Benjamin Aldous, ‘Pasties, pirates and practical theology: taking Cornish context and culture seriously when utilising the resource church model’, Rural Theology 18.1 (2020), pp. 2-12
This is first and foremost a critique of the Church of England’s resource church model, asking whether that approach is flexible enough to cope with ‘indigenous local expressions of church’. The author, who grew up in Cornwall, concludes that it is not, because it does not sufficiently consider a sense of place.
The church’s ‘Transforming Mission’ resource church project that began in Falmouth a year or two ago is open to the familiar criticism that it parachutes a scheme into Cornwall from elsewhere with little consideration for local circumstances. Such initiatives may well work in some places but, as Benjamin Aldous suggests here, may also lead to McDonaldization and homogeneity. Instead, he prefers an alternative model from Cumbria where he claims local landscapes and traditions are being respected and taken more seriously.
While no succinct definition is offered of the Church of England’s resource church model, it appears to involve directing resources into selected urban parishes. Focusing on the younger generation, activists then spread an evangelical mission beyond the church, penetrating local communities and involving themselves in the day to day lives of local people. However, this rarely involves any explicit acknowledgement, or even awareness, of a sense of place as a one-size-fits-all strategy is rolled out regardless.
Aldous proposes that, on the contrary, the Church has to take seriously a sense of place and allow regional identities to shape theological missions rather than (or perhaps as well as) using theology to shape local identities. In Cornwall therefore, a meaningful theology ‘requires reference to locally lived experiences’.
However, the exploration of these ‘experiences’ here is somewhat shallow, as the presence of the word ‘pirates’ in the title of the article might imply. It takes as its starting point the example of the 1549 rising. The apparent desire is to see the Church of England replicate a rather romanticised view of the pre-Reformation Church’s role as protector of vernacular languages and cultures. Nonetheless, a ‘Cornish contextual theology’ is sketched out as an alternative to planting a placeless and externally derived resource church model.
This involves three aspects: the ‘Cornish temperament, identity and Celtic terrain’; the countryside and topography; and ceremonies and traditions. The author recognises the fragile and disputed nature of Cornish identities but argues that a sense of difference, based on a history of industrialisation, de-industrialisation and Celticity, should be taken seriously.
In addition, any mission needs to recognise the potential of the Cornish landscape. However, rather than exploring the meanings the landscape might hold for indigenous residents, the article posits its role in potentially linking New Age spiritualism with a Christian spirituality.
Finally, the ceremonies and traditions, many restored and re-invented by the Cornish Revival in the early twentieth century, could be utilised by the Church, together with a vaguer notion of Celtic ‘soul friendship’.
Recognising and respecting the cultural context of Cornwall, as this article does, is all very well. However, we have also to recognise the context of the Church of England. This is now following the Methodist Church in suffering rapidly declining attendances and growing competition from more charismatic and simplistic fringe churches. In such a context, attempts to anchor itself in regional and national cultures can appear somewhat desperate and could well be viewed from within those cultures as at best a patronising effort to use local context to bolster its status. At worst it might be seen as merely continuing a longer colonial project in yet another guise. In that case there seems little to choose between resource churches or their possible alternatives.