A MASTER IN THE MAKING
The National Gallery
Till 15 January 2006, £9
Rubens was one of the most successful and sought-after artists of his time. His magnificent paintings encapsulated the Baroque style, and were immensely popular. He was in demand as a painter both by wealthy private patrons and by the churches of the Counter-Reformation movement in the Netherlands. He was also a diplomat (speaking five languages), a scholar, a courtier and a discerning art collector. This exhibition describes his early apprenticeship as a fourteen-year-old in Antwerp, his Italian travels, and his return to Antwerp as a famous and successful artist.
Rubens’ energy, ambition and drive are evident even in his early works. He sets himself to tackle difficult and complex compositions early on and learns as he paints. His painting of theBattle of the Amazons is a canvas full of struggling energetic men, women and horses, with over-dramatic lighting. In a painting entitled The Council of the Gods, he studies foreshortening and the problems of figures viewed from beneath. Rather comically in the top left-hand corner dangle the bare feet of gods you cannot see, seated presumably on clouds.
He went to Italy in his early twenties, and immediately began to make drawings of paintings and sculptures he found there. From this period comes a large and exuberant St George killing the dragon. The horse, with flashing eyes, rears up, its blond mane and tail rippling and shining, the dragon twists its blackened tongue in agony round St George’s broken spear, while he magnificently prepares for the final blow which will rescue the trembling princess in the background.
He was much in demand as a portrait painter, and his portrait of the 22-year-old Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria is glittering – his use of paint to describe her lace, her jewels, her silver satin dress, is confident and free; the lovely youthful face is not eclipsed by their grandeur, but gazes calmly at the viewer.
Rubens had copied sculptures in Antwerp during his apprentice days, but he found the range and quality of Roman art hugely stimulating. He sketched constantly in the Vatican sculpture courtyards and elsewhere, making a collection of drawings that he used for the rest of his life. The drawings on display, many of which are shown near the paintings where they have been used, are beautifully and carefully observed. His drawings of the Laocoön and studies from theécorché (flayed) statuettes are especially illuminating.
The results of his hard work and study of old masters began to show very soon, and his enthusiastic grasp of big complex compositions backed up by impressive painting techniques makes the paintings of this period particularly exciting. HisSamson and Delilah is a celebration of all he learned – a magnificently muscled body, a controlled sense of incipient violence, and jewel-like painting. His Massacre of the Innocents is an exploration of tyranny and death that has plenty to say to us today. With its frantic weeping women, and the dead and dying babies, it is a deeply moving and appalling picture.
TheConversion of St Paul was a subject he painted several times, and there are three paintings in the exhibition. One of them, an oil sketch, is almost abstract in its exploration of light and space. A combination of frantic fear and divine intervention is one that he was to explore frequently.
At the end of the exhibition we see the National Gallery’s enchanting painting he made of his five-year-old daughter Clara. Painted with light fresh colours and very free technique, the little girl sparkles with trustful intelligence.
As Rubens became more successful, he employed a studio full of artists and apprentices to help complete his many commissions. In this exhibition, with a few exceptions, we see his work before this became necessary. It is exhilarating to see a brilliant artist in the making.
DLT, 136pp, pbk
0 232 52579 X, £10·95
DLT, 370pp, pbk
0 232 52608 7, £14·95
These two books, one from an Anglican priest and the other from a Roman Catholic layperson, come from people with remarkably similar backgrounds and concerns. Both are adult converts to Christianity. Both have made their journey to faith within the context of a concern for the vulnerable and marginalized. Both lives have been given up to an ongoing concern for such people, reminding us that this is the way of Christ and so a priority for us in exercising our Christian discipleship.
Bill Kirkpatrick, now in his seventy-ninth year, offers us what might be regarded as an apologia for his life. ‘I write in an attempt to clarify for myself, if for no one else, my own unique life and ministry in relationship to my vocational responsibility to love as a soul-person, as a priest brother.’ The key to Kirkpatrick’s way of loving is through what he describes as a ministry of listening. His firsthand account of that ministry and how it is to be done is both compelling and profound.
Many of us will wish we had encountered such a book earlier in our formation as soul-friends or confessors. Yet the book moves beyond these insights as Kirkpatrick shares with us his own life story and spiritual journey. It is as if the author were now providing a ministry of listening to himself. We are led gradually to learn something of what he has gleaned of the meaning of priesthood and of prayer. His chapter on ministry to the dying is a must for anyone seeking resources for this awesome service.
Any reviewer, however, has a problem with this book. Kirkpatrick teaches us to listen in a way that is non-judgmental. He rightly inveighs against those who have rejected him for his homosexuality and against those who practise sexual discrimination.
This seems to overflow into a premise that those who take a different ethical line from Kirkpatrick or who claim there are sound arguments for maintaining an all-male priesthood are prejudiced people who are not sufficiently listening. Is a reviewer, in Kirkpatrick’s terms, failing to listen when asking questions of this argument? Might Christians who take a different line from the author also have a valid point of view?
By contrast, Dorothy Day’s writings are gleaned from across her lifespan, reflecting on events and issues as they occur for her. The book has been republished to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of her death. This lady who was, in many ways, so out of step with the comfortable Catholicism of her time, has now been named as ‘Servant of God’ by the Vatican as it recognizes her cause for canonization.
The preface states that Dorothy Day now ‘appears near the top of any list of the most significant Catholics in American history.’ While that might not be saying much about either the perceived length of American history or the quality of its Catholic life, Dorothy Day is less well known on this side of the Atlantic. It is worth possessing this book for the engaging account of her life set out in a very full introduction.
We learn, too, of that amazing man, Peter Maurin, who with Dorothy Day was to become co-founder ofThe Catholic Worker. Later, we are given written sketches of people significant to Dorothy Day as her work unfolded. Her account of Peter Maurin, a largely self-taught expert on Thomism and Catholic social teaching, is remarkable. Peter Maurin led a peripatetic lifestyle. He lacked any concern for having his own room or bed, let alone his own desk. His concern for the poor, his quest for a just social order, and his ability to embody the virtues that he preached, recall St Francis of Assisi.
Day became involved in social concerns in her teens. She had a number of affairs, one of which was to result in the birth of her daughter Tamar. She tells of being gradually drawn to faith, of her wish for Tamar to be raised as a Christian, and eventually of her own reception into the Roman Catholic Church. A visit from Peter Maurin, who had been sent to her by someone who thought they had common interests, launched her into her life’s work with the newspaperThe Catholic Worker. It addressed the needs of the poor and their claims for justice, drawing on Catholic social theology.
She introduces us to her feelings for her family, her prayer life, and her constant relating of faith to life.The Catholic Worker was always sold for a cent: the newspaper and associated charitable works were all financed on the basis that the Lord would provide. The much-needed money would always be given. Business plans were eschewed. If God wanted the work to prosper, the money would be forthcoming. We blush at well-crafted sermons preached on Christian Stewardship as we read the account of how her work was financed. Even in the Fifties, large queues would wind themselves around the headquarters of The Catholic Worker as volunteers sought to offer cups of coffee and simple food to those whom America’s capitalist system had left starving.
Dorothy’s work for the peace movement, including her refusal to pay any income tax, since part would be used to finance weapons, is well documented. Yet this radical was loyal to her Church. She was prepared to stop all campaigning if so ordered by her bishop. That did not stop her from pointing out that Cardinal Spellman, in supporting the Vietnam War, was contradicting the teaching of Pope John XXIII.
This delightful book ideally needs to be read slowly, perhaps in retreat. It helps enter into a better understanding of Catholic social theology and as to why that theology is still relevant even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of New Labour.
Bishop Martyn Jarrett
THE QUEEN MOTHER
Hutchinson, 618pp, hbk
0 09 180010 2, £20
The Queen Mother’s life spanned the twentieth century and she died full of years, honours and with immense affection. She had become embedded in the national psyche and it was difficult to image the country without her benign presence. But we accommodate ourselves to death and loss with alarming ease. This book brings her back among us but it does not add much to our understanding. During the course of her life we saw more open and intrusive reporting in the public prints and the person behind the gracious, smiling public persona was not unknown. She could be a steely, sharply observant character as well as the member of the Royal Family who could move with the greatest of ease among all sorts and conditions of people.
Of course, she enjoyed a life of immense privilege and wealth. In her long life she never needed to draw a bath or a curtain, but that security in material things could not protect her from the pain of grief on the premature death of her husband, the trial of scandal in the younger generation and the other vicissitudes and follies of life. She was a lively and inquisitive child, charming and popular, and she never lost those qualities employing them to the full throughout her life. Her enjoyment of life was infectious and there is ample testimony that she brought much joy and happiness in the conscientious execution of her public duties, not least during the War.
She had a special rapport with the Armed Forces, not least because a beloved brother fell during the First World War and she sought to give comfort and support and to boost morale whenever she could. Like many of her generation, the wounds of war went deep and she did not forget the cruelty inflicted and the many lives blighted. The visit of the Japanese Imperial family long after the War elicited some of her most barbed comments.
The writer A.N. Wilson has compared this book to the biography of Queen Mary by James Pope-Hennessey which rightly occupies a singular place of honour among royal biographies. It is difficult to see how such a comparison can be justified. It is a good read. It is packed with information and illuminating comments. It is generously illustrated. It is beautifully presented. Hugo Vickers tells us that his method was to be involved in every aspect of the book’s production and it is a handsome book at a modest price.
However, too many of the family trees of the huge cast of characters find their way into the text rather than as footnotes, and so hold up the narrative flow. At other times the text seems more like a series of notes towards a life strung together with a minimum of connecting detail. This is true of the chapter dealing with the members of her Household, a series of potted biographies that feels like the writing-up of notes with little development. If those irritations detract from the overall quality of the book, there are ample compensations in some vivid descriptive set-pieces, not least the coronation. Nor is the author afraid to make judgements. This is not hagiography but nor is it rude revisionism. There are some critical comments along the way, not least some tartly apposite comments about the ghastly Mrs Simpson.
There are no revelations that would change the current historical perspective and on the central event of her life, the abdication crisis. Hugo Vickers says at the outset, ‘There has always been intense interest in the role she played in the Abdication, but the simple truth is that she played none at all.’ At least it is good to know the ‘simple truth.’ She was ill at the height of the crisis and, although there were times when her illnesses were convenient, this seems to be both genuine and fortuitous. Still suffering from the death of her husband, it is little surprise that she was reluctant to come to grips with the love affair between Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend.
The book well illustrates the depth of her Christian faith, brought up in the Scottish Episcopalian tradition from which she never deviated and her equally deep adherence and commitment to her life of service. She turned down the Duke of York’s proposal of marriage twice before she agreed to marry him and had no expectation of being Queen. Once she did, however, she gave all that she could, all that she had to the service of her country and its people. She kept faith with her God and with her country and with its people.
WHAT THE BIBLE
SPCK, 160pp, pbk
0 281 05680 3, £9·99
Rarely is a book so timely and satisfying as this one. Fundamentalism in each of the major world faiths is a force gaining a terrifying momentum on the contemporary scene, and secularized Western societies have so lost touch with the nature of religious conviction that they are uncomprehending and powerless in the face of a phenomenon which gives no heed to reason.
At the root of fundamentalism is fear: the fear of the faithful that their faith is being belittled and disregarded by secularized society; fear that the natural sciences are steadily eroding the possibility of belief; fear that familiar and once generally accepted moral codes are being questioned; fear that advances in such fields as medicine, genetic research and psychology are raising possibilities and questions with which faith can not cope; fear that unbelievers have clear answers to contemporary predicaments while believers are left stammering about a Divine Reality which cannot be empirically demonstrated.
An obvious course for believers facing these challenges is to seek a religious authority which may not be questioned, and to invest their trust in it. This may be an institutional authority, such as the Church or the Papacy, or it may be the authority of the sacred writings belonging to a particular faith, be they the Qur’an or the Bible. The writings are to be taken at face value, and regarded as the unchallengeable arbiter in all matters of faith and conduct. To those who accept this approach to the scriptures, it gives a sense of security and superiority, as well as being the means by which fundamentalists determine who is acceptable to God and who is not. Should such fundamentalism become allied to politics and territorial claims, the result is likely to be bloody, as the Righteous find textual justification for the destruction of the Unrighteous.
Christianity has seen a marked rise in such fundamentalist approaches to the Scriptures, often linked to conservative Evangelicalism, but not exclusively so. Catholics are not immune from the temptation to quote isolated verses from the Bible in defence of supposedly Christian teaching which is actually prejudice dressed up as principle. Whether it is influencing United States policy, or the behaviour of conservative bishops, or whether it is affecting parishes and the lives of individual Christians, Fundamentalism cannot be ignored. Parish priests will need no reminder of how disturbing its influence can be.
This book, written by the recently retired Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, aims at helping those who have been influenced by biblical fundamentalism to see beyond it. What makes the book particularly significant is that Professor Ward begins with a clear statement that he has known what is called evangelical conversion: ‘I am a born-again Christian. I can give a precise day when Christ came to me and began to transform my life with his power and his love...I have no difficulty in saying that I wholeheartedly accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour.’ Such a testimony to personal faith is still too rare in the writing of academic theologians, and it marks the commitment of heart as well as of mind which makes this book so pleasing and challenging.
The other notable feature of this study is the courteous tone in which it is written. Professor Ward has no hesitation in pointing out the flaws which, as a born-again Christian, he discovered in the use of the Bible by his fellow converts: ‘They were in fact being very selective in picking out a few favourite texts which they repeated over and over, while ignoring many other equally important texts altogether. They often distorted or gave a very implausible meaning to many of the passages they liked, in order to fit a set of beliefs that they already had.’ Yet he writes from real appreciation of the sincere faith which underlies much fundamentalism, as well as from a pastoral concern that its adherents should be freed from its tyranny. He is also clear that to be an Evangelical is not necessarily to be a Fundamentalist.
The chapter headings give clear indications of the themes examined in them, such as biblical teaching on salvation, evil, sin and grace, the sacrifice of Jesus, resurrection, judgement, heaven and hell, and the moral law. In page after page, Professor Ward demonstrates how Fundamentalism not only betrays the Scriptures, but crumbles under the weight of its own incoherence.
A question which inevitably rises from the theme of the book is how much good teaching on the nature, purpose and inspiration of Scripture is being done among the Christian faithful. Critical biblical scholarship is a well established discipline, yet one suspects that very few congregations learn anything of what responsible and devout scholars are saying about the Bible, and therefore there is much unnecessary disturbance when some popular presentation in the press or on television offers an ‘X proves the Bible wrong’ item.
It is easy to say that scholars do not try hard enough to present their work in a form accessible to the non-specialist reader. Yet even when they do, as in the case of the late Raymond E. Brown, is their testimony to the complementary nature of faith and biblical scholarship reaching the pews? Priestly ministry gives little enough time for serious study of any kind, but Michael Ramsey’s suggestion inDurham Essays and Addresses that a priest (or a bishop) might study a particular book of the Bible over a whole year still has great force.
There is much more which could be said about this book, but it is of far greater importance that it should be read rather than described. Does your parish have a study group? Here is the perfect material for it. If you have intelligent young people in your congregation give them the book to readbefore they go to university and are assaulted by Christian Fundamentalists. I make no apologies for praising this book so highly. It deserves such praise, and Professor Ward has earned our deepest gratitude.
IN DEFENCE OF CHRISTIANITY
OUP, 182pp, hbk
0 19 927679 X, £16·99
Brian Hebblethwaite has had a long and valuable career in which he has done much, not least in a series of books to build up an apologia for a reasoned classical trinitarian and incarnational Christianity. I have often referred students to his earlier books, especiallyThe Incarnation, The Ocean of Truth (on objective believing in God, as against the sort of stance represented by ‘The Sea of Faith’ network), and Evil, Suffering and Religion. Many who seek a reasoned discussion of their believing and who want to stretch their minds thinking about these things have found themselves in his debt. Those who find themselves in need of assistance in their defence of Christian believing, against some of the supposedly decisive arguments of secularist philosophers, will find him a resource. And perhaps I can add on a personal note that he helped me, in an exceptionally gracious way, to stretch my mind in its thinking about the doctrine of the incarnation when he was one of the examiners for my doctoral thesis, back in 1990.
His most recent book,In Defence of Christianity, is dedicated to Don Cupitt for, although their theological and philosophical positions are widely divergent, they were Cambridge colleagues for many years (although the fact that the book is dedicated to Cupitt does not stop Hebblethwaite being sharply critical; see pp.17–18). The book is an exercise in what we call ‘apologetics.’ This sounds dangerously like ‘apologising’ for our Christian faith, but we are not saying we are sorry for it, but trying to explain why we hold it. As my dictionary puts it, an apologetic is a ‘reasoned defence.’ It is in this sense that one of the schools of Christian writers in the early centuries of the Church’s life were called ‘the Apologists.’
Hebblethwaite acknowledges, like all good apologists, that ‘few people are actually reasoned into faith’ [p.1]. But many times some of you will need to find reasons ‘for the hope that is in you’ [1 Pet. 3.15] and then the sort of material discussed in this book comes into its own. As he puts it, ‘the arguments which I intend to sketch here are more like buttresses than foundations, reasons that can be given…in support of faith.’ And like any good buttresses they help the building not to collapse.
The book, in six relatively brief chapters, surveys three different sorts of reason that we might give. The first type looks at the way the world is to indicate a case for believing in the existence of God and for believing that such a God would be revealed to us (this is part of what is often called ‘natural theology’). The second type of reason rests on particular factors in history, especially factors evident in the life and death of Jesus Christ. And the third type stresses the internal coherence of Christian doctrine and, especially, the attractiveness of incarnational and trinitarian belief (the second and third types of reason are part of what is often called ‘revealed theology’).
The central theme that runs through this book is that ‘there is no sharp distinction to be drawn between natural and revealed theology’ [p.33]. After all, Christians believe that the world which yields those arguments that natural theology frames is made by a God who is in the business of self-revelation and that an appeal to revelation can be a rational appeal. Theology, whether natural or revealed, is discussable, open to criticism, and susceptible of being pondered hypothetically. As Hebblethwaite says, he is ‘urging the assimilation of revealed theology to natural theology in respect of their common rational scrutability’ [p.46].
Let me add two particular merits of this book, before closing on a more quizzical note. First, it is beautifully produced and the endnotes are easy to use. Second, and perhaps more important, at a time in English theology when all too many writers seem to have fallen into the trap of thinking that the more incomprehensible their writing the more attractive and compelling their theological vision, it is good to read a book which is a model of clarity and lucidity. You may disagree with him, but at least you can understand what he is saying.
And yet, I suppose, in a curious way my final quizzical note is related to this admirable clarity and lucidity, and is perhaps the downside of it. I found myself wondering what value the idea of a theological ‘mystery’ might have for Hebblethwaite’s apologetic and whether the stress of the Orthodox on our not-knowing (‘apophatic theology’) has any role to play here. The early Christian writer Tertullian delighted in the paradox when he wrote, ‘The Son of God died: absurd, and therefore utterly credible. He was buried and rose again: impossible and therefore certain’ [De Carne Christi, 5]. Is there a danger that in the concern to stress the rational attractiveness of the doctrines we may not attend sufficiently to the apologetic strengths of what Dorothy L. Sayers called the ‘astonishing drama’ of the doctrines?
FAITH IN EUROPE?
Cormac Murphy-O’Connor et al.
DLT, 94pp, pbk
0 232 52630 3, £9·95
As a self-confessed euro-sceptic, I was amused by Bob Geldof’s assessment of Europe as ‘a Milton Keynes continent of Pooterish ambition.’ These lectures commissioned in light of Pope John Paul II’sEcclesia in Europa do however have a serious point: what place does the Church have in an increasingly secular Europe? With the recent spate of riots and civil unrest in France, what should the Church’s response be? The Archbishop of Westminster, in bringing together a wide range of voices on this subject, has certainly added to the debate over the usefulness of the European Project.
Europe has become a secular continent in which the Church struggles to find a role. Yet as the Archbishop points out, ‘it needs the Church as never before.’ If this is going to happen, then the European Union will need to reassess its policies and the Church will need to become more active in the life of European nations. By bringing together people from different fields, the Archbishop enables the reader to gain an overview of the challenges facing modern Europe.
I am never quite sure what Bob Geldof’s qualifications in addressing these issues are – concerned millionaire perhaps? His lecture given during the G8 summit calls on European governments and the EU in particular to assist in ‘Making Poverty History.’ He calls for the European Union to join together in a ‘solidarity of justice.’ His lecture which looks at Europe through the eyes of Africa may have been evocative and stinging when delivered by him, but what we are given in this volume is an essay that was the ‘basis’ of the talk. It is the weakest of a good set of lectures. The writing lacks the passion that Geldof might have given in his delivery.
The politicians invited to speak (Lord Patten and President McAleese) both address the problems facing Europe. Europe is for them a wounded continent dominated by a feeling of hopelessness. In order to address these problems and assist in the world, Lord Patten suggests that Europe should lead by example, dragging the world out of chaos and into a prosperous pluralism. Certainly the over-riding theme of this book is solidarity and it would seem that there is a feeling amongst those we might call the secular authors that pluralism and an emphasis on justice and human rights is the answer to Europe’s problems.
The Church is left to respond and enter into conversation with these speakers. Jean Vanier lectured soon after the death of John Paul II and speaks of the example of the Pope to the Church, a shepherd serving his flock, dying with ‘grit and grace.’ The Pope was a symbol of hope and his example of service is one for us all. This sort of service is one of the ways in which we can help create a better Europe. Fr Timothy Radcliffe gives us an upbeat report on religious life in Europe where the numbers of people going on pilgrimage and retreat is increasing. This, Fr Radcliffe reports, is due to a restlessness amongst people and a desire for something more in their lives. Fr Radcliffe speaks of the problems that face many suburban parishes – apparent apathy masking the need for spiritual discovery. His lecture is the most inspiring of the series, calling as it does all Christians to act in order to encourage the spiritual reawakening so needed in Europe. Many in the Church of England would do well to listen to his message; we are a church desperately seeking renewal.
The Archbishop in the final lecture sums up what has been said and calls on Catholics to act for the future. I do think, however, that we need to be careful when answering the question of how the Church should act. The secular lecturers call for pluralism, yet this is countered by Pope Benedict XVI’s message to the Church to resist being downgraded by the modern liberal secular state. The Church is called to re-awaken in Europe her Christian heritage, ‘to make God known and to proclaim his kingdom.’ In doing this the Christian message must not be dumbed down, neither must the Church justify herself purely through the ‘usefulness of her social work.’
One of the Church’s greatest challenges in the next century will be to confront the desires of modern liberal secular society with the message of the Gospel. Christians should heed this book’s call for solidarity, but this solidarity must be one that remains true to Gospel.
Faber, 660pp, hbk
0 571 22830 5, £20
It is a compelling paradox that the shy and retiring Alan Bennett who shuns the spotlight should be one of the most accessible and well-known and least hidden men of our time. He regularly exposes his life and his views to the public gaze through his plays, lectures, public readings and journalism. His highly successful collection of some years ago,Writing Home, is now joined by a fat book that contains some of his richest, most compelling, poignant and personal writing. Read it right through or dip into it at random and you will find something on every page to stimulate, to rouse, to educate. You will also hear the characteristically flat voice in all the prose, the cadences of his gentle ruminative speaking voice, and that will provide added piquancy. Reading the book is like having a conversation with the author, admittedly one-sided.
There are stringent views, piercing observations, sustained attacks (poorClassic FM), exasperated asides, but there is much celebration, joy in the simple and the mundane, relish for the foibles of life and its characters. Two of the best pieces in the collection are talks he gave on paintings. He did a stint as a Trustee of the National Gallery and they could not have had a more gifted amateur. He brings an unrelenting eye, a keen sensibility, a precise and detailed gift for observation and the nicely placed jokes that try to undercut the easily-worn erudition that we have come to expect. ‘St Peter Martyr is seldom represented without an axe buried Excalibur-like in his head, though in fact he wasn’t killed with an axe. While he was being murdered, as in the painting in the Gallery by Bellini, it happened that woodmen were chopping down some trees nearby so the axe somehow went to his head.’
His diary entries have the same exact observation. He is as unsparing of himself as he is of those people, places and things that irritate him, but they are fascinating. There are few dud entries or comments. The recent crop of Alan Clark and the long series of the doyen James Lees-Milne sets the bench-mark high but Alan Bennett reaches it. You do not have to agree with all the views he expresses but you can always appreciate the intelligence and the personality that has formed them.
There is more revelation in his essay on his mother’s long-drawn out depression and her last years in a nursing home, and in his own brush with cancer, and his relationship with his partner. They are deeply personal, forensically analysed, with, at times, an unbearable self-scrutiny. Here once more we come face to face with the paradox. Perhaps only a recluse can be so open, so honest, so scrupulous about his feelings and emotions, his reactions both worthy and unworthy.
He is the most enduring, endearing (because of, not in spite of, his strain of melancholy observation and mordant view of the world) and companionable of literary talents. To spend time in his company through his writing is to emerge a better person. He would squirm with embarrassment at such an extravagant endorsement.
One of the art forms he has mastered and where he stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries is the Memorial Service Address. His tribute to the late Russell Harty in his former volume (and reproduced in many other places) set the standard. Here he is spot-on in his panegyric to Thora Hird. We can only hope that when the time comes there will be someone to return the compliment and write and speak with such unaffected humanity.
78pp, pbk, 0 9529077 5 5, £5
115 Splott Road, Cardiff CF24 2BY
Gill Rabjohns is the wife of Fr Alan – known for his national involvement in Life issues and Cost of Conscience. It would seem his wife has some mettle about her too! It is a brave thing to set out on a proper pilgrimage (not a jet and coach one – half board); it is a braver thing to write about the experience. (I know because I have done both.) It is an even braver thing to publish it and put it up for sale. Gill, it was worth it! It is worth every penny; not withstanding your own prophecy that it will end up in charity shops.
Some of the writing, particularly the reflective introduction and descriptions of landscape are quite beautiful; the directness and openness of the style engages the reader with the real business of pilgrimage – prayer, feet and food. There are some wonderful menus to read.
The story is simple – walk from Cardiff to Walsingham and make each of the million steps a prayer for peace. All this in the aftermath of 9/11. The reader comes to know Gill’s family and friends, the parishioners from Splott. There is a healthy Catholic spirituality here, plenty of pubs, arguments and Mass. But there is no effete piety (thank God). For myself, I responded with a whole range of emotions and a resolve to plan another long pilgrimage right now!
Faber, 320pp, hbk
0 571 22185 8, £16·99
The fall of Constantinople to Sultan Mehmet and the Ottoman army in 1453, and with it the destruction of one of the world’s greatest empires, was a defining moment for Christendom, for Islam, for European and Near Eastern history. The city that had withstood innumerable sieges since its foundation in 324, that had fallen only once, to Christians from the West in the fateful Fourth Crusade of 1204, was now finally and definitively taken.
This is the story of that final siege and defeat. It is simply and clearly told, with powerful descriptions giving vivid pictures of all the different participants and varying scenes of the great battle. To his credit Crowley, in offering what is a popular, readable account of war, never makes any reference to modern events until the story is finished. We have become so used to slick flashback and flash-forwards, to smart-alec references and post-modern parallels, that this book is unexpectedly refreshing and straightforward. He has a tale to tell, and with care and descriptive power he tells it.
His sympathy is probably with the Muslims more than the Christians, which in our day may make for a more fair-minded picture. He also understands the extraordinary awe that Byzantium exerted over Islam, offering some sense of just how it could have survived so long in such a vulnerable geopolitical position, and gives due credit to the Sultan’s skill in marshalling his vast forces, above all his creation of the most powerful artillery ever seen till then, that pounded the strongest walls ever built.
We look back and marvel that the city’s fall did not occur centuries earlier, its defeat, with hindsight, seeming to be so obviously inevitable. And yet had the last remnants of the beseiged Christians managed to hold on just twelve more hours, it is not impossible that the siege would have been lifted so hard pressed were the Ottoman forces; and the whole dreadful drama delayed for another few decades. It was a battle that had to be fought and (for Europe) lost. It is a story to be retold, even though it is well known.
Crowley tells the story of the battle well; his wider analysis of what-it-meant is by comparison weak, but he does give some clue in the opening chapters of a still more important siege that should have been won by the sons of the Prophet and yet was lost, and which, had the outcome have been different, would have changed the whole history of our continent. It was the first great setback to the jihad – the siege of 717-8. That is another story to be told.
SPCK, 192pp, pbk
0 281 05723 0, £13·99
As an introductory comment, I can certainly recommend this book to anyone with what one might call a theoretical interest in scientific theology, especially one with a tendency towards moral issues facing the modern world. Our current state of knowledge and its importance are continually emphasized throughout this book and the range of issues discussed is certainly not narrow! The author allows every side of his considerable education to come out in the remarkable volume and all I would say to the true non-specialist is to pick and choose the bits that most interest them.
I must confess that, even though a physicist myself, I found parts of the philosophical discussion quite heavy going, but nonetheless enlightening. The author really manages to unite most areas of scientific thought in terms of the way a physicist would think about a problem to areas of theology that have caused unnecessary turmoil in the past. I was particularly impressed by the chapter on ‘Human Nature – The Evolutionary Context,’ in which Darwin’s theory is put in context for what it actually states. It is pointed out in many ways that humans are not only after survival in the way that they have developed, a particularly insightful example being the development of mathematicians, who certainly do not need to be able to do the things they do for the sake of the survival of the human race!
I would like to quote the theological introduction in which the author calls to mind the comment of Kingsley and Temple that ‘Creatures are allowed to make themselves. In other words, from a theological perspective, evolution is simply the way in which creatures are allowed to explore and bring to birth the fruitfulness with which the Creator has endowed creation.’
This strikes a particularly strong chord with me as one who is interested (as I believe are most people) in the elements of the creation and the battle it involved. If love and duty is one of the finishing points of creation then we are automatically led very neatly into the themes later in the book on genetics and the associated ethics. I was certainly struck by the seriousness with which such issues are handled, and that people never seem to take an attitude of ‘not considering something important,’ but are instead valiant for truth on such key questions as medical research using cells in the very early stages after conception.
There is little else to be said on this relatively short book other than that I recommend it and would urge all readers to enjoy coming to their own informed opinions on some of the big questions that are raised, especially calling to attention the ‘Imaginative Postscript’ at the end! I wish John Polkinghorne all the best in his career as an academic and a priest, and hope this will not be his last publication.
Autumn was turning into Winterval, Christopher Biggins was back on the telly, and I was drowsy as I sat by the fireside. My eyelids were heavy as lead, and, try as I might, I could not keep the pages of the latest General Synod mailing from slipping through my fingers as I began to doze. The pages fell gently as snowflakes onto the carpet…A Market-Shaped Church: New Ways of Selling Vicarages… A Measure for Mission… The Anglo-Methodist Covenant: A Historic Pensions Opportunity… away they went.
Strange apparitions appeared to dance before my eyes in the flickeringflames of the fire: a man quietly enjoying a small cigar as he toyed with the remains of his steak-and-kidney pudding in the snug at the Dog and Rabbit; a tipsy, teetering teenager, her navel piercings glinting in the shadows of her bared midriff, being politely ushered out as the pub called time at 11 o’clock; a police constable doffing his helmet as a suspect walked free from jail without charge, just fourteen days after his arrest. Curious visions, most fantastical. What strange tricks the mind can play…and so I nodded, and began to dream.
And what a dream I dreamed! Curious phrases played around my head…an open period of reception…bonds of peace…an honoured place…the highest possible degree of communion… What kind of a world had my semi-conscious state brought me into? Dark creatures of the night swooped and howled in and out of my dreams, shrieking – what was it? – a one-clause Measure. Panic – the panic of the sleeping soul convinced that he is drowning or being starved of air – gripped me by the throat. I knew if I could only speak to someone, tell them what I wanted, and if only they would hear and understand, all could be well, and all manner of things could be well…
In my dream, the darkness gradually began to lift. Light, pale at first, but growing ever stronger, peeped over the horizon, and now began to flood in. Everything would be all right! This world I was in – this was thechurch, a place of trust and openness where all willed the best one for another, where – what was the phrase – where love and charity were. Now, silhouetted against the light, came four men, clad in purple. Blackburn! I cried out in my sleep. Lincoln! Willesden! and leading them all towards me Guildford! my friend…my old, old, friend…
Trembling, I reached out to grasp his hand in mine. Fleetingly, our fingers touched: and a spark leapt across the small space which separated us, a spark such as Michelangelo dreamed that the Almighty had given Adam long ago… ‘What is your wish, child?’ the apparition spoke. ‘Tell us what is your wish, this Christmastide?’
Suddenly I was awake. There came a crash from above, and a cloud of soot; and there, in my fireplace, I saw, dangling from the chimney-stack, two black boots, attached to two white-clad ankles.The Chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham I wondered? No, I was in my own front room, staring at my own fire, which was now half-filled with an all-too-familiar figure, tall, bearded: wise he looked, but his speech was simple. Not, then, the Primate of All England!
Father Christmas! His face split into a broad grin, which deepened into a chuckle, and then a deep throaty roar. ‘Merry Christmas and God Bless You, every one!’In a flash he was gone; and all that was left behind was a small stocking – perhaps the smallest that ever hung at the foot of a child’s bed on Christmas Eve. I looked in and saw – just a booklet, stapled, photocopied, dull… A report to General Synod – for Christmas – what madness is this?
Was I dreaming still? Had I ever been asleep? I tiptoed over to the stocking, and peeped in; and I turned the page. Let’s pretend it’s just a story, I thought, a simple Christmas fairy story, like the stories Mother used to tell. ‘The report of the Bishop of Guildford’s Group on options for legislation,’ I began.
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