Being the Church in the Contemporary World
- ISBN: 9780334058137
- Published By: Hymns Ancient & Modern
- Published: May 2019
The initial temptation when encountering Helen Morris’ Flexible Church: Being the Church in the Contemporary World is to dismiss it as yet another title that makes a case for why churches need to adapt to an ever-changing world and how new ways of being church, from café churches to Denver’s renowned House of All Sinners and Saints, represent the church of the future. Fortunately, Flexible Church presents a much more rigorous theological reflection than such oversimplified characterizations. The timing of the book is quite appropriate in the author’s context. The Anglican primates of England, Archbishops Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell, recently endorsed initiatives for planting lay-led churches as a way for the church to witness to a new generation. That the endorsement led to mixed reactions illuminates the importance of engaging theological issues underpinning both established models of church and newer, more enterprising reconstructions of church. Hence the importance of Morris’ book.
The book is divided into two parts. The shorter first part, comprising chapters 1–3, defines and describes the nature of a recontextual church. For Morris, recontextual church is primarily Western, free church–oriented, ecumenical, trinitarian, missional, holistic, and emergent. As emergent, recontextual ecclesiologies aim to manifest God’s kingdom into a “postmodern, post-Christendom, consumerist, technologized, globalized, individualized, [and] networked culture” (7). An important implied characteristic of recontextual churches is their pragmatism, which Morris folds into her description of “emergent.” Hence, ministry in this ecclesiological movement is closely attentive to the complexities of daily living.
But among the difficulties of emergent churches are their lack of a robust ecclesiology and their theological inconsistencies. Although each of these ecclesiological dimensions raises important questions regarding anthropology, spirituality, technology, and other areas, Morris suggests that the ecclesiological base of the movement is rooted in social trinitarianism, to which she argues that grounding ecclesiology in Paul’s “body of Christ” metaphor addresses the fragility of the movement without compromising its facility with engaging culture.
Morris fleshes out her thesis in detail in the second part, comprising chapters 4–6, by using the metaphor of the church as “a suspension bridge characterized by gift-exchange” (69). The suspension bridge illustrates the various tensions that a flexible church needs to hold together. Standing between the anchorages of the church’s received traditions and the eschatological “not yet” (that is, the church’s hope in its fulfillment in Christ), the church/bridge is supported by cables of authentic spirituality that are connected to the main cable, representing the fully immanent and transcendent God. Critical to that spirituality is gift exchange, a recognition of the church’s giftedness from God and a commitment to reciprocate in gratitude to God, the church community, and the world. The church/bridge’s engagement with the world is maintained through a dialectical tension between institutional and networked stability and the need to be flexible in addressing cultural resonances.
Morris’ reflections in Flexible Church take into account how the attributes that make church church oftentimes exist in constant tension and engagement with one another. This sentiment is not new. One can ascertain this dialectic in the ecclesiologies of theologians such as Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin, and, more recently, Herman Bavinck and—of course—Karl Barth. The book’s contribution to the discussion is to bring those dialectical considerations to bear on churches that do not fit neatly, or even at all, within institutionalized frameworks and to show that classical Christian tradition is not antithetical to contextualization.
The primary issues that arise, however, come from a seeming disconnect between Morris’ theological reflection and the church movement she is writing about. For one, Morris assumes that recontextual churches are well-known to readers. Hence, any knowledge of the recontextual movement beyond her description of it comes from only two citations of Gerardo Martí and Gladys Ganiel’s The Deconstructed Church (Oxford University Press, 2014). She does not make use of quotations from interviews or important insights from Martí and Ganiel, which is unfortunate, since not only would the voices from those within the movement have made the recontextual churches more real to the reader, but also readers would actually get to understand, for instance, how social trinitarianism makes sense from insider perspectives.
Second, an important aspect of the pragmatic ecclesiology that recontextual churches have adopted is that the liturgies, sermons, and fellowship activities all address concretely the people’s lived realities. The question this poses to Morris is, What does her vision of a more balanced ecclesiology, one that respects tradition’s classical christocentric and trinitarian foundations while being flexible enough to address the concrete challenges of our times, look like in reality? What would have made this book extremely relevant for the recontextual churches would be an ethnography or other concrete examples of churches that are both recontextual and respectful of the classical doctrine of the Trinity. If not an ethnography, at least a proposal for what a flexible church may look like would be illustrative. What might Seattle’s Church of the Apostles or the Shetland’s Messy Church look like by taking up Morris’ flexible ecclesiology?
The image of the suspension bridge that comprises much of the book’s constructive work in part 2 is both helpful and not helpful. On the one hand, a suspension bridge certainly illustrates the different tensions that make it perform its function. This could be pedagogically useful for more visual learners. On the other hand, however, because the focus of the book is on placing different theological concepts in dialectical tension with each other and showing how the body-of-Christ metaphor best allows that tension to happen, the significance of the suspension bridge recedes into the book’s background. The bridge metaphor is perhaps not necessary, seeing as the predominant metaphor that Morris draws on is that of the body of Christ. Still, Flexible Church reminds readers of the complexities of churchly structures and existence. Instead of oversimplifying them, it courageously deconstructs aspects of being church in these interesting times. Instructors in ecclesiology or practical theology courses will find the book useful as a text, but may want to accompany it with case studies or examples of churches that represent the flexibility Morris describes.
Henry Kuo is assistant professor of theology and ethics at Greensboro College in Greensboro, North Carolina.Henry KuoDate Of Review:January 15, 2022