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WHAT IT SAYS ON THE TIN?
on 28 January 2010
The book is an attempt to look at leadership, specifically Christian and otherwise, by making connections between Church life and some current theories of leadership. He establishes his argument through a series (success)stories and in this Cottrell displays both the strengths and the weaknesses of what is sometimes thought of as the characteristic way Anglicans think: by rooting his suggestions in experience, it comes across as taking all our experiences seriously, while suffering from the weakness of not always making it clear what we are to draw from that experience.
Cottrell assumes what our experience and most research tells us, that the majority of people in this country do not regularly associate themselves with organised religion. Some of the implications of this are played out in a chapter entitled Stating the Obvious, where he describes how he persuaded his parish to engage in a mission initiative through familiar structures, in this case by using the form of a jumble sale to commend the Faith rather than clothes and bric a brac and in a way that comes across as reassuring and innovative at the same time. This is a helpful lesson, both in successful mission, and in how echoes from Christian history can be played out in a parish setting. After all Augustine of Canterbury did something similar, when he transformed pagan worship sites into centres of Christian worship. Fresh expressions have been with us for longer than we think!
There is however an ambiguous note, when it becomes clear is that this story is to a significant degree a case study in the concept of `ownership' which some would recognise as benign dictatorship. These are ambiguous concepts, meaning legitimately persuading people to value a new idea, while also being experienced as manipulative. In the end, though, Cottrell manages to convince that fresh eyes are more likely to be vehicles of grace than not.
This book is both an example of and a lesson in taking the calculated risk of operating somewhere between the manipulations of `ownership' and the opportunities that come by taking seriously recent thinking about leadership. It succeeds to the extent that it uses these theories pragmatically. In doing so Cottrell implies something vital about how we can and should accept that in the complex relationship Christianity has with the wider cultural realities we are all subject to, it is impossible not to learn useful things, while seeking to avoid getting in the way of God, revealed to us in Jesus. We would all do well to pray for discernment.
Hitting the ground kneeling is counter-intuitive and possibly painful, like so much in the Christian life. Cottrell knows this and in the use of stories, this book conveys genuine insight about what it means to be the Church. Wisdom doesn't lie so much in the actual tips he offers, though they contain helpful possibilities. Nor does it lie in the stories, though they are instructive. It lies, as it does in much of life, in the interaction of experience and faithfulness to which we are all called. It lies in the call to adoration of the abiding mystery of God and in the expression of that adoration and faithfulness in being a Church that is authentically open to discover that kingdom for which we dare to pray.