Bearing Witness in Hope – new book from Cathy Ross and Humphrey Southern

Cathy Ross, leader of Pioneer Mission Leadership Training in Oxford, introduces a new book on the church in mission that she has co-edited and finds words for our times.

Bearing Witness in Hope, Christian Engagement in Challenging Times, (eds) Cathy Ross and Humphrey Southern (London: SCM, 2020)

These are strange times we live in dominated by COVID-19 – a set of initials that has the potential to strike fear into many people’s hearts and minds. Before Christmas, we were hardly even aware of it. Now we live in a world overwhelmed by this virus as we constantly check our phones to see the latest updates and Government announcements. How unexpected that an invisible piece of genetic material has this lethal potential and could undermine the world as we know it. Travel is suspended, educational institutions are closed, events are postponed or cancelled, jobs are lost, incomes drop and social distancing becomes the norm.

Suddenly we are faced with the reality of our own mortality, the inability to control the universe, and an uncertain future. Therefore, to be able to bear witness in hope is imperative in times like these and it is heart warming to see churches take their responsibility seriously. It is good that churches are collecting contact details of the elderly and vulnerable, so that they can be contacted if necessary. Church members are also organising meals and shopping for others as well as trying to ensure that those who may already be isolated do not suffer even greater isolation by the recommended social distancing and self-isolation.

This book was written before COVID-19 but does reflect on some of the issues that this virus has alerted us to. The book emerged out of two conferences at Ripon College Cuddesdon that considered the current situation the Church of England faces in society and argues that a faithful, creative and hopeful witness and presence is needed more than ever.

The chapters which discuss the Grenfell Tower and the Hillsborough disasters reflect on not only the role and place of the church in moments of civic crisis but also the potential for attentive listening, humble service and hopeful witness.

Carlton Turner confronts us with the reality of the BAME experience in the CofE by naming exclusion and rejection as the common experience of BAME persons within the CofE.  How can we be hopeful witnesses in the context of white privilege and institutional racism?

Bishop Martyn Snow reminds us of the vital importance of the translation principle and the great challenge of translating our faith into the language and forms of this culture. This requires both creativity and resilience and both these are developed in chapters by me and Justine Allain-Chapman. I argue that we need to live into a new story and that we need to become unstuck which requires creativity curiosity, imagination and risk. I frame the chapter around seven behaviours from art and design schools to develop this. Justine explains what resilience is and how to develop it in a time of crisis, drawing on desert wisdom.

Susie Snyder, provoked by the devastating fire at Notre Dame, leads us through an Easter pilgrimage which takes us to the margins and exhorts us to discover and practise hope by making a habit of it. She encourages us to see hope as a verb rather than a noun; hope is dynamic and living. These are words for our time where we are being encouraged or even required to self-isolate but hope exhorts us to look outwards, to be mindful of the other and to practise compassion and concern.

Richard Bauckham sets the scene biblically by reminding us that we belong to God and Alister McGrath, while reflecting on our ever-changing landscape, calls us to be hopeful for the future precisely because we belong to God. Vignettes of what this might look like are scattered throughout the book with some lovely stories of the big free jubilee lunch, the story of the winter night shelter, how to listen for God in community and a bishop’s vision for a diocese.

This book has been four years in the making, but as is so often the way in the mystery of time, the title and content of this book seem more pertinent than ever. I hope that as you dive into some of the conversations here, you will be encouraged to bear witness in hope, in these challenging times of COVID-19, certain that God is with us even while all around us both locally and globally, uncertainty and change seem to be on the agenda for the foreseeable future.

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