BOOK REVIEWS

THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTENDOM IN THE WEST

Edited by Alan Kreider

T & T Clark, 380 pp, hbk

0 567 08776 X, [£25]

Christianity in Europe is in the melting pot. The leadership of the Church of England may seek to carry on as if nothing has changed, battling to keep 26 seats in the House of Lords and to preserve the establishment, but elsewhere the realization is growing that the long history of Christendom has come to an end. New forms of Christian presence are beginning to appear.

In this important collection of essays, a group of historians, missiologists and theologians examine the origins of Christendom and assess its impact on the development of the Church. They are far from being in agreement on every topic but taken as a whole their work raises major questions. Some of the writers, including the editor, regard the ‘conversion’ of Constantine, or rather the decision of the Emperor to give his support to the Church, as being of crucial importance, bringing about mass conversions and weakening Christianity’s distinctive witness. Others see the Church already embarked upon the path of compromise with the world even before the fourth century.

But whenever Christendom began, it led to a new relationship between Church and society in which Christianity strove to transform the wider culture but in the process was itself changed. Historians disagree about who came off worse from the encounter. Did the influence of the gospel ensure that Christendom was a ‘radically Christian’ civilization or did Christianity degenerate under the influence of Germanic culture into a ‘worldly, heroic, magico-religious, folk-centred faith’?

Alan Kreider describes converts in the early centuries as being attracted to the Christian faith by the distinctive behaviour of believers. After the change under Constantine, many people became members of the Church because of compulsion and had little commitment to its creed or distinctive moral code. The Church ceased to be a community of ‘resident aliens’. Its unyielding early teaching on such issues as wealth or military service was abandoned until only its view of sex marked out its ethic witness. Ramsey MacMullen points to the influence of sacred sites and the cult of the saints in leading to the paganization of the Church. In a stimulating essay, Paul Bradshaw looks at ways in which the fear of pagan influence led to the standardization of liturgical texts and the decline of extempore prayer. He sees the clericalization of the Church and the growing worry about heresy as the products of the same concern. Eion de Bhaldraithe traces the role of the religious life in preserving the vision of Christianity as a radical alternative.

Rowan Williams offers something of a dissenting opinion. He appears to give more importance than the other writers to the struggle with Gnosticism and suggests that one of the objectives of Catholic Christianity was to hold on to the holistic view of creation in which there is no rupture between the world and the promise of redemption.

It is no accident that the editor of this volume taught at Regent’s Park, Oxford, a Baptist foundation, or that he is now teaching at a Mennonite seminary in the US. He has given us a book that by and large supports an Anabaptist vision of a Church that keeps herself pure and unsullied by the world and offers the witness of a distinctive way of life based upon the gospel. This is the approach that Stanley Hauerwas has sought to commend to us. As a Catholic Christian, I find much in it to admire but I cannot help wondering if it does not make too clear a division between Church and world. We can find plenty of examples of Churches with firm membership qualifications that fail to offer a distinctive witness as well as signs of ‘common grace’ at work in the world. As a Christian in South Africa during the apartheid era I would probably have been closer to the Communist Party than to the Dutch Reformed Church.

As far as evangelism is concerned, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether we want to adopt an approach that stresses the radical distinctiveness of the Church or one that recognizes that even professed unbelievers can in some sense be ‘anonymous Christians’. As Rahner clearly understood, even if we follow him in taking the second approach, that will not save us from the painful but necessary task of seeking for a more appropriate model of Christian presence in the world than the one bequeathed to us by Christendom.

Bishop Paul Richardson

 

 

FATHERS AND ANGLICANS: THE LIMITS OF ORTHODOXY

Arthur Middleton

Gracewing, 340pp, pbk

0 85244 450 8, £17.99

It has perhaps been said a few times too often that there is no specific Anglican identity. Certainly, there are too many Anglicans today who seem determined to repudiate and destroy everything that has created their Church. This remarkable book holds together the two great truths in the matter: that there is such an identity and that it is based on the wisdom of the past, claiming new insights rather than new revelations. Canon Middleton demonstrates the influence of the early Fathers of the Church from the controversial formation years of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, never wholly lost even in the time of comparative quiescence, and strongly revived by the Tractarians and their successors. All the great names of our Church are here, with many who may be previously unknown to some. The Tudor and Caroline divines left works that are still read and quoted, but they were not alone in the attempt to safeguard and interpret the wisdom of the years when the Christian Church was defining its intellectual and spiritual qualities.

The Anglican way of drawing on the work of the Fathers has been to discern and apply it to the situation of the time. It is a different approach from that of other confessions which have gone to it for the justification of dogmas already held or innovations already made. Scripture, tradition and reason are the three Anglican pillars. Our divines, like the Fathers themselves, have never failed in honouring Scripture as the principal authority from which all else must derive.

All this and more is set out in this work of outstanding scholarship. It has the great merit – one that is too seldom found – of drawing on many authorities from the past to the present without becoming a catena of quotations. This is a profound and original exegesis, fuelled by what others have thought but not dependent on it.

True theology is formed from faith. The intellectual speculation that is uninformed by prayer and practice soon loses its distinctive nature and becomes one academic discipline among others. Arthur Middleton is a working parish priest as well as a scholar, and faith illumines all that he writes. Many of his quoted extracts speak to us in our present embattled situation. Let one suffice, the words of Bishop William Beveridge in 1698:

There is scarcely anything in Christianity itself which is not either called in doubt in private, or made a matter of controversy in public … and what is most absurd, nothing is esteemed of before novelty itself, but the newer anything is, so much the greater number and the more does it please, and the more anxiously it is defended.

It is because that is still true three centuries later, in the cult of selfishness and refusal of responsibility that passes as postmodernism, that we need books like this one.

Professor Raymond Chapman

 

 

SIGNS OF HOPE

David Hope

Continuum, 182pp, pbk

0 8264 5688 X, [£9.99]

I first met David Hope when he was Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford. I had come to take part in the induction service of a friend and St Stephen’s House had kindly offered me a bed for the night.

After the induction David Hope invited me back to his home where I was offered the largest and best mixed gin and tonic that I have ever had! But the conversation that accompanied the G&T showed that this was no lace-and-backbiting priest. Witty, intelligent and learned, I was aware that I was in the presence of a remarkable man.

The next time that I met him was when he appointed me as his Adviser for Social Responsibility in the Diocese of Wakefield where he was bishop. This enabled me to observe him close to as a person dealing with the practicalities of running a diocese and proclaiming the faith in a gritty northern context.

Signs of Hope is a collection of thirty one sermons and addresses given by Archbishop David during the last six years. They range from major services in cathedrals to university occasions to secular conferences to the profession of a nun. In each of them the characteristic combination of dry humour, spiritual insight and practical application comes through.

The life of an Archbishop is a pressurized and demanding one. The fact that Archbishop David can consistently deliver the goods in his public speaking and private conversations reminds us that we have been richly blessed with a godly man as our father in God in York.

This book is a must for anyone who wants to deepen their own spiritual thinking and an injection of practical how-to-do-it for any of us who speak in public.

Dean George Nairn-Briggs

 

 

CHANGING WORLD, CHANGING CHURCH

Michael Moynagh

Monarch, 190pp, pbk

1 85424 516 3, £7.99

If you want a recipe for the Church going the way of the world, read it all here. Is that an insult or a compliment? In the sense that Michael Moynagh insists on less distancing and more imaginative engagement, a compliment. In another sense, though, trying to downsize the mystery of the Church to an it-must-fit-me-world rings alarm bells.

Changing World, Changing Church starts with a brilliant analysis of consumerism in western society. People are no longer shopping off-the-peg but seeking tailor-made items. The demand that ‘it must fit’ links to a perceived right to be satisfied amidst a surfeit of consumer choice. Whereby some would argue that allying the Church with marketing panders to selfishness, others would want to join Moynagh in discerning servant ministries from the wisdom of the market. We need to listen more carefully to people, encourage them to express themselves and enhance their individuality. The engagement of Christianity with business and recreational networks as well as local communities is a case in point.

At the same time God cannot be customized, so the counter-cultural witness of the Church remains faithful to scripture. Strategies for the future are bound to affirm both emerging and traditional forms of the Church. This book traces a variety of hopeful developments: Soul Survivor for imaginative youth ministry, Willow Creek and its stress on issue based preaching, the Alpha Course as a catalyst for Seeker groups, the Minster model where large Churches resource smaller ones, etc. Anglican deaneries are encouraged to establish ‘Resources and Opportunities Funds’ for innovative work. A variety of experiments involving church gatherings at work or in shopping malls are outlined.

Moynagh gives a prophecy about the shape of the Church in Nottingham in 2020. Congregations are described of teenagers, business people, football supporters, jazz fans, alongside a ‘twenties and thirties congregation’ of 2000, ‘a megamagnet, drawing in many who are unchurched’. From time to time large celebrations occur bringing everyone together – ‘one catholic style, another charismatic, a third teaching based and a fourth using Taizé music’.. Not much is said about the survival of parish churches. There is much diversity and a rather optimistic live and let live.

What would be the basis of cohesion of this emerging Church? As at Pentecost ‘the unity of the Church is based on the convert’s oneness in Christ, not on smoothing over linguistic and cultural differences’.. The diverse special interest congregations are connected by the use of cheap, large, flat TV screens. The question of unity may be more fundamental to the survival of the Church than any other. Her disunity makes her an easy prey in any coming season of religious persecution. The ecumenism of the Spirit, of oneness in Christ, described here will need supplementing by the task of forging doctrinal agreement if the diversity of the body of Christ is to recover its back bone. Moynagh himself sees the admission by Christians ‘that their knowledge is partial and their obedience inconsistent’ as strengthening the authenticity of their witness.

Might it not be the very distinctions of the Church from the world with all its ‘changes and chances’ as the community of the resurrection that catches attention in a materialistic world? It may be time ‘for a Church makeover, time to become a fresh Church for an it-must-fit-me-world’ but that makeover must be the work of God, something that does not always fit with worldly expectations. As Prior Roger of Taizé once said ‘when the Church becomes a house of prayer the whole world will come running.’

Dr John Twistleton

 

 

AGING WITH GRACE

David Snowdon

Fourth Estate, 242pp, hbk

1 84115 291 9, £16.99

It is unfortunate that the American spelling of the title suggests that old age is associated with agony (ag-ing) yet that is how many perceive the later years of our life to be. But need this necessarily be the case?

This remarkably readable piece of research into the understanding of a full, healthy, envigorating, old age and the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease is fascinating. 678 nuns from the order ‘The School Sisters of Notre Dame’, between the ages of 75 years and 106 allowed Snowden to conduct a research project into the study of ageing, and Alzheimer’s Disease in particular. They allowed him access to their medical and personal records, spent hours being available for innumerable tests and ultimately gave him their brains after death, in the hope that later generations may benefit from his findings. Most of the sisters were teachers and held various degrees, but the study also covered those who worked within the convent in the kitchens and in the grounds. Most had entered the religious life in their early teens and were teaching elementary students before they themselves had reached what we would consider the minimum school leaving age. At the other end of the spectrum many of the sisters worked long past retiring age, not considering themselves old, teaching well into their 70s and 80s and normally it was a physical ailment that prevented them from carrying on.

And those findings? Well, if you need a sound excuse not to submit to family services, all age worship of the mix and match kind, relevant language for the children, the NRSV, and the like, here you have it. But it is also a timely warning to those who teach children, those clergy who want to be considered ‘with-it’ by their fellows. For one of the amazing facts is that your predisposition to Alzeheimer’s disease has probably already been formulated by the time you leave your teens. Snowdon shows that those who have been exposed to an expansive use of language and who possess a wide ranging vocabulary making use of adjectives and adverbs in all written and spoken work are the least likely to suffer from this disease. He also finds that those who live a spiritual life, those who are active in the community, those who busy themselves constantly are likely to live longer. Obviously, health, nutrition and exercise all play a part, especially in the prevention of strokes and coronary disease, the former having a proven corollary with dementia.

The nuns themselves, bright, articulate and altruistic women, must be thanked for making such a positive and costly contribution to this study, for it is clearly a once in a lifetime study, for a researcher to have available to himself such a large group of people where many factors are constant, for example, housing, diet, status, wealth, routine, etc. I guess much of the data provided by them will be used for generations yet to come.

It is probably too late to change the susceptibility of many New Directions’ readers, but having a duty of care towards the younger generation, we should be wary of using too frequently one word sentences such as the ‘Wicked’ or ‘Great’ of modern parlance. We should also think twice before doing things for people that they can quite adequately do for themselves – don’t get hold of that wheelchair and push it, thinking you are doing someone a favour, when manipulating it themselves will help keep their brain active. But above all we should be actively encouraging the general population to live more spiritual and community-minded lives.

Deacon Ann

 

 

WILLIAM TEMPLE: A CALLING TO PROPHESY

Stephen Spencer

SPCK, 132pp, pbk

0 281 05437 1 [£9.99]

William Temple had a glorious reputation founded on repeated failure. Spencer shows how on the path of his career he left each of his posts with a record of failure mitigated by limited and flawed success. Despite this he rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury and to enjoy approbation both public and ecclesiastical. This presents a problem for those who would maintain he was as great as he seemed.

Although Spencer attempts to avoid both the initial hagiography and the more recent less complimentary assessments, the approval he feels for Temple shines through, sometimes to the detriment of the balance he seeks. He quotes with astonishing complacency an astounding remark of Adrian Hastings that ‘It would be hard to think of any other twentieth-century ecclesiastical figure whose impact on history has been comparable, certainly in England, possibly the world.’ In company with others (this book relies perhaps over-heavily on the biography by FA Iremonger) Spencer suggests that the sum of Temple was greater than the parts. But his central assertion is that Temple found his true vocation as a prophet ‘albeit a rather reasonable, jovial and consensus-seeking one.’

Spencer’s book suffers from a failure to say what is meant by prophesy. In describing one of Temple’s less than successful forays into public policy, Spencer justifies the failure in terms of the divisive nature of prophesy. If that is true ‘consensus-seeking prophet’ must be an oxymoron, and such a one be doomed to failure. This contradiction is not noted, let alone explored. Temple was not the beginning, but he was an important step on the way to the modern liberal Church of England. At root he had a straightforward faith, and when he allowed himself to speak directly from its wellspring it shone out to others. So, at the Oxford Mission in 1931, ‘he startled his hearers by his obvious and profound belief.’

Temple’s tragedy was that he thought that was not good enough. He could not think that the world could or would respond to such faith. He agonized over the presentation of a more rational, philosophical gospel, and therein lay his failure. Spencer has insight to see Temple’s failure, yet he wants to find him a success after all. The attempt fails. In the end we must say that Temple failed to achieve true greatness, and only by rejecting the analysis of this book and recognizing that Temple was wrong, can we begin to free the Church of England to achieve what he himself wished for her.

Fr Luke Miller, Parish Priest, St Mary the Virgin, Tottenham

 

 

FATHERLESS IN GALILEE

Andries van Aarde

SCM, 246pp, pbk

1 56338 345 4, [£28.50]

What a brilliant idea. This study is a product of the latest versions of the quest for the historical Jesus. The thesis is simple. Jesus did not have a proper father, Joseph being all but invisible after his birth. Now being without a dad in first-century Palestine was a Bad Thing. Somehow Jesus copes with this exclusion and marginalization, (and of course in so doing helps others to do the same), by understanding God to be his father. That’s only a throw-away summary; but it is a brilliantly simple idea. As the blurb puts it, this book ‘explores the stories of Jesus, who, lacking a father, called upon God to act in this paternal role.’ Sadly, as the first chapter is entitled ‘My Journey’, and a quick browse suggests that it is an intense piece of touchy-feely self-examination, I have not actually read the book: I lack the stamina for psycho-theology. 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 it, they may well question your Oxbridge degrees! PT

 

 

BUSTLING INTERMEDDLER

The Life and Work of Charles James Blomfield

Malcolm Johnson

Gracewing, 210pp, pbk

0 85244 546 6, £14:99p

As someone who trained for the priesthood at Kings College, London and who has known Malcolm Johnson for some thirty years I enjoyed reading this delightful biography. Malcolm writes fluently with knowledge and wit. I had never felt that Bishop Blomfield was a very ‘jokey’ person, but this book draws out the man from the career in a highly readable way. He appears to have had a caustic humour with a string of good stories combined with the ability to note the answer to thirty letters whilst travelling across London in a carriage!

The twelve chapters of this book cover the life of Bishop Blomfield from his birth until his last illness and death intertwined with the major events that the Church and nation had to face in a fast changing time for both. One thoughtful bonus given to us by Malcolm (especially as we study the report Resourcing Bishops) is to have the stipends of the clergy of the time interpreted into modern levels of remuneration!

Which brings me to the Kings College London connection. As students we were taught the importance of the foundation of the College for the Anglican Church to counter the ‘godless institution in Gower Street’ (University College). Blomfield worked hard to help set up this college which has produced many faithful priests and bishops for the Church of England. This book is a delight to read. I commend it for both its contents and readability.

Dean George Nairn-Briggs

 

 

MESSY SPIRITUALITY

Mike Yaconelli

Hodder & Stoughton,164pp, pbk

0 340 75635 7, £6.99

Apart from being a leader and in-demand speaker in the field of youth ministry, Mike Yaconelli is pastor of what by his own admission is the slowest-growing Church in America. It sounds a mess, and he claims that even his best friends would describe him as one too.

For many of us, this has a ring of familiarity about it. This chatty and colloquial book is a blast of the trumpet against the ‘success gospel’, against the Churches that give the impression that real Christians don’t have problems, and for what one is tempted to describe as Christian anarchism.

Drawing on biblical examples, on the life of his chaotic Church, and on the chaotic lives of ordinary people, Yaconelli not so much makes the case for a truly inclusive Church (not in the ECUSA sense of the word, of course) as demonstrates how real inclusiveness works after the example of Jesus.

There is no plan or programme for making people less chaotic, or for turning failures into successes, but the reader is invited to change their perspective and see that perhaps there is no programme – just the love of God and our neighbour, and a recognition that little things can make a lot of difference in ways we do not always recognize.

Andrew Witcombe-Small

 

 

THE LOST BIBLE

JR Porter

Duncan Baird, 256pp, hbk

1 903296 19 6, £25.00

What to do with the extra-canonical Jewish and Christian writings from around 200bc to 200ad? If you intend to be a serious student, you will need the scholarly collections, such as Charlesworth and Hennecke, or the full, individual studies. But if you do not want to put so much money and effort into what can never be more than a side show, then what? The ‘popular’ options, with chosen extracts and less serious source criticism, tend towards New Age gnosticism or conspiracy theories, offering the ‘true’ Bible suppressed by the wicked, patriarchal Church. As source material for weirdoes, they have never been more popular.

Or you could try this work: the title is another silly publishers’ tease, but the content offers far more than the cover promises. The selections are short, the descriptions easy, and there are plenty of fine pictures (for in earlier centuries, these heterodox books inspired a great deal of fine art). The treatment is trustworthy and sound. This is a genuine attempt to present the more interesting aspects of a largely neglected literature, nearly all of which was popular, most of which was of low literary worth, but some of which is highly entertaining and fascinating.

Having recently read an earnest piece of feminist critique seeking to promote the claims of Thecla as one of the great early Christian teachers, I found Porter’s treatment of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, from which her legend derives, far more convincing. ‘There is more than a hint of the erotic about Thecla.’ There is indeed, and in a work urging celibacy with such zeal, the story of her naked contest with wild bulls in the public arena has a wonderful frisson of suppressed sexuality. In a more coyly romantic vein, there is the young Hebrew slave girl, whose homesickness features in the Acts of Thomas. There is also great poetry in many of the books, and if you have never used Joseph’s experience of the world stopping in its course on Christmas night in a children’s service or Sunday School, you will find it here from the Protevangelium of James. NT

 

 

YEAR OF WONDERS

Geraldine Brooks

Fourth Estate, 310pp, hbk

1 84115 457 1, £12.99

The story of Eyam, the Derbyshire plague village, is an intensely moving one. Receiving a roll of flea-infested cloth from London in the early summer of1665, some of them began to fall ill and die, so they imposed a strict quarantine upon their village, and thus prevented the spread of the plague to the neighbouring district. It is a genuinely inspiring story of self-sacrifice, and the figure of William Mompesson, the rector, is of central importance. It is a fitting subject for historical fiction, and offers many theological themes for reworking.

Brooks is not interested in theology but she does hate men. At best this novel is a Catherine Cookson style plucky-lass-triumphing-against-wicked-men romance; at worst, it is a humourless manifesto for wimmin’s superiority in all things. The final character assassination of the rector is breath-taking in its cynicism; she does at least acknowledge in her notes that this ‘is entirely imagined’, and should not be imputed to the historical priest, but if nothing else it shows how visceral the hatred of the traditional Church can be ‘out there’. AS

 

 

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