provocative does not mean rousing the temperature of PCC meetings or insulting parishioners from the pulpit because of their lukewarm faith. Being provocative in this case means to entice the ninety-nine sheep to be faithful to their Christian call, to live out their Baptismal promises and to reach with a little deeper each day in the life-long process of metanoia.

Review and Conclusion
‘The Provocative Church’ is a powerful book about the Church’s mission in the post-modern world. The author, has produced an appealing work to which Christians of almost any denominations can refer and this is one of his most commendable achievements. The book is almost half meditative on the current estate of the Church and certainly most of the Revd Graham Tomlin’s ideas come from well thought/tested theological convictions. Some of his statements find an echo in other recent writings about Ecclesiology and Christian call such as the Church of England’s ‘Healthy Churches Handbook’ or bishop Jeffers Schori’s ‘A Wing and a Prayer’.
Some of the ideas expressed in the book are mildly dated as they referred to the volatile opinion of the general public. Moreover, Tomlin seems to give for granted certain philosophical concepts whose assumptions could be questionable. His interpretation of Pascal is one of the clearest examples. Tomlin argues for the conventional reading of Pascal, but by his own admissions later on in the book, ideologies such as those are seldom applicable to our post-modern world. For example, Richard Dawkins might have expressed the same thought: ‘we only tend to believe what we want to believe’; thus flipping the argument against religion itself.
Having said this, the book remains a thought-provoking masterpiece about mission and ultimately about Ecclesiology. This is not to say that Graham Tomlin has a patented recipe for the Church of England. This would probably defeat the purpose of the book. ‘The Provocative Church’ is a call to Christian communities to return to their sources, to their Baptismal promises, to Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom and to turn around their lives.

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