BOOK REVIEWS

Summer reading, some more liturgy and a teaching booklet

Transformations of Love

The friendship of John Evelyn and Margaret Godolphin

Francis Harris

OUP, 330pp, hbk

0 19 92357 2, £25

Samuel Pepys is the diarist of preference for the modern reader. He is, at first sight, so very modern himself. His rumbustious sex life and scandalous frankness is very much to the contemporary taste, and quite what we have come to expect of the age of the wicked Earl of Rochester and the Merry Monarch.

But there was another side to late Stuart England. John Evelyn is less approachable and so, perhaps, less well-known. To be honest there is something a little stuffy and pompous about Evelyn. His self-evident desire to be somebody, and yet his rather prissy disdain for courtly life, is bookish, stereotyped and unattractive. His domestic retreat at Deptford reads like Little Gidding without the religion (though Evelyn was a convinced and faithful Anglican); and it is hard to sympathize with a man whose chief passion was for trees.

Francis Harris, in this beautifully written and intelligent book, has done Evelyn a favour. She has made him, if not more sympathetic to an audience in the twenty-first century, then at least more intelligible.

The key to Evelyn is that he was, by the standards of his own free-wheeling age, rather old-fashioned. He brings the sententiousness of the Cambridge Platonists into contact with the louche morality of the Restoration. His relationship with Margaret Godolphin – which ought, according to the fashion of the times, have been passionate, sexy and adulterous – was chaste, ‘platonick’, and acknowledged by wife and family alike. Was it sexual? Most certainly, as Evelyn himself seems to have admitted when it came to an end. Was it sexually expressed? Certainly not.

Harris takes the reader into the gentle, gentrified atmosphere of the well-read, cultured circle which John and Margaret inhabited, and makes one almost nostalgic for it. These seventeenth-century blue-stockings and their well-mannered beaux wrote beautiful prose to one another and demonstrated exquisite sensibilities. The beauty of the prose has rubbed off on Harris, who sheds light on enigmatic relationships which are both surprising and reassuring in language which is a pleasure in itself.

The roles of the principal protagonists in this story of love and domesticity are neatly summarized in the portraits of each which decorate the book. John Evelyn by Sir Godfrey Kneller is proud, fastidious and academic. Mary Evelyn (probably from her own brush) is plump, agreeable and homely. Margaret Godolphin (née Blagge) is ‘seraphick’, beautiful with a sort of melancholy wisdom.

Margaret’s ‘friendship’ with Evelyn, sealed on an ‘altar’ of their own invention, ended when she became the wife of the equally proud and undoubtedly ambitious Sidney Godolphin. Margaret, in her person, brought two worlds together – the courtly world in which Evelyn longed for success whilst affecting to despise it, and the world of scholarship, ‘virtuositie’ and piety which he perforce inhabited at Sayes Court. She remains the enigma which her portrait sets before us.

I enjoyed this book immensely. And what is more, I will probably re-read it.

GK

 

AN INTRODUCTION TO THE OXFORD MOVEMENT

Michael Chandler

SPCK, 125pp, pbk

0 281 05517 3, £12.99

Michael Chandler has produced a straightforward survey of the Oxford Movement, though at 125 pages this can only be an introduction to a complex subject and I would recommend that it be read in conjunction with some other works, perhaps Owen Chadwick’s masterful The Victorian Church.

Chandler gives an account of the origins of the Oxford Movement, of the impact of John Keble’s 1833 Assize sermon on ‘National Apostacy’, and of the impact of the Tracts for the Times including the infamous Tract 90 which sought to interpret the Thirty-Nine Articles in a more Catholic light. He emphasizes that the Oxford Movement in these early years was primarily an intellectual movement.

He looks at the causes of Newman’s secession, the persecution of the Tractarians, and at controversies such as those involving the shared Anglican-Lutheran Jerusalem bishopric (1841–42), Pusey’s sermon on The Holy Eucharist a Comfort to the Penitent’ (1841), and the question of the doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration in the Gorham Judgement (1848–50). The usual cast troop across the pages: Keble, Newman, Pusey, Froude, Golightly, Hampden, Howley, Liddon, Palmer, and old Bishop Pillpotts, to name but a few. Chandler draws his book to a close with a brief account of the development of ritualism.

Although Chandler concludes his last two pages with some kindly words, it is never entirely clear whether he regards the Oxford Movement as a good thing or not. In the early pages he asserts many times that the Church of England before 1833 was not as bad as generations of Anglo-Catholic historians beginning with Dean Church have made it out to be. The question he fails to address is: if the Church of England was so good before 1833, why did the Oxford Movement spread and have such a widespread impact, that by 1914 there was hardly a parish in England which had not been affected by it in some way or other? I, for instance, am the parish priest of two country parishes which would appear to have been dormant until they were brought alive by clergy imbued with the principles of the Oxford Movement in the 1850s and 1860s.

The answer would appear to be that the crucial importance of the Oxford Movement lay in the fact that it gave the clergy and laity of the Church of England a renewed vision of their church: something to live up to and for which to strive and make sacrifices. Tractarian ideas were spread around many parishes by graduates of Oxford University, and, expressing it crudely, the impact of the Oxford Movement at a parish level was that it got more work out of the English middle classes.

 

Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great and Little Bardfield.

 

The Provocative Church

Graham Tomlin

SPCK, 176pp, pbk

0 281 05476 2, £9.99

Christians who cleared not just the gutters outside their church but all the drains in a Malaysian town intrigued their community. They also saw new faces in church provoked by the impression of genuine down-to-earth compassion. This is one excellent image of ‘provocative church’ in Graham Tomlin’s thoughtful book of that title.

Only too often Christian outreach provokes the very opposite response. The book starts with a withering rebuke to traditional evangelists from the writings of the late Times columnist, John Diamond. In a society ‘schooled by post-modern mistrust of truth and power’ those who speak forcefully of Jesus risk dishonouring the Christian cause. Sometimes they appear to have ‘the emotional constitution of a rhinoceros’! If Jesus is the truth to be told, to quote Mother Teresa, his truth is always to be embodied in love. Words are no good without the evidence that Christianity is helpful to human flourishing.

Evangelism, according to Tomlin, is an invitation to come under God’s rule. We need that rule to overcome our addiction to sin since ‘our ability to love with all our hearts is about as effective as an alcoholic’s self-control’. Jesus is God’s King over the world having defeated the evil powers that addict us. He is concerned to gather a community that intrigues because it gives a taste of the joy, generosity and deep sympathy of his coming kingdom. Just as an Irish bar in Kilburn gives Londoners a taste of distant Ireland so the Church is a taster of the real thing – a memorable analogy!

The provocative church intrigues because it is full of unfashionable mercy, creativity, love and humility. To achieve such a church requires a humble leadership, secure in Christ, who encourage a whole variety of ministries all geared to the task of evangelism. It is wrong to prioritize evangelism apart from social commitment and spiritual renewal. Tomlin also sees the partnership of servant ministry with the provision of causes for enquirers as pivotal. He would challenge individual believers to be more public about their Christianity, to build confidence about telling their faith stories and to be ready to issue invitations to seekers.

There are plenty of ideas in this book, but they are handed on with a hint of impatience about Christian theory. You do not teach swimming without getting wet and in the same way the Church needs to be hands-on about forming her members. It is the quality of transformed lives that raises eyebrows. A healthy church provokes interest because it evidences broken, imperfect people being put together again by the Holy Spirit. Too many churches are unhealthy in this respect, with members sometimes being made worse by their membership. Some churches betray ‘the classic symptoms of an unhappy marriage – unrealistic expectations, unmet needs and competing agendas’.

The Provocative Church is a good read for anyone wanting a rethink on evangelism that takes seriously both the doctrine of creation and the importance of the local church. There is little mention though of the sacraments as living, intriguing signs of Christ. The book is mindful of the negative image of evangelism and the need to counter this by imaginative generous acts by Christians. In the end evangelism is not about image or even presenting the best of images but about presence – Christ’s and ours.

It is great to be reminded of the need to be provocative as Christians but this is not something we can always effect consciously. As Pascal, who is frequently quoted in the book, said: ‘Holiness is the Church’s greatest influence.’ A provocative church is one that looks at imaginative options of witness. It is also, most importantly, one that does not lose confidence as it experiments so that it can still grow saints to do the provoking that reaches furthest.

 

The Revd Dr John F Twisleton is Chichester Diocesan Adviser for Mission & Renewal.

 

PAINTED LABYRINTH

Michelle Brown

British Library, 48pp, pbk

0 7128 4811 5, (£5.95)

What is the most sacred object in England? The Lindisfarne Gospels must surely be the strongest candidate for that award. There is an important exhibition, including both the Gospels themselves and a facsimile whose pages one can turn and read, as well as a whole range of other books, sculpture and sacred art that reveal how important is this most sacred object from the early eighth century.

Go and see the exhibition at the British Library before the end of September, and buy this paperback – it is a simple summary but with most of the colour pictures of the much longer and more scholarly work, which I shall review next month. Leave the academics aside for the moment and simply enjoy the pictures, and give thanks to God for the extraordinary grace, skill, art and devotion expressed in those sheets of vellum. SR

 

the prophet mohammad

Barnaby Rogerson

Little Brown, 240pp, hbk

0 316 86175 8, £14.99

Have you felt over the past couple of years that you ought to know a bit more about Islam, but you have never got down to it because it seems too much like hard work? Presumably it was to answer this need that this biography was written. It is in the classic English gentleman tradition. Jesus and Christianity is for the women; Mohammad and the stern world of the desert Arabs is for real men. He makes a rattling good tale of it.

The hero of this tale is a man’s man (at least after he has got through the first bland decades). Here is a successful general and even more successful lover, a wise judge and a wily campaigner, comfortably distant from dull, bourgeois England. He writes well and offers a hugely enjoyable read, while also doing justice to the confused politics of seventh century Arabia. There is something reassuringly Victorian in the story, the hero, the setting, the moral values and the outcome.

The religion is simple, demanding much of men’s behaviour but much less of the inner life – real men don’t do theology. Problems are swept carefully under the carpet, and the sleight of hand used to justify the Prophet’s marriage to his daughter-in-law is a masterly piece of ‘sheer front’. Christian squeamishness gets short shrift.

Above all Rogerson relishes Mohammad’s appetite for women and his capacity to satisfy eleven wives. ‘Boys Own Hagiography’ may be a bit unfair as a judgement, but the value of this book is that it will neither bore nor convert you, but it will certainly entertain, and instruct at the same time. A good summer read. AS

 

JOHN NEWTON

Spoken by John Piper

DGM, 2 CDs

DS0104, (£3.99)

Brought up an Evangelical, I blame John Newton more than anyone else for the fact that I am no longer an Evangelical. So, in a spirit of fairness, I was keen to listen to these CDs offering an hour and a half on the great eighteenth century pastor, ex-slave trader and author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’.

About a third of the extended talk is about Newton, with extensive quotations from his writing. The rest is about a Baptist preacher called John Piper. Histrionic, complacent, someone Newton himself might have called a twaddler. He has, however, read and studied his subject and is keen to convey his mixture of great firmness in doctrine and deep tenderness in pastoral care; it may be a poor and over-long sermon, but it contains lots of good material.

Newton, the Church of England priest, from 1764 to his death in 1807, first as curate of Olney, later as rector of St Mary, Woolnooth, was an admirable Puritan divine, collaborator with Cowper in the writing of clear and striking hymns, friend and supporter of Wilberforce and other social reformers, and an influence upon the early leaders of the Evangelical revival. A fine teacher of the faith.

The problem is with his conversion. For the first thirty years of his life, he lived a reprobate and dissolute life, much of it as a slave trader. On 10th March 1748, the ship in which he was travelling was caught in a violent storm. Brought to his senses by the imminence of death, he confessed all to the Lord Jesus and promised that if he were saved, he would dedicate his life in God’s service.

The first problem is that though he did not go to sea again, he did not give up his involvement in the slave trade for some years after this dramatic spiritual experience. Piper solves this with the simple judgement that he was not ‘really’ a Christian until some years later, after more serious study and prayer. The standard Evangelical retort would be: Isn’t that like saying someone is ‘not really pregnant’. If that was not his great conversion experience, why is it given such prominence in Evangelical literature?

The second problem is his contract with God. ‘Save my life, and I will become a good Christian.’ John Newton’s prayer in the storm on the deck of a sinking slave ship was set before us in the Christian Union as one of the great paradigms of prayer. The problem is that it worked! Miraculously, the wicked heathen youth was saved, and under the guidance of the Spirit became one of the great heroes of the faith. ‘Now it is your turn!’ was the implication that haunted our youth. If Newton had drowned, Christ could still have saved his soul, but we impressionable teenagers would not have been corrupted by his model of bargaining with God.

‘Make a deal with God.’ How ironic that his own great hymn is about grace, the free gift of God, not susceptible to either good works or wheeler-dealing. Newton’s conversion prayer has little to do with grace. It may be more exciting than those who say, ‘If God gives me what I want, then I will come to church,’ but it is of much the same order. If that is Christianity, I would rather not have it.

I shall not listen to this sermon again, but at least I now know that Newton himself was a good man and a fine teacher; perhaps I must now forgive my early teachers their excessive zeal, and their obsession with but one detail of his life and faith. DN

From Ethics and the Old Testament by John Barton. A second edition from SCM has recently been published at £9.99.

A fashionable way of thinking about homosexuality in the Church of England today is to distinguish sharply between sexual orientation and sexual activity, and to say that sexual orientation is ethically neutral; it is only about homosexual acts that there needs to be ethical discussion. If I say that this distinction is not ‘scriptural’, I don’t say so in order to condemn homosexuality: I am concerned at the moment with describing what is in the Old Testament, not with defending it. What is unscriptural about the distinction is simply that, so far as I can see, the notion of sexual orientation is wholly lacking from the Bible anyway. Anyone might be tempted to commit adultery, bestiality, or incest, or to engage in homosexual activity: sexual desire is a random force, not contained within some prearranged format. There is no such condition, in the Old Testament’s perspective, as ‘being homosexual’ or ‘being heterosexual’: human beings are simply ‘sexual’, and there is a wide range of things they may choose to do with their sexuality, many of them forbidden. As with so many of the issues we have examined, this means that the Old Testament is even stranger to us than we may expect.

 

 

WHAT GOD HAS MADE CLEAN

If we can eat prawns, why is gay sex wrong?

John Richardson

Good Book Company, 32pp, bklt

0 873166 29 X, (£2.50)

This makes no pretence to be an unbiased review. John is a fellow member of the editorial board, and I already like what he writes.

If clouds have silver linings, this is one of them. The present crisis caused by the emergence of variant versions of sexual morality within the Church is one we would happily do without. It has, however, forced us to study again the witness and teaching of the holy Bible. What has God said to us in the past, and what is he saying to us now?

I found this exposition of God’s law and teaching as understood in the Scriptures exhilarating in its clarity. The richness of the Christian tradition and the depth of the revelation we have received were both given fresh life in this little book. It offered far more than simply an answer to a vexing question. We have in Richardson a most exciting new Bible teacher.

He takes the knock-down cynicism, to which he alludes in the subtitle, as the starting point for a masterly analysis of the character of Old Testament law. Rejecting the simple distinction, found for example in Article VII, of a distinction between ceremonial and moral law, he insists both that all is fulfilled and none of it negated in Jesus Christ, and also analyzes how various parts have been differently affected and changed by that fulfilment – why in other words Jesus could eat with unwashed hands but still condemned adultery.

I shall not tell you how he does it, for that would be merely to summarize what is a masterly summary of a complex issue. You may call it Lutheran in character, but as a piece of clear teaching in response to a moral crisis it deserves attention from both Lutherans and non-Lutherans. In his analysis of sex, he does not shy away from any of the difficulties in Leviticus or Paul, but sets the focus, as it must always be in matters of sexual ethics, on the biblical revelation on marriage.

He gives full weight to the theological content of the biblical teaching on sexuality and homosexuality. I parted company in the end on the moral weight of the terms. It seems to me that the element of condemnation is already present (this is more of a linguistic and philosophical point) within the word in the Scriptures: this changes the logic of the argument.

For example, if, as in Leviticus, ‘homosexuality’ is a morally loaded word like ‘murder’, then the persuasion is a matter of description – ‘this is a case of murder’. If, however, as in contemporary ethics, ‘homosexuality’ is a morally neutral word like ‘killing’, then the persuasion is a matter of prescription – ‘this act of killing is wrong’.

If this little book helps you to find the answer to a current but troubling moral question, so much the better for you. If it does not, or you suspect from its title that it will not, because you are already inclined not to condemn gay sex, what value will you find in it? A clear and simple description of the biblical witness; the realization that there are deep and serious questions to be answered, that faithful Christians cannot simply throw out those parts of the Scriptures that become uncomfortable; that the issue is about more than homosexuality. NT

 

IN SURE & CERTAIN HOPE

Compiled by Paul Sheppy

Canterbury, 110pp, pbk

1 85311 514 2, £12.99

We combine, in New Directions, a horror and a fascination for the current tidal wave of liturgical compilations that have accompanied Common Worship. This latest example is a wonderful mixture of the good and the bad, the interesting and the dreadful.

How times change! This collection has been written or compiled by a Baptist minister, while working on the Joint Liturgical Group; he shows not the slightest qualm about praying for the dead, or the keeping of All Souls Day. And candles pop up all over the place.

I confess I do not use Common Worship for funeral services. Not so much because it is bad, for it contains a great deal of excellent material, but because I cannot in the end trust it. The layout is so sophisticated, the options so numerous, and the subtle changes to familiar words so slight, that (as I have discovered in other contexts) I fear I will stumble over offensive words, lose my place or simply end up as confused as the congregation as to what is meant to be happening. If you don’t know where you are, it is more difficult to know where you are going.

Sheppy calls his own collection of services and readings a ‘resource’. It may not be quite the compliment he wanted, but his own book seems to be far better than Common Worship. It is clear, simple and straightforward. If you want the modern style of user-friendly liturgy, use this book, and have CW as a stand-by resource of extra material.

How times change! Here is a Baptist minister writing a book of liturgy that presumably is permitted for use in the Church of England. In a world of pick-your-own worship, it is yet another prayer book, available for immediate use. So where does the heavy hand of self-censorship and PC authorization fall if not on the worship itself? You have guessed already: on the translation of the Bible. It is, of course, the New Revised Standard Version with its inclusive and therefore non-christological readings of the great texts of hope, which can (should!) provide the solid foundation of Christian faith in the context of death.

In a book desperate to give comfort and support and faith and hope, one of the firm foundations has been taken from us, without even a murmur, without perhaps the dear author even being aware of it. ‘He’, Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, who rose again from the dead on whom all our hope and faith is founded, he has gone, and we are left with the amorphous, anodyne, anonymous ‘they’. So, no, I will not be using this book; and yet if its Bible readings were not copied from CW but taken from the ESV, for example, it might well have been worth commending.

How times change! The pattern of Prayer Book services were few. In the new worship, the words are lighter and the time in church easier. And so we find a corresponding increase in the number of possible services. Does one, I wonder, assess one’s worth by the number of services one can accumulate for a departed loved one?

‘Prayers at the time of death’, excellent. ‘Reception of the Body into Church’, this surely should be what it says, not an almost complete service in its own right, for it will soon enough be followed by the funeral, or rather ‘Prayers and readings before a funeral’; it may say in its introduction that these ‘are not intended to form a service of worship’, but that is a subtle distinction even a minister might not be aware of from the readings and prayers used.

All this means that the funeral itself may appear a little thin. Much is required of the one who prepares the service to ensure that it is not so, which only reminds us that these new prayer books so full of material demand more not less work. It follows this with an ‘Order for Burial or Cremation after a Funeral Service in Church’; this split in the funeral is often unavoidable, but be careful not to repeat verses you have already used earlier within what is essentially a single service. But what is truly the final straw in the accumulation of worship/prayer services is ‘Returning Home’. After all that! And still there is more!

How times change! In the old days, the vicar did his job, he did it properly, and then he went home to his vicarage. But now he hovers, it seems, like an earnest humanist, never certain that he has done enough, with yet another Scripture verse, yet another short prayer. Yes, returning home after the funeral of a loved one is hard, very hard, but to be faced with the same minister (or even a different one) offering a rite that includes ‘Renewal and Rededication’ followed by ‘A Passage of the Light’, and ending with the 59th blessing of the day! I would murder the vicar. And bury him in the garden without a prayer. NT

 

You shall be Holy

Spiritual Basics

Tony Philpot

Mayhew, 110pp, pbk

1 84417 029 2, (£8.99)

This book has been constructed from talks which Fr Philpot gave to ordinands at the English College in Rome. We should be grateful to the author for making them available to a wider readership. The talks cover a range of subjects, including the concept of holiness, prayer, confession, the Mass, the Holy Spirit and Our Lady.

In the chapter on prayer Fr Philpot gives a summary of the various accepted methods of prayer which we are offered, with great emphasis on the Ignatian way. But he also quotes an expert on prayer who had said to him, ‘There is only one rule about prayer, and that is: be there.’ This echoes the well known words of the English Benedictine monk John Chapman, ‘Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t.’

There are many current issues that Fr Philpot takes up, for example the frequently repeated but false accusation that religion is the cause of most of the wars in the world. He says that the great challenge today is evangelization, but admits that it is very hard to re-evangelize ‘because the language has all been used up’.

Anglican readers may be surprised to read that there are some Roman Catholic priests who turn their backs on their own diocese because of a row with the bishop, or because they simply fail to relate to their fellow clergy.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the book is found in the chapter on the Holy Spirit, where the author rebukes those of us who tend to resist any new ideas on the grounds that they have in fact been previously tried without success, and he urges us to be alive to the hope that the Spirit brings. He cites the tremendous difference in Peter before and after Pentecost. We are asked to consider whether we really believe in the Holy Spirit.

The book brims over with spiritual content. It is the kind of book which would make excellent reading in retreat. Although the talks were originally given to ordinands, they will be of value to all. It is important however to remember that the fourteen chapters are transcripts of addresses, and consequently they are to some extent disconnected from one another. This could be a disadvantage to those who set out to read from cover to cover. The ‘spiritual basics’ in the book need to be digested slowly and gradually, and the benefits will be great.

 

Brother Martin SSF is Mission Secretary of the Society of St Francis.

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