The Episcopal Diocese of  
of Western Massachusetts


 Canon Richard M. Simpson

                December 2015
           Canon Rich Simpson

Book Recommendation: Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, IVP Books, 2014. ($10.99)



Most vestries in our diocese begin and end each meeting with a time of prayer. In my former parish, however, we followed up the opening prayer with a time of intentional learning that required some outside reading. We would agree to read a book together over the course of the year, rotating the leadership month to month so that it was not my thing as rector, but our thing as a learning community.


 Not every book we read over the years was equally appreciated by everyone. But we tried to find books that would generate thoughtful conversation and raised some of the big questions about what it means to be the Church in this time and place. During my time in Holden, we read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together, Verna Dozier's The Dream of God, Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass's Christianity for the Rest of Us, Bennett Sims' Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium, among others.


 While I'm no longer a parish priest and no longer meeting month after month with the same vestry, I recently read a book that I would be recommending if I was still doing that work. And then it occurred to me that perhaps in my role in diocesan ministry it might be helpful to recommend this book to ordained and lay leaders across the diocese through this venue.


 If you decide that this is the year to take on this holy habit, then Slow Church would be a great book with which to begin. It even happens to have eleven chapters, which is perfect for vestries that take a month off in the summer! Even if you don't take on this practice I encourage clergy and lay leaders across our diocese to add it to your Christmas wish list and read it on your own early in 2016. I'd be glad to hear about your reactions and discuss it with you and perhaps even host a conversation about it if there is enough interest. (Maybe I could host a conversation at this year's Parish Leadership Day on March 5 at American International College?)


 In the Foreword to Slow Church, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says that it is "a book that is asking the right question...[it's] an invitation into the long, rich, deep and necessarily slow conversation about what it means to be part of the movement that Jesus started two thousand years ago." (Page 9)


The title, Slow Church, grows out of the slow food movement which began twenty-six years ago in Italy. Carlo Petrini, the journalist who co-founded the slow food movement, led the crowds that gathered to protest the opening of a McDonalds franchise near the Spanish Steps in Rome by shouting: "We don't want fast food! We want slow food!" The weapons of protest were bowls of pasta. The slow food movement that has since emerged actively resists what they call the McDonaldization of our world, a world that worships the (false) gods of efficiency, predictability, calculability (quantifiable results) and control - or at least the illusion of control.


Slow Church seeks to create intentional communities of resistance to the dominant culture that worships these (false) gods. The book is clear that it is not offered as "another growth strategy, but as a way of reimagining what it means to be communities of believers gathered and rooted in particular places at a particular time." (Page 15)


Slow Church is organized as a three-course meal: the eleven chapters are broken down into three main sections: ethics, ecology, and economy. The practice of conversation is central to the whole enterprise and rooted in the awareness that we have lost the ability in our society to talk to each other. Church is a place where we learn again to gather at the table, share a meal, and practice this art of conversation which has the potential to transform our neighborhoods. But this work requires time and intentionality. There is no "bag of tricks."


In the opening chapter the authors set forth a theological vision for slow church. The epigraph from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin nicely summarizes this vision and the theme of the entire book: "Above all, trust in the slow work of God, our loving vine-dresser." If your vestry isn't yet ready to devote time to reading the whole book over the course of a year, perhaps you might consider reading this one chapter and using it to frame a discussion early in the year. Spoiler alert: this is not radically new stuff. The authors insist that "the people of God are at the heart of God's mission for reconciling creation." This is the work God has given us to do. But this work is messy at best because we are broken human beings with fears, prejudices, addictions and habits that are harmful to ourselves and others. Building healthy, mission-focused communities with broken human beings is hard work. There are no short cuts. But it is what we are called to, with God's help.


In our anxiety we often run toward quick fixes to complex problems that have emerged over a long period of time. If you are looking for that kind of "solution" this is definitely not your book. But here is the thing: I don't think that fast church is any better for our souls than fast food is for our bodies. Being the Church is always contextual. And the scandal of particularity isn't just about Jesus of Nazareth in the first century: it's about the Body of Christ in all of its rich diversity in the twenty-first century. The Word becomes flesh in particular places, and it takes time to walk our neighborhoods and get to know the people who live there, and learn to speak their language (maybe it's Spanish or maybe it's "millennial") and try the foods they enjoy and the music they listen to. All of this is necessary if we really mean to share the good news, sometimes even with words - and if we mean to love our neighbor. This work is messy and time consuming and we make gains in fits and starts because we are broken human beings with fears, prejudices, addictions and habits that are harmful to ourselves and others. So we need to take the long view.


If any vestries do take me up on this, the authors have made it pretty easy to discuss this book, providing helpful conversation starters at the end of each chapter. Here is question five from that first chapter on the theological vision: what are our shared practices for intentionally nurturing the formation of our congregation as a local church community? I invite you to chew on that for a while and savor it.

Bon appétit!