Book review: An Interweaving Ecclesiology

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Mark Scanlan, An Interweaving Ecclesiology: The Church, Mission and Young People (London: SCM, 2021)

reviewed by Cathy Ross, Church Mission Society

The book is billed on its back cover as offering “a fresh vision of Christian community as constructed for and by participants as potential ecclesial spaces” to create church. Its focus is on youth ministry, but it has wider appeal as a result of Scanlan’s helpful analysis and suggestions for how to establish a faith community. Scanlan himself declares that the book is about church, mission and young people.

The book is in three parts. The first part is more theoretical, providing a theological and sociological platform for his argument. One of his key missional arguments here is that we must be willing to be led by the young people themselves. We must challenge our own assumptions as to why young people do not affiliate themselves with the church. These are important missiological principles – be attentive to the context, listen to and learn from the locals! The second part develops what Scanlan calls “an interweaving ecclesiology” by presenting us with case studies of two Christian youth groups. This is important work because it is always interesting to see what is happening on the ground in real life, or the lived experience as we now call it. He explores how these groups already have an ecclesial imagination and how that can blossom into a fuller ecclesial life. However, this will be on their terms and with their leading. The final part is a more general analysis and critical conversation between Fresh Expressions, pioneer ministry and the church more generally.

The second part is important for developing his metaphor of an interweaving ecclesiology which I like – it is evocative, visual, and dynamic. It suggests a kind of movement and even disruption as interweaving happens. Scanlan resists setting or creating “solid boundaries” (p.157) perhaps picking up Pete Ward’s metaphor of liquid church. In her recent book, Disclosing Church (Routledge, 2020) Clare Watkins writes about the “edgelessness” of church; she wants to see church as a kind of verbal expression of what church could be rather than in the more static noun form. This is what Scanlan seems to be articulating – that there is a hidden ecclesial discourse within these youth groups that can disrupt and interrupt our usual ways of thinking about church. He argues that church has an inherent fluidity in its very nature, is dynamic and will always be emerging in new spaces, and so requires a kind of ambiguity and porosity. He suggests a kind of reversal in ecclesiology so that instead of beginning with an idea of what church might look like, we wait for the ecclesial life to emerge with the aid and discernment of the Spirit. This begins by people coming to know Christ within that community and allowing the ecclesial space and form to emerge. Scanlan goes on to discuss in some detail the outworkings of these ideas.

The third part takes these ideas further in a conversation around Fresh Expressions and pioneering. I was especially interested in his insights around pioneering, which he believes could release creativity and allow both attentiveness and ambiguity to be embraced. He defines pioneering “as the ability to live in the ambiguity of the interaction of church and not church, in the definitional uncertainty of potential ecclesial spaces” (p.233). He claims that the pioneer can remind us of our own fragility and ambiguity and is one who can bring to light those hidden discourses and spaces where Christ is at work. Scanlan is a fan of ambiguity and picks up on Jonny Baker’s writings on ambiguity and imagination. Baker believes that ambiguity creates space for imagination and that the church needs much more of this. Scanlan agrees and believes that it is through exercising imagination and living with ambiguity and fragility that “new threads might be woven into the tapestry of the church” (p.234). This is an ongoing process – it is never finished.

So, while this is a book born out of experience of being with young people, it has much wider resonance and challenge for all of us. Of course, there is much more. Scanlan looks at the nature of the institution, the role and place of sacraments, the importance of relationships, the place of Scripture, pastoral care and prayer brought into conversation with the practices of actual youth groups. I warmly commend this to anyone interested faith, mission and wondering just what church might be in our times.

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