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Gathering Gathering
A Theology and Spirituality of Worship in Free Church Tradition

Christopher J Ellis
ISBN 0334029678 (9780334029670)
SCM-Canterbury Press, 2004

Category: Doctrine and Theology

Coming to this book as the pastor of a Baptist Church that has been strongly influenced by the Charismatic renewal, I was intrigued and drawn in by Christopher Ellis' proposal to determine the real theology of the Free Churches through an analysis of their worship.

His methodology, outlined in the first part of the book has much to commend it. He states that "the gathering for Christian worship is where Christians express what they believe in a forthright and explicit way" and so can give a clearer understanding of real beliefs than creeds or doctrinal statements. However, as he admits, there are significant limitations to a study of the Free Churches that focuses almost exclusively on the Baptist tradition, as many other Free Church traditions will express themselves in different ways and with different foci.

In this discussion Ellis chooses the Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, as his principle dialogue partner. This gives rise to the greatest weakness in this book. Who is Ellis' intended audience? There are points in debate with Schmemann that Ellis seems to be trying to persuade those of a liturgical tradition that the Free Church approach is a valid alternative, however, there are other points in which Ellis is writing for a Baptist audience who will already agree with his contentions. Towards the end of the book he states that he is writing for worshippers and worship leaders to assist them in thinking through the theological implications of their actions. As a result the thread of argument through the book faltered regularly as the intended audience changed.

There is still much to commend within the book. Ellis' discussion of Baptist history (in Part 2) is a very helpful overview; his chapters on communion and baptism (in part 3) will hopefully become required reading in sacraments courses throughout British theological education; and his discussion of worship as an event in which the interaction between the components is more important than the specific ordering of them is also helpful. In particular, his conclusion displays something of his heart as a pastor and worshipper of Jesus Christ to remain true to his beliefs while also seeking greater discourse between Christian traditions for the mutual benefit of all.

A disappointment in the book, which he also acknowledges and ascribes to the lack of space, is the little space devoted to the influence of culture and prevailing philosophical trends in the formation of Baptist theology and practice. This does come in from time to time and sheds so much light on the topics discussed, such as in preaching and communion, that it merely highlights its absence elsewhere. When the Baptist Church is the product of modernity and is reacting against some of the excesses and perceived abuses of other church traditions, the lack of these philosophical and cultural observations do detract from Ellis' argument.

Inevitably a book of this type will provoke questions that it will be unable to answer and I was left wishing for more on the breakdown of denominational cohesion since the Charismatic renewal when this is merely touched on in a few places, particularly in the discussion of singing. I had also hoped that there might be some discussion of differing practices within the Baptist Church over the length of time between conversion and baptism as this is indicative of how the rite is understood both biblically and theologically.

Ellis concludes that there are four key values that can be seen within the prayer, preaching, singing and sacraments, which form Baptist worship. These are:

  1. The importance of Scripture as read in the light of Jesus Christ;
  2. The devotional concern for personal faith and piety;
  3. The high value of fellowship and relationships; and
  4. The eschatological perspective of bringing in the Kingdom of God.

Each of these values is brought under the presiding conviction that 'Jesus Christ is Lord' in the life of each disciple. I would not wish to argue with Ellis over any of these conclusions, but I was left wondering whether it required his methodology to identify them. Within my own fellowship I would hope that these are the values that we promote amongst our members and the ones that many in Baptist, Free and other Christian churches would identify as being at the heart of our being.

Dave Sunman, August 2006

Dave Sunman is the Pastor of Quaystone Church on the Isle of Dogs. A former barrister, he has an MA from London School of Theology and from Queens' College, University of Cambridge

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