Beyond the Fringe
This is a fascinating book, marred only by a too-frequent tendency in the printing for two words to run into one another. It is the report of the Rev Yvonne Richmond’s 2003 research in the Diocese of Coventry into the spirituality of people outside the church, using one-to-one interviews - the interview Guide is found in Equipping your Church in a Spiritual Age. The majority of the book consists of quotations from the interviewees, interspersed with comments by the authors. Section A identifies six big questions to which the interviewees variously sought answers: Destiny, Purpose, the Universe, God, the Spiritual Realm and Suffering. The Executive Summary helpfully brings together how the interviewees viewed each of these issues.
Section B examines interviewees’ attitudes to Christianity and the church, including opinions on Jesus, the Bible, heaven and hell. The final, rather slight, section of the book seeks to identify some ways in which the church can address the gap between the world and the church.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the research was the way the eleven interviewers enabled the sixty interviewees to articulate thoughts and feelings which I sensed in some cases they had not put into words before. Examples include: ‘I do believe in an after-life for everybody but when it comes to me I am not sure’; ‘I believe God is what man has created in order to make sense of himself. That is not to say that God does not exist’; ‘When you talk to this higher being it is away from yourself but very close’. Interviewees were encouragingly positive about Jesus, but very critical of the church. The most telling quote was ‘I think the established Church could be tried in a court of justice and could be found guilty of killing off spirituality’.
As well as giving us plenty to think about as we read the findings of the research, I think a spin-off will be that the interviewees will have continued thinking about the issues discussed. Certainly their responses have given me a deeper insight into the aspirations, beliefs, thoughts and fears of those currently beyond the fringe of the church. I found it helpful to think of sin in terms of abuse of relationship, a concept more readily grasped by people today.