Fading Splendour? A new model of renewal

John Finney: DLT 2000, 177 pp £10.95 ISBN 0 232 52286 3

Despite its title, this book is not a lament for the vanishing glories of the institutional church, but an excellent analysis of how renewals develop and what they leave behind them. It puts forward an innovative model for renewal, tests this against historic examples and produces a whole raft of practical conclusions.

As an Anglican Bishop, Finney has the Church of England in his sights. He is a bit hard on the New Churches and rather gloomy in his references to Methodism, but what he writes is applicable to any pluralist denomination with a mix of evangelical and other traditions and it will ring bells for many Methodists. He identifies two distinct strands of renewal, one that leaves its parent mainstream denomination and one that stays inside. Both strands pass through stages that include conflict, networking with other renewal groups, self-definition, divergence and then, interestingly, restoring communications with those outside the renewal movement.

The key point for Headline readers is a further stage. The strand that leaves the mainstream will tend to fragment or become institutionalised as a new denomination. But those who stay within their parent body begin to exercise a major influence in drawing their whole church or denomination towards renewal: '... the direction of the whole church is changed. The renewal becomes the rudder for the whole ship'.

Evidence is taken from a carefully chosen spread of historic renewals to support the thesis and lessons are learned from each: the early church’s Jewish roots, Cluny and the monastic movement, the Reformation, the American ‘awakenings’ and contemporary renewal. To me, this approach is far more telling than those (for example Mark Stibbe’s Revival) that draw predominantly from the past 300 years, omitting the greater part of Christian history. Not only is this enlightenment/modernist timeline very limited, but it is unlikely to be the best comparator for today’s postmodern era.

Finney’s assessment is painstaking and scholarly but, because it is testing a thesis against history, it tends to look backwards rather than forwards, so you may feel there are more pressing matters. Or you might be tempted to sigh 'Oh no, not another history of renewal/revival'. But this would miss three important points.

First is Finney’s finding that all renewals tend to return to the routine ('Why do cups of tea always become lukewarm?'). We should recognise that this is simply how God and we are, and not spend time in nostalgia trips back to the Holy Spirit’s more spectacular interventions. But this important issue calls for far more than the five pages of his closing chapter 'Does the splendour have to fade?'. Second is the encouragement that we can gain from the demonstrated thesis that those who stay within their parent denomination are not a loyal minority swimming forever against the stream, but tend to bring about a much greater change than they could ever have realised. Third, by rooting ourselves in the setting of a historic and recurring phenomenon, we can see more clearly where our own situation is going and act accordingly.

Reviewed by Charles Freebury, lay missioner in South Petherton and Crewekerne Circuit

Headline Autumn 2003 p.25&27