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Sharing Friendship – Exploring Anglican Character, Vocation, Witness & Mission

Author: John B Thompson
Published By: Ashgate
Pages: 208
Price: £60
ISBN: 978 1 4724 5452 2

Reviewed by Edward Carter.

I was excited to get my hands on this book for two reasons: first, Thomson does his theology very much in the shadow of Stanley Hauerwas, whose influence over the church has grown steadily during the past twenty years, but with a particular emphasis on Anglicanism; and second, I had already enjoyed reading Thomson’s work in a collection looking at ‘ordinary theology’ edited by Jeff Astley and published by Ashgate in 2013 (Exploring Ordinary Theology). I was particularly interested to see how these two strands might be viewed together and perhaps synthesized into a significant new understanding.

Thomson himself is now Bishop of Selby in the Diocese of York, and has a ministry background in Africa and Yorkshire. In the Hauerwas tradition of theology, he is never afraid to use real examples from ministry situations (see especially pp.163-174) as he expounds his theme, which is that friendship, in particular for the stranger, is fundamental to scripture and to the life of the church. In fact, every one of the twelve chapters as well as the conclusion includes the word ‘Friendship’ in its title.

I suspect each reader will find different sections to be of particular interest. I enjoyed chapter 3 (Friendship as Discipleship), which looks at the theme of apprenticeship. However, I did wonder what a section addressing ‘Friendship as Apostleship’ might have looked like, had one been included. Chapter 4 (Friendship as Worship) was also of interest, setting out clearly the standard Hauerwasian account of worship as the basis for Christian ethics, as represented so splendidly in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics.

In general, each chapter can stand alone, as the footnotes reveal. Thomson essentially takes the work of a well-known theologian (John Milbank in chapter 6, Oliver O’Donovan in chapter 7, Rowan Williams in chapter 8), and then reviews what they have said. I found myself hoping for more of Thomson’s own voice than was actually allowed to emerge. However, each individual chapter could therefore serve as an introductory review of the theologian in question, and this is one way in which the book could be useful, perhaps as introductory reading for theological college students or researchers.

Chapter 9 includes Thomson’s section on ‘ordinary theology’, now a recognized and, I believe, significant sub-discipline. I had been hoping for some significant new insights, but was slightly disappointed to find only a review of Jeff Astley’s work (pp.110-112). For me this sums up the limitations of Thomson’s book, which at times felt like a very extended review article, themed on ‘friendship’. However, as such it has many gems within it, and perhaps more importantly Thomson’s ability to draw together a Hauerwasian focus on the church with a serious place for the Bible and a strong sense of history results in a powerful theological combination. I particularly liked Thomson’s comment in his preface, that “the Scriptures and the story act as critical checks on any pretentions of the church to see itself as a sufficient theological resource.” (p.ix). This is Thomson at his boldest – Hauerwas would not have written in this way – and perhaps he might allow his own voice to develop, untrammelled by footnotes, in some future work with the significant new insights I was hoping for.

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You are reading Issue 66 of Ministry Today, published in March 2016.

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