Accompaniment, Community and Nature by Jonathan Herbert (Jessica Kingsley, 2020)
This is a powerful and challenging book. It offers the wisdom of a Church of England priest who has used his life to reach beyond the comfort boundaries of the way that we tend to do church in the UK to find wisdom in others’ traditions. It is especially strong in rediscovering the healing power of community life, reminding us of what we in the West have lost for the most part.
Herbert’s clerical career started as a curate in a rough area, where his ‘training incumbent’ – notable for the lack of material that was obviously training – effectively taught him to engage with the local people of the parish, to learn to accompany. After a stint as a team vicar in another deprived area, where his willingness to refuse to pay the Poll Tax led to a confrontation with both his Team Rector and the government, he became leader of the Pilsdon community. This is group of people who offer hospitality to many struggling with mental health issues, seeing remarkable change as a result of engagement in the community; a friend who was struggling with depression to the point of at least one suicide attempt, spent some time there and was substantially restored to a good place. An important element is the role of strict boundaries; ‘guests’ are expected to be remain drug and alcohol free, to refrain from violence, and work in the farm that is the heart of the place. A surprising element is that the rules also require attendance at meals – an insight that encourages engagement with others. The boundaries were enforced by an active willingness to exclude guests who broke the rules – either for a temporary period or permanently; Herbert argues that this ensures that the community remains a safe place, able to do its job. It is interesting to note that a similar willingness to exclude for the benefit of others is seldom seen in the life of the church. A feature of his time there was a positive outcome to a public meeting process about opening a half way house for Pilsdon guests seeking to return to urban life. The meeting’s starting point was fear of the presence of ‘these people’ in the nice area where the house was to be located; the turning point came when the local police officer referred to the local ‘crack house’ which the law was unable to touch; the final outcome was a willingness by many to engage and the house being accepted.
After Pilsdon he, and his family, moved on to Hillfield Priory, a Franciscan (SSF) house. Between the two, Herbert walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain; here he learnt the power of the shared experience and opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with those walking with you. Other involvements have included time in the Solomon Island, where he was impressed at the way people worked together to get things done without the need to active supervision, a period in Uganda seeking to help enable reconciliation of pastoralists and farmers by the establishment of mixed communities, and Palestine, where the contrast of community life among the Arabs was in marked contrast to the individualism, typical of a Western mindset, he felt was displayed by Israeli settlers. Currently he is ‘Church of England chaplain to Gypsies and Travellers in Dorset and Wiltshire’, where his focus is to become involved in the life of those marginalised groups ‘accompanying’. Most recently he has also become active in climate crisis campaigning, getting arrested for ‘Extinction Rebellion’ inspired civil disobedience. This he presents with a spiritual dimension, offering Francis’ concern for the natural world, and his appreciation of ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Moon’, the value of physical labour, especially farming, as engagement with ‘Mother Earth’.
And yet, and yet
Is he teaching the ‘whole counsel of God’? Is he fulfilling the instruction: ‘make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’. Is he a minister of God declaring His forgiveness to penitent sinners, or is he merely offering a better way of being human by living together well? Are people finding God real in their lives? Is the cross being proclaimed as the source of God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness? Do people end up being ‘guided by the Spirit’? Do they come to ‘know God’? Is he truly a prophet of God declaring His word, or is he merely a wise man sharing human wisdom – ‘common grace’? Is he so earthly minded that he is no heavenly good?
Herbert confesses to a dislike of fundamentalism, rejecting the certainty that it proclaims. However such a belief – as with all relativism – is logically incoherent; relativists have an absolute belief that there is no absolute truth, believing that there is no absolute truth as an absolute truth. This is a comfortable place to be, allowing one to bat away hard questions about ‘why you believe?’; you can pick the beliefs you like and discard the stuff you find problematic. At some point this becomes a marriage to the zeitgeist – and will leave its proponent revealed as having chosen an idol over ‘the God who made heaven and earth’. ‘We have a gospel to proclaim’: will we be found, on judgement day, to have been declaring ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’? Herbert does talk about our society’s failure to engage with death – making the interesting point that the growing tendency towards memorial services, in the absence of the body of the deceased, avoid the issue. Yet without Jesus’ death and resurrection as the reason for true hope for the next world – for ‘if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied’ – as well as this. Yet Herbert offers, at least in the book, no clarity about what follows death.
As I said: this is a powerful and challenging book. It offers the insights of a person who has helped many towards healing, and perspectives that rightly challenge much of what passes for religion in the West. It elegantly presents the currently fashionable theology of a large sector of the Church of England. There is much good in it – yet ultimately it fails to offer the living Jesus.