How to share the Story ? On reading Dear England by Stephen Cottrell

How to share the Story ? On reading Dear England by Stephen Cottrell

Engaging, wise, passionate

This is an appealing and fluent book with a story and a purpose. I read it in one siting on a train from Durham to London and as I passed through York (just under half way through the book) I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the 98th Archbishop of York and this book. Let me try to explain. I write as someone who has responsibility for the formation of women and men for lay and ordained leadership in the Church. This generation face a range of complex challenges and opportunities in service of the Kingdom.

The story starts with a chance encounter in a coffee shop on Paddington station when a barista noticing the dog collar asks an open and invitational question – ‘What made you become a priest?’ I suspect given a welcoming smile and time there are many folks who might just want to put us on the spot with a question that cuts through the fluff into something elemental about life and our motivations.

There isn’t quite time to answer the question in full ( but the response is pretty impressive) so these 14 carefully organised chapters explore the an invitation to consider the transforming shape of following Jesus Christ.

Accessible and clear Stephen writes about his motivation

‘I’m writing this because I want to explain to you why I am a Christian and why I’m trying to follow the Christian way’.

What follows is both lucid, profound and challenging even to this seasoned ear and heart. The core claims and questions of the Christian faith are explored. It tells the story of Jesus and the community of faith in the light of Covid, and the present contradictions and challenges of the Church. It is hopeful, real, grounded and heart-full.

What I found helpful about this book is its lack of narrowness, jargon or ( I think) the need to defend certain positions. It tells the story and shows how so many individuals and communities have found in The Gospel a ground for Hope, Comfort and motivation for making the world a better place. This captures Stephens passion –

‘I want to remind us that our primary vocation is to share this story and to tell people about God and God’s vision for the world. There are lots of other things we need to do as well – not least live it out each day – but it has to begin with the story itself: the amazing, inexplicable, challenging and lovely story of what God has done in Jesus Christ to change the course of human history and to win our hearts.’

There are two areas where Dear England speaks generatively into the present moment. The narrative is grounded in the soil of our land – the communities that make up this country and to which Anglicans have a heart and passion to serve. We are invited to consider our relationship to our culture and politics as we ask about the nature of our identity. Our following Jesus overflows into our neighbour and building places where all can flourish.

This vision is grounded in our present moment as we ask about the future of the creation, live with a pace of change shaped by technology and modernity. How do we nurture and build belonging that moves beyond faction, tribalism and narrowness? This is a leadership of ideas and reflective wisdom. It is captured here

‘this Christian faith that I have found wellsprings of wisdom and delight that can enable all of us to inhabit the world peaceably, and learn again how to tread lightly on an earth we have been plundering for too long’

The second are is how the nature of the spiritual is addressed and explored. This is worth pondering

When was the last time you were stopped in your tracks by a sense of wonder, and what was it that brought you to this abrupt standstill? Was it a poem, or a piece of music, or the perfect and mind-stretching symmetry of a mathematical formula? And how did these things not only fill you with joy but at the same time expand your capacity for joy and wonder and take you to another place where your very humanity seemed to be enlarged and enhanced? Was it the sky at night or the stillness of water at dawn? Was it the open road stretching as far as you could see, or the East Window at York Minster? Or what was it like to walk in the darkness, and what did you learn?

There is in these early chapters an infectious passion for meaning making and the nature of belonging. It makes the text compelling and challenging in equal measure.

Back to Sarum and our work of formation for mission and ministry. Our students are often offered a challenge which I believe is fundamental. Here is the scenario – the student and their Principal walk into the local. The bar person knows about our work of theological learning. While getting the two drinks ready they ask the student “What does salvation mean?” The student has three minutes to capture attention and explain enough to keep them wanting to know more.

We need to be defenders and apologists; storytellers and poets who can find the spiritual pulse and respond. Stephen Cottrell offers a way of exciting passion our evangelisation and faith formation. It is a gift for our discipleship. However the invitation to live, respond, serve and nurture passion for Gospel remains ours.

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