Doug Gay – Remixing the Church: Towards an Emerging Ecclesiology, Book Review

imageLast month I posted about Doug Gay’s examination of the relationship between the ecumenical movement and the emerging church, as put forward in his new book, Remixing the Church: Towards an Emerging Ecclesiology (SCM Press, 2011).

Gay’s insightful and original treatment of this matter, almost entirely overlooked in the popular and academic literature on the emerging church, is just one reason why this book deserves a wide and careful reading.

Gay is a Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Glasgow and a Church of Scotland minister. He has been involved with the development of emerging communities the Late, Late Service and Host, so he writes both as an activist and a scholar, making his theology particularly practical and readable for the non-academic theologians among us.

He describes the book as ‘a provisional attempt to theorize the concept of ‘Emerging Church’, a term which he admits ‘may be … very close to the end … as a useful term for the Church’ (p. xi) He prefers to talk about what he calls ‘the Church: Emerging’ (p. xiii):

I prefer to speak of ‘the Church: Emerging’, as a conscious attempt to re-weight the term towards ecclesiology – the Christian practice of reflecting on the nature and practice of Church.’

I’m not sure that the Church: Emerging is going to catch on – the words just seem clunky to me compared to ‘the emerging church.’

But I can appreciate Gay’s foregrounding of ecclesiology, which he helpfully defines as ‘the Church’s practice of critical theological reflection upon its own practice’ (p.xiv).

And I can understand his exasperation with the ‘debate’ over the emerging church label (he says he is ‘bored … with … the promotion and criticism,’) p. xi. The term also seems to be falling out of favour with some in the movement, as noted in James Bielo’s book Emerging Evangelicals (another on the list to be reviewed on this blog!).

Gay’s treatment of the history of the Church: Emerging, grounded as it is in a UK context, brings something to the table that other studies of the emerging church lack – especially studies which focus on its American expressions.

And what Gay brings is a broader perspective on the context and influences that have contributed to the development of the movement. Like other writers and scholars, Gay correctly sees it as emerging in large part from evangelicalism, or more broadly, Low Church Protestantism (LCP).

In my own research on Ikon, which can be considered a Northern Irish expression of the emerging church, I also have argued that it is emerging from, and therefore critiquing, evangelicalism.

But as I explained in my earlier post, Gay argues that the ecumenical movement also has been significant in this process, helping:

‘to create a context in which low church Protestants … felt freer to critique their own tradition and to experiment with the insights and practices of other Christian traditions.’

Added to this, Gay explores the importance of the charismatic renewal and the liturgical movement, in addition to Vatican II. For him, Vatican II has helped to ease tensions between Catholics and Protestants, again creating a context in which those all-important Low Church Protestants feel more comfortable interacting with the more ancient expressions of the Christian faith.

Gay illustrates this with a Northern Irish-based story on the very first page of the first chapter of the book (‘When Were You Robbed? – Auditing’) about how encounters with the ‘other’ have shaped the Church: Emerging. I can’t resist sharing it (p. 1-2):

… I love the story told by Belfast-based Presbyterian minister and writer Steve Stockman about a cross-community project in which Protestant and Roman Catholic young people visited one another’s places of worship as part of a reconciliation programme of encounter and exchange. The visit to the Roman Catholic chapel having duly taken place, the young people headed off to the Presbyterian church. As they all filed in, one young Catholic boy looked around in surprise and said: ‘When were you robbed?’

… the first stage of emergence was marked by a move I will call ‘auditing’ – a reflexive moment reached within our own development as low church Protestants. As in the Belfast story, this was provoked by experiences and encounters that challenged us to look and listen beyond the limits and boundaries of our own tradition.

Auditing is just one of the five key ‘moves’ that he sees the Church: Emerging undertaking. If I am reading him correctly, Gay interprets these moves as vital to a re-formation of Christian practice and sensibility not all that different from the Reformation (an argument taken up more pointedly in Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence). There is a chapter devoted to each of the five moves, which are:

  • Auditing
  • Retrieval
  • Unbundling
  • Supplementing
  • Remixing

The chapter on remixing is of course an important one, given that ‘Remixing the Church’ is the title Gay gives his book and it is in this chapter that he ‘ventures a definition’ of the emerging church, which I shared in my earlier post.

What intrigues me about this definition is its emphasis on a DIY-style grassroots ecumenism, which sees the Church: Emerging as ‘… a set of possibilities, which will be performed in very different ways in different locations.’

So ‘Remixing the Church’ means to draw on resources from a rich variety of Christian traditions, in an effort to live more authentically as Christians.

This does not mean that emerging Christians are engaging in syncretism, a watering-down of historic doctrines, or making the church ‘fit’ into a post-modern, relativistic milieu.

As Gay demonstrates expertly in this book, if (as?) the emerging church as we know it disappears, its contribution to global Christianities may be more important than we now think.

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