Fire in the bones

Cover of The Go-Between God, SCM Press 2021

"Every particle in the universe is charged with the presence of the Holy Spirit." - Cover detail of The Go-Between God, published in a new edition by SCM Press

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From seemingly predicting the Fresh Expressions movement, to his perspective on other religions, John Taylor’s writing has the power to impart boldness and freedom in its surprising relevance to the 21st century reader, says Jonny Baker. This blog post is the foreword to a new edition of The Go-Between God, the classic on mission and Holy Spirit, which was first published in 1972 when Taylor was general secretary of CMS. We republish it here by kind permission of SCM Press.

John Taylor was General Secretary of the Church Mission Society (CMS) during 1963‒74, and The Go Between God was published towards the end of that period. Some readers may not have heard of him or know a whole lot about CMS, and be wondering why a book published in the 1970s has ongoing relevance today. Let me say a word about both.

The Church Mission Society was founded in 1799 by a discussion group called the Eclectics Society, which met in London to consider contemporary issues. In March 1799 the topic of discussion was ‘What methods can we use more effectually to promote the knowledge of the Gospel among the Heathen?’ Within a month a vehicle was set up to answer that question, called the Society for Missions to Africa and the East, instituted by members of the Established Church, now known as the Church Mission Society. In the society were friends from the Clapham Sect, whose members had experienced the renewing energy and fervour of the Spirit from the evangelical awakenings inspired by the likes of the Wesleys, but who had remained in the Church of England to renew it from within. The Clapham Sect was also involved in various other projects and ideas, notably the campaign for the abolition of slavery but also a range of other social and political issues. It had a vision of mission as transforming the world ‒ its people and society.

The initial contexts to which missionaries travelled and pioneered were Sierra Leone, New Zealand, Canada, China, Japan, Malta, India, Ceylon and the Arctic Circle. A substantial proportion of the Anglican Communion arose from these missions. The goal early on was to develop an indigenous church and then move on so that the local churches were not overly dependent and could conduct their own affairs, and the society could move on to new territories. In practice that did not happen as easily or successfully as envisaged. The history is filled with inspired stories of mission, with really good mission principles and approaches that took context and culture seriously. But it was a time of expansion of the British empire in the colonial period, and the missions were without doubt shaped by stories of British superiority and a narrative of civilizing that was at times colluding, at times conflicted and at times resisting.

Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century and perhaps CMS had drifted away from its founding purpose and looked more like the Church Aid Society, with a range of partners around the world. Reflections on colonialism meant that there was a lot of soul searching about the place of Western missions. Christianity in Britain was no longer the force it once was. John Taylor and his predecessor Max Warren were both brilliant missiologists who brought new energy and vision for mission through their leadership and a refounding of CMS. Their particular contribution was to identify how the world and church had changed and to reflect on the place of CMS in that new world. They both reflected deeply on mission in relation to other faiths and cultures, and also on the purpose of mission societies. John Taylor’s view of mission societies, taken from his newsletters, includes the recurring theme of the challenge to remain a movement rather than to institutionalize.  He is keen to resist the settler impetus – the urge to settle down, to become so deeply established that lightness of touch and moving on become difficult, horizons become limited by too much stability, and presentism, imagination and risk are side-lined. Shortly after becoming General Secretary, he reflects on the possibility for an organization such as CMS, which was once a movement, to recapture that vitality to push out new shoots again that will ‘bud into fresh forms of experimentation and response’. He also named Britain as a context for mission as needy as Asia or Africa. Up to this point, mission had always been about foreign lands.

I joined CMS with an interest in cross-cultural mission as it related to Britain. To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about it, but in my work with young people I was facing questions of mission and culture. There was an expectation that young people would join the church, but it felt like there was a huge gap between youth culture and church culture. A question I had was how to grow church in youth or postmodern cultures, rather than expecting them to join in with the church’s way of doing things. This was all inspired by reading stories of cross-cultural mission. To put it bluntly, I thought CMS might have the gold in this area that I could steal. When I arrived hungry to learn, people pointed me in the direction of John Taylor as someone who carried the gold. They were not wrong.

The Go Between God pulls together and deepens many of the ideas Taylor shared in his newsletters. He describes it as an attempt to interpret the meaning of Christian mission for contemporary humanity within the context of a fresh understanding of the Holy Spirit and his action in the world. He does that magnificently. It is his best-known and most loved book. I am delighted that SCM has republished it for new readers because he was so ahead of his time and what he has to say is so pertinent today.

John Taylor’s starting point is that the Spirit is not simply present in the lives of churches and Christians, not contained or controlled or limited. The glory of God is everywhere in all things. The Spirit is present in all cultures, all religions and all peoples. Every particle in the universe is charged with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Taylor has some lovely turns of phrase and one-liners. I have often thought he would have a lot of followers on twitter if he were alive today. One phrase that caught my attention and has stuck with me is that the Spirit’s milieu is the world rather than the church. That is the frame within which he places everything else. Moments of encounter, of attention, of awareness can happen to anyone anywhere. In those moments there is a current of communication, a connection, a sense of presence, an aliveness. The Holy Spirit is the Go-Between who sets up this current of communication that flows like electricity between a person and the other whether that other is a landscape or another person.

He describes the Spirit as ‘fire in the bones’. By it he does not mean a pentecostal enthusiasm, or the sense of presence in church, or simply in the life of Christians, though it might be those things too. It’s more a deeper sense of awareness of a call towards greater personhood, an awareness that stimulates initiative, spontaneity and choice towards life between things as they are and as they could be, and that leads to giving oneself for others rather than self-interest. This process and these encounters he names are remarkable for their ordinariness, a kind of seeing with new eyes. This broad horizon or large frame is so important that Taylor spends the first four chapters on it. He was writing at a time when there were the early stages of charismatic renewal in the Church of England, but his interest is the Spirit’s work in the world rather than simply in the church.

Taylor famously describes mission as seeing what God is doing and joining in. This makes so much more sense when the Spirit’s milieu, and the frame of reference is the whole world, where God is already at work renewing and healing all things. It then becomes an important question as to how we become open to seeing and noticing, to being more receptive to God.

Shortly after I joined CMS with some others, we signed up to run a stand at the London Mind Body Spirit Festival. This was a new-age event with a marketplace of all sorts of alternative spiritualities and experiences. When I was younger I would have prayed against such things but here I was sensing the Spirit calling us to take a risk and cross a border. It was about this time that I first read John Taylor and it was like scales being removed from my eyes. Rather than seeing this as somehow dangerous and worldly, I began to look for where God might be at work and seek to join in, and we found great openness from seekers to prayer and to healing and to talk about Jesus. I found myself prayerfully seeking the Spirit’s guidance and gifts, and realized that the experience of the life of the Spirit, which I had been disillusioned with when it felt stuck and introverted in church, made so much more sense in the context of mission. I didn’t need to throw out any of it ‒ I just needed to get out, cross a border in mission and join in. At that first festival, word went round that ‘the energy was strong in our booth’, which was others’ way of saying and sensing the ‘beyond in our midst’, that current of communication, the Go-Between God.

The Holy Spirit is the chief actor in mission, so for Taylor missionary training should focus on the direction of contemplative practices that help with discernment of what the Spirit is doing. If we learn to recognize his actions we shall find him in the life of the world everywhere. Over the last ten years of training with pioneers and also with CMS’s partnership for missional church ‒ a programme to help churches become more mission oriented ‒ I have been struck that this area of contemplative action is now a big focus for us. We might just be catching up with Taylor!

This mission in the world consists in particular of the light that the Spirit shines on Jesus Christ. Taylor loves the world and its people and cultures, loves mission and loves Jesus. I think of these as his three loves. In Part One of the of the book he explores the Spirit in Jesus and in the early church. The Spirit brings a new mode of relationship ‒ an overwhelming sense of being loved as God’s children, being accepted, being adopted, of a closeness with God as the reality of forgiveness and grace comes home. We see that supremely in Jesus’ life.

Part Two is a sort of so what? How does this life of the Spirit affect our lifestyle, our church, our ethics, our interactions with other faiths and our life of prayer? Taylor is brutally honest about the painful reality of the church, which so often doesn’t resemble the Spirit’s life and freedom. He wonders why it is that within one generation new churches often turn gospel freedom into law. He says the church has become institutionalised, become one of the powers it is meant to withstand. But while the church in her rigidity makes various attempts to codify the Spirit, the good news is that the Holy Spirit will not be bound and may even disobey our canons!

In an extraordinary passage that foresees the fresh expressions movement, Taylor goes on to suggest that expressions of church should be as close to the life of people as possible. The ideal shape of church is that which provides the least possible withdrawal of Christians from life in the world. He envisages little congregations that are small enough for mutual awareness and large enough to embody the kingdom in their fellowship. These should not be seen collectively as a halfway house to draw people back into proper church or as an interim structure ‒- they are church. It is also the perfect place to share bread and wine round a coffee table without religiosity, the normal way the majority of Christians can make communion central to their lives. And with a sense of urgency he says he is not talking about twenty years’ time, but now. The Spirit is on the move at the growing edges, and the church should recognize it and make it easy for people by taking away red tape. Too many people view these little congregations as peripheral or subnormal, he says. He imagines the parish like a cathedral or a minster, gathering the varied smaller units so they are not too ingrown. But for him small is normative if the church is to respond to the life of the Spirit in the world. It is a truly remarkable chapter both in its imagining of what has come to pass and of the way the church has continued to struggle with the ‘sin of rigidity’, and we are fifty years on.

Prophets know what time it is, and Taylor is widely recognized as being prophetic. He spent a lot of time with other cultures and religions, reflecting on the place of mission and Christ in relation to them. He sees other religions as traditions of response to the reality the Holy Spirit has set before their eyes, and has such love and respect for them. He has no doubt that Christ is present and wonders what the at-homeness of Christ might look like. He has such freedom and openness to the possibilities that can emerge from inside other cultures and religions, and reminds us that Christ is not the property of Christians. Indeed he worries that we can be a stumbling block. In his provocative way he suggests that religion, including Christianity, can be a way of escaping God, so the Christian faith might need to strip itself of Christian religion! This is certainly a powerful reflection on Western Christianity in a post-colonial world. Relating to the other is one of the pressing questions of our time. This has been foregrounded through the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the US in 2020. It is being highlighted through tighter control of borders with a lot of shameful anti-immigration rhetoric and growing nationalism. The huge disparities between the wealthy and the rest has spun way out of control and created a different kind of othering. The earth herself has been pushed to her limits, perhaps beyond. She too sadly has become other. The notion of the Spirit as the Go Between has a new poignancy and urgency. We need the gift of the Spirit to animate the spaces between us and others to help us to truly be present and to really see one another as we really are, as gift with love, and to see Christ present in the other.

I recently presented a paper on mission at a conference. Prior to writing it I had been reading John Taylor’s newsletters. I began to realize they had an effect on me beyond simply the ideas and imagining in the writing. They gave me a freedom and boldness of speech. In the wake of coronavirus there are many areas of society where people are saying we must not go back to the way we did things before. We need a new normal that requires courage and imagination. Taylor’s writing will help those who sense that this is true for the church and spark such an adventure of the imagination. I hope that as you read The Go Between God you will find freedom and boldness in your own imagining, speech and life. May this book once again inspire us to join in with what the Spirit is doing in the world. Where there is the Spirit of the Lord there is freedom.

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ANVIL journal of theology and mission

Volume 37 issue 2 is out now. The theme is mission and shame, with articles by Sally Nash, Carlton Turner, Judith Rossall, Linda Fletcher, Trevor Withers and Catherine Matlock.

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