Shaping debate on religion in public life.

A Book Review of “The Serendipity of Hope” 

16 Nov 2023

The Serendipity of Hope ed. Simon Lee and Ian Markham. Pickwick Publications. USA. English. 292 pages. ISBN 1666737062

“Serendipity of Hope offers a compelling vision of what our colleges and universities might look like if they rediscover, and honour in action, the founding values and legacies” (Gareth Jones, Theological Education Advisor to the Archbishop of Hong Kong). 

This quote from Jones from the back cover of the book, speaks to the value that can be found in this volume. With this review, I will seek to honour the spirit of story and peripheral experience at the heart of the book, to open up the opportunity that it presents for institutions today.

I first came across this edited volume in its very early stages of development in 2020. I had just moved to Liverpool, and I had just heard of Liverpool Hope University. The William Temple Foundation had just taken on a new research fellow, Dr Sanjee Perera, and it was via a tweet from Dr Perera that I became aware of this new project on “hope”. Hope is a theme in my work, and so I went digging and I managed to wangle an invite to a learning day, hosted by Professor Lee the former Rector at Hope, which was the basis for this book. I was allowed to listen in from the periphery, to a series of papers reflecting on “hope” at Hope over the previous 25 years. I was encouraged by the experience, and having recently submitted my PhD, I was left with the question, what about the next 25 years? Since attending this gathering, I’ve become an Honorary Fellow at Hope, where I have engaged in postdoctoral research both within the University and in the city of Liverpool. I have explored the question of whether we are Hope by name and “hope” by nature? There is a definite synergy between this volume; The Serendipity of Hope, and my work. I will publish on this synergy elsewhere. However with this in mind, I was lucky to attend the launch of the book at Lambeth Palace on 3rd November 2023. This gathering brought together authors from the book, and people with a fresh association with Liverpool Hope including myself, a recently minted PhD exploring faith-based universities in Ethiopia where Higher Education is otherwise secular in nature, and the new Vice Chancellor at Hope Professor Claire Ozanne. It was fitting that the volume was formulated and then launched in gatherings such as these, as it speaks to the sense of nurture, and journey which are at the centre of the book. 

In chapter 1, Professor Lee characterises this using the language of “alma mater” where mater translates as mother, but taken together, the translation has a broader sense of nurture. Lee argues that this sense is not just for the period of being on campus, or being within the institution, but something which can set people up for the future. There are clear examples throughout. In chapter 11, this theme was picked up in a chapter on motherhood. Dr Vicky Baker explores twin threads of present experience as a ‘home engineer’ (p169) where she cares for her son, and her experience of teaching at Hope. Baker recollects that she was attracted to Hope by the staff team (her PhD was supervised by Professor Ian Markham) and the ecumenical foundation the University has. However she was contending with being homesick. The chapter sets out the nurturing role that Markham and Lee offered Baker, which exemplified the nurture Lee speaks of, and enabled Baker to continue her professional life, whilst also overcoming her homesickness. Baker concludes with reference to her own role with her son today, to bring the account full circle and to symbolise the affect of nurture as part of motherhood. 

Articulating “hope” through lived experience is a key thread throughout. In chapter 6 Dr Perera highlights this in the contexts of crisis. A key example is from the Toxteth riots in the 1980s and the responses of Bishop David Shepherd and Archbishop Derek Worlock, who bought their friendship and vocation together to seek the common good in the city of Liverpool. Perera points to many other examples of what she terms as ‘pro-social responses’ from the social sciences, but highlights that the pursuit of hope, the inherent risk therein and the potential it offers, are often missing from these. We are directed instead to what she characterised as ‘pedagogies of hope’ which transcend secular constructions of social life within institutions and offer something more. This sense of something more flows through the volume and is found once again in chapter 9, via emphasis on journey, characterised as the Camino of Hope by Sean Gallagher. This chapter is the first publication for the now retired Director of Finance from Hope from Lee’s era in the early 2000s. An anecdote, which was shared at the launch, regarded Gallagher’s volunteering at the Liverpool Hope Internet café at the Albert Dock on the waterfront in Liverpool. As the Director of Finance, Sean spent his Sunday afternoon helping people at the cafe, which came to the attention of what turned out to be Dr Perera’s father. Sean’s volunteering and commitment at the periphery of the University stood out and was the basis for Sanjee being sent to study at Hope, her PhD at Hope, and nurturing relationships set out in the text that span over 25 years, and many more instances besides. There are many other chapters of great interest, which speak to the diversity, and pioneering nature of an institution, which is premised on bringing together and overcoming differences from the past to shape the present and offer hope for the future.

Chapter 19, the final chapter, is offered by the co-editor of the volume Ian Markham and Joe Thompson. As a former Head of Theology at Liverpool Hope, and current Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), Markham is well placed to honour the distinctiveness of how a University’s past relates to the way things are done in the present, and what they might bring to the future. He concludes the opening section with a quote from the writer of the book of James in the Bible, “be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only”, and characterises it as the ethos of Hope (p.268). In this way, this final chapter on reparations, highlights the way in which Hope inspired Markham and hints at how this flows through into the work he leads at VTS today. Whilst VTS is characterised in the chapter as “the strongest seminary or theological college, in the Anglican Communion” (p.268), it has also been complicit in the slave trade. The story of VTS can help understand reparations as not just a case of moving some statues and putting up some signs containing context of who and what continues to be honoured on campus, but rather as something much more embodied, pointing to how institutions should and could work. Markham offers a powerful and welcome challenge for faith based institutions and others contributing to public life, and one which gives my question regards the next 25 years, fresh emphasis and traction! 

How do we pick up the question of “hope” and sense of nurture, which prepare us for the crises that we experience along life’s journey? How do we do this in a way, which is realistic about what has gone before whilst putting things right which have gone wrong, and offering space for a new generation to pick up the baton? With these questions in mind, in the context of deep set institutional changes in the United Kingdom today and around the world, this volume has much to offer. 

Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell is an Honorary Postdoctoral Fellow at Liverpool Hope University, Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation and Founder of Spaces of Hope.

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