Peter McDowell introduces his new book, At Home in Exile: The Journey Towards a New Paradigm (Belfast: Contemporary Christianity, 2012) with a story by Roy Searle, leader of the Northumbria Community. Searle had been asked to speak at a church in England, where he had spoken 20 years previously. He found the congregants ‘still praying for revival and singing the same revival songs,’ and felt he had to be blunt: The church in England was in exile. There would be no revival (p. 3).
This may seem a rather bleak start to the book, the latest publication in Contemporary Christianity’s (previously Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland – ECONI) ‘Soundings’ series. But McDowell, a minister at Garnerville Presbyterian Church, writes from experience and ultimately provides the reader with some hope for ‘a new paradigm.’
At Home in Exile will be launched on Tuesday January 15 at 7.30 pm at Contemporary Christianity on 21 Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, where copies will be available for purchase (a bargain at £5 for the 75-page publication).
The launch is not an event in the 4 Corners Festival, which is running during that time. But it speaks to many themes that concern those who are involved with the festival, such as how the churches can be faithful in a context of seeming decline in prestige, influence and moral authority.
When conducting research interviews for my first book, Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland, I was struck by how many ‘traditional’ evangelicals – most of whom were deeply suspicious of ECONI – held out hope for revival. Many spoke of the famous 1859 revival in Ulster in reverent tones, saying that the only hope for ‘the province’ was in a similar outpouring of the spirit, resulting in mass conversions and conformity to an evangelical faith.
On the other hand, evangelicals associated with ECONI and similar groups also hoped for renewal or revival. But they linked revival to the churches, especially the evangelical churches, be willing to repent for their sins in perpetuating Northern Ireland’s divisions and sectarianism.
So both types of evangelicals, and indeed people who identify with other expressions of Christianity, may feel depressed and threatened by McDowell’s analysis. While it seems clear that previous models of church just don’t seem to work anymore, it is not obvious how churches can change to become more vibrant expressions of Christ’s love in the world around them.
McDowell understands this anxiety, choosing Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ ‘stages of grief’ as a framework to explain how churches might come to grips with the frightening changes and dashed expectations of the present context. McDowell structures the book in such a way that he reflects on how churches might cope during Kubler Ross’ three stages:
- Shock and Denial
- Anger and Depression
- Acceptance and Integration
In each stage, he draws on the work of Walter Brueggeman for theological and pastoral reflection. Ministers and others in church leadership will find McDowell’s pastoral concern refreshing, although he does not shy away from admitting that pastoral care does not mean giving people pat answers or unrealistic expectations.
At Home in Exile also reflects some of the thinking and practice behind the emerging church movement (ECM). It seems likely that McDowell has been most influenced by Fresh Expressions in the UK – especially since he cites it and the Church of England’s 2004 ‘Mission Shaped Church’ report as exemplary in exploring new paradigms of church (p. 59-61), and situates the book’s discussion firmly in the context of British, rather than Irish, religious trends.
‘Mission Shaped Church’ and Fresh Expressions seem to have had a relatively minor impact in Northern Ireland so McDowell’s engagement with this movement is welcome. (The Dock church in Belfast may be the most creative example of a ‘mission-shaped’ church in Northern Ireland, though it does not itself seem to use this language.) And as McDowell notes, the decline of the church in Great Britain is further advanced than it is in Northern Ireland, so there is likely much to learn from the experience of the churches there.
McDowell also explores how the Northumbria Community (an example of the neo-monasticism also prominent in the wider, international ECM) is exploring new paradigms (57-59). McDowell is himself involved with a new branch of the Northumbria Community in Belfast, in which community members live by a ‘rule’ of vulnerability and availability. In a passage that resonates with the theme of my blog, McDowell writes (p. 58-59):
‘Vulnerability also leads to seeking to live as the ‘church without walls’, ‘living openly amongst unbelievers and other believers in a way that the life of God in ours can be seen, challenged or questioned.’
McDowell stresses that as Christians start to find their way in ‘exile,’ we must expect that there will be diversity, disagreement and conflict. Christians should not expect that old models can work again (nor is it fruitful to long to go back to the old models). Christians also should not expect that all should conform to a particular expression of church.
As such, the subtitle of the book might more accurately be ‘journeys towards new paradigms’ rather than ‘the journey towards a new paradigm.’
I also would have liked to have seen McDowell locate his discussion just as firmly in religious trends on the wider island of Ireland as he does on British trends, especially since all the largest denominations present in Northern Ireland are organised on an all-Ireland basis. I suspect McDowell’s focus on Britain comes out of recognising that changes in British Protestantism may seem to more closely resemble changes in Northern Irish Protestantism; and may be due to his engagement with the ECM, which is much more prominent in Britain than on the island of Ireland.
That said, much could be gained by thinking about ‘new paradigms’ for churches on an all-islands (Ireland and Britain) basis, especially given the sweeping changes accompanying the crisis in the Irish Catholic Church.
Questions of this nature might be raised in a later volume. But At Home in Exile is a welcome and pioneering attempt to urge Christians in Northern Ireland to recognise the changing context around them, and to engage with it more honestly and productively – and therefore more faithfully. And if revival doesn’t come in a form that they may have been expecting, to recognise that God’s hand may still be at work.