Friday, November 16, 2012

How Christopher Wren Wrecked Our Economy

One thing I want to do with this blog is to share some of my reading with you. I don’t do nearly as much reading as I would like but I did manage to read a few books during the summer. Some of these are on the topic of urban ministry – a hot issue in mission today. A few years ago, for the first time in human history, the world became majority urban. We live in that time. That is significant. We need to take seriously the character of our urban environments and the challenges they present. We need to seek to understand the city and reflect on that phenomenon theologically, forming a missiology for the city. So in the coming weeks I hope to share some of my thoughts as I seek to do that.

The first book I want to share is Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God by Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz (Leicester, Inter-Varsity, 2001). This tome is Harvie Conn’s last book before he went home to be with his Lord in 1999. In the Preface Manuel Ortiz, Conn’s associate in urban mission at Westminster Theological Seminary, tells us that, a few days before his death, Conn was disappointed with how much he had managed to achieve. The resulting book is mostly Conn’s work as can be seen from the style, deeply theological and somewhat dense as some of his other works are (e.g. Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue, Grand Rapids: Academie, 1984). Ortiz’s contribution, though, is clearly significant, as will be seen in the different style of parts 4 to 6.

The book is divided into 6 parts:
1.      The City Past and Present
2.      Biblical Perspectives
3.      Understanding the City
4.      Developing Urban Church Growth Eyes
5.      Promoting Kingdom Signs in the City
6.      Leadership and Discipleship for the Urban Church

This is a significant book, representing the mature reflections of seasoned missionaries and theological educators who advocated a special place for urban ministry for decades. The question the authors seek to address is “How does God see the mission of his people in this world of cities” (p. 29)?

In tracing the history of urban development Conn and Ortiz argue that the Reformation (itself a ‘uniquely urban event’) formed an interlude in the process, a ‘parenthetical interruption’ (p. 43). It did not prevent the growing pressure for the secularization of the city. “A new urban order was taking over. Christopher Wren’s plan for the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire of 1666 symbolized it. The dominating site did not go to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Wren planned the new avenues so as to give this honor to the Royal Stock Exchange.” That plan on the grand Baroque style (imitating Paris) was not accepted and the city was rebuilt on the existing street layout. But the values that were expressed in that plan nevertheless did in fact result in the Bank of England being given pride of place at the junction of a number of major roads through the City (you can see it here:,-0.0879595,634m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1). 

Now it might seem idiotic to point out that the global financial crisis of the last four years could not have happened during the Middle Ages, and I am no advocate for the building of grand cathedrals in the centre of cities (or anywhere else for that matter), but it is significant to reflect on the way we plan our cities and what that says about us. (In Nepal I spent quite a bit of time researching the development of the City of Lalitpur and that formed a chapter in my dissertation, which I am told is ready for proof reading, seven years after I sent it for publication!) Our cities are the stages for our civic performances. The way we lay those cities out affects those performances hugely. To a certain extent, then, we can say, I think, that Wren was the architect of our present crisis. “No one can serve two masters,” said Jesus. “Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24).

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