Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds

British Museum until 17 November


The cities are Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, and they lay at the mouth of the Nile in what is now Aboukir Bay – the place of one of Nelson’s greatest victories. But Nelson wouldn’t have seen them, since they sank under a combination of earthquakes and their own weight in around 800 A.D. Thonis-Heracleion was a trading city, one of the great ports of Egypt. Canopus was a religious centre, famous for its temples. Five per cent of the site has been uncovered by a major underwater excavation, and this exhibition presents some of the most important finds to date. Most of the objects are religious, and the sludge and water have left stone and metal-work in remarkably good order. More perishable items would have rotted immediately they sank; but in the finest traditions of the British Museum there is a mummy on show.

The underlying historical theme of the exhibition is the interaction between Egyptians and Greeks, who had come together for trade. The Greeks also fought as mercenaries for the Egyptians; but later the Greeks conquered Egypt. Egypt was then ruled by the Ptolemy Dynasty until it in turn was defeated by the Romans. The show focuses on the time of foreign rule and how its conquerors found Egypt congenial in an ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ sort of way. This was not just a matter of luxurious living. The Egyptian deification of the head of state suited Alexander the Great and his successors, and even when Egypt proved inhospitable – Antinous, the Emperor Hadrian’s lover, met his end in the Nile and may have been eaten by a crocodile – as the breadbasket of the Mediterranean it was of vital interest for Greek and Roman alike.

The theme of Greek-Egyptian coalescence fits the Museum’s syncretistic view of world cultures. Since the Museum now imposes security checks – possibly against a terrorist threat from members of the monotheistic religion that now dominates Egypt – that desire for cross-cultural understanding is both topical and urgent. The exhibition emphasises how Greek and Egyptian religions came together when the Serapis cult made a number of Egyptian gods into one Greek-style god, and this new god was then exported across the Mediterranean as a mystery cult. But it was the high-water mark of syncretism because, as the exhibition also shows, syncretism had its limits. The Greeks didn’t take up the Egyptian passion for animal cults, and even Isis and Osiris – beloved of Sarastro – lost most of their exoticism when transplanted abroad.

Indeed, the religious sculpture on show suggests the interaction between the two cultures may be overstated. If we set aside the Roman works, which are simply clunky and dull – though there is a votive offering of a foot given by a man who had one of his own mangled in a chariot accident – the finest works are either simply Egpytian or Egyptian mixed with a little Greek. The standout piece is a statue of Queen Arsinoë: daughter of Ptolemy I, wife of the King of Thrace, then wife of her half-brother, and finally wife of her full brother. The statue has lost its head, part of its arms, and its feet; and she stands in the diaphanous robes of Aphrodite, one foot forward in the Egyptian manner, the dark grey Egyptian stone carved and polished in the Greek manner. It is one of the most sensual and erotic statues in Western art, quite on a par with Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila”. The exhibition is worth going to for this work alone.

Not many of the other fusion sculptures are anything like as fine, though there is an excellent Apis, the bull god. The purely Egyptian works are much more interesting. They are well preserved and have an intense, hieratic serenity. The smaller works, even when the faces are almost featureless, have a tendency to the callipygous and the shapely-legged. By contrast, the largest sculptures, like that of the Nile god Hapy, are broader and monumental in construction. The fusion works have neither their fascination, nor their authority.

The second theme of the show is the fact that the artefacts have been retrieved by underwater archaeology. There is throughout a watery blue light, and vaguely watery music. This is reminiscent of the James Bond film, ‘Thunderball’, the first major moving picture to feature underwater filming. It is understandable that the Museum, which part-sponsors the excavation, should be proud of its work and of the objects which have been uncovered. Whether we need quite so many screens showing men in scuba gear looking at half buried statues, however, is another matter. ‘Thunderball’ handled its new technology with greater flair.

So much work remains to be done that this exhibition gives a taste of what might be to come. That should be fascinating – for though the show is able to bring together artefacts from the temples of Canopus, it doesn’t give much idea of what those temples looked like, or the setting of the exhibits. When the archaeologists help us to see that we will have a much better idea of just what Egypto-Greek fusion meant in practice. The most beautifully carved stele on show, meanwhile, is a bill of customs duties. Maybe that is where the real fusion took place.

Owen Higgs


Journey to the Manger

Paula Gooder

Canterbury Press, 158pp, £12.99

ISBN 978-1848257948


For the same reason people do not normally watch It’s A Wonderful Life in the summer, books about the Nativity are not usually reviewed in September. Nevertheless it is right to read Journey to the Manger now; since in it the Christmas story stands out more clearly than it does in the gloom of December.

For all her acumen in biblical studies, Gooder is not the Grinch. She asserts that the crib-scene draws “on ancient and respectable interpretative traditions, which encourage an imaginative inhabitation of the text”; it is not a fairy story. Although Gooder acknowledges the contrasts between Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives, she also asks us “not to overrate them”. In both Jesus is the son of Joseph, the husband of Mary by whom he was miraculously conceived. In both Bethlehem is his place of birth.

Gooder’s expertise means that she does not have to trash the Nativity to make herself seem clever. Instead, that expertise is turned on those who do so – scholars who recycle the jibe that since Matthew’s account borrows from old traditions it must be false, for example. This criticism, she says, forgets the differences between contemporary and ancient history. To us, novelty is the most important characteristic of truth; whereas to Matthew and his first hearers the opposite was the case, and a story in which the past reverberated was more trustworthy.

Gooder’s qualifications also allow her to be honest about how she thinks, about the effect of her faith on her scholarship, and of her scholarship on her faith. It is refreshing to read in a credible piece of biblical criticism the author admit that, when she is confronted with the virginal conception of Jesus, “my brain is so taken up with the wonder and mystery of it there is minimal space left…”.

Journey to the Manger is divided into four parts: “Origins”, “Announcements”, “Arrivals”, and “Aftermaths”. “Origins” discusses the genealogies of Matthew and Luke; but also of John, whose prologue, Gooder suggests, is a heavenly parallel of the earthly lists of the others; both “genealogies” are about salvation history, and both matter because of the meeting of earth and heaven in Jesus Christ.

The eight chapters have the same structure. In each, the relevant scriptural texts are reproduced and discussed. Dotted throughout this detailed but understandable stuff are boxes in which Gooder sets out her own interpretation of the text. At the end of each chapter is her reflection, sometimes followed by a poetic meditation, on its theme. The reflection on the birth of Jesus is the best.

This book would make a very good basis for an Advent study course, and concessions are made to those who want to use it to this end. The four parts match the four weeks of the season, and there are some questions at the end that correspond to the chapters. The reader can tell that Journey to the Manger is written by someone with a vocation to give ordinary Christians the knowledge they need of the Bible in order for them to be useful to the mission of the Church.

Tom Carpenter


What makes churches grow?

Vision and Practice in effective Mission

Bob Jackson

Church House Publishing 320pp £20

ISBN 978 0715144749


In the field of church growth one must contend that there have been few more influential people in recent times than Bob Jackson, and therefore a new book from him – and certainly one as comprehensive as this – is something of an event. His background as a statistician – he was for some time an Economics Advisor in the Departments of Transport and the Environment before ordination – is important in understanding both the background to and the specifics of Jackson’s thinking. Since his retirement as Archdeacon of Walsall in 2009 he has focused his energies on leading the Centre for Church Growth at St John’s, Nottingham, whilst continuing to contribute to the Leading your Church into Growth team and running his own church-growth consultancy. He is a rigorous thinker, and subjects statistics of church attendance both to helpful analysis and realistic appraisal. I remember sitting with him some years ago in a diocesan meeting, and marveling at his capacity to see in figures a message for the church that was prophetic, a little unnerving, and yet unswervingly constructive and helpful. He never ‘does statistics’ for the sake of the statistics themselves. His analysis always asks pertinent questions – the numbers are always applied – and he is an asset to any parish, diocese, or organization committed to mission and church growth.

The thrust of Jackson’s message lies in the traditional balancing of intuitive and strategic approaches to mission: both he and the Archbishop of Canterbury (in his brief foreword) allude to the phrase ‘finding out what God is doing and joining in’ so beloved as the catchphrase of mission in the last decade. Jackson does that, but balances it alongside a framework in which this thinking, praying, and discernment can flourish.

Of course Jackson writes as an evangelical, and there are times when this starting point provides a challenge or two for a Catholic readership. In addition, Jackson’s assertion (p.30) that the ordination of women has ‘helped the church to survive and thrive’ rings hollow, and is not evidenced. But this book is, for the most part, applicable to parishes of all traditions and there is so much that is of value. In many ways, it is the apologia for strategic mission engagement that the church, in so many ways suspicious of initiative based activity, has needed. It is comprehensive and an excellent ‘one-stop’ guide to the complex business of helping a church community to grow.

The first part assesses the multi-faceted nature of church growth – numbers, depth, vitality, relationship. The second part is more practical, describing the attitudes, dispositions, and actions that can lead to church growth, alongside a variety of case studies. There is an interesting chapter looking at the rise of the Diocesan Mission Strategy, an area of suspicion for many, and yet helpful in offering starting points and categories with which to work. The comprehensive nature of the work can make the amount of material seems overwhelming, and it is advisable to dip into this book, using it as a resource for the specific areas a parish may be working on at the present time. In addition it is a useful point of departure for parishes asking “Yes, but how do we make progress in this specific area?” Used effectively, this book could easily provide a template for a decade of planned mission endeavour in the local church, and could prove, of all Bob Jackson’s writings, to be the work that endures.

Damian Feeney


Learning the Language of the Soul

A Spiritual Lexicon

Andrew D. Mayes

Liturgical Press 144pp £12.99

ISBN 978 0814647523.


Prayer changes things and people. It is a great blessing and inspiration to accompany people as they open themselves up to such transformation. The ministry of spiritual director or companion provides a welcome mirror to the soul as we find self-acceptance, resolve inner contradictions and grow into God’s likeness. Andrew Mayes is an experienced director and has worked to promote direction within Chichester diocese. This and his experience working in the Holy Land have enlarged his vocabulary in this realm. His new book is geared to serving spiritual companions as they help people read and own their spiritual transitions. The book is a welcome resource for all seeking to come close to God but especially for those involved in helping others to do so.

John Twisleton


At last!


Bloomsbury’s That Was The Church That Was, by Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead, has finally hit the shelves after some legal difficulties earlier in the year. There has, naturally, been quite a bit of speculation as to what exactly was the nature of the action being threatened, and by whom. Meanwhile, the Times Literary Supplement has called the book “an honest portrait of the past four decades”, and the Tablet has described it as “a ferocious, impassioned wake-up call”. We shall see: we have received our own copy of the revised edition, and hope to bring you our measured assessment of it in next month’s magazine.


Book of the month


Inferior Office?

A History of Deacons in the Church of England

Francis Young

James Clarke & Co. 218pp £25.75

ISBN 978-0227174883


The office and work of the deacon continues to defy easy categorisation. In Alcuin of York and Francis of Assisi, history has given us inspiring precedents. But in our own time the charism of the deacon is often obscured by the priestly orders into which it is usually absorbed, and even in those instances where one is called to remain a deacon, the distinctiveness of the vocation and the ministry is not widely understood. John Hunwicke has written recently in New Directions on the Roman documentation of the diaconate, both early and post-conciliar, from 1 Clement to Lumen Gentium and the Catechism, and Francis Young’s monograph offers a timely opportunity for a comparison with Anglican perspectives.

Neither the permanent deacon nor the distinctive deacon has easily found a place within the Church of England. Dr Young’s research provides a comprehensive summary of the history of the discussion, from the 1549 First Prayer Book of Edward VI (with its reference to the diaconate as ‘thys inferior offyce’) to recent pastoral writing and General Synod reports. He has consulted wider scholarship, ancient and modern; and has examined regional ordination practice in rural England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From this essentially historical treatment, there emerge three particular gifts for today: the diaconate as foundational to ministry; deacons as those who can minister in modernity’s ubiquitous margins and gaps; and an honest recognition of the opportunities and challenges.  

If the office of the deacon is regarded as ‘inferior’, or simply provisional as a prelude to the perceived fullness of ordination to the priesthood, then it is surely also foundational for everything that follows. In reality, we know that it is the bishop who inhabits the apostolic ministry, and that the priesthood and the diaconate are derived from episcopacy and are subsidiary to it. But, in practice, the diaconate is the building block that supports the greater structure. Theological colleges and ministerial training produce deacons. Pastoral learning is spelled out as practice in the diaconal experience. The proclamation of the gospel and the preaching of the word are gifts that are first cultivated as a deacon. Moreover, there is a clear link, emphasised by recent scholarship, directly from the deacon to the bishop, which we still see when the bishop alone ordains deacons, without the assistance of the college of priests. Both Gregory the Great and Leo the Great were elected pope while in deacon’s orders, and Reginald Pole was a deacon when nominated to Canterbury in 1556. The essential ministry of the early deacon was to baptise and, crucially, to mediate between the bishop and the people at the eucharistic celebration. If the clarity of this ministry has been clouded by later uncertainties, then we surely have a duty to restore it.

Dr Young acknowledges in his Preface that his research arose from an interest in marginalised clergy, which most notably means those who were excluded from the priesthood for reasons of social or personal background. There were many whose educational level precluded priestly ordination but who exercised a local ministry as deacons at a time of social change and clergy shortage. We must surely ask how this can be projected into our current context. It is almost two centuries since Thomas Arnold proposed a permanent diaconal order, and today’s pioneer ministers arise from the same perceived need to reach into the gaps and to make a bridge between the pastoral and the liturgical in the routine detail of life. Recent research has sought to emphasise the liturgical role of deacons in the early church, and to move away from a residual understanding of practical service to the poor, but might deacons do both? Imagine them as the assistant at the altar and at the foodbank, embodying the link from bishop to people where it is most needed. In the cultic and the merciful, the spiritual and the practical, the reverential and the missional, it will be possible to envisage a new and wonderful completeness, a faithfulness of integrity in the fullest sense. This would combine the apostolic understanding of deacons as the liturgical representative of the bishop with the English practical pastoral tradition of the early modern period, leaving a distinctively sacramental priesthood free to celebrate the eucharist across the diocese with its own delegated episcopal authority.

Where do we go from here? Dr Young’s task is to explore the history of the order of deacons, through the dubious doctrine of the Edwardian Ordinal to the social change of the eighteenth century and the inconclusive call for a renewed diaconate in the Lambeth Conferences of the early twentieth century. His final chapter looks at recent General Synod reports and debates, before closing with an assessment of the case for a distinctive diaconate. The historian’s work is done, and it is for the Church to make the decision. As always, the conclusion is contingent upon the starting point: Dr Young’s opening premise is that the Church of England is a ‘Reformation church’, made distinctive by retaining the threefold order, which is very different from an essentially Catholic understanding of a communion seeking to reorientate itself to the early and medieval tradition. To take the latter view is to set one’s hopes much higher, and to require a correspondingly greater vision. But this book is both fair and hopeful, and just as the New Testament may be said to ‘imagine’ Church rather than to describe it, so this history of the diaconate allows the reader to imagine what a renewed order of distinctive deacons might offer to the Church of our time.   

Peter Eagles