Roberts, R.J. (2021) Cultivating God’s Presence: Renewing Ancient Practices for Today’s Church, Beaminster: The Finnian Press.
Before I begin reviewing Cultivating God’s Presence, I have to disclose that I have known the author, Richard Roberts, as a colleague and friend for a number of years but will try and bring as an impartial a review as I can.
It is reasonably difficult to categorise or pigeonhole Cultivating God’s Presence, as it does not fall neatly into any one category. It contains something of Richard’s own story and journey, and, on occasion, he lets us in to some very personal, almost intimate, spiritual experiences in a similar way to Jill Weber’s Even the Sparrow1 (although this is not quite as biographical). Neither does the book follow a clear chronological path.
What it does do, and why it is of interest to readers of this journal, is to bring together Richard’s eclectic experience and to see how he integrates these together to bring significant insight into a wide range of issues that impact individual Christians, churches and the wider world. He lets us into his world in a controlled way so that we are not overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge and experience. He also writes with humility and humour so that we feel like we are journeying with him as a fellow disciple rather than being asked to accept a range of propositions before we can journey with him.
His experience includes, in no particular order, being: a medical doctor who set up in general practice before retraining as a psychotherapist, a church planter and leader, a blues guitarist, an angler, a teacher, a husband, father and grandfather, leader of a Master’s programme in Missional Leadership and leading a team of representatives from the newer charismatic churches in official dialogue with the Vatican’ Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. This last role perhaps helps explain another key feature of this book: its broad ecumenical appeal. People from most any denomination (or none) are likely to find ideas and concepts that they are familiar with and which will give them a touch point to make them feel at home.
This breadth of experience also helps Richard to succinctly bring a great deal of insight and wisdom to a range of topics. One example of this is his brief but insightful commentary on the state of the Church in Western Europe and the ‘missional’ conversation that asks how the Church can best address the challenges it faces in a post-Christendom environment. This could be contrasted with Roxburgh and Robinsons book Practices for the Refounding of God’s People2 where they address the same issue in much greater depth. Roxburgh and Robinson are writing to a very different audience (those studying at Master’s or Doctoral levels of study), so present the evidence to support their arguments, whereas Richard merely gives his insights without feeling the need to mount any great
Does this mean that the book is without academic merit? Not at all, the book is underpinned from a wide range of sources, but it is not written primarily with an academic audience in mind. (There are a rich range of sources identified within the book, which readers could look up and use as a starting point for further reading and research if required.) The book is written to be as accessible to as many people as possible and it achieves this.
Cultivating God’s Presence takes as its main theme the idea of how we could begin to live a monastic life in the twenty-first century. In that sense, it would fall under the heading of ‘new monasticism’, but what some call ‘new monasticism’ is actually not terribly new, rather a rediscovering of spiritual practices that have been practised for many centuries in traditional monastic communities and is of course still done today. Richard seeks to try and make sense of spiritual practices and how they might be developed and applied by the ordinary person in their everyday life, even when they are not living in a formal religious community.
In this, Richard has been significantly influenced by the Ffald-y-Brenin Retreat Centre in West Wales and through that what is termed ‘Celtic Spirituality’ (although he is not afraid to debunk some of the more fanciful notions that have become attached to this term). He describes how he found solace, consolation and restoration there after a difficult time in his church ministry. This book is in part written under the auspices of Ffald-y-Brenin and is quite different in tone to other key texts that have come out of there (The Grace Outpouring3 and The Way of Blessing4 both by Roy Godwin and Dave Roberts). These texts mix testimony of life’s transformed as people come to the Ffald-y-Brenin Retreat Centre along with other key principles through which they want to encourage a movement of prayer and blessing. Richard is interested in these things but more at the personal level of how this impacts the individual believer in their everyday walk with Jesus. As such, this book fits much more into the area of spiritual formation and would be of benefit for those who are looking for guidance and insight to their own personal situation, or for those who have pastoral oversight for others in how they might encourage and support them, or as an area of academic study.
About the author
Bob Stradling is the principal of Waverley Abbey College and has an MA in Missional Leadership. He has experience in a range of leadership role in Higher Education and has also had experience of leadership in a range of ministry contexts.
Copyright 2021 Bob Stradling
1 Weber J. (2019) Even the Sparrow, Edinburgh: Muddy Pearl.
2 Roxburgh A. J. and Robinson M. (2018) Practices for the Refounding of God’s People: The Missional Challenge of the West, New York: Church Publishing.
3 Godwin R. and Roberts D. (2008) The Grace Outpouring, Colorado Springs: David C Cook Publishing.
4 Godwin R. and Roberts D. (2016) The Way of Blessing (Colorado Springs: David C Cook Publishing.