Book Reviews

 

THE MASS OF THE EARLY CHRISTIANS

Mike Aquilina

Our Sunday Visitor, 213pp, pbk

0 87973 942 8, £8.99

Mike Aquilina is an American Roman Catholic layman and writer and is well known in the United States, though he is less familiar in this country. He begins this book with a very simple question: ‘How did the first Christians experience the Mass?’ Beginning with the New Testament and moving on to the Fathers, he tries to understand how the Eucharist was viewed and celebrated by Christians during the first three and a half centuries of Christianity.

The book is divided into three parts. In Part One, How the Mass Began, Aquilina examines the references to the Last Supper and the Eucharist in the New Testament and sets them against the background of Jewish worship familiar to Christ and the disciples. He then shows that the Eucharist was found everywhere in the rapidly expanding apostolic and sub-apostolic Church and quotes Justin Martyr who around ad150 commented, ‘There is not one single race of men … through whom prayers and the Eucharist are not offered through the name of the crucified Jesus’ (Dialogue, 41). Aquilina argues that concepts such as the real presence and the relationship of the Eucharist to Christ’s death and resurrection may be glimpsed in the New Testament and in sub-apostolic writings, albeit expressed rather imprecisely because the theological vocabulary necessary for anything else had yet to be evolved. He also looks at the evidence for the reservation of the sacrament in the houses of Christians for daily communion during the week. The devotion of the early Christians to the Eucharist is very moving and Aquilina quotes a North African Christian who faced martyrdom during the reign of Diocletian: ‘Without fear of any kind we have celebrated the Mass, because it cannot be missed. We cannot live without the Mass.’ His fellow Christian said, ‘Christians make the Mass and the Mass makes Christians, and one cannot live without the other.’ Both men and their companions, known as the Martyrs of Abitina, were later sentenced to death precisely because of their refusal to renounce the Eucharist.

In Part Two, The Testimony of Witnesses, Aquilina provides us with the key texts about the Eucharist from the New Testament and from the Fathers accompanied by a short commentary on each, and we see the Church deepening her understanding of the Eucharistic mystery. Along the way he detours to see what can be learnt from heretical and legendary texts and pagan rumours. Part Three, The Mass of the Early Christians, is an ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of what a celebration of the Eucharist might have been like in a town in North Africa in the third century ad.

There is a very good introduction to the book by Scott Hahn of the Franciscan University of Steubenville in which he claims that ‘memory’ is what tells us who we are, ‘without memory I could not complete this sentence, nor could you read it. Without memory I could not know who I am from one moment to the next’; and he makes a convincing case for the Eucharist being the ‘memory’ of the Church down the centuries. Both Aquilina and Hahn remind us that the books we know as the New Testament were canonized not so much for devotional reading, which was rare before printing, but for proclamation during the Eucharist, a significant point probably unknown to many Anglicans.

This book is a bit A-level-ish and I could wish for a fuller treatment of the Marcan material, but these are mere quibbles. This is an excellent and exciting work, and, with a little careful preparation, it could serve as a Lent book to be read and discussed by small groups. Given the impoverished and frequently misunderstood Eucharistic theology and spirituality to be encountered in many parishes, I could wish that The Mass of the Early Christians was compulsory reading for all ordinands and candidates for Reader ministry. Mike Aquilina is to be congratulated. Any difficulty with the publisher, try <www.osv.com>.

Robert Beaken is Vicar of St Barnabas, Colchester.

 

 

THE CHRISTIAN’S HIGH CALLING

Maurice Roberts

Banner of Truth Trust, 231pp, pbk

0 85151 792 7, £3.50

 

The trouble is that when we reach the seventeenth of Mr Roberts’ 31 chapters, we can sense what is coming. Having learned that we are deficient in vision, happiness, compassion, balance, spirituality and more, we are not surprised to find that our prayers are not all they might be.

The author being a Minister of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) – a title embodying its own warning against hyper-separatism – prayers here mean extempore ones at the prayer meeting. In the unlikely event of finding myself in this particular pastor’s flock (continuing), I would be terrified of opening my mouth on Wednesday evening. I would never match up to Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel on the one hand, or, more important, Brainerd, McCheyne and Spurgeon on the other. (We all have our circle of favourite saints; some circles are smaller than others.)

Is this man a bit of an old misery? I am convinced by the end that he is in earnest, and knows a thing or two about prayer. ‘Prayer is extraordinarily difficult. Better by far to pray reluctantly than not at all.’ He ends this section hopefully, and the whole book gloriously, in a parable that does not take much effort to translate into Anglican terms. But his unsurprising credo is that ‘the highest expression known to man of the Christian religion – so it seems to us – is what we refer to as Puritanism.’ Unsurprising, because these chapters first appeared as articles in The Banner of Truth magazine, edited by the author since 1988. But unhelpful for those with the misfortune to live in the first or tenth centuries, or in parts of Peru or Burundi.

For whom, he might respond, I am not writing. Who then are his prospective readers? Those whose mode of speech embraces motor-cars, public houses, and the Sabbath (not all at once) and who are content to read throughout about man, men, he and his. Sometimes ‘man’ is hard to avoid. But ‘she’ and ‘her’ are almost unknown; on one rare occasion when ‘a woman’ appears, we find her leaving her father and mother to get married, which is actually the man’s job. When elsewhere he personifies Unbelief, she curiously turns out to be female! He warns ‘evil men’ that when they die God will say, ‘Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself’ (Psalm 50.21). I wasn’t expecting the NEB, but I thought we might at least get Coverdale

Those who live off the fact that everything is getting worse face two problems. One, they tend to appeal to religious masochists; the flagellants have departed but their successors live on and will love it. Two, in the end we start to agree. Books of recycled editorials? Not what they were in 1850. The Banner of Truth magazine? A shadow of its former glory. I resolve to end positively. Mr Roberts sometimes probes deeply, cares fiercely, even finds a bon mot. ‘Till Christ our Redeemer comes on the clouds we must make up our minds to expect this to be a world where all the wrong people are laughing.’ As we say in the Free Diocese of Southwark (Continuing): Too right, sister. CI

 

 

THE VOICES OF MOREBATH

Reformation & Rebellion in an English Village

Eamon Duffy

Yale, 246pp, hbk

0 300 09185 0, £16.95

 

This book will be of keen interest, especially to parish priests, not least in the Diocese of Exeter. Morebath is a small country parish on the border of Devon and west Somerset. The voices of Morebath are heard in the various funds or ‘stores’ maintained for the benefit of the parishioners, the fabric of the parish church and church house, the furnishings of the church, and in particular the numerous images and their lights. The vicar kept the accounts, and so, as Eamon Duffy says, ‘all the voices of Morebath are one voice’ – his.

Christopher Trychay was vicar of Morebath from 1520 to 1574, that is, during the tumultuous years of the political and religious reformations in England under four Tudor monarchs. It was the culmination of a long era of the emergence of nation states in England, France and Germany, of population growth and urbanization, of wealth creation in commerce rather than in land, of the successive reformations of the religious life, of the flourishing of the universities and the new learning. ‘At the beginning of the sixteenth century’, it has been said by a distinguished Cambridge historian, ‘everyone that mattered in the Western Church was crying out for reformation.’

Poor little Morebath was on the edge of all this. Not much can be discerned from these accounts of the liturgical life of parish; but it evidently finished up looking more like Vatican II than Vatican I. Its vicar and parishioners were buffeted by political, social and religious forces that they could not have understood. No wonder that Trychay hung on like a vicar of Bray. It has taken the Tridentine church more than four centuries to begin to come to terms with the reformers, and the Reformation churches to begin to come to terms with Catholicism. Eamon Duffy’s book is a remarkable tribute to a remarkable priest, Catholic and Protestant, ‘the heart and voice of Morebath’.

Michael Moreton is a retired theology lecturer.

 

 

Princes of the Church

A history of the English Cardinals

Dominic Aidan Bellenger & Stella Fletcher Sutton, 210pp, hbk

0 7509 2630 9, £20

Last year, on the Catholic League Pilgrimage to Rome, on our last morning we celebrated Mass in Frascati Cathedral. One of the treasures we were shown were vestments that had been worn by Cardinal Henry Stuart, who was the younger brother to Bonnie Prince Charlie. I recalled the magnificence of those vestments as I read Princes of the Church. This beautifully written book traces the history of the Englishmen who have been made Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church.

Starting with medieval Christendom and working its way through the papal exile in Avignon, the Renaissance and Reformation before examining the role of Cardinals in exile (including Prince Henry), we then are led through the dazzling personalities of the Victorian Cardinals, ending with those of the twentieth century. A Foreword by the current Cardinal, Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, demonstrates that the energy and quality of those who are being called to be Cardinals of the twenty-first century are of as high a quality as has ever been known in the history of the English Church.

Very useful appendices also give information about Scottish and Irish Cardinals. My only slight complaint is that the photographs stop with Cardinal Gasquet in 1923 and do not include one of Cardinal Basil Hume. I think it would have been fitting to have included that remarkable man in the line up. But that is a small niggle. For anyone who wishes to be informed as well as entertained, this is a book that I highly recommend.

George Nairn-Briggs is Dean of Wakefield.

 

 

IMAGINE: a vision for Christians and the arts

Steve Turner

IVP, 131pp, pbk

0 85111 555 1, £6.99

 

If the title is a tiny move to reclaim that lovely word from the John Lennon industry, it has biblical precedent and I am all in favour. It would be sad though if this slim but incisive book were read only by those who agree with it. Here is a Christian poet and journalist who has achieved much but is still travelling. Years ago, IVP would hardly have noticed him; so who has moved?

His roots in orthodox Christianity are unmistakable. He can spot excuses for deviations a mile off; he bears the burden of being dismissed as too worldly by some, too fundamentalist by others. His career has been spent singing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Singing? He isn’t a musician, but has met many of the top names in rock and pop. Lennon? Yes, but he neither licked his boots nor zapped him with a tract. You don’t need to if Jesus is Lord. It is that belief, blossoming first at L’Abri, which informs Steve Turner’s thinking and writing. Christians must be out there in the arts which belong to Christ, rather than ‘using’ them in some would-be evangelism which too often glories in the second-rate and makes genuine artists weep.

If there were an index (there isn’t), it would include Adam, adultery, Bible (a whole chapter and passim), candles, Catholics, communists, crucifixion, cyberspace, icons, idolatry, love, novels, obscenity, poets, Proverbs, Psalms, puritans, Satan, worldliness, and world views. Some of the quotes are beyond price. Names include Bono, Blamires and Brecht; Defoe, Donne and Dylan; Jubal, Rembrandt, Tavener, Wilberforce and CCM (Contemporary Christian Music – aargh!). Reach the end via the unresolved tragedy of Dave, and find a marvellous practical testimony to the indispensability of the Body of Christ.

So you know all this – don’t need a book to tell you? Get it all the same, to give to someone who, like Steve, doesn’t have all the answers, but might just understand some of the questions. CI

 

 

THE OXFORD BIBLE COMMENTARY

Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman

OUP, 1410pp, hbk

0 19 875500 7, [£40]

 

At last a single volume biblical commentary that offers what it claims. It has very few extra articles, only a bare minimum needed for the study of the text itself. If you want a closely worked commentary on the entire biblical canon, plus the complete Apocrypha, and some brief details on other extra-canonical books, you have it here. Why have all previous attempts failed? The otherwise excellent Jerome commentary, even when thoroughly revised, could not rid itself of page after page of interminable discussion of the ancient Near East, leaving inadequate space for the commentary itself; nor was it alone in this obsessive need to write reams of self-justifying academic discussion that we were never going to read anyway.

The most probable answer is that biblical scepticism is now a gentler creed than it used to be; the crusading nihilism of the mid-twentieth century has grown softer in its old age. This makes the overall tone less shrill, as well as paying more attention to the text and less to source criticism, and makes the analysis more useful and instructive to those not obsessed with academic in-fighting. All three are reasons enough for an entirely new single volume work, and the result is excellent. What is offered is still sceptical, historical, critical and with a tendency to reductionism, but that is what scholars are for; what the reader does with that information is up to her. What is new is the assurance that there is a body of sound learning on which one may base one’s prayer or sermon or reflection, that is not out to destroy faith nor to bolster any one expression of it.

If I want to read about Hebrew poetry, I will get a book on the subject, one with larger print and one column of text to each page; if I want a scholar to take me by the hand and unfold the mysteries of a particular book of the Bible, I will buy and read his book. But if I want a reference work, to which I can turn for explanation and enlightenment on a particular passage that may come from anywhere in the Bible, then at last I have the volume on my shelves. This is the first single-volume Bible commentary to do what it says. Brilliant! NT

 

 

Sing a New Song

Timothy Radcliffe op

Dominican Publications, 300pp, pbk, 1 8721552 70 2, £9.99

 

This is a spacious book from a Christian tradition that has been more often associated with the constraints of faith. The former Master of the Dominican Order, Timothy Radcliffe, writes as leader of an order whose motto is ‘Veritas’, yet with a conviction of truth that is liberating. Like Peguy he seeks ‘not the Truth but the Real’. It is the perception more than the defence of truth that is said to lie at the heart of the Dominican way. ‘Teaching should liberate us from the narrow confines of an experience and our prejudices and open up the wide open spaces of a truth which no one can master.’ It is more a matter of liberation than indoctrination.

Radcliffe speaks of the grace of attentiveness and of the recognising of life as a gift. These are pivotal to the desire to learn, as is the readiness to make oneself vulnerable. ‘It is only those we love whose existence we recognise fully. True intelligence is deeply connected with compassion, with vulnerability to the other’. We are summoned to obedience in the sense of listening to one another and to the created world so we can grow up as human beings. ‘The development of the faculty of attentiveness forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies’ (Simone Weil).

The Christian vocation is about attending to the gift of life and responding by making a gift of one’s own life. Central to Fr Radcliffe’s spirituality lies the words of Jesus heard at every Eucharist, ‘This is my Body’. He sees ‘the centre of the Gospel’ a moment of pure gift where ‘the life of God becomes most tangible’. Whereas our consumerist culture robs and excludes, the divine generosity is forever extended, against the grain of it. ‘We have to learn to see aright, with clarity, with eyes that do not devour. As William Blake asked, "Can that be Love that drinks another as a sponge drinks water?"’

Christians are people ‘liberated into deeper desires, for the boundless goodness of God. As Oshida, the Japanese Dominican says, we beg God to make himself irresistible.’ Some of the most powerful passages in the book touch on the monastic struggle with celibacy. Timothy sees in the sexual act ‘the body in its profound identity, not as a lump of flesh but as the sacrament of presence.’ Marriage is in this sense more of a sign of the coming kingdom than celibacy, despite the tradition. The calling to celibacy is a sign of journey towards union whereas marriage signifies the actual destiny of union with god. ‘Every human being discovers his or her identity in answering to the summons of God to share the divine life. [Religious] are called to give particular and radical expression to that vocation by leaving behind any other identity that could seduce our hearts.’

There is boldness in facing up to the practical problems of celibacy. ‘True purity of heart is not about being freed from contamination by the world. It is more about being fully present in what we see and do and are … in the last resort it is better to run the risk of an occasional scandal than to have a monastery full of dead men; we cannot have it both ways: safety or life, we must choose’ (Vann). In a colourful image ‘we are, said St John of the Cross, like dolphins who plunge into the dark blackness of the sea to emerge into the brilliance of the light.’

The spirituality of Fr Radcliffe is clearly sustained by that of Meister Eckhart who is frequently quoted. On the presence of God in us: ‘ever verdant and flowering in all the joy and the glory that he is in himself’; ‘We do not pray we are prayed’; ‘The very best and nobler attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within’; ‘One seldom finds that people attain to anything good unless they have first gone somewhat astray’; ‘People should not worry so much about what they should be. If we and our ways are good, then what we do will be radiant’; ‘Where is this God, whom, all creatures seek, and from whom they have their being and their life? Just like a man who hides himself, and who coughs and so gives himself away, so is God. No one is capable of discovering God, if he did not give himself away.’

There is an emphasis upon the need to arouse trust to catalyze any deep learning from a teaching situation. In community it is a special gift, after the Disputation of Aquinas, to be able to identify what is right in the views of one’s ‘opponent’. There is no true dialogue without compassion. It is in such communities rooted in a sense of history, freeing the mind from the tyranny of present opinion, that the best hope lies for humanity.

Alistair McIntyre has called for a new development of communities ‘within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.’ Timothy Radcliffe concurs with McIntyre’s pessimism about a crisis of truth in a society where ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’ (Yeats). Fundamentalism and scepticism are growing in the Western world. In the Dominican way there is a love of truth and beauty, ancient and new. Christians are able to ‘fly’ when, paradoxically they are sure of their ‘roots’ in their great tradition, as Fr Radcliffe so ably demonstrates in this spacious book.

Dr. John F. Twisleton is Chichester Diocesan Mission and Renewal Adviser

 

 

CROWN, ORB & SCEPTRE

The true stories of English coronations

David Hilliam

Sutton, 250pp, hbk

0 7509 2538 8, £18.99

 

This is a history as entertainment, Christmas present type of book, outlining the forms and the anecdotes, the serious intentions and the funny bits of all the English coronation services from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II. All were at Westminster Abbey and all included the anointing with chrism. The Romans have lawyers and can guarantee to be both logical and comprehensive; the English have amateur historians, and ought even in their own country and Church to be laughed to scorn, and yet manage to be both empirical and rational. It is because these qualities are so often mutually exclusive that England and its own Church of England manages not merely to maintain a distinctive identity, but even to have something to offer the rest of Christendom.

The absurdity of pompous people with more money than sense palls after a while; there is a sameness to the extravagance which can be tiring to read for those who never have and never will experience it; but what makes this book fascinating is how it hints at the problems and glories of Anglican ecclesiology, without ever pretending to be an academic exposition.

How can one possibly justify the appointment of bishops by a head of state? Because that head of state has been anointed by an archbishop for the function of sovereign, part of which of course is to appoint bishops, as lords spiritual of the realm. So the consecrating oil and the accompanying ceremony is not as glorious as the ‘crowning’ of a pope? Maybe, but the resulting head of state remains ours rather than a foreigner in a foreign land. Does he/she live up to the high calling as governor? No; and that is whence much of the entertainment derives.

St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, was the man who, assisted by Oswald of York, first consecrated a king to rule the English, and his basic form of service has remained unchanged ever since. The place was Bath, the year 973, the king Edgar. Powerful stuff; but do not get carried away; it will not quite solve the Rochester Commission’s problems. AS

 

 

MY FRIEND HENRY

Ann Bell

The Book Guild, 191pp, hbk

1 85776 551 6, £16.95

 

If you had consigned Alice in Wonderland and the like to the mental drawer marked ‘childhood’, think again. I wouldn’t actually send you out to buy this book, but don’t dismiss it entirely, if given to you at Christmas, for there is still a child in each one of us.

My friend Henry is in this case none other than Henry VIII sent back to earth by God to repent of the damage he has done to the Church in England. Is it his fault that England is no longer Our Lady’s Dowry? Do his sins still reap havoc? Women priests and all that. Is feminism a response to a flawed history? The author is skilled in the art of story telling and blest with a vivid imagination, weaving historical facts with modern fact and fiction. I was not encouraged by the opening chapter, thinking ‘Is this what vanity publishing is all about?’ but am glad I persevered. Regress to childhood and enjoy, but don’t let your congregation catch you reading, they may well question your Oxbridge degrees! PT

 

 

DICTIONARY OF RELIGIOUS ORDERS

Peter Day

Burns & Oates, 452pp, hbk

0 86012 314 6, [£35]

 

If you live in a proper rectory, with its own library, and somehow have the money to live in the style to which clergy were once accustomed, you will be ordering this reference work. Beautifully produced and as far as I can judge comprehensive, it lists details of every religious order of the Western Church, whether Roman Catholic, Anglican or Protestant, both those in existence and those which have ceased. A lovely book, but probably to be kept to libraries. AS

 

 

MARK FOR EVERYONE

Tom Wright

SPCK, 250pp, pbk

0 281 05299 9, [£8.99]

 

It is one of those bits of information you take on trust: the intense competition, as relayed to us by the media, between the top premier league footballers as to how much they can earn in a week. Once one reaches the unimaginable heights of £50,000 for some 90 minutes work, how can it make any difference to earn a few bob more? How does one notice?

I used to wonder why theologians brought out a book at a faster rate than one a year. Cupitt and Holloway used to do that in their younger days, and I wondered if it had something to do with not believing in God. All the same, it is odd that anyone should want to write books faster than one would want to read them. But in the last five years the pace has quickened, and we now have two believers facing each other: in the mildly evangelical corner Alistair McGrath, in the slightly catholic corner Tom Wright.

This private contest in the popular pious paperback market is fascinating to watch. Football is a strange game, but it is still fascinating to watch a Beckham or a Keane dribble a ball between opponents, even if one cannot understand why they are doing it. Similarly, there is something very impressive in the fluidity of these two writers; their capacity to pour out well-rounded, smoothly phrased sentences at such consistent speed.

Tom Wright now goes for an unassailable lead with his new series of popular guides to the books of the New Testament. Mark he divides into some sixty segments, translating the text himself and then following it with a homiletic exposition, complete with illustrations and anecdotes and explanations of any complexity. It is well done and well written, and I certainly could not do it; it is also very different to what one would find in the Oxford tome reviewed above.

There is a second volume on Luke at £9.99, and more will follow. Two volumes of Matthew in March, and more interestingly some of Paul’s letters: those will be more testing. And so on, two or more books at six monthly intervals until the project is complete. ‘Extraordinary’ as the press release has it. NT

 

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