BOOK REVIEWS

 

MARY IN THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION - From a Contemporary Perspective, Kathleen Coyle, Gracewing, Leominster, 1996, xviii + 132 pp, pbk £7.99, ISBN 0-85244-380-3

“NOW IS the month of Maying” - and, even in parts of the world where it is most definitely not spring, throughout the Church things Marian are being celebrated or embarrassedly ignored in festivals and practices which seem to many to have unashamedly confused Christianity with pagan fertility cults. For an English reader, this book is surprising because it barely touches upon any such controversies. False fears and expectations were raised in my mind, no doubt against the back-drop of the (not-so) “New Age” movement and a general rise in interest in “pagan culture”, by the subtitle “from a contemporary perspective” and the confident claim of the blurb that this book presented “an alternative image of Mary” which would “challenge our traditional Marian devotion”.

But then, I had made at least two mistakes. Firstly, this book is not English; it is not Northern European. It was written as the result of twenty-five years’ work in Asia - a part of the world to which May Queens and the like seem at once strangely remote and probably hauntingly reminiscent of colonialism, and in which, moreover, the “pagan” has a completely different status. And secondly, the Mary who is re-visited here is largely the Mary of the Roman Catholic Church. These pages review the meaning of marian dogmas in a pedagogic style which both insists that these are useful resources and which also attempts to encourage reflection upon personal experience.

After an initial and lively introduction, Sr. Kathleen Coyle imaginatively examines Mary as she has been read in the New Testament (chapter one), as she has been understood in the ancient dogmas of the Theotokos (that Mary was God-bearer and Mother of God) and the Virgin Birth (re-emphasised as the virginal conception) (chapter two) and in the more recent pronouncements (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854) of her Immaculate Conception and her Assumption (chapter three). The image is of a strong young woman, who has borne tremendous significance for the Church and who can yet provide inspiration for women today. There is careful recognition of both the positive and the negative aspects of traditional language and symbolism, together with a representation of many popular and contemporary concerns and criticisms. Each chapter ends with a list of questions for reflection and discussion and of some suggested further reading.

This somewhat historical and preliminary survey of official Church teaching yields to a more sustained consideration of the formation and development of popular images of Mary through the ages (chapter four) in preparation for the presentation of an account of the attempts to bring Mary more clearly “under the Church’s wing” and to ground such popular faith and devotion in “sound theology and practice” at the Second Vatican Council (chapter five). The way has thus been prepared for that which is more clearly contemporary in a rereading of “The Tradition of Marian Symbols” (chapter six) and suggestions “Towards an Alternative Marian Theology” (chapter seven).

Famously, the stories of Mary in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament seem at first glance few and simple, and yet the stories told about Mary and the thought of her place in the economy of salvation have often been exceedingly demanding, requiring the Christian imagination to think itself to its limits. Whilst this book can hardly begin to answer the questions she will always pose, it might very well serve to show the need to think upon them.

The influence (and careful distance from) feminist and liberation theologies is clear, most particularly in the assumptions made about theology, and human language about God. Here, perhaps, the reader needs to be most cautious. In a work of this length, simplicity and elegance can often produce somewhat unsatisfactory outlines of other (fundamental) arguments and questions of approach. There is throughout, despite the determination to critique human language about God, a remarkable confidence in human experience and in certain theories of how our thought about God “works” (particularly in terms of symbol and image).

Nevertheless, in a style which, despite its topic, is clear, accessible and provocative, the text-book approach proves remarkably pleasant to read. Here is a helpful resource for many: for those wanting to start learning about Mary in the Church, past, present and future, for those perhaps wishing to understand more of what seems so often to go unsaid (or unquestioned) in either the over-effusive celebrations or the embarrassed denials of many strands of Christianity, and for those who are troubled by or interested in vociferous denouncements of the co-opting of Mary for the patriarchal cause.

The central argument, far from being simplistic, is subtly nuanced and worthy of most careful consideration: Mary can undermine as well as undergird the patriarchy which so many are beginning to recognise in the Church. If Mary is the “model disciple” what does this mean - for her, for women, for the Church, for all of us? And this leaves me wishing to ask whether her place in the Church will not in fact always raise questions of and to patriarchy - not only the question of whether it is “right” or “wrong”, Christian or not, but also the questions of what it is, how it works and, perhaps most controversially, whether or not the sense of order to which it points might not indeed have some place in a Christian understanding of both of the sexes.

Lucy Gardner is Tutor in Christian Doctrine at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford.

CREDO: a Course for the Curious. Exploring the Christian Faith with Bishop Lindsay Urwin OGS. Church Union. £32.50

CREDO CALLS itself a ‘Course for the Curious’, and part of its immediate appeal is that it us aimed both at curious non-churchgoers and those who are already ‘in’ but who remain curious. In parish life, we often pick up the hint that some long-standing Christians nurse secret questions they are afraid to ask. So a course that had the dual aim of introducing people on the fringe to the basics of the Christian Faith and flushing out some of the contemporary heresies held by churchgoers would be most welcome.

The course has another obvious appeal, which is that the main input into each session is presented on video. That means that not only does the priest or catechist not have to spend hours writing the material, but also that it comes not from piles of paper, but from the place where most people now get most of their information: the television. The other side of that coin, of course, is that they also expect high standards of quality and production.

Credo is intended to be co-ordinated by a lay ‘rector’, although the parish priest is by no means excluded. It is blissfully short: only seven sessions. This has the obvious advantage that it doesn’t make too great a demand on people’s time at the stage when they are beginning their inquiry. Given that two sessions may take place together, it could be a Lent course, or an Easter course; it is also suggested that it could be used for adult confirmation preparation.

Each session is intended to begin with food. It’s an idea we’ve heard before, but a good one, nonetheless. Then the video goes on, or the talk is presented live, and is followed by a time for discussion in smaller groups. It is suggested that sessions five and six take place in the context of a day away from the parish. This also provides the opportunity for the celebration of Mass, ensuring that non-churchgoers can be introduced to the worshipping life of the church in a safe way.

The rubrics are thorough, and the logistics well thought-out. The course book is aimed at the people involved in leading and co-ordinating, not the participants, although it includes an attractive take-away sheet for each session. The fact that these come on one sheet only has the advantage of not making people feel buried under a mountain of paper, but the disadvantage that the amount of information on each is rather minimal. All the material is easily removable from the two-ring binder for photocopying, including a publicity leaflet which has space to add local details, and a selection of graphics to use in other local publicity.

The video talks themselves are very much the work of the Bishop of Horsham, who is well known for his particular preaching style. It’s a style which is much admired by many, but inevitably it won’t appeal to everyone, and for those who are irritated by it, there is no relief. In each twenty-minute episode, all we get is Bishop Lindsay, talking from behind his desk in his book-lined study, with the occasional unimpressive graphic. (Other speakers, other venues, snippets of interview, a little music might have offered some variety and held the attention better).

Another problem is the mistakes. I can only presume that the bishop wanted to record each session in a single take, but the result is that he makes the occasional slip, and these are not edited out. The reproduction quality is not all that it might be, and the gaps in between episodes are not always as long as is claimed. Having said that, the talks are designed to cover some of the most important aspects of Christianity in an accessible way, whilst not pretending that there’s no such thing as doctrine. They are well peppered with biblical allusions, and there is also a good number of patristic references. The last session, for instance, is drawn from City of God.

The main problem with the course comes with what happens next. Lay group coordinators are charged with the task of leading a discussion on the subject matter on the video, with relatively little material to help them. Part of the purpose of this is to allow participants to raise questions, but there is a serious danger here of asking too much from the group leaders: ‘Introduce a discussion about the “sacramental principal [sic]”’ says the group co-ordinator’s guide for session six cheerfully. It will be a hard task to keep discussions on track, whilst allowing reasonable digression.

Having said that, I am delighted to find that the sacramental principle is taken seriously, and the theological presentation of Credo is encouraging. Starting with creation, the course goes on to consider Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, the Holy Spirit, the sustenance we receive through the church, through scripture and through the sacraments, and ends with heaven. I was surprised to hear Archdeacon Paley’s pocket watch crop up in session one, and even more surprised to hear the Bishop of Horsham sing in session two, but certainly the material raises the fundamentals of the Christian Faith without being either too academic or patronising in a format which is flexible enough for most parishes to find useful.

Christopher Smith is the assistant priest in the parish of Wantage in Oxfordshire.

THE WORD MADE STRANGE: Theology, Language, Culture John Milbank, Blackwell, Oxford, 1997, ix + 298 pp, ISBN 0-631-20336-2

A FEW MONTHS ago I suggested to the Reviews Editor of New Directions that John Milbank’s newly published collection of essays The Word Made Strange should be reviewed in these columns. He agreed and Blackwell’s duly obliged with a copy of the book. If only life were this straightforward all the time!

John Milbank is currently a Lecturer in Theology at the University of Cambridge and, perhaps of more local interest to this forum, has long been associated with the Catholic wing of the Church of England (a sympathy, which although never uncritical, is not difficult to locate in his work). Milbank’s earliest work had drawn an admiring although small audience; however it was with his first book Theology and Social Theory, published by Blackwell’s in 1990, that established Milbank (on both sides of the Atlantic) as one of the most creative and exciting theologians working today.

Like or dislike his project - and people do in equal measure - even his fiercest critics recognise that it would be simply churlish not to admit that Theology and Social Theory is a tour de force . Part deconstruction of an intellectual history and part clarion call to theology to find its proper confidence and power again after the ravages of modernity, one cannot but admire the intellectual energy and vision here; and if one is pushed to register a moment of caution with Milbank’s extraordinary ‘postmodern’ reconfiguration of the Augustinian project for today it is only to say that some overly deft footwork does leave you a little giddy along the way. But who cares; why not applaud an endeavour which faces up two hundred years of social theory (much of which has found a convivial home in the Church) and say you got it wrong, and you have got it wrong because you forgot God?

So it was that I suggested to the Reviews Editor that if New Directions strives to take theology seriously then it should at least recognise where some of the most exciting and important theology is being done today - especially when, despite all the difficulties, this comes from a stable recognisably near home. However, with all this said I now find myself in something of a quandary.

Let me say straight away that this remarkable collection of essays (culled from Milbank’s published work over the past decade) fully deserves the accolades that adorn the book’s back cover. Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that these essays are anything other than, at the very least, complex, philosophically sophisticated and intensely concentrated orchestrations on the central topoi of the faith. They do not promise easy or immediate illumination and they do not deliver knockabout or knockdown arguments. Try as I might, I have been more than occasionally defeated by the turns in Milbank’s logic and argumentation. To some, indeed sometimes I fear to too many, Milbank’s endeavour, or anything like it will be dismissed as academic idling which bears no cash-value in the ‘real world’. However, to them, and indeed to all of us, I would urge a patience with the provocation of Milbank’s title: The Word Made Strange.

For indeed the Logos is a strange Word, but its otherness, its alien quality, does not belong as it were to the strange guttural or grating noises of a foreign tongue but rather to the event of the new in the shock of performance. And if this is so then we should be prepared to recognise that an odd, almost tragic destiny has befallen much theology today: the complaint, indeed accusation (often by those in its thrall) that theology’s strangeness amounts to no more than that of a foreign language, and moreover a dead one at that (for example, what does all that Chalcedonian gobbledegook mean to us anyway?). Better then that we should abandon this in favour of a really engaged word. This though should not be understood; I do not intend any facile side swipe at the plethora of ‘contemporary theologies’ around today, for the issue that Milbank faces us up with is rather different, and perhaps rather more difficult to articulate.

Milbank perspicaciously remarks, ‘For all current talk of a theology that would reflect on practice, the truth is that we remain uncertain as to where today to locate true Christian practice.’ The point is very well made for it may just begin to shake a sort of odd confidence we have about the myriad debates we entertain about the historicity and purpose of doctrine today. For although we all recognise that doctrine does indeed develop, we seem to repeat with depressing regularity the idea that our debates about its development must inevitably run along lines that pitch a commitment to ancient formulations (tending towards ill digested allegiance) against a Christianity dressed up in the garb of contemporary concern (the most puerile form of betrayal).

It would be too neat to suggest that Milbank leads us in one swift gesture beyond this crippling impasse, but he does, I believe, renew an ancient understanding of theology. The Word makes strange because it instigates a new and novel practice (the strangeness of true holiness) which emerges only through the performance of a fidelity to the tradition. Thus Milbank writes:

I have hoped to be surprising, since otherwise I should have no chance at all of being authentic. And perhaps the most surprise, the most shock should arise when what is said is really most orthodox and ancient, since the tradition is so rarely re-performed in practice today. (p 1)

In this collection you will find amongst many other things an account of how modernity lost its analogical vision concerning God’s presence in and to the world (which explains why students often don’t so much misinterpret Aquinas’ famous Five Ways as fail to interpret them at all). You will find an ambitious attempt, after Balthasar, to direct Christological thinking towards its poetic or aesthetic core, along with a remarkable demonstration of why the Trinity demands the second difference of the Spirit. And you will find in conclusion to the volume two shorter pieces on aspects of our political situation (ecology and socialism) which give back to theology its proper political voice.

But above all you will find a sustained reflection upon a remarkable experience that we simply stumble upon again and again: the experience of ‘the meaning of meaning’ - that same experience that has been asked after in ever new variations down through the Great Tradition. What is it to make sense and share sense in this infinitely rich and infinitely poor world? Milbank’s answer is never less that resolutely and demandingly theological. It is the Word made strange.

David Moss is Director of Studies at St. Stephen’s House

BUT THIS I KNOW, George Austin, Hodder and Stoughton, 1996, pbk, 198pp, ISBN 0-340-64210-6, £7.99

FOR THOSE who have only known George Austin as the enfant terrible of the Church of England, the man whose relentless and remorseless critique of the careering liberal bandwagon guaranteed regular copy in broadsheet and tabloid alike, this book will come as a surprise. To those who have known George’s quiet pastoral ministry and biblical teaching it will come as a sweet reminder and a relief. Relief that he has here, simply and accessibly, exposed the mainspring of his spirituality and reforming zeal. It is, as with all good Protestants, yes even catholic ones, the holy scriptures.

But this is not just a book about Scripture, it is full of it. It reverses the modern trend of treating God’s Word as an object of our comment and reflection - like a laboratory frog pinned out on a dissecting board. Rather the Living Word reflects, empowers, inspires, corrects our journey. George is one of those strange creatures who, in a church where scepticism and scriptural anaemia seem triumphant, is unaffectedly passionate about the Word. The scriptures are not myth or ‘just history’ but illuminate every aspect of our lives - we journey in the company of the saints with no division of time.

This is also a very personal book - it begins with a poem by George and we are allowed intimate insights into the man, without any sense of self regard, and into the church of our time and the crises from within and without.

The title, But this I know, comes from that wonderful hymn sung to the Londonderry Air. Each verse begins “I cannot tell” contrasting the limits of human understanding with tile faith and knowledge born of a loving trust of God.

George writes: Faith is knowing yet not always understanding; a conjunction of belief and trust. It is a confidence in the knowledge that God is to be trusted, in his promises, in his love and in the Truth that he has revealed, while at the same time recognising that the human mind is too small to comprehend in all his fullness the One who is the Creator of all things.

And this journey is undertaken by a meditation on the life and passion of Christ. It is full of a disarmingly simple and profound faith, a hope which sees all now in the light of eternity yet is impatient for the kingdom and a love that has often been tested in adversity and come though with courage and spiritual maturity.

It would have been a splendid Lent choice if we’d had it in time but, having said that, it would make an excellent month’s daily reading at any time of year for all who want to journey through the gospel.

For most of George Austin’s ministry his message to the church has been resented and rejected. At almost every turn it has proved to be distressingly prophetic. The reason, as this book helps us understand, is not uncanny psychic powers but simply an utter seriousness about God’s word to his people.

We must pray, for the sake of the church, that the next generation of orthodox reformers, upon whom his mantle falls, will be as deeply anchored in the holy scripture and as unswerving in their faithfulness.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter’s, Bushey Heath, where previously George Austin was Parish Priest.

THE OXFORD MOVEMENT IN CONTEXT: Anglican High Churchmanship 1760-1857, Peter B. Nockles, Cambridge University Press 1994, 342pp, ISBN 0-521-38162-2, hbk, £40, ISBN 0-521-58719-0, pbk, £15.95.

In February’s edition of NEW DIRECTIONS we had intended to publish the following review. Instead we reproduced by mistake an extract from a review of the hardback edition of this book. We apologise to Gerald Bray and take pleasure in now publishing the review we had commissioned from him. A.B.

ANYONE SERIOUSLY interested in the origins of contemporary Anglicanism will have to read this book. It was already doing the scholarly rounds as a doctoral thesis, and its recent appearance in paperback makes it accessible to the ordinary person. Dr. Nockles is a Roman Catholic who works as a Methodist Church archivist, which may give him the ideal combination of understanding and detachment which such a study requires. The High Churchmen he deals with have largely been forgotten now, overtaken as they were by the Tractarians of the 1830s, but their story is a fascinating one and it is unlikely to be as well told again in our generation.

High Churchmanship, as understood here, was the belief that the Church was part and parcel of a divinely ordered society in which all law stemmed from God. The king was not so much the secular ruler as the link between the temporal and the spiritual realms. In his temporal guise, he presided over the parliament and what we now call the state, whereas in his spiritual function he oversaw the government of the Church. His subjects (there were no citizens then) were expected to obey his wishes in both spheres, and those who did not were excluded from full participation in society. To High Churchmen, dissent, whether Catholic or Protestant, was a form of treason which, if allowed to go unchecked, would soon destroy the entire commonwealth. The American rebellion was a prime example of this. If there had been bishops in the colonies, they would never have revolted against their natural rulers. Evangelicals in the establishment appeared to be a fifth column, supporting a neo-Puritanism which, if it were allowed to have its way, would dissolve the structures of the church and leave the nation defenceless against infidelity. This was indeed the Tory party at prayer, and it retained its integrity until the early nineteenth century.

In some ways, the American and French revolutions actually strengthened it, because few Englishmen wanted that kind of disorder at home, but in the longer term High Churchmanship of this kind was doomed to be eclipsed by the rising tide of democracy. It died, in political terms, in the great reforms of 1828-32, which turned England away from the old paternalism and set the country on the road to popular democracy. This inevitably caused a crisis in High Church ranks between those who wanted to defend the old order and those who looked elsewhere, and increasingly to Rome, for inspiration. This group was known as Tractarian from the famous tracts which it published to advance its cause, and it emerged the victor. Tractarianism was a spiritual, more than a political movement, and it caught the romantic mood of its time. In the figures of men like Newman, Pusey and Keble it appealed to the younger generation in a way that the older High Churchmen could not, and by 1860 had become fixed in its modern meaning.

High Churchmen sparred with the early Evangelicals, and there were a number of differences between them, but when it came to the crunch there was more that they had in common. This was particularly evident when the Church of England was threatened by Dissent or by Romanism. Against these enemies, Anglicans closed ranks around the 39 Articles and the Prayer Book. They shared the Lutheran conviction that justification was by faith alone and the belief that church and state ought to reinforce each other in a harmonious and prosperous society. Tractarianism, by challenging the old high church position that the Church of England was a legitimate part of the Catholic Church which had every right to reform itself according to the Word of God and to recognise other churches, whether episcopalian or not, as bodies of true believers, drove a wedge between high and low which has persisted to this day.

It is just as hard now to imagine a time when Evangelicals were prepared to accept leading High Churchmen as great defenders of the Protestant faith as it is to imagine a time when Anglo-Catholics were happy to welcome the publication of the works of the leading Anglican reformers (in the Parker Society editions). Dr. Nockles’ book reminds us of a world we have lost, but in some ways he points us to a possible future for historic Anglicans. Now that it is clear to everybody that the real enemy is liberalism, can High and Low churchmen find ways of getting together again? Obviously, one essential step is for each to recognise what is good in the other. E.B. Pusey refused to condemn the Gorham judgement in 1850 because, although he believed in baptismal regeneration, he also understood that what bothered Evangelicals was the need for a vital, personal faith, which could only be accepted by each individual. It was to be the Tractarians who took Evangelical concerns for Gospel preaching, personal holiness and spiritual consecration and worked them into the synthesis which we now recognise as ‘traditional’ Anglo-Catholicism. On the other hand, Evangelicals came to understand that liturgy, law and tradition had a place in the church, and that enthusiasm was not enough. The best of them knew that they were intellectually weak, and they relied on the High Churchmen for many of their scholarly arguments, not least in the field of biblical studies.

Dr. Nockles points out that the Tractarians were men with feet of clay, and it is good to be reminded of this when so many of their modern descendants are looking Romeward once more. Newman, in Dr. Nockles’ vision, comes off particularly badly. His conception of Catholicism was romantic rather than realistic, and his knowledge of Christian doctrine, especially that of the reformers, was totally inadequate. He had trouble remembering even his own past, and fantasized continually. Beginning as a fanatical anti-papist, he swung to the opposite extreme, much to the puzzlement and annoyance of many of his friends and colleagues. Under the influence of Hurrell Froude, he and others acquired a visceral hatred of the English reformers which bordered on the pathological and which was totally unhistorical. The Tractarianism which they created was essentially schismatic and destructive of the Church of England - the very opposite of the old High Churchmanship. Taking extreme positions themselves, they drove others in the opposite direction and created enmities where there should have been alliances. For at the end of the day, loyalty to the church and the willingness to stick with it despite its imperfections kept old High Churchmen, Evangelicals and Latitudinarians together when Tractarians appeared to jump ship and go to Rome whenever things did not go their way.

Today, when it is obvious that there is much wrong with the Church, and when conservatives of all kinds are under great and growing threat, the last thing we need is to give the impression that we do not really belong in the Church of England to begin with, or want to belong to it either. We must unite, and we must declare our intention to stay and fight. Dr. Nockles’ book shows us both why this is necessary and it suggests how it may be achieved in a way which eluded our nineteenth-century forebears. Let the Tractarians and the neo-Puritans go, and let us seek to build a new consensus, which those of that era called either reformed Catholicism or High Church Evangelicalism - one overarching Anglicanism drawing strength from both its main traditions and seeking above all to maintain the faith once delivered to the saints.

Gerald Bray is Anglican Professor of Divinity at Stamford University, USA

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