I have just finished reading James Hopewell's book Congregation: Stories and Structures and it has been an interesting read. Not entirely convincing, but interesting nonetheless.
The idea of a lot of what he says is, in a crude summary, that every church has a story with characters and a plot and that a parallel can be drawn with a myth (notably but not exlcusively classical Greek myths) which will then help the congregation to understand itself better and then twist the plot so that it is not bound by the inevitability of that story. I guess my ignorance of Greek mythology did not help me much, though he did use one German fairy tale (Briar Rose) to describe one congregation.
Part of my disquiet, beyond my ignorance of myths (I'm better at European fairy stories!), lies in the quest for a suitable myth, and the risk of adjusting evidence to fit with a chosen story. Who decides which is the 'right' myth and on what basis? The stories people tell - and they are not it seems the whole congregation in any of the cases used - are inevitably biased, not out of malice but because we all remember different things and for different reasons. I am happy enough to call the place where I work 'Dibley' because it masks its identity from those who read my stuff and, for me, it is a helpful image of, well loveable nannas, I guess. But I don't imagine for an instant that my people would choose that story for themselves - who after all would want to be known for 'no, no, no, no, no, yes'? Further, our story is not the story of Dibley - there is no Alice and there are no batchelor accountants looming in the wings! The 'is and is not' of metaphor is an important corrective, I think, to the risk of trying to find too close a correlation.
I suspect if I asked my people which fairy tale described our life, they'd be on the phone to either the local mental health unit or the good people at BUGB to get me seen to. Jesting aside, it is, as Hopewell acknowledges, an approach that needs a congregation who can grasp what is trying to be achieved by this process.
One of the themes he identifies early on, but doesn't really seem to develop because of his adventure into the realm of myth (though maybe it is implied and I missed it) is the fairly classical categories of stories - romance, comedy, irony and tragedy - and some associated worldviews. This I found more helpful as a way of trying to unpack something of how a congregation might see itself, or how it might tell its story. My experience to date suggests that lots of congregations live with repeating cycles of broadly the same story - whether that is 'rise and fall,' 'us against the world' or whatever (which is where Hopewell finds parallels to myths) and maybe taking time to recall and explore our stories would help us 'twist' the plot to a more hopeful future?
In the end he relates everything back to mission, so at least that made me happy!
I am still more than a little puzzled how I connect reading this book with my desire to look at how historical resources can be employed in the task of theological reflection - I can, in odd moments, almost make the connection, but not quite.
Ah well, another day, another book to start - which fits quite well as my other strand of reading has just begun reading A Generous Orthodoxy the author of which asserts the importance of church history. Hurrah!