BOOK REVIEWS

The Church in Ethiopia and Revolutionary France

 

THE ARCHEOLOGY OF CHRISTIANITY IN AFRICA

 

Having had a daughter who studied Social Anthropology at LSE, who on day one learnt the mantra ‘missionary bad, anthropologist good’, I was prepared for the ideological stance of this research fellow of SOAS. In his introduction he warns us that ‘the Church was an instrument of such actions (domination, social conditioning and oppression).’ When he forgets his own intellectual conditioning, this is a very useful survey of archaeological remains of Christianity in North Africa, in Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia, and of the early Portuguese expansion into Africa. Anyone visiting these areas on holiday will find it a helpful companion, with numerous site plans and a number of photographs – albeit one or two more location maps would have improved his presentation, as would a much fuller index.

His rapid survey of early church history and of the more recent growth of Christianity in Africa are, on the other hand, somewhat sketchy and marred by inaccuracies. For example, it seems odd to describe the Sadducees as a ‘disaffected religious splinter group’ – and the caption for St Michael’s, Blantyre, must be 1896 not 1876. He is quite at sea with the Gnostic movement, and has clearly never studied the New Testament seriously. ‘Syncretism’ is his hobby horse, but unfortunately he gives no space to considering its meaning, which he frequently confuses with ‘inculturation’, so his conclusion that ‘each chapter tells its own story of syncretism within the Christian cultural record’ is an unconvincing assertion – although he is probably right that any evidence is most likely to come from burial practices. (Here, I confess, I wince a little at the readiness of the archaeologist to dig up graves at a moment’s notice!)

Having recently visited some of the sites he mentions in Ethiopia, I found myself wishing he had been less dismissive of the belief that the Ark of the Covenant is housed in Aksum, given its disappearance from biblical records after the time of Solomon. At least he could have traced the early history of the sacred tabots (copies of the Ark) which are a central feature of all Ethiopian Orthodox churches. By contrast, he is quite happy with the idea that the Holy Family visited Egypt, and that St Mark evangelized Alexandria in ad 41. Dr Finneran admits that he is less of an historian than an archaeologist, but to be an expert in his chosen career he will surely need to attend to his weaknesses.

Although Christianity spread across Egypt and North Africa during the first three centuries, it was in the next century that it reached the hinterland. The story is told of two Christian boys from Syria captured and enslaved at the court of the powerful kingdom of Aksum, in the mountainous region north of the rift valley. However, having made converts to the faith, including King Ezana, one of the two, Frumentius, went in 346 to consult St Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, about the future needs of the burgeoning Christian community. He found himself consecrated bishop, or abuna, and challenged to adapt the practices of the Church to the culture of the Amharic people.

Visitors to Ethiopia from abroad are best advised to travel in September or October, soon after the summer rains have ended. Travel by road can be lengthy and tiring, but internal flights are reliable and cheap, with some elegant modern airports (as yet without x-ray machines, so be prepared for thorough baggage searches). The ‘historic route’ includes Lake Tana, with its many island monasteries (and not far away the Blue Nile falls), Gonder with its seventeenth-century-plus castles, Aksum and the famous stelae, together with the church (closed to visitors) reputedly containing the Ark of the Covenant and the Queen of Sheba’s palace, and Lalibela with its twelfth-century rock-hewn churches (‘the eighth wonder of the world’). Elsewhere Ethiopia abounds in marvellous mountain and rift valley scenery, with many sites and churches of historic interest, full of vibrant frescos. There is a small chain of government-run hotels of tourist standard, but local tour operators, such as Abyssinian Tours, can cut costs enormously by using more basic, but decent, accommodation. One final word of warning: mule riding can cut the toil out of mountain treks, but watch out for fleas!

 

Rodney Schofield is Director of Research at Zomba Theological College, Malawi.

 

 

A CONCISE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

 

One World have, over the last few years, been one of the best publishers of theological and religious books. They gave us the reissue of Evelyn Underhill. They are Keith Ward’s publishers. They have now launched a series of concise encyclopedias covering the major world religions. This volume moves that series into another popular area.

Canon Thiselton is admirably equipped to tackle the demanding task of deciding what to include and what to omit, then of writing the articles single-handed. In his decisions about content, he has selected wisely, and has deliberately included articles on current new approaches where all except recent graduates will welcome a brief introduction. In writing, he has given helpful and provocative sub-headings. The article on Dualism for example has a section headed: Critique or Near Parody? If that doesn’t tempt you, what will?

I have neither time or space to examine everything in detail. Where I have sampled, the content of the articles is useful and goes beyond many parallel dictionaries and encyclopedias. For example, the article on the Five Ways of St Thomas describes them clearly, giving references to the Blackfriars edition, but also includes summaries of modern critical discussion. It was particularly good to see Anthony Kenny’s critique getting its fair share of attention. Equally substantial and equally good is the article on Language in Religion. There are shorter notes too: Foucault gets a column.

There are examples of unfortunate headings: the article on Marxist Critique of Religion is a general survey of Marx’s thought, with his approach to religion tucked into the final section.

The articles are followed by a very clear and useful chronology which goes down to 2002, though the entry for that year seems to be more concerned to point to Gadamer’s achievement in living to 102 than to suggest a philosophical development. The index of names is pretty comprehensive, and is supplemented in the text by cross references to other related articles. If you do not possess a dictionary on this area, you could do a lot worse than to buy Thiselton.

 

Patrick Allsop is Chaplain of St Paul’s School.

 

 

Christianity and revolutionary Europe c.1750-1830

 

Part of a series entitled New Approaches to European History, this book seeks to demonstrate the inherent strength and vitality of the eighteenth-century churches which enabled Christianity to survive the Enlightenment and the Revolution. The scope is wide, a century in one of the most intellectually fertile and politically volatile periods of European History, ‘from Ireland to Russia, from Sweden to Sicily’. (Aston refreshingly includes the Orthodox experience in his work.) As example follows example and every statement is backed with specific evidence, it is sometimes difficult to stay with the basic argument. The verve of the writing and the richness of the material compensates and as page follows page a cumulative picture is formed.

Europe c.1750 was never more Christianized and churches were responding variously and with differing degrees of success to intellectual and political events of vast magnitude. If the work is perhaps skewed towards France, that is because France was the centre of so much of the change in the period; and I for one am not unhappy that for a book which attempts a pan-European perspective there is so much interesting material about Anglicanism.

The Enlightenment was not merely something which happened ‘to’ the churches. In many ways it was ‘of" the churches, for while the monastic orders failed to justify themselves in terms of the Enlightenment principle of ‘usefulness’, and the Jesuits were dissolved, support for secular clergy and reform of hierarchies both Protestant and Catholic was driven by many rulers and churchmen who were themselves exponents of the Enlightenment. This process of reform was itself an important factor destabilizing the Ancien Régime.

Revolutionary Secularism when it came had already been defeated by the work and witness of the preceding half century, especially in the countryside. The Vendeé rising was but the clearest example of this, and while Aston gives him but a couple of sentences in amongst all the other examples, the Curé d’Ars is shown not to have been unprepared for, nor was the faith which burned so clearly in him extinguished elsewhere.

After 1815 institutional Christianity was certainly altered, but the period saw a real revival. Restoration states sought legitimacy in sacralization. National churches found the partnership at first fertile for mission as Romanticism replaced Enlightenment in the new intellectual climate. However, within the ‘opposition’ political classes resentment grew, and close links with government hindered revival in the countryside where pre-Revolutionary Christianity had been so strong. The upheaval of 1830 was therefore much more damaging than that of 1789. Even if Establishment was retained, all over Europe churches strove to disentangle their links with discredited governments.

There Aston leaves the story. His book gives a wider context of Keble’s Assize sermon of 1833, which may be seen in its light as part of a response to the fall of Charles X and the accession of Louis Phillipe; the Oxford movement born on the barricades of Paris.

 

Luke Miller is parish priest of St Mary the Virgin, Tottenham.

 

 

Anglicanism and the Christian Church

Theological Resources in Historical Perspective

 

For those of us who believe that Anglicanism has just about frittered away whatever provisional legitimacy as a separate ecclesial entity it might once have had, Paul Avis is a formidable force to reckon with. The title eschews the technical term ‘ecclesiology’, but the ‘theological resources’ reviewed here through Anglican history are precisely collected with a view to constructing an Anglican ecclesiology. Paul Avis and Bishop Sykes have long laboured to overturn the old contention that, because the Anglican Communion is not a confessional Church, it has no distinctive doctrine apart from orthodox Catholic teaching. Ecclesiology, in this age of ecumenical dialogue, is a particularly important subject, so it behoves Anglicans to come clean.

Avis is of course a consummate scholar with an impressive grasp of the entire theological history of Anglicanism, and this book, in a revised and expanded edition, is an indispensable and substantial resource for anyone studying the history of Anglican thought with respect to the nature of the Church. Given the famous – or infamous, depending on one’s point of view – ‘comprehensiveness’ of Anglicanism, it is difficult to see how the much desired clarity of a coherent ecclesiological synthesis will be developed, beyond marshaling resources, variant models and emphases which, at best, would complement each other, but more realistically, compete with each other.

We all have our colours and preferences – indeed our faith – and Avis’ well-known perspective is clear from the very first page. He speaks of ‘the Church of England as the sounder or soundest part of Christ’s Church’, ‘because, surely, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, it had thrown off the yoke of papal jurisdiction and unbiblical superstition at the Reformation and, unlike the Dissenters, it had retained the seemliness of liturgical worship and the primitive threefold ministry with ordination by bishops’ (pxiii). Throughout, an unequivocal alignment with the Protestant Reformation is evident, and the harshest language is reserved for Anglo-Catholics in general and Tractarians in particular, with their ‘ignorance and prejudice carried through to the present century’, and their ‘obsession with Apostolic Succession’ (p341). The ‘negative attitude to the Reformation’ adopted by the Oxford Movement is said to have destroyed an Anglican consensus that had up to then existed (p181). One wonders at what cost such a consensus might now be restored.

All in all, one has to acknowledge the immense usefulness of this well-researched and well-written resource, even while wishing that a more restoratively and constructively Catholic perspective could emerge in the building of an Anglican approach to the ecclesiology of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

 

Ernest Skublics was formerly Dean of Theology at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon.

 

 

The Little Book of Heavenly Humour

 

This is a book for everyone save the Cassius among Christians, of whom Shakespeare said, ‘Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort as if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit that could be moved to smile at any thing.’ Syd Little, a great Christian entertainer, gives a great deal to move us to much laughter.

In his introduction he quotes Thomas Merton, ‘Clowns and comedians are likely to have a high place in heaven as they must be near the heart of God.’ With a little help from his friends, he has produced an excellent collection of holy jokes, and in his introduction he sets out three aims.

The first is a reminder to take our faith seriously but not ourselves, and to be aware always of the fine line between laughing at someone and laughing with them. The second aim is to provide illustrations for speakers, and many of his stories would certainly not be out of place in the context of a sermon. His third is to help us take a dose of our own medicine, for when we can laugh at ourselves we not only reduce the stress of everyday life but also ensure that we do not to take ourselves more seriously than we ought.

There is a bit of everything, something old, something new, something borrowed but nothing blue. There are after-dinner jokes, limericks, some terrible puns, the inadvertent humour of children, sermon disasters, the fun of real events, even a bit of political incorrectness, and nothing you could not relate to your maiden aunt.

Humans are the only creatures on this earth made in the image of God, and as we are also the only creatures with a sense of humour it follows that God too must laugh. Ultimately, says Little, ‘God’s desire is for our laughter to be the outward expression of the deep love and security we can experience from him.’ And that in itself makes this little book of heavenly humour much more than just a collection of funny stories.

 

George Austin is Archdeacon Emeritus of York.

 

 

CALLED TO ACCOUNT

 

Subtitled, ‘The case for an audit of the state of the failing Church of England’, this is not a book that will get an unbiased review in New Directions. Not simply because Robbie Low writes one of the essays, but because its call is so thoroughly in tune with what this publication has been campaigning for. Published to coincide with the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, its principal purpose was to garner headlines in the broadsheets. In this it succeeded. Has the debate been advanced or deepened because of those headlines and their ensuing articles? I suspect not as much as we would wish.

This (uneven) collection of essays suffers from that endemic failing of the disgruntled: not knowing when to stop. You may say that same of ND, but we are a monthly magazine. A riot of different opinions and styles of expression is a sign of energy. Not so with a pamphlet/book; that requires a coherence of purpose if it is going to be noticed, and if noticed, read. It starts clearly and simply enough, but it is as though the discussion cannot stop, as one person after another wants to say, ‘But there’s this wrong with the CofE as well.’

Peter Mullen is always good on the banalities of modern liturgy, but his elegant diatribe is not entirely relevant to the expressed intention of the book’s sub-title. The lay contributions are less well argued but nonetheless heartfelt. The exception is Professor Homan whose argument that those on the margins are more attracted by tradition than constant change is undergirded by the bare statistics of church attendance.

There are two main points to this book; all the rest should have been jettisoned. It would be a pity to lose sight of them. The second is slightly flippant, but telling nevertheless. Mr Anderson writes:

I do not recall any bishop feeling obliged to resign following the manifest failure of the modern church. Nor have any of those bishops and other senior persons, who are responsible for the many bright wheezes justified as making the church more relevant and popular, admitted the failure of and indeed actual harm caused by their wheezes, and apologised. In business, even in politics, such apologies and resignations would have been considered normal.

He returns to the theme in his conclusion, ‘I do not recall one case in the last 40 years when a bishop has blamed himself clearly and in public.’ It is an interesting take on the idea that the CofE must become more businesslike.

The first and serious point remains the need for an audit, a clear investigation and enumeration of the membership and financial resources of the Church of England, and the clarification of their decline. Again, readers of New Directions may feel they know all this already, but this is because many of our writers have gone behind the official figures, swept aside the spin and creative accounting, and burrowed away in the dark. For most people in this country, for most people who consider themselves CofE, even for most members of our congregations, it is still dark. Yes, there is a decline; yes, there is a shortage of money; but a clear understanding of the exact parameters of the crisis?

How can ordinary church members learn the truth if it remains hidden? A few brave

individuals shouting against smug officialdom is not enough. We need an independent and professional audit of the state of the Church of England. The House of Bishops must act, and soon. We need facts. Consider the Mind of Anglicans survey sponsored by Cost of Conscience last year. It did not tell us anything new, but it confirmed the loss of faith among liberals with a thoroughness that went beyond mere anecdote; it established facts, and as such has become an accepted truth in the public domain. It is now cited and alluded to in a whole range of publications. It has enabled discussion to be broader and more serious, because it offered an objective basis for the foundations of the problem. Insofar as Called to Account has kept the debate firmly in the public arena, and in a handy form, it is a welcome addition. NT

 

From Called to Account.

The Church Commissioners used to provide, out of the central funds, for the cost of the bishops, the cathedrals, clergy pensions and two thirds of the cost of clergy (the equivalent of salaries) and housing costs. Now these central contributions to parishes have been reduced by two thirds (from £66m in 1991 to £22m in 2000) That fall is three-quarters in real terms. And clergy pensions ceased to be centrally funded beyond employment in 1998. A huge financial burden is thus transferred to the parishes. Moreover the number of retired clergy and their widows has increased by 25 per cent over a 20 year period and the cost will increase with longer life expectancy. This burden hits the parishes at a time when their attendance, that is their sources of funds, has fallen by 41 per cent (between 1979 and 1998).

 

 

St Saviour’s, Hoxton, An extraordinary Story

 

It is sad but understandable in these days of historical neglect that many Catholic Anglicans go to Mass without knowing the difficulties, even persecution, which priests suffered in a not so long ago age to restore full ceremonial into the Church of England. Vestments, incense, even candles were re-introduced into many churches only after fights, sometimes in the courts where some priests were found guilty and imprisoned for using what is taken for granted today.

It happened in the mid-nineteenth century under the influence of the Oxford or Tractarian movement which restored first sound teaching and then great pastoral activity in the parishes. London was growing rapidly, houses were built and for these churches were built, one St Saviour’s in 1885, north of London’s east end south of Hackney and Islington. It was served by a series of devoted priests who carefully introduced both Catholic teaching and then practice. It was forty years before full eucharistic vestments were worn. After that it took off and it became very ‘extreme’, worrying even a friendly bishop and rousing Protestants to fury.

The full story is told by Michael Farrer, who is one of the founders of the Anglo-Catholic History Society which is ensuring that once-famous Catholic shrines are not forgotten. Some of these, like St Saviour’s, were destroyed in the last war. The price of this small, illustrated publication is high but worth the money for an Anglo-Catholic aficionado.

 

Ivan Clutterbuck is a priest in south London.

 

 

BEDE AND THE PSALTER

 

A little gem. I have commended Bede’s biblical work in this journal before, but I have also been conscious that the books reviewed were somewhat specialized and demanding. This is much shorter and much easier and beautifully presented by one of Fairacres’ scholar nuns. In a gentle essay, Sister Benedicta introduces us to Bede and his setting in the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon Church, to the use of the psalms in prayer and the liturgy, and to the development of a more personal and emotional use of the Psalter than that experienced in the Offices.

The whole Psalter was recited communally, and from that shared and formal prayer, each individual could take and use one or more key verses, that best expressed their own sorrow or trouble, or which summed up a whole psalm. Those single verses, imbued with power by their use in the Office, by their recitation by Jesus and all his saints, can carry the poor Christian in his suffering and open his heart to the healing of his Lord.

Nothing new there, you might think. For us not, but it was Bede’s careful selection of these key verses that popularized this use of the Psalms for those who did not share the monastic discipline. As Sister Benedicta puts it, ‘The Abbreviations from the Psalter was a turning point in the history of prayer, providing a vehicle for popular devotion for the next four centuries.’

Based on Coverdale’s Prayer Book translation wherever possible (for it is in this form that we most readily remember them) an appendix presents the whole of Bede’s abbreviated Psalter. It is so simple an idea; to us it may look banal and we might choose other verses instead, but what a beautiful milestone on the path of Christian prayer; what a joyful work of spiritual genius.

It was Alcuin who developed Bede’s work most enthusiastically, who drew them still further into the heart of the individual believer:

As angels live in heaven, so live men on earth who rejoice in the praises of God, in the pure heart of psalmody. No mortal man can fully declare the virtue of the psalms. In them are the confessions of sins, the tears of the penitent, the sorrow of the heart. Here is foretold all the dispensations of our redemption, the wondrous delights of heaven’s mirth. Here you will find the Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension of the Word of God.

SR

 

 

HELIGOLAND

 

A quirky footnote to the subject of national identity. It was during the Napoleonic Wars that Britain annexed this tiny island to the west of Denmark, as a base from which to break the European blockade. The nineteenth century saw enlightened governors respecting the local population and allowing them their traditional Frisian culture and political system, while Whitehall bureaucrats did all they could to reduce costs and thwart local ambitions.

In 1890, while the Queen and many others were out of London for the summer, the Prime Minister pushed through a deal with the German government, swapping their interests in Zanzibar and east Africa for this small but strategic rock (to which Germany had no historic claim whatever). At the time it seemed a profitable, if deeply cynical deal; at no point were the islanders ever consulted. Naval strategy in the First World War saw things differently, and there were even plans drawn up to recapture it in 1917.

In the inter-war years, it enjoyed a brief period of prosperity as a sophisticated holiday destination for the smart set before more bombs rained down on it again. In a final, almost vindictive act of frustration, Britain used it as a testing ground for further bombing experiments for another seven years after the end of World War II, including Operation Big Bang, the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.

In 1952, the islanders returned and its connections with Britain finally ceased. It is a fascinating footnote of history, and evokes mixed emotion. On the one hand, it highlights an aspect of British identity of which we can be justly proud; it shows a maturity of tolerance and openness that we have largely forgotten in these days of political correctness. On the other, it shows the institutional meanness (racism would be the modern term) of government in general and the Foreign Office in particular. AS

From Heligoland. Queen Victoria’s blistering telegram to her Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, from Balmoral, 9th June 1890:

Have received your account of the Cabinet. Understood from Lord Cross that nothing was to be done in a hurry about Heligoland, and now hear it is to be decided tomorrow. It is a very serious question which I do not like.

1st. The people have been always very loyal, having received my heir with enthusiasm; and it is a shame to hand them over to an unscrupulous despotic Government like the German without first consulting them.

2nd. It is a very bad precedent. The next thing will be to propose to give up Gibraltar; and soon nothing will be secure, and all our Colonies will wish to be free.

I very much deprecate it and am anxious not to give my consent unless I hear that the people’s feelings are consulted and their rights are respected. I think it is a very dangerous proceeding.

 

FUN AT THE CLUB

 

Useful material for those who have an old people’s club (or something similar) attached to their church, and are on the lookout for material to use. Mainly collections of questions and answers for amusing and testing if not demanding quizzes. ‘At our type of club laughter is the first essential.’ Quite right too. Nice modest piece of self-publishing; a little over-priced. AS

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