Cathy Higgins’ Churches in Exile – What Can Churches in Ireland Learn from the Emerging Church Movement? (Book Review, Part 3)

writings-on-the-wallThe last paragraph of the final substantive chapter of Cathy Higgins’ new book Churches in Exile: Alternative Models of Church for Ireland in the 21st Century, reads (p. 185):

‘Unless the churches in Ireland are prepared to shake up the system, and take risks for the sake of God’s kingdom, can they be open to the new possibilities and new creation Jesus promised? The courage shown by those in the emerging church movement to question, search and journey, with one eye on ‘the dangerous memories of Jesus’ and another on future possibilities, is a response needed by Irish churches today.’

In two previous blog posts, I’ve written a general review of Churches in Exile, and focused on some of Higgins’ challenges for the Irish churches. In this my final post about the book, I want to look in more depth at her treatment of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM).

I am currently working on a book about the ECM, co-authored with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church (Oxford University Press). Ours is a sociological, academic analysis of the ECM, so differs from Higgins’ approach in that it is not necessarily our aim to prompt Christians to ask whether the practices, beliefs and doubts of Emerging Christians can serve as a source of renewal for churches in the West.

At the same time, we are trying to evaluate the extent that the ECM is having a wider impact on the Western religious landscape, and what’s its socio-political significance may be.

Sociologists of course cannot predict the future, but we can identify indicative trends. For example, we can chart the influence of emerging expressions of church on traditional denominations and note the growth of interaction among Emerging Christians in online networks and at conferences.

And as we will argue in The Deconstructed Church, we can point out how aspects of Emerging Christians’ self-perceptions and practices seem to fit in well with late modern or post-modern religious trends, such as religious individualism (the sacralisation of the self) and a mistrust of over-arching ‘modern’ narratives of ‘truth.’ For us, this means that the ECM is well-suited to the world developing around it – a point Higgins also seems to be making as a theologian and grassroots facilitator.

Indeed, Higgins spends a good portion of the chapter building the case that we are in a post-modern era. For her, post-modernism demands new expressions of Christianity. While the development of post-modernism is more uneven than Higgins’ chapter implies, in Ireland and elsewhere, her treatment nevertheless sets the stage for understanding how the ECM is – and sees itself as – a child of post-modernism.

Higgins describes how the ECM engages post-modernity (p 173):

‘The Christian narrative of emerging church is a contrast story that challenges hierarchical structures, domination systems and ‘power over’ models of relating, which informed cultural practices in the modernist context. Underscoring the equality of all, by recovering the Reformation and Vatican II emphasis on ‘priesthood of all believers’, counters the private/public and secular/sacred dualisms. These latter were a legacy of modernity that led to the fragmentation of society; assuring control and order were in the hands of Western, male, religious, political and social elites.’

The chapter includes three short treatments of expressions of the ECM – the ikon collective in Belfast, The Church of England/Methodist Church Fresh Expressions initiative, and the Church of Scotland’s Church without Walls initiative.

Fresh Expressions and Church without Walls are of course denominational initiatives that attempt to capture some of the insights and practices of the ECM and bring them into traditional denominations. Higgins’ analysis draws largely on denominational reports, making it difficult to evaluate how successful these initiatives have been. (Admittedly, there has not been much evaluative work done on these programmes and there are many difficulties in deciding what would actually constitute ‘success.’)

At the same time, it is clear from these examples how denominations on the island of Ireland might adopt similar strategies to facilitate the development of new forms of churches, more suitable for the contemporary Irish/Northern Irish contexts.

Ikon, on the other hand, does not have formal links to traditional denominations and tends to describe itself as a (Christian) arts collective. They see their meetings as providing opportunities for ‘transformance art’, events which prompt those attending to ask ethical and existential questions about how to live in the world around them.

Higgins also rightly notes ikon’s emphasis on creating ‘inclusive community,’ promoting non-hierarchical leadership, and creating spaces for people to explore doubts and difficult questions. For her, ‘The strength of Ikon is twofold’ (p. 176):

  • It creates an environment where doubt is viewed as healthy and necessary for owning our material reality, vulnerability and limitedness.
  • It also nourishes people’s spirits and imaginations in rituals and worship that engage the whole person. Like the Jewish tradition of prayer … it is rooted in real experience and recognises that lament is a necessary antidote to praise.

I would quibble here with Higgins’ use of the word ‘worship.’ I’ve found in my research among people from ikon a reluctance to describe what they are doing as ‘worship.’ In this ikon is admittedly on the margins of the transnational ECM, as most Emerging Christians will talk of their gatherings in terms of ‘worship’ without too much difficulty.

(I feel I should say once again that most people in ikon do not identify with the ECM, but they are usually viewed by Emerging Christians as part of the emerging ‘conversation,’ and scholars like James Bielo and Doug Gay have located them within the ECM.)

Higgins also notes the significance of the work of Belfast-born Peter Rollins, one of the ikon founders.

She draws on two of his earlier books, How (Not) to Speak of God (2006) and The Fidelity of Betrayal (2008). While praising Rollins’ work as ‘valid and creative, a way to deepen faith at a personal level and influence personal actions’ (p. 176), she argues that his project would be enhanced by ‘socio-political critique.’

Indeed, this is something that Rollins is more concerned with in his later books Insurrection (2011) and The Idolatry of God (2012), where global systems of capitalism and consumerism are critiqued along with Christians’ ‘idolatrous’ conceptions of God. Rollins also addresses these issues on his blog; one example being a 2011 post titled ‘I believe in Child Labour, Sweatshops and Torture.’

Ikon will feature prominently in The Deconstructed Church, so I am glad to see Higgins’ also recognizing its significance and drawing attention to its approach for an Irish/Northern Irish audience. Especially for readers from the Republic of Ireland, ikon may be unheard of and seem obscure, but Higgins shows how their approach can inform Christian renewal beyond the borders of Belfast.

(Image from ikon’s 2011 Resuscitation event, sourced on the ikon webpage).

Related Posts

Johnston McMaster on Cathy Higgins’ Churches in Exile

Cathy Higgins’ Churches in Exile: Challenges for the Churches in Ireland – Book Review, Part 2

Cathy Higgins’ Churches in Exile: Book Review and Book Launch

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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