BOOK REVIEWS

SMALL COMMUNITIES IN RELIGIOUS LIFE

Catherine Widdicombe

Lutterworth, 256pp, pbk

0 7188 3012 1, [£15]

The idea of belonging to a small faith community, rather than to a large congregation or institution, attracts many people today. Not all the members of some small communities are convinced Christians and those who are probably come from different denominational backgrounds. Even so the old Benedictine principle of work and prayer is fundamental to the life of every small community. The members gather for daily prayer and they work together to meet various kinds of human need. The life of the group is important but at the same time each individual in it has a value and personal identity which must be cherished.

The idea is fine but such enterprises fail unless they are thoroughly planned. Widdicombe is convinced that although life in a small community is not an easy option, it is a rewarding one. She writes from considerable experience. A former President of the Grail Society, she has worked with a wide range of secular and religious groups for more than 20 years. As a member of the Community of the Resurrection, I spent 18 years living in groups of between 3 and 7 brothers in London and South Africa, and I share her enthusiasm.

This book is a self-help manual for everyone involved directly or indirectly with Christian groups. Although, in the main, it deals with conditions faced by a group of religious living under vows, its advice applies just as much to any group engaged in a common enterprise. There are plenty of useful suggestions here for parish clergy.

It looks like a handbook about how to play an exciting but complicated game. The table of contents is designed to help readers find information about particular issues easily. If you want to know how to set up or bring to an end a small community; how to describe its aims, objectives and life-style, it is all here. There are sections on recognizing and meeting individual and community needs, how to deal with conflict between members and how to build up a sense of co-responsibility and corporate spirituality: the functions of leadership; ways of maintaining good communication in the case of communities which are part of a larger organization; and provision for review and evaluation are all included, and much more.

Widdicombe’s section on ‘Transition between Communities’ has useful advice for anyone moving home, changing employment or facing retirement. Another long section on ‘Equipping Small Communities’ suggests ways to evaluate the life and ministry of the group and the individuals who belong to it, ways of making community meetings work effectively, how to reach decisions which really are agreed, and how to nurture religious vocation. All of these are important subjects for clergy and lay leaders in parishes as well as for small groups. This is an excellent book; designed for frequent and easy reference, its advice and insights are clear and thoroughly sound.

Crispin Harrison CR

 

Discovering the Faith

John Pitchford

Additional Curates Society, 140pp, pbk

0 9506462 1 0, £5.99

John Pitchford’s new book Discovering the Faith is the one we’ve been waiting for. Originally written as a series of articles for the Birmingham Post, this excellent book presents the Christian faith and practice in a friendly format. It is clear, simple and concise, and written by someone with long experience as a parish priest. He speaks with authority and common sense.

The basic shape includes articles on God, the Bible, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; the seven sacraments, and seasons and festivals of the Church’s year. Then comes Church history up to the present day. Thorny issues such as liberalism and the ordination of women are tackled honestly and openly leaving the reader to decide. Then creeds, commandments, worship, prayer, rule of life, vocations, customs and signs round off a comprehensive tour which leaves the reader enlightened, encouraged and inspired.

At the start the author makes it clear that he is restating the traditional faith as it has been accepted through the centuries. He admits that Christianity is a large and complicated subject and hopes the articles will inspire the reader to further study and hopefully a leap in faith. Recent years have seen a massive growth in courses and materials to nurture new Christians and introduce non-Church people to the basics of Christian faith and practice. Among these are the Alpha and Emmaus courses widely used and appreciated by so many as stepping stones to deeper commitment. Discovering the Faith stands alongside these as an account of Christian faith that is reasonable, intelligent and wholly in accordance with scripture and tradition. It deserves to be used widely.

This is just the thing to put into the hands of confirmation candidates and new members of the congregation enquiring about the faith. Among these could be included those who ask for baptism for their babies and couples preparing for marriage. Again, it is a useful refresher course for all church members – it will help us to know our faith and increase our confidence in sharing it with others. The author advises only one chapter to be read and pondered each day and hopes readers from outside the Church will be helped to find the love of God in Jesus Christ through regular worship. He emphasizes quite rightly that we are all searching, ‘You cannot learn to swim without getting into the water. So with the faith. We are all making a spiritual journey or pilgrimage through life.’

Paul Greenwell is Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, Hunslet, Leeds.

 

THE CHALLENGE OF CELL CHURCH

Phil Potter

BRF, 176pp, pbk

1 84101 218 1, £6.99

No, this is not a book about prison ministry. Jonathan Aitken, Lord Archer and the late Earl of Longford do not get a mention in its pages.

With cells (think organic rather than prison), we say goodbye to the old evangelical model of discipleship – church twice on Sunday, Bible study, prayer group, men’s or women’s fellowship during the week – and hello to a house-group concept which combines all these and more. Bible study one week, prayer meeting the next, worship the third and round off the month with a social gathering (the book contains ideas for these for the benefit of those who don’t know how to socialize). It is being demonstrated all over the world to be an engine of church growth. Even Alister McGrath enthuses about them, Wycliffe Hall is hosting a conference about them, and another publisher states that there are over 200,000 ‘cells’ in the UK alone. Cells are the new black.

This is scarcely an impartial book – Phil Potter writes as a parish priest who has seen his Merseyside parish revolutionized by cells, growing in numbers but also in depth of Christian commitment. Potter is a leading light in the Alpha Course movement, and has caught his mentor Nicky Gumbel’s knack of punchy alliteration and imaginative use of the alphabet. Don’t be put off by the occasional management-consultant-speak and frequent reference to ‘models’; there are enough stories to illustrate how people grow as individuals and together as a community of mutual trust and absolute honesty and discover gifts they didn’t know they had. It is all very enticing.

As an advocate for its cause, Potter does not mention the cell concept’s potential problem areas, so I will. How does this ‘basic church’ handle the ecumenical dimension, when a notionally Anglican cell includes members of other Churches, or when people have grown through cell ministry to the point where they leave for something else – the House Church movement for example? How does a basically evangelical group handle people who do not fit the conventional mould – divorced or single people, people struggling with their sexuality, or people who quite simply doubt a lot? Fundamental to the requirement for honesty and trust, and of crucial importance to the people just referred to, how does it guarantee confidentiality and prevent the group becoming the parish gossip cooker? It is left to one of the ‘12 to 13 year-olds’ to be quoted as saying ‘It’s different from church. It’s easy to tell others about problems and know it won’t go any further.’ But how is this ensured? Perhaps a parish must have a strong sense of community and solidarity to start on the cell experiment in the first place.

Don’t, though, let these quibbles put you off either this book or ‘cell church’. Buy the one, read it, and pester your vicar to think about exploring the other.

Andrew Witcombe-Small is a translator for the European Parliament.

 

Resident Aliens

Stanley Hauerhas & William Willimon

Abingdon Press, 175pp, pbk

0 687 36159 1, £9.99

‘Without vision the people perish’ wrote the author of Proverbs. So often Christians all but perish through loss of rationale in a materialistic society. Here is a book that is something of a tonic, particularly for overwhelmed priests. It is a powerful statement of the counter-cultural aspect of Christianity which owes a lot to the legacy of Karl Barth. The authors discern the modern Church as becoming ‘one more consumer-orientated organisation, existing to encourage individual fulfilment rather than being a crucible to engender individual conversion to the Body.’ So often ‘in leaning over to speak to the modern world, we (have) fallen in.’ By recovering a sense of her existing today ‘as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief’ the Church will recover faithfulness to Jesus Christ who is ‘the supreme act of divine intrusion into the world’s settled arrangements’.

Resident Aliens offers encouragement particularly to priests and pastors who are disheartened. So often such disheartening links to exhaustion at being made available to people of unbounded need. A recovery of the theological rationale of ministry, seeing the need to always offer help ‘in the name of Jesus’ relates pastoral ministry to a wider and empowering perspective. ‘If Christendom is still alive and well, then the primary task of the pastor is to help us with our aches and pains (using the latest self-help therapies, of course) to challenge us to use our innate talents and abilities. But if we live as a colony of resident aliens within a hostile environment, which, in the most subtle but deadly of ways, corrupts and co-opts us as Christians, then the pastor is called to help us gather the resources we need to be the colony of God’s righteousness.’

Hauerhas and Willimon set forth an adventurous Christianity which orients the Church to God and makes sense of the ethical demands of the faith in so doing. It is an accompanied journey in which laity and clergy collaborate, the pastor’s role being primarily to point forwards and upwards. Resident Aliens sees our main challenge as the Church being, far from helping Christians adapt to the world as it is, to promote an agenda which helps people survive distinctively as Christians. This book is an excellent resource for examining conscience in terms of how much it is Christ or the world that informs and forms us.

John Twisleton is Chichester Diocesan Missioner.

 

THE PILGRIMAGE OF GRACE

RW Hoyle

OUP, 500pp, hbk

0 19 820874 X, [£30]

This is history, rather than popular history. It presumes familiarity with the period, offers considerable detail and avoids any suggestion of a single, over-arching explanation. Why did the rebellions of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire occur in 1536–7? Why did they fail? Why have they been so long remembered? This will not so much answer the questions as draw you into the rich and complex world of early Tudor politics and the destruction of the medieval church.

Most interesting is the manner in which he destroys that favourite explanation, ‘The north is different’. Rubbish, he says, and sets out to show how remarkably uniform were the social and political structures of the commonwealth; it was distant (from London) but not different (from the south). The separate uprisings, in Lincolnshire, the East Riding, Richmondshire and westward, brought separate demands, and above all divergent forms of leadership. They were certainly conservative, but not differently conservative to the rest of the country, not at this stage of the social and religious revolution.

Henry VIII plays the key role. His heartless insensitivity must be blamed for much of the troubles, above all for the prolongation into ’37; on the other hand his ruthlessness and cynicism may also be credited with the comprehensive defeat of these rebellions and the failure of any subsequent rejections of Tudor centralizing power. The social upheavals, the political changes and the destruction of old patterns of economic interdependence resulting from Thomas Cromwell’s programme against the monasteries all paint a picture of a cruel and troubled time. The multifarious demands of the ‘commons’ of Yorkshire look both chaotic and inadequate, and also strangely prescient of the further turmoil of the later Reformation.

It is a story fascinating in the richness of information and full of poignant ‘what-ifs’, but not a proper foundation for the sentimental view of plucky Catholic northerners, holding fast to the true faith, ultimately defeated by those nasty Protestant southerners. A Roman Catholic friend proudly told me of an ancestor who had ‘taken part’ in the Pilgrimage of Grace. I now know that to be true – he was one of the leading Yorkshire gentry on the King’s side who mustered forces to defeat the rebels. SR

 

THE PSALMS

John Rogerson

SPCK, 128pp, pbk

0 281 05141 0, [£8.99]

Anglicans get to know the Psalms rather well. Perhaps I ought to say that Anglicans used to get to know the Psalms rather well. Reciting the daily office means covering the majority of the Psalter weekly or monthly, according to whichever office one uses.

This was true for me even as a boy, for our local church had mass at 8am with Morning and Evening Prayer from the BCP at 11am and 6.30pm respectively. Although I was a late reader, once I could read, I read everything. The Psalms fascinated me. Their structure, their themes, and their viciousness, it all captivated me. As an adult I have continued to love the Psalter. It is a joy to recite the Psalter on a weekly basis. You will appreciate the thrill of being asked to review this book. It is little, just 104 pages covering only 41 Psalms, but it is a little gem.

The Psalms in this book have been translated into English by Rogerson himself and each one has a short commentary, again by the author. His purpose is to apply these Jewish poems to modern life, but he does so without destroying their ancient meaning and usage. Even if he is rather too strong on politically correctness in places, he nevertheless retains the original strength of these jewels of ancient Israel.

Rogerson deserves praise for not being afraid to tackle those verses in the Psalter that are considered too violent or cruel for modern use. The closing verses of Ps 137 are a classic example: here the Psalmist vows to dash the children of his enemies against stones in revenge. Strong stuff indeed, but Rogerson is not shy of including them in his scheme. This book should be on the prayer stall of every priest for use in those minutes just prior to reciting the office, and many a layperson will enjoy the fresh approach to these ancient Psalms.

Fr Ron Crane is Area Dean of Mercia.

 

GOD’S LESSER GLORY

A critique of open theism

Bruce A Ware

Apollos/IVP, 240pp, pbk

0 85111 481 4, £11.99

God is working his purpose out. Does that mean that he is not sure what is round the next corner? Or perhaps he knows some of it, guesses the rest, and got the last bit slightly wrong? So open theists believe, headed in America by Basinger, Boyd, Pinnock, Rice and Sanders among others. Professor Ware of Louisville, Kentucky, reckons they are theological drifters and pastoral disasters.

If sometimes the debaters descend Miltonically into ‘wandering mazes lost’, at its best this book gives a fair and clear guide to what is going on. Fair, because the advocates of ‘openness’ are fully quoted, and we feel the seductiveness of their case. Why not take the key texts at face value, starting in Eden with ‘Where are you?’ The author applies Scripture and logic to this fashion which, if unchecked, would lessen God’s glory – hence the title.

In more ways than one, Abraham on Mount Moriah is a test case. So are other examples of God apparently learning things, changing his mind, taking risks, misreading the evidence. But the writer is as concerned about the pregnant trainee missionary whose husband walked out, as about the dilemmas of Moses, Jonah, Peter and our Lord. Our view of this re-invented doctrinal sidetrack will affect our attitude to prayer, guidance and suffering.

A conservative view of Scripture is assumed. The writer might have added that the Psalmists were wasting their time getting angry at God, if he could simply reply, ‘Sorry, got it wrong again’, ‘Nothing to do with me’, ‘I’m as shattered as you are’, or just ‘I know how you feel’. This book is a healthy corrective to a dangerous deviation. CI

 

THE MYSTERY OF CAPITAL

Hernando de Soto

Black Swan, 280pp, pbk

0 552 99923 7, £7.99

Is there a theology of land? In an established Church such as ours, one cannot help feeling there ought to be. If Anglo-Catholicism is primarily an urban theology, it may not be surprising if this does not ring bells with our readership; and to be fair, the problem he speaks of no longer afflicts us in this country, nor anywhere in western Europe.

The central idea is wonderfully simple. The failure of capitalism in so many Third World countries has nothing to do with a lack of skill or desire or commitment, but the fact that the poor have no access to their own capital. Their principal asset is their land, what they have built on it and what they have done to improve it; none of this can become the basis for capital unless they can prove ownership. Ownership can only be proved if there is an accessible legal system. After many centuries, we have such a system in the west; we can own land, we can turn it and our houses into collateral for loans, and so create the capital to create our wealth. As his examples show, this is not the case in most of the Third World.

This is an extraordinary book, crammed full of ideas. I almost fear to trivialize his themes further by summarizing them. Here writes a man of great vision and wisdom. If you want a theology of land, you could perhaps start with him. AS

 

THE UNIVERSE IN A NUTSHELL

Stephen Hawking

Bantam, 220pp, hbk

0 593 04815 6, £20

There is value in smoke alarms. People have forgotten that the phenomenal success of A Brief History of Time in 1988 was not unexpected: it had massive pre-publicity and its launch date was announced a year ahead. Like so many others, I made a trip to the bookshop that afternoon to pick up my reserved copy. By the time I was back in the vicarage, it was time to cook supper before whatever dreary council meeting followed. I put the rice on to cook slowly, and told myself in my excited anticipation, ‘I’ll just read the introductory bits, while I am waiting.’ I was hooked, drawn into a whole new world. Only the smoke alarm told me my supper was charcoal and brought me back to the present.

Why did people make such a fuss about not understanding the book? Of course you cannot understand it: it is about nothing less than the universe. It would be like saying Paul’s letter to the Romans is ‘a bit difficult’. Of course it is; it could hardly contain what it does if it was not. The extraordinary power of that book was the quality of its language. There is a strength of explanation, of being able to take the reader by the hand and lead him into a realm he could never imagine it were possible to visit and appreciate. Hawking’s wife then was a deeply devout Anglican, who has led a very quiet life since their divorce; little as is known of her in the public domain suggests that her love and faith gave the Professor a strength he needed. And deserved, for wheel-chair bound as he is, his contribution to human wisdom is immense.

So what of his second book? Yes, success has gone to his head, and his prose has lost its almost hypnotic power. It is easier to understand, for time has made his original ideas more widely shared. The graphics, which sadly do not relate very strongly to the text, are quite superb and most ingenious (by Moonrunner Design Ltd apparently; who they?). But no, it is not truly a sequel. Rather, more an introduction to current cosmology and nuclear physics, by one of the most extraordinary writers the subject has ever had. That should be recommendation enough if you never read the original work.

Why read it? In an age in which it no longer makes the rules, theology relies in part on other disciplines to put across its sacred truths. It requires a medium in which to make visible its insights into God and the human condition. There are many on offer. Sociology and psychology are particularly popular (unfortunately). History remains a reliable favourite. But the one which in the twentieth century commanded the respect of academics, and was capable of extracting phenomenal sums of money from governments, was physics. Theories of the universe, its beginning and end, its extent and its boundaries: these demand attention by the sheer size of their ambition. If it is not a medium for theological insight, it is at the very least a measure against which much of our theology needs to be set. NT

 

EXPLORING MATTHEW’S GOSPEL

Leslie Francis & Peter Atkins

Continuum, 230pp, pbk

0 264 67531 2, [£12.99]

Jungian and Myers-Briggs’ personality typing will not preach you a good sermon, but it might prevent you preaching too many bad ones. Each lectionary text from Matthew is here presented for each of the four supposed personality types, sensing, intuitive, feeling and thinking. It should stimulate your imagination, and may broaden the range of your teaching. AS

 

GOD QUESTIONS

Lance Pierson

Highland Books, 186pp, pbk

1 897913 44 3, £6.99

The author is a multi-talented storyteller, entertainer, communicator and writer. His one-man shows are a delight, his tailor-made church evenings an education. His latest book shows both a sparkling skill in handling questions, and an ability to hear them in the first place.

The seven main sections cover: God’s world; Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Bible, Church and ‘The Future’. Each tackles up to a dozen questions from an orthodox biblical standpoint, in a style which is racy but never flippant. The format is easy on the eye, with quotations in user-friendly shapes. The balance of topics may not be the teachers’ choice, but rings true to groups I have known. Moral issues are dealt with early, frankly, and head on.

In the Bible, for example, are the words and actions of God, ‘wrapping himself in the lives of people and nations and Churches, to show who he is and what he wants to do with us. No new idea is Christian if the Bible disagrees with it’. ‘The Bible’ may be NIV or GNB, but these and other versions are explained too. And if our interpretations vary? A random example: Lance Pierson doesn’t want to ordain women, just to unordain men. But he does not bully: ‘I accept that not all Christians agree with me.’

He gives credit to many friends who helped to sharpen the questions and frame the answers. The latter have a theological and moral depth not always found in such books. Four godsons are named in the dedication, and this would make a handy confirmation gift. Whether many new Christians would make it their pocket guide I am not sure, but all who nurture them would find it an invaluable resource. CI

 

MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL

Ruth Dudley Edwards

HarperCollins, 222pp, pbk

0 00 649864 7, £5.99

Anyone who has spent long in church circles will recognize the characters here, exaggerated though they are! Indeed, part of the fun of the book would be trying to put real names to the characters! It’s a good romp – murder mystery with comedy: it features a part-time lesbian baroness, Mistress of St Martha’s College, a reluctant hero who longs for the quiet life with his absent girlfriend, a newly appointed bishop with a gang of truly horrific clergy in his cathedral, and a dean’s wife, who makes Mrs. Proudie look like a benign angel!

It is action packed and covers everything from traveller invasions, gay scandals, women’s lib demonstrations and rapidly escalating violence. It may seem bizarre to add comedy to this mix but it works well enough. I can’t say I laughed outright but certainly there was the odd chuckle or two.

This is one in a series of books which I guess are being reprinted in light of the ever increasing market for good crime stories – but you don’t need to have read others to enjoy this one.

Marylin Ensor works in communications management.

 

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’, but if nothing else it shows how visceral the hatred of the traditional Church can be ‘out there’. AS

 

THE COINS OF JUDAS

Scott McBain

HarperCollins, 374pp, pbk, 0 00 711465 6, £9.99

It has all the standard ingredients, the venal cardinal, the saintly nun, the harassed priest, the Los Angeles lawyer (though in this case he is a psychiatrist, which I suppose is close enough), and miles of secret passages under what you and I think is the Vatican Museum (little do we know, poor benighted Protestants); and what is more it called itself a ‘thriller’. Holiday hokum, just the ticket. It turned out to be in the horror genre, which is not the same thing at all! Me, I prefer guns and criminals to eerie essences and fake theology. It all depends on how you like your evil-as-entertainment. One bit that tickled me was the super deadly secret, so mind-chillingly terrible that only the Pope can know it, and he must pass it on to his successor. AS

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