Simon Barrington-Ward: Anglican Ecclesiology of Grace in Brokenness
Date added: 05/05/2017
Simon Barrington-Ward: Anglican Ecclesiology of Grace in Brokenness
Andy Lord, firstname.lastname@example.org,
Presented originally at the Society for the Study of Theology,
Nottingham, April 2017
The roots of Anglican ecclesiology lie in the conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth century and these are still to the fore in many studies. So Paul Avis argues that an Anglican consensus was achieved at great cost through early conflicts and this then developed in later centuries. Mark Chapman follows a similar historical approach moving from the reformation times to Anglo-Catholic renewal and, briefly, the Anglican Communion. What is notable in these overviews is the speed at which they rush through the twentieth century and the lack of space given to consider the missionary movement which is foundational to the development of the Anglican Communion. It may be due to their focus on so-called mainstream and critical contributions to ecclesiology. Also the increasing concern for mission in Anglican ecclesiology tends to draw on theological or empirical studies in isolation from wider mission studies. This paper seeks to examine the ecclesiology the Anglican missionary leader Simon Barrington-Ward who led the Church Mission Society (CMS) from 1975-85. This is an attractive time to study as it came as the profile of CMS was declining and conflict and change within the Anglican Communion was taking root. The study suggests that Barrington-Ward’s ecclesiology of graceful brokenness is rooted in Anglicanism and yet stretches and challenges aspects of its contemporary ecclesiology.
Although not an academic theologian Barrington-Ward articulates an integrative narrative ecclesiology around key concerns for gospel, community, spirituality and transformation. Running through each of these is the theme of multifaceted grace found in varied broken contexts and this is rooted in a renewed understanding of the gospel. This is a somewhat contextualised gospel that arises from his British evangelical background combined with his encounters with the world church and charismatic renewal. A good way into how Barrington-Ward approaches ecclesiology is by means of an example. In 1980 after his attendance at both the World Council of Churches (WCC) and Lausanne conferences on world mission he writes, starting with a personal story:
The scene was the fringe of a South American city, one of those favelas, bustees, shanty towns which form makeshift outskirts of more and more of the growing cities of the Third World... The man stopped to speak to a group who were working on a dilapidated car. He discovered they were Pentecostal Christians, helping each other through sharing the little they had and their individual skills. They invited him in to one of the shacks to join in the Breaking of Bread. One of the workers donned a simple white robe and there, with children peeping in through the window, my friend was welcomed into the kingdom of Jesus in the midst with simple and joyful dignity and courtesy. Here was the heart of that little group’s caring and sharing: they knew more than any of us the secret of the gospel.
Here we have faith, community, spirituality and transformation all together in a fragile context with the gospel summarising what is happening.
Barrington-Ward argues for an integrating gospel that revolves around the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here the evangelical focus on the cross becomes an appreciation of the brokenness of the world seen in those who live on the fringes and margins of poverty and exclusion. It is in places of the cross that the resurrection is experienced in forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and, above all, grace. The gospel is about resurrection in places of the cross: about the fullness of grace in brokenness. This will sound familiar to readers of Michael Ramsey who argued that the meaning of the church becomes most clear when studied in terms of the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is in dying and rising with Christ that the meaning of the church is found. For both Barrington-Ward and Ramsey the church is imperfect and this relates to the cross. Ramsey goes on from the Cross to consider questions of unity and institution from his Anglo-Catholic perspective whereas Barrington-Ward pauses to consider mission communities in a world context, checking the rush to institutional questions and giving greater space to speak of resurrection grace.
The renewed gospel must be lived out in small communities and it is here that Barrington-Ward situates the church. This arises out of his experience of such communities in post-war Berlin, post-colonial and revival touched Nigeria, charismatic renewal in Cambridge, and mission training in Birmingham. In a world often divided by a focus on individualism or dictatorship, the Christian vision is of a personal experience of grace that is “never merely individual. Far from it. It is the very motive energy that will bring into being and multiply groups, communities, ‘cells of dissent’, of the kind which alone will serve to transform society.” These are comprised of people who are “unlike,” former Nazis and those resisting Hitler in Berlin, those from different tribes in Nigeria and different cultures in Birmingham. Yet there is still a “family likeness,” which Barrington-Ward describes as a “transfiguration in an extraordinary mingling of suffering and joy.” It is an “energy of the Spirit” that brings “that lovely balance, the equipose of grace” in which there is a “juxtaposition of opposed qualities miraculously fused.” It is the Christ-like face of those living the gospel in community that transformed Barrington-Ward’s faith.
This Christ-like community that is personal and corporate does not arrive at this ideal without a process of transfiguration that is empowered by the Spirit of grace. It is not separate from our brokenness but rather it is through “our very weakness, failure and sadness, our emptiness, the Spirit flows, the light breaks. We will learn to live solely from grace, until ‘grace upon grace’ surprises us.” Here we see the classic Anglican focus on contextual communities, which is expressed in the Church of England through the connected parish system. One of the contemporary debates is as to whether the parish system should be central to Anglican ecclesiology or discarded altogether. Barrington-Ward would seem to side with the latter but we need to take care of his context and concerns. He is writing out of an engagement with world Anglicanism rather than the Church of England and this maintains a concern for the local and contextual, sometimes called the parish principle, without parish structures. He also speaks of how love connects differing people in communities and also connects different communities together within the kingdom of God. So Barrington-Ward, who was shaped within the parish system, represents more of a transformational approach that speaks of varied community and connections in love rather than parishes. This avoids both the temptation of forcing uniformity on to church life and of leaving communities isolated from each other.
In more recent years Barrington-Ward has become known for his teaching on spirituality, particularly on the practice of the Jesus Prayer. In stillness the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” is repeated as a way of deepening experience of the Presence of God. Although personal it is also something communal and he discovered it in a corporate setting in a Russian Orthodox monastery in Essex. It is also something that connects with the experience of brokenness in the world and Barrington-Ward found the prayer as he sought a deeper way of prayer having “so many glimpses of the way people were living and striving and suffering... some kind of universal struggle... at every level in my life and in whole of human society.” He understands this in terms of Romans 8 and “a kind of passion of the Holy Spirit, God himself, suffering and yearning within us as we struggle in our weakness.” There is an underlying pneumatology of love and passion that spans the world and history. Christians are drawn by this Spirit to learn “the lesson of the Cross” that holds all things together. This is a spirituality of cross and resurrection, brokenness and grace that Barrington-Ward increasingly sees as a process of Spirit-enabled theosis and new creation for all.
This spirituality focused on the Jesus prayer is practiced in individual and communal settings alongside Bible study and existing liturgical forms, particularly the Eucharist. Its integration with a view of God’s work in the wider world is resonant with some Anglo-Catholic traditions of renewal in which communities shaped by liturgy transform social realities in the wider world. The theme of brokenness was significant for F.D. Maurice who spoke of the catholicity of the Church being discerned in and through the church’s brokenness. Liturgy and life come together in community with social impact in the wider community. Barrington-Ward contributes to this from an evangelical and charismatic perspective, pointing the way to a pneumatological and ecumenical approach that complements Anglican liturgy with a shared contemplative discipline. It also begins to link spirituality, community and discipleship in ways that were developing through his friend David Watson if taking them both in a more Orthodox direction.
Ecclesiology is set, for Barrington-Ward, within a world movement of the Spirit in which grace is transforming in brokenness. How is this worked out in ecclesial practices? Here we might expect more than we get! Rather than an emphasis on social, political and peace initiatives Barrington-Ward focuses on prayer and witness through community. Spirituality and world transformation overlap in the practice of intercession which is “a remembering of people and situations within the Presence, a discovering of them deep in the heart of the love of God in which we have become immersed.” It should embrace our enemies and so change the approach in places of division. This prayerful way of being should also give rise to a “spontaneous communication” that seeks to share “the one source of all compassion and delight,” Jesus. Communities of the unlike with deep spirituality witness to and share the transformation that is possible in Christ. There is an assumption that social, political and peace work only make sense if embodied in transformed communities.
A translation approach to contextualisation is assumed where a core gospel is planted and grown in different contexts through community. Developing outside England this approach has been applied here more recently through the Fresh Expressions initiative. There are a number of weaknesses with this approach, particularly in its focus on a pure message prior to or separate from an embodied faith. Yet for Barrington-Ward there is a contextualisation to the message and the focus on core elements enables him to recognise that “religious systems are not total systems.” There is a need to engage with the varieties of faith that are shaped by, but not precisely defined by, core commitments and beliefs. This also allows a greater admission of weakness and brokenness in the Western church and encourages an approach to world transformation from a place of gracious trust rather than powerful dominance. As Barrington-Ward notes, “we are all minorities now” and so have to be vulnerable and trusting in God’s leading. The issue of changing power systems is a significant one in his ecclesiology and has wider relevance today.
Whilst valuing and being responsible for institutional structures it should be clear by now that these were not primary concerns in Barrington-Ward’s ecclesiology. In Vincent Turner’s terminology he focuses on communitas whilst appreciating how structure can enable this. Speaking at the opening of the Centre for Anglican Communion studies Barrington-Ward notes how the occasion “speaks to the strangely ambiguous feelings that I have... in response to the notion of Anglicanism. Like all our inheritances from the mixed and shadowed history of the Church it is a vessel containing a strange fusion of what is richly good and nourishing combined with what is alas sinful and has a bitter aftertaste.” The Anglican church is seen as a broken church that often gives in to destructive extremes and hinders mission. Yet it is also a place of grace inasmuch as it is able to surrender its life to God that it may be remade. The testimony of his friend Janani Luwum, later a martyr in Uganda, pointed Barrington-Ward to the reality of this. Individuals, churches, denominations and communions need to “die to live” in the redemptive way of Christ. This is enabled through personal sharing across world churches. Barrington-Ward was a pioneer in developing such “interchange” programmes, particularly in enabling mission in Britain. These fell short of a more global CMS, less dependant upon Western leadership, but marked a change in that direction.
Barrington-Ward muses that perhaps “the real significance of the Anglican church lies in this, that it is, of all denominations, the most obviously provisional, the most apt for death, or indeed, as I must then say, for life through death.” It is here that he touches on the wider theme of provisionality in Anglican ecclesiology. Historically the Church of England was provisional in the sense that it never saw itself as the church universal but rather something that awaits a better universality in the future. This has sometimes prevented Anglican ecclesial development – why bother if it will become something else in the end. Yet it has also been the motivation for seeing the church as something humble, “ever hoping to express something of the gospel of Christ.” Barrington-Ward combines humility and faithfulness to the gospel of Christ with living the way of the gospel: a way that will allow for the unmaking of existing denominations and communions before they are remade more like Christ. A radical ecclesiology that has perhaps reached its moment as the Church of England struggles to face a “good death” in the hope of renewal.
This brief study of Barrington-Ward highlights some of the key Anglican concerns that he shares: for the gospel, local context, liturgy, social concern and institutions. Yet it is clear that he seeks a movement of grace that transforms these in their broken realities. The gospel is not so much a message or pattern so much as a lived experience of grace discovered in brokenness. The essential reality of parish life is a community rooted in contexts of the broken, of different nationalities and faiths. Liturgical practice is placed within a world-wide movement of the Spirit experienced as glimpses of grace within the groaning world. World transformation is motivated from spiritual integrity with an acknowledgement that Christians often speak from a minority position in contrast to some historically formed assumptions in Anglicanism. The provisionality of Anglicanism is deepened into the radical way of life through death.
Theologically we might articulate Barrington-Ward’s ecclesiology as rooted in a pneumatology of loving movement and a Christology of the personal and incarnate One both shaped around themes of brokenness and grace. This resonates with the work of Dan Hardy, particularly in his exploration of a “moving ecclesiology.” It is an approach that brings a challenge to Anglican ecclesiologies that avoid the theme of brokenness. These might be the idealised blueprint ecclesiologies that Nicholas Healy notes or simply those that stress the goodness of past or the glories of pioneering forms of church. An unchanging parish system and a “new is better” fresh expression would both receive critique. The theme of grace is also vital, challenging some approaches that analyse the brokenness without giving equal weight to the grace that is changing things. A question posed might be: how are all forms of church broken and how might the Spirit be graciously leading us to Christ that they may be remade? The emphasis on God’s active grace strengthens a hopeful journey through such questions to see renewed Christian communities engaged in mission in the world.
This brief study illustrates the importance of including more recent evangelical, charismatic and Orthodox contributions to Anglican ecclesiology. Barrington-Ward was very much of his time and developed themes prevelant in his immediate predecessors. Yet he also paved the way for later developments including Fresh Expressions. His ecclesiology of graceful brokenness still has much to contribute to and challenge wider contemporary questions in Anglican mission and ecclesiology.
Revd Dr Andy Lord is Rector of three churches in the Diocese of Southwell & Nottingham. He is the author of Transforming Renewal, Network Church and Spirit-Shaped Mission.
Paul Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (T&T Clark, 2008).
Mark Chapman, “The Church,” in The Vocation of Anglican Theology, ed. Ralph McMichael (London: SCM, 2014), 201–53.
The contemporary studies of Martyn Percy, Pete Ward and Robin Greenwood are characteristic of this engagement with mission.
Usual studies of CMS focus understandably on Max Warren and John V Taylor who preceded Barrington-Ward.
Simon Barrington-Ward, Love Will Out (Basingstoke: Marshall Morgan and Scott, 1988), 43.
Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, reprint, 1956 (London: SPCK, 1990), vi.
Barrington-Ward, Love Will Out, 38,65–66.
Simon Barrington-Ward, Why God? reprint, 1993 (Oxford: Lion, 1997).
Barrington-Ward, Love Will Out, 63.
Andrew Davison and Alison Milbank, For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions (London: SCM, 2010), 144–69.
Simon Barrington-Ward, The Jesus Prayer (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 1996), 8–12.
Barrington-Ward, Love Will Out, 97,21.
Simon Barrington-Ward, Jesus Prayer and the Great Exchange, Grove Spirituality Series 124 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2013), 17–19,23.
Jeremy Morris, “Building Community: Anglo-Catholicism and Social Action,” in Generous Ecclesiology: Church, World and the Kingdom of God, ed. Julie Gittoes, Brutus Green, and James Heard (London: SPCK, 2016), 39–64.
David Watson, Discipleship (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1983); Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, reprint, 1980 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989).
This is perhaps not a unique problem in Anglican theology from William Temple to the 1980s as noted in Malcolm Brown, et al., Anglican Social Theology: Renewing the Vision Today (London: Church House Publishing, 2014).
Barrington-Ward, Love Will Out, 33.
His approach to Israel-Palestine is instructive here, Barrington-Ward, Love Will Out, 73–90.
Barrington-Ward, Love Will Out, 40.
On models of contextualisation see Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, Revised Ed. (New York: Orbis, 2002). Graham Cray oftens speaks about a translation approach and this found its way into Mission-Shaped Church. On this see Graham Cray, From Here to Where? - the Culture of the Nineties, Board of Mission Occasional Paper, no. 3 (London: Board of Mission, 1992) and the later Archbishops Council, Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context (London: Church House Publishing, 2004).
Barrington-Ward, Love Will Out, 127.
Simon Barrington-Ward, “Dying to Live: The Vocation of Anglicanism,” ANVIL 12, no. 2 (1995): 106–7.
John Clark, “CMS and Mission in Britain: The Evolution of a Policy,” in The Church Mission Society and World Christianity, 1799–1999, eds Keith Ward and Brian Stanley (Cambridge: Eerdmanns, 2000), 335–41.
Tim Dakin was later to encourage the development of related CMS agencies in others countries with local leadership. It is arguable that not addressing structures leaves unjust inequalities to remain when they should be challenged.
Barrington-Ward, “Dying to Live,” 107–8.
Chapman, “The Church,” 221,230.
How we theologically think about ecclesial death without being accused of giving up or being overly negative is a challenge that many churches face. See John P. Bradbury, “Towards a Theology of the Death of the Church,” Theology 117, no. 4 (2014): 249–55.
Daniel W. Hardy, Deborah Hardy Ford, Peter Ochs, and David F. Ford, Wording a Radiance: Parting Conversations on God and the Church (London: SCM, 2010), 86–93.
Nicholas M. Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Graham Kings, “Mission and the Meeting of Faiths: The Theologies of Max Warren and John V. Taylor,” in The Church Mission Society and World Christianity, 1799–1999, eds Keith Ward and Brian Stanley (Cambridge: Eerdmanns, 2000), 285–318.