Cathy Higgins’ “Churches in Exile”: Book Review and Book Launch 22 May – What’s Emerging among Churches in Ireland?

higgins coverCathy Higgins’ new book, Churches in Exile: Alternative Models of Church for Ireland in the 21st Century (Columba, 2013) starts from the premise that churches in Ireland are in crisis, wedded to an outdated ‘Christendom’ model of church that has not served Christianity well.

But in this thoughtful and easily digestible book, Higgins reflects on a range of alternative models of church – from the monasticism of Ireland of the 6th Century to the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) of the 21st Century – which might help churches in Ireland move forward in renewed and life-giving ways. As Higgins writes in a chapter devoted to the ECM (p. 185):

“Faith is only faith if we are prepared to let go of what we know and wander off traditional routes in response to God’s Spirit, which like the Celtic wild goose can never be tamed, fully known, or entirely understood.”

Churches in Exile will be launched on Wednesday 22 May from 1-2 pm at the Skainos Centre, 239 Newtownards Road, Belfast. Speakers are Hazel Franey, the Good Relations Manager at Belfast City Council, and Rev Dr Johnston McMaster, who works on Ethical and Shared Remembering Project at the Junction, Derry, and the Irish School of Ecumenics.

Higgins worked with McMaster for many years on the Irish School of Ecumenics’ Education for Reconciliation programme, a community education initiative in Northern Ireland and the border counties. Like McMaster, she now works on the Ethical and Shared Remembering Project and remains an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast.

Churches in Exile developed out of Higgins’ design of the Irish School of Ecumenics’ “Women and Peacebuilding” programme, and was shaped by her interaction with the participants in it. As such, the book is rooted in the sorts of questions and concerns with which Christians at the grassroots are grappling.

It draws on theological, historical and contemporary resources that have doubtless formed the basis for countless conversations throughout Higgins’ work. Reflecting her community education approach, there are discussion questions at the end of each chapter that make the text easily adaptable for reading or bible study groups.

Each of its eight chapters explores a contextual theme or ‘alternative model’ of church, alerting readers to possibilities from within and outside the Irish context. Chapters include:

1) Churches: Shaped by and Shaping Context.

This is a critical reading of the Irish Christian context, and how religion has shaped and reinforced sectarianism and violence.

2) Living with the End of Christendom.

This is a description of the development of the ‘Christendom’ model of church, Christianity’s dominant expression in Europe and the West for centuries. Christendom churches assume a powerful place in society and politics, usually aligning themselves with the power and violence of the state or empire. Higgins explores the reasons why this model of church has faltered not only on the island of Ireland, but in the wider West.

3) The Hebrew Scriptures: Fashioned by Exile.

In this chapter Higgins argues that the Hebrew Scriptures provide a basis for alternative models of church, communities that refuse to align themselves with state power and violence. For her it is voices from ‘exile’, or the margins, which better articulate visions of peace and social justice – such as the ‘foreigner’ Ruth who helps the Hebrew community recover important resources from its own tradition (p. 60ff). She also notes that the Hebrew tradition allowed for a plurality of interpretations of scriptural texts, without forcing everyone to agree on a single, overarching narrative. She contrasts this to the tendency of ‘Christendom’ models of church to force everyone to believe and act the same way.

4) Models of Church in the Christian Testament.

In this chapter, Higgins again points out the plurality of models of church offered in the Christian testament (the opening section of the chapter is titled ‘No One True Church). She draws largely on the letters attributed to Paul and on the gospels. In these early churches, she finds communities that value the leadership of women and men equally, in which attempts are made to break down unfair socio-economic relationships, in which power is not abused, and in which people are aware that all expressions of church are limited and fallible. This chapter includes what I think are some of Higgins’ most significant questions for the churches in Ireland, which I will explore in more detail in a later post.

5) Looking forward to our Celtic Roots.

Here, Higgins builds on a burgeoning movement on the island of Ireland, and further afield, to rediscover and utilise the resources of the Celtic monastic tradition. Indeed, this was a theme of a recent conference of Contemporary Christianity, at which Roy Searle offered a useful overview of the strengths of Celtic monasticism. What sets Higgins’ work apart is a fascinating treatment of the life of Brigid of Kildare, founder of the earliest monastic community in Ireland, and her argument that the monastic settlements played an important peacekeeping and reconciliation role on the island.

6) Learning from the Peace Churches.

In this chapter, Higgins argues that churches in Ireland could learn from the witness of the traditional ‘peace churches,’ including Mennonites and Quakers. The ‘Anabaptist’ tradition also was a theme of Contemporary Christianity’s recent conference, demonstrating that Higgins’ ideas are indeed reflective of and resonate with thinking throughout some of the churches in Ireland. Higgins identifies key Peace Church ideas as the separation of church and state (which implies the churches’ deliberate rejection of imperial/state or military power), the ‘perspective that baptism into Christ is a stance against violence’ (p. 125), and devising active, creative means of nonviolent action. Although Higgins highlights the contributions of Quakers and some American Mennonites (Joseph Liechty and John Paul Lederach) to reconciliation in Northern Ireland, I was disappointed that she did not mention the Anabaptist/Mennonite influence on the work of Evangelical Contribution in Northern Ireland (ECONI), which is now called Contempory Christianity. (I explore the Anabaptist influence in Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland, particularly in the writings of ECONI research officer Alwyn Thomson).

7) Recovering a Discipleship of Equals for the Church.

In many ways the book comes into its own in this chapter, which reflects Higgins’ academic background in feminist theology. Drawing on the gospel accounts, Higgins analyses ‘women’s experience in the Jesus movement’ (p 147ff), arguing that early Christian communities were much more egalitarian than we give them credit for. She provides evidence that some of the later books in the Christian Testament were a ‘conscious attempt on the part of the church authority to control women’ (p. 155), thus repudiating the radical nature of earlier expressions of Christianity. The chapter concludes with an overview of the contemporary ‘Women-Church’ movement, what Higgins describes as a transnational ‘expression of feminist ecclesiology’ seeking to provide ‘an alternative to patriarchal religious practice’ (p 157).

8) New Wine, New Wineskins: What is Emerging in the 21st Century?

Here, Higgins provides an overview of the development of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), noting its roots in evangelical Protestantism and guiding readers through the terms ‘post evangelical,’ ‘emerging’ and ‘emergent.’ She profiles the Belfast-based ikon collective and the work of Peter Rollins, which is often associated with the ECM (not least by myself and Gerardo Marti in our forthcoming book, The Deconstructed Church, Oxford University Press). She also discusses the emerging influence present in the Church of England and Methodist Church’s Fresh Expressions and the Church of Scotland’s Church Without Walls. By making this the culminating chapter of her book, Higgins seems to imply that the models of church provided by the ECM are some of the most promising to inspire renewal among churches in Ireland. As this is a claim directly related to my own research on the ECM, I plan to explore this more fully in a later post.

It may be that the dominant narrative for the fate of Irish churches in the 21st century is one of shame, decline and loss of influence – or simply put, exile.

It is no coincidence that the 2012 book by Contemporary Christianity’s Peter McDowell was titled, At Home in Exile, and also picked up on the insights of Celtic Christianity, Anabaptism, and the Emerging Church Movement. Higgins clearly has her finger on the pulse of the possibilities for churches in contemporary Ireland, and Churches in Exile is a useful guidebook for those trying to find their way.

(In the coming days, I will offer two more posts based on Churches in Exile, based on insights from chapters 4 and 8).

Other Resources

Doing Community Theology by Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins

McMaster and Higgins’ Online ‘Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism’ community education courses

Education for Reconciliation Celebration 2012

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