3. Review of 'Imagining Mission with John V. Taylor'
by Graham Kings
Date added: 16/11/2020
This review was commissioned, and accepted for publication in 2021, by the journal Modern Believing
Imagining Mission with John V. Taylor by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross (SCM Press, 2020)
In his Foreword to David Wood’s major biography of Bishop John V. Taylor, Poet, Priest and Prophet (CTBI, 2002), Rowan Williams declared:
[He] has had an impact on Anglicans and those of other Christian traditions in recent decades comparable only to that of Archbishop Michael Ramsey. Both men represented an exhilarating largeness of spirit and imagination; they made you believe that this largeness was the native air of Christians, and that to live in such an atmosphere was the most desirable thing in the world.
18 years later, Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross have revivified Taylor’s prophetic legacy in their astute book, though strangely without mentioning Wood’s earlier biography.
The authors work for the Church Mission Society, which Taylor led from 1963-74 before becoming Bishop of Winchester. Baker is Director of Mission Education, and is an entrepreneurial, postmodern, imaginative, and thoughtful practitioner. Ross, is Head of Pioneer Mission Leadership, and is an eminent contextual theologian and missiologist. In some ways, the book is a advertisement for their programme at CMS, backed up by Taylor’s insights.
Hence the word ‘with’, in the title, is important, implying accompaniment. They both have discovered the significance of Taylor relatively recently and pass on their excitement. They often point out the joy of noticing that Taylor had got there first and had pondered their own thinking 50 years before them.
The three parts, with two chapters each, echo the three words of the society they serve: ‘Church’ by Baker; ‘Mission’ by Ross; and ‘Society’ by them both, one chapter on the environment - updating for today Taylor’s Enough is Enough (SCM, 1975) - by Baker, and one on relationships with people of other faiths, by Ross. At the end of each chapter, before the end notes, Baker has written a series of helpful questions and provocative suggestions, ‘Exercising Creativity’.
The book draws not so much on Taylor’s books, as his travel diaries, which several years ago were lent to Ross by his daughter, Joanne Woodd, and his CMS Newsletters, which were profound monthly theological and missiological reflections.
While being careful to provide some caveats, the authors clearly prefer the pioneer model to the parish system: ‘Slay the sacred cow [of the parish system] and see where that leads you in your thinking’, writes Baker, (p. 20). It would have been interesting to see him engage, with Andrew Rumsey’s seminal book Parish (SCM, 2017).
Baker expounds Taylor’s stress on innovation in training, in his January 1974 CMS Newsletter, but omits to mention his recruiting of Simon Barrington-Ward to found, and be the first warden of, ‘Crowther Hall’ in Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, the CMS training college.
Baker outlines seven behaviours which allow art to flourish – imagination, provocation, risk, rigour, ambiguity, agency, and resilience - as described by Bob and Roberta Smith, Edmund de Waal et al in The Creative Stance (Common Editions, 2016): he then intriguingly applies them to training for mission.
Ross deftly develops Taylor’s evocative phrase, ‘cherish the weakness of limited means’, which will be increasingly relevant during the Covid pandemic.
Ross quotes Taylor’s appreciation of Temple Gairdner, the CMS missionary scholar in Cairo: ‘We always needs the song note in our message to Muslims not the dry cracked note of disputation, but the song note of joyous witness, tender invitation.’ CMS Newsletter 376 (Dec 1973).
A couple of helpful additions may have been: mention of Taylor’s 1977 Lambeth Lecture, ‘The Theological Basis of Interfaith Dialogue’, International Review of Mission 68 (Dec 1979) pp. 212-33; and a short bibliography of his works, including the key report produced by the Church of England Doctrine Commission, which he chaired, Believing in the Church (SPCK, 1981).
This apposite book is well worth buying, because, as Ross pertinently states, it engages in ‘riffing on John Taylor’ because ‘there is so much wisdom to draw on.’ (p. 84) It encourages the reader to follow on in the adventure of ‘immersion, imagination and improvisation’ (pp. 150-151) exhibited by Taylor and by its authors.