Alison Griffiths reviews The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Book for Lent 2023
"Sometimes you feel you get it right, and it is glorious. Sometimes you fail and mess it up. But the point is that God loves you, whichever it is this week. So, this book is for all of us who feel like failures but never are in the eyes of God."
RM has made a point of giving people ‘permission to fail’ so the title of this book immediately caught our attention. I’ve lost count of the times people have said how helpful it is to know that if they try something different in mission or ministry that doesn’t work out as hoped for, they won’t automatically be written off as a lost cause by RM. Giving ‘permission to fail’ has been key to birthing many pioneering initiatives into being and never more so than in 2022. As the author writes:
"We need to be able to fail in order to risk and innovate, and in uncertain times that is even more the case."
But when a book about failure is promoted as ‘a superb book of failure’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury it’s reassuring to know from the outset that the author is alert to the irony of such a commendation! She also notes her own resume makes her look like anything but a failure. Currently the Bishop to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Chair of the Lambeth Conference Working Group and Central Chaplain to the Mothers’ Union with an impressive resume behind her including publishing a well-received book in 2019 about ambition, the Rt Right Revd Dr Emma Ineson asserts she is more than qualified to talk about failure from a personal as well as a theological perspective.
Bearing in mind her impressive credentials I might have ignored this book completely – after all how could someone like Emma understand what it feels like to fail? Head knowledge can only take you so far on an experience like this. But I first met Emma when I was training for ministry. Consistently engaging, knowledgeable, academically clever as well as pastorally astute, she was a lecturer who was always worth paying careful attention to even when our theological views didn’t perfectly align, so I read this book with real interest.
Emma references the experience of church during the Covid-19 pandemic and the immediate aftermath specifically within an Anglican context, yet this book has a broader application for Christians outside these traditions. She addresses not only personal failure but institutional failure and the failure of procedures to deal effectively with failure. Failure is inevitable – it will happen because we are human, and many books have been written about this inescapable consequence of our fallibility. But whereas most authors see failure as the inevitable steppingstone to eventual success, Emma does not. She writes with the intent of helping the Church and individuals to make mistakes, to fail, in better ways and firmly grounds all of it in scripture because, as she says, ‘Christians ought to be really good at failure. The story of our faith equips us so well for it.’
She examines what failure is, what it is not and why we fear it, facing unflinchingly the theological issue of sin. She addresses failures of the Church and the conflict between loving the Church and being angry or frustrated with it as well as the apparent ‘greatest failure of all’ which is the story of the Cross before ending with a message of hope. The reader is invited to think more deeply about these issues for themselves with questions at the end of each chapter. The book is ideal for personal reading or study groups and although it is meant for Lent, it could usefully be read at any time of the year.
This isn’t just a well written thoughtful exposition about failure though. It is also intensely practical, designed to help us live better by learning how to fail well. There are parts where Emma’s honest insights will particularly resonate with Anglicans, but the message is relevant far beyond the Church of England. It is a book to inspire all of us who fail (which means it’s for everyone) and it is one I expect to be reaching for the next time I find myself in need of real encouragement to get up and keep going.