Book Reviews
A healing encounter with the Holy Trinity

EARLY CHRISTIAN READER

Edited by Steve Mason and Tom Robinson

Alban Books, 780pp, hbk

1 5656 3043 2, [£29.95]

All serious students of the Bible (and that must include most serious clergy) should have several versions of the Scriptures on their bookshelves, and if possible one that does not maintain the traditional order. So let me recommend this one.

You have heard of canonical criticism? If not, you certainly will do later in your studies: it is essentially the study of the Bible as holy Scripture, as the sacred writings of a faith community, and as a complete whole as we now have it, not in bits as it might once have been. It is in many ways a reaction against the success of historical criticism. This book might be regarded as an essential aid to non-canonical criticism, offering a clearer picture of that hypothetical early form.

Earlier examples (I have The Bible in Order from my student days in 1975) tended to go for a strict chronological order, beginning in the New Testament with 1 Thessalonians and ending with 2 Peter. This handsomely produced edition modifies this scheme by grouping the New Testament texts by genre, thereby enabling the inclusion of other non-canonical books.

We start therefore with the letters of Paul, 1 Thessalonians still in pride of place, then the letters attributed to Paul, and then those associated with Peter. The next section is the deliberately controversial heart of the book, with Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts and the Gospel of Thomas grouped together under the provocative title ‘Biography, Anecdote and History’. None of these three descriptions would apply from a canonical critical point of view, but that is perhaps the point. Then come the writings attributed to John, and finally ‘other early writings’ which allows James and Hebrews to be mixed in with the Didache, Barnabas, 1 Clement, and the letters from Ignatius, but not The Shepherd of Hermas or the Martyrdom of Polycarp. All the texts are well laid out, and accompanied by clear and copious notes.

I know you will say to yourself, ‘I can do this rearranging in my head,’ or ‘There are other (better) arrangements.’ That may well be true, but do not ignore the effect on the imagination and the intellect of reading the works of the New Testament in a non-biblical order. Actually reading has so much greater power and influence than merely thinking-about-reading. As an exercise in taking you a little further back into the world of the first-century eastern Mediterranean, the world of the early Christians before the establishment of a new testament, this has a great deal to commend it. Which makes its loss of nerve all the more disappointing.

The introduction puts a strong and convincing case for what I would call a more non-canonical translation, to help us discard the traditional connotations, suggesting, for example, ‘assembly’ as a better word for ekklesia than church, Judaeans instead of Jews, immersion instead of baptism, and so on. Sadly, they reject this imaginative presentation to keep to the widely used NRSV as it stands, in order to keep the focus on the text. This is understandable and laudable, and there is much to commend this version for study, but the effect is spoilt by printing the introductory notes in larger type than the texts of the books themselves. What this is in effect saying is that the ideas of contemporary scholars are of greater interest than the texts they are commenting upon.

It is as though an excellent idea, well executed, has been overruled by the misgivings of the editors. What is it about academics, even biblical scholars, that they cannot trust their students to read these early Christian texts for themselves? The whole point of such a book as this is to let them do just that. NT

 

A Way into the Trinity

George O’Mahoney sj

Gracewing, 122pp, pbk

0 85244 591 1, £7.99

It was Irenaeus who said that the two hands of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit, are continually touching us. In other words, our relationship with God is never confined to only one Person of the Trinity but always with the three Persons. Fr Mahoney’s book is about his relationship with God in three Persons and how the mystery of the Trinity has come to mean more and more to him. It comprises selections of everything he has written about the Trinity in previous publications, checked against the teachings of the Church in her Councils to avoid leading anyone astray from the ancient faith.

The genre of this work is Ignatian in the linking of personal story to personal beliefs and the author’s discernment of how God was shaping it at every stage. There are eleven chapters of autobiography, the first five covering a decade each until the age of fifty, chapter six the next five years, each of the remaining chapters three years, two years, and one year until the age of sixty eight. He starts with first memories of ‘Holy God’ in primary school, first confession and first Communion to converse with Jesus. Secondary school years follow with Confirmation and Holy Spirit, his Jesuit novitiate and the influences of Thérèse of Lisieux, Ignatius of Loyola and others. There is the influence of the Rublev icon, his distaste for philosophy and delight in theology, ordination, advisor to religious education teachers, novice director, and breakdowns. So it continues through the influence of Julian of Norwich, his reflections on others whose writings have helped him. A bibliography can be picked up along the way. There is an appendix on the theology of the Trinity.

Gerard Hughes in his Foreword writes, ‘I have never read anything on the Trinity, which is as lifegiving as this book.’ The mystery, instead of appearing unintelligible and better left alone, remains mystery, but becomes something exciting, energizing, a source of life, the source of our own lives, which can never be exhausted by any amount of exploration.

This is the story of a life in which brokenness finds healing and reconciliation in an ever-deepening existential hold on the realities of Trinitarian life in which we all live by virtue of Baptism and Eucharist. Read it for yourself and find it ringing bells in your own experience.

Arthur Middleton is a tutor at St Chad’s, Durham.

 

FOUNDATIONS OF VIOLENCE

Grace Jantzen

Routledge, 400pp, pbk

0 415 29033 3, [£19.99]

Listening to Professor Jantzen I feel like an Old Testament king in the presence of one of his prophets. I dread her arrival and the words of condemnation she speaks, and yet must grudgingly admit that she speaks powerfully and her words carry conviction. And like that Old Testament king, I go away still utterly convinced that she is in fact wrong.

This is volume one of a longer term enterprise analyzing the ‘pursuit of death and the love of death’ within Western culture, which she begins to argue, and will finish later, is coming to a point of crisis in post-modernity. We must, therefore, revise our entire history, so as to make sense of the death wish that is crushing current society.

For a writer so sensitive to others’ writing, she is amazingly lacking in critical analysis with regard to herself. You do not write, ‘No wonder that so much theological and philosophical writing in modernity is boringly ugly’ within a chapter whose expressed purpose is to find ‘a poetics of natality [that] could replace the necrophilia of the western symbolic.’ If your own writing is heavy with academic methodological jargon, you would be unwise to criticize others for ugliness.

The biggest mistake, and the most interesting, is her advocacy of this feminine natality in contrast to the male way of death. The suggestions are stimulating and there is a hint of something truly worth saying. Maybe, you begin to think, this DWEM revisionism has a point. Maybe it is on the right track. Maybe all dead white European males are bad, and modern womanism will save us all. And then you ask yourself, what does she say about abortion, and how does that fit into her life-affirming thesis? Silence. Pro-choice and anti-death? ‘Yeah, right’ is the appropriate response.

The next volume will consider Christendom. This one covers the great thinkers, poets and dramatists of the Greek and Roman civilization. As I said, she is sensitive to others’ writing, to the point where her opening account of Homer’s Iliad is sufficiently generous that I finished it more than ever impressed by the seductive power of the ‘death culture’ of the Trojan War.

Ultimately, her thesis crumbles under its own relentlessness. Euripides, with his strong condemnation of the ideals that led to the Trojan War, writing as he was as the Peloponnesian War reached its climax, gets a good press, at first. Sure enough, however, the condemnation is applied, and we discover his gender insensitivities. Among the Romans, the calm materialism of Lecretius with his rejection of any fear of death or any hope in immortality seems the best candidate for commendation, until we discover his rather bizarre explanations of procreation. There is no good man, no, not one.

The value of this book, then, is not in its overall argument, but as a negative reference to classical literature. If you want a woman to teach you about classical Greece, read Jacqueline de Romilly; if you want an analysis of violence, read René Girard; but if having read them or any other positive study, and you want an Old Testament prophet figure guaranteed to give you the bad news no matter what, then Jantzen will deliver. JE

 

THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER

The Church of Ireland

Columba, 800pp, hbk

1 85607 429 3 etc

Coming into use on Trinity Sunday, this is almost a very fine, contemporary Anglican Prayer Book. The modern services are from the same school as, and heavily influenced by, Common Worship, but (and this is where the Irish version is far superior) it still manages to retain the sense of being what it claims to be, a book of common prayer, rather than a collection of resources for an infinite variety of services.

It has all the Offices, with further prayers and the Litany; Holy Communion; the full range of Christian Initiation rites; Marriage; the Ministry to the Sick and Dying, and Penitents; Funeral services; Ordination; and the Psalter; concluding with a Catechism and the Articles. Its big mistake is to include a complete set of traditional services alongside the modern ones. Obviously that makes the book bigger and not quite as easy to use, but that is a minor quibble. No doubt the desire was to show that both traditional and modern have a full and honoured place in the life of the church, but even if it were somehow a good thing to include both strands in the same book without confusing people, it still fails, for there is only one Psalter, and that is the modern, inclusive-language, non-christological CW version. Did their Synod truly believe that one could use these psalms within the pattern and cycle of the traditional services? If they did, may God forgive them.

If they truly valued the 1926 Prayer Book, they should have kept it, and offered the 2004 complete and on its own terms: that would have been a genuine Prayer Book as understood by Anglicans. One day (if God wishes it) our Communion will return to the original ideal, a book that every member can use and share in church and at home. Until then, value this attempt. It comes close. AS

 

Healed, Restored, Forgiven

Compiled by John Gunstone

Canterbury, 126pp, pbk

1 85311 587 8, £12.99

Who needs a Liturgical Commission and pompous Church House printing when a clever publisher and a careful editor can do the whole thing better? Here is a book of prayers and resources for services for the ministry of healing.

This book is so much better than the equivalent pages at the beginning of Common Worship: Pastoral Services it is downright funny. The layout, the readability of the texts, the organization of the various sections, the accompanying notes, all seem superior. It is too early to say that it has passed the test of time, but if you are involved in the ministry of healing within the life of your parish church, and want to use modern CW style form and language, check this book out.

Perhaps there are too many prayers, perhaps it is a little too organized, but that is the modern way. The sombre simplicity of the BCP is of the past, but good for Gunstone; he has given us a book that is so much easier, so much less fussy and so much friendlier that the official texts. DN

 

This Promise is for You

Michelle Moran & Charles Whitehead

Goodnews Videos

1 903623 13 8, £69.99

Well before Nicky Gumbel and the Alpha Course, Roman Catholics were running their own Life in the Spirit seminars. Since 1969 these seminars have led millions of Christians into a new awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit so that the Alpha can be seen as its derivative. Thirty-five years on, the seminar teaching input has finally been produced on video along with some testimonies of renewal in the Holy Spirit. This means that, as in Alpha, small groups all over the world may gain substantial, challenging and intriguing input from both Scripture and the age-old teaching of the Church in groups assembled around a video player.

Michelle Moran and Charles Whitehead provide six 40-minute talks on two videos covering these topics: the certainty of God’s love, freedom in Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit, the spiritual gifts or charisms, fullness of life and empowerment to serve. Each video input includes a personal testimony and is designed to facilitate a group session of up to two hours including spontaneous prayer, discussion and ministry to individuals by a team formed up as suggested in the accompanying leader’s manual. A daily prayer guide is provided for participants and a music CD to help with the weekly worship.

The course encourages participants to make a sacramental confession or some other act of personal repentance before Week 5 when there is a corporate renewal of baptism promises, followed by prayer for individuals to be ‘baptised in the Holy Spirit’. The theological understanding behind this action is presented in the manual by Fr Cantalamessa, the Pope’s Confessor. Baptism in the Spirit is no sacrament but an untying of the grace of sacramental initiation through baptism and confirmation. The theological references, often to the Catholic Catechism, are impressive compared to, say, Alpha. At the same time the Roman Catholic flavouring, particularly strong in the first session, may be off-putting to some, even though it is promoted as an ecumenical resource. Some may also find the emphasis on speaking in tongues difficult, as people do in Alpha.

The best assets of this course package are the powerful yet thoughtful contributions of Michelle Moran and Charles Whitehead and their selection of video testimonies. Everything shared rings true to both human inadequacy and to God’s strength and power being manifested in such weakness. Compared to the Alpha videos this resource seems somewhat more varied, more theological and yet, strangely, more down to earth. It is well worth swallowing one’s suspicions of either Catholicism or Pentecostalism to drink in the reminder it provides of how much we need Jesus, and how the power of the Holy Spirit can revitalize our prayer life and our parish.

John Twisleton is Chichester diocesan mission & renewal adviser.

 

Re-pitching the tent

Richard Giles

Canterbury, 268pp, pbk

1 85311 571 1, £20

At a time when more and more churches are quietly dismantling their late twentieth century liturgical experiments, and altars are, here and there, being pushed back to the east wall, it was fun to encounter a new edition of this vigorous mission statement of the church wreckers. It is an easy book to read, extensively illustrated, with plenty of diagrams and extra quotations in the broad margin.

The developing sophistication of Diocesan Advisory Committees, aided and abetted by European health and safety legislation, and further complicated by the ramifications of bidding for funds, has meant for most of us that church re-ordering has grown into a bureaucratic, legalistic, political correct process that could last a decade and achieve virtually nothing. How refreshing to read this fully worked out manifesto of how it should be done. Appendix J, for example, offers ‘a six-week course on the design of liturgical space’.

There may not be subtlety or fairness in Giles’ writing, but it is wonderfully entertaining, and he is certainly not someone who has ever suffered from a moment’s doubt in his life. How his parishioners must have loved him, or hated him, when he was a parish priest. His stance is clear from the start, ‘The basic instinct of humankind, evidenced in most primitive societies…’ It is sociology in all its forms, from political to anthropological to psychological, that is the driving force, with symbolism as the central focus. A picture of a Victorian font is subtitled, ‘A dried up well’, for it is the water we want, clear, visible and even, he suggests, dangerous, ‘Water should well up in our assemblies, splashing, gurgling,’ literally.

What we need, the implicit message seems to be, is money and self-confidence. Acquire those, find a large urban building and set to. Rebuild that church as a contemporary space. Not surprisingly most of the best examples come from America (with the obligatory nod to French monasteries, to provide a bit of Vatican II gravitas). Also, not surprisingly, most of the illustrations are unpopulated. There is a possibility that mere people will clutter and obscure the stunning vistas and architectural statements.

If you do no more than this, look at the book’s front cover. Giles was once a CofE vicar, he is now Dean of Philadelphia, and on the front of the book is a colour picture of his re-ordering of his cathedral. It is stunning! I am sure I would not want to go to church there, but I am equally sure I would love to go and see it. Mad, bad and beguiling. SR

 

THE LAY EUCHARISTIC MINISTER’S HANDBOOK

Ann Tomalak

Canterbury, 112pp, pbk

1 85311 550 9, £9.99

The professionalization of the laity is a fact of life in all our churches and across denominations, and it has required a correspondingly professional style of guide to the different forms of lay service and ministry. However good and holy the priest, modern professional lay people want a bit more than his words of wisdom. They want, if you like, a bit of serious homework, so that they can learn their way into their ministry by their own efforts. Questions have to be raised and answered; a whole range of options must be acknowledged and dealt with; explanations must be simple and authoritative, moving from the New Testament to the modern day. There is a busyness to contemporary church life, and there is no use lamenting a past age.

Not all guides and handbooks succeed in getting beyond the practical, managerial, functional approach. This is especially true for Church of England books, where any author must expend so much energy being careful not to offend those of a different churchmanship. This means that Roman Catholic guides can often be clearer and more confident, and therefore more helpful. This is just such an example.

I would commend this guide for chalice assistants and eucharistic ministers because, while covering all the angles, it instils a seriousness and a confidence I have not always found in others. Would I use this guide and give it to ministry candidates in my own, Anglo-Catholic parish? Yes. DN

 

THE SPIRITUAL EXERCISES OF ST IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA

Translated by Michael Ivens sj

Gracewing, 112pp, hbk

0 85244 404 4, [£7.99]

The popularity of Ignatian spirituality and the interest in individual Ignatian retreats is sufficient to justify a new translation of the original handbook or collection of notes that Ignatius wrote for retreat directors. It is because they are so brief and so direct that they retain their power, long after other seventeenth century religious texts, written more directly to the individual believer. This translation admirably fits style to content. It is sparse and literal, and keeps the immediacy of this great Christian spiritual director. DN

 

LADY MAGDALEN

Robin Jenkins

Canongate, 330pp, pbk

1 84195 492 6, £7.99

The task I have been set is to come across modern novels that carry a Christian theme, not a specifically Christian novel, but one that uses the freedom and constraints of fiction to explore themes, such as forgiveness and redemption, that will illuminate the Gospel in our own generation. The writer does not have to be a Christian, and her purpose may not be in any way religious, but fiction is valuable in the unconscious process of awakening a spiritual sensitivity, and we ought to take note of what it says.

The problem with so many modern novels is that the emphasis is on the writing rather than the theme. Modern novels, in a word, are clever, more often than possessed of a power to move. A possible exception are historical novels. A contemporary author does not have to apologize for having to deal with old fashioned practices such as prayer and worship and religious allegiance. Furthermore, the constraints laid on women in earlier ages allow deeper emotions to develop – as the great Victorian writers taught us.

The Lady Magdalen of the title was the wife of James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose, who began as a leading Presbyterian at the beginning of the Civil War, only to transfer his allegiance to Charles I, leading the Royalist army, first to victory and then defeat; fleeing to France, he later returned to avenge the king’s death, and was finally taken prisoner and executed in Edinburgh. The story is told through her eyes, as she stays at home, looking after their children and the household. There is plenty of material here to work with.

Jenkins’ style is flowing and gentle and very easy to read – classic bed-time reading after a hard day, and well enough written to suggest that you are not wasting your time. The frustrations, dangers and restrictions surrounding the heroine are most compassionately and memorably told. It is a book to warm to. Almost. It was spoilt for me by a rising anger at his secular cynicism for all things religious. A mild sympathy for Catholicism is balanced by a snarling prejudice for all things Presbyterian.

The worst part, however, is his complete rejection of all the issues of the day. Those were terrible times; huge issues of governance (and that inevitably included religious governance) were being fought over; men gave their lives and lost them for causes they believed in, and all he can suggest is that it was a complete waste of time, and why did they bother. Life would be a lot nicer if we all learned to get on with each other. That’s absolutely true, but it does rather dull the power of fiction. AS

 

Remember JOSE INGA!

James O’Halloran

Columba, 168pp, pbk

1 85607 414 5, [£7.50]

A novel written by a priest. A promising candidate for fiction with real substance. The story is set in 1970s South America, and it is a credit to the campaigning commitment of liberationist priests and left-wing activists of that period that the core narrative is so familiar to us in Western Europe. This is a tale of the oppressed and the clergy who supported them. It begins with a young father from the slums being summarily dismissed from his job for questioning the working conditions, and follows the developing implications as the ripples of one trivial action spread further and further out.

It is powerful drama and the descriptions are true and vivid, and when he speaks of the European clergy (of whom the author was one) there is the beginnings of real sympathy; the escape of the principal young priest from his slum parish to the high Andes, when the government is after him is intensely and powerfully told. Nevertheless this is not a novel, it is a story. We remain on the outside, looking in, not merely because that is what we are, but because the moral responses of the players are nearly all in character.

The bad guys are bad and the good guys are good. Not one person changes sides, only a single activist, a woman, moves from agitprop to a more subtle non-violence. The two young priests from the West can do no more than flee for their lives and are simply lost to their parish ministry. True to life it may be, but not quite true to fiction. It is a fine tale and I enjoyed reading it, but it remained only a tale. AS

 

The Book of Divine Worship reviewed last month is distributed in this country by Gracewing at £17.99.

 

Temples Worthy of His Presence

Edited by Christopher Webster

Spire Books, 272pp, pbk

0 9543615 2 0, £22.95

 

This is a collection of reprinted pamphlets by the Camden Society from the 1840s. This group of earnest Cambridge undergraduates initiated a movement of Gothic re-ordering of churches that improved, ruined or at least changed nearly every CofE building in the land. ‘The object of the Society’, its original Laws of 1839 began, ‘shall be to promote the study of Ecclesiastical Architecture and Antiquities, and the restoration of mutilated Architectural remains.’ It was their careful and highly motivated study of medieval church history that gave them the authority to influence so many clergy and architects to their cause.

We look back through the heavy-handed brutalism of the late Victorians, who made gods of carved wood and their own stone memorials, and we forget the energy, enthusiasm and didactic zeal of the early proponents of the new Gothic. These pamphlets, addressed to historians and church builders, not forgetting churchwardens, parish clerks and sextons, have not been reprinted before, and each gives a vivid insight into the issues at stake at the beginning of one of the Church’s periodic revolutions in worship and worship space. SR

From ‘A Few Words to Parish Clerks and Sextons’ in Temples Worthy of his Presence:

Also, though I much wish that jackdaws, as I said before, could be banished from the Tower, I do not mean that they should be shot in the churchyard. Besides the danger of breaking church-windows, there is something very unseemly in this. And as to shooting swallows or martins as they fly round the Tower, it is a cruel and barbarous custom: neither ought their nests to be taken away from the eaves, for they do no great harm; and from having chosen the church as their home, seem to have a kind of claim to be taken care of.

HOLY SMOKE

Peter Mullen

10 Giltspur St, London EC1A 9DE, 150pp, pbk

0 9547157 0 5, [£10 + £2 p&p]

There are all sorts of different parishes across the country, large, small, urban, rural, but still recognizably parishes, and then there is the City of London. Rich, privileged, complacent, and yet what an imaginative gift to the rest of the Church of England. Of course we envy them, but we are also glad to know that they are there, pursuing their own strange ministries. When diocesan offices and deanery synods grind you down with their worthy, predictable bureaucracy and earnestness, it is encouraging to know there are these churches with their totally different agendas.

One such is St Michael’s, Cornhill, with its high profile Rector – if you are a reader of The Times you will find him quoted every time there is a manufactured shock-horror story about silly parsons and witless bishops. He clearly loves his job, and has an easy, trenchant style. These pieces, reworked I would guess from sermons, magazine pieces, letters and his store of jokes, offer an entertaining picture of London church life. His amusing and biting satire against all things modern in the liturgy is already familiar to all members of the Prayer Book Society.

The Old Testament prophets used savage satire to get across their point, so the technique has its pedigree, but it is absolutely vital that one can believe it. When things get as bad as they are in today’s CofE, it is hard to credit it. The chapter entitled ‘New Age Yuppies Steal the Font’ gives a lively critique of a modern, informal afternoon baptism in which the young clergyperson struggles desperately to be undemanding, inclusive and all the other contemporary virtues. All sadly believable. But could it conceivably have reached this climax?

Taking the baby in his arms and drooling his perpetual effulgence over her, he prayed, ‘In the name of the Lord Kirshna, Shiva, the great Buddha – and of Jesus, whom some call Lord – and of all the prophets and masters everywhere who have taught peace and enlightenment, we welcome S– C– into the family where true relationships are celebrated.’ He poured water over the infant with a sea shell, lifted her to his smiling chops and kissed her.

Perhaps we should be looking forward to the Clergy Discipline Measure Part Two. AN

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