Book Review: “Walk in Love”
It’s a perennial debate among parish clergy: What one book to recommend for newcomers or those wanting a refresher on the Episcopal way? You or your parish may have a go-to answer already, whether it’s a more recent publication (like Andrew Doyle’s “Unabashedly Episcopalian” or the Gamber/Lewellis “Your Faith Your Life,”) or an oldie (like “Welcome to the Episcopal Church” by Christopher Webber or John Westerhoff’s “A People Called Episcopalians” – which has a new revision by Tobias Haller that I have not seen.) And there are certainly other ways to approach this whole issue – talks by the priest? Videos? Older primary sources? However, if your church’s style of formation in Episcopal identity includes having people read a contemporary book, the newest entry in the genre, “Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs and Practices” by Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe, makes a strong case for itself.
As the Executive Director of Forward Movement, Gunn has had a chance to experience the Episcopal Church in a breadth of contexts few of us get to see, and his focus on Christian basics, evangelism, and discipleship is well known. Shobe, a former colleague of Gunn’s now in the Diocese of Dallas, brings the same focus from a perspective grounded in parish experience and family ministry. Whether you are a member of the clergy seeking a textbook, or a parishioner seeking reading for your own growth, you will never find any option that presents our church’s way of life exactly to your individual taste. However, there are several things about “Walk in Love” that have moved it to the top of my list for recommendations.
First, it majors on the majors: “Anglican Christianity is a way of following Jesus that is rooted in the Bible and the sacraments of the church, united by shared ways of praying.” Gunn and Shobe never assume that the reader is already versed in Christianity and mostly needs to be informed about a few denominational distinctives; they are trying to inspire not a brand switch, but a way of life. Over and over the text chooses to focus on essentials of the faith, stating them in fresh and accessible ways, focusing not on institutional structures or historical curiosities but on simple statements about our life together that affect practice: “what have you been saved from, and what have you been saved for?” “We measure our time by what God has already done for us.” “We will be judged – but by God (and not by one another!)” “Christian agreement is far more widespread than disagreement.”
Second, “Walk in Love” radiates a sense of happily assenting to the Creeds, the authority of Scripture, and the text of the Book of Common Prayer that can no longer be taken for granted in most Episcopal contexts – but its confidence comes without any anxiety, niche mentality, or hostility. Gunn and Shobe consistently and unapologetically draw on the Prayer Book and the Bible and keep sending readers back to take them in and consider them warmly. You or I or anyone else may wish some particular passage or other had been phrased a bit differently (which ones depend on whether you’re more progressive or more conservative, higher or lower), but anyone who loves classical Anglicanism will rejoice in how delighted this book is that it exists.
Third, the book evinces awareness of ways in which mainstream Christianity can rub people the wrong way on various contemporary issues (some of which, of course, are actively raised from those within the church as well as those outside) and it addresses them with respect – but it does not ever allow these critiques to set the terms of the discussion. This decision lets the book avoid the major flaw of the entire past generation of Episcopal apologetics (particularly when we try to reuse those writings today). The existence of a minority report on recent decisions on marriage, for example, is dealt with compassionately rather than with dismissiveness; our culture’s habit of dismissing so-called Biblical “literalists” (as the book points out, there are none) is gently reframed rather than seized upon as evidence of Episcopal superiority to other believers; welcoming questions is presented not as a way to let people avoid commitment to Christ but as a context that allows people to bring their intellectual integrity into engagement with the claims of the faith.
And finally, the accessible and grounded writing makes reading a pleasure. The book is in the following sections: The Anglican Way of Christianity, The Sacraments and Sacramental Rites, Marking Time, Basic Beliefs, The Church, A Trinitarian Life, and What’s Next. Each of these features plenty of examples and stories from ordinary Anglican Christian experience both in church and in the family; this not only keeps the text from being dry, but also subtly models diverse ways of absorbing our tradition and putting it into practice. In fact, the rootedness in actual Christian practice evidenced throughout is one of the more valuable things about the book. Readers will also enjoy the numerous sidebars, in keeping with the way people’s attention works these days, as well as the ample suggestions for follow-up that never degenerate into a choose-your-own-adventure smorgasbord.
Is it the “one book on the Episcopal Church” for you? Only you can answer that, but I’m more enthusiastic about this one than about any other recent offering I’ve seen.
The Rev. Beth Maynard